Bruins

Branch focused on task at hand

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Branch focused on task at hand

FOXBORO -- Not one player in the Patriots locker room wants to waste time on the past. They will watch film of old games as they must, to understand the future. But talking about playoff games already won is as unappealing as talking about those lost. Ravens in 2009 ring a bell? The Patriots want to take that bell and make you eat it -- gently -- if only to make the words stop.
Experience in the NFL is invaluable. As each milestone of a season is reached, whether as routine as a bye week or as all-encompassing as an AFC Championship game, Patriots veterans are always asked how they advise newcomers. What's the message? What wisdom can they impart to those who've not been there before? What guidance do they give?
It's a logical expectation -- that those sage warriors should look down to their battle scars and explain each to their peers. It's just not always helpful.
"You can tell with how the playoffs have been going so far... not the most experienced teams are in," Deion Branch said Wednesday. "That pretty much shows you right there that the experience, okay, yeah, some of that stuff, to a point, is key. But once the game starts it's all about playing the game. Executing the plays. Getting out there, running your stuff."
Branch is a 10-year NFL veteran. He spent his first four seasons in New England, worked for four-and-a-quarter in Seattle, then returned. He is beloved for his connection with Tom Brady during Patriots glory days, for being the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXIX.
But ask Branch to wax about AFC Championship memories and the guy shrugs.
"I can't talk about it, I haven't been in it for so long," he smiled. "The feeling... it's a great feeling once you attain it, but there's nothing I can talk about. I haven't done it in so long. Hopefully we can regain. It's a great feeling."
Part of the brevity is "The Patriot Way." There are hundreds, upon thousands of things the players exchange -- trite as where to get a good steak -- that rightfully stay sacred behind Gillette's innermost walls. Not because it's not for Us but because it is for Them. Imagine Branch refusing a rookie on how to keep the nerves in check next weekend? Impossible.
But that's the other part. Branch wasn't simply withholding -- there just really are some things you can't teach.
"The biggest thing is just making sure we're going out there, executing our game plan. It's not about the magnitude of the game. It's about our focus on the game plan. That's the entire thing."
Not much deviation from the regular season, there. If the Patriots who haven't been to a conference championship don't understand that objective by now, there's probably not much Branch, or any other vet, could do to help anyway.

Heinen beginning to look like a keeper for Bruins

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Heinen beginning to look like a keeper for Bruins

BRIGHTON, Mass – While it’s still early in the careers of all the young Bruins rookies making their way this season, it sure looks like 22-year-old Danton Heinen is among the B’s youngsters that are here to stay. The former University of Denver standout didn’t make the cut at the end of training camp this season and he failed early last year when it was clear he wasn’t ready during an eight-game audition with the big club.

But Heinen continued to look ready while scoring a pair of goals and three points in the three games on a pivotal road trip through California last week, and is now tied for fifth on the Bruins in points despite missing four games in the AHL. In all, Heinen has four goals and 10 points along with a plus-4 rating in 15 games this season, and is on pace for a really strong 21 goals and 52 points in his first full year.

This has been a really nice step forward for Heinen after being a point-per-game player for Providence during their playoff run last spring.

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“Last year’s playoff did a lot for him. When I saw him playing there, he was a different player than when he’d left [Boston],” said Bruce Cassidy. “There was a willingness to stay in the battle and his growth when it comes to winning pucks…you’ve seen it here. A lot of the things he’s down well are his second and third efforts on the puck where last year I thought he was pushed off the puck pretty easily [at the NHL level].”

There could be a period when his offense slows down or some other part of his game drags his minutes down, but right now he looks like he’s well on his way to establishing himself in a key role with the Black and Gold. The difference has been Heinen increasing his speed and also adding a little more tenacity to the skill and offense package that he was always bringing to the table.  

“I don’t want to say that because when we get our guys healthy then we’ll see where we’re at,” said Bruce Cassidy, when asked if Heinen was a keeper at the NHL level at this point. “But I think he’s certainly shown he’s a much more consistent player than he was last year. He’s probably a bit ahead of the other younger guys because he has gone through a bit of it [at the pro level]. The fact that he’s been able to play in a lot of different situations, play left or right wing, and moved up in the lineup while being very effective with [Sean] Kuraly and [Tim] Schaller down in the lineup, as a coach it’s to have a guy like that who can move around and fit in a lot of different places.

“So he’s certainly helped himself [to stay in the NHL]. I think it’s too early to say if he’s here for good, but I don’t envision him leaving [Boston] anytime soon with the way that he’s played.”

Only time and consistently good play will allow the playmaking Heinen to truly lock up his spot on the NHL roster, but it’s increasingly difficult to envision any scenario where the fifth-round pick isn’t playing an increasingly important role for the Bruins. 

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

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Speed to burn: Cooks, Brady team up to form most productive deep-ball combo

The first came in the second quarter, when Brandin Cooks turned on afterburners to beat a Raiders double team and glide underneath a Tom Brady heave for 52 yards. The second came in the third quarter, on the third play from scrimmage of the second half, when Cooks faked an out-route, jetted past rookie corner Obi Melifonwu, and sped into the end zone to make the score 24-0. 

Both deep completions in New England's 33-8 win over Oakland just added to cumulative effect that Cooks has had on the Patriots offense since arriving before the season to become their top deep threat. 

Paired with Brady, Cooks has actually become the most productive deep threat in the NFL. 

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According to Pro Football Focus, Cooks leads all receivers with 431 yards on deep passes (throws that travel 20 yards or more down the field). In second place is Houston's DeAndre Hopkins with 313 yards. 

And Brady, who has long been more effective in the short-to-intermediate range than he has been deep, is now among the league leaders in creating explosive plays from the quarterback position. The Patriots are third in the NFL with 41 pass plays of 20 yards or more, and they are tied for second with nine plays of 40 yards or more. 

"You're always trying to work on that," Brady told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show of his team's deep passing game. "It's not one particular year [you work on it]. I think that's been a concerted effort by our entire offense, trying to make more explosive plays in the pass game. 

"Sometimes your offense is built differently. We actually have some guys now that can really get down the field so that becomes more of a point of emphasis. The way Brandin runs, the way that Chris Hogan runs, the way that Phillip Dorsett runs, they're very fast. You need to be able to take advantage of their skill set . . . 

"When we had David Patten we were throwing it deep. I mean, but David Patten didn't run a lot of short routes. I would say Brandin Cooks, in general, he doesn't run a lot of short routes. Everyone has a different role. If we can get by you, I think that's a good place to throw the ball. if we can't, we gotta figure out ways to throw it underneath and different weeks are going to call for different things based on the strengths of the defenses we're playing, too."

A week before beating the Raiders, against the Broncos and their talented corners, the Patriots had less luck pushing the ball down the field -- though they tried to hit Cooks deep multiple times. In Mexico City, Cooks matched up with a weaker secondary, and he wasn't at all slowed by the altitude, catching six passes in all for 149 yards and a score. 

Per PFF, Cooks has seen almost one third of his targets (30 percent) come on deep passes, which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. He's caught all 11 of his catchable deep passes, three of them accounting for scores.

"Obviously when you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field," Brady said, "your chances of completion go down, but if you hit it, it ends up being a very explosive plays and you can change a lot of field position and get a defense really on their heels if they have to defend every blade of grass on the field." 

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