Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- One year removed from announcing his retirement from football, Rob Ninkovich is embarking on a media career this fall. It may be a new gig for him, but his track record for predictions is already off to a pretty good start. 

Asked about a week before the start of Patriots training camp what will be the most important practice periods Bill Belichick runs early on, Ninkovich answered quickly. 

"Well, they'll probably start with goal line," he said. "The defense, that will probably be their first live drill because Bill really is a big believer in red zone defense and offense. The defense, if you can hold in the red zone, that's what's going to help you win football games. 

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"If the Patriots have four possessions and the other team has four possessions and the Patriots are four-for-four in the red zone and the other team is kicking field goals, it's already out of reach. The game is over, you know? I think that there's going to be a big emphasis on the red zone, like there always is."

He was right. During the first two days of padded practice, the Patriots ratcheted up the intensity at the end of both sessions with goal line periods. 

Though there are plenty of contact-heavy moments during padded practice, goal line drills are truly the closest thing to live football. And the players treat those few snaps -- there were just four on Sunday -- as though they're regular-season reps with real consequences.

 

"Just think about this," linebacker Elandon Roberts said. "Fourth and one. The other team's gotta score. Goal line is in. You know that it's us against you. Last play . . . 

"It's situations. Situational football. They're going for it. You know they're not kicking a field goal. There's seven points you can take off the board. It's a big emotional swing, too, for our offense. Our defense, at that time, when we're live, we're ready to go."

The Patriots defense was ready Sunday, finishing off a strong weekend of work by keeping the offense out of the end zone on all four goal-line reps. 

Patrick Chung and Malcom Brown teamed up to stop Sony Michel on one rep. Trey Flowers -- who got some help from Jordan Richards when Richards held his ground against James Develin's lead block -- was in the middle of the pile to help stone Rex Burkhead on the next. 

"It happens very fast," Burkhead said. "Coaches, when you come off to the sideline, they'll ask you what you saw and sometimes you're like, 'I don't know. I was just running.' "

Fifth-round rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley and Deatrich Wise kept Brandon Bolden out of the end zone on one 21-player wreck of humanity. Then Roberts earned the right to celebrate when he stopped Bolden bounce outside just inside the one. 

It was a fitting capper. Four goal-line reps. Four wins. 

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"You really gotta focus in on all your technique and your fundamentals even with all that anticipation and adrenaline running," Flowers explained after. "Because it's the first live period. It's the closest to the game you're going to get. You know you gotta get yourself amped up and ready to play, but you've also gotta understand your fundamentals and technique and don't lose those basic skills and fundamentals as far as eye control, pressing the blocker, finding the ball, things like that. I think it's just the closest to a realistic drill that you have."

Flowers received an early dose of the realities of live contact Saturday during a goal line stop. After popping up off the ground, Malcom Brown asked Flowers if he was OK. Blood was streaming down Flowers' face, but he didn't realize it. Even though the drill was just one of many that will take place this summer, Flowers' first reaction was to stick it out. Moments later, at the urging of Patriots staffers, he covered his forehead gash with a towel and left practice. 

Given how players handle their goal-line opportunities, their first sniff of live football after almost six months, can you blame Flowers for getting a little caught up in the moment?

"Fourth and one . . . only one winner," he said. "You just gotta focus on it and do the best you can."

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