Patriots

Keeping Amendola may have been the Patriots most important offseason move

Keeping Amendola may have been the Patriots most important offseason move

FOXBORO - Is it possible that in an offseason of wheeling and dealing, the most important move the Patriots made was to keep a guy who's been on the roster since 2013? 

Potentially. That's how critical Danny Amendola has been to making the Patriots one of the most potent offenses in football. 

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Despite missing Week 2 with a concussion, Amendola is on pace for one of the best seasons of his career with 23 receptions on 27 targets for 267 yards and a touchdown in four games. He's already tied his receptions mark from 2016, and if he stays healthy he's tracking toward an 86-catch, 1,000-yard season - both would be career-highs. 

The key for Amendola is always his health -- he played in 12 games last season and he missed two in 2015 -- but with Julian Edelman out, he's become a key part of the offense. 

If he plays 15 games, and if Tom Brady looks his way at the current rate, he'd hit 100 targets for just the third time in his career. According to STATS, he's tied for second among receivers in third-down conversions (7) behind only San Diego's Keenan Allen.

Against Tampa Bay, Amendola turned in one of his best performances of the young season, catching all eight of his official targets for 77 yards. He had three more catches that were wiped out due to penalties -- one of those was his own offensive pass-interference call, but on the next play he caught one for 14 yards and a first down. It was one of five first-downs he converted in the game.

Amendola also returned three punts for 51 yards, and his 40-yard return may have gone for more had he not been run into by teammate Brandon Bolden.

"I thought Danny gave us a lot of critical plays in the game," Bill Belichick said on Friday. "He gave us punt returns, some catches and he blocked well. He had a couple of key blocks in the running game, as well, so I thought he really did a solid job for us in all the areas, in all of the things that he was asked to do, which he usually does. He's one of our best and most dependable players."

It's hard to believe that in the offseason, as the Patriots started to build up their roster, there were some who wondered if the team might actually part ways with Amendola, 31. 

The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder was never going to remain on the books at his originally-schedule base salary of $6 million, so a reduction, or a release, was inevitable. To stick with a winning organization, in a system he knows, in an area where he has family, Amendola agreed to his third reduction in salary in as many seasons. 

But even after that financial nod, there were some who wondered if he'd be kept on to play behind Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and possibly Malcolm Mitchell. 

After injuries to Edelman and Mitchell have led to an increased role for the 31-year-old, that restructure now looks like one of the wisest moves the Patriots made all offseason. 

The Brandin Cooks trade is right up there. He has come as advertised, helping the Patriots win a thriller last Sunday against the Texans with 131 yards receiving and two scores. He's played almost 90 percent of the offensive snaps. And despite a bad drop over the middle against the Bucs on Thursday night, he led the team with 85 yards receiving on five catches. 

After that? Stephon Gilmore? Dwayne Allen? Mike Gillislee? Rex Burkhead? David Harris? Lawrence Guy? Kony Ealy...? 

There's not a single offseason move that's helped the Patriots more than keeping Amendola.

"The guy, he’s a great football player and he does a lot of things well," Josh McDaniels said Friday. "He’s tough, he always makes an impact when he’s in there, he blocks hard, he gets open in the passing game, he catches the ball, he’s hard to tackle, he returns punts, makes big plays in the kicking game, he’s a great teammate. 

"There’s nothing I don’t love about Danny Amendola. Every time he’s out there, you feel good about what may happen if the ball is headed towards him, and he always comes up big in the biggest moments or biggest games. Danny’s having a very good beginning to the season, and we want to continue to try to do that."
 

Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

Patriots defense steps up in gotta-have-it situations vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- It wasn't that long ago that it felt like the Patriots couldn't get off the field on third down. Last week against the Jets, during their first drive, the Patriots defense put quarterback Josh McCown in four third-down scenarios . . . and he converted on all four. The last was a short touchdown pass to put New England in an early hole. 

Sunday night's 23-7 win over the Falcons was a different story. Atlanta went 2-for-9 on its third-down chances at Gillette Stadium and 1-for-3 on fourth down. In a game where the Patriots were dominating the time of possession (they ended up controlling the football for 34:05), the Falcons were desperate to keep their offense on the field.

They couldn't. 

"We made a lot of plays when we needed to make them," said Bill Belichick. "Red area, third down, some critical situations, goal line. We didn’t make all of the plays, but when big plays came up we were able to make those plays. Those are big stops for us.

"Again, give the players credit. They’re covering good receivers. They’re playing against a good offensive team, a good quarterback, good system, good offensive line. They just really competed with them all the way through. When those plays needed to be made we stepped up and we were able to make most of them."

Two of Atlanta's first three drives were three-and-outs. On their fourth series, late in the second quarter and down 10-0, they opted to go for it on fourth-and-six from the Patriots 47-yard line.

The Falcons had plenty of time to think it over since the two-minute warning came down following their third-down play. Still, judging by the play call, they felt their best shot at picking up the necessary yardage was to attack Patriots corner Jonathan Jones in one-on-one coverage during a Mohamed Sanu corner route. Matt Ryan overthrew his target and the Patriots took over, driving the field and scoring in the half's final seconds. 

PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 7

"They were playing aggressive tonight, as they should," said special-teams captain Matthew Slater. "They have great weapons over there and a great quarterback in Matt Ryan, and the list goes on with the guys they've got. They had a lot of confidence in going for it."

But going for it on fourth down so early in the game caught some Patriots players off-guard. They had their punt-return team on the field and ready to go but had to make a late switch in order to be ready for the pass play. 

The Falcons converted one fourth down, their first, on their second drive of the night when Ryan scrambled for nine on fourth-and-seven. But they failed their next two, and some Patriots players acknowledged the aggressiveness of their opponents was heaed-scratching. 

"It kind of surprised us at some point," Trey Flowers said. "They had to make a play and they wanted to make a play, so they figured it was the right opportunity to try to make it. We had to play four downs."

"That just showed you how big they thought this game was, too," Duron Harmon said. "They wanted to win and keep their offense out there because they felt like the offense gave them a good chance to win. It’s a testament to what we did. Even when they got it on the first fourth down, we kept them out of the end zone. We played really good and didn’t give up any points. When they got in the red zone, we made it really hard for them to score. That’s what we need to continue to do and continue to build on this performance."

The Patriots got their second fourth-down stop early in the fourth quarter -- a gut-punch for a Falcons offense that at the time was trailing, 20-0. On third down, Malcolm Butler broke up a goal-line pass intended for Julio Jones. On fourth, Atlanta attempted an end-around run with speedy wideout Taylor Gabriel that was snuffed out quickly by Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy. The play lost five yards and got the Patriots started on a 74-yard field-goal drive.

"I thought we competed and made them earn every yard," Devin McCourty said. "When you go against good teams, that’s what you have to do. We made enough plays. We played really well on third down, which we talked about always helps us when we play well on third down. And then tonight happened to be where we had to play plays on fourth down, and I thought we handled that well."

It was certainly better than it had been at times earlier this season. For the Patriots -- without corners Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore -- to hold the reigning MVP and his teammates to a 25 percent conversion rate on third and fourth downs? That's an authoritative step in the right direction. 

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'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

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"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

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