Patriots

Who is Eric Lee? He just had the game of his life for Patriots

Who is Eric Lee? He just had the game of his life for Patriots

Two weeks ago Eric Lee was living in Western New York and working as a member Bills practice squad. Then a need in New England arose, and a call from the Patriots came. 

He told reporters that the next week was a "hectic" one, but he practiced, he studied, and he came away with his first career sack when the Patriots beat the Dolphins. A week later, he was back in Orchard Park with an opportunity to make the road to the playoffs a little tougher for his former team . . . as a starter.

With defensive end Trey Flowers (ribs) out, Lee stepped in and ended up being one of the most productive Patriots players on the field in a 23-3 win over Buffalo. He finished with an interception, 1.5 sacks, a pass breakup, a quarterback hit and four total tackles.

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The interception was a game-changer early on. After feigning a rush, he dropped into coverage and directly into Tyrod Taylor's passing lane near the Patriots goal line. The play took points off the board and took some air out of the stadium, ending a drive that lasted more than seven minutes. 

How does that happen? How is one player not talented enough to crack the 53-man roster for the Bills (6-6), but he can start for the Patriots (10-2) and make an immediate impact?

What Lee did Sunday went beyond "next man up." He was at one point the next man's next man.

The Patriots traded for Cassius Marsh just before the season as they tried to fill the void left by Rob Ninkovich's retirement, Derek Rivers' knee injury and Kony Ealy's release. When it was determined that Marsh wasn't working out on the edge, they released him and turned to Lee.

In the second-year, 6-foot-3, 260-pounder out of South Florida, the Patriots saw a good athlete with long arms who had an opportunity to contribute quickly based on his background.

Lee joined the Bills practice squad before the start of the season after being released by the Texans at the end of training camp. In Houston, under Bill O'Brien and Mike Vrabel, he learned schemes and techniques that were similar to the ones taught by Bill Belichick's coaching staff. Lee fit New England's criteria physically and athletically, and so they signed him.  

Though Lee had a hard time holding the edge early in Sunday's game, it was clear after the fact that Belichick was pleased with what his new defensive end has brought to the table in two games with the Patriots.

"He's worked really hard," Belichick said. "Eric, from the first day he got here, came early, stayed late . . . He's smart, picks things up well. I think his time in Houston was beneficial for him. I think a lot of the techniques we teach . . . a lot of the fundamentals, I think there's some carryover on that. I think, in general, the way he played down there, some of that translates to what we do. From a technique standpoint he was able to pick that up."

Lee's quick fit is in some ways a testament to the work done in the Patriots pro scouting department, headed up by Dave Ziegler. The team got a close look at Lee this summer during joint practices with the Texans in West Virginia and that week's preseason game in Houston. They have a long history of acquiring joint-practice opponents, and they kept tabs on Lee in case they ever needed to pounce.

They did, and the shotgun marriage between player and team has worked out about as well as anyone could have possibly anticipated.

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Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Thursday night should be Tom Brady's night. That's the plan, at least, according to him. 

That's not to say he'll have the spotlight all to himself against the Eagles, or that that's what he wants. But if he plays at all, there will be boatloads of attention paid to every snap he receives. They'll be his first plays he gets against another opponent since Super Bowl LII, and they'll just so happen to come against the team that beat him back in February. 

We went over the various aspects of Brady's night we'll be watching closely here, if Bill Belichick decides he wants Brady to play at all. But we can't train our focus on No. 12 in blue all night, and we know you won't either. So here are five more storylines -- non-Brady storylines -- to track when the Patriots host the Eagles at Gillette Stadium. 

DECKER CATCHING ON?

Eric Decker had one of the worst starts to a practice of any Patriots receiver this summer just a few days ago. He pushed off in a one-on-one drill. He dropped a pass in a one-on-one drill. Soon thereafter, he dropped two more passes when there wasn't a defender in sight. Not what you're looking for. Decker did, however, bounce back. And for him that was encouraging. Thursday will give the newest Patriots receiver another opportunity to show that he's gaining in his understanding of the playbook. If that's coming along, the fundamentals -- like playing penalty-free and catching the football -- should follow. Given the state of the receiver position in Foxboro at the moment, the Patriots may need to lean on Decker more than they would like. They'll certainly give him some time to figure things out, but he'll have to continue to show progress, as he did during that up-and-down (or down-and-up) session earlier in the week. 

