Patriots

Bortles silencing critics while earning respect from teammates, Patriots

Bortles silencing critics while earning respect from teammates, Patriots

Blake Bortles doesn’t care that you think he sucks. Why should he? “It’s a waste of time,” says the Jacksonville quarterback. He’s just one win away from playing in the Super Bowl and is set to earn 19 million dollars next year. Life is good. But man oh man, the vitriol sent his way via fellow NFL defenders is rather staggering.

MORE - Getting ready for the AFC Championship Game

Bottles has been called a choker by Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, subpar by Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, and Texans edge rusher JaDaveon Clowney trashed the Jags QB by calling him trash. Yet all three of those guys are on vacation while Bortles is still working, preparing for the AFC title game in Foxboro Sunday afternoon. 

“He’s a dog,” shouted defensive tackle Malik Jackson in the immediate aftermath of last weekend’s win at Pittsburgh. “I want to know what Jurell Casey has to say about him choking in big moments while you sit at home and watch us next week.”

Jackson’s fiery defense of Bortles is not an uncommon event in the Jacksonville locker room. Yes their quarterback has flaws - we’ll get to those in a minute - but he’s their ride or die, at least for now.

“Blake is a rockstar,” said defensive lineman Calais Campbell. “He doesn’t let any of that get to him. He keeps showing up every day, having fun, preparing as hard as he can. We have a lot of respect for him. He’ definitely loves the game. He handles his business."

“One thing I learned about Blake is when you talk negative about him he proves you wrong over and over again,” said cornerback A.J. Bouye. “He did it against Seattle, he did it versus Pittsburgh the first time, he did it again versus Pittsburgh this time. That’s who he is.”

As you would imagine, that support is everything to Bortles.

“I don’t care much about what is said outside our locker room,” said Bortles. “What I care about is inside that locker room. Those are the opinions I care about. When other people say stuff, it doesn’t bother me. But to see guys in that locker room stand up for me and say stuff, it’s pretty cool. Because those are the opinions I value and the guys I want to impress and do well for.”

Bortles was hardly the star Sunday in Pittsburgh. He barely completed over 50% of his passes one week after running for more yards (88) than he threw for (87) in a Wild Card round win over the Bills. But Bortles didn’t turn the ball over in either game, something that has been a problem for him not only in years past but late in the regular season. Yes, he was inaccurate at times and appeared nervous at others but the Patriots could only shake their heads and laugh when told about the comments other players have directed at the 25-year old.

“It’s kind of crazy,” smiled Devin McCourty, “you know, the guy is still playing football. All those guys that said that, I’m sure they want to be in his spot right now playing in the championship game…the guy is a winner. Whether it’s dropping back and throwing the deep ball in a drive where Pittsburgh cuts it to seven and you need to make a big play and he stays in the pocket and finds [T.J.] Yeldon after surveying the field. Or in other games, against Buffalo, he drops back, they drop into coverage, everybody has their back to him, and he scrambles for 15 yards [and] a big first down to keep the drive going. To me, you see a winner.”

“He’s a good quarterback,” said Duron Harmon. “He does what they want him to do. He checks them, gets them in the right place, makes the right throws. Just try to do his job effectively and he did it at a high level yesterday. Made a lot of plays on third down. Made them with his arm, made them with his feet. He’s obviously somebody who feels comfortable in the system. Plays well and has been making plays for them all year. We know he’s going to come ready to play…”

Hard to believe Bortles is ready to lift the Jags past the Pats all on his own. He needs a good running game, he needs his receivers to make plays for him, and he needs that defense to figure out a way to slow down Tom Brady. That’s a lot to ask, but the Jags with Bortles at quarterback are this close to something few thought possible before the season started, just a win away from a trip to the Super Bowl. Maybe that belief in Bortles is about to be rewarded…

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NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

Chris Gasper and Michael Holley talk about the inconsistent messaging from NFL owners to their teams' players after they unanimously voted to change the league's policy regarding the national anthem. Watch the video above. 

Rivers feeling good, could help provide Patriots an answer at left end

Rivers feeling good, could help provide Patriots an answer at left end

FOXBORO -- Of all the observations made at Tuesday's OTA practice, one that stood out as sort of an under-the-radar takeaway was that the defensive end position for the Patriots looked nothing like it did back in early February.

