Patriots defensive coaches handle turnover with near-shutout of Steelers

Patriots defensive coaches handle turnover with near-shutout of Steelers

FOXBORO — Steve Belichick held a small card over his mouth as he spoke into a headset. Jerod Mayo double-checked with him on a call, then DeMarcus Covington did the same. They all stood within shouting distance of Bill Belichick — with Steve the closest — as the Patriots defense stymied Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Sunday Night Football.

From our vantage point, it was difficult to make out who was doing what on the Patriots sideline. Was it safeties coach Steve Belichick making the defensive calls? Or was it Mayo, the inside linebackers coach, relaying calls to linebacker Dont'a Hightower while holding a large menu of play-calls on the sideline? Or was it Bill Belichick, who at times was silently flipping through "all-22" still images as his defense aligned?

Though the coaching roles weren't crystal clear through the press box glass, what was obvious was that it was a group effort on the part of the Patriots defensive coaches Sunday. Despite experiencing a massive amount of turnover, the group still held last year's passing yardage leader to three points in the 33-3 win — the same total the Patriots allowed to the Rams in their last meaningful game.

Last year's linebacker coach Brian Flores has moved on to become head coach of the Dolphins, taking former Patriots corners coach Josh Boyer with him. Last year's defensive line coach Brendan Daly is now coaching that position with the Chiefs.

With those coaches on the move, there's no doubt there were improvements to be made on the sidelines this summer as a younger group got adjusted to more responsibility.

But Bill Belichick seemed confident that they were coming along in that regard just before the season began.

"Yeah, we're making progress," Belichick said at the time. "I think we're certainly sharper than we were — that wasn't very sharp."

On the sidelines Sunday, the Belichicks, Mayo, Convington (outside linebackers coach) and Bret Bielema (defensive line coach) all stood in a row, all with headsets on, signaling to each other and their players throughout the night. In between series, they huddled up — with Belichick seemingly leading the discussion — to quickly reconvene and hash out any adjustments.

Meanwhile, Patriots defensive players — many of whom have been in Belichick's system for years at this point — tried to do as much in-between-series recon they could as well.

"I think because of the experience we have in the secondary, when we're over there talking it's guys playing so many different roles that we're just discussing whatever it was," Devin McCourty said. "So when the next guy's in a different role, and he's in a role that a guy just came from, we can talk about this so they know what to expect.

"I thought that showed up throughout the game, us just continuing to talk and try to get things on the same page. They gave us some things that we kind of talked about, maybe, and we just did a good job of getting on the same page on every play. A lot of that comes from just being able to talk on the sideline.

"You'll see sometimes, the whole coaching staff is still meeting, talking about the last series and we're over there, Jay [Jason McCourty]'s holding the [Microsoft] Surface and we're going over it on our own because we've got a lot of guys that have played here for a
long time."

When Belichick was done meeting with his assistants, he went back to his spot on the sidelines to watch the offense and the assistants met with their players to dispense whatever had been discussed.

The flow of information on the sideline was steady as the coverage was tight for the Patriots on Sunday. And they got enough of a pass-rush that Roethlisberger and his teammates never could get into a rhythm.

For coaches like Mayo and Steve Belichick, having an important role in the overall function of the defense means they've come a long way. Late in Mayo's career, when he landed on injured reserve, he and Belichick used to spend hours in what Belichick called his "QC dungeon" — where quality control coaches spent their time breaking down tape and learning the game.

Players don't want to say who's calling the plays, though several indicated it would be Mayo this summer. Whether it's Mayo or Steve Belichick or someone else, communication is clearly the focus for that section of the staff at the moment. And the early returns are good.

Even their players would tell you that.

"I think the cool thing is that they both have great relationships with the players," McCourty said of Steve Belichick and Mayo. "Maybe it's because they're a lot closer in age to us. All throughout the week we're talking.

"Before drives, Steve's asking us what we like. Even earlier today, just talking about different things that we liked. Same thing with Mayo. So I think the thing that's been great around here is just constant communication. Not just players, but players and coaches just communicating what we like, what we don't like and just making sure we're all on the same page.

"I think that's how you play your best football, is when the guys on the sideline are working well together with all of the guys on the field because we're the guys out there that have got to make the plays."

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Tom Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

Tom Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a topic that no one wanted to touch. Well, almost no one. 

Chris Ballard laughed it off. Mike Mayock was terse. Brian Flores repeated what felt like a well-rehearsed company line. Even the ever-confident Mike Vrabel fidgeted a bit, but in the end, he couldn't help himself. 

