Patriots

Keeping Watson in check is top priority for Pats' defense

Keeping Watson in check is top priority for Pats' defense

FOXBORO -- During practice on Tuesday, the Patriots ran a quarterback-pursuit drill that gave a little window into how they'll try to contain Deshaun Watson on Sunday. 

Four defensive linemen got off the ball, feigned beating the imaginary blockers in front of them, then . . . turned into basketball players.

Knees bent. Waists bent. On the balls of their feet, they shuffled side to side as they neared the quarterback -- corners Keion Crossen and Jomal Wiltz mimicked Watson in this video taken by NBC Sports Boston photographer Bill Messina -- as if they were trying to keep a point guard out of the paint:

It's not that the Patriots don't want to rush Watson when the Texans visit Gillette Stadium this weekend. It's that they want to rush him under control. That drill illustrated it perfectly when, during a four-man rush, only three deliberately closed in on the quarterback. The fourth in those practice drills, the edge player on the backside, sat and waited for the scrambler to reverse course. 

The Patriots know what can happen when they lose integrity on their rush lanes against Watson. They saw it up close in Week 3 last season, when the then-rookie completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns and two picks. He ran for 41 more yards on eight carries. 

But looking at Watson's performance more closely we can get an idea of just how dangerous he is when he's given too much room to operate behind the line of scrimmage.

Separating Watson's drop-backs into plays that came from within the structure of the play and outside the structure of the play (or "scramble drill" plays), paints a clear picture of how perilous things can be for the defense when Watson goes into freelance mode.

Twenty-nine of Watson's drop-backs against the Patriots last year came from within the structure of how the play was designed. He completed 17 of his 26 throws for 210 yards, two touchdowns and two picks (though one of those picks came on a Hail Mary to end the game). He was sacked on one drop-back. He also picked up a 34-yard pass-interference penalty on one attempt, and the Texans benefitted from an illegal contact penalty on another.

If you include the pass interference call, Watson averaged 9.04 yards per attempt when working within the structure of the play. That's a huge number. He was electric from inside the pocket.

But that number ballooned when Watson worked outside of structure. 

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Watson had 14 plays where he worked off the cuff. He completed 5 of his 7 attempts for 91 yards with no touchdowns or picks. He also ran five times for 19 total yards (including a sack that lost two), and the Texans were called for a hold on another scramble.

The pass plays from outside of structure -- one attempt saw Watson complete a pass from 23 yards behind the line of scrimmage to tight end Ryan Griffin for a net gain of zero -- resulted in 13.0 yards per attempt.

The Patriots defense escaped with a win that day because Tom Brady was Tom Brady, but they know that they have to be better at trying to prevent another Watson magic show before it starts. 

"Overall, it's an all-around effort for us as a defense," Trey Flowers said. "As a front, you want to keep him in the pocket, and then if you do break out because he's such a great player and has such a great skill level . . . we have to continue to pressure and the back end has gotta be able to stick to their man. It's an overall defensive effort. It's going to take all 11 of us."

Aside from one of the more incredible completions for no gain to occur all of last season, there were two more Watson scramble-drill pass plays that stood out to Patriots defenders I spoke to on Wednesday. 

The first came with just under 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Watson felt pressure from Lawrence Guy and scrambled backwards and to his left. He ended up about eight yards behind the line and at the numbers when he found a receiver, flipped his hips, and uncorked a throw outside the numbers on the opposite side of the field for a 35-yard gain to Griffin. The throw traveled about 45 yards in the air, and Watson let it go as he was being hit. 

Ill-advised? Maybe. But not if he completes it.

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"If it didn't work out, yeah," said Patrick Chung. "But it worked out so it's a great play."

Chung added: "He's just trying to make plays, and he's smart enough to make plays, and he's smart enough not to make the dumb plays. [Griffin] was wide open. It's rough. It's rough. But sometimes you have quarterbacks who can do that. Tom. Aaron Rodgers . . . 

"You're gonna have to be aware of [Watson] because he can throw, and he can run, and he can scramble to make extra time to make a throw like that. We just have to do our job and try to contain him. He's going to have his plays. Obviously, he's a good player and he's going to have his plays. But if we can contain him as much as we can, that's only going to help us."

Kyle Van Noy ended up making the tackle on that completion to Griffin, but his mind immediately went to another wild scramble that earned the Texans a chunk of yardage. In the fourth quarter, Watson avoided being sacked by four different players -- including Van Noy, who was plowed into by Guy when both dove for the quarterback -- only to find D'Onta Foreman wide open for 31 yards. 

