Patriots

After two days of talking, Broncos take out the trash

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After two days of talking, Broncos take out the trash

DENVER -- Sensitivity is at an all-time high around New England this week. It started with Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall opining that the reason Rob Gronkowski gets open so often is that he pushes off. Whining? Or planting a seed in the heads of the officiating crew for Sunday’s AFC title game in Denver?

Defensive lineman Antonio Smith then did a a radio interview and was asked if Tom Brady was a crybaby. Smith never called Brady a crybaby. The word "crybaby" never came out of his mouth. But he did agree that Brady complains to the officials regularly. Nerves that will help fuel Brady’s fire Sunday? Or, again, a memo to the officials?

But what really got everyone who bleeds Pats colors into a tizzy was Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. laughingly saying that the best way to tackle Rob Gronkowski is to aim for the knees. Never mind that at least two of Gronk’s teammates have publicly said that very thing this season when asked about it following the All-Everything tight end’s injury in Denver back in Week 12. But yeah, with a Super Bowl berth on the line, and the knowledge that the Pats playoff fortunes have become largely dependent on Gronkowski over the years, them’s fighting words. It prompted a suspect tweet from Gronk himself, one that was very much out of character from a Bill Belichick-coached team. 

The Broncos had both Monday and Tuesday off, so head coach Gary Kubiak didn’t have a chance to remind his team to zip it. When asked about his thoughts on the trash-talking Wednesday, Kubiak tried to steer clear.

“I really don’t get into that stuff,” he said. “We preach to our team throughout the course of the season consistently, not just now, the importance of staying focused on your job and what you have to do. I think our guys have done a good job with that. I think they’ve stayed focused on what our team needs to do to be successful and their job. This week is no different. Hopefully, I’m preaching the same thing all the time.”

But several Broncos admitted Kubiak brought the topic up in meetings Wednesday, and all of a sudden, Denver’s players shied away from the topic.

“I’m not a big talker,” said Von Miller to a room that quickly filled with laughter, “I haven’t been on social media so I haven’t seen any of the stuff that you are talking about. I’m just trying to catch what you’re telling me. We are going to try to tackle. We have to tackle. We have to tackle Rob well. He’s very good at breaking tackles, very good at yards after contact so we are going to have to be excellent right there to have a chance to win the game.”

“It doesn’t change the game at all,” noted veteran tight end Vernon Davis. “Everyone’s talking. You can say this, you can say that. But at the end of the day, actions speak louder than words. For us, it’s just about going out there, taking it one play at a time and trying to win a game.”

As for the best way to bring down the behemoth that is Gronkowski, Denver’s defenders said there are no rules.

“Whatever way you can get him down. That’s the best way,” safety T.J. Ward said. “I don’t pre-plan how I tackle someone. Whatever way he comes to me is the way I’m going to try to get him down.”

“I don’t think it’s ever been taught before to tackle a guy who is 6-8, 300 pounds,” Miller said. “It’s never really been taught. ‘You have to tackle this guy.’ It’s never really been broken down. The thing that we have to do well is just get him on the ground and we have to tackle well. It’s very, very vague, but we just have to tackle well. We have to be extremely good tacklers come Sunday.”

Even defensive linemen Sylvester Williams, who tips the scales at well over 300 pounds, weighed in on the subject when asked. 

“Obviously, I play defensive line, so I can only tell you from my point of view. Obviously, if I get a chance to hit him, I am just going to tackle him whatever way to bring him down. I feel like the DBs probably feel the same way.”

If the Broncos don’t find a way to bring Gronk down, especially on the first crack, they risk getting gashed.

“We need to tackle well. That’s the most important thing,” emphasized Kubiak. “This is a team much like the one that we just played last week {Pittsburgh}. They can throw a 4-or 5-yard pass and, if you don’t tackle well -- with their players being as physical as [they are] and having the ability that they have -- if we don’t tackle well, a lot of small plays can turn into big plays. It’s been important for us and it will be extremely important this week, as well.”

Kubiak is spot on. I’d argue his players are as well, and until they institute a strike zone of sorts when it comes to receivers, this is a topic that will continue to get nerves jangled in New England and be a topic of conversation into the offseason as well. But for now, Gronkowski’s head will need to be on a swivel, like it or not.

Bill Belichick: 'Incomprehensible' to think Patriots would pick up from where they left off last season

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Bill Belichick: 'Incomprehensible' to think Patriots would pick up from where they left off last season

Bill Belichick knows that people outside his organization expected big things from his team this season, but he gave a long explanation for how those expectations should have been tempered headed into 2017. 

Belichick was asked during a conference call on Monday how he balances week-to-week adjustments with the foundation of the system his team installed before the season began. What resulted was a 789-word response on how teams have to come together early in the year -- and why it's difficult for things to look like they're running smoothly through the few weeks of the regular season. 

It felt like Belichick had something he was itching to share on the topic, so here is Belichick's response in full . . . 

"Well, I’ll just say that when you start the season, you have, let’s call it 20 practices, not including the spring. So let’s call it 20 practices and some preseason games, and during that time you’re trying to evaluate your team, work on a lot of basic and fundamental things and I’ll say basically get your team ready to play not only on the opening day, but for getting conditioned and build your fundamentals and all that so that you can compete in the 16-game regular season.

