Patriots

Without Sony Michel, Patriots offense was handcuffed by Bills defense

Without Sony Michel, Patriots offense was handcuffed by Bills defense

If you had any doubt whether the 2018 Patriots had grown to rely on a potent ground game and, in particular, Sony Michel, then the offensive output against the Bills should douse it.

The Patriots ran 26 times for 76 yards and nearly one-third of those came on a 22-yard burst by Cordarelle Patterson in the fourth quarter.

It was a key run, to be sure, as the Patriots scored their lone offensive touchdown of the night on that drive but, again, it was a wide receiver running it. From the running back spot. And it wasn’t a novelty act.

Patterson led the team with 10 carries while running backs James White and Kenjon Barner combined for 10 carries and 19 yards.

WHAT WE SAID BEFORE THE GAME

Michel’s absence and the lack of a play-action passing game that the Bills had to take seriously doesn’t explain wholly explain the Patriots offensive struggles.

The Bills defense when the Patriots got deep was as difficult to maneuver against as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady advertised all week.

Seven of the Patriots first nine drives crossed midfield. They stalled at the Buffalo 7, 22, 20, 32, 46 and 7. They punched it in on the seventh one on a James White run.

“They made us grind it out, grind out every yard,” said Belichick.

"They made it tough on us," said Brady, who finished with 324 passing yards on 29-for-45 passing but no touchdowns, the first time since Week 3 in 2005 that he passed for 320 or more yards with no TDs. "We’ll take the win however we can get it. They don’t give up any big plays. We'd get in the red area but couldn’t get in the end zone. If we scored those touchdowns we’d feel a lot better but they’ve been playing good all year."

MORE HARD TRUTHS

Despite his lack of punch as a runner, White once again was the most effective part of the offense. He finished with 10 catches on 13 targets for 79 yards. The game’s key play was made by White -- as it so often has been this season. On a third-and-8 from the Patriots 47 with 12:03 left and the Patriots ahead by the still-meager margin of 12-6, Brady hit White in the left flat and he gave a shimmy that left linebacker Julian Stanford grasping at air. After that came the Patterson 22-yarder and a back-shoulder throw to Chris Hogan down to the Bills 1. White went in from there.

White now leads the AFC with 55 catches (he’s sixth in the NFL). His six touchdown receptions are tied for fourth.  

This was Julian Edelman’s best game as well. He went over 100 yards receiving (10 catches for 104) and had a big 26-yard gain earlier in the Patriots touchdown drive. Edelman also carried twice for 13 yards.

The Patriots are now pointed toward a Sunday Night Football showdown with the Packers. Green Bay will score. The Patriots – who put up 38, 38, 43 and 24 on offense in their past four games will need a bigger output than the 18 they put up Monday night.

With Marcus Cannon missing another game at right tackle, Shaq Mason being driven from the game with a calf injury and Michel dealing with his knee injury, the Patriots offense won’t be working at full strength on the ground again against the Packers.

Green Bay has its own issues to deal with after a demoralizing loss to the Rams and some anonymous locker room finger-pointing after the loss.

But the Patriots will need to get more on the ground. Since Michel went down, they’ve managed 154 yards on 49 carries (3.14 average) and 35 offensive points in the last seven quarters.

Even if this prompts a trade deadline move at the running back position, whoever they sign would have to fly into Foxboro and get on a moving train during a short week.

In short, they miss their running back.

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Why Patriots' Nick Caserio is on board with new NFL Combine limitation

Why Patriots' Nick Caserio is on board with new NFL Combine limitation

NFL teams have 15 fewer formal opportunities to speak to players at the 2020 NFL Combine -- and Nick Caserio is all for it.

The league informed clubs ahead of this year's combine that they will be granted up to 45 18-minute interviews with prospects, down from the standard 60 interviews of 15 minutes each.

So, why is Caserio excited about interviewing fewer players? Shouldn't the New England Patriots director of player personnel want to meet with as many prospects as possible?

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Here's Caserio explaining to Patriots.com's Megan O'Brien why he's on board with the change.

"When you actually talk to the players, it can be the Wild West," Caserio said. "You grab them in the hallway, you can have 15 to 20 players in the room at one time, and it's a push-pull. I was one of those people grabbing players when I was a scouting assistant."

