Patriots

'You've got to play a damn near perfect game against them'

'You've got to play a damn near perfect game against them'

Opponents tend to freak out against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick just when they're about to conquer the New England Patriots' dynastic duo. 

The pair have built such a reputation of coming through in the clutch that foes often outthink themselves with conservative, uncommon or unconventional calls against the five-time champs.

Think Seattle in Super Bowl 49 and Atlanta in Super Bowl 51.

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The Patriots have built an extreme confidence through five Super Bowl-winning seasons under Brady and Belichick and are disciplined when other teams get discombobulated, like last month when they sniffed out Ben Roethlisberger's fake spike and intercepted him in the end zone, reshaping the AFC playoff picture.

"You're basically talking about experience and knowing that no matter what the score is, it's not insurmountable," said ex-NFL quarterback Joe Theismann.

He pointed to Brady's habit of making a few plays every game that swing momentum and Belichick's knack for coaxing his counterparts into beating themselves - like the Indianapolis Colts did with their fake punt fiasco in 2015.

"The New England Patriots find a way to make a play when no one else seems to be able to do that," Theismann said. "Teams that haven't been in that situation don't really understand the ability of New England teams to be able to overcome darn near anything."

Like the 25-point second-half deficit Brady rallied the Patriots from in last year's Super Bowl or the 10-point fourth-quarter hole he dug them out of against Jacksonville in the AFC championship last week.

"You've got to play a damn near perfect game against them," lamented Jaguars safety Jarrod Wilson.

Therein lies the trap.

The Jaguars were on the verge of knocking off New England when a flurry of follies in Foxboro aided Brady's two-TD rally that sent the seemingly impervious Patriots back to another Super Bowl.

"You can never have a safe lead with (No.) 12 at the helm," Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson said. " . . . That's Tom Brady, the greatest to ever lace up the cleats at the quarterback position."

And Belichick, arguably the best to ever roam the sideline.

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The Patriots may need no assistance but that hasn't stopped teams from helping them out like Jacksonville did last week with a delay penalty coming out of a timeout and a rushed punt that essentially gave Brady an extra timeout before halftime.

"I think why the Patriots are so good is because they capitalize off people making those mistakes," said Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson. "They don't make mistakes, hardly. They're well-coached. You don't necessarily have to be the most talented team. You saw last year they weren't the most talented team. Yet, they're the best team because they function together well and they're coached well."

New England safety Duron Harmon said the Patriots never panic like so many other teams because they rehearse adversity so well and so often in practice.

"We go over every type of situation that you can think of," Harmon said.

Theismann said Belichick is simply the best at teaching "if somebody's going to beat us, they're going to have to beat us; we're not going to beat ourselves."

"What New England does is New England preaches discipline and understanding your job," Theismann said, singling out lieutenants Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia in addition to Belichick, who, along with his personnel assistants, identifies coachable players who fit in.

"Think about it: You never see Bill Belichick run up the sideline and call a timeout because the time clock's running out," Theismann said. "You don't see Bill's players making those kids of errors. I mean, I was very fortunate to play for Joe Gibbs and Joe was the same type of game manager, where he was aware and he made me aware of all the possible circumstances and situations that you deal with.

"For example, when you're coming out of your own end zone, if you're backed up inside your own 3-yard line, it's a great time to run a hard count because you're only going to get a yard-and a-half penalty. Instead of first-and-10, it's going to be first-and-11. But you do have the possibility (of drawing the defense offsides and) making it first-and-5."

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Which is exactly what the Pats did to clinch Super Bowl 49. They were pinned at the 1-yard line after Malcolm Butler's interception and had to get out of the shadown of their own goal posts. Brady drew Seattle's Michael Bennett offside with a hard count, moving the ball out to the 6 and allowing the Pats to take two knees on the final snaps, ending the game.

"There is a game within the game that the Patriots play better than anybody," said Theismann.

They have a fistful of rings as a result.

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Hightower’s presence at OTAs leads to a look at linebacker depth

Hightower’s presence at OTAs leads to a look at linebacker depth

FOXBORO - Dont'a Hightower was among the missing during Tuesday's OTA that was open to reporters. He was prominently featured on the team's website as a participant in Thursday's OTA, though.

It's a positive development for one of the Patriots best and most versatile defenders. Hightower tore his pectoral in October and missed the remainder of the 2017 season, leading to some shuffling of personnel both at the second level and on the edge. 

Hightower snagged one of the team's photos of his participation in Thursday's workout and slapped it on his Instagram page. 

Hightower's presence on the turf behind Gillette Stadium, even if he was limited in the practice, allows our minds to wander a bit and look ahead to what the Patriots depth chart might look like at linebacker with him in the fold. 

The Patriots are consistently altering their fronts and Hightower's adaptability allows his role to change with whatever scheme Bill Belichick deploys. 

Hightower can play on the line or off. He can be used as a "Sam" linebacker at the second level in a 4-3 or at the end of the line of scrimmage in 3-4 looks. He played on the left end early last season - a spot we identified yesterday as a potential landing spot for Derek Rivers. And if the Patriots needed Hightower to play as a "Mike" linebacker, he has the ability to do that as well. 

Sub packages, base packages . . . Hightower can line up in a variety of front-seven spots for the Patriots regardless of the situation, which is why when healthy he's been able to serve as an every-down player. (He played 92.4 percent of Patriots defensive snaps in 2014 and 83.1 percent of the snaps in 2016.)

How might the rest of the Patriots linebacker corps slot in if Hightower is a full go for training camp? Let's take a look . . . 

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Kyle Van Noy is probably the closest approximation to Hightower that the Patriots have on their roster. When Hightower went out last season, it was Van Noy who moved around the front seven and handled a variety of responsibilities. He's probably best suited as a "Will" linebacker, someone who can use his athleticism to make plays in different areas depending on the situation, but Van Noy's ability to handle multiple responsibilities in New England's defense is part of the reason why the team likes him as much as they do. He was handed a two-year extension early last season. 

LIKE "MIKE" 


Elandon Roberts often handled the "Mike" responsibilities in the Patriots defense last season. The third-year player out of Houston might have the inside track on this role in 2018, but he could be pushed by rookie fifth-round selection Ja'Whaun Bentley out of Purdue. Both players seem like they're at their best against the run game, unafraid to fill their lanes as prideful "thumpers." What may separate this duo is which player can more consistently cover the correct gaps on first and second down, and which player more effectively communicates the defense to their teammates around them. Whether either player can contribute on special teams could also alter how the workload is distributed here. 

WHEN THERE'S A "WILL"


Van Noy would likely be the first choice here for the Patriots, but there are a few others who could be angling for time here. Marquis Flowers re-signed with the Patriots this offseason after an impressive end-of-the-season run where he showed up as a pass-rusher with enough athleticism to be trusted to run with backs in the passing game. Flowers was also a key contributor on special teams last season. Rookie sixth-round pick Christian Sam could also compete for "Will" reps. A defensive back in high school, Sam bulked up at Arizona State but remains a good athlete and could be a fit behind Van Noy. Special teamers Nicholas Grigsby and Brandon King work out with the linebackers and could be options here if they were ever called upon defensively.

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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.