For Patriots, 'next man up' is a way of life

For Patriots, 'next man up' is a way of life

FOXBORO -- How many times have you heard the Patriots utter the phrase “Next Man Up”? So often that -- if  you’re like me -- you’ve become numb to it. Besides, isn’t that what the sport is all about? There's going to be attrition. It’s a league-wide thing. It has to be.

But unlike other franchises, which come unglued at the first sign of adversity, the Pats have managed not only to get by but often thrive. 


The most recent example came Sunday, a 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. The previous week against Atlanta, the Pats' defense had finally played like we believed they were capable . . . but then lost their most impactful player, Dont’a Hightower, during that game to a torn pec muscle that will likely cost him the rest of the season. Yet this unit, not only without Hightower but also starters Malcom Brown, Stephon Gilmore and nickel corner Eric Rowe, limited Philip Rivers to 212 yards passing. How is that possible?

“I think it starts with Coach [Bill] Belichick, his leadership, the way he’s coaches,” said Matthew Slater. “The way he’s prepared every man on this roster -- from Tom Brady to the last guy on this practice squad  -- everyone is prepared the same way. The expectation, the bar, is the same for everyone and it’s like that every single day. So when you get into a situation where a guy’s number is called, it’s not new to him. It’s not totally foreign. Yes, he’s asked to do something a little bit different, but Coach and his staff have done the best  they can to try and prepare guys for those situations.”

“It’s not foreign to us,” said Duron Harmon. “We’ve been down a lot of players since I’ve been here. [Rob Gronkowski] went down, [Jerod] Mayo, Vince [Wilfork] . . . guys who are good players, players we lean on. But year in and year out, we find guys who just step up and do what they need to do: Just be consistent and play good football for us.”

Rex Burkhead is relatively new to this organization, coming over during the free-agency period last offseason. But as the son of a coach, he recognizes the attention to detail and what it translates to, not just for the first guy on the roster but the last as well.

“Lots of preparation here from the mental side, the physical side,” he said. “You really have to be on top of it . . . I think it’s kudos to our coaching staff for getting that next guy prepared. That’s the mentality that’s been here in the past and they prove that when those guys gets a chance, they do well.”

Burkhead recalls numerous times being quizzed by Belichick or another coach as you go from one meeting room to the next, or veer off toward the weight room. That’s nothing new in Foxboro but it’s not like that everywhere else. Certainly not in Cincinnati, where Burkhead was for the first four years of his career.

When you talk to players from different organizations, you truly understand how different that part of the equation is. One newer Patriot told me “it’s so [bleeping] stressful” and it “makes you hate them at times.” But “at the end of the day, they’re making sure you’re on your toes. That you’re involved. You can’t argue with it. Those Lombardi Trophies say it all.”

So Belichick and his staff get rave reviews for making the “Next Man Up” mantra not only a thing, but a thing that works. However, this isn’t just about the big brains in the corner offices. This is about the players buying in.

That’s not always easy; consider the egos involved. Yet from the top of the roster down to the bottom, the Pats usually get full commitment across the board.

“You know a guy like Tom [Brady] makes guys like myself, or guys that don’t play a ton of receiver, feel involved,” said Slater. “A guy like Devin McCourty making the practice squad safety feel like he’s involved. I think there’s a great deal of player leadership.”

Part of that leadership was lost, though, when Hightower was forced out of the lineup. The Pats had to lean on the erratic Elandon Roberts and a slowed veteran like David Harris and put even more on Kyle Van Noy’s plate. That’s less than ideal, but what else can you do?

“It’s hard, but you have to,” said Harmon. “No one is going to give us the production that [Hightower] did because no one is the player that High is. High is a special player, a special talent player. But you can’t sit here and harp on it. We have to find ways to get production that he [gave the Patriots] out of different people, whether it’s one person doing all his jobs or different guys coming together to do what he did. Maybe it’s three or four guys. It sucks we lost him, but worrying about that isn’t going to help us win games. It has to be the next man up. It has to be that mentality because it’s going to make sure that everybody has confidence in each other going out there and playing good ball.”

It sounds easy, but the reality is it’s far from easy. Johnson Bademosi isn’t suppose to find out shortly before a game against the Jets that he’s not just going to be a special teamer, but he’ll be the starting corner opposite Malcolm Butler and never come off the damn field. But when Gilmore’s concussion symptoms popped up late in the week, or early in the weekend, Bademosi got the call and he responded like he had been there and done that before. Why?

