How the Patriots turned their season around


How the Patriots turned their season around

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- After the first month of the season, about the only thing that made sense for the Patriots was the play of Tom Brady. The rest of the team? Safe to say it looked nothing like this uber-squad that had some (yes, me included) talking about the potential for an undefeated season. The Pats were 2-2 and had lost -- gasp -- a pair of home games, giving up 42 to the Chiefs and 33 to the Panthers. What in the name of Rod Rust was going on?

Flash forward to a half-dozen weeks later. The Pats may not be winning games exactly in the manner we expected, but they’re getting there. They’ve now ripped off five in a row and are tied with the Steelers for the best record in the AFC. I’ve seen Pittsburgh play; the Pats are better, at least in the here and now.

How did this team transform itself from a disappointment to the best team in the conference? Let me count the ways . . . 


After that Carolina debacle, Devin McCourty called the defense’s play “embarrassing.” Duron Harmon said of the team's defensive scheme: “We can’t play no more simpler than that.” That’s a Code Red for Pats players. They were visibly hurt by what had transpired over the first month of the season. 

So what’s changed? A call to give more of yourself, whether it be in the film room, the meeting room, the weight room or the practice field. The secondary in particular, but the defense as a whole, demanded more accountability and the results have been more commensurate with what was expected, not just by fans and media but, more importantly, by the players themselves. You say as professionals, why shouldn’t this be the norm? I agree, but look around the league. Did you see Janoris Jenkins turtle in Sunday’s Giants/49ers game? Or the Browns safety who decided not to move a single step during the a running play in the red zone? When adversity strikes, some teams/players don’t know how to handle it. This one does.


Tom Brady can lift all boats, or his team in this case. Even at the age of 40, he’s one of just a handful of quarterbacks that no situation, no amount of adversity, seems too great to overcome. Lose your best receiver? That sucks, but we’ll figure it out. Get smashed to smithereens over the first four games and hurt your non-throwing shoulder? Not ideal, but I’ll be there next week . . . and the week after that and so on. Find yourself with just three healthy receivers for a big game in Denver, including one who’s barely made an impact during the first half of the season? Brady will just have the best statistical game at Mile High EVER. Yes, the old man is playing like a young kid with all the advanced degrees. “I have the answers to the test.” 

However, Brady’s still standing upright -- and that shoulder is healing -- because of a commitment the Patriots made to the run game following that loss to Carolina. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knew he was putting his QB in harm’s way too often. So the Pats magic number of 25 or more rushes became the target weekly. Only once have they failed to get there since:

at Tampa Bay 23 113
at N.Y. Jets 25 118
Atlanta 36 162
L.A. Chargers 32 97
at Denver 29 99

The line play has improved dramatically over the win streak and the guys up front have said having more of a 50/50 run-pass ratio allows them to get into more of an attack mentality. Instead of always taking your first step back and bracing for a hit, they can instead deliver. It helps to wear out those elite pass rushers. Ask Von Miller. Or Joey Bosa. Or Melvin Ingram. Or Vic Beasley. Should I continue?


Always one of the premier groupings in the entire league, the Pats got off to a rocky start during that first month. They were without Matthew Slater, one of the best gunners in the game, and the rest of the unit missed his energy and attention to detail. You want to talk about accountability? No one on special teams wants to disappoint Slater.

But Slater's back and guess what? The Pats special teams have been riding high. Versus the Chargers prior to the bye, the Pats nailed punt returner Travis Benjamin for a safety, got a 71-yard kick return from Dion Lewis and continually pinned L.A. inside its own 20 on kickoffs. Hard to top that, right?


Sunday night against the Broncos, Jon Jones forced a fumble on a punt return in the opening quarter, a fumble that was recovered by Jacob Hollister and led to a touchdown. Dion Lewis returned a kickoff 103 yards for a score. Rex Burkhead blocked a punt, leading to more points, and the Pats retained possession of the ball when they caught the Broncos with 12 men on the field during a punt return. 24 points -- directly or indirectly -- came because of how well the special teams  played. 

Bill Belichick always stresses playing complementary football and three phases of the game. The Pats aren’t just winning on special teams, they're crushing teams’ souls.


This might be the Pats’ defensive coordinator’s best job yet. His front seven is littered with subs, castoffs and players not in their prime, past their prime or just straight underperforming. Yet since losing to Carolina, the Pats defense has held opponents to 17 points or less in five straight games. How is that possible? Well, for starters, that pesky “bend but don’t break” mentality has come back into focus. The Pats are giving up yards -- Denver marched it up and down the field repeatedly Sunday night -- but are tightening up in or near the red area and forcing field goals. Patricia won’t celebrate that -- he wants no yards and no points -- but deep down, the DC is pleased with his team’s execution when their backs are up against the end zone. 

