Patriots

Saints know they have to keep eye on Gronkowski despite quiet Week 1

Saints know they have to keep eye on Gronkowski despite quiet Week 1

FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski is one of the NFL’s biggest matchup nightmares, a human version of Pennywise the Clown, the child-eating monster from the box office smash “It”. (Have you seen that movie? Or the trailers? Pennywise scares the bejesus out of me.) Gronk is almost as scary, terrorizing defensive coordinators, safeties and linebackers for the better part of the decade.

But last Thursday night, he ran into a Kansas City defense hell bent on neutralizing him. That’s just what they did.

Gronk was targeted just four times in the 42-27 loss, catching a pair of passes for 33 yards and no scores. 

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“We just weren’t clicking,” Gronkowski said following the defeat. “It starts with me. Gotta get open more. You’ve gotta get better separation. Make some plays. Get the offense rolling. Just wasn’t going to happen.”

It wasn’t, but there have been plenty of times where Gronkowski has been the focal point of a defense and still produced. Just go back to the last time the Pats and Chiefs met in the playoffs back in 2015. The big fella feasted for 83 yards on 7 catches and twice took ‘em to the house. On one of those in particular, Gronk embarrassed safety Eric Berry, making the kind of move that leads all the sports shows. That wasn’t the case to open 2017. Berry is an All-Pro, and he played like one before exiting the game late with a torn Achilles tendon.

Now despite Berry’s skill and playing strength, it was still surprising to see Gronk essentially get erased by one defender. That’s not to say he only saw single coverage, especially in the red zone. There, Gronk drew multiple defenders, including in the third quarter when the Chiefs passed him from one guy to the next to next. You figure with three players locked in on the tight end, someone else would come free. But the Pats receivers had a severe case of separation anxiety. Chris Hogan was blanketed. Brandin Cooks as well. The underneath routes were covered. It was just that kind of night, a night where despite 27 points, the other side made an efficient offense look spotty. 

In theory, there should be significantly more room against New Orleans Sunday. The Saints defense has been a hot mess for years now, with head coach Sean Payton cycling through defensive coordinators the way a fat guy cycles through sweat pants. A year ago, their safeties were in the bottom half of the league in coverage stats according to the analytics web site Pro Football Focus. They cast aside Jairus Byrd and replaced him with Marcus Williams. Kenny Vaccaro is a holdover, as is Vonn Bell. Payton saw the Chiefs film. If he thinks Gronk is human now, the Saints boss isn’t acknowledging that publicly.

“You have to find him first,” said Payton. “He lines up everywhere. He is outside, he is inside, he is in-line. I think his versatility is one of his biggest assets. He’s a guy that can play in the running game, just as well in protection, just as well as a receiver. So that flexibility and versatility does not make him one-dimensional. He is a big target and he has strong hands in traffic. The location throws that Tom (Brady) does a great job with become challenging in regards to how you defend.”

That ability to line up anywhere, and hurt you from anywhere should -- in theory -- make life easier for the rest of the offense.

“I think that they do a great job of moving him around to these different spots.,” added Payton. “Often times you get a pre-snap man or zone read based on who goes outside to cover him. If there is a receiver in the slot and Gronkowski is outside and you see a big go out there, safety or linebacker, it is probably man. There are a number of things you have to look closely at and watch on the tape. It used to be that you would find those tight ends next to the tackle and then one day [Kellen] Winslow stood up in a two-point stance and it was like the solar eclipse. Then someone said, why don’t we put [Shannon] Sharpe outside of [Ed] McCaffrey in Denver and that was like we split the atom and pretty soon they’re everywhere.”

Everywhere yes, but there’s only one Gronk. The Pats need to find that player again to get back into the win column and help mitigate the loss the Julian Edelman (season) and likely Danny Amendola (concussion/knee).

“When he’s out there for us, he’s obviously someone they have to pay attention to,” said Tom Brady. “He can get a lot of other guys open just by his presence out there. I love playing with him. I mean, he’s really a one-of-a-kind type of player. He’s had so much production, and I’m sure he’ll be fired up and ready to go this weekend."

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Curran: Are Patriots fans wishing away the final years of a kicking savant?

Curran: Are Patriots fans wishing away the final years of a kicking savant?

SUDBURY – It’s the last Saturday before training camp and on this blue sky/no cloud/light breeze afternoon, Stephen Gostkowski is working a stopwatch at a youth football camp at Lincoln-Sudbury High School.

Paid, not paid, I have no idea (probably paid, though). Still, the second-longest tenured Patriot is giving the organizers their money’s worth in terms of involvement and enthusiasm. I snap a shot of Gostowski timing a pack of tweens leaning for the tape in a 40-yard dash and tweet it out. 

A total of two replies come back. The second one asks, “When are they gonna cut his bum ass? Lost them the AFCCG in '15, almost lost them the SB in '16, missed a FG in SB 52.” 

