Patriots

McDaniels optimistic about White’s ascent

james-white.jpg

McDaniels optimistic about White’s ascent

What Dion Lewis did in the first half of this season won’t fade anytime soon. He reeled off at least one “Did you see that?” move per game and ripped off plays like the touchdown in Dallas that very few NFL players active or retired could have pulled off. And I’ve watched a lot of football.

So the Patriots will now be playing without a player who was – and I hope I’m not overstating it – doing things that people hadn’t seen before.

On a conference call Tuesday, Bill Belichick addressed the news, saying, “It’s obviously a tough break for Dion. Dion has worked really hard and he’s had a really productive spring, camp and helped our football team a lot – great attitude, great worker, great kid. Hopefully he’ll have a good recovery and we’ll get him back.”
 
Meanwhile, the guy who does the job Lewis was doing is James White.

The second-year running back from Wisconsin has 16 carries and 12 catches in his career. He spent 2014 behind Shane Vereen and this year behind Lewis. He’s a player that’s smart, knows where he’s supposed to be, has natural hands and good speed. My gripe with his game is that he went down a little too easily as a rookie. He came back bulked up this year and showed glimpses of being able to run through contact a little more. He’ll also – once he gets some confidence – be able to show whether he can string moves together and be more elusive than he’s shown.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is optimistic.

“James is a very consistent guy,” he explained. “He comes to work. He's got a great attitude and approach, is always prepared to go in and fulfill any of the roles that we have for our backs. He's a dependable guy. He can handle a lot of different assignments, and then when we've needed him to play this season, he's certainly been a guy who has done a decent job in blitz pickup. He's caught the football well out of the backfield, and then he's made yards with it when he's had it in his hands.

“James is a guy who continues to get better,” he added. “Hopefully his best football is in front of him. You know, he's still a young player, has only been in our system for a year and a half here I think. And going forward, whatever his role is, I'm sure James will be prepared, and will give our team everything he has. So I really like his approach and his mentality, and he's got a maturity about him that I really feel good about. He'll have an opportunity now to step in there and play a little bit more with Dion’s situation.”

How much more will depend on what White does with the reps he gets. It would be unrealistic to think he’ll do what Lewis did or we would have seen indications of it by now.

Can he be adequate to good? We will find out.

Patriots searching for answers after season of road disappointments

juju_smith_schuster.png
AP Photo

Patriots searching for answers after season of road disappointments

PITTSBURGH -- What makes it all so strange is that this Patriots team isn't all that different from last year's, or even 2016's, when it comes to the personnel. 

Those were both Super Bowl teams. One was the last team standing after the single greatest comeback in the history of the sport. The mental toughness of those teams was not questioned.

This one? 

After losing to the Steelers on Sunday, 17-10, they fell to 3-5 on the road for the season. They were called for season-high 14 penalties. They had a season-high three drops. The offense stalled in critical spots, going 3-for-10 on third down. They went 0-for-3 in the red zone. 

All of those issues -- situations that they began practicing back in OTAs -- could be filed away in the "mental toughness" folio. 

"Every year is different," Matthew Slater said. "This year is a little bit different. Obviously we've had some tough games on the road and that's the way football is sometimes. We really can't feel sorry for ourselves. There's still a lot for us to play for, but we certainly need to figure out who we are on the road as opposed to who we are at home."

STEELERS 17, PATRIOTS 10

The Patriots locker room, while dejected after a bad game, did express confidence that it can turn things around. The problem is, they're running out of time. The next time they'll be on the road, if they end up there, will be in the postseason. 

"I wouldn't say concerned," Duron Harmon said when asked about the team's road issues, "because . . . I know the type of group that we have. We all come ready to work. We are going to fix it. We are going to fix it for sure. We are going to be better next week and when we get another opportunity to play on the road, we will be better and do everything we can to get a win."

"We're still forming as one," Julian Edelman said. "We're still going. Still trying to improve. Lot of football left. Whether you win or lose, you gotta have a short memory and just get back on the train and go out and prepare next week and have a good week of practice."

Some of the things that the Patriots have been working on since the spring, though, are what's still ailing them. And as confident as players are that they'll get fixed, it's worth wondering if they ever will. It's Week 15.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

The Patriots are who we hoped they weren't

haden.png
AP Photo

The Patriots are who we hoped they weren't

They are who we hoped they weren’t.

After last week’s self-immolation in South Florida, you figured that this was a perfect time for the 2018 Patriots to prove they were part of the lineage.

A winter Sunday evening in Pittsburgh.

How many statements have the Patriots made in the past two decades on that chewed-up field in front of hate-filled fans? The 2001 AFC Championship, the 2004 AFC Championship, the 2010, 2016 and 2017 regular seasons games.

