Patriots

Protect and swerve: Looks like Lewis has earned more playing time

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Protect and swerve: Looks like Lewis has earned more playing time

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick has said it many times, though in not so many words: This is a meritocracy. Opportunities go to those who deserve them. Time is earned.

Trey Flowers? He's near the top of the list of snaps played by defensive linemen across the league because "he's earned that playing time," Belichick explained recently. Eric Rowe, who had a short-lived run as a starter before suffering a groin injury? He was playing as much as he was because "he's definitely gaining with the experience that he's received and earned."

There's that word again. "Earned."

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Understanding the requirements for time on the field makes the case of Dion Lewis a relatively curious one. He's averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 3.5 yards after contact per attempt. He's been his team's most elusive back on a per-touch basis. He's handled his duties in pass-protection. And when given a shot at more time on Sunday against the Jets following a Mike Gillislee fumble, he responded with 52 yards on 11 carries and a goal-line touchdown. Belichick said later his team's ability to move the ball on the ground against the Jets was part of the reason Brady was kept as clean as he was.

The 29 snaps Lewis saw at MetLife Stadium were a season-high. Despite being healthy and in uniform all year he has played in just 21.5 percent of Patriots plays.

Lewis may not be exactly the same player he was through the first half of the 2015 season when he was an electric ball-carrier who turned in a handful of Barry Sanders-type moments before tearing his ACL. But if he's not quite there, he's close, and he knows it.

Taking a closer look at some of his plays from over the weekend, here's why if the Patriots opted to continue to bump up Lewis' playing time, it would be well-deserved.

HARD TO HANDLE

Lewis somehow turned this first-quarter run, where he's stopped three yards behind the line of scrimmage, into a one-yard gain. That may not sound all that significant, but second-and-nine isn't quite as daunting as second-and-13. He actually made two tacklers miss on the play, and he finished the game having forced five missed tackles in all. He's now causing one missed tackle for every three carries this season, according to Pro Football Focus, which is the second-best rate in the NFL.

For running backs, getting what's blocked is good. Having the ability to create yards on your own as well is even better, and no one on the Patriots has done that better than Lewis this season.

Take the above run for example. On the first play of the second half, Lewis burrowed into the line of scrimmage and found nothing. In the image grabbed here, Lewis is totally obstructed by Nate Solder and Jets linebacker Demario Davis, but he bounces the run out to the left. After avoiding a swipe by Kony Ealy, Lewis out-runs corner Morris Claiborne to the sideline for a gain of 11 yards that he basically pulled out of thin air.

Here's Lewis -- blending in with the NFL logo -- meeting 332-pound defensive tackle Mike Pennel (No. 98) and running through his arm tackle for a gain of seven yards. After the play, Pennel looks up to see just how far Lewis had driven ahead, and he slapped the turf out of frustration as if to say, "How did he do that?"

HOLDING HIS GROUND

Against the Jets, when not carrying the football, Lewis proved to be a willing and able pass-protector. On this second-quarter throw -- a Tom Brady deep shot that was intercepted by Buster Skrine -- Lewis provided his quarterback with all the time he needed. Spotting strong safety Jamal Adams creeping toward the line of scrimmage late in the play clock, Lewis bailed on what looked like was a designed play-fake to the right in order to thwart the oncoming Jets rookie missile. Lewis stuck his right shoulder into Adams' midsection and put him on his back.

This block, which came earlier in the second quarter, wasn't as jarring. But it was impactful. Again, the Patriots ran a play-fake to the right side of the line of scrimmage. Again, though he was perhaps a little late this time, Lewis spotted a pass-rusher screaming off the left edge. This time it was the other Jets rookie safety Marcus Maye. Lewis barely got his hands on Maye, but he altered Maye's course just enough to push him past Brady. The result was a near-interception by Skrine on the sideline, but Lewis likely saved Brady a shot to the spine.

A productive runner. A capable pass-protector. Perhaps Lewis will see more time moving forward as a result of his play. But Belichick may have, in a roundabout way, hinted at the reason Lewis hasn't been on the field more during a press conference last week.

He was asked about incorporating Rex Burkhead into the offense when the Patriots have seen their other backs be productive in the work they've been given. Belichick passed on the specifics of Burkhead's situation, but he shed some light on his decision-making process in general.

