Patriots

Opportunity knocks

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Opportunity knocks

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

The NBA season is a little more than two weeks old. The NHL's barely been at it for a month. The NFL just passed its halfway point.

At this stage in the game, all three leagues need binoculars to see the finish line. Yet this week, three Boston teams can make a statement to help propel themselves towards the checkered flag.

Wednesday, November 10: Bruins at Penguins

Thursday, November 11: Celtics at Heat

Sunday, November 14: Patriots at Steelers

It's a five-day stretch that starts Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, and ends Sunday night in Pittsburgh; just for fun, there's a trip down to Miami sandwiched in between. It features villains like Cooke, LeBron and Harrison. Rivalries (both budding and established) like Crosby vs. Seguin, Big Three vs. Big Three and Ben vs. Brady. It includes six teams that will very likely still be playing when it matters; who will probably meet again when the stakes are at their highest. So for that reason, maybe we can't get too carried away with the results.

And we won't.

If the Bruins, Celtics or Patriots lose the next time they take the respective ice, court or field, no one will write them off. No one will ever say, "Ah, they can't beat the Steelers on the road in November, the Pats are screwed!" This isn't do-or-die.

Instead, it's an opportunity.

Tonight in Pittsburgh, the Bruins have an opportunity to take care of some unfinished business, and will take the ice with two objectives:

1. Win.

2. Ensure that Matt Cooke wakes up tomorrow morning feeling like he was run over by a Zamboni.

The first objective needs no explanation. Neither does the fact that without No. 1, No. 2 loses a lot of flavor. But Objective No. 2 is what makes this game so crucial. Up to this point, the B's have done a great job of distancing themselves from last year's history-making mess. They already look like a tougher, more potent and inspired team. But there are still a few demons floating around the locker room, and the stench of Matt Cooke might be the most menacing.

It's now been seven months since Cooke's cheap shot on Marc Savard, and Savvy's career has been drastically altered. His life's been drastically altered.

Take a second and think about how long ago March feels all that's happened since then and now consider that Savard's been living a nightmare everyday of that.

Now imagine you're one of the teammates who failed so miserably in gaining retribution. That must be awful.

Tonight's game not only provides the Bruins a chance to make good on last March's disaster, but also a chance to prove they're officially not that team from last March anymore; that they're willing and able to fight for what's important and still come out on top.

On Thursday night in Miami, the Celtics have an opportunity to gain a serious mental edge on the biggest threat to their Eastern Conference crown.

Sure, the Heat have played better since Opening Night, but still, they're about as emotionally stable as a PMS-ing supermodel. For every step forward, at least in the eyes of the national media, they take seven steps back, and it's got to be wearing on them. Erik Spoelstra can't open the Internet without reading about the eventual Pat Riley takeover. Chris Bosh can't check his Twitter feed without nearly 290K followers telling him he's a fraud. LeBron James can't gaze into the mirror and ask, "What should I do?" without the mirror yelling back, "How about taking over in crunch time of a big game, fool!?!"

I'm not saying the Heat are teetering on any brink of destruction. But if Boston can go into Miami's gym, in the midst of a four-game road trip, without an entirely healthy roster, and win? This game will stick with the Heat for a while.

After Thursday, there are three months before the Heat and Celtics play again, and that's back here at the Garden. If Miami loses tomorrow, then no matter what they accomplish between now and that next meeting, all they'll hear is, "But you can't beat Boston! You can't beat the reaaaaal Big Three!"

And for a team that's already under constant scrutiny, already has the weight of the NBA world on its shoulders, and already boasts a highly flammable arsenal of egos, who knows where that might lead?

I don't, but wouldn't it be fun to find out?

And lastly, on Sunday night, the Patriots have an opportunity to erase that loss to Cleveland.

OK, they can't erase it. We're not talking Men in Black here. But how about Back to the Future?

Maybe the Pats can't remove that game from history, but can't they alter its place?

Right now, the loss to the Browns is a warning sign, a red flag, perhaps the game that exposed all their weaknesses.

With a victory over the Steelers, the loss to the Browns becomes an aberration, a much needed wake-up call, the game that got the Pats back on track!

A loss will be, well, a loss. The specifics will go a long way towards deciding how seriously we take it. But there are very few harder places to win than Heinz Field, especially in prime time. Truthfully, a loss is probably expected.

In fact, the Bruins, Celtics and Patriots will all be underdogs the next time they take the respective ice, court and field. So that's why if they do lose, we won't freak out.

But if one, two or all three can step up and seize the opportunity before them, we'll have reason to remain optimistic, and maybe even increase our expectation, regardless of how far away the finish line might seem.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Patriots’ injury report: Center Andrews, WR Hogan out

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Patriots’ injury report: Center Andrews, WR Hogan out

The Patriots will be without center David Andrews on Sunday when they play the Raiders in Mexico City. Andrews, who hasn’t all practice all week with an illness, is one of four Pats listed as out on the injury report released Friday.

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Offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, who didn’t play last week against the Broncos is also out, along with wide receiver Chris Hogan and special teams captain Matthew Slater. Offensive linemen Ted Karras and Joe Thuney each took reps at center so one of them will likely start in Andrews’ absence. LaAdrian Waddle filled in for Cannon and performed well last week vs. Denver. 