So, guys, Tom Brady...any interest?

Right alongside the topic of the new multi-billion dollar collective bargaining agreement being discussed by union leaders and NFL owners, Brady's future whereabouts have dominated early-week conversations here in Indy. The league and anyone associated with it may be in town for the scouting combine, but draftable players and their futures took a backseat to the Brady buzz Tuesday. 

The Patriots are still in play for Brady. Whether or not the Patriots make an effort to retain Brady will be coach Bill Belichick's call, from what I've been told. Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft wants nothing more than to see Brady remain in New England, as he's stated, and if the difference between Brady staying and going is a manageable amount of money then the owner would happily step in. But Belichick has yet to show his hand, and so the football world continues to wait and see what's next for the 42-year-old quarterback. 

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That means other front-office chiefs and head coaches around the league, those with quarterback questions of their own, will be peppered with Brady-related questions this week.

Even questions that didn't invoke Brady's name -- coaches and general managers are wary of publicly discussing players who are still technically on other rosters, as Brady is, until the new league year begins -- were dodged. 

Joe Judge, former Patriots special teams and receivers coach, was the first up. He was asked if Daniel Jones is his team's "franchise quarterback." 

"It's not going to be fair for me," Judge said, "to go ahead and set expectations for anyone on our roster at this point."

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Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but consistent with Judge's policy of leaving individual evaluations out of his public comments at this point in his coaching tenure. 

So what about Brady? He's owned property in New York City. Maybe he'd like the idea of playing in New York? 

I asked Judge about that hypothetical without mentioning Brady specifically. 

"Could you envision," I asked him, "a scenario in which the best way to teach Daniel might be to sit a year or two and allow him to grow that way?"

"We're going to let our players compete," he said. "Whoever our best player is going to be is going to be on the field. I don't have any scenario of letting anybody sit down if they're the best player for the job at the time. I'm not trying to create a hypothetical scenario where I think there's a timetable for any of our guys to contribute. I don't care how old or young you are. I really don't. I don't care about what your experience is before you get in our building. All I care about is can you help our team improve? That's it."

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock was quicker with his dismissal. After acknowledging that any and every position will be evaluated, including quarterback, he noted that one of the things that's critical to playing that position in Vegas is being able to grasp Jon Gruden's offense. 

What if, though, there was a quarterback who'd run another offense better than Gruden's? It stands to reason that any team Brady would join would end up running some variation of Brady's offense. 


"We've got a quarterback," Mayock said, "who runs Jon's offense at a very high level." 

OK then. 

Brian Flores said essentially what Miami general manager Chris Grier and owner Stephen Ross have said of late, which is, why would Brady want to join a rebuilding team like Miami? 

Curiously consistent in that response have been the Dolphins, but with Chad O'Shea's departure -- the former Patriots receivers coach who was relieved of his offensive coordinator duties in Miami after the season -- and Chan Gailey's hiring as coordinator, the Dolphins make less sense for Brady than they did two months ago.

Up next: Chris Ballard, Colts GM.

Indy is flush with cap space. They've been reluctant to commit to Jacoby Brissett as their quarterback of the present or the future. They have a roster, though, that looks talented enough to compete if they had consistent quarterback play. 

Ballard said multiple times that he wouldn't comment on impending free agents potentially joining his team; Philip Rivers has been linked to Indy multiple times already this offseason because of his connection to certain members of the coaching staff there. 

Still, I asked him about Brady. As a longtime competitor, could Ballard envision Brady in another uniform? 

"So," he laughed, "you're going to ask me a question now? You don't want me to comment but you're going to ask me?" 

"I'm not going to talk about that," he said, eventually. "Great career, though."

As the day wore on, a couple of coaches were a bit more loose-lipped. Bruce Arians of the Bucs flat out named Brady as a potential target for Tampa Bay when asked for examples of quarterbacks he'd consider next month. 

"Tom Brady," he said. "Philip is another guy. We'll see."

Tell us how you really feel, Bruce. 

Seriously. And why not? Maybe Arians is an NBC Sports Boston reader. Maybe he knows there's really nothing to worry about when it comes to tampering with Brady because the Patriots probably aren't going to pursue tampering charges involving their quarterback. Tampering might actually help Brady gauge his market more quickly and allow the Patriots to act one way or the other as they construct their team. 

