Patriots

Patriots-Saints notes: Gronkowski OK after scary moment

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Patriots-Saints notes: Gronkowski OK after scary moment

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The Patriots and the Saints competed in the first of two joint practices on Wednesday morning at the Greenbrier resort.

Here are a few notes from the fully-padded session, for which Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was present:

* Scary moment early in team drills. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was lined up outside the numbers and blocking a defensive back when running back Jonas Gray tumbled into the back of Gronk’s legs. The Patriots most dangerous offensive weapon popped up fairly quickly and ambled back to the huddle. After the session, he said it was no big deal and that there was no need for him to check inventory.

* Know what else was scary? The day Patriots corner Malcolm Butler had. Arguably the team's best player in camp to this point was scorched too many times to count, be it in one-on-one situations, seven-on-seven and 11-on-11. Saints receiver Josh Morgan got him for a pair of scores by my count, and there was one drive that saw Butler targeted repeatedly by quarterback Drew Brees, surrendering a catch to receiver Brandon Coleman. There was then a blatant jersey grab that led to a pass interference call, followed by two more catches, a bomb to receiver Joseph Morgan down the sideline and a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to Morgan. Safety Jordan Richards was also a little late getting over to help Butler along the back line on the Morgan score, but the Patriots appeared to be in man coverage.

* Defensively, coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia continue to play games with their secondary. Lining up in a 3-3-5 set, they had Butler and Devin McCourty playing outside the numbers with a rotation of safeties that including Pat Chung, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon and Richards. Chung had one of those hit-or-miss days. He nicely disguised a safety blitz and would have buried Brees during 11-on-11, but he also couldn’t stay with either of the Saints two tight ends, Ben Watson or Josh Hill. Watson, a former member of the Patriots, just returned from the birth of his fifth child (holy mackeral) and was incredibly productive, prompting Brees to call him one of the Saints unsung heroes. Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo can attest. He had nice coverage on Watson down the seam but was beaten by a back shoulder throw that Watson contorted his body to corral.

* Second-year defensive lineman Dominique Easley flashed as a pass rusher on a couple of snaps, and on one of those occasions, he put interior lineman Senio Kalemete on his hindquarters. But, by and large, the Patriots didn’t seem to get any consistent push when given the opportunity, which was a carryover from how one-on-one rushes went, with the Saints winning six of the nine battles. Only Chandler Jones really dominated his matchup, slapping aside the impressive Terron Amstead.

* Meanwhile, the Saints were able to get to the feet of both Brady and second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, exploiting the interior offensive line that once again featured three rookies, left guard Shaq Mason, undrafted center David Andrews and right guard Tre’ Jackson. I counted three sacks, two coming in red-zone work. Brady also threw a ball across his body while rolling to his right. That too was in the face of pressure and I’m guessing he would have taken the sack as opposed to making such a high risk throw around the 50-yard line. There was also a touchdown pass to receiver Danny Amendola in the red zone wiped out by a pick and an offensive pass interference call. Couldn’t tell whether it was receiver Josh Boyce or Brandon Gibson but suffice to say, the coaching staff wasn’t pleased. Both Brady and Garoppolo did throw red-zone touchdowns to . . . guess who? Yep. Gronkowski.

* Brady also capped off a semi-impressive 11-on-11 drive by floating a pretty touch pass over two defenders into Amendola’s arms in the corner of the end zone. The only issue with that was Boyce was also in that exact corner, running what appeared to be the same route. Brady smiled and gently head-butted Amendola after the play but clearly someone screwed up the route.

* Garoppolo’s work early was marked by the same hesitation that has highlighted much of his camp. He went 2-for-6 in the red area and sort of meandered in the pocket on one of those attempts. The product of Eastern Illinois -- Saints coach Sean Payton's alma mater -- did close the practice with a couple of nice two-minute drives, on one of which he went 4-for-5, hitting running back Dion Lewis in the flat twice, then undrafted rookie tight end Jimmay Mundine on an out-cut a nd then a post that resulted in a score.

QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

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QUICK SLANTS PODCAST: Belichick ignoring noise? Or trying to change the narrative?

