Matt Patricia

How will Eric Rowe's addition change the look of the Patriots secondary?

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How will Eric Rowe's addition change the look of the Patriots secondary?

FOXBORO -- The last time the Patriots had all four of their top corners healthy and ready to go was back in Week 4. 

It was the first play of the second half of their loss to the Panthers. Malcolm Butler was on one side of the field. Eric Rowe was on the other. Stephon Gilmore was on the bench. Jonathan Jones was sidelined as well, catching his breath after covering a Stephen Gostkowski kick.

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Ten weeks later, the picture at that position has changed.

Butler, though relatively inconsistent, has remained in the starting lineup. Gilmore suffered a concussion in Week 5, missed four games, and has returned to perform as one of the best in the league at his position over the last few weeks. Jones has emerged as one of Bill Belichick's most dependable defensive backs and a regular in the slot.

Rowe injured his groin on the first play of the third quarter against Carolina and missed the next two months of play. He returned to action last weekend in Orchard Park to a role (19 snaps) that was far different than the one he left when he ever-so-briefly supplanted Gilmore.

In Week 2, Rowe replaced Butler as a starter before injuring his groin for the first time. 

After missing as much time as he has, Rowe knows it could take some time before he finds himself near the top rung of the depth chart again. Gilmore, Butler and Jones all seem to have a firm grasp on their current gigs. 

“For me personally, my focus is on working back into the defense, trying to contribute any way I can,” he said Wednesday. “In Buffalo, I was in the backup role. I was just happy to be out there . . . I don’t want to be the guy that they throw out there and then I mess up. That would really mess me up mentally. So right now, whatever role I have, I’m just like, ‘You’ve got to take advantage of it.’ " 

Against the Bills, late in the game, Rowe broke up the one pass sent his way. And with Gilmore out for a short span of time earlier in the contest, he got the call. His opportunities were short, but he seemed to make the most of them. 

Indications are that Rowe's groin injury is one that will need to be managed for the remainder of the year, but he could find himself back on the field more regularly if he's able to recapture the form that allowed the Patriots to trust him as they did during the season's first month. 

At the very least -- with Butler and Gilmore both improved over where they were to start the season -- Rowe provides the Patriots with an element of depth at the corner position that would be the envy of many teams. 

McDaniels mum on Giants job, but longing for head coaching job remains

McDaniels mum on Giants job, but longing for head coaching job remains

The New York Giants jumped the gun on Black Monday, firing Ben McAdoo a full month before the end of the regular season. I’m told the Patriots fully expect the Giants to inquire about offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who wouldn’t be able to interview for the job until the first week of the playoffs at the earliest - assuming the Pats have a bye. 
 
McDaniels, 41, was asked if he had any interest in the vacancy on his conference call Tuesday. He stammered for a second before delivering a firm answer, “I have...I’ve just...I’m just interested in the Dolphins right now. That’s where my focus is at and that’s where it’s going to stay.”

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The Patriots play Miami on Monday Night in Miami.
 
McDaniels hasn’t been a willing participant in coaching roulette over the past two years. After the 2015 season, he didn’t interview for a post. Prior to the Super Bowl win over Atlanta last year, McDaniels had a meeting with San Francisco but withdrew from consideration, citing satisfaction with his current post and his family’s love of the area. 

Still, this isn’t that, or the Cleveland Browns or Los Angeles Chargers that are going to come calling. This is the New York FOOTBALL Giants, one of the marquee franchises not just in the NFL but in all of sport. And it’s not as if the longtime Belichick disciple doesn’t want another kick at the head coaching can. He spoke to that a little more than a year ago, also on a conference call.
 
“I definitely would love to be a head coach again,” he said on November 22, 2016. “There are only 32 of those in the world. They are opportunities that don’t come around very often, and if you would ever be so fortunate and blessed to have another opportunity to do it -- for myself, it would be a second time -- that would be an opportunity I would look forward to.”
 
But McDaniels is fully aware that this shot will likely be his last. He washed out of Denver after just 28 games, with zero playoff appearances and an 11-17 record. But that experience when he was 33 and 34 has helped shaped his mindset toward the next opportunity.
 
“It would have to be at the right place and the right time, which is what I’ve always said,” he recalled last year. “I try to make good decisions, what’s best for my family and myself. Again, somebody would have to offer that opportunity because you’re lucky if you get that. That’s my mindset, and anything that was reported about my thinking or my plans or the things that I want to do - the other day I saw that; those things I would say are unfounded.”
 
Bill Belichick gave his blessing to McDaniels when he took that Denver job. It had all the hallmarks of being a stable post, with a long-standing owner, a great fanbase and plenty of control over personnel. Obviously, it didn’t go as planned. Was McDaniels too inexperienced? Did he try to mold his style after Belichick and not be his own man? There were all kinds of rumblings post-firing. How does an assistant know he’s ready for that next step? I asked Belichick to recall his own situation many moons ago. But trying to get him on the record with less than a week to prepare for a divisional rival on the road went as you would expect.
 
“I really appreciate the question and I respect it but right now I don’t really care about anyone else’s coaches or some other team or anything else,” said Belichick. “I’m just trying to get this team ready. I’m trying to do a good job as a coach to prepare this team to play Miami. It's going to be a tough game down there Monday night, which it is always is and that’s really what I really need to focus on and see if I can help our team do a good job of that. It hasn’t been easy down there.”
 
