Patriots

Curran: Patriots defense takes baby steps

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Curran: Patriots defense takes baby steps

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots InsiderFollow @tomecurran
OAKLAND - Better. Still not good. But better. The New England Patriots are a quarter of the way through the 2011 regular season. Defensively, the numbers are ugly. A total of 1,910 yards allowed (478 per game), allowing conversions on third down 48 percent of the time, six sacks (four in the first game of the year) . . . you've seen it, I've seen it. They are not that good on defense. But they were better on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders and - at this point of the season - getting better is what teams hope for. The loss of Jerod Mayo is going to hurt. He and Vince Wilfork are the two best front-seven players the Patriots have. And with the secondary struggling and banged up, his absence as the leader of the back part of the defense is a blow to their trying to make improvements. But the Patriots' early season problems have been as much about scheme as they've been about personnel. And on Sunday, the Patriots got back to playing a style that best fits their guys. For three weeks, the Patriots asked theircorners to play a ton of man-to-man. They asked them to get up on receivers, jam them and allow the pass rush to force the ball out quickly. Trouble was, too often the corners weren't rerouting receivers and the pass rush never got there. And the results were staggering. On Sunday, New England played a little softer. And while Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell still rolled up some yards, the avalanche of deep passes to outside receivers who'd beaten either Leigh Bodden or Devin McCourty ended. And the Patriots tackled on Sunday. There were still some misses - Shaun Ellis' Dawn of the Dead lumber after Jacoby Ford applies here - but ususally the grabbing and calf-roping we'd seen in the first three weeks was replaced by wrap-em-up, bring-em-down sticks. "We got better this week," said McCourty. "The goal is to win and we did that but throughout the week in practice we got better."The Raiders brought a very clear-cut challenge to this game. The NFL's leading rusher coming in was Darren McFadden. Throughout his coaching career, Bill Belichick has been someone that stresses taking away the one thing an opposing offense really, really likes to do. On Sunday, the Patriots held McFadden to 75 yards on 14 carries. And 41 of them came on one play. The Patriots otherwise held McFadden to fewer than 3 yards per carry. Sure tackling was a big part of that. "We took that as a challenge to come out here and help those guys up front," said McCourty who, along with Kyle Arrington (starting in place of Bodden) led the Patriots with eight tackles. "Our front seven does a great job against the run but if a guy comes outside or gets in the open field we got to do a good job coming up and making tackles."The Patriots were disgraceful in that department the past few weeks, especially in the linebacker and secondary group. There are still some alarming trends - how did Gary Guyton get so slow so fast? - but at least their seems to be a settling in process underway. And while Belichick mayregard points allowed as the end-all, be-all, yardsallowed is an indicator of something.If you're 32nd in the league in yards allowed, it's impossible to hide from the fact you can't stop a nosebleed (to borrow a phrase). Thefact Oakland gained 504 net yards is still alarming. And the fact that one of their drives ended in anunforced end-zone interception thrown by Jason Campbell from the Patriots' 6 isn't evidence that the Patriots bent but didn't break. It's just evidence that Campbell is a mid to low-tier NFL quarterback. But after allowing 268 first-half yards, the Patriots allowed just 133 total yards in the second half before the Raiders had a 99-yard jaunt in garbage time. Again, improvement. "As a player you want to get that down," said McCourty. "We come out and work hard every day to come out and play well and that's one way of seeing how well we play. We always want to get the yards down."McCourty's been under siege a bit. I asked him if it was getting tiresome answering questions about what went wrong every week. "I've explained and talked about it," he said. "When we watch those plays, we want to correct them. We want to get those yards down, we want to get those numbers down. We feel like we're a good defense and when we come out there and let things happen, like Mayo said, 'That's what we are,' that's what the stats shows. We want to get that down and keep playing well."The Patriots have personnel issues stacking up silently against them. They've lost two of their best young interior pass rushers, Myron Pryor (IR) and Mike Wright (concussion). Albert Haynesworth has missed two games with back problems. Now Mayo is hurt and the secondary still has two starting safeties - Josh Barrett and Patrick Chung - running around with casts on their hands. They face the Jets and Cowboys over the next two weeks and both of them have better offensive personnel than Oakland. The challenge is very clear. Whether they're going to be able to meet it is up in the air. But the indications are better on this Monday than they were last Monday. Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Patriots' Gillislee a healthy scratch for second straight game

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Patriots' Gillislee a healthy scratch for second straight game

For the second straight week, Mike Gillislee is a healthy scratch as the Patriots prepare to play the Raiders in Mexico City. Because he doesn't contribute in the kicking game, and because he doesn't have as much situational versatility as Dion Lewis or Rex Burkhead, Gillislee finds himself on the outside looking in. 

Does this mean that if the Patriots running back group remains healthy for the rest of the year that Gillilslee will continue to sit? Not necessarily. That will change from week to week based on the matchup and the overall health of the rest of the roster. But for right now, he's not viewed as an essential game-day option the same way Lewis, Burkhead, James White and Brandon Bolden are. 

The Patriots will have seven linemen active, as they do most weeks, but this week they're without two of their starters -- Marcus Cannon and David Andrews -- so Cole Croston and Cameron Fleming will be in uniform against the Raiders. Both players are candidates to be healthy scratches when other linemen are healthy. For Croston, it will be his NFL debut. He's been on the active roster all season but has been a weekly scratch. 

Malcom Brown (ankle) and Eric Rowe (groin) practiced all week but will continue to miss time with their respective injuries. Matthew Slater (hamstring) left last week's game against the Broncos and will need more time to let his ailment heal. He missed the first four weeks of the season and most of training camp with a hamstring issue. 

Cassius Marsh, who was inactive last werek due to a shoulder injury, will be back in uniform to give the Patriots some depth on the edge. They need it; after Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Deatrich Wise, they were wafer thin at that spot in Denver. 

RB Mike Gillislee
C David Andrews
OL Marcus Cannon
WR Chris Hogan
WR Matthew Slater
DL Malcom Brown
CB Eric Rowe

With Andrews out, who's next man up for the Patriots at center?

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With Andrews out, who's next man up for the Patriots at center?

Continuity along the offensive line was one of the reasons the Patriots were able to have the season they had in 2016. They tossed aside the early-season experiementation that Bill Belichick favored at times in order to establish a starting five that could be relied upon, if healthy, start to finish. 

They attacked 2017 with the same approach, but because of injury the consistency simply has not been the same. Both starting tackles, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, have missed time injured this season, and Cannon will sit out again on Sunday as he continues to deal with an ankle injury. 

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The interior of the line has remained largely in place until this week when center David Andrews came down with an illness, missed two practices, and was ruled out. 

On a line where familiarity is key, where the center is the one making the calls, the one in constant communication with Tom Brady, what now?

The Patriots will likely turn to second-year man Ted Karras, who has the ability to play both guard spots and also backed up Andrews for the vast majority of training camp. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder was released at the end of camp, quickly signed to the Patriots practice squad, and then he re-signed to the active roster in Week 1 when Malcolm Mitchell was placed on injured reserve.

Karras, drafted in the sixth round in 2016 out of Illinois, was named a practice player of the week earlier this year and he earned some praise from Belichick before the Patriots took off for Mexico City.

"Ted works hard," Belichick said. "He loves football. He gets there early, stays late."

Belichick noted that Karras (nine snaps, all against the Broncos) hasn't played much this season, but he did see plenty of work early last season when he filled in for an injured Shaq Mason. He was the Week 1 starter at right guard in a win ver the Cardinals and he played 41 snaps in Week 2 against the Dolphins. 

The Patriots offensive line could also potentially turn to Joe Thuney at center. He's practiced there before and got some experience at the position during his time at NC State. This seems like the less likely move since the Patriots would then have to deal with two new players at different spots -- center and left guard (whether the player replacing Thuney would be Karras or rookie Cole Croston) -- which could have a domino effect on the rest of the line. 

However the Patriots choose to handle it, they'll face an interesting test south of the border. The Raiders feature a pair of talented pass-rushers in Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack, who Belichick says play all over the offensive line, yet Oakland is tied for last in the league in sacks. 

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