“I would say trust, and you build that trust through practice,” noted Harmon. “I would say Bademosi is the perfect example. Him getting ready for the Jets game. He didn’t know he was going to play all week until Friday or Saturday morning, but for him to be in the meetings, asking questions -- even when he wasn’t starting -- then in practice, playing good football and being consistent when he was thrown in . . . that’s how you build trust. That’s everybody here. Everybody wants to win. Everybody knows how important winning is to us in here. So everybody on this whole roster goes out each and every day and tries his hardest just to not let the team down.”

“Certainly, I think on an individual by individual basis, you have to take a lot of pride in being a professional and understanding [that] I may have this role but I could get called into [a different] role, so I have to prepare myself for all of these roles,” added Slater. “And I think when you get guys that are professional and you get guys that are dedicated to their craft, guys that are invested in the concept of team and doing what’s best for the team . . . when you get in those situations, you have confidence in those guys.”

That confidence is earned in Foxboro and makes the “Next Man Up” a part of this organization’s DNA. Without it, injuries like the one to Hightower or to Julian Edelman could derail a season long before the playoffs roll around. But not here. No how. No way. It’s just not allowed, from top to bottom.



THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Steelers cruise to victory vs Titans, 40-17


THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Steelers cruise to victory vs Titans, 40-17

PITTSBURGH -- Another uninspiring half in the books in a season littered with them for a team that expects to play deep into January and beyond, Ben Roethlisberger decided he had seen enough.

So the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback decided it was time to speak up. The defense had kept the Tennessee Titans and star Marcus Mariota in check, yet a game that had the makings of a blowout didn't feel like one mostly because the offense kept squandering chance after chance.

No more.

"He didn't call anyone out, he called all of us out," guard David DeCastro said. "Linemen. Receivers. Himself. Running backs. Purely positive. It was a challenge. He challenged us. The guys responded."

None better than the 35-year-old Roethlisberger. Running the no-huddle offense to near perfection, Roethlisberger threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns, three to Antonio Brown, as the Steelers pulled away for a 40-17 victory.

"I don't care if you're old or young, just someone has to step up and make a play for this team or else we are going to keep relying on our defense," said Roethlisberger, who went 20 of 23 for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. "It is time that we step up and do something."

Brown caught 10 passes for 144 yards and the three scores, including an acrobatic grab in the back of the end zone in which he pinned the ball to his helmet before bringing it in to put Pittsburgh up 20 in the fourth quarter as the Steelers set a season-high for points and margin of victory.

"We've talked so much about having the potential in this room, but we can still strive for more," said defensive end Cam Heyward, who had two of Pittsburgh's five sacks. "We're a hungry group that still has a lot to prove. We're chasing ghosts. We're trying to be the best defense. That's what we strive for."

For long stretches, the Steelers (8-2) looked the part while extending their winning streak to five.

Though Mariota ran for a touchdown and threw for another, he was also picked off a career-high four times as the Titans (6-4) saw their four-game winning streak come to a crashing halt. Mariota finished 22 of 33 for 306 yards but was under pressure much of the night.

"When you play teams that are this caliber that are contenders, that win week in and week out, that's the blueprint," Mariota said. "We're going to learn from it. We're going to get better from it and hopefully we'll see them again."

There's plenty to work on. Tennessee appeared to be in it when Mariota found Matthews with a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half to get to 16-14.

Then Roethlisberger and the NFL's highest-paid offense got going. Finally. Roethlisberger dropped some very not subtle hints that he wanted the freedom provided by the no-huddle after the Steelers used it to pick the Colts apart during the winning drive last Sunday in Indianapolis.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley appeared to be listening.

Pittsburgh opened in the no huddle and needed just six plays to take the lead as Roethlisberger took advantage of a free play and hit Brown with a 41-yard rainbow. Mike Hilton then returned Mariota's interception to set up the first of Chris Boswell's four field goals and the Steelers appeared on the verge of another prime-time blowout at home.

The blowout did eventually arrive, just not quickly.

The offense ground to a halt for the rest of the half, held in check by former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Hall of Famer spent 12 years building a defense that helped Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl victories before being ushered out in favor of protege Keith Butler in January 2015. The 80-year-old is in the middle of his latest project with the steadily improving Titans.

Yet the gap between Tennessee and Pittsburgh remains significant. The proof came after Mathews' long catch-and-run appeared to give the Titans momentum.

The Steelers reeled off three straight touchdown drives. Roethlisberger found a leaping Brown for a 5-yard score restored a nine-point lead, executed a perfect play-action fake at the goal line before flipping it to a wide-open Jesse James for a 1-yard strike and put the Titans away with a lob to the back corner of the end zone that Brown somehow hauled in from 10 yards out that made it 37-17.

