Patriots

Patriots facing a defensive switch from Steelers

steelers-090714.jpg

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."

Patriots-Falcons practice report: Gilmore (concussion/ankle) still out with Falcons, Jones on deck

patriots_brandin_cooks_stephon_gilmore_072517.jpg

Patriots-Falcons practice report: Gilmore (concussion/ankle) still out with Falcons, Jones on deck

FOXBORO -- The Patriots are looking thin in the secondary as they head into their third and final day of practice before Sunday's matchup with the Falcons. 

Both Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle) and Eric Rowe (groin) sat out the session, as did linebacker Elandon Roberts (ankle). Undrafted rookie defensive end Harvey Langi was also a non-participant as he recovers from injuries sustained in a car crash last week. 

Asked if Friday's practice was a possibility, Gilmore said, "We'll see." He did not give any indications that his symptoms had improved or that he had been cleared for practice as he works through the league's concussion protocol. 

Rowe was spotted in the locker room on Thursday, but he has not practiced since aggravating his groin injury in Week 4. He was injured initially during a Week 2 win over the Saints. 

Roberts suffered an ankle injury when teammate Alan Branch landed on his lower leg during a loss to the Panthers in Week 4. However, he was healthy enough to play in Weeks 5 and 6. It's unclear as to whether or not his current ailment is related to what knocked him from that Week 4 loss to Carolina. 

Here is Thursday's practice participation/injury report for Sunday's game between the Patriots and Falcons:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle)
LB Harvey Langi (back)
LB Elandon Roberts (ankle)
CB Eric Rowe (groin)

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
RB Rex Burkhead (ribs)
WR Chris Hogan (ribs)
G Shaq Mason (shoulder)

ATLANTA FALCONS

DID NOT PARTICIPATE
LB Jordan Tripp

LIMITED PARTICIPATION
OLB Vic Beasley Jr. (hamstring)
K Matt Bryant (back)
LB Jermaine Grace (hamstring)
LB Deion Jones (quadricep)
DE Takk McKinley (shoulder)
LB Duke Riley (knee)
WR Mohamed Sanu (hamstring)
DL Courtney Upshaw (ankle/knee)

Patriots' team personality changed by offseason moves, and not for better

cp-spark-belichick-101917.jpg

Patriots' team personality changed by offseason moves, and not for better

Bill Belichick has long been a proponent of altering his team's DNA from season to season. It cuts down on complacency, and also allows the head coach to be correct when he says last year doesn't matter to this year's Patriots. It can't, after all. What can players like Stephon Gilmore, Brandin Cooks or Lawrence Guy, who were on other rosters in other cities and -- in some cases -- other divisions or other conferences, know about last year's Pats? The answer is nothing, or next to nothing. Just the way Belichick prefers.

But last offseason's turnover may have done more harm than good, at least to this point in the year. Yes, the Pats have shown a toughness and an ability to overcome adversity -- see the start versus the Jets and the comeback against the Texans -- but there are clear indicators this group isn't gelling like Belichick believed it would. 

MORE PATRIOTS

Much of that points to the unusual approach taken by the coach and the front office in free agency. Whether it was the quick-strike signing of Gilmore to an expensive contract, to the surrendering of another first-rounder -- this time by choice -- in the trade for Cooks, or even the decision to walk away from fan favorite LeGarrette Blount in favor of younger, less proven backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, much of what Belichick was trying to do has yet to bear the necesssary fruit. And it's not just on the field where the Pats have shown deficiencies; it's in the locker room and meeting rooms as well.

Start with the bold move to get an in-his-prime Gilmore. Signing a player considered in some circles to be a No. 1 corner makes all the sense in the world. But what perplexed many was the decision to pay an outsider over Malcolm Butler, a proven player not only in this system, but in the biggest of games. Gilmore doesn't have that pedigree because his former team, the Bills, never made the playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl. 

Butler's anger at the decision and the way the rest of his offseason played out has been well-documented in this space {http://www.nbcsports.com/boston/new-england-patriots/new-england-patriots-mike-giardi-malcom-butler-wanted-new-orleans-he-wanted-them-badly}. But what hasn't in many other spaces is the acknowledgement that it still wears on Butler to this day. 

His play is back on the uptick after a reduction of snaps in Week 2, but Butler has always been a player to whom the team has devoted extra attention to get ready week to week. That may have factored in the Pats' decision to only go so far in contract talks. Why then would Belichick assume Butler would be the perfect professional when Gilmore gets what Butler believes is his money? The thought seems to run counter with the argument against keeping Butler longterm in the first place. 

Butler says his relationship with Gilmore is good, that he's glad to have him as a teammate. Perhaps the 28-year-old has come to that now. Perhaps. 

As for Gilmore, he's soft-spoken. That has occasionally come off as though he's a player lacking confidence. His performance against Tampa Bay was a step in the right direction, but it was immediately followed by a day-before-the-game scratch against the Jets because of a concussion that was either suffered late in the week or was unreported until Saturday. His sudden absence put the Patriots in a bind. The fact that Gilmore spoke up was the right thing to do, but if it could have been communicated earlier it should have been, for the good of both player and team. Now he must reassert himself, whenever that opportunity comes.

"[You] grow together as team based on those experiences; some good, some bad, but learning from all of them," Belichick said when I asked him about a team's personality evolving over the course of the year. "I mean, we've only had one roster change since the start of the season but that's certainly on the low side. I would anticipate that there would be roster changes during the course of the year like there always are for every team and so that affects the makeup of the team, the interactions of the team. Maybe that's the personality you're talking about."

Belichick has a tendency to not only remember your last game, but -- if warranted -- hold it against you. Blount would be a prime example. He rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns last year but his play in the Super Bowl was poor. So despite his production on the field and his popularity off, the Pats had no inclination to offer LGB a raise. In fact, they were fine with him walking away, and that's exactly what he did. Gillislee and Burkhead were tabbed as replacement parts, and on paper it looked great. It still may end that way. But neither player has provided a) a level of play equivalent to Blount's and b) the energy that Blount brought. And that latter part of the equation is incredibly important. Just ask the Eagles, who get a jolt from Blount every time he lowers his shoulder and runs over a defender. 

The same could hold true for others who fled, were allowed to leave, or never got the chance to come back: 

-- Martellus Bennett could be a pain in the ass but there was never a dull moment around him, and no one can deny the loquacious tight end was an energy player both on and off the field. 

-- Logan Ryan had been through so much with the Pats, both good and bad. He had no problem talking, not just to his teammates but to the other side as well. He had earned his teammates' trust. 

-- Chris Long had an excellent relationship with so many guys on the team, and while he wouldn't be considered a "personality" in the same mold as Blount, he was incredibly well-respected for his professionalism and for his sacrifice, many times playing out of position. 

Then throw in the retirement of old standby Rob Ninkovich and, of course, the season-ending injury to Julian Edelman. If you didn't understand before, you should know now just how much each player is missed. 

It's now up to the newcomers, and some of the holdovers, to elevate their level and find their voice, both on the field and in that room. And that may also be a part of the early issue. These "new" players -- Cooks, Gilmore, Gillislee, Burkhead, Guy -- are, for the moment, quiet. Perhaps they're concerned about stepping on toes, but at some point that may be needed.

"Look, everybody's a shareholder on the team," Belichick said. "It's not one person's team. It belongs to all of us and we try to make it as functional, as effective and as competitive as we possibly can. So, that's what the goal is, to win every game that we play and to have a good season and to make the most out of every day and every opportunity that we have. 

"I don't know if that answers the question or not, but I'm trying."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE