Patriots

Putting Stephen Gostkowski's struggles in context

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Putting Stephen Gostkowski's struggles in context

Stephen Gostkowski doesn’t miss field goals often and he never misses extra points. His performance this season might not be the end of the world, but there’s no denying his departure from the norm: He’s missing field goals more often and, as was the case in the AFC Championship last season, he hasn’t been automatic on PATs. 

The stats are well-known by now: He’s 9-for-12 on field goals and 16-of-17 on extra points. His three missed field goals are tied for the most he’s had in a season dating back to 2013, and the current season is only six games young. 

For those who have followed the Patriots in recent years, it’s only natural to feel the sky is falling with Gostkowski. After all, the former All-Pro has been nearly peerless in recent seasons, leading the league in field goals made in 2013 and 2014 and tying for second last season. He was arguably the best in the league, and now, six games into the 2016 season, he’s been mediocre. 

The question is whether the Patriots can live with mediocre, and the answer is “definitely.” 

Of the 10 playoff teams last season, four had kickers who missed at least five field goals, including the two Super Bowl participants. Denver’s Brandon McManus had five missed field goals last season; Carolina’s Graham Gano had six. 

The list of good teams with OK kicking performances goes on, and it undoubtedly includes past Patriots teams. Remember, Adam Vinatieri missed nine field goals during the Patriots Super Bowl-winning 2003 season. 

Then there are Gostkowski’s past seasons. He’s obviously had a tremendous career, but he’s had less glamorous seasons sprinkled in with the All-Pro performances. Everyone has lived to tell about it. 

Take 2012. Gostkowski missed six field goals, tying a career-worst set in his rookie year of 2006. He still finished tied for eighth in field goals made, one behind Justin Tucker and ahead of, among others, Vinatieri. The Patriots went 12-4 and reached the AFC Championship, a game the Pats might have won against Baltimore if they didn’t rely on Gostkowski for more than half (seven) of their points (13). 

Gostkowski is currently tied for 15th with nine field goals made. He’s yet to have a particularly costly miss like he did with the PAT against the Broncos last postseason, although his lone field goal attempt in the Pats’ Week 4 loss to the Bills -- a 48-yard miss -- would have made it a 10-point game early in the second half. 

At his current rate, he’ll miss a career-high eight field goals. That is not good, and while it wouldn’t quite put him in end-of-the-line-David-Akers territory (Akers missed 13 field goals in 2012, his second to last season), it would put him in uncharted territory for a great career. 

If there's any silver lining with Gostkowski's numbers down, it's that he doesn't seem to have lost his leg. His 53-yarder in the season-opener was four yards shy of his longest kick from last season. 

Having a capable kicker is important. Having an elite one is a luxury the Patriots have had for the majority of the last 20 seasons. A miss in a key spot can doom a season, but Gostkowski still has time to correct what’s been a down year. 

'Forgotten man' David Harris plays key role in win over Falcons

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'Forgotten man' David Harris plays key role in win over Falcons

For the first six weeks of the season, Patriots veteran linebacker David Harris was little more than an insurance policy.

At $1.25 million guaranteed this season, he was one of the pricer policies on the team, but his playing time told the story of where he stood on Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's depth chart. His seven total defensive snaps slotted him in behind Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Dont'a Hightower among off-the-ball 'backers. 

So when Harris saw 19 snaps -- making three tackles in the process -- against the Falcons and their speedy offensive weapons on Sunday night, it caught our attention. Here are a few of the elements that came into play, leading to Harris' increase in playing time. 

1) Injuries to other Patriots linebackers created an opening for Harris. Roberts was announced as inactive prior to kickoff due to an ankle injury. Later in the night, Hightower suffered a shoulder injury that knocked him from action. That left Van Noy, Harris and Marquis Flowers as the team's linebackers in uniform. Harris got the nod over Flowers, who's primarily a special-teamer.

