Patriots

Stephon Gilmore has corrected his course with Patriots

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Stephon Gilmore has corrected his course with Patriots

FOXBORO -- Devin McCourty could barely wait for the question to finish before he started answering.

He knew what he wanted to say because he had lived it himself. At the root of the discussion was cornerback Stephon Gilmore and his improved play. The query was whether Gilmore’s early season struggles and adversity had actually proven to be a positive in the long run -- allowing the player to reveal his true character to a new locker room.

“I kind of look at everything similar to when I played corner here,” recalled McCourty in an almost empty Patriots locker room. “When you play corner, you already feel like you’re on an island by yourself and then when it doesn’t go well, you’re like, ‘[shoot], I am by myself out here.’ It gives you a very resilient attitude. I’m just going make my plays.”

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Gilmore has made his share over the last few weeks, looking very much like a player worth the resources the team invested in him. Sunday, he drew Miami’s DeVante Parker and made him disappear faster than the turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving Day. Parker caught just one ball for five yards. The big receiver was also Matt Moore’s red-zone target just prior to halftime; Gilmore intercepted the underthrown pass like he knew it was coming. That’s because he did.

“They ran that route on us earlier in the first quarter and I knew they were going to come back to it,” said Gilmore. “Every time DeVante Parker is in the slot, he runs the seam empty so I just beat him to the spot.”

“It was a huge play. No question, a big momentum play,” said Bill Belichick.

McCourty had a front-row seat for the interception and watched Gilmore nearly snag a second before being “a team player” and letting Duron Harmon live up to his "closer" reputation and get the pick himself. The veteran safety smiled in approval at the memory and what he’s seen from the 27-year old corner since his tumultuous start to the season.

“He’s really played well for us the last couple of weeks, going out there and shutting down people has been big for us,” said McCourty. “I’ve been telling him this since he got here: 'You’re a good player and you’re going to keep playing good for us. Don’t worry about about what’s going on, what people are saying.' I think his confidence hasn’t swayed and I think that’s been a big plus for him to just go out and keep playing.”

Gilmore insisted over the first month of the season that his mistakes were not physical and that gave him reason to believe he’d eventually turn the corner. He owned up to those mistakes even if that confidence seemed a bit odd to the untrained eye. He agrees that there was a silver lining in those woes, that his teammates got a crash course in who he was and what he was all about, although to hear Gilmore talk, it makes it seem like it’s nothing new for anyone worth a damn playing cornerback. 

“Yeah, that comes with the position,” said Gilmore. “Anytime you’re playing corner, playing man-to-man, that one mistake you make everybody’s going to see it. I’m able to take that. I know how to take it and get better and better every game. I come out on top eventually.”

That’s not misguided. Gilmore is on the right track and now nods approvingly when asked if he’s playing some of the best football of his career. 

“Yeah,” he said, “I think I am.”

The adjustment period is over. Gilmore has stood up to Mike Evans in Tampa, Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, Michael Crabtree in Mexico City and now Miami’s Parker in front of the Gillette Stadium crowd. Those challenges would range from strong to quite strong and Gilmore has handled each and every one. But it doesn’t get easier here in the stretch run. In fact, now Gilmore must go back to where he spent the previous five years of his career and face an angry Buffalo fanbase that didn’t take to kindly to him leaving and his references to finally getting a chance to play in prime time and play for a winner. 

“I’m here now. I love playing with the guys. I have respect for what the Bills are doing; they have so many talented players on their team,” he said.

Pressed on what he thinks the atmosphere will be like, Gilmore only acknowledged that it will be “loud” but didn’t want to go any deeper than that, at least not yet.

That Buffalo fanbase is boisterous and a little bit wild. The parking lot pre- and postgame is not for the timid. Hell, the stadium can be nearly as bad. While Gilmore wasn’t willing to go there, McCourty would when I asked him about culture shock being a piece of what Gilmore went through during his first summer and handful of regular season games.

“If they lose and lose by a lot no one really cares,” said McCourty of Buffalo’s fans. “Here everyone expects you to win every time you’re going on the field. When you’re the new guy and it’s not going right, people want to point fingers. In any adversity, you realize these are your guys in the locker room and we never turned on him. Guys had his back. I think he felt that and knew that. A 16-game season is not going to go well all the time. You keep pushing, keep working, keep playing and eventually it will turn for you.”