It’s Twitter so the “ACKNOWLEDGE MY BLOODTHIRSTY CANDOR!!!” factor enters into our friend’s ruthless panning of the third most accurate kicker in NFL history 

But @DrJones37 isn’t on an island either.

Gostkowski is a two-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler who’s made 340 of 388 field goals and 593 of 599 PATs in the 11 regular seasons since 2006. He’s missed just 10 of 140 postseason kicks (field goals and PATs) . And plenty of New Englanders sneer at the mention of his name and can’t wait to see his allegedly bum-ass shrinking over the horizon.

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Gostkowski’s perceived sin against Patriots football isn’t really the misses DrJones correctly catalogued. It’s the absence of season-saving or Super Bowl clinching kicks that his predecessor Adam Vinatieri made. Even now, a dozen years after he fled for more money and kinder kicking conditions with the Colts, Hall of Fame-bound Automatic Adam throws a shadow Gostkowski can’t escape.

And there’s no way to change that. Vinatieri made the most memorable field goal in NFL history in the Snow Bowl and validated that kick with the OT game-winner a half-hour later. Two weeks after that, he creased a 48-yarder in New Orleans to win Super Bowl 36. Two seasons later, he clinched Super Bowl 39 with another relative bomb against the Panthers.

It doesn’t matter that he was an 82 percent regular-season kicker with the Patriots or that he was 1 for 3 on field goals in SB39 and 26 of 37 overall in the playoffs while here. Vinatieri’s makes were so massive that misses were forgiven and forgotten. With the “money on the table,” as the late Gil Santos would say, you could start packing up your stuff when Vinatieri was kicking.

It’s not supposed to feel like that. But since it once did, clutch-kicking nirvana is seen as a standard. Gostkowski’s never measured up to it.

In contrast to Vinatieri, Gostkowski’s PAT miss at Denver in the 2015 AFC Championship is probably his most memorable kick https://www.nbcsports.com/boston/new-england-patriots/gostkowski-sick-about-missed-pat-was-key-loss . Even though he hadn’t missed one all season in spite of the NFL’s pushing the kick back 15 yards in 2015 (with the Patriots hearty support), even though he held the NFL record for consecutive PATs made, that miss cost the Patriots dearly against noodle-armed Peyton Manning and – in large part – kept the team from getting a shot at the very vulnerable Panthers in the Super Bowl.

That miss begot a 2016 slump that was capped by an “Oh, shit!” PAT miss in the Super Bowl that was immediately followed by a botched onsides kick.

Those are the “Yeah, but…” trump cards slammed down in front of anyone who wants to argue the merits of Gostkowski.

And with the 34-year-old entering the final year of his current contract, the chance looms that the Good Riddance Gostkowski crew may realize its wish.

And then realize what it really feels like when every kick is closer to a coin flip than a layup.

For the past three seasons, 17 teams made more than 85 percent of their regular-season field goals. My math tells me that those 15 teams – nearly half the league – live in Puckertown.

Nine teams were under 80 percent last year. There were eight in 2016 and just three in 2015. By contrast, Gostkowski’s been south of 90 percent once since 2013 (84.4 percent in 2016).

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Even if Gostkowski hasn’t been as steady as a metronome, he’s a damn sight better at kicking field goals and PATs than 90 percent of the league. Not to mention the fact he’s accustomed to the kickoff nuances the Patriots demand as they consistently try to win field position.

On Saturday, Gostkowski acknowledged the passage of time since he was a rookie in 2006.

“It’s a good and a bad thing,” he said. “I have some white hairs in my beard now. Getting a little thin up top. It’s a blessing to think that I would have played professional sports for over a decade and going into my 13th year. I’ve got nothing but gratitude and thankfulness.”

Asked by ESPN’s Mike Reiss if he’s in a year-to-year mode at this point, Gostkowski answered, “I really don’t think like that. You reassess things every year. It’s easy to say after a year, ‘I might do this or I might do that…’ but as long as I’m happy, healthy and good I’m gonna do it.”

The Patriots report on Wednesday and camp opens for real on Thursday. This is his 12th camp – two more than Vinatieri was here for.

“It’s like the first day of school. Even though we’ll see how I feel three weeks from now. But I really do look forward to it,” Gostkowski said. “Sometimes having a little too much free time can be dangerous. When you play football you’re used to someone telling you what to do and where to be and you kind of miss that.”

It takes some perspective to appreciate that you’ve got it good even when it’s not always perfect. 

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Patriots sign Sony Michel to rookie contract

Patriots sign Sony Michel to rookie contract

First round running back Sony Michel officially signed his rookie contract with the New England Patriots Sunday. 

The 31st overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft will receive the standard rookie deal for first round picks, which is four years with a team option for a fifth season. 

Michel will join James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and newcomer Jeremy Hill in the New England backfield. 

The Patriots begin training camp on Thursday, July 26th, but rookies report today, so Michel signed his deal just in time to attend his first camp as an NFL running back. 

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