2) Falcons personnel called for the Patriots to use their base defense at times. The game opened with the Falcons going with a two-back set, encouraging Belichick to go with bigger personnel. The Patriots didn't have to stick with their regular group because the Falcons used primarily one-back sets over the course of the night, But even with Hightower healthy and available, what happened early in the game proved that there were certain packages that called for Harris to be on the field. He saw one early, picking up his first start as a member of the Patriots. 

3) The work Harris has put in during practices and off the field allowed the Patriots coaching staff to trust him when he was called upon. Belichick has lauded Harris all season for his professionalism, and on Monday morning he continued to heap praise on the 33-year-old. "As always, I think David works hard and is very well prepared and did all of the right things that we would want him to do from an assignment standpoint," Belichick said. "He gave us some good plays, was in on a few plays. Again, handled the communication in the front well. We’ll see if we can build on it. We’ve got a lot of good play from a number of guys and he’s certainly part of that group."

No Gilmore? No problem for Patriots

No Gilmore? No problem for Patriots

FOXBORO -- When Bill Belichick told us it was incomprehensible to him to expect a team eight and a half months ago to be on the same level now, I nodded. The Patriots coach has long pointed to post-Thanksgiving as the time be playing your best ball. 

But despite statements to the contrary leading up to the Super LI “rematch” with the Atlanta Falcons, the Pats needed this one more than they let on, and delivered with a defensive performance that reminded me of last year, or even some of their work in the 2014-15 season. 

We both know how those seasons ended. Will this one end with the same result? I’m not going there yet, but this was a show and tell kind of night, and the Pats defense in particular showed me more than they had in the 6 weeks prior. That should tell us something: that what we thought they were capable of when this season started is indeed still there.

“The motivation really was we knew if we didn’t come ready to play that Matt Ryan had the ability to really kill us,” said Devin McCourty after the game. “You put him back there with the receivers they have, we knew it was going to be a huge challenge. So defensively, especially in the secondary, we knew we had to execute the game plan. We felt that we had a really good game plan our defensive coaches came up with, and I think we kind of knew if we executed and played to it, then we were going to have a great chance to go out there and win today.”

The group played with energy, they played with confidence and oh yes, they played with discipline. Without benefit of film review, there didn’t appear to be many - if any - catastrophic breakdowns that had plagued them beginning in the season opener versus Kansas City and continued right through last week’s near loss to the Jets.

“We’re excited because we finally see our hard work come into show,” said Duron Harmon. “It’s not perfect; we still left some plays out there. We still did some things that we know we need to learn from. I just feel like the energy that we played with, the excitement, how fast and physical we played kind of covered up a lot of the mistakes that we made. We just got to build on that.”

That energy has been missing a better part of the year, and some of that can be tied to the breakdowns that had this group issuing a Code Red following the loss to Cam Newton and Carolina. You remember it: McCourty called it an embarrassment, and Harmon reminded us “we can’t play no more simpler than that.” 

A week later, they turned that into a media-driven narrative, fully ignoring that they were the ones who pushed the panic button. But they finally played the football we’re familiar with, Patriot football, during this Sunday Night showdown with the Falcons, and to their credit, they did it without their biggest free add in years, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who remained sidelined with a concussion.

“We’re just better,” added Harmon. “We continue to improve each week. From the Panthers game on until now, we just continue to get better each and every week. We continue to come to work, work together, try to find the best combination of players that we can put out there and everybody that goes out there continues to do a great job and just work hard.”

The best combination of players was suppose to be Malcolm Butler and Gilmore at corner, with Eric Rowe covering the slot. It was suppose to have Harmon, McCourty and Pat Chung as your three-headed safety grouping. 

But Rowe remains out indefinitely with a torn groin, and Gilmore’s injury has opened the door for a special teamer turned cornerback, Johnson Bademosi, who went toe-to-toe with Julio Jones at times Sunday and won. 

Yeah, who saw that coming? But maybe that’s the combination Harmon is referencing, and it surely makes the decision of what to do with Gilmore once he’s ready to play as interesting as any Belichick’s had to make this season. 

Upset a good thing? Or trust that Gilmore has learned enough to step back in and deliver the kind of performance you paid him for? It’s one to watch moving forward, that’s for sure.