Patriots don't let injuries stop them


Patriots don't let injuries stop them

By Tom E. Curran

FOXBORO -- Tucked into an out-of-the-way corner in the Patriots locker room -- down where the cooler full of water and Gatorade used to be -- are four blue metal lockers.

Down there, three recently-signed players Chevis Jackson, Louis Leonard and Thomas Clayton have their football offices.

In a locker room as sprawling and well-appointed as the Patriots', isn't there room in the main joint for these guys?

No. There's not.

Between active players, practice squad guys and players who've been sent to injured reserve, the Patriots have 74 players currently on their team. So Clayton, Jackson and Leonard are relegated to the manger, as it were.

There are many fascinating aspects to the 2010 Patriots, but the way they've inconspicuously faced down the attrition of an NFL season is one of the most interesting.

When Jonathan Wilhite went to injured reserve on Wednesday, he became the 12th Patriot this year to have his season ended by injury, joining key players like Leigh Bodden, Kevin Faulk, Stephen Gostkowski, Nick Kaczur, Brandon McGowan, Stephen Neal and Ty Warren in NFL limbo.

With three games to go, the 12 players sent to IR exceeds the totals of the Super Bowl seasons of '01, '03 and '04 (10, 11, 11) and approaches the totals of 2008 and 2006 (14 and 13). The Patriots have already used 37 different starters, a total approaching the 2003 team (42), which was the highest number of starters used by a Super Bowl winner.

Two of the prominent IR guys Bodden and Warren were on IR before the season began. Kaczur never got on the field before he was sent there around midseason. As a result, you forget that these are starters that went down. Also overlooked is that would-be starters like Laurence Maroney and Derrick Burgess were traded and released (same with Randy Moss, but there's been no overlooking that).

The Patriots' locker room door is a revolving one but that hasn't stopped them from becoming again the league's best team.

"Every team knows that whoever the 53-man roster is that you have in September, it's probably not going to be who it is at the end of the year," shrugged Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a man who's proven incredibly adept at negotiating roster upheaval.

"It's a long season and there's certainly attrition to it . . . but, that's part of your depth: your roster, your practice squad, players that have been on your team that didn't make the final cut or other players that are available from within the league for one reason or another. That's part of the league," Belichick noted.

Hank Poteat, Kevin Kasper, Earthwind Moreland, Freddie Coleman, Brian Kinchen, Mike Cloud . . . remember those names? Those are ex-Patriots that jumped on a moving bus that was on its way to a Super Bowl championship. Guys who'd been cut or virtually scrap-heaped. Guys like Danny Woodhead, Eric Moore and, really, Deion Branch.

Aside from the guys they've added are the guys who've ascended. Guys like corner Kyle Arrington, guard Dan Connelly or running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

A player like Kevin Faulk, IR'd after Week 2, knows what's going on.

"It's a tribute to the scouting department and a tribute to the players they're bringing in," said Faulk. "Guys want to work. They want the jobs. That's what you want as a football team. As a scouting department, that's what you recruit these backups for. A starter goes down, you're able to have someone go in and do the same job the starter does. Look at Danny. He was cut the week before he signed with us. Guys stepping up know that the opportunity is there. Once you know that the opportunity is there, you gotta be able to go for it. Reach for it and you're gonna get it."

It's interesting to hear Faulk note that incoming players and scrubs understand that "the opportunity is there."

The Patriots are not a team married to its depth chart or to playing individuals based on draft position. The best prepared, the most effective, will play, even if he just drove in from the airport.

"It's somewhat unusual," acknowledges defensive lineman Gerard Warren, a man who's been in Oakland, Denver and Cleveland before coming to New England. "The only other place that came close to being this prepared was Denver when I was out there. The professionalism is what stands out in Denver and New England. In Denver, it's we called 'carrying no dead weight.' Everybody better be prepared to roll, your number could be called tomorrow."

And when it is, you won't necessarily get a watered-down level of expectation. Or be treated like a seat-warmer.