"Props to him," Van Noy said. "Props to him. You gotta prepare for him. There's not many people who can do the things he does. It's pretty cool to see his success, just not against us."

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Patriots rumors: Latest buzz on free agents Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy

Patriots rumors: Latest buzz on free agents Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy

Tom Brady isn't the only important free agent the New England Patriots have to consider re-signing this offseason.

The strength of the Patriots in 2019 was their defense, and several valuable members of that unit have expiring contracts. Among that group are linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, as well as safety Devin McCourty.

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Here are the latest updates on those three Patriots free agents with a few weeks to go before the market opens.

Devin McCourty
McCourty is the fifth-longest tenured Patriots player behind Brady, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, wide receiver Julian Edelman and special teams ace Matthew Slater. He's been one of the team's best players and leaders since he was selected in the first round of the 2010 draft. McCourty's five-year, $47.5 million contract is about to expire, and even though he's 32 years old, his talent is still impressive. 

Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald reported Thursday "the understanding is the Patriots want the veteran safety back."

McCourty has not missed a game since the 2014 season. He tallied 58 total tackles, two forced fumbles (one recovery) and seven passes defensed last season. His five interceptions were tied for the second-most in the league. The Patriots secondary ranked among the league's best in the 2019 campaign and held opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 56.5 completion percentage. McCourty played an important role in that success, and the Pats would be wise to bring him back.

Kyle Van Noy
The Patriots acquiring Kyle Van Noy and a seventh-round draft pick from the Detroit Lions in exchange for a sixth-round pick in October of 2016 turned out to be one of their best trades in recent memory. Van Noy has been a fixture of New England's linebacker group since his arrival, and he's helped the team win two Super Bowl titles over that span.

USA TODAY Sports' Henry McKenna reported Thursday that Van Noy's camp and the Patriots aren't scheduled to meet this week.

Van Noy tallied 56 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles (two recoveries), three passes defensed and a touchdown last season. He's also been pretty durable with zero games missed due to injury since 2017.

If Van Noy hits the open market, he'll be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.

Jamie Collins
Collins returned to the Patriots last season after a disappointing two-year run with the Cleveland Browns, and the veteran linebacker re-established himself as a top-tier player in Bill Belichick's defense.

The Boston Globe's Jim McBride tweeted Thursday that Collins "is expected to have many suitors." This isn't surprising given how well Collins played in 2019.

Collins led the Patriots defense in total tackles (81) and sacks (seven) last season, while also tallying three forced fumbles (one recovery), seven passes defensed, one touchdown and a career-high three interceptions.

Curran: What happens when the GOAT feels like a lame duck?

Patriots told Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney he had 'loser's mentality' in combine interview

Patriots told Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney he had 'loser's mentality' in combine interview

Under Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots have created a very defined culture. They don't deal with nonsense and players they pick often have specific traits and ways of thinking that fit their winning culture.

And Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney found out about this the hard way at the 2020 NFL Combine.

The NFL hopeful described his meeting with the Patriots during the combine and spoke of their dedication to culture and how one wrong answer made the team say that Pinkney's response was "a loser's mentality."

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“It’s interesting, because [with] a team that’s been winning for as long as they have, you expect them to come in with a certain mentality and to share that mentality and to spread it and impart it on you,” Pinkney said, per NESN's Zack Cox. “And that’s exactly what happened. I gave a kind of wonky answer, and it was like, ‘No, that’s a loser’s mentality.’ And I was like, ‘OK, my bad.’ [raises hands] They were like, ‘You need to be like this and that and that,’ and I was like, ‘Yes, sir. I’m better.’ ”

That had to be an uncomfortable moment for Pinkney, but he surely isn't the first prospect to have something like that happen to him at the combine. And that was just one of the responses he gave during his session with the team, so he probably did fine overall.

It's no surprise that the Patriots interviewed Pinkey, who our own Phil Perry identified as a Prototypical Patriot to watch in the Senior Bowl. And the Patriots are looking to add some talent at tight end, as they got little to no production out of their triage of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson, and Ryan Izzo last season and never properly replaced Rob Gronkowski after his retirement during the 2019 offseason.

Pinkney (6-foot-4, 257 pounds) had 20 catches for 223 yards and two touchdowns as a senior. His most productive collegiate season came as a junior in 2018 when he grabbed 50 passes for 774 yards and seven touchdowns.