Gilmore has made that turn. Now down the stretch they come. 

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Dolphins made Patriots look like just another team. How did that happen?

Dolphins made Patriots look like just another team. How did that happen?

How did that happen?

How did the Patriots – an 11.5-point favorite that beat Miami by 18 two weeks ago in a game where they handed Miami a touchdown – look like just another team on Monday night? It’s the obvious question and there are plenty of obvious answers. And some that aren’t so obvious. Here’s a collection of them. 

The Dolphins did absolutely nothing to beat themselves. The Patriots had the two turnovers – two underthrown Tom Brady picks directed at Brandin Cooks – and Miami didn’t turn it over once. They didn’t even come close until that bing-bing-bing ricochet pass from Jay Cutler late in the fourth quarter.

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Cooks does many things very well. He’s got elite speed, tremendous hands and he’s tough. But he doesn’t get sudden separation and, as Troy Brown said in Postgame Live, some of that has to do with his route running. Xavien Howard got physical with Cooks and Cooks’ wasn’t getting away from Howard early. That messed up timing, which we saw on the third down throw that Brady fired at Cooks before the wideout even got his head around. The ball had to come out on time, Cooks was delayed getting off the line and was still running his route and the pass never had a shot. Cooks was targeted seven times. He caught one. He’s profited this season from the presence of Rob Gronkowski, the effectiveness of the running game and play action that at least slows the pass rush. With Brady having less time and Cooks becoming the main option because of his 1-on-1 matchup, a spotlight was put on the facet of Cooks’ game which isn’t there yet.

Brady couldn’t buy time. In so many games this season, Brady’s been able to read where the heat is coming from and step up in the pocket where he can survey with no obstructions. With Miami sending extra rushers frequently up the middle and really stressing the middle of the Patriots offensive line where Joe Thuney and David Andrews are susceptible to power, Brady was forced to retreat to throw rather than step up.

The personnel on defense caught up to them. Without Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy, the front-seven – already diminished by the absence of Dont'a Hightower – was comprised of a lot of bit players in big roles. Kenyan Drake walked through a tackle attempt by Eric Lee at one point. Alan Branch injured his knee and eventually left the game for good. Elandon Roberts got put in mismatches by shrewd Miami playcalling. Marquis Flowers – who started alongside Roberts at linebacker – is a depth player and special-teamer. Jordan Richards – who had a clean shot at sacking Cutler but couldn’t wrap him up – is not good at tackling. Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler – promising rookies – remain rookies. When Duron Harmon was up and hollering at the defense on the sidelines,  he was yelling at a collection of players that I wouldn’t have known if they walked up to my door a couple of months ago.

Bunches of bunch formations were an issue. Midway through the second half, after Jarvis Landry found himself all alone for a red zone touchdown, Jerod Mayo sent me a text which read, “A team going back to bunches. A lot of loaded formations.” This was something Mayo harped on early in the season when the Patriots defense struggled. The bunch formations where receivers are stacked on one side puts a premium on communication. Monday night was by no means a throwback to those dark days, but the Dolphins’ approach at least revisited an issue the Patriots had earlier in the year. Too few teams have tried that approach.

Brady rarely looked comfortable or confident he was going to get a clean pocket. And that’s what Miami set out to do. Brady with his feet planted is an assassin. He’s obsessive about getting his feet set and being able to rip into throws. He can usually get to that stable base quickly. Miami kept making him move his feet and reset which led to some of his inaccuracy.

Cutler was smart enough to fight another day. When plays broke down or nobody came open, Cutler didn’t try to jam passes into tight windows. He got rid of it and moved on to the next play.

Miami didn’t have busts. Their loss two weeks ago was littered with defensive breakdowns in the secondary and at the linebacker level. That absolutely helped New England roll up 196 yards on the ground and 10 plays of 20 or more yards. They ran for 25 yards on Monday night and had five plays of 20 or more yards. They also tackled brilliantly all night.

There was a lot of wailing on my Twitter timeline (as there always is when the Patriots don’t play like the Patriots) and a lot of it was aimed at Josh McDaniels. That feels like a copout. If the offensive line is leaking and guys aren’t getting open fast, that’s how it looks. There’s no lever to pull that makes it all go away. Miami just played really well and its personnel outplayed the Patriots. They did things Monday night that they didn’t do two weeks ago and some of those adjustments have to fall on the coaches and coordinator but this was execution, not coaching.

