Patriots

Jones backs off Goodell, backs Garrett

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Jones backs off Goodell, backs Garrett

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As soon as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones confirmed he is backing off a threat of legal action over the future of commissioner Roger Goodell, the focus turned to the performance of coach Jason Garrett and his staff.

That's how bad the tailspin is for a team desperately missing suspended star running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Jones said after Dallas' third straight loss by at least 20 points - 28-6 to the Los Angeles Chargers on Thanksgiving - that the compensation committee was being responsive to his concerns about a contract extension for Goodell.

While denying that his concerns are connected to Goodell's decision to suspend Elliott for six games over alleged domestic violence, Jones said he wanted all the owners to revisit the commissioner's performance after voting unanimously in May to let the compensation committee complete a new deal.

Jones' concerns have included the league's handling of protests involving the national anthem and the disciplinary power of the commissioner in the collective bargaining agreement, which is what Goodell used to punish Elliott after prosecutors in Ohio didn't pursue charges.

The issue turned into an exchange of threatening letters after Jones hired high-profile attorney David Boies. Jones said there will be an owners-only session to discuss Goodell's contract during the next NFL meetings Dec. 13 in the Dallas area.

"I just want to say we really have had, are having a lot of owner participation," Jones said. "It doesn't mean at all that we're not really pursuing what we want to get done, and that is have the owners in a very positive way give input and make everyone, including ourselves, accountable.

"I don't want to be redundant, but the business of standing down there didn't necessarily mean that you're not standing up elsewhere."

Jones' team is falling apart a year after the dynamic rookie duo of quarterback Dak Prescott and Elliott carried the Cowboys to the best record in the NFC at 13-3.

Dallas (5-6) already has twice as many losses, and Prescott more than double the number of interceptions (nine after four as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year). The Cowboys still have three games left in Elliott's suspension, after winning the last three before the ban.

The slide hasn't reflected well on the coaches, with the Cowboys outscored 72-6 in the second half of the three losses. That lopsided number leads to questions about halftime adjustments.

"We all know that it has to get better, has to get together," Jones said. "I really think this coaching staff is tops. I think Jason is able to use everything that he's learned, as coordinator, as coach over these last years, and we've just got to get it together."

The last time Garrett faced questions about his job, the Cowboys were coming off three straight 8-8 seasons that ended with losses in regular-season finales that kept them out of the playoffs.

Since then, the fluctuations have been dramatic - NFC East champs at 12-4 in 2014, a first-to-last slide to 4-12 without injured quarterback Tony Romo a year later, followed by last season's sparkling year when Prescott shocked the NFL after Romo got hurt again.

And while the absence of Elliott and 2016 All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) is a huge part of the current slide, the Cowboys again aren't handling adversity well. Garrett admitted as much about 2015, and is about to have to do so again if the Cowboys can't reverse the slide.

Dallas plays Washington in the last of three home games Thursday, then starts a season-ending stretch of three out of four on the road at the last-place New York Giants.

"Obviously we've got to get it right," Garrett said. "That's my job. That's our job as a coaching staff. We just haven't done enough on either side of the ball or in the kicking game to allow us to compete toward the end of the ballgame."

Jones, who spoke to the team after the game but declined to offer details, tried to say he wasn't giving the "negative vote of confidence" by continuing to show faith in Garrett, who got a five-year contract after winning the division and his first playoff game in 2014.

In his seventh full season, Garrett is 63-52 in the regular season. Only Tom Landry, who led the Cowboys for their first 29 years, has coached the team longer.

"I feel about this staff the same way I feel about my mirror - that's what if there's some changes made, don't change what's in front of the mirror, because I can change what you're doing that the mirror is seeing," Jones said. "Candidly, I'm really not shaken. I'm disappointed, but there's no shake here."

That could change if the blowout losses don't stop.

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Steelers' man-to-man plans against Patriots may be unrealistic

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Steelers' man-to-man plans against Patriots may be unrealistic

FOXBORO -- It's time for Keith Butler to make good on his promise.

"We can’t always play zone, especially against people like the Patriots," the Steelers defensive coordinator told Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan over the summer. “You look at the people who have beaten the Patriots in the past and a lot of them played man-to-man. I think the last time we beat them [in 2011], we were playing a lot of man-to-man coverage.”

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If the Steelers were to play tight man-to-man Sunday -- taking a page from the Dolphins, Texans and others who've given Tom Brady trouble in the past -- they'll be giving the Patriots something different than what they saw last year in the AFC title game. 

But so far at least, according to Bill Belichick, they're essentially running the same scheme they were a year ago. 

Instead the defensive changes the Steelers have made compared to a year ago have been more personnel-based. Back in the mix is Cam Heyward, a dominant interior defensive lineman. Longtime Browns corner Joe Haden was added to the roster and could return from a broken leg he suffered last month. Out is arguably the team's top defender, linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a scary season-ending back injury on Monday Night Football last week.

Because Shazier was so critical to everything the Steelers did defensively, they have no one-for-one replacement and they've been forced to adjust without him, Belichick explained Wednesday. 