Patricia has also tabbed Kyle Van Noy to be his new Dont’a Hightower. With Hightower, the lynchpin of the front seven, down and out for the year, the Pats have asked Van Noy to do more than ever. He’s wearing the green dot and lines up inside, outside, anywhere they feel his speed and improved intelligence can help. It’s not perfect. Few linebackers have the physical skill set Hightower does. But Van Noy has become a foundational piece for a defense that needed the concrete to harden quickly after that putrid first month.


Bill Belichick didn’t panic when the Pats were 2-2. He went on some interesting media rants about the stupidity of predicting perfection to dispelling the notion that any team should be as good in September or October as it was the previous January or February. (Note to Bill: I have no idea who said that. Seemed like a strawman to me . . . ) Those moments made you reach deep for some sort of inner meaning. I took it as Belichick trying to shift the focus off his team and onto himself, even if it carried the conversation for just a day or two. 

Meanwhile, the coaching staff just kept pushing buttons, trying to find the right fits for some of their newer players. I’d say they’ve accomplished that. Stephon Gilmore is no longer miscast as a zone corner. He’s playing a lot of man and playing it well (ask Mike Evans and Demaryius Thomas). Rex Burkhead is being featured more as both a runner and receiver. Dion Lewis is now getting carries that previously belonged to Mike Gillislee. We’re seeing more of fullback James Develin and that toughness that he brings. Devin McCourty has found himself playing closer to the line of scrimmage than ever before and had really been as sound a tackler as you’ll see. Hell, the staff has even gotten something out of Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi defensively. 

Belichick also told Alan Branch to stay home for that Tampa game and didn’t lose the player. He reduced Malcolm Butler’s snaps in Week 2 versus the Saints, and while the corner hasn’t played up to his 2016 level, he too didn’t stray off the reservation. Noted distraction Martellus Bennett, who has left previous stops in Dallas, New York, Chicago and Green Bay with bridges burning, returned this past week and caught three passes in limited duty and said after that Belichick just knows how to talk to him. Yep, the man knows how to coach schemes and personalities better than anyone does it now and maybe anyone has done it ever. 


What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

It’s one of the rites of spring. This is the time of year NFL fans across America overemphasize the importance of their team’s coach or general manager popping up at a particular program’s pro day. You can set your watch to it. 

Coach X showed up at University Y so you KNOW he wants Player Z!

The pro day circuit is just one aspect of the pre-draft preparation process for NFL clubs, though. The information gleaned from stops on college campuses through March and early April is, as Bill Belichick might say, just part of the evaluation mosaic. 

The tape matters. The combine matters. Private workouts matter. Official visits matter. Claiming a meeting or an interview between a player and a club at any one of these spots will dictate a draft-day match is foolhardy. 

Still . . . it's interesting to track teams’ whereabouts in order to see if any trends develop.

Here we'll lay out where the two primary players in the Patriots front office, Belichick and Nick Caserio, have been spotted over the last couple weeks since pro days kicked off. Their itinerary may be nothing but a sliver of a view into where the team's interests lay, but we’ll take that sliver with the understanding that it is what it is.


Belichick made his seemingly annual trip to the University of Alabama to catch up with old friend Nick Saban and see some of the college game's top prospects. The Crimson Tide could have more than a dozen players drafted, and most of their top prospects reside on the defensive side of the ball. Receiver Calvin Ridley, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne shoild be long gone by the time the Patriots pick at No. 31, but there are plenty of other talented defenders they could have a shot at. Linebacker Rashaan Evans (6-foot-3, 234) would be an interesting fit for a defense that could use an addition to its second level. Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (6-4, 297) is intriguing because of his versatility as a base end who could rush from the inside in sub situations. Safety Ronnie Harrison (6-3, 214) also seems like a Patriots type. Even punter JK Scott could be on their radar. 


Caserio headed to Wisconsin's pro day, where linebacker Jack Cichy posted a very strong short-shuttle (4.28 seconds) and three-cone times (7.10). He's an off-the-ball type who measured in at 6-foot-2, 234 pounds and is projected by to go on Day 3. The Badgers don't have quite as many pro prospects as Alabama, but they have seven or eight who could hear their names called on draft weekend. Corner Nick Nelson (5-11, 208) and edge defender Leon Jacobs (6-3, 230) were two of Wisconsin's best players, and would’ve been worth a look from the Patriots director of player personnel. 