After trimming the interview number to 45, Caserio noticed, the process is "a lot more orderly, a lot more structured, a lot more streamlined, and I think it makes it a lot easier. In all fairness, it gives every team the same opportunity, as opposed to the way it used to be."

Two more reasons why Caserio doesn't mind the change? The Patriots and other teams still have plenty of informal meetings with prospects -- and their formal meetings don't influence their draft strategy all that much.

Caserio and his New England staff still are plenty busy -- according to our count, they've already spoken to nearly 30 players in Indianapolis since the Combine began Monday.

That's all part of the Patriots' due diligence between now and the 2020 NFL Draft, when they'll decide what to do with their wealth of selections.

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Tom Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

Tom Brady buzz dominates combine: Vrabel says 'there's a time frame to have those discussions'

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a topic that no one wanted to touch. Well, almost no one. 

Chris Ballard laughed it off. Mike Mayock was terse. Brian Flores repeated what felt like a well-rehearsed company line. Even the ever-confident Mike Vrabel fidgeted a bit, but in the end, he couldn't help himself. 

So, guys, Tom Brady...any interest?

Right alongside the topic of the new multi-billion dollar collective bargaining agreement being discussed by union leaders and NFL owners, Brady's future whereabouts have dominated early-week conversations here in Indy. The league and anyone associated with it may be in town for the scouting combine, but draftable players and their futures took a backseat to the Brady buzz Tuesday. 

The Patriots are still in play for Brady. Whether or not the Patriots make an effort to retain Brady will be coach Bill Belichick's call, from what I've been told. Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft wants nothing more than to see Brady remain in New England, as he's stated, and if the difference between Brady staying and going is a manageable amount of money then the owner would happily step in. But Belichick has yet to show his hand, and so the football world continues to wait and see what's next for the 42-year-old quarterback. 

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That means other front-office chiefs and head coaches around the league, those with quarterback questions of their own, will be peppered with Brady-related questions this week.

Even questions that didn't invoke Brady's name -- coaches and general managers are wary of publicly discussing players who are still technically on other rosters, as Brady is, until the new league year begins -- were dodged. 

Joe Judge, former Patriots special teams and receivers coach, was the first up. He was asked if Daniel Jones is his team's "franchise quarterback." 

"It's not going to be fair for me," Judge said, "to go ahead and set expectations for anyone on our roster at this point."

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Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but consistent with Judge's policy of leaving individual evaluations out of his public comments at this point in his coaching tenure. 

So what about Brady? He's owned property in New York City. Maybe he'd like the idea of playing in New York? 

I asked Judge about that hypothetical without mentioning Brady specifically. 

"Could you envision," I asked him, "a scenario in which the best way to teach Daniel might be to sit a year or two and allow him to grow that way?"

"We're going to let our players compete," he said. "Whoever our best player is going to be is going to be on the field. I don't have any scenario of letting anybody sit down if they're the best player for the job at the time. I'm not trying to create a hypothetical scenario where I think there's a timetable for any of our guys to contribute. I don't care how old or young you are. I really don't. I don't care about what your experience is before you get in our building. All I care about is can you help our team improve? That's it."

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock was quicker with his dismissal. After acknowledging that any and every position will be evaluated, including quarterback, he noted that one of the things that's critical to playing that position in Vegas is being able to grasp Jon Gruden's offense. 

What if, though, there was a quarterback who'd run another offense better than Gruden's? It stands to reason that any team Brady would join would end up running some variation of Brady's offense. 

So...? 

"We've got a quarterback," Mayock said, "who runs Jon's offense at a very high level." 

OK then. 

Brian Flores said essentially what Miami general manager Chris Grier and owner Stephen Ross have said of late, which is, why would Brady want to join a rebuilding team like Miami? 

Curiously consistent in that response have been the Dolphins, but with Chad O'Shea's departure -- the former Patriots receivers coach who was relieved of his offensive coordinator duties in Miami after the season -- and Chan Gailey's hiring as coordinator, the Dolphins make less sense for Brady than they did two months ago.

Up next: Chris Ballard, Colts GM.

Indy is flush with cap space. They've been reluctant to commit to Jacoby Brissett as their quarterback of the present or the future. They have a roster, though, that looks talented enough to compete if they had consistent quarterback play. 