Here’s the full injury report for the Patriots and Raiders: 

 


 

Belichick getting the most out of his veteran safeties

Belichick getting the most out of his veteran safeties

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. - Bill Belichick’s never been shy about getting the players who play the best on the field as much as possible. 

So, when he looked at a crowded secondary this summer, the Patriots’ coach didn’t view every spot as a defined position. Instead, he analyzed the skill set of his players and decided that the Pats needed their top three safeties - Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Pat Chung - on the field as much as possible. Just past the midway point of the season, Belichick and his defensive coaching staff have managed to do that quite a bit.

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McCourty missed one defensive snap all season, the last play of the opener (590). Harmon has often times found himself as that single-high safety (479) while - as illustrated earlier - Chung has played 83 percent of the snaps, although about a third of those designated as a cornerback (494 total/333 as safety). There are only two other teams in the NFL that play three safeties as often as the Patriots: the Chiefs (Ron Parker, Daniel Sorensen and Eric Murray) and Broncos (Justin Simmons, Darian Stewart and Will Parks). 

When I asked Belichick about all that the responsibilities he puts on that safety trio, the coach wouldn’t single out just those three. He also highlighted veterans Nate Ebner and Jordan Richards.

“That’s good group really with Pat, Devin, Duron, Jordan, Nate gives us a lot in the kicking game. That’s five guys that all help us in a lot of different ways…they all are pretty versatile,” said Belichick. 

Versatility is a critical element to the Patriots being able to put those players on the field and keep them there, no matter what the opposition throws New England’s way.

“You see Jordan play strong safety, you see Jordan come in in multiple defensive back sets. You see Chung play a corner type of role sometimes. I play a corner type of role. I  think it allows us to say ‘if they come out in this personnel, we’ll be ok’” said Devin McCourty. “We’ll just match up these guys in whatever different role in the defense and it’ll work.”

Of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done when you consider what personnel the opposing team can employ. In the opener against Kansas City, the Pats tried and failed to match up with an explosive grouping that including Tyreek Hill and DeAnthony Thomas, wide receivers who can line up in the backfield and take a handoff as well. 

The opponent Sunday, Oakland, doesn’t have those kinds of pieces, but the Raiders still have players in place that can keep defensive coordinators up at night. The suspicion here though is that Matt Patricia sleeps better than most, in part because of his secondary.

“A team like Oakland will come in what we call ‘oh 1’ personnel where they have four receivers and [tight end Jared] Cook on the field, which is kind of like a fifth receiver,” noted McCourty. “We can easily stay in different groups and say ‘all right, this is how we want to match that.’ Where if we didn’t have that versatility we’d have to start to run corners on and then they keep [Marshawn] Lynch on the field in place of Cook and run the ball. There’s so many different things that the offense can do to mismatch personnel. Having the versatility and players who understand different roles allows players to stay calm and match up.”

There’s also an unseen element to what this safety group brings to the field every week. That’s their experience, not just in the NFL, but together. There’s comfort in knowing the guy next to you has seen the same things you have and can go through their mental Rolodex to recall and adjust to personnel groupings and formation changes that maybe weren’t prepared for during the week (yes, even with Belichick as the coach that happens).

“I’ve been playing with Pat and Dev - all of us being together - this has been four years and you don’t catch that too often, especially three safeties,” said Harmon. “I just think us being able to be in a whole bunch of different positions, being able to learn from each other and playing together has allowed us to even been more versatile with each other and be able to run more things, have a better feel for the defense and put ourselves in maybe different positions that you wouldn’t put anyone else in.”

“We don’t have many groups like us that have been together for the last four or five years,” said McCourty. “We don’t always break things down as the strong safety, free safety, the money back, like a lot of things we did, it’s just a position, a spot on the field. I think we all understand that all three of us or all four of us on the field at any time can play at any of those positions. I think that allows us to say, ‘Remember last time we did this, in this game, you were here and you were there’ but this time because this is what they like you go here and I’ll go there. This that allows us to understand what we do defensively but also match it to whatever the offense does. Obviously, that’s what the coaches want to do. When the players can do that, it always helps.”

Belichick knows this and it’s pretty clear this trait - the ability to adjust on the fly - is something he appreciates a great deal. That’s why over the past five games, you haven’t noticed nearly as much movement and - let’s face it - confusion as there was in that first month. The players have shared history to fall back on and it’s smoothed out the communication and led to a much higher level of play.

“We can definitely go back to things that maybe we haven’t done in a while, talk about how we used this against Tampa or we used this against Buffalo or somebody and there’s good recall and good application of it,” Belichick said. “Yeah, there’s times where that definitely helps. Same thing on the offense, with guys like Tom [Brady], James White, Rob [Gronkowski], Danny [Amendola]  - guys that have done things together for multiple years. You got a situation that’s similar to a situation you had awhile back, you can go back and refer to that. You’re not going to be able to do that with Deatrich Wise or [Jacob] Hollister. They just haven’t had that kind of experience. But with experienced players, sure, that comes up from time to time. That’s a good reference.”

So, don’t be surprised Sunday in Mexico City if you see Harmon shaded over the top of Amari Cooper, or McCourty in the box providing an extra run fit, or Chung playing slot corner or linebacker. It’s old hat for a group that is asked to do more and routinely responds well to those challenges. 

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