3:00 Why has Bill Belichick been so surprisingly positive of his team’s performance in tight wins?

6:30 Phil Perry breaks down what grades he gave the Patriots on his report card following the win over the Jets

15:00 Reaction to the Austin-Seferian Jenkins overturned touchdown, and what changes need to be made in the NFL replay system. 

23:00 Why was Patriots offensive line much more effective against Jets?

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

25:00 Patriots-Falcons preview, how did Falcons blow a 17 point lead to the Dolphins?

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

What's missing from Patriots? A defense that has a clue

FOXBORO - We’re not quite at the point of fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, or 40 years of darkness, or even dogs and cats living together, but this Patriots season isn’t headed down the right path, despite a 4-2 record and the top spot in the AFC East. 

There are several elements that appear missing at this juncture - chief among them a defense that actually has a clue. Please don’t celebrate holding the Jets to 17 points - I’m looking at you, Dont’a Hightower. Josh McCown threw for just 194 yards against the Cleveland freakin’ Browns for goodness sake, but he got you for 354 and two scores?! Even the 2009 Patriots defense is offended by that.

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We’d be foolish to think the Pats can’t get this leaky unit fixed for reasons so obvious I won’t state them in this space so as not to waste my time or yours. We also know - long before Bill Belichick’s 6 1/2-minute explanation on the Monday conference call - that it's not supposed to be perfect right now. Actually, it’ll never be perfect. That’s not how this game works. 

Yet week after week, we see uncommon breakdowns and one defender looking at the next as if to say, “I thought you had him?” or more to the point, “what the hell were you doing?” It started Sunday at MetLife on the third play of the game. Malcolm Butler, playing 10 yards off Robby Anderson, looking as if he’s never played the position before, inexplicably turning his back on Anderson even though the wide receiver makes no real move to the post. That results in just about the easiest completion of McCown’s life, a 23-yarder on third-and-10. 

On the same series, on another third-and-long, the Pats rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. Defensive end Cassius Marsh continued his season-long trend of rushing so far upfield he ended up in Hoboken. With Deatrich Wise ridden outside on the opposite edge, McCown wisely stepped up and found prime real estate with New York City views. He wanted to throw and could have when the Pats fouled up a crossing route from the backside of the play. But with that much room to roam, McCown took off, scooting for a quick 16 yards and another first down.

Fittingly, that drive ended with a Jets touchdown on yet another dumb play, this one courtesy of Mr. Hit or Miss, Elandon Roberts. Channeling his inner Brandon Spikes, the second-year pro blew off his key and responsibility on third-and-goal from the 1, charging hard to the line. This, despite one of the most feeble play-action fakes you’ll see. In fact, I’m not even sure it was a real play-action fake. Anyway, score it as a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins and an indictment on David Harris, who apparently can’t vault past the erratic Roberts on the depth chart.

Similar to the week prior in Tampa, the Pats found better footing after that. They forced three straight three-and-outs in the second quarter and then helped turn the game when Butler intercepted an ill-advised throw by McCown just prior to the half. They got another turnover to start the third, with Butler coming off the edge on fourth-and-1 and forcing McCown into panic mode. The veteran QB fired an off-target throw to - get this - a wide open receiver who went uncovered on a drag route and Devin McCourty was gifted an interception.

But this group frowns on prosperity. It took a little-seen rule to prevent a Seferian-Jenkins touchdown in the fourth, and on the game’s final drive, the Pats allowed a 32-yard completion on fourth-and-12. Then, on what turned out to be the Jets final play, the Pats let Tavaris Cadet leak out of the backfield and run unchecked 20 yards down the field. Had McCown not soiled himself again, Gang Green would have had a first down and at least one crack at the end zone. Then, who knows what the heck happens?

It was just a season ago that the Patriots led the entire NFL in scoring defense. If you’ll recall, we spent a better part of the year wondering if that defense was championship quality. Turns out they were. Right now, we’re wondering once again if this defense is of that ilk, but through an entirely different prism. It’s on the players and staff to change the current outlook, or those cats and dogs will have to figure out their shared space.