Patriots

Behind the scenes work triggered Patriots' defensive improvement

Behind the scenes work triggered Patriots' defensive improvement

FOXBORO – The annual improvement of the Patriots is inevitable.

Defense plays like it’s blindfolded for the first four weeks then, with a snap of the fingers, is suddenly competent or actually …. good?

“Hey. Wow. All fixed. That was fast.”

On Sunday, after the Patriots knocked off the Chargers, Bill Belichick once again praised his team’s work ethic. It was the fourth time I can recall him going all in on that topic. When compared to the post-Chiefs laments from veterans about a lack of urgency and seriousness, it’s obvious the real improvement that’s going on is out of our sight.

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“We’ve been going here for six weeks of preseason and eight regular season games,” Belichick said. “We’ve been playing a lot of football. Every week it’s been a grind whether it’s going back to the preseason scrimmages, whether it’s the preseason games. We’ve been at it here for a long time. I ask these guys to come in every day and put in a hard day of preparation, practice, training, film study and so forth. I’d say I’ve been impressed with the way they’ve done that and have been able to grind it out day after day. It’s not easy.

“We don’t mind doing it; I’m not saying that,” he continued. “But still, it’s hard, and every team has got good players. Every team has difficult schemes. Every team requires a lot of communication and coordination to get plays right and to get situations right. I just meant it in terms of just week after week after week or day after day after day or hour after hour, coming in at eight in the morning and grinding through it until 4:30, 5:00 at night. Those guys are working hard and it’s paying off, but they’re working hard. They’re grinding it.”

Every team works, no doubt. And it’s a hard road from July to January (and beyond) for all of them. But the day-to-day in New England is hard relative to other teams. And that’s when it’s going good. When the defense is playing at an embarrassing level as the Patriots were for the first four weeks, it has to feel for the coaches and players like they are actually living that dream of showing up to work in their underwear. That ain’t gonna stand with Belichick, his coaches or his players. That the franchise is astute enough to hire guys who can take the extra work and not buckle is a credit to their scouting and personnel staffs.

But in the end, it’s the players. They spent the time to get it fixed. Never a doubt, said safety Duron Harmon.

“I know the guys we have here, I know the kind of work we put in each week at practice in the weight room after practice in the classroom,” he said. "I knew eventually it would come around. Did it come around as fast as we wanted it to? No. But we’re making strides right now and we need to keep doing what we’re doing.”

The change, he said is, “Consistency. It really comes down to everybody being on the same page all the time, not one guy playing one coverage then the other 10 guys playing another. Everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s communicating, everybody’s talking, everybody’s playing with good energy, playing fast and physical. That’s really been the change.”

While the defense has gotten itself upright, the New England offense – which carried the team early – has been uncharacteristically bogging down.

“We didn’t finish (drives) off,” said Tom Brady after the Patriots scored just one touchdown despite seven drives reaching the Chargers 25 or deeper. “I think we just have to do a better job of that. I know I’ve said that about 100 times this year, but it’s tough. I mean, we’re trying. It’s just the execution is coming up a little short in critical times.

“We’re not scoring as many points as we’re capable of scoring,” he later added. “I know that. I wish there was a simple answer for it, and the simple word would be execution. I mean, it’s just throwing and catching and blocking and running and doing all those things, staying on track in the red area, but we have more opportunity out there. I mean, we know it. We just haven’t done a great job finishing off the last three or four weeks, but hopefully we’re going to get back to it, and I’m sure we’ll watch a lot of tape and try to evaluate a lot of things that we’ve done and try to build on those things. I wish it would be better, but we’re not. But, we’ll just keep going after it. We’ll keep working hard like we always do, and hopefully it’ll be better here in the next couple of weeks.”

Harmon harbors no doubt the offense will get it straightened out.

“They carried us the first quarter of the season,” he said. “They’re gonna get the ball moving and they’re gonna score. As long as we don’t give up more points than they score, we’ll take it. That’s what we’re gonna keep aiming for.”

At 6-2, the Patriots now have their bye then a trip to Denver followed by a visit to Mexico City to play the Raiders. It’s a key stretch and – possibly – one that could galvanize the team even more as it plans to spend a week in Colorado Springs prior to going to Mexico to play the Raiders.

“Offensively, it hasn’t been horrible. It just hasn’t been up to what we’re capable of doing,” said Brady. “I think we come in every week and we say, ‘We missed this opportunity, we missed this opportunity.’ It’s not one play, it’s not one player, it’s just all of us collectively trying harder, doing better and making the plays happen when we need to make it happen. Hopefully, our best games are still ahead of us. You know, that’s what our goal is.”

It’s a goal they usually hit. And it’s not because of the work on Sunday but all the days before.