"As a coach, I can’t control a player’s performance," Belichick said. "That’s up to him. So we put the players out there and let them compete and let them play and try to play the ones that earn the playing time, earn the opportunities. That’s up to each individual player to do. Sometimes circumstances enhance or can restrict those opportunities, but the most important thing is taking advantage of them."

The circumstances that could be restricting Lewis' opportunities are two-fold.

For one, his teammates at the position have in general performed well with the chances they've been given. James White is on pace for a career year as the team's sub back. Gillislee had seemingly made few mistakes as New England's hammer between the tackles until fumbling last weekend. And Burkhead could return soon from the rib injury that has held him out since Week 3, which may make the running-back workload for the Patriots even more unpredictable.

There's also Lewis' injury history. Though he's healthy now, he has had a litany of physical issues that have hampered him over the course of his career. His 2015 ACL team and subsequent patella fracture last summer kept him off the field until midway through the 2016 season.

The Patriots may be looking to manage Lewis during the regular season in order to ensure that they have him at full strength in December and January. It's an approach they've taken in the past with receiver Danny Amendola in 2014 and 2016, despite Amendola's having earned opportunities with what he'd shown on the field in the limited time he'd been given in those seasons.

At the moment, Lewis' skill set may be viewed as a luxury for an offense that ranks first in the NFL in yards and fifth in points. But going forward, if they should need a boost the way they did in Jersey on Sunday, Lewis has certainly earned the opportunity to give it to them.

Most intense position battle: Wideouts to go at it

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Most intense position battle: Wideouts to go at it

Third in our series looking ahead to the opening of Patriots training camp July 26.

Figure the Patriots will keep five wideouts (not including special teams ace Matthew Slater) when they enter into Week 1 of the regular season. Even with Julian Edelman scheduled to serve a four-game suspension to start the year, even with that slot opening up the potential for a receiver on the bubble to make the club, this figures to be one of the most competitive positions in camp. 

 

 

Chris Hogan will be relied upon thanks to his experience and versatility. And figure Cordarrelle Patterson has a place on the roster as the entire league ventures into a post-kickoff rules change world. 

 

After that? Hard to say. 

 

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Jordan Matthews should have the inside track on a role for an offense that will likely be looking for some help on the inside. He's the most experienced slot receiver on the roster after Edelman, but Braxton Berrios and Riley McCarron could make a run themselves -- particularly if the punt-return work is up for grabs and they snatch it. 

 

On the outside, the competition is tougher. There may not be room for Kenny Britt, Phillip Dorsett and Malcolm Mitchell on the same roster even though their skill sets differ. Britt has the size and athleticism to make good on the potential he showed as a first-round pick in 2009. Will being paired with Tom Brady help him finally break through consistently? Dorsett's size and speed may make him the closest thing on the roster to Brandin Cooks. Do the Patriots feel there's room for him to grow now that he's back for Year 2? For Mitchell, the question is always the same: Will he be healthy?

 

 

How those three questions are answered could determine who has a place in New England and who doesn't. The way their contracts are structured, none of them are locks. It'll come down to how they look during what Bill Belichick annually refers to as a "competition camp." Spring practices were for learning. Now it's time to go. 

Curran: Are Patriots fans wishing away the final years of a kicking savant?

Curran: Are Patriots fans wishing away the final years of a kicking savant?

SUDBURY – It’s the last Saturday before training camp and on this blue sky/no cloud/light breeze afternoon, Stephen Gostkowski is working a stopwatch at a youth football camp at Lincoln-Sudbury High School.

Paid, not paid, I have no idea (probably paid, though). Still, the second-longest tenured Patriot is giving the organizers their money’s worth in terms of involvement and enthusiasm. I snap a shot of Gostowski timing a pack of tweens leaning for the tape in a 40-yard dash and tweet it out. 

A total of two replies come back. The second one asks, “When are they gonna cut his bum ass? Lost them the AFCCG in '15, almost lost them the SB in '16, missed a FG in SB 52.” 

It’s Twitter so the “ACKNOWLEDGE MY BLOODTHIRSTY CANDOR!!!” factor enters into our friend’s ruthless panning of the third most accurate kicker in NFL history 

But @DrJones37 isn’t on an island either.

