Patriots

Patriots receive motivational lift from playoff-hungry Jason McCourty

Patriots receive motivational lift from playoff-hungry Jason McCourty

Jason McCourty's piece on the Players' Tribune, published on Friday, hits on a variety of topics we didn't previously know.

-- Bill Belichick still may occasionally call McCourty by his twin brother's name accidentally.

-- McCourty found out the Titans might be moving on from him when the team expressed interest in signing his friend and former Patriots corner Logan Ryan.

-- When the McCourty twins squared off for a boxing match as kids, Devin threw the first punch.

But there was one element to Jason's story that has been relatively apparent, and never more so than when he had one of the best games of his season against the Bills in Week 16: Even as one of the team's most experienced players, he's brought the Patriots some new energy.

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"We ended up clinching against Buffalo a couple of days before Christmas," McCourty wrote, "after I got a late interception to seal the game. When I ran over to the sidelines, all the guys were waiting there to celebrate with me."

How do teams who've experienced so much success continue to motivate themselves? That's something Belichick and his staff -- both coaching and in the front office -- have to be aware of constantly. Roster turnover can help . . . particularly adding a player like McCourty, a veteran who has never experienced the type of success he's experiencing this year in New England.

McCourty wrote in the Players' Tribune that he wasn't sure if he'd even make the team when he was playing safety late in the preseason finale. But as he earned his role on this year's roster -- playing as the team's No. 2 corner for much of the season -- he's felt overwhelming support from those around him.

"As the year went on, I got more chances to play and carved out a role for myself," McCourty explained. "And the guys on the team, knowing I’d never made it to the playoffs, rallied around that. They wanted to win for me, which meant a lot."

I asked Duron Harmon what it's been like having McCourty as part of the mix this year and if McCourty's hunger for success has rubbed off on anyone else.

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"Hungry for the team's success, for sure," Harmon said. "Hungry to win. When you have great teammates like we have in here, you want to do everything in your power to do your job the best that you can."

Harmon added: "The coaches are going to make sure you're always motivated here, but when you have guys like J-Mac, who are great teammates, the motivation stays high because you never want to let down the man next to you."

The Patriots will use any bit of motivation they can get this week. Perhaps they'll point to the fact that the Chargers haven't lost outside of L.A. County. Perhaps they'll hear that more than 60 percent of wagers against the spread (Patriots are favored by 4.5) are going to the Chargers, the widest gap of any Divisional Round game, per the Action Network.

Or maybe just being around McCourty this week, a 31-year-old desperate for a taste of the playoff success his brother has experienced, will give them a boost.

"The thing about this locker room is everybody's selfless," Harmon said. "Everybody's playing for the next man. Nobody's really playing for himself . . . The mindset of the team is to win for the guy next to you. And when you have a guy like that, J-Mac, such a selfless person, great leader, great person, it just adds to you wanting to win that much more for your teammate, for your brother. We sacrifice so much playing this game, playing for this team, when you have somebody like that, it makes it really, really easy to play for them."

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Ryan Izzo makes case to be Gronk's replacement as starting Patriots tight end

Ryan Izzo makes case to be Gronk's replacement as starting Patriots tight end

FOXBORO — Tom Brady's first-down throw early in the second quarter was a rope. Dropping back from Carolina's 26-yard line, he looked up the seam, planted and put one on a line.

"I had a little heat," Brady said after. "I had a little heat on that. It’s nice when you can be decisive and make a good, decisive throw."

But anyone who'd watched Brady practice this summer — anyone following him on Instagram — knew he still had the ability to rear back for a little extra when he needed to. 

The player on the other end of the pass, meanwhile, was a relative unknown with an opportunity to seize one of the most important gigs in the Patriots offense.  

Ryan Izzo started at tight end Thursday night against the Panthers, in what's widely considered the closest thing to a regular-season "dress rehearsal." That the second-year player out of Florida State came through with a difficult catch when given the opportunity — on what might've been Brady's best throw of the night — seemed to go a long way with his quarterback.

"For me, anticipation and decisiveness are so important," Brady said. "That comes from experience and trust. So, when guys are in those spots, you feel like you can cut it loose because you have all the decisiveness to do that.

"So, that was a good throw, and I’ve got to make a lot of those this year. That’s what I’ve been working hard to do, and the team expects me to make all the throws that are there. That was a good play. Ryan made a great catch."

Izzo played 38 snaps in the game, but it was that catch that had to have helped his chances of making the roster and carving out a real role more so than any other.

When Brady let the ball go, he probably saw more of Jermaine Carter's No. 56 jersey than he did of Izzo. But with the defender's head turned, and with Izzo going low to pluck the fastball with his hands, the connection was made.