"Every team has a personnel department that has to keep on top of available players and has to make roster moves, whether it's from their practice squad or somewhere else," said Belichick, pointing to the branch run by Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio. "It's something you have to be able to do. The more your players can play multiple positions and do multiple things, then that gives you some degree of depth, but ultimately, you're going to have to fill players' spots with players. So, theyve got to come from somewhere. You have to try and figure out how to get the best out of those guys that are available."

The expectations for backups are high. And, at least in Faulk's case, the personal expectations for a player whose season has ended are high as well.

"There's a big influence," Faulk said when asked what an IR'd player can do for a callup. "It's all on you, it's all on them. They can ask you questions and you tell them what they need to hear. Maybe you're watching a game at home and you see something that may affect them later on in the season. You gotta be aware, you gotta be prepared."

And few do it better than New England.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans


Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans

The Titans job was rumored to be the first pick of Josh McDaniels, but as details have come to light, that is not the case.

The Tennessee Titans have agreed to hire former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel as their Head Coach tonight.

The team publicly announced the hire tonight across all of their social media platforms.

Vrabel won the Super Bowl with the Patriots three times in the early years of the New England dynasty. 

Despite having limited experience as a coach, he has attracted much attention in this past offseason for openings across the NFL. He has just one season's experience as a coordinator. 

Vrabel steps in to fill the role of Mike Mularkey, who was fired just one night after many believed he was receiving an extension. Despite the rumor of the extension, Mularkey and the Titans agreed to part ways just one day later.


Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?


Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

FOXBORO -- We've hit on Tom Brady's hand. Over and over. And over again. We've also dissected just how good this Jaguars defense really is, and how Rob Gronkowski might be able to exploit it

But what about the games within the game? What about the so-called bit players who could make a significant impact in the AFC Championship Game? 

It seems to happen every year in the biggest games. No one predicted James White would put together an MVP-level performance in Super Bowl LI. No one saw Malcolm Butler coming - least of all Russell Wilson - in Super Bowl XLIX. And who would have guessed that Marquis Flowers, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise would've had key roles in helping the Patriots dominate the Divisional Round against the Titans?

Let's try to get out ahead of those storylines before the Jaguars and Patriots meet at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Here are five of our under-the-radar keys to the game: 

1) James Develin's incorporation into the game plan could seemingly pop up out of nowhere like a neck roll.
But if you've been following along this week, you know that it would be a good idea for the Patriots try to throw out of formations that employ their fullback. If Josh McDaniels figures out a way to keep Jacksonville's base defense on the field, that should give Brady all kinds of room to throw. That means getting Develin onto the field with Dion Lewis. It could also mean having Dwayne Allen (or Jacob Hollister) on the field with Rob Gronkowski. Two-back sets and two-tight end sets should have the same effect: The Jaguars will respond by leaving an extra linebacker and an extra defensive tackle on the field. (In all likelihood, run-stuffing linebacker Paul Posluszny would remain, as would defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. In sub situations, those players are more likely to come off, bringing nickel corner Aaron Colvin and pass-rusher Dante Fowler on.) That bigger stop-the-run grouping makes the Jaguars slower. When they're slower, they're less-equipped to defend the pass. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars allowed a quarterback rating of 99 and an average of 9.6 yards per attempt against offensive groupings with two backs, two tight ends, or both. Against three-receiver sets, they're much more effective, allowing a rating of 73 and an average-yards-per-attempt of just 4.9. One issue with Develin's usage could be - wait for it - Brady's hand. If it's clear Brady can't take snaps from under center, then the Patriots will either simply have to huddle up with Develin in the mix and align in some sort of spread look when they break, which they've done in the past. Or they could concede the threat of running behind Develin is non-existent if Brady can't get under center, and then you may simply see more two-tight end looks. Using tempo with this bigger personnel could also be wise. If the Patriots get defenders on the field they want to throw against, they could prevent the Jags from subbing by hurrying to the line of scrimmage. 