Belichick kept a close eye on the defensive linemen participating in NC State's pro day Monday. Bradley Chubb is expected to be the first defensive player taken in the draft so the Patriots won't have a shot at him (which Belichick admitted to Chubb following the workout), but defensive tackle BJ Hill (6-4, 315) may have been of interest. He's thought of as a mid-rounder after a very strong showing at the Senior Bowl and a solid combine. Kentavius Street (6-2, 280) is really powerful as a defensive end and could be had toward the end of the draft. Belichick also reportedly spent some time watching backs Nyheim Hines (5-8, 197) and Jaylen Samuels (5-11, 233) run routes. 

Caserio, meanwhile, kept a close eye on the workout put together by Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside (6-2, 201). Our Mike Giardi put together a piece on Woodside, who tested well at the combine and is considered to have a good football IQ, earlier this offseason. Read it. Caserio was joined at Toledo by Patriots scout Patrick Stewart, who was also present for Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta's pro day.


Belichick went from NC State to South Carolina where he reportedly met with tight end Hayden Hurst for the second time. Hurst (6-4, 250), a walk-on who played two years of minor-league baseball, may be the first tight end taken in this year's draft. Linebacker Skai Moore (6-2, 221) was extremely productive for the Gamecocks, leading the team in tackles all four years of his career, which Belichick clearly appreciated. Moore told reporters after his pro day work out that he met with Belichick for an hour and that Belichick told him he's a great player. Belichick and Moore also met at the combine, Moore said.

So what can we make of Belichick and Caserio's stops thus far? We’re careful not to make too much of these stops visits, but here are some quick-hitting thoughts . . .

* They appear to want more information on the draft's second (or third) tier of quarterbacks. It should come as no surprise that the Patriots won't be in the running to select passers like USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen or Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. But the group that includes Woodside, Lauletta and others -- perhaps Washington State's Luke Falk, whose pro day will be at Utah State on Mar. 28, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, and Western Kentucky's Mike White -- seems to be of interest.

* Are the Patriots looking for their next playmaker at tight end? Even with Rob Gronkowski on the roster (assuming he returns in 2018) the Patriots could use another pass-catcher at this spot. Their interest in Hurst is intriguing. If they pop up at South Dakota State's pro day on Mar. 30 -- home of Dallas Goedert -- then that might be an indication they are considering a running mate and heir apparent for Gronkowski. 

* Outside of offensive tackle, off-the-ball linebacker might be the biggest need the Patriots have not addressed via trade or free agency this offseason. It would come as little surprise if they opted for a rookie (or two) who play that position in this year's draft. Evans is among the draft's most talented at that spot, but there are some questions around the league as to whether or not he'd be the traffic cop that, for instance, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower have been for the Patriots. Getting a closer look at Cichy and Moore would also seem to indicate that New England is taking a close look at a newer (smaller) breed at that spot. Belichick has long liked bigger linebackers, but as the speed of the game picks up perhaps he’ll be more open to going small(ish) here. The Patriots were represented at Viriginia Tech's pro day on Mar. 14 (home of top linebacker prospect Tremaine Edmunds) and it'll be interesting to see if they show up at Boise State (home of Leighton Vander Esch) on April 3. Belichick is reportedly headed to Georgia's pro day on Wednesday, where he'll have a chance to see athletic off-the-ball 'backer Roquan Smith and athletic edge player Lorenzo Carter. Either would immediately provide the Patriots front-seven with a shot of athleticism. 

* That Belichick has seen a boatload of talented defensive linemen at Alabama and NC State isn't a shocker. While they may not have a glaring need up front for 2018 — especially after trading for Danny Shelton and signing Adrian Clayborn — both Shelton and Malcom Brown could be elsewhere in 2019 if the Patriots don't pick up their fifth-year options. Trey Flowers is also headed into a contract year. 


Quick Slants the Podcast: Ranking the Patriots additions, are the Patriots better defensively, but worse offensively?

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Quick Slants the Podcast: Ranking the Patriots additions, are the Patriots better defensively, but worse offensively?

Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry go over the moves the Patriots have made this offseason and rank their favorite moves and what to expect from those players.

(1:00) Ranking the Patriots acquisitions so far.

(5:30) Will Danny Shelton or Jason McCourty have a bigger impact n the Patriots defense?

(13:00) What can Patriots fans realistically expect from Cordarrelle Patterson?

(16:00) Are the Patriots a better team now than they were at the end of the Super Bowl?

(17:00) What is the next position in need for the Patriots?

(23:00) How concerning is the tension level between Belichick/Brady/Gronkowski, when should Patriots fans start to panic?