"They’ve had to replace him," he said. "They’ve played more dime defense with him out. They’re primarily a nickel team going back to last year when it was [Lawrence] Timmons and Shazier. A lot of nickel this year. They’ve played a little more dime this year and in the last couple of weeks in third-down situations -- not on early downs. I'd say that would be the biggest change. That’s not really a change, but that has shown up."

Base. Nickel. Dime. Whatever the package, the Steelers still seem to favor matchup-zones. They're a group that loves to pressure and blitz from those looks, and now without Shazier (and potentially Haden), a shift to more man-to-man might be unrealistic. 

Shazier's size and athleticism allows him to shadow backs and tight ends. If the Steelers choose to replace him in passing situations with a defensive back -- as Belichick suggests they have -- then that should open up opportunities for the Patriots to run the football.

If that's the case, the ripple effect feels predictable. 

The Steelers could be forced to bring an extra defender into the box to stop the New England ground game. That removes one body from the secondary. And if Butler's calling for zone defenses -- because he doesn't like his 'backers manned-up on Patriots backs, or his safeties on Rob Gronkowski -- then that gives Patriots pass-catchers more room to operate and wider windows for Brady to throw through. 

All of a sudden it's the AFC Championship Game again. 

It seems like an almost impossible decision for Butler and head coach Mike Tomlin. Do they try to survive with the schemes that have gotten them to 11-2, even if Tom Brady's proven time and again that he can dice them up? Or do they trust a shaky set of man defenders against one of the most high-powered offenses in football?

The Steelers could try to get by with defensive backs jamming at the line of scrimmage, hope to upset Brady's timing, and let Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, TJ Watt and Bud Dupree do their best to get into the Patriots backfield. But that may be asking a lot of a unit that just gave up 38 points to Joe Flacco and the NFL's No. 27 offense in yards per game. 

Unfortunately for Butler, with the players he has at his disposal, the game plan he cooked up for the Patriots this summer may already be shot.

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Steelers defense struggles to fill void left by Shazier's absence

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Steelers defense struggles to fill void left by Shazier's absence

FOXBORO -- Ryan Shazier’s frightening injury has created a big void in the Steelers' defense. He was the link between the front and back ends, and his speed, quickness and intelligence allowed him to stay on the field for three downs, giving Pittsburgh a necessary element of flexibility in a league where that’s key. 

In their first full game without Shazier, the Steelers had to lean on three different players to do the job of one, and the results were quite concerning for the AFC North leaders. They surrendered 38 points to the Baltimore Ravens, whose quarterback, Joe Flacco, has been one of the worst players at his position this year. 

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“This is a game of confidence,” said Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt. “You have to go into this game knowing, ‘Hey, I belong in this position and this is what we’re going to do.’ And when you have a call sometimes and you’re going to be like ‘I know what they’re doing,’ you have to go for it.”

That clearly didn’t happen nearly enough for Pittsburgh in that one-point win. Perhaps it was the emotional letdown of knowing Shazier not only won’t be coming back this year but perhaps had his life altered by his spinal injury. You can’t dismiss that. This isn’t a player suffering an ankle, knee or shoulder injury. This is something far greater.

But it sure sounds like the message this week is to put that in the rearview mirror as best you can and -- stop me if you’ve heard this before -- do your job.

“It’s telling guys, ‘You don’t have to do more than what is asked of you,’” defensive end Cam Heyward told the gathered media earlier this week. “‘You don’t have to be Superman, we just need your best.’

“Our defense is designed for us to just do our 1/11th, guys have to understand that. Going against the best, they’ll exploit it. But if you come back at ’em and say, ‘I’m going to do my job because I trust my teammates and I expect the best out of everybody else,’ then you’re going to be successful no matter what.”

The Steelers gave up 413 yards to Baltimore, the second-highest total of year, and the 38 points allowed topped the charts. Sean Spence, Arthur Moats and L.J. Fort took turns trying to fill Shazier’s shoes, with Spence getting the most snaps. He was signed a little over a week ago, adding another layer to Pittsburgh’s challenge.

“It’s a lot harder because as guys go down and you have multiple guys stepping in, you have to be even more crisp,” said Heyward. “You have to have even more execution, and obviously we didn’t. But you have guys playing new positions, they have to understand, ‘We’re not just putting you in here just to put you in here. We’re expecting big results. We expect you to go out there and do it.’ "

Now the Steelers must face their toughest challenge yet, a Patriots offense that has scorched them year after year and will also get its best receiver, Rob Gronkowski, back from his one-game suspension for a late hit on Tre’Davious White in Buffalo.

“Gronk is not only one of the most dynamic tight ends but just one of the most dynamic players in the NFL,” said coach Mike Tomlin. “Obviously his absence is a significant one and his presence is a significant one.”

A presence the Pats may be able to exploit, considering Shazier did a fair amount of coverage work versus tight ends. 

“We need more. We need better,” said Tuitt. “And I think we have the players to do it.”

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