FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – The New England Patriots are getting healthier on defense. Now offensive players are hobbling off the field with a leg injury, walking off with an arm injury or not even suiting up for a game that decides first place.

All coach Bill Belichick can do is prepare the substitutes and plug them into the lineup.

“We just deal with it on a week-to-week basis,” he said Monday. “I don’t think there’s any real formula.”

The formula Sunday was filled with strange numbers – cornerback Ellis Hobbs’ 27, safety Michael Stone’s 24, and fullback Heath Evans’ 44. All helped in the Patriots 23-16 win in Miami that kept them in sole possession of the AFC East lead with a 5-4 record..

Hobbs, a third-round draft pick this year, made his first pro start in the game. Stone, signed Sept. 28 primarily to play special teams, also started in the secondary. Evans, picked up Nov. 1 after being released by Miami, rushed for 87 yards after Corey Dillon became the team’s third injured running back.

Defense was hit hardest by injuries in the first half of the season.

Safety Rodney Harrison went on injured reserve after three games, cornerback Tyrone Poole went there after playing in just one and defensive end Richard Seymour missed four games before returning against the Dolphins. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi sat out the first six after having a mild stroke in February.

On Sunday, though, only two regulars were missing from the starting defense. But the offense began the game without four regulars, then lost Dillon to a calf injury on its first play from scrimmage. Center Dan Koppen went out in the third quarter with an injured left arm. Belichick gave no update Monday on either player’s condition.

The Patriots are most depleted at running back.

Dillon, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in seven of his other eight seasons, has just 441 this season and had missed two of the previous three games with a sprained left ankle. He suffered the new injury while running a pass route and didn’t return to Sunday’s game. Now he doesn’t want to play until he’s 100 percent healthy.

His primary backup, Kevin Faulk, has missed the last six games with a foot injury. Patrick Pass missed his second game Sunday with a hamstring injury. That left the Patriots with just two healthy running backs – Evans and Michael Cloud, who joined the team Nov. 4.

Belichick said he wouldn’t make drastic changes in the running game. Fortunately for the Patriots, next Sunday’s opponent is New Orleans (2-7), which has the second-worst run defense in the NFL.

“We’re going to pretty much run whatever we’re going to run against the opponent,” he said. “based on what we think’s best. Whoever’s carrying it is carrying it, whether it’s Corey or somebody else.”

In his 41/2 pro seasons before joining the Patriots, Evans ran 34 times for 108 yards. He nearly matched that yardage total on just 17 carries Sunday. With Dillon unlikely to be at full strength for a while, Evans should keep getting opportunities.

Belichick said he’s comfortable with either Evans or Cloud carrying the ball.

“That’s where we were yesterday, so any player that’s out there we have confidence in,” Belichick said.

Koppen cradled his left arm in his right arm as he left the field, and Belichick said Monday he didn’t know if it was broken.

Koppen, who calls signals for the offensive line, was replaced by Russ Hochstein, part of the Patriots teams that won the last two Super Bowls.

“Russ has good experience in our system,” Belichick said.

Wide receiver David Givens and tight end Daniel Graham, both starters, were sidelined for the first time on Sunday. Left tackle Matt Light has missed the last six games.

Graham’s absence gave second-year tight end Benjamin Watson more opportunities and he caught two touchdown passes. With Givens out, Tim Dwight had three receptions, after grabbing eight in the first eight games, including a 59-yarder that set up the Patriots’ last touchdown.

On defense, Seymour did a solid job.

“It’s good to see him back out there like it was good to see Tedy back out there a couple of weeks ago,” Belichick said. “Hopefully, we can get everybody back out there.”

AP-ES-11-14-05 1908EST


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