Why Gronkowski, Bennett may be keys for Patriots defense vs. Seahawks

Why Gronkowski, Bennett may be keys for Patriots defense vs. Seahawks

FOXBORO -- When the Patriots defense is preparing for an opponent, they depend on an effective imitation game in practice. They want their quarterbacks to mimic the every move of the passer they'll face that week. Receivers should replicate the routes they've seen on film, mirroring the playing style that Patriots corners and safeties will have to worry about on game day. 


There's only so much that can be done, obviously. Not every team has someone on the roster who can make himself look like Steelers wideout Antonio Brown or Cardinals running back David Johnson. Those are unique athletic specimens that can't really be duplicated. 

The Patriots will face another one of those rare talents on Sunday night in Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham. The difference is that New England's defense has been, in a way, preparing for him since the start of training camp. 

"The great thing about us is we get to go against two great tight ends every day in practice," said safety Duron Harmon. "They've been giving us a great look at it in practice. I'm confident those two guys will have us ready to defend Jimmy Graham this week."

Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett have been fondly referred to as "small forwards" in the Patriots locker room this season, and the same could be said for Graham, who played basketball at the University of Miami before turning his focus to football. 

Like Graham, Gronkowski and Bennett both measure at least 6-foot-6. Like Graham, both Patriots tight ends are at least 260 pounds. Like Graham, the duo in New England has the strength, length and coordination to give linebackers and defensive backs fits. 

"[Graham] does everything well, really," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said this week. "He’s good after the catch. He obviously has great hands. He’s a tremendous red area and goal line type of receiver. He can hurt you vertically. You’ve got to be careful not to give him a lot of room because he can take a short play and turn it into a long run kind of like the tight ends we have. They’re never covered even when you’re draped all over them."

The Bills found that out on Monday night as Graham reeled in two seemingly impossible one-handed touchdown catches to highlight his eight-reception, 103-yard day.

"These last couple weeks man he's been rolling," Harmon said. "I really feel like he's finding his role in this offense. They utilize him a lot. They're finding different ways to get him the ball, looking to give him different mismatches . . . The biggest thing is he's just so athletic. He's big, he's fast, he's strong. He's a baketball player out there."

Kind of similar to what Harmon and his defensive teammates see every day in practice. Difficult as that daily matchup with Gronkowski and Bennett may be, they're thankful for it headed into Sunday night.

"One is a blessing," Harmon said, "but two?"

Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

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Don't pigeonhole me: How will Adrian Clayborn fit into the Patriots defense?

Looking for a two-word answer from Bill Belichick during a press conference? Ask him how a new addition to the roster might fit into the Patriots scheme. 

"We'll see," is Belichick's typical reply in those situations. 


We point that out here because it's hard to know exactly what any new player's role will be with the Patriots, particularly for an edge player like Adrian Clayborn. That spot in Belichick's defense can take on a variety of roles, from pass-rusher, to edge-setter, to coverage player. 

But we can take an educated guess as to how Clayborn will fit in the Patriots defense, based on what we know. That's what the Patriots did when they signed him. They saw certain skills. They saw Clayborn perform in certain situations. They made their projection. 

There's always the chance Clayborn asserts himself in a way that wasn't expected. Or maybe the way he fits with his new teammates will open his coaches' eyes in ways they weren't anticipating. But at this point, as is the case with every new addition, they're hypothesizing. So we will too. 

AGAINST THE PASS: Clayborn was, for the vast majority of his snaps, a pass-rusher for the Falcons last year. He played 631 snaps for the Falcons, which was 53.4 of their defensive snaps. Of those 631 plays, Clayborn rushed the quarterback 477 times, per Pro Football Focus (76 percent of his workload). And of those pass-rush snaps, only one came from the left side. (Clayborn was born with Erb's palsy, which means his right arm has some limitations compared to his left, which impacts the side of the field he aligns on. He played 91 percent of his snaps from the right side in 2016.)  Clayborn played over 80 percent of the snaps during each of his first three seasons in the league as a member of the Bucs so he's been a three-down player before. But recent history would suggest the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder is now more of a sub option.

Here's how Clayborn responded during a conference call on Wednesday when asked if he could chip in on first and second down for the Patriots. "I believe that’s what people have pigeon-holed me in as a third-down player, but I know I can play first, second, third down if need be," he said. "That was my role in Atlanta because that’s what they asked me to do, but I mean, I can play all three downs if you ask me."

AGAINST THE RUN: According to Pro Football Focus, Clayborn has been a negatively-graded player against the run during each of his seven seasons in the NFL. Last year he checked in as PFF's 78th-ranked run defender among edge players, which was far below the ranking Trey Flowers received (19th) but ahead of Deatrich Wise (85th) and Eric Lee (96th). During each of his last three seasons with the Falcons, he has seen his snap-counts break down similarly: about 75 percent of his work came against the pass, about 25 percent came against the run. He can defend the run. He's capable of it. He just hasn't been asked to consistently hold up on the edge on a down-in-down-out basis during the most recent phase of his career. 

THE FIT: Based on his history in Atlanta, it would make sense if the Patriots asked Clayborn to come off of the right edge in passing situations in 2018. That's where his recent experience has been. Keeping him away from the left side not only makes the most of where he's strongest, but it also keeps him from finding himself in coverage. As Belichick has explained in the past, the left end spot (Rob Ninkovich's old spot), going against right-handed quarterbacks, is typically asked to do more in coverage. The right edge has been Flowers' area in the recent past -- he played almost 65 percent of his passing-rush snaps last season off the right, per PFF -- but if the Patriots are fully-healthy up front, Flowers could kick inside to do his rushing. An ideal sub package for the Patriots, it could be argued, would have Clayborn on the right edge, Flowers and either Wise or Adam Butler on the interior, and Derek Rivers or Dont'a Hightower on the left edge. Rivers saw some work off the left side before suffering an injury in last year's training camp. Early last season, Hightower saw time on the left edge. 


Clayborn will have an opportunity to show he can do more than rush off the right side. He said on Wednesday that the Patriots have discussed multiple roles for him. (Perhaps he could rush from the interior, though he's not as long as Flowers or Wise, whose arms make them good matchups for stouter guards and tackles.) Wherever those opportunities come, Clayborn knows he'll have to make the most of them if he doesn't want to be pigeonholed. The deal for two years and $10 million he just signed in New England doesn't guarantee him myriad responsibilities.

"Whatever I can prove I can do,” he said. "I know I can rush the passer. I know I can set edge in the run. I mean, there’s a couple of different positions that they believe I can play, so it’s up to me to prove I can play them."


Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

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Ex-Patriot Ricky Jean-Francois signing with Lions

Former Patriots defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois is signing with the Lions, according to Jordan Schultz of Yahoo Sports.

The 31-year-old had six tackles in six games for the Patriots in 2017. He'll reunite with ex-Patriots defensive coordinator and now Lions head coach Matt Patricia in Detroit.