Patriots

Patriots facing a defensive switch from Steelers

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Patriots facing a defensive switch from Steelers

For the first time since 2003, longtime Steelers fixture Dick LeBeau isn't on their sidelines. After a disappointing year, LeBeau was forced out last offseason. Pittsburgh didn’t stray too far, promoting assistant Keith Butler to LeBeau's defensive-coordinator role, and he'll be calling the signals in the Steelers' opener against the Patriots at Gillette on  Thursday night.

Already, there are signs of change. Yes, the Steelers will still employ a base 3-4 defense, but there will be wrinkles, something Butler promised in an interview earlier this summer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“There will be some things that are different, yes,” said Butler, who has used some 4-3 this summer. “We have to try to marry the things that we did well last year and maybe some things that we haven’t done before here, we’re going to try to do those.”

Such as?

“I’ll let the Patriots figure that out when we play them,’’ he said.

I asked Bill Belichick how the Patriots preparation will change, considering they not only knew LeBeau’s defense, but repeatedly thrived against it.

“Coach Butler is a very experienced coach,” Beliohick said. “He’s worked under Coach LeBeau for 11 years. That goes all the way back with [head coach Mike] Tomlin back to Arkansas State, so they have a long history together. How it’s all going to unfold, I’m not sure. Obviously, we’ve seen what we’ve seen in preseason, and that’s definitely something to go off of, but I’m sure they’ll have some specific game-plan things that they want to do against us, and we won’t know those until the game starts.”

Tom Brady acknowledged that as well, during a conference call with the Pittsburgh media.

“There might be a few things that are different, but a lot of it’s the same,” he said. “I think the philosophy of playing Steeler defense is definitely still there. They’ve always been one of the toughest, most physical teams that you play in all levels of the defense and that’s still the way it is. It’s a very big, physical front, powerful, athletic linebackers that seem like they all have great instincts out there and a secondary that can definitely make plays.”

Brady had a habit of carving up the zone blitzes that were a Steeler/LeBeau trademark. But he’s not foolish enough to assume past success means the same will happen Thursday.

“This night is going to be a lot different,” he said. “They’ve got a tough scheme and with a new defensive coordinator. I’m sure they’ll have some new wrinkles. It’s a big challenge. We’ve had a couple challenging days of practice trying to get ready for their different blitz packages.”

If they can handle those blitz packages, and adapt quickly to the new “wrinkles”, the results will be what we’ve come to expect. But the unknowns that come with the opener still loom large.

“I think the unknown is just how teams will perform as teams -- our team or anybody else’s team at this point,” said Belichick. “We just haven’t seen the same kind of competitive situation that we’re going to see on Thursday night where teams are game planning and teams are pulling out all stops to do everything they can do to win. They’re not looking at players. They’re trying to play their best players and do their best things and really see how all that works out. I think that’s an unknown that will last for several weeks into the regular season until teams start to really establish what they can and can’t do on a consistent basis. That’s true of all 32 teams in my opinion."

Gronk question now makes tight end a position of need

Gronk question now makes tight end a position of need

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today. we're looking at a position where the Patriots have arguably the best player that’s ever manned it in his presumed prime. But tight end is suddenly a tenuous spot for New England.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


This became – contrary to the Patriots hopes – a one-man position. Rob Gronkowski had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games. The rest of the tight ends – Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister and Martellus Bennett – combined for 20 catches and six of those came from Bennett who played just two games before heading to injured reserve. Gronk was – and is – the best tight end in the game and one of its most dominating offensive weapons. After losing Julian Edelman in the preseason, the Patriots offense became tremendously Gronk-reliant. They got away with it. But they clearly wanted more from Dwayne Allen than what they got or they wouldn’t have gone after Bennett when he became available.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Martellus Bennett, Will Tye, Jacob Hollister

