Looking to win a third straight Super Bowl, the New England Patriots went into this season with plenty of key personnel losses to overcome.
Now there’s at least one more.
With Rodney Harrison the latest prominent piece to go down, the Patriots have a battered and bruised secondary going into their meeting with the San Diego Chargers.
The offseason departures of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left two big holes, as did the subtraction of New England’s starting middle linebackers. Ted Johnson retired over the summer, and Tedy Bruschi is sitting out this season due to a stroke suffered just days after the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years.
That left Harrison as arguably the team’s best remaining player on defense, but the Patriots will not have the hard-hitting safety for the rest of the season due to a torn ACL suffered in last week’s 23-20 victory at Pittsburgh.
“I feel so bad because he’s one of the hardest working guys on the team,” linebacker Willie McGinest said Monday. “He puts everything into this game. He plays it with passion.”
This would have been Harrison’s first game against the Chargers since they released him following the 2002 season. Harrison signed with the Patriots and had started every game for them, until now.
He’ll be missed more than ever because New England’s defensive backfield is banged up.
Starting cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay missed last week’s win with ankle problems, and it’s uncertain if either will return Sunday. Backup corners Duane Starks and Chad Scott also are questionable with injuries along with backup safety James Sanders.
New England also could be without starting tackle Matt Light for the rest of the season after he broke a bone below his right knee against Pittsburgh. His absence leaves the Patriots with two rookies on the left side of the offensive line, with third-round pick Nick Kaczur taking over for Light and lining up next to first-round pick Logan Mankins.
“We bring in smart guys here and guys that know how to play the game,” center Dan Koppen said. “When they get in those situations, they’re able to execute it out on the field.”
The protection from the line was good enough for Tom Brady to rally the Patriots to victory over a Steelers team which had won 16 straight regular-season games.
Brady finished 31-of-41 for 372 yards, completing his final 12 passes and helping set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning 43-yard field goal with one second remaining.
LaDainian Tomlinson finally broke through after many Chargers fans were crying for the team to get the star runner more involved.
Tomlinson rushed for 192 yards and three touchdowns, and threw a 26-yard TD pass to Keenan McCardell. Tomlinson scored a touchdown for the 15th consecutive game, the second-longest streak in NFL history behind Lenny Moore (19), and was named the AFC’s offensive player of the week.
“Nothing he does surprises me,” coach Marty Schottenheimer said.
Tomlinson now faces a Patriots defense that hasn’t given up a 100-yard rusher and is surrendering less than 3.4 yards per carry.
That could put pressure on Drew Brees, also coming off his best game of the season. He went 19-of-22 for 191 yards with two touchdowns and was not sacked.
“We made protection a point of emphasis this week, and our guys up front answered that call,” Brees said. “They gave me time to go through my progressions and make throws.”
It might be harder for Brees this week playing at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots have won their last 21 games.
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