All the times the Patriots walked onto that field and proved over three hours that they were smarter, more disciplined, better constructed, immune to the frenzied towel-waving, poised and tougher than Pittsburgh. Proved that there was something in their DNA strands the Steelers didn’t have.

Only this time, not only did the Steelers play like the Steelers … the Patriots did too.

The traits of the past have skipped this generation. The resemblance this team has to the 2013-to-2017 teams ends with the uniforms.

STEELERS 17, PATRIOTS 10

The Patriots lost 17-10. Their only touchdown came when three Steelers decided to cover Josh Gordon and none decided to cover Chris Hogan.

The Patriots committed 14 penalties. You can quibble with a couple (the pass interference on Jonathan Jones being a prime one) but the unforced pre-snap penalties they committed are a by-product of not being all there mentally. At least that’s what we’ve always said when other teams do that.

They allowed the Steelers -- owners of the 28th rushing offense in the 32-team league with a couple of spare-part running backs -- to run for 168 yards on 22 running back carries. That came a week after the Dolphins ran for 189 on New England on 21 carries. Which was a week after the Vikings ran for 95 yards on 13 carries.

Aside from Trey Flowers, it’s expansion-level talent in their front-seven. And the Patriots secondary – while smart and capable in coverage – are not what they were even a year ago in run-support.

They either can’t defend the run, as in, they aren’t physically capable; or they won’t stop the run, as in, they don’t have the belly for it. I’m not sure which would be worse.

STEELERS 17, PATRIOTS 10

One of the saddest exchanges of the game when the Patriots executed an amazing punt-downing at the Steelers 1 in the first half. It went Jonathan Jones to Rex Burkhead, through the legs of Matthew Slater and into the hands of Ramon Humber. The Steelers had to take over at their 1.

Three plays later – one of them a 12-yard run by Stevan Ridley, who I figured would be working in a vape shop by now – the Steelers were at the Patriots 46.

Silver-lining seekers may point to the fact Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster didn’t ruin the Patriots day. Or that Pittsburgh scored merely a field goal over the final 42 minutes.

The Steelers lost to the Raaaaaaiiiiiddddderrrrrrs last week. Pittsburgh got to the Patriots 4-yard line in the third quarter and somehow came away without points. Ben Roethlisberger threw two picks. They aren’t that good either.

But really, the most distressing aspect of all of it isn’t the run defense or the penalties. It’s Tom Brady.

STEELERS 17, PATRIOTS 10

He’s played fine/good/OK for most of the season. He can very easily perform the physical tasks of playing NFL quarterback at a level that will win games.

It feels like heresy but that’s the facts. Playing “good” is such an amazing comedown from where’s he’s been since 2014 when he strung together four seasons that cemented his legend as the best to ever play his position.

He’s disconcerted by the buzzing pass rush.

His fundamentals sometimes come undone when there’s no threat at all.

Roll back the final play of the game and watch how he bails out to his left and curls away from presumed contact.

Look at the throw last week in the second half to Cordarelle Patterson that sailed toward the cheerleaders. Or the rushed throw to Chris Hogan against Miami. Or the decision to throw to the end zone on third-and-15 during the final drive with what looked like the Steelers holiday party surrounding Gronk when James White was pretty much alone on the left side and ready to pick up a few to set up fourth-and-manageable with the clock running.

What Brady’s 2018 performance underscores is just how necessary his round-the-clock, round-the-calendar, drag-everyone-with-him-to-the-mountains, football-is-life approach really was to ensuring he was without peer.

Because without that, he’s got a lot of peers this year.

STEELERS 17, PATRIOTS 10

So do the Patriots. They are 9-6 since the Super Bowl. They went 3-5 on the road this season. They scored 10 points in Detroit, 10 points in Tennessee and now 10 in Pittsburgh. It took a garbage-time touchdown against Jacksonville to get them to 20 points.  

When everything’s right, they can be a handful. Ask Minnesota. Or the Chiefs. But when it isn’t going right, they don’t have the (select one: talent, toughness, maturity, confidence, good sense, will) to change it.

They have five losses right now, the most they’ve had since the Nadir of ’09. In some ways, this team is like that one, it just has a better collective personality. This one, like that one, was born under a bad sign with a fractious offseason leading into a less-than-focused regular season.

But there was still a sense this year that they’d come to their senses.

A glass of water to the face like they took last week in Miami should have done the trick. The hated Steelers across from them on Sunday should have brought them fully awake.

It didn’t. And we’re left to conclude that what they’ve shown us is what they are.

Fine. OK. Good. A lot like a lot of teams. But nothing like they’ve been.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE