Patriots

How the Patriots turned their season around

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How the Patriots turned their season around

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- After the first month of the season, about the only thing that made sense for the Patriots was the play of Tom Brady. The rest of the team? Safe to say it looked nothing like this uber-squad that had some (yes, me included) talking about the potential for an undefeated season. The Pats were 2-2 and had lost -- gasp -- a pair of home games, giving up 42 to the Chiefs and 33 to the Panthers. What in the name of Rod Rust was going on?

Flash forward to a half-dozen weeks later. The Pats may not be winning games exactly in the manner we expected, but they’re getting there. They’ve now ripped off five in a row and are tied with the Steelers for the best record in the AFC. I’ve seen Pittsburgh play; the Pats are better, at least in the here and now.

How did this team transform itself from a disappointment to the best team in the conference? Let me count the ways . . . 

PERSONAL PRIDE

After that Carolina debacle, Devin McCourty called the defense’s play “embarrassing.” Duron Harmon said of the team's defensive scheme: “We can’t play no more simpler than that.” That’s a Code Red for Pats players. They were visibly hurt by what had transpired over the first month of the season. 

So what’s changed? A call to give more of yourself, whether it be in the film room, the meeting room, the weight room or the practice field. The secondary in particular, but the defense as a whole, demanded more accountability and the results have been more commensurate with what was expected, not just by fans and media but, more importantly, by the players themselves. You say as professionals, why shouldn’t this be the norm? I agree, but look around the league. Did you see Janoris Jenkins turtle in Sunday’s Giants/49ers game? Or the Browns safety who decided not to move a single step during the a running play in the red zone? When adversity strikes, some teams/players don’t know how to handle it. This one does.

COMMITMENT TO THE RUN GAME

Tom Brady can lift all boats, or his team in this case. Even at the age of 40, he’s one of just a handful of quarterbacks that no situation, no amount of adversity, seems too great to overcome. Lose your best receiver? That sucks, but we’ll figure it out. Get smashed to smithereens over the first four games and hurt your non-throwing shoulder? Not ideal, but I’ll be there next week . . . and the week after that and so on. Find yourself with just three healthy receivers for a big game in Denver, including one who’s barely made an impact during the first half of the season? Brady will just have the best statistical game at Mile High EVER. Yes, the old man is playing like a young kid with all the advanced degrees. “I have the answers to the test.” 

However, Brady’s still standing upright -- and that shoulder is healing -- because of a commitment the Patriots made to the run game following that loss to Carolina. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knew he was putting his QB in harm’s way too often. So the Pats magic number of 25 or more rushes became the target weekly. Only once have they failed to get there since:

GAME CARRIES YARDS
at Tampa Bay 23 113
at N.Y. Jets 25 118
Atlanta 36 162
L.A. Chargers 32 97
at Denver 29 99

The line play has improved dramatically over the win streak and the guys up front have said having more of a 50/50 run-pass ratio allows them to get into more of an attack mentality. Instead of always taking your first step back and bracing for a hit, they can instead deliver. It helps to wear out those elite pass rushers. Ask Von Miller. Or Joey Bosa. Or Melvin Ingram. Or Vic Beasley. Should I continue?

SPECIAL TEAMS

Always one of the premier groupings in the entire league, the Pats got off to a rocky start during that first month. They were without Matthew Slater, one of the best gunners in the game, and the rest of the unit missed his energy and attention to detail. You want to talk about accountability? No one on special teams wants to disappoint Slater.

But Slater's back and guess what? The Pats special teams have been riding high. Versus the Chargers prior to the bye, the Pats nailed punt returner Travis Benjamin for a safety, got a 71-yard kick return from Dion Lewis and continually pinned L.A. inside its own 20 on kickoffs. Hard to top that, right?

Wrong. 

Sunday night against the Broncos, Jon Jones forced a fumble on a punt return in the opening quarter, a fumble that was recovered by Jacob Hollister and led to a touchdown. Dion Lewis returned a kickoff 103 yards for a score. Rex Burkhead blocked a punt, leading to more points, and the Pats retained possession of the ball when they caught the Broncos with 12 men on the field during a punt return. 24 points -- directly or indirectly -- came because of how well the special teams  played. 

Bill Belichick always stresses playing complementary football and three phases of the game. The Pats aren’t just winning on special teams, they're crushing teams’ souls.

MATT PATRICIA DOING MORE WITH LESS

This might be the Pats’ defensive coordinator’s best job yet. His front seven is littered with subs, castoffs and players not in their prime, past their prime or just straight underperforming. Yet since losing to Carolina, the Pats defense has held opponents to 17 points or less in five straight games. How is that possible? Well, for starters, that pesky “bend but don’t break” mentality has come back into focus. The Pats are giving up yards -- Denver marched it up and down the field repeatedly Sunday night -- but are tightening up in or near the red area and forcing field goals. Patricia won’t celebrate that -- he wants no yards and no points -- but deep down, the DC is pleased with his team’s execution when their backs are up against the end zone. 

Patricia has also tabbed Kyle Van Noy to be his new Dont’a Hightower. With Hightower, the lynchpin of the front seven, down and out for the year, the Pats have asked Van Noy to do more than ever. He’s wearing the green dot and lines up inside, outside, anywhere they feel his speed and improved intelligence can help. It’s not perfect. Few linebackers have the physical skill set Hightower does. But Van Noy has become a foundational piece for a defense that needed the concrete to harden quickly after that putrid first month.