Seeing a good deal of the workload on the edges were two players who didn't play a snap for the Patriots last season: Derek Rivers and Adrian Clayborn.

From this, we can deduce a couple of things.

First, a few of the team's most experienced edge defenders weren't available. Trey Flowers' absence from Tuesday's work is worth monitoring as we progress through the spring and move toward training camp. Arguably the team's top defensive lineman, Flowers is headed into the final year of his rookie contract. Dont'a Hightower, who's coming back from a season-ending pec injury and has on-the-line/off-the-line flexibility, was also missing Tuesday.

Second, the participation level from both Rivers and Clayborn would serve as an indication that both are feeling healthy enough to take on a healthy amount of work at this point in the year. Clayborn reportedly tweaked his quad in workouts earlier in the offseason program, but he appeared to be moving fine. Rivers, meanwhile, is back for his second pro season after missing all of last year following an ACL tear suffered in joint training camp practices with the Texans.

Rivers availability is particularly interesting, if unsurprising, since he could be a stabilizing factor for the Patriots' front in 2018. A third-round pick last year out of Youngstown State, Rivers was used as an end, as a stand-up player on the edge, as a pass-rusher and as a coverage player in camp before getting hurt.

Though he missed all of last season, he was able to maintain a positive approach in the Patriots locker room, attending meetings and working diligently on his upper-body strength while his leg healed.

"Nobody ever wants to have an injury, but praise God. It’s all in his plan," Rivers said Tuesday. "My faith helped me get through it. It was a good rehab process. I was able to learn the defense, and I wasn’t away from the building, so I could do everything but be out here on the field. So it was a blessing. It actually made me a better player."

Rivers played on the left side - opposite Clayborn, a right end - in Tuesday's work. That's a position the Patriots had some trouble filling all of last season following Rob Ninkovich's retirement. It requires good athleticism, an ability to set an edge, an ability to rush...but also an ability to track backs out of the backfield.

"I’d say it’s different playing on the left than playing on the right from a responsibilities standpoint," Bill Belichick said last summer. "There’s certainly some similarities, but it’s different. Some guys can play both. Some guys, I would say, are better suited at one or the other. Sometimes that’s a comfort thing. Sometimes it’s really a scheme thing and what we ask them to do. They’re the same, but they’re different more so than say right and left corner or right and left defensive tackle or that type of thing. It’s defensive scheme. It’s a little bit different...

"I think it really becomes more of a coverage discussion – how much and what type of coverage responsibilities would you put them in? You know, Chandler Jones versus Ninkovich or Trey Flowers versus Ninkovich. There’s some differences in their coverage responsibilities. Especially most teams are, for us, defensively left-handed formation teams. Not that they couldn’t do it the other way, but more times than not, there’s a high percentage of situations that come up on the left side that are different from the right side, especially with a right-handed quarterback, which most of them are.

"I mean, look, they both have to know them, they both have to do them, but I’d say there’s definitely more – it’s kind of like left tackle and right tackle. You don’t really see the same player at right tackle as left tackle. Some guys can do both, but there are quite a few guys that are better at one or the other, and that’s usually where they end up."

The Patriots used Hightower off the left side early in the season but eventually moved him back to the middle in what looked like an effort to improve the unit's overall communication. Cassius Marsh got a crack at the spot at times. Kyle Van Noy could be seen there. Eric Lee saw work on the left. It was a revolving door. 

The rotation was heavy at both edge spots, really. Deatrich Wise saw extensive work as a rookie. Harvey Langi looked like he might earn regular snaps before a car wreck ended his season. Trevor Reilly, Geneo Grissom, Marquis Flowers and James Harris all appeared on the edge as the Patriots hoped to find answers. 

In the athletic Rivers, they could have a player who is big enough (6-foot-5, 250) to handle work in the running game on the left edge and athletic enough to both rush (his specialty in college) and cover. It's just a matter of Rivers showing the team he can do it. 

"Obviously, coming in here, your rookie year is almost like your freshman year in college," Rivers said. "So now, it’s just listening to the coaches, staying in the playbook and just getting ready to roll for each practice and just try to get better each and every day.”

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