Ballard said multiple times that he wouldn't comment on impending free agents potentially joining his team; Philip Rivers has been linked to Indy multiple times already this offseason because of his connection to certain members of the coaching staff there. 

Still, I asked him about Brady. As a longtime competitor, could Ballard envision Brady in another uniform? 

"So," he laughed, "you're going to ask me a question now? You don't want me to comment but you're going to ask me?" 

"I'm not going to talk about that," he said, eventually. "Great career, though."

As the day wore on, a couple of coaches were a bit more loose-lipped. Bruce Arians of the Bucs flat out named Brady as a potential target for Tampa Bay when asked for examples of quarterbacks he'd consider next month. 

"Tom Brady," he said. "Philip is another guy. We'll see."

Tell us how you really feel, Bruce. 

Seriously. And why not? Maybe Arians is an NBC Sports Boston reader. Maybe he knows there's really nothing to worry about when it comes to tampering with Brady because the Patriots probably aren't going to pursue tampering charges involving their quarterback. Tampering might actually help Brady gauge his market more quickly and allow the Patriots to act one way or the other as they construct their team. 

Here's what our Tom E. Curran wrote earlier this month: "My understanding is that the Patriots aren’t worried about other team’s financial pitches. Their business with Brady revolves around the direction of the 2020 offensive personnel, Brady getting some input on that, and Brady’s role in the team’s future. They aren’t going to be super-vigilant about tampering."

That brings us to Vrabel, the Titans head coach, a friend of Brady's, who straddled the tampering fence as well as anyone Tuesday. It looked uncomfortable for him at first, though. Vrabel looked down when asked about Brady potentially playing elsewhere during a podium session at the Indianapolis Convention Center. At one point he fidgeted with the recorders in front of him.

"Tom's a teammate, former teammate," Vrabel said. "He's a friend. He'll always be a friend. He'll do what's best for him and his family. Wherever that may be, I'm not sure."

Vrabel was quick to compliment Brady as an opponent. Though his defense beat up on the Patriots offense in the Wild Card Round in January, he clearly still holds Brady's game in high regard. 

"Very accurate passer," Vrabel said. "A player that's got great command of the pocket . . . Tom did a great job of staying in the pocket when we mixed some of those three-man rushes in. Great command of the offense. Great leader."

Pressed further on Brady, and told that the Titans look like a good fit for Brady if he was to leave New England, Vrabel interrupted. 

"Why would you see it would be a great fit," Vrabel asked? "I'm just curious."

The Titans have shown they can win now, I told him. Good weapons. Good offensive line. Brady knows the coach.

"We were 9-7," Vrabel interrupted. "We played a couple of good games. I know a lot of players. I played in the league 14 years. Friends with some. Tom's under contract. I was just curious why you thought he'd be a great fit."

Do you agree, I asked?

"Do I agree that I know Tom, or that I'm friends with Tom," he replied?

No. Is Tennessee a good fit? 

"I think when you look at players that are still under contract," Vrabel said, "it's important for us to evaluate each and every position but understand that there's a time frame to have those conversations."

Outside of Arians spelling out his Brady interest, that was as close as we came to another organization acknowledging it'll make a play for the six-time Lombardi-winner. "There's a time frame to have those conversations..." 

Technically that's the legal tampering period, starting on Mar. 16 and running right up to the start of the new league year on Mar. 18. But the reality is those conversations begin now, this week, in Indianapolis, where agents, coaches and executives mingle to discuss their options. 

No one wants to admit it, but if those conversations haven't started already, they will soon. 

Vrabel, while complimentary of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is coming off of what was far and away the best season of his career, didn't necessarily commit to Tannehill as the team's quarterback of the future. That might simply be a leverage play; Tannehill is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. But it might also mean the team is leaving its options open. 

Vrabel and Brady remain close. When asked about his relationship with Brady, Vrabel said Tuesday, "undefeated," referencing Tennessee wins over New England in 2018 and in the playoffs last season. 

"I asked him for a bigger trophy this year," Vrabel said. "Still waiting for it."

In just a matter of weeks, Brady and Vrabel can legally discuss any kind of trophy they'd like, and how Brady might be able to bring a big one to Tennessee.