Gostkowski is a two-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler who’s made 340 of 388 field goals and 593 of 599 PATs in the 11 regular seasons since 2006. He’s missed just 10 of 140 postseason kicks (field goals and PATs) . And plenty of New Englanders sneer at the mention of his name and can’t wait to see his allegedly bum-ass shrinking over the horizon.

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Gostkowski’s perceived sin against Patriots football isn’t really the misses DrJones correctly catalogued. It’s the absence of season-saving or Super Bowl clinching kicks that his predecessor Adam Vinatieri made. Even now, a dozen years after he fled for more money and kinder kicking conditions with the Colts, Hall of Fame-bound Automatic Adam throws a shadow Gostkowski can’t escape.

And there’s no way to change that. Vinatieri made the most memorable field goal in NFL history in the Snow Bowl and validated that kick with the OT game-winner a half-hour later. Two weeks after that, he creased a 48-yarder in New Orleans to win Super Bowl 36. Two seasons later, he clinched Super Bowl 39 with another relative bomb against the Panthers.

It doesn’t matter that he was an 82 percent regular-season kicker with the Patriots or that he was 1 for 3 on field goals in SB39 and 26 of 37 overall in the playoffs while here. Vinatieri’s makes were so massive that misses were forgiven and forgotten. With the “money on the table,” as the late Gil Santos would say, you could start packing up your stuff when Vinatieri was kicking.

It’s not supposed to feel like that. But since it once did, clutch-kicking nirvana is seen as a standard. Gostkowski’s never measured up to it.

In contrast to Vinatieri, Gostkowski’s PAT miss at Denver in the 2015 AFC Championship is probably his most memorable kick https://www.nbcsports.com/boston/new-england-patriots/gostkowski-sick-about-missed-pat-was-key-loss . Even though he hadn’t missed one all season in spite of the NFL’s pushing the kick back 15 yards in 2015 (with the Patriots hearty support), even though he held the NFL record for consecutive PATs made, that miss cost the Patriots dearly against noodle-armed Peyton Manning and – in large part – kept the team from getting a shot at the very vulnerable Panthers in the Super Bowl.

That miss begot a 2016 slump that was capped by an “Oh, shit!” PAT miss in the Super Bowl that was immediately followed by a botched onsides kick.

Those are the “Yeah, but…” trump cards slammed down in front of anyone who wants to argue the merits of Gostkowski.

And with the 34-year-old entering the final year of his current contract, the chance looms that the Good Riddance Gostkowski crew may realize its wish.

And then realize what it really feels like when every kick is closer to a coin flip than a layup.

For the past three seasons, 17 teams made more than 85 percent of their regular-season field goals. My math tells me that those 15 teams – nearly half the league – live in Puckertown.

Nine teams were under 80 percent last year. There were eight in 2016 and just three in 2015. By contrast, Gostkowski’s been south of 90 percent once since 2013 (84.4 percent in 2016).

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Even if Gostkowski hasn’t been as steady as a metronome, he’s a damn sight better at kicking field goals and PATs than 90 percent of the league. Not to mention the fact he’s accustomed to the kickoff nuances the Patriots demand as they consistently try to win field position.

On Saturday, Gostkowski acknowledged the passage of time since he was a rookie in 2006.

“It’s a good and a bad thing,” he said. “I have some white hairs in my beard now. Getting a little thin up top. It’s a blessing to think that I would have played professional sports for over a decade and going into my 13th year. I’ve got nothing but gratitude and thankfulness.”

Asked by ESPN’s Mike Reiss if he’s in a year-to-year mode at this point, Gostkowski answered, “I really don’t think like that. You reassess things every year. It’s easy to say after a year, ‘I might do this or I might do that…’ but as long as I’m happy, healthy and good I’m gonna do it.”

The Patriots report on Wednesday and camp opens for real on Thursday. This is his 12th camp – two more than Vinatieri was here for.

“It’s like the first day of school. Even though we’ll see how I feel three weeks from now. But I really do look forward to it,” Gostkowski said. “Sometimes having a little too much free time can be dangerous. When you play football you’re used to someone telling you what to do and where to be and you kind of miss that.”

It takes some perspective to appreciate that you’ve got it good even when it’s not always perfect. 

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