Patriots

Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- The Patriots offensive line got what it wanted late on Sunday night: Four-minute offense. Two-score lead. This was their chance to salt away the game, a chance to bury an opponent when everyone in the building knew what was coming.

Five rushing attempts and 32 yards later . . . victory formation.

"The weight is on our back as an offensive line, and that's when we gotta pull through," Nate Solder said following his team's 23-7 win over the Falcons. "That's what we work at. That's what we are constantly striving to do and when we have that opportunity and we come through, that's something we can build off of."

Early in the year, the moments in which Dante Scarnecchia's group asserted its will as it did against Atlanta were seemingly non-existent. For the first five weeks of the season, short-yardage conversions were a problem, and Tom Brady was on pace to be hit more than ever before in his career. There were questions as to whether or not the 40-year-old quarterback would last if he continued to take the kind of punishment he'd been subjected to, and all eyes were on the blockers in front of him. 

Over the course of the last two weeks, though, the Patriots offensive line appears to have found a toe-hold. Against the Jets in Week 6, they helped create room for running backs to pick up 118 yards on 25 carries (4.7 yards per attempt). Against the Falcons, they churned out a season-high 162 yards on 36 carries (4.5) and helped their offense maintain possession for over 34 minutes. 

The trickle-down effect has been staggering. A greater level of efficiency in the running game has meant more play-action, better protection for Brady, and sustained drives that help keep offenses like Atlanta's off the field. 

The improvement in pass-protection has been perhaps the most obvious change. Brady's been sacked just twice in the last two weeks and hit just six times. Both sacks came early against the Falcons, and neither appeared to be due to obvious offensive-line mishaps. On the first, De'Vondre Campbell rushed in off of Brady's blindside untouched by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Gillislee. Brady never seemed to account for him. On the second, Brady was brought down from behind by Vic Beasley about four seconds into the down. 

Through five weeks, after taking a handful of jarring shots from the Buccaneers, Brady was on track to be sacked more than 50 times and hit over 100 times -- both career highs. It was not sustainable. He's now on pace to be sacked 41 times. 

Would his personal protectors like to see that number continue to shrink? Of course, but at least it's headed in the right direction. 

"We knew we could play like that and just hadn't been," Patriots center and captain David Andrews said. "It's frustrating, but it's good to come out and put up a performance like that."

What made the early-season struggles so maddening was that this group was made up of the same five that went almost wire-to-wire as the starters last season on their way to a Super Bowl. It's a relatively young unit -- Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are in their third years, while left guard Joe Thuney is in his second -- but it's a line that has a wealth of experience together and expected to start stronger. 

There was not one look-in-the-mirror conversation or emotional positional meeting to get things turned around. "It's not a magic spell or anything," Thuney said. 

But there was an admission of mistakes being made and a commitment to fix them in a hurry.

"We got a great group, mature group," Andrews said. "Even though we've got a bunch of young guys, we've all played a lot of football. There was no rah-rah speech or intervention or anything like that. It was just, 'Here are the facts: We gotta do better. We know we can do better. We know what the results can be.' For us it's just going to the grindstone each week, getting better, practicing hard and that leads to good things."

The Patriots ran the ball on 54 percent of their offensive plays Sunday night, and Brady threw just 29 passes. It was the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time in the last three-plus seasons he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.

It would seem as though Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels trust their offensive line and their running game as much as they have all season. Still, Belichick was reluctant to heap too much praise on the trench hogs that have recently found their footing. 

"The more runs you have, the more yards you’re going to gain," Belichick said. "We played this game from ahead, which that was a switch. We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more. 

"We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight. It was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run, and when we needed to run, we got the yards."

Those kinds of opportunities will surely present themselves again next week against the Chargers, two weeks later against the Broncos and every week thereafter. 

Consecutive games of solid play from the offensive line won't mean much then, and the Patriots know it. But to feel like they've got something to build on after looking lost for the better part of the first third of the season is encouraging. 

"We're not where we want to be," Andrews said. "We're improving so that's good. But the ceiling is up here, and we're way down here. We just want to keep improving, keep improving. It's never going to be good enough. There's always something to work on."

