Patriots

Watson's scrambling frustrates Patriots . . . and now, here comes Newton

Watson's scrambling frustrates Patriots . . . and now, here comes Newton

FOXBORO -- Trey Flowers sat in front of his locker after Sunday's win over the Texans and shook his head as he looked down at his feet. It was almost as if he was wondering how he could've made himself quicker in order to better track down quarterback Deshaun Watson.

"Yeah," he said, "he's slippery, man."

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The Texans arrived in New England with a terrific defense. That much was well-known. The Patriots understood they'd have a lot to handle on that side of the ball in JJ Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney and Bernardrick McKinney -- a group Bill Belichick called "The Big Four" after the game. 

And while the Patriots respected Watson's athleticism after seeing him up close in joint practices in West Virginia last month, the rookie out of Clemson caught them off guard with how he was able to use his escapability in order to extend plays and pick up key gains with his arm. 

"He’s tough, man," said Devin McCourty. "When you’re in the secondary, you look back there and it looks like you got him a couple times, and then he breaks out, he goes left, he goes right. He made a lot of plays, and I think it was kind of the next step for him because, you know, we watched his Cincinnati film and it was kind of like . . . no one open. He tucked and then he made a play with his legs, which he did a little bit of that today, but he was able to kind of move left and right a little bit and then get his eyes back downfield, which puts a lot of pressure on us defensively. That guy is going to be a great quarterback."

Watson went 22-for-33 with 301 yards passing, two touchdowns and two picks (one of which came on a Hail Mary on the game's last play). He also ran for 41 yards on eight carries. Along the way, Watson put together a handful of eye-popping plays that had Patriots defenders wondering what they could've done better.

SECOND QUARTER, 9:40 REMAINING, 3RD AND 5, 6-YARD SCRAMBLE

Working on right guard Greg Mancz, Patriots rookie defensive tackle Adam Butler learned just how quickly Watson moves in and out of the pocket. After hitting the deck on initial contact, Butler got to his feet and looked like he might have a shot at tackling Watson for a sack. 

Instead, Watson blew by Butler to convert a first down. 

"He's just a talented player, man . . . He's just one exceptional guy out of all the quarterbacks," Butler said. "He's similar to Cam Newton. A little bit more shifty. The guy made plays on his feet. Can't take anything away from him."

SECOND QUARTER, 7:52 REMAINING, THIRD AND 10, 4-YARD PASS

Watson wasn't able to keep the chains moving on this third-down play, but it was impressive nonetheless. After buying himself some time in the pocket, Watson found running back Tyler Ervin in a one-on-one situation with Patrick Chung. 

His only problem was that Patriots rookie end Deatrich Wise was draped on his legs. It didn't seem to matter as Watson hit Ervin for a gain of four, keeping the subsequent field-goal attempt at the 40-yard range. Had he taken the sack, Ka'imi Fairbairn would have been lining up a kick that was more in the range of 50 yards.

Two plays before this one, Watson dropped more than 20 yards straight behind the line of scrimmage to avoid the rush and found Ryan Griffin back at the line for no gain. Chalk it up as another play that saved the eventual field-goal attempt.

"It does get frustrating at times," Wise admitted later. "You see that you have him in vision and all of a sudden he’s somewhere else and everybody is hopping over each other. It kind of gets frustrating, but you just have to be more technically sound."

Fairbairn's eventual field goal made the score 14-13.

SECOND QUARTER, 1:50 REMAINING, 2ND AND 6, 5-YARD SCRAMBLE

Flowers earned his third sack of the season in the fourth quarter, shoving Watson out of bounds while racing from his spot in coverage in the flat. Flowers probably thought he had his fourth with 1:50 left in the second quarter. 

The third-year end out of Arkansas won off the snap and muscled his way into the Texans backfield. He had a free shot at Watson. Despite getting a good grip on him (pictured above), Flowers couldn't wrestle him to the ground. And to make matters worse, Flowers collided with Wise and was spotted limping after the play. 

"That’s just football these days," Flowers said when asked about chasing Watson. "You got a lot of athletic and mobile quarterbacks, so you think your job is done once you defeat the offensive lineman, but you got another job just to get a guy like him down and kind of chase him. We knew what he was capable of coming into this game. We were just trying to put as much pressure on him and make him look at us as much as possible. You know when he’s looking at us [the defense], he’s not looking downfield."