What’s it mean going against Pittsburgh? Well, the Steelers will run bunch formations. And they have the game’s most explosive wide receiver who can threaten the defense at all three levels. They’ll need to communicate better. And the Steelers will definitely play man and try bring pressure. It’s something Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked about all offseason after the Patriots blistered his zone schemes in the AFC Championship last year.

So is it time for a level of panic? No. Gronkowski’s return will drastically change the Patriots. He’s been a monster this season and a week off isn’t going to change that. The Steelers were going to do everything Miami did anyway. Now the Patriots have a good look at what they’ll need to improve in order to beat it.

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Brady unable to get comfortable without security blanket Gronkowski

Brady unable to get comfortable without security blanket Gronkowski

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Was it the number of hits Tom Brady took from the Dolphins defense two weeks ago that were still fresh in his mind? Or did he simply understand that without Rob Gronkowski it was going to be a difficult night? 

Whatever it was, the Patriots quarterback seemed uncharacteristically jumpy from the beginning of Monday night's game at Hard Rock Stadium, and he wasn't able to help his team mount much of a fight in a 27-20 defeat that was not as close as the score indicated. 

The Patriots went 0-for-11 on third down -- their first game without a third-down conversion since 1991 -- and went three-and-out seven times. They managed only 25 yards rushing (a season-low) and 248 yards passing (also a season-low). 

Brady went 24-for-43 for 233 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He was picked twice in the Divisional Round last season against the Texans, but Monday was his first regular-season game with two picks since 2015. His 59.5 passer rating was his worst in four seasons. He's now 7-9 in Miami for his career. 

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"Yeah, it was pretty bad," Brady said after the game when asked about the difficulty he had on third down. "We can't get any worse than that. We couldn't stay on the field and just didn't make enough plays. It's just a bad night. We've had a lot of good nights this year and this was a bad night."

Brady's first dropback of the night may have rattled him. He managed to get off an incompletion despite Lawrence Timmons screaming off the right edge unblocked. On the next snap, he had plenty of time but underthrew Brandin Cooks badly and was picked by Xavien Howard. 

On the first play of the next Patriots drive, Brady bailed on a throw early, perhaps sensing that Ndamukong Suh was wiggling free from his block. The pass went incomplete to James White despite the fact that Brady had time to throw and was in no real danger of being hit. 

Brady made some remarkable throws later in the first half. His 20-yard floater to Dion Lewis as he was being hit by Kiko Alonso stood out. So too did his seven-yarder to James White that was completed after Brady avoided an Andre Branch pressure. 

But in the second half, the pressures began to pile up and take their toll on the front-runner for MVP. After taking an eight-yard sack, he was picked deep down the middle of the field by Howard on another underthrown shot to Cooks. The Dolphins went up 20-10 on the subsequent drive, and all of a sudden Miami rushers could pin their ears back and hunt. 

Brady attempted one third-down throw to a smothered Cooks on the outside when he might've had Dwayne Allen available for first-down yardage. He threw another third-down prayer deep to Chris Hogan that went incomplete. Yet another was fired to Cooks on a slant that was so off-the-mark it looked almost like a throwaway. 

With a lead, Suh, Phillips, Branch, Cameron Wake and Charles Harris stalked Brady from the other side of the line of scrimmage, making life difficult for the Patriots offensive line. Brady was hit six times, sacked twice, and pressured on numerous other occasions -- even when he had more time than he thought. 

The result was an unsettled offense.

"I think that's accurate," Nate Solder said. "I think there was a lot of drives where we were just playing behind on the chains, and that made it really tough. We know they have a great pass-rush and the front four is as good as any that's in the league. When you're playing behind like that, you have to take their best shot every time. It just is gonna look bad, it's gonna be tough, and it's a long, hard day."

Not having Gronkowski to attract coverage -- and beat man coverage even when blanketed, as he so often does -- didn't help matters for the Patriots. Neither did having a No. 2 receiver in Chris Hogan who hadn't played in more than a month and may have had some rust to knock off. 

But Brady was not himself early, and that led to issues later on as the score got away from him and his teammates.

"We got behind and that's not the way we want to play the game. It's a bad loss," Brady said. "I wish we played better, but we didn't. We have to move on and try to play better next week."

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