PATRIOTS HAVE THEIR (BIG) BACK?

There's an opportunity here. The Patriots have gone without both Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead for the last handful of practices, meaning there will be reps galore for the likes of Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill, Ralph Webb and Brandon Bolden. All four (plus James White) saw action offensively in the preseason opener against the Redskins. Of that group, I think the most fascinating battle is between Gillislee and Hill. It was Hill who looked the strongest last week (51 yards on 11 carries), but he looked limited at times in practice this week. Is he dealing with something that could drop his snap count Thursday? Will that leave the door open for Gillislee, who had a ho-hum night (43 yards on 14 carries) last week? Hill looks like the more capable pass-catcher and the more kicking-game friendly (three first-team special teams units against Washington) back at the moment. 

McCOURTY'S CHANCE TO SHINE?

The Patriots held Jason McCourty out of preseason game No. 1. He didn't have much of an answer as to why that was the case, but he didn't seem too concerned when he spoke to reporters on Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday, he was taking snaps with the first-team defense. Will that continue to be the case against the Eagles? McCourty could be in the running for the No. 2 corner role -- Eric Rowe has held that down for most of camp -- and might be able to use a strong performance against Philly as a springboard to greater consideration from the coaching staff to be a starter. In competitive periods Monday and Tuesday, McCourty looked good. He picked off a Brian Hoyer pass intended for Phillip Dorsett in one-on-ones and broke up another intended for Rob Gronkowski near the goal line. He said he's been doing his best to teach the young corners he's in competition with -- JC Jackson, Keion Crossen and Ryan Lewis have all stood out at different points this summer -- but Thursday could be his night. 

BENTLEY SPEEDING TO A ROSTER SPOT?

Inside the Patriots facilities, Ja'Whaun Bentley has an argument as the most pleasantly surprising player of training camp. As a fifth-round pick, he wasn't guaranteed a roster spot . . . but he now seems to have a jump on one. After a strong performance against Washington -- where he showcased good instincts, an ability to relay play-calls, confident pre-snap communication, and competency in coverage -- we landed him on our first 53-man roster projection and highlighted his skill set in our "Long Shot" series. A three-year captain at Purdue, Bentley isn't a next-level athlete, but he has the potential to be a middle-of-the-defense voice on a unit that could be enticed to deploy its best communicator, Dont'a Hightower, on the edge. "Eager to learn," Hightower said of Bentley this week. "He’s really become a sponge. First dude in the classroom, last one out, always asking questions. Nice-sized kid, good on his feet. He’s going to be a good ballplayer."

TIME TO TACKLE THE ISSUE AT HAND?

The Patriots had nine missed tackles against the Redskins last week, and two more were wiped out due to penalties. That kind of thing will drive a coaching staff nuts, but in some ways it's to be expected this time of year. In camp, the Patriots almost never have any periods where players are tackled to the ground. (Goal-line run periods are probably the closest thing to "live" for Belichick's club, and those 22-car pile-ups are rare.) The result is a team that's not accustomed to tackling, trying to tackle in a preseason game that (for some) doesn't really matter. It can get ugly out there, and Belichick knows it. "Running and tackling are two skills that you don’t work on from the end of the season until pretty much the first preseason game. You can do a little drill work, but it’s not quite the same. So, any player that’s involved in any of those, running or tackling, they might have done it before, but they haven’t done it recently, and they haven’t done it at the timing and speed that it occurs in the game. So, there’s an adjustment, a break-in period for all of us, and that’s part of what preseason games are for . . . We can improve our tackling. We can certainly improve our running and breaking tackles. So, that’s part of the process."

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NBC Sports Boston Breakfast Pod: What to expect from Tom Brady in his first preseason action of the season

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NBC Sports Boston Breakfast Pod: What to expect from Tom Brady in his first preseason action of the season

1:22 - Trenni, Chris Gasper, and Phil Perry preview the Patriots/Eagles game and discuss what they are most interested in seeing from Tom Brady in his first preseason action of the season.

6:04 - Tom Curran and Paul Perillo join Tom Giles on Boston Sports Tonight to break down Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey’s comments about how Jacksonville should have trusted Blake Bortles more in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots. 

10:00 - Trenni, Gasper, and Perry talk about Lane Johnson continuing to bring up the Patriots and their fans as he prepares for the preseason game in Foxboro.

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