Patriots

Communication issues mean it's time for Hightower to return to the middle

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Communication issues mean it's time for Hightower to return to the middle

TAMPA, Fla. -- Everyone's focused on the secondary. And rightly so. The errors have been there for people to see in real time on their TVs. When Devin McCourty places his team's recent struggles squarely on the shoulders of Patriots defensive backs and corners, then it confirms the obvious. 

But the overall communication taking place on Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense could stand to improve. That includes the second level, where linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts weren't without their faults in last weekend's loss to Carolina. Where were they, for instance, on Fozzy Whitaker's 28-yard unencumbered parade into the end zone? How did Cam Newton have so many wide-open lanes up the middle when he tucked and ran?

So what's the fix? 

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Van Noy has been trusted as an every-down linebacker and it looks like his role is going to be consistent from week to week. Roberts, however, is dealing with an ankle injury and is questionable for Thursday night. 

If Roberts can't play, might the Patriots benefit from having one of their smartest defenders back in the middle of the field? 

It's time for Dont'a Hightower to reclaim his role as on of the team's middle linebackers, Jerod Mayo told Quick Slants the Podcast this week

"Hightower has to get back in the middle of the defense," Mayo said. "I know he's not healthy and that's why they're not doing it. Right now he's on situational pass-rush downs and things like that . . . It's kind of like playing the telephone game. There's so many lines of communication, it's going to get fouled up."

That gets to a point that Mayo has conveyed several times over the course of the year, going back to when David Harris was signed in the offseason. 

What made the Harris signing a smart one, Mayo believed at the time, was that Harris had the football IQ and the clout to tell players around him on the field what to do. Even in his first year with a new team. 

It's a one-voice philosophy. Even if that voice is wrong, the theory goes, massive errors can be avoided because everyone's on the same page. It's when there's a chorus of traffic directors on the field, all sharing different perspectives, when things go to hell. 

That hasn't worked with Harris because his physical limitations at this point are such that the Patriots haven't trusted him to keep up athletically. He's played seven snaps through four games and was a healthy scratch against the Panthers. 

Maybe Harris' workload will change if Roberts can't play, or maybe the Patriots will simply swap out an off-the-ball linebacker for another defensive back. 

But Mayo's solution is to move Hightower from the edge -- where he's played almost exclusively this season -- to the middle.

It's not necessarily about wearing the green dot and relaying the calls from Patricia to the players on the field. That's relatively simple, and it's something that Van Noy has handled this season without issue. 

It's more about adjusting the players around him in the heat of the moment. 

For example, the Patriots will very likely see their share of bunch formations from the Bucs offense on Thursday; the Panthers gashed them to the tune of 160 yards and a touchdown on 12 pass attempts out of that formation. But Tampa Bay won't simply run bunch formations onto the field and make them easy for the Patriots to decipher. 

"They're going to make you start to think," Mayo explained. "I remember when we used to play Rex Ryan defenses, the Bills and the Jets. We're like, 'The defense is SO hard for these guys to pick up, let's just -- they call it window dressing -- let's put some window dressing on this thing.' And all of a sudden these guys are spinning heads. Now they're zone-blitzing from both sides. There's a zone missing. That's where this [Patriots] defense is headed now until they get it together."

There are some road-blocks to getting Hightower back into the middle against the Bucs, as Mayo alluded. 

Coming off of a knee injury that forced him from games in Weeks 2 and 3, the team may want to keep him from the chaos that tends to find its way into the middle of the field. And then there's the fact that the Patriots are on a short week, and shifting Hightower -- who has been on the edge since he returned to practice off the PUP list before the start of the season -- may require more prep work than just a couple of walkthroughs.

But the benefits of getting Hightower back to where he was as Mayo's replacement are obvious. Communication. Communication. Communication. 

The Patriots often say communication is a two-way street. But when it works best, it's really a one-way alley. One person speaks. The other listens. 

There's no time for conversation. The Patriots had plenty of those before the snap last week, and they often had to disastrous results.

"I say a call. You hear a call," is how Mayo described it. "What's happening now is a bunch of finger-pointing."

Having Hightower's voice back to in middle wouldn't be a cure-all, and it probably can't happen this week. But it feels like it would help, and the Patriots defense isn't in position to turn that down at the moment.

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GOAT-to-GOAT: Brady puts trust in Gronkowski with Steelers game on the line

GOAT-to-GOAT: Brady puts trust in Gronkowski with Steelers game on the line

PITTSBURGH - Down 5 points with a little over two minutes to play, Tom Brady knew what the Patriots offense had to do. But with precious few of his receivers actually getting open consistently, the quarterback knew whose number to dial up again and again and again. Rob Gronkowski’s phone was ringing off the hook and the tight end knew who was on the other end.

“There were two minutes left,” he said. “I knew we had to go down, make a drive and just do what you have to do. If the ball is coming to you, you have to make some plays. It just went well.”

Gee, you think? Gronkowski dominated the Pats’ final drive of the game, accounting for 69 of the team’s 77 yards and then added the all-important two-point conversion.

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“I thought he did a great job of separating and making the catches,” said Brady. 

The game-winning drive nearly ended in disaster long before it finished with Gronkowski dancing and flexing in the end zone like he had temporarily lost his mind. On first down from the Pats’ 23, Brady went Gronk’s way, but the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and safety Sean Davis had the ball slip through his hands for an interception that surely would have sent the Pats to their second straight loss in December. Instead, Davis was unable to go back across his body and snag the football. What usually happens when you give Brady a reprieve? Let’s review.

The very next play was when it started. With Gronkowski working out of the left side of Brady as the slot receiver in trips, the tight end worked down the seam but then angled his route more toward the post and reeled in a 26 yarder with Davis desperately in a chase position. How does someone who’s 60 pounds lighter - as Davis is - find himself in that position? Allow Matt Slater to offer a theory.

“It is hard to describe special players in this league,” he said. “There are certain guys - when the moment is big - they just become bigger. The moment wasn’t too big for those guys. They’ve worked at it for years now, that connection, and it was certainly clicking tonight. It was fun to watch. The confidence they have in one another hasn’t happened overnight. It is something that they’ve built on.”

With more ground to cover, Brady would once again go back to the Gronk well. But this time, the Steelers weren’t content to sit back and let it happen. They blitzed, playing zone behind it. Lined up as the wide slot in twins, Gronk once again got over the top of Davis and found a soft spot in the coverage. The window wasn’t huge, but Brady fit the ball in there. Another 26 yards and the Pats were now well-positioned on the outer rim of the red zone.

“I have so much trust in him,” said Brady. “It may look like it’s 50-50, but it might be 95-5. You try and develop that chemistry over time, and Gronk’s earned it.”

So much so that Brady went to him yet again. It came on a play that maybe Gronk doesn’t make if he hadn’t changed up some of his training and embraced the pliability that Alex Guerrero - yes, that guy - preaches. The 28-year old went down and got a low throw from Brady, plucking the ball off the blades of glass like he was picking daisies to bring back to his mama.

“That was unbelievable,” admired newcomer Kenny Britt. “I’ve never seen anything like that between two people. That’s some connection they have built over the years. Hopefully we can keep seeing it.”

“Awww man, I’ve seen it so many times but to see it firsthand on this team was incredible,” said Dwayne Allen. “It was incredible. Tom and Rob just carried us to the win.”

To prove he isn’t a one-trick pony, the Pats ran off Gronk’s backside on the game-winning touchdown jaunt by Dion Lewis. The big fella sealed off 303-pound defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt like he was just a little fella who took a wrong turn and ended up playing with the big boys. Then needing a two-point conversion to make it a field goal game, Gronk flexed out wide right. Davis tried to jam him, but the attempt was futile. The Steelers’ safety had been emasculated. Gronk caught the fade and shook and flexed and generally acted like a fool. 

“It was just spontaneous,” he said.

The Steelers may remember it, but so what, they have never been able to stop it. Hell, no one has had any success stopping the Brady-to-Gronk connection.

“That’s the GOATS, man,” smiled Duron Harmon. “Gronk’s turning into the GOAT. Tom’s the GOAT and Gronk’s turning into one. Those two did what they had to do for us on that drive, man. That’s what happens. Your best players play their best in situations and those two are our best players.”

No arguments here, nor, it would seem, from the Pittsburgh sideline.

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Brady and the Patriots break Pittsburgh's heart again

Brady and the Patriots break Pittsburgh's heart again

PITTSBURGH – Tom Brady sat sideways in a folding chair, his ass on a bright yellow cushion, his left elbow slung over the back of the chair. His back was against the cement wall, his bare feet on the folding chair in front of him, an empty locker was to his immediate right.

Brady was given the last two lockers in his row, which was positioned at the back of the visitor’s dressing room at Heinz Field.

The locker to his immediate at his elbow was empty. His clothes and luggage were neatly placed in the locked next to his feet. His equipment bag was on the floor. His long-sleeved, black Under Armour undershirt and blue compression shorts were still on. He was in no rush as he thumbed his silver phone, intermittently looking up to smile and say, “Awesome…” or some variation of that when a teammate or team staff came by to bang knuckles.

He’d just finished off another win in Pittsburgh. He’d done what he does - plucked a team’s still-beating heart from its chest and squeezed it tight – but he’d still needed his defense to pull off a miracle late to finally stop the thing from beating.

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That part came at the very end and it looked just the same as it did when the Patriots won Super Bowl 49 – an opponent melting down at the buzzer. The Steelers felt victimized, persecuted. Their tight end Jesse James scored a touchdown.

And then he didn’t because the rules – the ones that every damn fan and media member know by now and that NFL tight ends should surely know too – say that you can’t let the ball hit the ground without your full control after a catch. Period. And James failed to do that.  

So it was left to the Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, to do what the Steelers have done to team after team this season. Finish them off. And he couldn’t do it. The Steelers sideline short-circuited, someone told Roethlisberger to spike it, someone told him to run a play – they couldn’t get the story straight – and he threw into traffic and got picked off. Game.

The game that Mike Tomlin circled, starred and underlined almost a month ago was bungled away. Now it was left to the Steelers to figure out what happened. Judging by the response of wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey to each postgame question – sticking out his tongue and making the raspberry noise – they were having a tough time of it.

Meanwhile, Brady was on his phone, FaceTiming with one of his sons. At one point, you could hear him ask, “How did you do?” and talking about the new Star Wars movie.

Somewhere else in the Patriots locker room, a player was singing the Styx song “Renegade” a late-game staple at Heinz used to fire up the defense. It played prior to the Patriots touchdown drive when Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for 26 yards, 26 yards, 17 yards and a two-point conversion to put the Patriots ahead. There was a 9-yard touchdown run by Dion Lewis mixed into that Gronkfest. 

Gronk wandered over to Brady from his nearby locker. Gronk showed him his left triceps with a bruise going around it like a tribal tattoo. “Oh my God!” Brady said, laughing at the keepsake.

Gronk headed back to his locker. “I’m going to be so sore tomorrow,” he mumbled.

Hats and t-shirts were being passed out, announcing that the Patriots were AFC East Division champions.

Joe Thuney stopped Malcolm Butler and poked at the blue shirt, “Where’d you get that?” he asked.

“Pro Shop,” Butler answered, walking away with a laugh.

A couple of lockers down from Brady was Brandin Cooks.

“Hey TB,” he called as he crammed a division champs hat down on his head and tugged the brim. “This is new for me.”

“Looks good on you, Cookie,” said Brady

This was the most important game on the NFL’s regular season slate. The most anticipated. The country was watching; most of it probably praying to see the Patriots upended.

And the country was left unfulfilled. Again.

It was a BS call that “bailed out” the Patriots, just like the Tuck Rule or the one that stripped the Jets of a touchdown this year. Or any other of a dozen lucky breaks New England routinely gets meant that their maddeningly efficient team, humorless coach and arrogant fanbase got to grave dance again when it was the Patriots who were supposed to be dead.

All the Monday morning hot takes were ready to be taken from the oven had to be thrown in the trash.

The media horde moved from player to player. From Eric Rowe to Duron Harmon – the principals on Big Ben’s pick. Then over to Dion Lewis who said he knew the Steelers were going to throw a pick. “Soon as it was overturned, I said, ‘Oh, they gonna blow it.’ You just went from winning the game to having to keep playing. I called it. I said, ‘They about to throw a pick right here.’ I really didn’t think they were gonna throw a pick but they really did it.”

They really did.

At the opposite end of the locker room, Elandon Roberts was at his locker, a towel over his shoulder, another around his waist.

“We had the kind of plays that we weren’t looking for on defense,” he explained. “I had my plays that had me saying, ‘Man!’ But it was on to the next play. Short memory. That’s the mentality the whole defense had. Sixty minutes. When you play a 60-minute game like this, they’re gonna make good plays and we’re gonna make bad plays and vice versa. That’s the type of fight it was. That’s a great team over there. And it came down to the last play. A team like that, a game like that makes you come more together as a team because you know the guy next to you got your back.”

The guy who has everyone’s back was still at his locker, still playing with his phone, still holding brief audiences.

After his eighth visit to Pittsburgh, he was in a victorious visitor’s locker room for the sixth time. At 40 years old, he’s almost 16 years removed from the first time he came here. He sat in that folding chair and looked content. At home. Just like the Patriots will probably be for the playoffs.

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