Patriots

After practice, Patriots head to The Hills

After practice, Patriots head to The Hills

FOXBORO -- If you're one of the thousands of fans who will make their way here for training camp at some point this summer, there's a good chance you'll see the Patriots finish up a session by disappearing briefly over a ridge in the back corner of the Gillette Stadium practice fields. 

By the time players reappear for interviews or autographs, they'll be drenched with sweat and out of breath.

"Mount Belichick," Bill Belichick said after one particularly grueling workout last year. "That's what they called it back in Cleveland."

Patriots players haven't taken the time to name the New England version, probably because none of them really like to think about it all that much in their free time. But unofficially, the space is known as The Hills. Oftentimes there's an expletive mixed in, as in "Those [Bleeping] Hills."

This out-of-sight slice of the team's work space can be a year-round tool, but it has seen regular usage every summer since it was installed about four years ago. For an organization that harps on the importance of being able to outlast opponents, running The Hills is believed to be a difference-maker. 

"That hill's great," director of player personnel Nick Caserio told Sirius XM Radio recently. "That hill gets them in shape pretty quickly. Those guys don't like it, but they'll probably in the fourth quarter realize it's worthwhile."

"It definitely teaches you how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable," receiver Danny Amendola said. "It's a beast, for sure."

There are actually two hills on the south end of the practice fields that slope down to a flat turf landing. They have different gradations. One is 20 yards long and steep. The other is 60 yards long and features more of a gradual incline. 

Neither provides any escape from the heat, but these are not the dry and rocky hills with treacherous footing that you might find on in an old-school training camp video montage. No, these hills are as well-manicured as the rest of the Patriots practice fields, with white lines painted every five yards so that players know just how much farther they have to push when their legs are pleading with them to stop. 

The mere mention of The Hills to players during last summer's training camp was usually met with shaking heads and nervous laughter. 

"It's a little bit of a drain, but it's kind of like taking medicine," said left tackle Nate Solder. "You know you need it."

"The Hills are a beast, man," said former Patriots receiver Brian Tyms. "It's like that one bully you have in school. You're like, 'I hope he doesn't mess with me today.' That's what that's like. It's just the incline of it. It's real. It makes a man out of you.

"Jerry Rice. They said he ran a 4.7 [40-yard dash] but he could run a 4.7 every play. A lot of people who run a 4.3, but in the fourth quarter they can't run a 4.3. Conditioning is like the biggest thing in football. Everybody's an athlete, but how many times can you get out and exert that same amount of effort? Every play? Same intensity? That hill helps that."

"It's tough. It's a challenge," said corner Logan Ryan. "I think the hill just makes you a little bit tougher. Your legs get a little heavy and then you gotta run these sprints up a hill. Your legs, you gotta keep your mind sharp. You gotta just attack it. That's how we go about it. We feel like we get an edge in conditioning over some other guys because of how hard we go at it."

The Hills aren't only reserved for these types of conditioning runs, where as many as a dozen or so players will sprint up together at the sound of a whistle that will likely be worn by first-year head strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera. They can be used by players rehabbing injuries or trying to improve their speed. 

They provide a space for team-building purposes, too. When the Ice Bucket Challenge to benefit ALS research went viral in 2014, the team filmed its team-wide water dump at the top of The Hills. 

It's also one of the few places where players and coaches can compete side by side. Belichick hasn't run The Hills in some time, but his son, safeties coach Steve Belichick, has been seen hauling uphill. Same goes for receivers coach Chad O'Shea, corners coach Josh Boyer, defensive line coach Brendan Daly and others. 

Things get competitive on The Hills. Regardless of how difficult the players just had it during that day's practice, they're sure not to get beaten by one of their more fresh-legged coaches.

"I don't care how much I ran," Ryan said. "I've never seen a coach get past me."

At their core, though, The Hills are about conditioning. Tom Brady has been seen doing resistance-band training with team staffers on The Hills, and sometimes players will make their way over there on their own simply because they know they need the extra work. Newly-acquired Patriots defensive tackle Terrance Knighton -- who is listed at 6-foot-3, 355 pounds and has target weights written into his one-year contract -- hung back on The Hills for a few minutes of cardio with Cabrera after an OTA practice last month. 

Matthew Slater is touted by many on the Patriots as the team's fastest player when it comes to its punishing post-practice sprints. He credits his work on the hill behind his childhood home in Orange, California -- where his Hall of Fame father Jackie pushed him to find an extra gear -- for preparing him in that regard.

He'll take on The Hills again soon, perhaps as early as Thursday when camp opens. Whenever it happens, Slater knows there will be players who will be tired. He knows there will be players who won't be thrilled to be there. But he knows what that time and sweat invested, six weeks before the start of the regular season, might mean for the Patriots months from now.

"I think you put down the foundation in the offseason," Slater said late last season, "in training camp, early in the season, in regards to your conditioning. That's going to have to carry you all the way through February, hopefully. That's paid dividends for us, and hopefully it'll continue to pay dividends for us."

Patriots searching for answers after season of road disappointments

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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.

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The Patriots are who we hoped they weren't

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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.

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