THIRD QUARTER, 9:53 REMAINING, 2ND AND 22, 35-YARD PASS

Part of the reason Watson is playing so early into his rookie season is that the Texans offensive line is so porous that it rarely gave pocket-passer Tom Savage an opportunity to sit back and make a comfortable throw. That's still the case with Watson, but his legs allow him to find wherever the open space exists and play from there. 

With just under 10 minutes left in the third quarter, after being quickly flushed from the pocket, that open space was about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and outside the tackle box, near the Gillette Stadium turf's painted numbers. 

Despite having Lawrence Guy in his face -- and taking a bone-rattling hit from Guy immediately after he threw -- Watson found tight end Ryan Griffin on the opposite side of the field for a 35-yard gain and a first down. 

"He scrambled left one time and threw all the way across his body back to the right, which everyone says you shouldn’t do, and he threw a perfect pass," McCourty said. "We’ve got a lot of work because next week, I mean, that guy coming in here can do that better than anyone in the NFL. That’s something, obviously, we’ve got to keep working on. We talked about it, but it’s tough. He’s a good player."

McCourty, like Adam Butler, saw shades of Cam Newton in Watson's game. They weren't the only ones.

"He’s a handful," said Malcolm Butler. "Running around, people diving at him, missing him . . . That’s an [up-and-coming] Cam Newton."

FOURTH QUARTER, 5:21 REMAINING, 1ST AND 20, 31-YARD PASS

Perhaps Watson's most impressive play was one of his last. Running for much of the afternoon in near 90-degree temperatures in Foxboro, he still had enough gas left in the tank to make four Patriots miss on a first-and-20 play late in the fourth quarter. 

First, it was Malcom Brown who was robbed of a sack. Adam Butler, Kyle Van Noy and Guy all had their shots as well. But Watson got away, he found running back D'Onta Foreman in open space, and he let the rookie running back rumble for 31 yards. 

"It's frustrating when he just does that little head fake," Butler said after the game. "That's enough to make you stutter for that quick second for him to escape. It's definitely frustrating. You have the whole job of defeating the offensive line in the first place. Then you have a whole other job to get this guy down."

The Patriots admitted after the game that Watson's talent was unmistakable, but they also acknowledged that many of his big plays were because of mistakes they made, and they know they have plenty of work ahead of them before seeing the Panthers in Week 4.

"It’s just a constant work in progress," McCourty said. "We’ve just got to keep after it. No plays are the same. We gave up some big plays on this guy scrambling and throwing it back, which is not the drop back, throw it down the field, pick play or something like that -- which, we fixed that today -- but that’s the NFL. It’s always going to be something new. 

"I think today, obviously, was a tough test with Watson, but it doesn’t get easier next week with Cam Newton. So, I think the good thing is we’ll get to break this film down and we have to be highly critical of how we played against Watson because we’re going to see something similar next Sunday."

Rob Gronkowski: I met with Bill Belichick to tell him I'm in for 2018

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AP Photo

Rob Gronkowski: I met with Bill Belichick to tell him I'm in for 2018

Rob Gronkowski is just days removed from one of the strangest press conferences in the history of Gillette Stadium. First he said he wasn't sure if he was playing for the Patriots in 2018, then he said he wasn't sure when he would decide, then he said he'd be a "freek-a-leek" when he comes back . . .

On Tuesday he washed away any uncertainty about his future with one Instagram post. 

"I met with coach today," he wrote, "and informed him I will be back for the 2018 season with the Pats. I have been working out, staying in shape and feel great. Looking forward to another championship run."

Staying consistent with his social-media posts from this offseason, Gronkowski finished off the caption with "#bandsamakeherdance."

During Gronkowski's Monster Energy appearance on Saturday, he said he did not plan to attend optional Patriots workouts. It remains to be seen as to whether or not Bill Belichick, during their meeting, encouraged him to be present for those moving forward this offseason. 

Even if Gronkowski doesn't work out at Gillette with his teammates before mandatory minicamp, it seems as though if there was any friction between the tight end and the coach, that has been smoothed over to the point that Gronkowski is comortable announcing publicly that he'll be in New England for next season. 

More to come . . .

Prototypical Patriots: Could Belichick dip into 'Bama pipeline for interior DL help?

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USA TODAY Sports Photo

Prototypical Patriots: Could Belichick dip into 'Bama pipeline for interior DL help?

As we take a look at some of the interior defensive linemen in this year's draft class, it's worth questioning what exactly the Patriots are looking for. 

Bill Belichick obviously has a long list of draft picks at that spot -- as he does at every spot; he's been at it for almost 20 years in New England after all -- but there's a little more uncertainty up front for the Patriots than there has been lately. 

The reason? Belichick's defensive coordinator of the last half-dozen seasons is now the head coach in Detroit. 

When Matt Patricia took over the defense in 2011 (he didn't get the coordinator title until the next season), he helped transition the Patriots from a 3-4 team to more of a 4-3 team. Belichick and Patricia deployed multiple fronts over the years together, but there was a change in styles when Patricia took the reins. 

The Patriots are now entering into the Brian Flores era defensively, it seems. As was the case with Patricia in 2011, Flores doesn't have the coordinator title, but if it's his defense, what will that look like? Will he prefer 4-3 looks and the personnel required to play that style? Or will he turn back the clock to pre-2011 and shift to more of a 3-4 approach? 

If Flores and Belichick roll with what the Patriots have done in recent years, odds are they'll look for athletic big men in the 320-pound range who can play a variety of techniques along the interior. 

If they're looking to go with a 3-4 style, they may want more powerful, 300-pound five-technique types who can play defensive end in those fronts. Lawrence Guy guys, if you will. Adding another true nose tackle -- for depth behind newly-acquired 335-pounder Danny Shelton -- could be on the to-do list as well. 

Time will tell when it comes to how the Patriots will mix up their fronts. We may have to wait for the team to get on the field to get a good grip on their plans for 2018. But the players they draft for the defensive line could serve as clues as to Flores and Belichick's intentions.

PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS - Previously in the series:



PROTOTYPES IN RANGE


VITA VEA, WASHINGTON, 6-4, 347 POUNDS

The premier defensive tackle in this class, Vea is the prototypical nose tackle for a 3-4 defense. He could go somewhere in the teens, which would put him out of reach of the Patriots unless they were willing to trade up for him. He's a superb athlete for his size (5.10-second 40) and he put up a whopping 41 bench reps at the combine. 

DA'RON PAYNE, ALABAMA, 6-2, 311 POUNDS

With good length (33-inch arms) and solid testing numbers (4.95-second 40, 107-inch broad), Payne's combine only helped to buttress what teams saw from his tape. He'll be one of the first interior linemen taken in the draft -- maybe in the first round -- and he could conceivably help the Patriots as a 4-3 defensive tackle on first and second down. He's not quite as tall as the 3-4 ends the Patriots have taken in the past, but his combination of size and athleticism should allow him to shift up and down the line however Belichick, Flores and defensive line coach Brendan Daly see fit. 

DA'SHAWN HAND, ALABAMA, 6-4, 297 POUNDS

Big-time five-technique talent. Has all the length (34 3/8-inch arms) and power the Patriots could ever want. His athleticism is ideal as well (4.83-second 40, 31.5-inch vertical, 111-inch broad). The question with Hand is how his motor runs. If Belichick gets a strong scouting report from Saban as it relates to the consistency of Hand's effort, he looks like someone the Patriots could nab in the second or third round if they're looking to play more 3-4 fronts.

TAVEN BRYAN, FLORIDA, 6-5, 291 POUNDS

Bryan is athletic enough to play anywhere along the defensive line. He did his best work as an explosive and quick interior disruptor for the Gators, but his size and movement skills (4.98-second 40 time, 35-inch vertical, 119-inch broad, 7.12 three-cone) should allow him to kick out every so often. Bryan, who is the son of a Navy SEAL, is a little raw but will be in all likelihood a first-round pick. 

MAURICE HURST, MICHIGAN, 6-1, 292 POUNDS

Hurst doesn't exactly fit the profile of the big hard-to-move tackle or the long-and-powerful five-technique . . . but his quickness off the snap and his ridiculous level of production for the Wolverines could have Belichick interested. The Xaverian Brothers (Westwood, Mass.) product will have to check out medically after leaving the combine with a heart issue, but if he's available late in the first round, the Patriots could pounce. Like the undersized-but-quick Dominique Easley in 2014, Hurst might be viewed as talented enough to stray from the Patriots prototype. 

HARRISON PHILLIPS, STANFORD, 6-3, 307 POUNDS

Long (33 7/8-inch arms), strong (42 bench reps of 225 pounds) and athletic (32-inch vertical), Phillips should be able to play a variety of techniques along the Patriots defensive line. He comes from a well-respected program, and for a defense that will change things up on the fly, he could be viewed as an ideal fit. 

JALYN HOLMES, OHIO STATE, 6-5, 283 POUNDS

Holmes is a little light to play as a 3-4 end, but if the Patriots have a good feel for how he'll develop (and they should after Holmes played under Urban Meyer and Greg Schiano), they could have a long (34-inch arms) and athletic (4.82-second 40) five-technique on their hands. 