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EX PATS PODCAST: Recapping Patriots win in AFC title game over Jags

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EX PATS PODCAST: Recapping Patriots win in AFC title game over Jags

1:45 - Mike Giardi and Dan Koppen break down the Patriots comeback win over Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game to advance to Super Bowl LII.

4:20 - Leonard Fournette not looking like himself but Blake Bortles making the right plays against the Patriots defense.

7:40 - A couple of mistakes from the Jaguars, punting before 2 minute warning which gave the Patriots an extra timeout, and kneeling at the end of the 1st half with 2 timeouts and 50 seconds remaining.

12:10 - Dion Lewis struggling to find room and make anyone miss against the Jaguars defense.

13:20 - How serious Tom Brady's thumb injury was and if it had any affect on how he was able to throw the ball.

16:05 - Brandin Cooks has his best game as a Patriot, and how he was able to draw two pass interference penalties against the Jaguars secondary.

18:45 - If the hit by Barry Church on Rob Gronkowski was a dirty hit and if it is better to hit a receiver up high or down low.

24:25 - Danny Amendola with several clutch catches, once again coming back big in the postseason for the Patriots.

Cooks shines on his biggest stage yet

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Cooks shines on his biggest stage yet

FOXBORO -- You’ve always wanted something more from Brandin Cooks. I mean, 65 catches for almost 11-hundred yards is nothing to turn your nose up at yet we have.  But there’s something very un-Patriot like about his style.

We’ve grown accustom to seeing smaller receivers who fight for every inch, from Troy Brown to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. They would scrap and claw to get that extra yard, sometimes risking their own health. Cooks isn’t that guy, despite a similar build of the aforementioned players. He’s a willing blocker, but as a runner will go out of his way to avoid contact. I wouldn’t say that changed in Sunday’s AFC Championship game. He’s still not running slants or crossing routes with any regularity or success, but the 23-year-old wide receiver shined his brightest in his biggest moment and is now headed to the Super Bowl.

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“It’ s a blessing,” he said pausing briefly before repeating “It’s a blessing.”

Cooks himself helped kick start a sluggish Patriots offense late in the second quarter with his team trailing 14-3. Almost nothing had gone right for the Pats since putting up a field goal on the game’s opening drive. With 1:28 on the clock, Tom Brady threw a pretty pass to Rob Gronkowski running down the seam. He appeared to make the catch for a brief moment before safety Barry Church knocked both the ball from Gronk’s hands and Gronk from the game. Church was flagged for unnecessary roughness, putting the ball on Jacksonville’s 40 yard line. But with Gronk staggering toward the sideline, you couldn’t help but feel a slight air of “oh bleep” in the air. Enter Cooks. 

Jags cornerback A.J. Bouye appeared as if he was going to get up in Cooks’ face before backing away just prior to the snap, surrendering some 8 or 9 yards off the line of scrimmage. But with that elite speed, Cooks got on top of Bouye quickly, forcing some contact. Instead of whimpering through the physicality, Cooks pushed back and pushed forward, again causing Bouye to use his hands. This time though the ball was already in the air and out came the penalty flags. A 32-yard pass interference call had the Pats sitting pretty at the Jags 13. Brady went back to Cooks on the very next play, picking up 12 more yards before James White crashed into the end zone for a touchdown. We had ourselves a game again, 

“You just gotta keep fighting {in those moments} because you can never put it into the hands of hoping you’re going to get a PI {pass interference},” said Cooks. “You just want to fight an make sure you get the ball or no one does.”

After his flawless first half, Cooks let one slip through his hands just as it appeared the Pats were poised to answer a Jacksonville field goal with points of their own. Instead, isolated one-on-one with a linebacker, the lithe wideout couldn’t reel in a potential big gainer and the Pats drive stalled. As the game wore on, you couldn’t help but circle back to that drop and wonder if that was an ominous sign. 

“Obviously you want to make every catch,” said Cooks of the play. “I didn’t but had to keep playing. I hoped I’d work to get another chance….Tom trusts me to put the ball in my area and let me make a play.”

It came to start the Pats’ second touchdown drive of the game, this one not beginning until 12:03 remaining on the game clock. Cooks’ speed forced Bouye to overreact, turning his hips and committing to a deep route. Instead, Cooks’ slapped on the brakes and hauled in an 18-yarder, giving him the first 100-yard receiving game of his brief playoff career. 

“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Cooks. “Winning is everything.”

Cooks didn’t make any more catches the remainder of the game, but his speed influenced the Jags to switch Bouye off him and put Pro Bowler Jalen Ramsey on. Cooks got Ramsey too, drawing a 36-yard pass interference call later in the 4th. It didn’t lead to points but did help flip the field which eventually did lead the game-winning touchdown.

“It’s football,” he said. “We knew it’s not going to be easy. You’re talking about a great team, one of the best defenses. We knew it was gonna be hard. We knew we had to play 60 minutes of football. Not get too high. Not get too low. Just play till the clock says 0:00.”

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