Patriots

Wendell moves on without retired O-linemate Connolly

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Wendell moves on without retired O-linemate Connolly

Dan Connolly’s retirement this offseason snuck under the radar for the casual fan, but not to anyone who covered this team during Connolly’s tenure, and certainly not to longtime teammate and friend, Ryan Wendell.

“I can’t say enough good things about Dan, so whatever you want to write about Dan Connolly you can,” Wendell said, smiling. “He’s an awesome guy, an awesome teammate, one of my best friends. It was an honor and privilege for me to play behind him, next to him, anywhere around him for the past seven years. I wish we could play together for longer, but he’s got time with his family now and he’s enjoying that.”

The closeness between the two men is such that I asked Wendell if he tried to persuade Connolly to give it one more go this season.

“We want the best players we can get every year, and Dan is a great player,” admired Wendell. “I would love to have him out here, but this is the NFL - pro football - guys come and go all the time. We’ve lost guys in the past and made adjustments.”

They will have to do again. In fact, the Pats have been since the draft, when the team selected a pair of guards in the fourth round, Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson. Those two have been working with the first team since OTAs while Wendell rehabbed from offseason surgery. But now Wendell is back in the mix after that interminable wait, practicing for the first time Tuesday.

“I think every player wants to be on the field every snap,” said Wendell. “I’ve been trying to let Bill [Belichick] get me on defense and special teams...I’m sure I’d be terrible at all of 'em, but I do it anyway.”

There is some thought the Pats would willingly go into the year with both rookies flanking second-year center Bryan Stork. I wondered if that added to Wendell’s urgency in getting back as soon as humanly possible.

“I think you can’t spend any time worrying about things you can’t control,” he said. “The only thing I can control is doing the work I’ve had each day, and believe me, I’ve had plenty of work to do each day, and I do that each day trying to do the best I can. I feel like that’s what would be of the most help to the team and that’s all I can do.”

Wendell was the stabilizing force when inserted into the Pats starting lineup in Week 5 a season ago. Those protection problems that had plagued Tom Brady through the first four weeks magically disappeared with Wendell at right guard, Stork at center and Connolly at left guard. Perhaps the coaching staff will recall that and let the kids play themselves in or out of a job, knowing there’s security with Wendell waiting in the wings. But if the former Fresno State product is healthy, and capable, the smarter move would be to have him in the lineup as soon as possible.

 

 

 

 

Belichick: New 'helmet rule' shouldn't impact Patriots' tackling technique

Belichick: New 'helmet rule' shouldn't impact Patriots' tackling technique

FOXBORO -- We're only two weeks into the preseason, yet the reaction to the words "lowering the head to initiate contact" echoing over NFL PA systems already elicit a predictable reaction.

Confusion. Exasperation. Anger.

For some, it's the rule's intent that is the issue. Some are looking for more consistency in how the rule is called. Some, it seems, may have an idea of what officials are looking for but aren't quite sure.

Some still have an issue with what the wording of the rule actually entails.

Richard Sherman, for instance, fits in that final group.

This may read like semantics to some, but the rule isn't about "leading" with the head. It's about "lowering" the head to initiate contact. That's an important distinction, because as Sherman explained it, even perfect form tackles are led with the head.

It's the posture of the head and neck that's the issue. And while there are still members of the Patriots who are unclear on when this penalty will be whistled and when it won't be, the coach thinks it shouldn't be much of an issue because he doesn't coach his players to lower their heads.

“From my standpoint, there’s really — it’s not a change for us, not a change for our coaching staff,” Belichick told WEEI's OMF show on Monday. “We’ve never taught tackling with the crown of our helmet, putting our head down, leaning our body forward in that type of position. I don’t think fundamentally that’s a good position to be in. It’s not effective. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong besides getting hurt, and that’s an important one.

"We’ve always tackled and blocked with our head up, and our eyes open, and our head back, so we can see what we hit. That’s the only way I’ve ever coached it. If we do it that way, then we’ll be within the rules. That’s what we’ve tried to teach.

"There’s a lot of bang-bang plays where you have to react quickly and try to make a tackle or make a block or get an extra yard, and sometimes instinctively a player will put his head down. I think there’s certainly more of an awareness of that because of the way that it’s called. Fundamentally, we’ve never taught that in any technique, so that’s not a big change for us."

I've spoken to several players on the subject, and while they may not love the consistency with which the penalty has been called, they don't take the stance that what they've been asked to do is impossible.

"It's possible. I try to hit with my head up," said linebacker Marquis Flowers. "There's going to be bang-bang plays. There's going to be different situations where it happens. But I try to hit with my head up. All I can do is take the coaching. Look at situations. Look at how they're calling it. Play football."

"Keep...your...head...up," is how linebacker Elandon Roberts reacts to questions about the rule.

Eric Rowe acknowledged it was possible to make hits without lowering the head, though he admitted he may have an easier time keeping his head out of things because he's a cornerback.

"In my opinion, it depends on your position," he said. "Linebackers take different angles than I do. My angle is usually at an angle, whereas a linebacker is head-up. I'm rarely head-up with anybody. I don't have to use my head. I can just use straight body."

Ex-Pats linebacker Rob Ninkovich, now as a television analyst for Patriots preseason games, said on last week's telecast that he wasn't looking for big hits as a player so he tried to be a head-up tackler.