Pittsburgh rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster knelt down and bowed to Brown during the giddy celebration. Hard to blame the 20-year-old. For the first time all season, the Steelers put it all together and looked every bit like a team with a legitimate threat to live up to its own hype.


Titans: Visit Indianapolis on Nov. 26. Tennessee beat the Colts 36-22 on Oct. 16.

Steelers: Welcome the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 26, the second of four straight prime-time games for Pittsburgh.

Gilmore's situation with Patriots 'getting better all the time'


Gilmore's situation with Patriots 'getting better all the time'

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Being the new guy isn’t easy, especially when you consider the circumstances Stephon Gilmore found himself in after signing with the Patriots this offseason. 

For starters, there’s the whole Malcolm Butler dynamic. It was a rare mistake by Bill Belichick, not predicting an unforeseen tension, and Gilmore has had to try and navigate through a difficult situation that only recently seems to have calmed down.

Then there’s the other aspect of the cornerback’s insertion into the lineup and locker room. Gilmore joined a group that has been together for a long time, at least in NFL terms. So while the holdovers all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, never mind personalities, Gilmore had to adjust to that part of the switch as well.

“It’s been about learning one another,” Gilmore told me. “It’s been a process. Sometimes the communication suffered but I was never worried about it from a physical standpoint. It was mental, not physical.”


As a group, the Patriots felt like Butler deserved to get paid so it came as a bit of a shock that the money was spent on an outsider and not a home-grown product. But Gilmore has worked to smooth over any friction or doubt by doing his best to seamlessly fit in, earning respect from his teammates for his handling of the situation and for his easygoing, soft-spoken nature.

“The good thing is Steph makes it easy for us all to be close,” said Duron Harmon. “He’s a good guy. He’s quiet, but he has a great heart, always around, always talking, whether it’s not even about football, talking about his family, asking how my family is doing, how his family is doing. So I think he’s fit in well. I think we’re all close. We’re still learning each other and I think eventually this week (in Colorado Springs) will help us.”

Gilmore agrees with Harmon’s assessment of the time spent together in Colorado. There's no family here. It’s just football and each other.

“I like it. I like it being with the guys every day, staying in the same hotel, getting to know each other,” said Gilmore. “It’s good.”

Not sure how this would have looked had it come on the heels of Gilmore’s rocky first month in uniform. During that stretch, a fair amount of the chunk plays allowed by the defense came with Gilmore in the area and after several members of the secondary called the group’s play embarrassing following the 33-30 loss to Carolina. The Harmon quote “it can’t get no more simpler than it is” was read in some circles as being directed at the newcomer. Imagine the tension in the meeting rooms in the days that followed.

But Gilmore answered with a strong performance the following Thursday night in Tampa and then -- after dealing with a concussion that sidelined him for three games -- had another solid outing in Denver. That showed a little something…

“He’s competitive,” said Pat Chung. “He’s a good player. He’s back out there and he’s better. He wasn’t bad to begin with there’s certainly some things you have to get used to on a new team and he got used to them. Hopefully he keeps getting better.”

“Steph is a tough guy, a tough player,” said Devin McCourty. “We knew he’d be fine.”

“He’s a fighter,” said Harmon. “He’s not going to go into the tank. He’s not going to let anybody dictate how he feels, how he approaches going into a game. He just continues to work, continues to keep grinding, and all you can do is respect that because a lot people would go into the tank but you can see he’s mentally tough to go out there and fix what he needs to fix and start playing productive.”

Gilmore wasn’t perfect against the Broncos. He allowed four catches on seven targets to his man, Demaryius Thomas, but with strong hands and an occasional flash of physicality, he kept Brock Osweiler’s favorite wide receiver relatively quiet, save for a third-quarter touchdown. After the play, it appeared Harmon got a little heated with Gilmore, who told us following the game he thought he had help underneath.

Maybe the players wouldn’t have joked about that earlier in the year, but Harmon had no problem laughing when I asked if the discussion was just about getting Gilmore to speak up and use his outside voice.

“Nah man, nah,” Harmon laughed. “It was just us talking about the play and making sure we’re on the same page,” adding, “I’ve never heard Steph raise his voice. Not sure he has one. It’s all good. We got enough people that yell in this building. We don’t need any more.”

“It’s just part of the process,” said Gilmore “We’ll get there. It’s getting better all the time.”