Patriots

On biggest stage, defense failed to do its job

On biggest stage, defense failed to do its job

MINNEAPOLIS -- Tom Brady capped the Patriots’ third straight 75-yard march with a beautiful touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski. That put the Eagles behind the eight-ball for the first time in the Super Bowl midway through the fourth quarter. It was all happening, again. But at Pats defense, so adept at coming up with a play when they absolutely had to basically since early October just couldn’t get off the field, continuing a theme that plagued them all evening.

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First, it was a drive-extending completion from Nick Foles to Zach Ertz on third-and-six. Later, near midfield, the Pats swarmed Torrey Smith on third-and-one a rare stop. But the Eagles wisely went for it on fourth down -- did you see what Tom Brady had done to that point? -- and it was the Foles-to-Ertz combo platter that worked again. 

Finally, and fittingly, it was that now-renowned duo striking again, this time on third-and-seven from the Pats’ 11. Ertz split wide, drove hard upfield before breaking off a slant. Devin McCourty had him one-on-one but slipped as he tried to break on the route. Ertz hauled in the pass, stretched for the end zone and broke the plane before the ball popped free. The play would be reviewed but the result would stand. Touchdown, Eagles. 

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That capped an impressive run of Philly’s offense making plays when they had to. The Eagles went 10-for-16 on third downs and 2-for-2 on 4th down, including that gutsy, beautiful touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton to Foles. 

“We didn’t get off the field on third down,” said safety Duron Harmon. “That’s what it came down to. third down. What were they,” he asked reporters. When he was told the stats, all he could muster was “that’s the game right there.”

“You need to make those plays and we just didn’t make them,” said Devin McCourty.

Bill Belichick didn’t offer much insight in his postgame comments, but did note the Eagles “had a good design and kept us off-balance.” 

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia concurred. 

“They’re an outstanding third-down and red-area team. We knew that going in. They executed better than we did in those situations. They made some really big plays in those that you knew were going to come up in the game. Combined, we weren’t really good enough on third down.”

Still, even down by 10 at halftime, you fully expected that Patricia would be able to make some adjustments to slow down the Eagles. After all, he had done that for the better part of the season in what was clearly his best work as the DC. But even an extra-long break (the Super Bowl halftime lasted 30 minutes), the Pats weren’t able to deliver the necessary good when pressed.

“I thought we were going to able to get a stop,” said Harmon. “We came close a bunch of times…”

“It was just execution,” said a red-eyed Trey Flowers, who still hadn’t removed half his gear some 25 minutes after the game. “They had high execution. We had a lack of execution. It is what it is.”

It probably would have been beneficial for the Pats to have had Malcolm Butler play but, according to Bill Belichick, the veteran cornerback and the team leader in defensive snaps this year wasn’t as good a fit as Eric Rowe on this night.

“We put the best players out there and the gameplan out there because we thought it’d be the best to win,” he said, adding that it wasn’t a disciplinary decision when asked.

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“He’s a great player, you know?” Stephon Gilmore said of Butler. “I want everybody to play. He could have helped us, maybe. I don’t know. That’s how the game goes sometimes.”

He certainly could haven helped on an 18-yard completion to Nelson Agholor early in the third quarter. Instead, the Pats turned to Johnson Bademosi as their third corner. He was completely lost on the play. That conversion helped revive the Eagles drive, a drive that eventually ended with that 23-yard Corey Clement touchdown catch over Marquis Flowers. 

“They executed at a high level,” said Patricia. “There really wasn’t a lot of miscues by them at all and obviously we didn’t execute well enough. It starts with me.”

After his press conference, Patricia walked through that Pats locker room for the last time, embracing several players, including defensive tackle Malcom Brown. They both had tears in their eyes. They both knew that what they did as a defense just wasn’t enough and there’s no way to rewrite. The numbers were right there for everyone to see.

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Observations from Patriots OTA practice No. 2

Observations from Patriots OTA practice No. 2

FOXBORO -- The Patriots are officially one fifth of the way through their OTA practices for the spring of 2018, meaning it's early. Very early. So if there's plenty to clean up, and of course there is, that's to be expected. 

Here are some of the observations we came away with from Tuesday's session . . . 

* Maybe it was a subtle nod to the fact that two captains, Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady, were still missing from workouts. Maybe it wasn't. But the face that Bill Belichick went out of his way to laud the leadership the team's received during spring work -- from players both young and (relatively) old -- seemed notable. Belichick is famously meticulous in his preparation, even when it comes to public relations. To bring up leadership in an opening statement at a press conference, at a time when two of his leaders have dominated headlines for their absence, didn't seem like a coincidence. 

* The workout seemed to be lacking a certain level of crispness with Brady missing. Again, it's early. Whether Brady and Gronkowski were on the field or not, there was going to be plenty to iron out for the Patriots offense. But the number of footballs rolling around on the ground after passing plays seemed to be unusual -- even for a spring workout. Having a future Hall of Fame quarterback to run the show in OTAs demands a certain level of focus, and provides a measure of intensity, that might've been lacking Tuesday. 