That said, Belichick has known for some time that he may lose one or both of his coordinators (defensive coordinator Matt Patricia interviewed for two jobs, Cleveland and the L.A. Chargers, last year). He has a strong, veteran staff that could help to shoulder those departures without upsetting the incredible continuity this organization has had in that regard. But as for whether both men are ready to spread their wings, today wasn’t the day to dive deep into that possibility (likelihood?).
 
“I think I’ve been on the record so many times about our coaches our coaching staff and questions along those lines,” he deadpanned. “There’s gotta be notebooks full of my answers to that.”
 
Indeed there are. Again, from a year ago November, Belichick stated “I think both Josh and Matt are great coaches who should absolutely be on any head-coaching list. I can’t imagine that there are many other coaches that could present a résumé equal or comparable to theirs. They’ve done a great job here for a sustained period of time, so great track record.” 
 
There is no arguing that. Since his return to New England, McDaniels has been the coordinator on two Super Bowl winning teams. He also has the 2007-08 record-setting offense on his resume. He’s also developed a softer touch with his players, something he apparently lacked as the boss in Denver. 
 
“I think it’s important for them to understand how much I care about them personally and their well-being not only as a football player but as a human being,” he said Tuesday. “I think any good relationship is going to start with your connection to the person and as long as they know how much you care, then they’ll listen to what you have to say about helping them improve as a player, and get better and help your football team. That’s important to me. I love the guys we have. I love the guys we work with. I love our staff. Those guys understand that we’re all in this together and we gotta work hard to try to maintain those relationships and ultimately produce on the field. That’s what our job is.”
 
That job is always easier to do when you have Tom Brady as your quarterback. He and McDaniels are close. They have been since Josh’s first go-round with the team. That relationship remains as strong as ever, despite what you may have seen Sunday in Buffalo. It was there that the 40-year signal caller erupted - be it ever so briefly - at his offensive coordinator. Brady is already on record as saying he wished he hadn’t done that. McDaniels on Tuesday said the page has been turned.
 
“Tommy is a very emotional person and emotional player,” he said. “It’s part of what makes him great you understand that those things happen. It's never personal. You move on quickly from it. We did and we have. I love Tom and all the things he stands for and does for our team.”
 
That relationship may enter a new phase once this season ends, but for now, don’t sweat it. McDaniels is committed to the Patriots, and the team will benefit from that in the short term, even if the job with the Giants ultimately is too enticing for him to say no to.
 

Where have Patriots LBs improved? Look at covering pass-catching backs

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Where have Patriots LBs improved? Look at covering pass-catching backs

Third quarter, Patriots versus the Raiders. Elandon Roberts lined up in the middle of the defense, the only off-the-ball linebacker on this second-down play from midfield. Roberts looked intently into the Oakland backfield, trying to decipher where quarterback Derek Carr would go on the play. 

At the snap of the ball, Carr released his running back, Jalen Richard, to the right of the formation. With the Pats playing man-to-man, Roberts had to hurry to cover the quicker, faster Richard. The second-year pro also had to skirt around a slight pick by wide receiver Amari Cooper. Successfully navigating that landmine, Roberts went stride for stride with Richard. 

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Carr still identified that as the matchup to exploit but the throw clanged off the back of Roberts’ helmet. Not the result Carr was looking for, and despite the ugliness at the tail end of the play, yet another sign of the Pats improving in an area that early in the season had been an issue.

“It's certainly a good observation,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “That's part of the process as you go through the year and understanding your opponents and what they like to do from the standpoint of plays. So certainly on that particular play where it might be a situation where they're trying to pick him or get him in a bad coverage matchup and he did a good job of getting through it.”

Covering running backs coming out of the backfield is not something that the Pats have been particularly adept at over the years. Roberts, especially, seemed lost in those spots in his rookie season. But with Dont’a Hightower lost for the season, the Pats have had to spread out some of those responsibilities and Roberts, 23, the University of Houston product, is growing in that department.

“[He's] someone that works really hard to know where his help is in both situations whether it's leveraging a run play or leveraging a pass play,” complimented Patricia. “He's really trying to learn and understand that at a much higher level which he's really trying to do a good job of.”

It wasn’t just that play and it wasn’t just Roberts. In the opening quarter, Kyle Van Noy swarmed Richard in the right flat, limiting the shifty back to just four yards. Later, Trevor Reilly quickly snuffed out a swing pass to Richard. Bill Belichick - like Patricia - has taken notice.

“I think that’s a very competitive group of players on our team,” Belichick said. “So again, just trying to work on our fundamentals, and individual techniques, and try to work each week on our opponent, and their tendencies, the way they do things to match it up against. Those guys work hard at both of those areas.”

That work will need to continue. The Pats will get two doses in three weeks of Miami running back Damien Williams, who in limited snaps has made an impact as a receiver. There’s also Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, the skilled trio of Bilal Powell, Matt Forte and Elijah McGuire for the Jets and LeSean McCoy in Buffalo. In other words, no resting our recent success.

“We're obviously going to look at the other aspect of it too and say, 'Well this is where we think we need to improve and this is where we think we need to make sure that we have this tightened up because this showed up,'" Patricia said. "Whether or not – it could be a bad situation for us whether it's just a – maybe it's a particular look that offense gives us or a particular defensive call.

That no doubt earns a nod from the head coach, who never believes what’s good is good enough.

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