Patriots

Why Burkhead's return could be key vs. Jaguars defense

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Why Burkhead's return could be key vs. Jaguars defense

Rex Burkhead had a busy week of practice last week, but it was eventually determined that his knee wasn't quite ready for the Titans. By the time the Jaguars make their way to Gillette for the AFC title game, however, Burkhead should be good to go.

According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, that's the plan

Why does Burkhead's return matter when the Patriots received huge production from running backs Dion Lewis and James White in the Divisional Round? Even though that pairing combined for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 32 touches, having Burkhead back in the mix would be particularly useful in attacking where the Jaguars are softest. 

Jacksonville's run defense ranked 21st in the NFL during the regular season, and though they've improved in that area since trading for defensive tackle Marcel Dareus, they've had trouble against running backs in the passing game in recent weeks. 

In Week 16, they allowed fullback Kyle Juszczyk of the Niners to catch five passes for 76 yards. The following week they gave up a 66-yard touchdown catch to Derrick Henry. In the Wild Card Round against the Bills, they gave up seven more catches for 54 yards to backs. And against Pittsburgh they allowed Bell to go off for nine catches for 88 yards and a score. 

The Jaguars have one of the most athletic linebacker groupings in the NFL, featuring Myles Jack and Telvin Smith, and despite what their team has allowed in terms of receiving yardage to backs, Josh McDaniels suggested on Monday that they need to be cautious in attacking that level of Jacksonville's defense. 

"It's as fast a group as we'll play. No question," McDaniels said. "I don't know what they don't do well. They run and tackle. They make plays behind the line of scrimmage in the running game. They blitz well. They're very fast. Run and chase from behind, they can do that. They play with great effort. 

"They cover well. They're asked to cover a decent chunk of the time . . . whether that's backs or tight ends. They do that. You saw Jack make an interception [against the Steelers] on third down in a man-type coverage on a tight end . . . The linebacking corps is certainly one of the best we've played all season and definitely the fastest."

For the Patriots, though, attacking the Jaguars offensively may mean finding the lesser of three evils. Do they go after the best cornerback duo in the league in Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye? Do they test a front that includes Defensive Player of the Year candidate Calais Campbell and Pro Bowler Malik Jackson? Or do they challenge linebackers who have been relatively generous in the passing game lately? 

If Burkhead is in uniform Sunday, he'll give the Patriots a three-headed monster for Jack, Smith and Paul Pozluzny to deal with out of the backfield. It's not necessarily a foolproof plan for success, but against what McDaniels called the best defense the Patriots have seen all year, that doesn't exist. 

Burkhead has not played since suffering a knee injury in Week 15 against the Steelers. As a receiver, he has 30 catches on 36 targets for 254 yards and three touchdowns this season. 

NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

Chris Gasper and Michael Holley talk about the inconsistent messaging from NFL owners to their teams' players after they unanimously voted to change the league's policy regarding the national anthem. Watch the video above. 

Rivers feeling good, could help provide Patriots an answer at left end

Rivers feeling good, could help provide Patriots an answer at left end

FOXBORO -- Of all the observations made at Tuesday's OTA practice, one that stood out as sort of an under-the-radar takeaway was that the defensive end position for the Patriots looked nothing like it did back in early February.

Seeing a good deal of the workload on the edges were two players who didn't play a snap for the Patriots last season: Derek Rivers and Adrian Clayborn.

From this, we can deduce a couple of things.

First, a few of the team's most experienced edge defenders weren't available. Trey Flowers' absence from Tuesday's work is worth monitoring as we progress through the spring and move toward training camp. Arguably the team's top defensive lineman, Flowers is headed into the final year of his rookie contract. Dont'a Hightower, who's coming back from a season-ending pec injury and has on-the-line/off-the-line flexibility, was also missing Tuesday.

Second, the participation level from both Rivers and Clayborn would serve as an indication that both are feeling healthy enough to take on a healthy amount of work at this point in the year. Clayborn reportedly tweaked his quad in workouts earlier in the offseason program, but he appeared to be moving fine. Rivers, meanwhile, is back for his second pro season after missing all of last year following an ACL tear suffered in joint training camp practices with the Texans.

Rivers availability is particularly interesting, if unsurprising, since he could be a stabilizing factor for the Patriots' front in 2018. A third-round pick last year out of Youngstown State, Rivers was used as an end, as a stand-up player on the edge, as a pass-rusher and as a coverage player in camp before getting hurt.

Though he missed all of last season, he was able to maintain a positive approach in the Patriots locker room, attending meetings and working diligently on his upper-body strength while his leg healed.

"Nobody ever wants to have an injury, but praise God. It’s all in his plan," Rivers said Tuesday. "My faith helped me get through it. It was a good rehab process. I was able to learn the defense, and I wasn’t away from the building, so I could do everything but be out here on the field. So it was a blessing. It actually made me a better player."

Rivers played on the left side - opposite Clayborn, a right end - in Tuesday's work. That's a position the Patriots had some trouble filling all of last season following Rob Ninkovich's retirement. It requires good athleticism, an ability to set an edge, an ability to rush...but also an ability to track backs out of the backfield.

"I’d say it’s different playing on the left than playing on the right from a responsibilities standpoint," Bill Belichick said last summer. "There’s certainly some similarities, but it’s different. Some guys can play both. Some guys, I would say, are better suited at one or the other. Sometimes that’s a comfort thing. Sometimes it’s really a scheme thing and what we ask them to do. They’re the same, but they’re different more so than say right and left corner or right and left defensive tackle or that type of thing. It’s defensive scheme. It’s a little bit different...

"I think it really becomes more of a coverage discussion – how much and what type of coverage responsibilities would you put them in? You know, Chandler Jones versus Ninkovich or Trey Flowers versus Ninkovich. There’s some differences in their coverage responsibilities. Especially most teams are, for us, defensively left-handed formation teams. Not that they couldn’t do it the other way, but more times than not, there’s a high percentage of situations that come up on the left side that are different from the right side, especially with a right-handed quarterback, which most of them are.

"I mean, look, they both have to know them, they both have to do them, but I’d say there’s definitely more – it’s kind of like left tackle and right tackle. You don’t really see the same player at right tackle as left tackle. Some guys can do both, but there are quite a few guys that are better at one or the other, and that’s usually where they end up."

The Patriots used Hightower off the left side early in the season but eventually moved him back to the middle in what looked like an effort to improve the unit's overall communication. Cassius Marsh got a crack at the spot at times. Kyle Van Noy could be seen there. Eric Lee saw work on the left. It was a revolving door. 

The rotation was heavy at both edge spots, really. Deatrich Wise saw extensive work as a rookie. Harvey Langi looked like he might earn regular snaps before a car wreck ended his season. Trevor Reilly, Geneo Grissom, Marquis Flowers and James Harris all appeared on the edge as the Patriots hoped to find answers. 

In the athletic Rivers, they could have a player who is big enough (6-foot-5, 250) to handle work in the running game on the left edge and athletic enough to both rush (his specialty in college) and cover. It's just a matter of Rivers showing the team he can do it. 

"Obviously, coming in here, your rookie year is almost like your freshman year in college," Rivers said. "So now, it’s just listening to the coaches, staying in the playbook and just getting ready to roll for each practice and just try to get better each and every day.”

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