* Julian Edelman was not a full participant in the practice -- he didn't take part in 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 work and did rehab work on a lower field -- but he looked confident in the reps he received. His cuts seemed aggressive, and he showed real enthusiasm on what happened to be his 32nd birthday. Edelman was often one of the first in line, if not the first, for different periods . . . including special-teams periods when he fielded punts. If a patient's faith in his surgically-repaired knee is one of the last hurdles in the rehab process, it looked Edelman had already met and cleared the bar in that regard. He tore his ACL in a preseason game against the Lions last August and missed the 2017 season. 

* Speaking of punt returners: Riley McCarron, Braxton Berrios, Chris Hogan and Patrick Chung all lined up for a shot at a return at some point during the afternoon. Hogan muffed one. 

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* Malcolm Mitchell (who practiced on Monday), Dont'a Hightower, Trey Flowers, Joe Thuney, Jonathan Jones, Brandon Bolden and Cody Hollister were not spotted Tuesday. Flowers' availability bears watching. Derek Rivers and Adrian Clayborn saw a good deal of edge work with Flowers out. Marcus Cannon, Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, Nate Ebner, Marcus Cannon and Lawrence Guy all did some rehab work on a lower field. With three tackles among those still not 100 percent, Cole Croston and LaAdrian Waddle got plenty of work there. 

* The Patriots had visitors from the football programs at Mississippi State, LSU, Miami and Iowa at Gillette Stadium. Belichick has welcomed college programs in for a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on during OTAs before -- last year it was the Vanderbilt staff that got a peek -- but to have so many schools represented at one session was not something we've seen from Belichick (at least during OTAs open to the media) in recent years. Josh McDaniels' brother Ben, an offensive analyst at Michigan, according to MLive.com, was also keeping an eye on the practice. The Patriots have two rookies from Miami in Berrios and undrafted defensive lineman Trent Harris. Miami coach Mark Richt, whose last job was as head coach at Georgia, also recruited all five Georgia products who now happen to be Patriots. Iowa is the only other school on the Patriots roster that features five players.

* Former Arkansas coach Brett Bielema, whose staff got an OTA behind-the-scenes look at the Patriots in 2014, was in full Patriots gear and doing some coaching Tuesday. One of the areas he was involved with was on punt and punt-return plays. The Patriots have not yet announced a role for Bielema this season. He coached Arkansas products Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Cody Hollister. Bielema also coached James White during his time at Wisconsin.

* Keion Crossen made what might've been the play of the day when he attacked a Brian Hoyer pass in the end zone for an interception. The seventh-round pick out of Western Carolina was in coverage on White on the play. Crossen's speed is what helped him get noticed at the Wake Forest pro day before this year's draft. But on a short field, his ball skills stood out. 

* Brian Flores wore the head set for the defense during team periods, an expected development for the linebackers coach who is presumed to be taking on defensive coordinator duties this season. The entire defensive staff did not let up on their linemen Tuesday as laps were handed out as punishment for anyone committing penalties. Danny Shelton, Geneo Grissom, Marquis Flowers and Adam Butler were all sent running at one point. 

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* A couple of notes from the receiver position, which might be the deepest on the roster at the moment: Cordarrelle Patterson's size and athleticism stand out, which he put on display when he boxed out a defender and easily plucked a pass out of the air in the end zone; Patterson's understanding of where to be and when still needs some refining, from what we saw Tuesday; Jordan Matthews got work as a gunner opposite Matthew Slater.

* Jerry Schuplinski continues to be the young quarterback whisperer. First it was Jimmy Garoppolo, then Jacoby Brissett. Now it's Danny Etling. Schuplinski, assistant quarterbacks coach, works closely with young quarterbacks in order to bring them along. Sometimes, as was the case Tuesday, that work includes going through mental exercises without a football in between periods of actually having to throw. 

* The team finished up its work with runs up the hills -- or the new Mount Belichick? -- to get in some extra conditioning. The Patriots will practice again on Thursday. The next session open to reporters will be the team's fifth practice on May 31. 

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Boston Sports Breakfast Podcast: What Tom Brady, Gronk's absence means for Patriots

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Boston Sports Breakfast Podcast: What Tom Brady, Gronk's absence means for Patriots

1:24 - The Red Sox win on Tuesday night went just how you’d expect: Mookie Betts hit another home run and Chris Sale dominated. Evan Drellich, Tom Giles, and Michael Holley debate whether or not Betts can remain on his torrid pace all season.

5:22 - No Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski weren’t at OTAs and definitely don’t ask Bill Belichick about them. Tom Curran, Michael Holley and Andy Hart from Patriots Football Weekly discuss where the pair could be and what it means for the team.

10:31 - Cedric Maxwell joins Kyle Draper, Trenni Kusnierek and Gary Tanguay to preview Game 5 for Celtics back in Boston and discuss adjustments that Brad Stevens needs to make to contain Lebron James.