NATHAN SHEPHERD, FORT HAYS STATE, 6-4, 315 POUNDS

A very good athlete for his size, Shepherd checks just about every physical marker the Patriots look for. He recorded a 5.09-second 40, a 31-inch vertical and a 7.5-second three-cone drill. The level of competition Shepherd faced won't do him any favors in NFL war rooms, but his ability to move all over a defensive line -- is he a five-technique end or a true defensive tackle? -- and his performance at the Senior Bowl will. 

BREELAND SPEAKS, OLE MISS, 6-3, 283 POUNDS

The Patriots reportedly had Speaks in for one of their top-30 visits, which could serve as an indication that they're interested in another five-technique. Speaks could, in theory, play inside in a 4-3 . . . but he's built more like a 3-4 end. He's a little shorter than what the Patriots have traditionally drafted at that spot, but he has good length (33 3/4-inch arms) and he's a very good athlete (4.87-second 40, 32.5-inch vertical, 110-inch broad jump). Late on Day 2 or early Day 3, he could get a call from One Patriot Place. 

FOLEY FATUKASI, UCONN, 6-4, 318 POUNDS

Fatukasi has all of the size (34 1/8-inch arms, 10 1/4-inch hands) and athleticism (30-inch vertical, 7.44-second three-cone) to be able to play multiple different positions along Belichick's front. He looks best suited to align as a 4-3 defensive tackle or an end in a 3-4. That kind of malleability could make him a choice late on Day 2 or early Day 3. 

TIM SETTLE, VIRGINIA TECH, 6-3, 321 POUNDS

Settle's combination of size and athleticism pops off the screen at times, but he didn't test as athletically as his best tape looked (23.5-inch vertical, 5.37-second 40). Still, he's a young prospect who has the size and movement skills -- if he can get better at maintaining his balance -- to fit in either a 3-4 or a 4-3. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared Settle to Vince Wilfork

BJ HILL, NC STATE, 6-3, 311 POUNDS

Hill is an interesting case. He's as athletic as the Patriots need up front (4.99-second 40, 26.5-inch vertical, 7.28-second three-cone) but finding a fit for him size-wise is a little bit of a challenge. He's not quite as tall as most five-techniques the Patriots have selected in the past. And he's not quite as heavy as the true defensive tackles they've taken. Hill's explosiveness may get him drafted in the second round, but would the Patriots be willing to pull the trigger on him then. Belichick was on hand for Hill's pro day and seemed to had some interest in the big fella, according to former assistant to the Patriots coaching staff and current Ringer analyst Mike Lombardi. 

DERRICK NNADI, FLORIDA STATE, 6-1, 317 POUNDS

Nnadi looks like a 4-3 defensive tackle rather than a true nose in a 3-4, where he'd probably get swallowed up at the next level. With his effort-level as his staple, he was named a third-team all-ACC selection last year and a first-teamer the year prior. As an early Day 3 selection, Nnadi might be worth a pick due to his strength and his motor. 

KENDRICK NORTON, MIAMI, 6-3, 314 POUNDS

Belichick was the only head coach in attendance at Miami's pro day, and it should come as no surprise that he gravitated toward the defensive linemen. As he did at NC State and Georgia, he put the big boys up front through a series of bag drills. Norton looks like he could be a fit on the interior for Belichick given his frame and massive hands (10 3/4 inches). RJ McIntosh (6-4, 286 pounds) is worthy of a mention here as well since he's viewed as athletic enough to play as a 4-3 end on first and second down. If he improves his play strength, he may also have the ability to play as a 3-4 end. Chad Thomas is another talent on Miami's front to keep an eye on, but at 6-5, 281 pounds he doesn't exactly fit the profile of any interior linemen (or ends) the Patriots have drafted in the past. 

JOHN ATKINS, GEORGIA, 6-3, 321 POUNDS

Atkins has the size the Patriots are looking for, and his power flashed against SEC competition. As a Day 3 option, if the Patriots feel they need a space-eater, he could offer enough on and off the field -- he's considered a strong locker-room presence -- to hear his name called. 

JOSHUA FRAZIER, ALABAMA, 6-3, 321 POUNDS

Another big body (34 1/4-inch arms, 10-inch hands) from the SEC who could be had at the end of the draft or as an undrafted free agent, Frazier's a run-stuffing prospect that Nick Saban had relatively little (game-day) use for in Tuscaloosa. He played in less than 18 percent of his team's snaps in 2016 and 2017, per NFL.com. 

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