#FridayBag: The difference between Kraft and Jones

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#FridayBag: The difference between Kraft and Jones

Each week, Tom E. Curran, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi answer your Patriots questions in a joint mailbag, or FridayBag as they call it. Got a question for the trio? Tweet at them using the hashtag #FridayBag. Now, on to this week's submissions:


 

TC: Hey Bryan,
No, I haven’t asked directly but there are a few reasons Kraft wouldn’t fall in line with Jones. First, by “on this” I’m not sure if you mean the compensation package or the Elliott investigation/suspension mess. Jones, of course, has been using the compensation package as a front to attack Goodell’s competency in general which he now bemoans because A) Elliott got suspended and B) Jones assured everyone Elliott wouldn’t be suspended. Kraft wouldn’t support Jones on Elliott because the accusations against him revolve around violence against women. Even if some accusations seem conflated, unsubstantiated or have a whiff of retribution, Kraft isn’t going to rally for Elliott on this. No upside to it. And if it’s an over-the-top penalty levied by the league in an effort to “make up” for past domestic violence investigations the league’s butchered, well, Kraft knows a thing or two about being on the receiving end of an agenda-laden punishment handed down by 345 Park Avenue. Kraft didn’t exactly suck it up and take the punishment. In fact, his reaction in August of 2015 and the organization’s continued effort to chastise the NFL with the Wells Report in Context website are in stark contrast to Kraft’s May 2015 pledge to stand down on Deflategate for the good of the league. Kraft gave plenty of pushback. But he stopped short of putting Goodell on the spit because he believes it hurts the overall brand and he’s more conciliator than divider. The feeling in Foxboro has been – and I’m sure continues to be – that the problem isn’t Goodell but his minions. The league needs an enema.



TC: Rich, they are running out of options. He is their White Whale. How hysterical would it be if – at the end of it all – he signs a one-day contract to retire as a Patriot? Gotta make this happen.https://twitter.com/MrQuindazzi/status/931295571264131072

TC: Great question, Q. Of all the guys running the option routes, Burkhead seems to be the most sudden in his cuts while also being able to gain quick and wide separation out of them. It’s lateral quickness and explosiveness that makes Edelman a unique cover for any defense. All the wideouts are quick, but being able to disguise the route, set up the move and then – when making the cut – cover a lot of ground with the first steps is what sets Edelman apart as evidenced by his short-shuttle time. I agree with you.

PP: Jeff is a CHRONIC Quick Slants the Podcast listener, and we thank him for that. He's right in that the Patriots took advantage of Denver on a couple of occasions when they tried to substitute last weekend, and that's something they'll pounce on every week if they could. We highlighted just how good they've gotten at that whole operation here. When it comes to the Raiders, I think you'll see the Patriots exploit their linebackers in coverage as often as possible. (You'll remember, they did that against the Broncos, too.) Oakland is one of the worst teams in the league at defending tight ends and running backs in the passing game, and the Patriots will have no problem recycling their offensive game plan from Mile High for Mexico City.

PP: Mike, I'll mention the classics here even if you've already thumbed through them more than once: David Halberstam's The Education of a Coach and Michael Holley's Patriot Reign are both very good looks at Belichick and how he came to run his operation the way he does. But you already knew that. When it comes to one book specific to Belichick, specific to his leadership style? May have to wait on that one. For now, though, watch this. Good interview with CNBC's Suzy Welch from last offseason. Belichick discusses the tenants of his leadership style, the value of surrounding yourself with dependable people, and why he doesn't like social media (it's not just because he's 65). I'd also suggest this podcast that Belichick recorded with lacrosse buddy Paul Rabil. Interesting back-and-forth on why Belichick likes to keep the numbers on his coaching staff small, team culture, short-term focus and frequency of organizational meetings. 

PP: It could, Riz. Precision is paramount in the red zone. Space is at a premium. Accuracy is critical. And having big targets who don't need all that much room to create room for themselves -- like Gronkowski, Bennett or Dwayne Allen, who scored while well-covered in Denver -- makes life that much easier. 

PP: Thanks, Rich. For anyone who hasn't seen that one, which lays out how Patriots players feel like they have an All-Star special-teams unit, here's the link. I'd say the biggest weakness is still what I thought it was back before the trade deadline: pass-rush. They'll try to scheme up what they can by disguising who's coming and who's dropping into coverage, but at some point, they'll need pass-rushers to win one-on-one battles and disrupt good quarterbacks. I think Trey Flowers can do that. I think Kyle Van Noy can do that from time to time. I think Deatrich Wise has shown he has the potential to do that. After that, I think the Patriots are lacking in that area. They'll need their secondary to be lock-down to help cover-up for any deficiencies they have up front. 

PP: Bilingual Shimon checking in! I believe that says something about bombs to Cooks? Yep. That's in play. The Patriots really should be able to do what they want against this Raiders defense. Their secondary is in shambles as NBC Bay Area's Scott Blair told me on one of our podcasts this week. I still think the Patriots will turn to their backs in the passing game because I'm not sure they'll want to turn Khalil Mack loose on many Tom Brady seven-step drops. But there will be opportunities on all areas of the field -- short, intermediate and deep. 