Izzo said later that thanks to his feel for the positioning of the safety in the middle of the field, he had a pretty good idea that Brady's throw would be a low liner and not a high-arcing lob.

"I think in the back of my mind I kind of had an idea that the safety was coming down," Izzo said. "But that's kind of just instincts. You rep that a lot in practice. You know it's going to be a tight window."

It was repped less than a week ago when Izzo went down the seam and caught a pass from Jarrett Stidham on a similar route. That pass was sailed high, and Izzo took a dangerous hit to his knees soon after he secured the catch.

Regardless of where that pass is aimed — a risk-reward throw that Rob Gronkowski made one of the most dangerous weapons in the Patriots offense for about a decade — Izzo knows he has to put himself in a position to make sure the end result is a good one.

"Being a bigger tight end, kind of a slower guy, you definitely gotta make those plays over the middle," he said. "Having big bodies in the game, you definitely gotta prepare for the hits with those safeties coming downhill, but I think it's just preparing yourself . . . You gotta know they're coming down."

Since Gronkowski's retirement this offseason, the tight end spot for Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has hardly been settled. They signed Matt LaCosse in free agency, and he saw the majority of the first-team reps early in training camp. But LaCosse suffered an injury in the preseason opener in Detroit and hasn't played in a preseason game since. 

That's opened the door for Izzo, who was the top tight end choice Thursday over Ben Watson, Lance Kendricks, Eric Saubert and Stephen Anderson. Watson, suspended for the first four weeks of the season, also saw time with Brady, but the others played primarily with Stidham.

Izzo, a seventh-round pick in 2018, isn't the best athlete of the bunch. At 6-foot-5, 256 pounds at last year's combine, he ran a 4.94-second 40-yard dash. But his strength is as a blocker — something that might serve the Patriots well if they continue to utilize the run-heavy approach they took at the end of last season. 

Plus, Izzo spent last year in the Patriots system while on injured reserve, which amazingly makes him the longest-tenured tight end in the room. His grasp of the offense very well may be ahead of anyone's at the position outside of Watson, who spent the first six years of his career in New England. 

It's not exactly a wealth of experience from which Izzo benefits. But it was enough against the Panthers to help him make the catch of the night and help set up the Patriots for their only touchdown of the game. 

It's anyone's guess who the Patriots will choose at tight end for their 53-man roster. Maybe LaCosse will be healthy enough to be the only guy they need until Watson's return. Maybe there's room for someone like LaCosse as well as Izzo. 

Regardless, Izzo's eye-opening grab Thursday night could only help the rapport he's trying to establish with his quarterback. 

"I think whenever you're able to execute on a play like that, I think it builds some trust with Tom," Izzo said. "But you've gotta keep doing it over and over again. One time isn't good enough. Just gotta keep working."

Welker roasts Brady for hat choice>>>>>

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10 takeaways: Jarrett Stidham may have locked up Patriots backup QB job vs Panthers

10 takeaways: Jarrett Stidham may have locked up Patriots backup QB job vs Panthers

FOXBORO – Jarrett Stidham may have officially made Brian Hoyer obsolete.

For the third game in a row the rookie fourth-rounder showed enough arm, accuracy and pocket presence to envision him being the sole backup to Tom Brady in 2019.

Stidham went 6 for 9 for 52 yards on two second-quarter drives then came back and went 3-for-3 on the first drive of the second half for another 19 yards. Beyond the stats, Stidham showed a willingness to stay in the pocket and take a hit waiting for targets to uncover. Twice, he hit Jakobi Meyers with late deliveries. A third-and-12 completion for 13 yards to a diving Meyers was the best throw he had closely followed by a crosser that Meyers snatched from over the head of a Panthers DB.

Stidham played all but the first three drives of the game and finished 15 for 19 for 134 yards.

But Stidham’s night wasn’t without some adventure. That opening drive of the second half ended with a lost fumble when left guard Hjalte Froholdt got turnstiled and Stidham was forced to run for his life. The ball popped loose when Stidham was snagged from behind.

Stidham also took a false start when he hedged on a shotgun snap, turning a third-and-6 into a third-and-11. He had a couple of balls forced into tight coverage as well that could have been picked but fell incomplete.

On the Patriots only other drive of the third, Stidham had a terrific completion on the sidelines to Meyers good for a first down and was the beneficiary of a generous defensive pass interference call to put the ball inside the 10 but shameful pass protection – especially by Froholdt – turned the Patriots backfield into a Panthers team meeting. Stidham was ultimately sacked five times.

Still, Stidham – who came into the game 28 for 43 for 372 with two touchdown passes – probably pushed the valued veteran Hoyer a little closer to the cut line. The arm strength, mobility and upside all argue in his favor. Even this team didn’t have too many other competitive positions where players who make the team will contribute, Hoyer might be safe. But going two deep behind a player who hasn’t missed a game due to injury since 2008 would be overkill.

