Patriots secondary faced with difficult balancing act


Patriots secondary faced with difficult balancing act

FOXBORO -- The Patriots are expecting different. They're expecting better. They know the Texans will try things this Sunday in their Divisional Round playoff game that they didn't in Week 14 when the Patriots rolled on Monday night, 42-14.

"It's hard to say exactly what they'll do," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said Thursday. "I'm sure they'll watch the game we had before and they'll feel differently about some things they did . . . I think the biggest thing we have to know as a defense is they're gonna play better, they're gonna be ready to go. It's the playoffs. We know they're preparing for it right now and they'll be ready."

Whatever the Texans do, running back Arian Foster figures to be very involved. He amassed over 1600 total yards and racked up 17 touchdowns during the regular season. He had 140 yards and a touchdown on 32 attempts last week in Houston's Wild Card win over the Bengals. He also caught eight balls for 34 yards.

Though it will be up to New England's front seven to keep Foster from finding lanes in Houston's signature stretch running plays, the Patriots secondary will also have to chip in and help make sure he doesn't break off huge chunks of yardage at a time.

It did a solid job of that in Week 14, holding Foster to just 46 yards rushing and a garbage-time touchdown in 15 attempts.

"He's able to break tackles. He's able to make guys miss," McCourty said of Foster. "That's when we'll be needed, when a run breaks out or something like that and we have to show up as safeties and corners, we have to do a good job of getting him to the ground. We always talk a lot about secondary members, we help each other out a lot if we just get to the ball. If we can get to the ball and gang tackle running backs when they get out into the open field, it makes it a lot easier to get those guys on the ground."

The Patriots secondary will be careful not to be too aggressive in stopping Houston's best offensive player, though. If defensive backs bite hard when they see quarterback Matt Schaub move to hand off to Foster, they could be opening themselves up to be gashed by play-action passes.

"If you watch them throughout the year, they've made big plays on that against almost every team they play," McCourty noted. "We have to realize, when we're needed in the run game, we have to show up and be there. But as players in the secondary, the pass is important to us. We gotta be able to play the pass, and those guys up front gotta rely on us to do our job when we're up there handling the run."

Schaub struggled toward the end of the regular season when Houston lost three of its last four games. In those losses, he threw three interceptions and completed just one touchdown. He doesn't have the strongest throwing arm among quarterbacks New England has faced this season, and he's not the most accurate, but he has a wide receiver in Andre Johnson who is one of the best in the NFL and can make big plays even without the help of play-action.

Johnson was second in the league in receiving yards this season with 1598, and was fourth in receptions with 112. He caught eight passes for 95 yards in Week 14.

"I think we'll just have to do a good job of staying deep when they try to throw shots down the field, and then just compete with him," McCourty said. "He's one of the best receivers in this game, and it's gonna be tough, but I think Alfonzo Dennard and myself and Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington and the guys that are gonna be on him, we just gotta do a good job of going out there and trying to make it tough on him."

On Sunday, the Texans may try a different game plan than the one they used in Week 14, but keeping Johnson in check, helping to stop Foster, and guarding against big play-action completions will all be part of a crucial balancing act for the Patriots secondary regardless of the offensive schemes they see when Houston comes to Gillette Stadium.

Blakely's takeaways: C's put entire league on notice

Blakely's takeaways: C's put entire league on notice

BOSTON – You had to figure Golden State’s explosive offense would probably come up a little short scoring-wise against the Boston Celtics and their top-rated defense. 

But for them to score 88 points – that’s about 32 below their average – was very one of those, “where the hell did that come from?” moments. 

And it was exactly what the Celtics needed to escape with a 92-88 win that extended their winning streak to 14 in a row but maybe most important, put the entire league on notice that this streak they’re on right now … it’s real. 

“They wrote us off coming in, saying Golden State was gonna beat us, and do this and do that,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “We came out and played basketball. Even though we got down, the make-up of our team is staying in; we’re resilient.”

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s signature win of the season, 92-88 over Golden State which extended Boston’s winning streak to 14 straight. 



Jaylen Brown was playing with a heavy heart less than 24 hours after the death of his best friend. But as we’ve seen in this still-young season, Brown is very much one of the league’s emerging talents. He certainly played that role on Thursday in leading Boston with 22 points with seven rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.  



There’s something about the second half of games against elite players that brings out the best in Jayson Tatum. When Boston opened the season at Cleveland, Tatum was noticeably better in the second half than the first. And in Thursday’s win over Golden State, it was more of the same. In the first half he had just two points only to finish with a 10-point second half (7 coming in the fourth) for a 12-point game on 2-for-5 shooting. 



As well as he’s played, a strong case can be made for Horford being a league MVP instead of their leading scorer, Kyrie Irving. Horford tallied a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds to go with a pair of assists. Horford now has six double-doubles this season which equals his double-double total from all of last season. 



As much as you know Smart makes great effort plays consistently and does indeed make a difference when he’s on the court, his shooting woes are reaching critical mass even as Boston continues to gobble up wins. In the last five games, Smart has averaged 7.6 points. That’s not too bad, right? But then you look and see that he’s shooting 19.2 percent (10-for-52) in that span. Ouch! So far, the Celtics have been able to find success despite his shooting struggles. But you have to anticipate at some point it’ll catch up with them. 



For most of this season, pretty much everyone who suits up for the Celtics, have played. But against the Warriors, it had the feel of a playoff-like rotation with head coach Brad Stevens playing 10 guys with nine reaching double digits in minutes played. Considering how the second unit struggled to make shots (they missed 17 of their 19 shot attempts), it’s understandable why head coach Brad Stevens leaned a little heavier than usual on his second unit.

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

BOSTON –  The NBA has seen its share of early-season injuries, some resulting in guys out for the season (Gordon Hayward) while others missing just a couple games (Al Horford out two games with a concussion).



And then there’s Kyrie Irving, who suffered a facial fracture that kept him for one game. He was supposed to wear a plastic protective mask for a couple weeks. Instead, it lasted one game and part of another before Irving decided to ditch it.
Kyrie’s mask got me to thinking … who are the best masked men in the NBA?
Today's Starting Five will include the top 5 masked men in the annals of NBA history, in addition to the top 5 teams, MVP candidates, rookies and defenders:

1. Rip Hamilton, Detroit – Worn initially for protection, his mask became an iconic look for the three-time All-star.

2. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers – Mask worn in 2012, the last year Bryant appeared in the playoffs.

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – He looked and played like a superhero in his first game with a mask in 2015, tallying 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Philly.

4. LeBron James – Ever the fashion-forward one, James wore a black, carbon-fiber mask to protect his broken nose in 2014.

5. Kyrie Irving - He played with a mask for 19 games in 2013, averaging 24.5 points and 47.5 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from 3-point range.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – The addition of Eric Bledsoe has helped rack up some wins, strengthen Antetokounmpo’s chances atop the MVP leaderboard.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – Shooting better than 50 percent from the field, Durant has stepped his passing game (career-high 5.0 assists now) up this season while continuing to pile up the wins.

3. James Harden, Houston – Not having Chris Paul around most of this season and still winning, is a reminder of how Harden has played at a consistently high level against all comers.

4. LeBron James, Cleveland – Three straight wins and the Cavs are well on their way to getting back into the thick of things, with LeBron leading the way.

5. Al Horford, Boston – In his last three games, he’s shooting 76.6 percent and has been a central figure in Boston’s rise to the top of the NBA standings.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia - He has eight double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles to his credit this season. He’s the rookie everyone is chasing now.

2. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas - You have to watch this guy play. Would be getting a lot more pub if the Mavs had a better record.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston - Had a rough start against the Warriors, but bounced back and made key plays down the stretch helping Boston get the win.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers - The late first-round pick has been an absolute Godsend to the Lakers, able to contribute in a multiple of ways.

5. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers - He has been up and down like most rookies. But his court vision alone will keep him on the floor for many years to come.

1. Al Horford, Boston - He’s the best defender on the NBA’s best team defensively. It makes sense for Horford to be the pace-setter in this category.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah - A towering presence, this 7-foot-2 big man will once again be a top-3 finisher when it comes to the league’s highest defensive honor.

3. Draymond Green, Golden State - The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Green is the rare player who can defend all five positions at a fairly high level.
4.  Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City - His ability to defend guards as well as switch out defensively is a huge plus to the Thunder.
5. Aron Baynes, Boston - You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who utilizes the NBA’s rule of verticality  better than Baynes.

1. Boston – Winning 14 games, that’s one thing. But to beat Golden State along the journey? That’s special.

2. Golden State – Loss to Boston be damned, the Warriors are still the team everyone emulates … even now.

3. Houston – Can score with the best of them, but until they defend at a high level their success will remain limited primarily to the regular season.

4. Minnesota – It’s still early, but it’s hard to imagine the Timberwolves going anywhere but up the Western Conference standings.

5. Detroit – Outside of Boston, there may not be a bigger surprise in the NBA thus far than Detroit.