PP: Interesting question on Gillislee. Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis did nothing the other night that would suggest they'll see their roles diminished in any way, but the injury to Matthew Slater could open up a game-day roster spot for the Patriots to activate five backs in Mexico. Even if Gillislee is active, though, I wouldn't expect a huge role for him so long as Lewis and Burkhead are healthy. Right now he looks like valuable insurance and a potential cold-weather hammer against teams that won't want to tackle a 219-pound back who runs hard. 

PP: Big two-year-old birthday party for my nephew on Saturday, Shy, so it's going to be more of a Mickey Mouse weekend for me. Then on Sunday, of course, we'll be working. You're going to want to watch Pregame Live, coming at you at 2:30 p.m. Then right after the game you'll have an epic Postgame Live and an equally-enjoyable Sports Sunday. See you then. 

MG: The Patriots have been more committed to running the football of late -- 32 rushes versus the Chargers and 26 against the Broncos in a game in which they lost a possession because of excellent special-teams work and had a short field on another. That commitment has revolved heavily around the two players that are running the ball the best right now: Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead. James White is still a valuable piece and will have plenty of big moments from here until the end of the season, though I will tell you, he’s still kicking himself for that missed blitz pickup of Justin Simmons down in the red zone Sunday night.

MG: They blew one of their two eligible to return spots on Shea McClellin, who appeared to be ready to return from those concussion symptoms but then had a setback in his final week of practice before he needed to be put on the active roster. That leaves two players for one spot (assuming both are healthy): DT Vincent Valentine or WR Malcolm Mitchell. The Pats' interior defensive line hasn’t been as good as it needs to be, which leads me to think Valentine might be the play; however, depth has really been challenged at wide receiver, and by the end of Sunday’s game in Denver, the Pats had just three healthy wideouts (Cooks, Amendola and Dorsett). Mitchell just began running a few weeks back, though, as he recovered from training camp knee surgery, so who knows how that’s responded to date

MG: Negative, though don’t take that as a bad thing. I think Dorsett has tremendous speed but is still learning the playbook and earning Tom Brady’s trust. He may never have a breakout game this season but when he’s on the field, opposing teams have to respect his ability to go vertical. That can open up stuff underneath or if they flood a zone. He still has a purpose and can be a useful player. 

MG: Pete! I worked out and was so wobbled at the knees I thought I was having the big one (Elizabeth), but a gallon of water cured what ailed me at this high altitude. Anyway, I think you’re already seeing a greater commitment to the run game. The offensive line is blocking it up better, they’re controlling down and distance, and it’s allowed the play-action pass game to thrive (see the 26-yarder to Gronk versus Denver). Belichick said Tuesday they’ll do whatever they have to do to win, but right now, the steady balance is keeping Brady upright and putting opposing defenses in a quandary. 

MG: Landry, I knew you couldn’t quit me . . . Look, I don’t have any Gilislee theories right now, nor have I heard anything on the rumor mill. What I think is that Lewis and Burkhead are just running it better, so why waste a roster spot on Gillislee if he’s just going to get a handful of plays or touches? I wouldn’t say he’s going to be married to the pine the rest of the way. Hell, we know about Lewis and Burkhead’s injury histories, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is in street clothes again Sunday.

MG: John Lynch is saying stupid things. Jimmy is the big dog and Lynch knows it. And if he keeps up with this nonsense, I may have to make a pit stop in San Fran and set him straight #FreeJimmyG

Report: In threatening Goodell, Cowboys owner insults Kraft

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Report: In threatening Goodell, Cowboys owner insults Kraft

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, upset over the six-game suspension of his star running back Ezekiel Elliott, has been fighting against a contract extension for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

How hard has he been fighting? Enough to reportedly insult Patriots owner Robert Kraft in the process. 

ESPN reports that on a conference call in August with Goodell and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash when Jones was informed of Elliott’s suspension for domestic violence incidents, Jones told the commissioner, “I’m going to come after you with everything I have.” He then invoked Kraft’s response to Deflategate and Tom Brady’s four-game suspension.

“If you think Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p—-y compared to what I’m going to do,” Jones told Goodell, according to ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham.

Elliott, like Brady, abandoned his court fight this week and will serve his suspension. Kraft, of course, produced the Wells Report in context website, but grudgingly accepted the NFL’s penalty in the Deflategate case. Jones has threatened to sue the NFL if Goodell’s contract extension is approved.