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Patriots' front seven sparks memories of solid units from 2003, 2004

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When New England Patriots defensive tackle Akiem Hicks pounced on the fumbled football in the end zone for a touchdown, belly-flopping on top of it after initially having it squirt out of his grasp, the ground shook.

And the Patriots sideline erupted.

“We were dying laughing,” fellow defensive lineman Alan Branch said after the team’s 33-16 victory over the visiting Tennessee Titans on Sunday. “The funny thing is, when a big guy gets a touchdown, no matter what it’s going to be funny because it doesn’t look normal. It isn’t regular. The big fella got in there and he had to double-catch it for a touchdown, but we got the seven points and I was proud of the big fella.”

The 6-foot-5, 324-pound Hicks was so excited, he sprung to his feet, sprinted toward the sideline and started jumping high into the air like a 195-pound cornerback and bumping any teammate willing to make contact with him.

The play, which was created by defensive end Chandler Jones’ speed rush to the outside and then him using long reach to strip the football out of quarterback Marcus Mariota’s grasp, highlighted how the Patriots’ front seven is bringing back memories of some of Bill Belichick’s deepest, most talented units from the first half of his tenure. The Patriots recorded five sacks against the Titans, have recorded at least one sack in every game this season, and have at least one sack in 27 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL.

"That's just a testament to our defense and how we've been trying to bring pressure all year," said Hicks, who was acquired in a trade (aka, a heist) from New Orleans on Sept. 30. "This has gone by quick for me [but] I'm just happy to be here with these guys."

The Patriots traditionally have been big and physical in the front seven, which is part of the DNA of a Belichick-coached defense. Arguably the best front sevens in Belichick’s tenure were from the Super Bowl seasons of 2003 and 2004.

In 2003, left end Bobby Hamilton, nose tackle Ted Washington, right end Richard Seymour and linebackers Willie McGinest, Roman Phifer, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel were the foundation of what Washington coined the “Homeland Defense” unit. That might be the best front seven we’ve seen in New England under Belichick.

The next year was also impressive, with Ty Warren taking over at left end for Hamilton, and Keith Traylor and then-rookie Vince Wilfork replacing Washington at nose tackle. Jarvis Green and Rosevelt Colvin were solid subs.

Now we have 2015.

This is easily the deepest, most talented and athletic front seven in recent Patriots years, and after watching them create havoc on Sunday against the overmatched Titans, it had me reflecting on how they compare to the ’03 and ’04 units.

The end-of-the-line players – Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard – give the Patriots three starting-caliber players. They sometimes are on the field together in obvious passing situations, with Sheard's versatility to rush inside a revelation to Belichick and his staff. That trio reminds me of ’03 and ’04 with McGinest, Vrabel and Colvin.

Meanwhile, the interior defensive linemen of 2015 first-round draft pick Malcom Brown, Branch, Hicks and Sealver Siliga provide power, length, uncommon athleticism and versatility. That’s similar to ’03 and ’04 when those defenses were so stout on the line, and players like Seymour would do freak-type things like we saw from Hicks on Sunday.

And then the linebackers – Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo – would be the ‘03-’04 version of Bruschi, Phifer and Ted Johnson.

On Sunday, Belichick and Patriots players weren’t interested in any historical comparisons after the win over the Titans. They were actually a bit peeved that the defense didn’t finish the game stronger after an impressive first half.

The formula is a familiar one – they’re big, physical, versatile, athletic and not satisfied.

Brings back memories of ’03 and ’04.