"In those 20 practices and however many preseason games certain players play in – two, three, four, whatever it is – against other teams that are doing the same thing, so you’re not getting schemed, you’re not getting game planned, you’re not getting some of the more sophisticated and the higher degree of difficulty things in any phase of the game. You’re in more of an evaluation mode and a fundamental mode. That’s where you’re at, and then as you get into the season, you build on that and you have things that attack certain schemes or you have to use to address certain issues that your opponent is trying to pressure you with.

"Maybe you just sit in your base, whatever it is, to handle it. Maybe your basics handle it, but maybe you need to go a little bit beyond that or maybe you see opportunities to create a play that you might install on a weekly game plan basis, and then all that accumulates. So, when you go from 20 practices to, let’s call it 60 practices over halfway through the season, maybe 80 practices at the end of the season, you’re going to have a lot more in with 80 practices and you could probably triple the number of meetings on that and everything else then where you’re going to have after a relatively short period in training camp. So, along those same lines, I mean, if we keep running the same play all year, the same ones that you put in in training camp and keep running those same plays all year, it’s not that difficult in this league to figure out what those few things are and game plan accordingly.

"So, if you don’t increase the volume of your scheme on offense, defense and special teams, then every week, your opponent’s just looking at a handful of things and probably most of them they’ve seen before. So, I don’t know how much problem, how much stress you’re really putting on your opponent if that’s the way that you do it. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing because you can play your basic stuff, and if it’s working well and if you’re doing well with it and people can’t handle it, then there’s no reason to change it. But I don’t know how many teams in the league fall into that category. I wouldn’t say it’s an exceedingly high number and it never really has been, based on my experience in the league. Although, I’m not saying that can’t happen, but I would certainly say that’s not the most common way that teams evolve throughout the course of the year. 

"So, you do what you need to do each week to try to win. You put in the plays, make the adjustments, you don’t want to overload things – I mean, nobody’s talking about putting in a new offense every week. That’s not it at all, but are there some modifications you can make? Sure, and as you rep those and you use them and if those situations come up again, then maybe you can fall back to that same type of scheme. But to think realistically, which it’s incomprehensible to me, but, I mean, I don’t know. 

"Maybe I just can’t figure it out, but it’s incomprehensible to me how anybody could think that a team that’s practiced for six months and played 19 regular-season and postseason games and had triple-digit practices, five months later, after not playing a game, after having a fraction of that type of experience, could be anywhere close to the level of execution that they were five months before that after all of the things that I just listed. I mean, it’s impossible in my view. So, each year, you start all over again. You start that process all over again. You build your team over the course of the year though practice repetitions, through preseason to regular season games, through the evolving of your scheme, and that’s why each year is different and unique. But, I understand I’m in the minority and most other people don’t see it that way, which is OK, but that’s the way I see it."

Malcom Brown helps spark Patriots run defense vs. Jets

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Malcom Brown helps spark Patriots run defense vs. Jets

The Patriots use a defensive scheme that often asks its defensive tackles to do the dirty work. Two-gap. Take on multiple blockers. Free up linebackers to crash down and make tackles in one-on-one situations with opposing running backs. 

It's not the most glamorous job. Sometimes it's difficult to see in real time when one of the big bodies up front is executing his duties effectively or not. But it's a critical role all the same.

On Sunday at MetLife Stadium, the Patriots got some solid work from their tackles to help limit the Jets to 3.1 yards per carry and just 74 rush yards total. Malcom Brown stood out as the team's top tackle on the day, and one of his team's best defensive players overall. 

The third-year 320-pounder had four tackles that limited to the Jets to gains of two yards or less. He also picked up a sack when he chased Josh McCown across the field and touched him down behind the line of scrimmage in the third quarter.

Brown was flagged for a defensive holding call just before Austin Seferian-Jenkins' fumble -- he locked onto the first blocker that engaged him and then didn't release quickly enough when that blocker tried to move on to another Patriots defender -- but overall it was a strong day, according to his head coach.

"I think Malcom’s improved pretty much every week," Bill Belichick said on a conference call Monday. "I know he’s definitely helping us making some significant plays for us out there and, again, eating up a lot of plays in front of him so that other guys, like Elandon [Roberts], Kyle [Van Noy], Dont’a [Hightower] and those guys, can fit in and make the tackles."

Brown wasn't alone. Lawrence Guy was in on a pair of run stuffs that went for two yards or less, and he was credited with three total tackles. Alan Branch played in 22 snaps after being made a healthy scratch in Week 5, and Adam Butler saw 17 snaps on the line.

"I thought we got contributions from all those players . . . They all have a little bit different playing style, but they were all productive," Belichick said. "It certainly helps our linebacker play when the defensive line plays consistent and they can do a good job in front and then the linebackers can do a good job and then the secondary can fit off them, so it works in front of that. 

"But, I thought our defensive line did a lot of good things yesterday. There’s still a lot of things we need to work on, obviously. I’m not saying we’re there yet, but we did a lot of good things up front."

Coming into the game allowing 5.0 yards per rushing attempt, what the Patriots were able to accomplish against the Jets in the run game -- behind a stout performance by Brown and his teammates in the trenches -- can certainly qualify as a step in the right direction.