UP AND DOWN FOR MEYERS

While Meyers continued to have incredible chemistry with Stidham – he caught seven passes from Stidham in less than two quarters – he didn’t have the same kismet during Tom Brady’s time on the field. Brady’s first throw to Meyers was a deep ball down the seam and Meyers got walled off by the defensive back and bailed on the route. He also had a drop on a throw over the middle and was called for a holding penalty (admittedly, a sketchy call).

Meyers, who got the start, came into the game with 12 receptions for 151 yards and two touchdowns and he added another seven catches for 74 yards. He leads the NFL in preseason yards with 325 on 19 catches.  

He’s also gotten one earful from Brady. Asked if the sideline lecture after the long incompletion was intimidating, Meyers said, “I wouldn’t say intimidating. But I was like man, this is … I’m really being yelled at by Tom Brady.”

LACES OUT!

Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal for the second week in a row, this one from 43 yards. Replay showed that holder Jake Bailey had the laces pointed at Gostkowski so the flight of the ball wasn’t ideal. He hooked it wide left. Gostkowski later made a 23-yarder. Bailey will be holding down the holder duties this season, the first time since 2013 that someone other than Ryan Allen has been the regular holder for Gostkowski.

GUNNER MAKES A BID

If the Patriots want to keep Julian Edelman out of harm’s way on punt returns this season, Gunner Olszewski so far looks like the front-runner to take over that job. Olszewski had four punt returns for 63 yards including a 28-yarder when he burst from the pack after reversing field. Olzewski, a converted corner from Bemidji State, left the game after a 15-yard catch when he got squished by two Panthers. He’s a very slight gentleman and needs some seasoning at wide receiver, obviously. If he were merely a receiver option, chances are he’d be headed for the practice squad – same with second-year wideout Braxton Berrios. But Edelman could be too vital to the Patriots offense in 2019 to risk putting him back there except on plus-50 punts and critical returns.

DAUNTING FRONT

The Patriots opened the game defensively with these players on or near the line of scrimmage: Chase Winovich, Michael Bennett, Lawrence Guy, Kyle Van Noy, Donta Hightower, Jamie Collins and Devin McCourty. On the back end were Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Duron Harmon and Terrence Brooks. That’s a lot of talent and a lot of experience for an opposing quarterback to have to process and it wasn’t long before the Patriots had driven Cam Newton from the game with an ankle sprain. The Patriots allowed two first downs in the opening half (the Panthers were 0 for 5 on third down) and gave up 29 total yards (15 passing, 14 rushing).

“We talked about getting off to a good start against a team that was very high-powered on offense,” said Devin McCourty. “You talk about Cam Newton, [Christian] McCaffery, [Curtis] Samuels – all of those guys – [Greg] Olsen. They're very tough to stop once they get going, so I thought we did a good job of first stopping the run, and then getting a few good rushes in there to mix it up. We've got a lot of players out there that have played good football, either here or other places, so it felt good for all of us to get out there and start to put it together.”

FLAGS A FLYIN’

Officials in the preseason are known to get a little flag-happy. The idea is to throw now so that players rein it in when the season starts. But the throwing seemed a little excessive on a number of plays. The 29-yard pass interference against Patriots tight end Ryan Izzo that was called on Carolina in the second half was iffy. Even if Izzo had spun around, the ball from Jarrett Stidham wasn’t real close. The chop block in the first half whistled on Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon was also bogus. Cannon was executing a chop block but Mason wasn’t engaged with the defender, he was pushing off the hands of the defender as the defender tried to engage with him. There was also a questionable hold called on Meyers when it actually appeared he was getting rag-dolled. There were 17 penalties in the game, nine on the Patriots. Last week, there were 22 with 12 on New England.

At least there was a high bar on replay review. The Panthers tried twice to get officials to drop pass interference flags on the field against the Patriots. Neither time did it work. And that’s good because if the league was looking for clear and obvious contact that has a material effect on a receiver, neither Jason McCourty’s sideline coverage in the first half nor J.C. Jackson’s end zone coverage in the fourth quarter qualified.  

FROHOLDT HAS A ROAD AHEAD

Rookie guard Hjalte Froholdt was a liability in the second half Thursday against the Panthers. It was his missed block that caused Stidham to scramble and ultimately fumble and he was also involved in other pressure leading to sacks. Froholdt, who went to Arkansas, looked slow-footed and not real agile. Maybe it’s just a phase and something he’ll eliminate as he gains experience. Or maybe he’s chronically slow-footed. We will keep an eye-peeled during the preseason finale next week against the Giants.