WHO IS NOT?
All tight ends on the roster are under contract.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Publicity grab or legitimate consideration? What exactly to make of Gronk’s reported dalliance with the WWE and his idle desire to be an action movie star (also reported)? Both have the earmarks of brand-building genius. It’s a page torn from the business plans of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Sugar Ray Leonard or Conor McGregor – ruminating on retirement and expressing interest in other public pursuits exponentially ratchets up public interest in both the main gig and the potential side gig. Gronk himself might not be that savvy and calculating to mildly hold the Patriots fortunes hostage but Gronk Inc. certainly is. Then again, maybe he legitimately is weighing it. The “will he or won’t he” conversation will sustain buzz and has to in some way impact the Patriots’ offseason plans. The presumption has to be that Gronk returns but this is anything but a layup. Which means the need is a Level-8

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There is a nice crop of tight ends hitting the market. Virtually all of them come with the same nagging health issues that Gronk has (had). Jimmy Graham is the biggest name in the group. His tepid blocking skills may make him unattractive to the Patriots, but never let it be said the Pats don’t like to take a flier on a once-electric player who’s on the backside. At 31, Graham’s coming off a 10-touchdown season, though his yards per catch went down to 9.1. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see New England pursue. The Eagles' second tight end, Trey Burton, is 26 and stuck behind Zach Ertz. An undrafted rookie, the kid who threw the touchdown pass to Nick Foles in the Super Bowl is targeted sparingly in Philly but is a smooth player. He also plays special teams (boing!). Austin Sefarian-Jenkins finally got his stuff together with the Jets in 2017 and he’s only 25. He’s no dummy, he’s only acted like one in the past and it seems like he’s got a handle on it now. He’d need face-to-face vetting but he’s got upside. Then there’s Tyler Eifert. Still just 27, Eifert’s played in 10 games the past two seasons and had season-ending back surgery in the fall (it was performed by the same doctor who treated Gronk). He’s played 39 games in five seasons. Terrific talent. Always broken.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


I like this Dallas Goedert kid from South Dakota State. Also, Dalton Schultz from Stanford gets checkmarks as a blocker and competent receiver. Neither of them are first-round prospects at this point. Hayden Hurst from South Carolina and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews are regarded as the top prospects. Hurst is a very good pass-catcher with a huge catch radius. He’s a 24-year-old former Pittsburgh Pirates draftee. Andrews is smooth as a receiver but not seen as a potent blocker. Same with Mike Gesicki from Penn State who’s the best athlete along with Hurst but doesn’t impress with his blocking.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Assuming Gronk is returning, the Patriots can go at it a number of ways. There’s not a “can’t miss” prospect out there, so drafting Hurst or Gesicki in the first couple of rounds means they’ll have to live with the shortcomings or hope they can improve them. Given other needs, they may not want to spend on “maybes” near the top of the draft. Too many drafts have been like that, especially with second-rounders. It seems unlikely they’ll be really interested in counting on either Allen or Bennett to provide anything in 2018. If they take a run at the Eagles’ Burton and pay him a crapload, Gronk will lose his mind. Screw it. They should take Hurst. We will change our minds several times between now and April but that’s where we are now.

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Julian Edelman posts video of resistance-band training

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Julian Edelman posts video of resistance-band training

Julian Edelman is grinding.

The New England Patriots receiver, who is recovering from an ACL repair surgery that ended his 2017 season, shared a quick video from his workout on Tuesday. Edelman is shown running with a resistance band and a trainer in-tow.

Edelman has posted a few tidbits on social media to show encouraging signs during his recovery since he got surgery in October after suffering an ACL tear in a preseason game. He was spotted around the locker room a few times during the final weeks of the 2017 season.

"Rehab is a [expletive]. It sucks," Edelman said in November on Barstool Sports' "Pardon My Take podcast." "You go in and you’re feeling decent and then you warm up, you beat it up and then you get stiff again. I mean it’s just a process and you go in six days a week and you’re going into work it, work on everything — your flexion, your extension."