Patriots

Wise, Butler able to avoid rookie wall as sack numbers pile up

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Wise, Butler able to avoid rookie wall as sack numbers pile up

FOXBORO -- When Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler celebrated a sack back in Week 16, their celebration gave away their age. They went back to back, pressed their hands together, and locked out their arms in unison as if engaging in some aggressive tai chi.

They explained later that they were acting as Goku and Vegeta, two characters from the cartoon "Dragon Ball Z," which aired on Cartoon Network from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.

Both rookie defensive linemen are 23, two of the youngest players on the roster, and they're in the middle of the longest football season of their lives. They've played in all 17 Patriots games this season, and both seem to have blown their way through the rookie wall.

Wise has four sacks in his last four games, including two against the Titans, while Butler contributed one of his team's eight sacks -- a franchise postseason record -- in the Divisional Round. The two found each other after Butler's for a flying chest bump. 

After Wise and Butler played 12 and 13 games respectively as collegians last season, Bill Belichick has been pleased with how they've handled the workload foisted upon them in their first year as pros.

"I think that's, honestly, that's been pretty impressive to me," Belichick said. "Those guys have done a good job. A lot of times you see the rookies [have] the length of the season affect them a little bit. I'd say with those guys, in particular, they've done a good job of every day coming through, coming here with a lot of consistency, work ethic.

"They get here early. They do extra. They don't act like it's too much for them or the season is too long. They have a good energy level every week and that's been impressive and they've continued to improve. I would say they haven't leveled off."

After Saturday's win, Butler explained that part of avoiding the rookie wall is simply ignoring it. When you're too busy with your responsibilities at work, that can help sustain you.

"We're just gonna come back and grind like we always do," he said. "We're not gonna get too high, we're not gonna get too low. We're gonna stay in the work zone."

For Wise, having veterans around who set an example for what it means to be a professional has been crucial as well.

"Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Trey [Flowers], they always tell us how we should take this process," Wise said. "That's why I never really believed in the rookie wall because of that. I knew if you keep doing your job, and keeping your body healthy, everything will work out . . .

"Hot tub, cold tub, roll out massages, stuff like that. Keeping the body loose, keeping the body fresh, practicing well, taking care of your body afterwards. Eating good. Nutrition. That's keeping our bodies [fresh]."

For some first-year players, that off-the-field approach can be one of the most difficult transitions from the college game. Maybe it's because of how Wise and Butler have taken to the advice of their coaches and their more experienced teammates. Maybe it's because they both have come from the SEC, which is about as close as it gets to the NFL in the college ranks. Whatever the reason, the work away from the field has come relatively naturally for Wise and Butler. 

"The work in the film room, the class room and kind of the concepts of what we do defensively are a little bit more familiar now than they were maybe at the beginning part of the year when it was all kind of new," said Matt Patricia. "I think the best thing that we kind of get into as the season goes on is once you kind of get into that rhythm of what your weekly schedule is -- Monday is this, Tuesday is this, Wednesday is this and as you go through the week -- I think kind of being on that schedule helps all those young guys get into a rhythm of how they prepare for the games week in week out."

"They've gotten better, both individually, and in their preparation and understanding what our opponent does and so forth," Belichick added. "That's really not an easy thing to do because as the season goes on there is a lot more information to digest. There's more games, there's more situations, they've run more plays, we run more plays, we have more things that we have to match up against that. 

"It's really the preparation part of the game increases as the year goes, on and that's sometimes hard to really keep piling it on week after week because each week really gets a little bit harder to prepare for the next team because the volume has increased a lot more from what it is in the early part of the season."

The Patriots have been able to manage the volume for both players by providing them with more defined roles of late. Both have been staples of the team's third-down defense, allowing them to expend their energy when they're in pursuit of opposing quarterbacks. And if they have a little extra in the tank that can go toward their next celebration. 

"You have to have fun out there," Wise said after beating the Titans. "You can't play stiff. That's one thing that we kind of learned throughout this whole process. Have fun out there, relax, and good things will happen."

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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