2) Joe Thuney's ability to handle power rushes on the interior could determine how smoothly the Patriots offense runs.
The Jaguars front is their biggest threat to Tom Brady. Jacksonville's coverage players are talented, but there should be windows to throw. If Brady doesn't have time to find the windows because of a dogged pass-rush, though, it won't matter. Thuney could be the key. Why? Calais Campbell, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, has seen 58 percent of his pass-rushing snaps come from the defensive right, according to Pro Football Focus. If that continues, he'll see his fair share of Nate Solder and -- in sub situations when he kicks inside -- Thuney on the offensive left. Along with the vastly underrated Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks and a league-high six forced fumbles, but he's not a Pro Bowler or All-Pro), who rushes off the defensive right 77.5 percent of the time, Campbell helps form as imposing a duo as Thuney and Solder have faced all season. Campbell is the real-life response to the blue beings in James Cameron's "Avatar." He's 6-foot-8, with 36-inch arms, and if he can extend on Thuney, that's a one-on-one matchup that doesn't favor the Patriots. Thuney, who carries around a green notebook full of secrets to help him on game days, has been solid of late. He hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in his last three games, but he'll have to put together one of his cleanest performances of the season to keep Brady upright Sunday.  

3) Johnson Bademosi will have big shoes to fill in the kicking game. 
When Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending injury against the Titans, that should thrust Bademosi - who was a healthy scratch last week -- back into the mix as a kick-coverage player and reserve corner for the Patriots. The Jaguars have a talented return man in Jaydon Mickens, and as a gunner, it could be on Bademosi's shoulders to make sure that the Patriots don't allow Mickens to make a game-changing play. With the focus on Matthew Slater, that should leave Bademosi with some one-on-one matchups to win on the outside. Why, you ask, is this important? The Jaguars are not a threat to consistently string together scoring drives offensively, so -- aside from scoring defensively, which they've been known to do -- they may need to exploit a breakdown in the kicking game in order to have a shot. "Mickens," Bill Belichick told this week, "as a returner, very explosive player...He's very, very explosive in the open field...They're a very explosive special teams unit."

4) For the second consecutive week, Marquis Flowers could play an important role in the defensive game plan.
His two best games with the Patriots have come against mobile quarterbacks, and Blake Bortles -- though not as athletic as Tyrod Taylor or Marcus Mariota -- would qualify. The Jaguars quarterback has recorded 123 yards rushing on 15 carries (an average of 8.2 yards per run) in two playoff games this season, and against the Bills in the Wild-Card Round, he actually ran for more yards (88) than he picked up through the air (87). Flowers has shown a knack for being able to mirror passers as he spies them from the second level, and it would come as no surprise if he was asked to do so again this weekend. The Patriots are a man coverage team. If you've watched closely, you've noticed they've played less true Cover-2 this season than they have in some others, partly because their corners are better-suited for man-to-man assignments than covering zones. By deploying Flowers (or Kyle Van Noy or someone else) as a spy, that allows Patriots defensive backs to play man-to-man on the back end. Without a spy, that would typically require more true zone in the secondary so that defensive backs could have their eyes in the backfield and spot when a quarterback takes off. If Flowers is tapped to spy again this weekend, he allows his teammates in coverage to play their game: Lock-down man-to-man.

5) Let's stick with the Patriots linebackers for this final key.
Discipline at the second level will be of vital importance against the Jaguars. Matt Patricia's unit should have little trouble stopping the run. It's a numbers game in the box, and if the Patriots commit enough resources to stoning Leonard Fournette, they should have success. Especially with the way Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Ricky Jean Francois and Trey Flowers have been playing of late. But the Jaguars are adept at using an opponent's aggressiveness against them. Whichever Patriots are at the linebacker level -- whether it's Elandon Roberts, Van Noy or Patrick Chung -- will have to be sure they read their keys and remain patient. Leaving Bortles wide-open throwing lanes is one of the few ways the Jaguars will be able to create chunk plays on Sunday, and if the Patriots are too eager to step up and fill lanes against the run, they could open themselves up to be stunned by the 23rd-rated quarterback in the NFL this season. The Jaguars passed on three of their first four plays from scrimmage against the Steelers in the Divisional Round. They picked up 53 yards on those three throws due in large part to Bortles' use of play-action.