Here's what our Tom E. Curran wrote earlier this month: "My understanding is that the Patriots aren’t worried about other team’s financial pitches. Their business with Brady revolves around the direction of the 2020 offensive personnel, Brady getting some input on that, and Brady’s role in the team’s future. They aren’t going to be super-vigilant about tampering."

That brings us to Vrabel, the Titans head coach, a friend of Brady's, who straddled the tampering fence as well as anyone Tuesday. It looked uncomfortable for him at first, though. Vrabel looked down when asked about Brady potentially playing elsewhere during a podium session at the Indianapolis Convention Center. At one point he fidgeted with the recorders in front of him.

"Tom's a teammate, former teammate," Vrabel said. "He's a friend. He'll always be a friend. He'll do what's best for him and his family. Wherever that may be, I'm not sure."

Vrabel was quick to compliment Brady as an opponent. Though his defense beat up on the Patriots offense in the Wild Card Round in January, he clearly still holds Brady's game in high regard. 

"Very accurate passer," Vrabel said. "A player that's got great command of the pocket . . . Tom did a great job of staying in the pocket when we mixed some of those three-man rushes in. Great command of the offense. Great leader."

Pressed further on Brady, and told that the Titans look like a good fit for Brady if he was to leave New England, Vrabel interrupted. 

"Why would you see it would be a great fit," Vrabel asked? "I'm just curious."

The Titans have shown they can win now, I told him. Good weapons. Good offensive line. Brady knows the coach.

"We were 9-7," Vrabel interrupted. "We played a couple of good games. I know a lot of players. I played in the league 14 years. Friends with some. Tom's under contract. I was just curious why you thought he'd be a great fit."

Do you agree, I asked?

"Do I agree that I know Tom, or that I'm friends with Tom," he replied?

No. Is Tennessee a good fit? 

"I think when you look at players that are still under contract," Vrabel said, "it's important for us to evaluate each and every position but understand that there's a time frame to have those conversations."

Outside of Arians spelling out his Brady interest, that was as close as we came to another organization acknowledging it'll make a play for the six-time Lombardi-winner. "There's a time frame to have those conversations..." 

Technically that's the legal tampering period, starting on Mar. 16 and running right up to the start of the new league year on Mar. 18. But the reality is those conversations begin now, this week, in Indianapolis, where agents, coaches and executives mingle to discuss their options. 

No one wants to admit it, but if those conversations haven't started already, they will soon. 

Vrabel, while complimentary of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is coming off of what was far and away the best season of his career, didn't necessarily commit to Tannehill as the team's quarterback of the future. That might simply be a leverage play; Tannehill is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. But it might also mean the team is leaving its options open. 

Vrabel and Brady remain close. When asked about his relationship with Brady, Vrabel said Tuesday, "undefeated," referencing Tennessee wins over New England in 2018 and in the playoffs last season. 

"I asked him for a bigger trophy this year," Vrabel said. "Still waiting for it."

In just a matter of weeks, Brady and Vrabel can legally discuss any kind of trophy they'd like, and how Brady might be able to bring a big one to Tennessee.

Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

Patriots ask QB prospect at NFL Combine how he'd feel about replacing Tom Brady

The Patriots staffers who questioned Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton at the NFL Scouting Combine just came right out and asked it.

How would he feel about replacing a legend at QB?

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Luton, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound QB projected as a late-round pick, told USA TODAY he was a bit taken aback to get the Tom Brady question right off the bat. 

“I think that was a great question," he told Patriots Wire's Henry McKenna. "It was a fair question for them to ask.”

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Luton said his demeanor would be an asset if he was indeed that next guy for the Patriots.

“Those are big shoes to fill. But for me, I’m a pretty even-keeled guy. I kind of reiterated that,” he said. "I’ve never let any of the outside noise distract me, so I don’t think that would be an issue. I’d bring it every day and prove that I’m a leader, no matter if it’s a high or a low. Keep doing it every day, however that works out. I’m not going to worry about filling anyone’s shoes. Just doing the best that I can do.”

Injury concerns have dropped Luton down most draft boards. He spent six years playing in college between Idaho and Oregon State and a forearm injury kept him out of what would've been his final college game against Oregon.

Luton was one of four QB prospects the Pats have met with at the combine in Indianapolis. Jake Fromm of Georgia, Jordan Love of Utah State (projected as New England's first-round pick in Phil Perry's latest mock draft) and James Morgan of Florida International, who met with them at the East-West Shrine Game, are the others.

It stands to reason that the others were asked the Brady question, too. And it was probably put to current backup Jarett Stidham before he was selected last year in the fourth round.