Regardless of positions, Belichick made it clear that his staff coaches tackling with a certain technique. Under the new rules, that technique is still legal.

"We’re not coaching anything any differently, and I’m not coaching anything any differently than I’ve ever coached it since I’ve been in the National Football League," Belichick told OMF. "We’ve never coached head down, top of the head, don’t see what the contact is and put yourself in a position where you could have a serious injury and not do your job. So, how it’s officiated and so forth, that’s something the officials and Al Riveron and the NFL office can talk to you about. I really — that’s not my job. I can’t answer how hard it is or isn’t to officiate. I just know what we’re coaching, and that’s what we coach."

The officiating portion of it is still difficult to get around for some, though the league has made it clear that it will over-officiate these plays in the preseason to have a library of plays to analyze -- and to assess as correct or incorrect calls -- before the regular season begins.

Patriots safety Jordan Richards was flagged for a lowering-the-head penalty against the Eagles last week that might get a second look from officials before the regular season begins. If that is the type of hit that will be legislated out of the game, the penalty could end up dominating games and helping to dictate outcomes.

“We’ve got to play within how they’re calling it, and that’s how they were calling it for our game on Thursday night,” Richards told reporters Monday. “It seems watching other games, they’ve been a little bit more, I think, lax on that. I don’t know if lax is the right word, but a little more willing to hold that flag in their pockets.”

"It’s going to be called,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I could do a long interview, you could write articles — it doesn’t matter if I go out there and I get flagged three times. It’s something, I think, that everyone has to adjust to. We’re all out there.

"Sometimes, ‘Oh, OK. That’s what we watched. I get it.’ Then there’s other times you’re like, ‘I don’t really know.’ So I think we all kind of see what they’re looking for. You’ve got to try to adjust and play to that."

McCourty, someone Belichick has called one of the best tacklers he's ever coached, made two clean tackles against the Eagles -- both of which came in open space -- that the league may turn to as prototypical examples of what they're looking for.

As far as Belichick is concerned, that's how they coach it.

"Regardless of what they call or don’t call, [lowering the head is] a technique that we don’t teach and we don’t subscribe to, so whether they call it or don’t call it, we don’t want to do it because I don’t think it works very well," Belichick said. "We’re not teaching that. If a player does that, we want to instruct him how to do it properly, not only for his safety but also so he can fundamentally make the block or make the tackle or take on a block or whatever it is we’re talking about."

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Brady still felt 'rusty' despite strong showing against Eagles

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Brady still felt 'rusty' despite strong showing against Eagles

We made mention of this as soon as last week's exhibition between the Patriots and Eagles was finished. The biggest takeaway, from a local perspective, was that Tom Brady looked the way one might expect him to look two weeks into the preseason. 

Given the different approach he carried into the offseason, it was fair to wonder how Brady would perform in his first game action since Super Bowl LII. But he was accurate, he moved well inside and outside of the pocket, and he appeared healthy. He looked like Tom Brady. 

Despite going 19-for-26 for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the game, though, Brady said in an interview with WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show on Tuesday that he felt as though there was some rust to shake off. 

"It was fun being out there," he said. "We got a lot of work to do. I think you gotta take the preseason games for what they are. It's kind of a step in the preparation, and it goes along with a lot of other things we're doing. It was good. We haven't had any joint practices this year. Being in those competitive situations, if you haven't been in those in a long time, which I haven't since the Super Bowl, you always feel a little bit rusty."

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Brady said he plans to play this week in Carolina. 

"Hopefully we can build on it this week . . . Guys are working hard trying to improve," he said. "There's a lot to improve on. It's a new team. New year.  Hopefully we can use this week as kind of another step before we get to things that start really counting."

What specifically might the Patriots be able to work on in Carolina? 

Last week the Patriots offense seemed to focus in on a few areas, both situationally and schematically. Brady and his teammates had a clear opportunity to work on their hurry-up approach out of their 11-personnel (one back, one tight end, three wideouts) -- which they turned to both early in the game and toward the end of the first half. They also relied heavily on the screen game, something that the team struggled with at times in 2017. 

Against the Panthers, there could be more time spent on their "regular" personnel plays, or their 21-personnel packages, with two backs on the field. That could mean more work for someone like James Develin, who can be used creatively in both the running game and passing game. (On one snap in the second quarter last week, the Patriots split Develin and Jeremy Hill outside in an empty set.) 

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Though the team's running back group is dealing with injuries -- Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead continue to be out and limited in practice, respectively -- we may see some two-back "pony" sets with some combination of Hill, James White, Brandon Bolden and Mike Gillislee. 

More two-tight end packages could find their way onto the field as well, with Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen or Will Tye sharing the field simultaneously if Rob Gronkowski sits. 

These heavier groupings are ones the Patriots offense may have to turn to through the first four weeks of the season with Julian Edelman suspended. Unless Kenny Britt, Eric Decker or Riley McCarron emerges as a more dependable option behind Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett, Josh McDaniels may have to pick his spots rolling with three wideouts in September.

With plenty of moving parts, with long-term and short-term situations to prepare for, with three weeks before the start of the regular season, Brady said it. They've got a lot of work to do. 

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