First impressions: Patriots 31, Dolphins 24

First impressions: Patriots 31, Dolphins 24

FOXBORO -- Here are a few quick-hit impressions from Sunday's AFC East matchup between the Patriots and Dolphins...

PATRIOTS 31, DOLPHINS 24: Curran's Best and Worst

* Jimmy Garoppolo appeared to be in complete control of the Patriots offense while he was behind center. He was 18-for-27 for 234 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He appeared to make strides from what was an impressive Week 1 performance in Arizona, once again showing the poise that helped him lead the team to a win in their season-opener. One particularly impressive moment came on his second touchdown pass of the afternoon, when he looked left, held the free safety in the middle of the field, and then found Martellus Bennett up the right seam for a 20-yard strike. 

* That Garoppolo looked like a seasoned vet in his first ever start at Gillette Stadium made his injury in the second quarter seem even more deflating for the Patriots fans in attendance. At one point, they chanted "Jimmy! Jimmy!" while he was on a knee and being examined by team medical personnel. His right shoulder absorbed a lot of force when he was driven into the ground by Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso, and it came as no surprise that he was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game. 

* In relief of Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett was more than adequate, especially given the situation. A third-round pick out of North Carolina State, Brissett put his physical skill set on display throughout training camp: He has the size, mobility and arm strength that give him the look of an NFL quarterback. And in his first game action, he showed good headiness to go along with those physical skills. Especially when he saw room to run, Brissett was mindful on two separate occasions to both get to the first-down marker and then slide to avoid contact. 

* Brissett made the most of his biggest target on the field early on. After a few early misfires -- which could maybe be chalked up to an elevated heartrate -- Brissett found 6-foot-7 tight end Martellus Bennett for a 37-yard gain. Three plays later, he hit Bennett again for a 15-yard gain. The Patriots would surely like Brissett to protect the football better than he did when he was sacked for 14 yards and lost the handle on the ball (which was recovered by James White), but it was not a bad first showing for the rookie.

* Bennett had a very different role in Week 2 than he did in Week 1 when he saw just five targets and caught three for 14 yards. Seeing more usage as a receiver, perhaps with left tackle Nate Solder back in the mix on the offensive line, Bennett posted his third-career game with over 100 yards receiving. He had five catches on six targets for 114 yards, including one catch-and-run where he dished out a punishing stiff-arm to Dolphins corner Byron Maxwell. 

Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

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Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

Looking for a two-word answer from Bill Belichick during a press conference? Ask him how a new addition to the roster might fit into the Patriots scheme. 

"We'll see," is Belichick's typical reply in those situations. 


We point that out here because it's hard to know exactly what any new player's role will be with the Patriots, particularly for an edge player like Adrian Clayborn. That spot in Belichick's defense can take on a variety of roles, from pass-rusher, to edge-setter, to coverage player. 

But we can take an educated guess as to how Clayborn will fit in the Patriots defense, based on what we know. That's what the Patriots did when they signed him. They saw certain skills. They saw Clayborn perform in certain situations. They made their projection. 

There's always the chance Clayborn asserts himself in a way that wasn't expected. Or maybe the way he fits with his new teammates will open his coaches' eyes in ways they weren't anticipating. But at this point, as is the case with every new addition, they're hypothesizing. So we will too. 

AGAINST THE PASS: Clayborn was, for the vast majority of his snaps, a pass-rusher for the Falcons last year. He played 631 snaps for the Falcons, which was 53.4 of their defensive snaps. Of those 631 plays, Clayborn rushed the quarterback 477 times, per Pro Football Focus (76 percent of his workload). And of those pass-rush snaps, only one came from the left side. (Clayborn was born with Erb's palsy, which means his right arm has some limitations compared to his left, which impacts the side of the field he aligns on. He played 91 percent of his snaps from the right side in 2016.)  Clayborn played over 80 percent of the snaps during each of his first three seasons in the league as a member of the Bucs so he's been a three-down player before. But recent history would suggest the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder is now more of a sub option.

Here's how Clayborn responded during a conference call on Wednesday when asked if he could chip in on first and second down for the Patriots. "I believe that’s what people have pigeon-holed me in as a third-down player, but I know I can play first, second, third down if need be," he said. "That was my role in Atlanta because that’s what they asked me to do, but I mean, I can play all three downs if you ask me."

AGAINST THE RUN: According to Pro Football Focus, Clayborn has been a negatively-graded player against the run during each of his seven seasons in the NFL. Last year he checked in as PFF's 78th-ranked run defender among edge players, which was far below the ranking Trey Flowers received (19th) but ahead of Deatrich Wise (85th) and Eric Lee (96th). During each of his last three seasons with the Falcons, he has seen his snap-counts break down similarly: about 75 percent of his work came against the pass, about 25 percent came against the run. He can defend the run. He's capable of it. He just hasn't been asked to consistently hold up on the edge on a down-in-down-out basis during the most recent phase of his career. 

THE FIT: Based on his history in Atlanta, it would make sense if the Patriots asked Clayborn to come off of the right edge in passing situations in 2018. That's where his recent experience has been. Keeping him away from the left side not only makes the most of where he's strongest, but it also keeps him from finding himself in coverage. As Belichick has explained in the past, the left end spot (Rob Ninkovich's old spot), going against right-handed quarterbacks, is typically asked to do more in coverage. The right edge has been Flowers' area in the recent past -- he played almost 65 percent of his passing-rush snaps last season off the right, per PFF -- but if the Patriots are fully-healthy up front, Flowers could kick inside to do his rushing. An ideal sub package for the Patriots, it could be argued, would have Clayborn on the right edge, Flowers and either Wise or Adam Butler on the interior, and Derek Rivers or Dont'a Hightower on the left edge. Rivers saw some work off the left side before suffering an injury in last year's training camp. Early last season, Hightower saw time on the left edge. 


Clayborn will have an opportunity to show he can do more than rush off the right side. He said on Wednesday that the Patriots have discussed multiple roles for him. (Perhaps he could rush from the interior, though he's not as long as Flowers or Wise, whose arms make them good matchups for stouter guards and tackles.) Wherever those opportunities come, Clayborn knows he'll have to make the most of them if he doesn't want to be pigeonholed. The deal for two years and $10 million he just signed in New England doesn't guarantee him myriad responsibilities.

"Whatever I can prove I can do,” he said. "I know I can rush the passer. I know I can set edge in the run. I mean, there’s a couple of different positions that they believe I can play, so it’s up to me to prove I can play them."


Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

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Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

Former Patriots defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois is signing with the Lions, according to Jordan Schultz of Yahoo Sports.

The 31-year-old had six tackles in six games for the Patriots in 2017. He'll reunite with ex-Patriots defensive coordinator and now Lions head coach Matt Patricia in Detroit.