THEIR COACH IS SMARTER THAN YOURS

Bill Belichick didn’t panic when the Pats were 2-2. He went on some interesting media rants about the stupidity of predicting perfection to dispelling the notion that any team should be as good in September or October as it was the previous January or February. (Note to Bill: I have no idea who said that. Seemed like a strawman to me . . . ) Those moments made you reach deep for some sort of inner meaning. I took it as Belichick trying to shift the focus off his team and onto himself, even if it carried the conversation for just a day or two. 

Meanwhile, the coaching staff just kept pushing buttons, trying to find the right fits for some of their newer players. I’d say they’ve accomplished that. Stephon Gilmore is no longer miscast as a zone corner. He’s playing a lot of man and playing it well (ask Mike Evans and Demaryius Thomas). Rex Burkhead is being featured more as both a runner and receiver. Dion Lewis is now getting carries that previously belonged to Mike Gillislee. We’re seeing more of fullback James Develin and that toughness that he brings. Devin McCourty has found himself playing closer to the line of scrimmage than ever before and had really been as sound a tackler as you’ll see. Hell, the staff has even gotten something out of Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi defensively. 

Belichick also told Alan Branch to stay home for that Tampa game and didn’t lose the player. He reduced Malcolm Butler’s snaps in Week 2 versus the Saints, and while the corner hasn’t played up to his 2016 level, he too didn’t stray off the reservation. Noted distraction Martellus Bennett, who has left previous stops in Dallas, New York, Chicago and Green Bay with bridges burning, returned this past week and caught three passes in limited duty and said after that Belichick just knows how to talk to him. Yep, the man knows how to coach schemes and personalities better than anyone does it now and maybe anyone has done it ever. 

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Brady to Oprah on Belichick: 'We don't agree on absolutely everything'

Brady to Oprah on Belichick: 'We don't agree on absolutely everything'

Most of the highlights of Tom Brady's sit-down with Oprah Winfrey were released here and here last week before the interview was broadcast Sunday morning on Winfrey's OWN channel.

Also, in the hour-long interview, the Patriots quarterback was asked by Winfrey, amid an offseason filled with reports of tension between him and coach Bill Belichick, “Is there something going on with you and Belichick?”

“Umm, no. I mean, I love him," Brady said. "I love that he is an incredible coach, mentor for me. He’s pushed me in a lot of ways. Like everything, we don’t agree on absolutely everything, but that’s relationships.”

When Winfrey asked about his "separate training place" - the TB12 Sports Therapy Center next to Gillette Stadium that Brady and business partner and trainer Alex Guerrero have run for five years - Brady said he wouldn't characterize it as separate.

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” said Brady, who stayed away from Patriots voluntary workouts this spring, has worked out on his own with teammates, but did report for mandatory mini-camp June 5-7. “I probably do some of my own techniques a little differently than the rest of the team. The team, I would say, like most teams, is very systematic in their approach. What I learned, I guess, is different than some of the things that are systematic, but that work for me.”

Brady said he's talked about those techniques with Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Belichick restricted Guerrero's access to the Patriots sideline and team flights last season. 

“It’s nothing that I don’t talk about with my coach and owner,” Brady said. “It is what I want to do and is what I need to be the best player I can be. Hopefully, you can support that.”

More highlights from the Brady interview: 

On why he gave up his court fight in the Deflategate case and served his NFL-imposed four-game suspension:

"Too much anxiety," Brady said. "And I realized I couldn't win." Watch that clip here: 

How this Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in February was a little easier to take than his others, watch here: 

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James Harrison on Patriots' culture: 'I didn't have a problem with it’

James Harrison on Patriots' culture: 'I didn't have a problem with it’

As adversaries and former players openly wonder if the football culture in Foxboro is "fun" enough, recently-retired Pittsburgh Steelers legend James Harrison is asking, why does it matter?

In an interview with CBS Sports Network earlier this week, the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year reflected on the final stop of his 15-year career, the Patriots, who signed him late in the 2017 regular season after Pittsburgh released him, as insurance for New England as they geared up for their run to Super Bowl LII.

The biggest takeaway from his time with the Patriots?

"Discipline. That’s the big thing," the five-time Pro Bowler said. "They’re not going to ask you to do anything that is outside of what you’re capable of doing. And it’s, you learn the system and you go out there and you play it. And like I said, it's very regimented, so if you’re a guy that’s not used to discipline, you’re not going to like it there."

Harrison said it was even stricter than his years with former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, with whom he won his first Super Bowl in 2006.

"Cowher wasn't as regimented as Bill [Belichick] was," Harrison said. "Like I say, I didn’t have a problem with it. You know, I enjoyed my time there, you know, I thanked them for the opportunity they gave me to continue to play."

Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson has repeatedly mocked the Patriots since his team them in Super Bowl LII, calling them "arrogant" and a "fear-based organization", even telling the Pardon My Take podcast, "I'd much rather have fun and win a Super Bowl than be miserable and win five Super Bowls."

Meanwhile, 49ers defensive end Cassius Marsh, who was released after eight games with the Pats in 2017, says he hated his time in New England and didn't have fun, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, "I confronted [Belichick] about all the things that were going on. I won't get into detail, but it was B.S. things they were doing. It just wasn't a fan."

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