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Patriots' defense, special teams improve

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Patriots' defense, special teams improve

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) New England's offense has long been hailed as one of the most explosive in the league.

Lately, though, the other two phases of the Patriots (8-3) have been delivering in impressive fashion, too.

What was expected to be a grind-it-out game quickly turned into a laugher Thursday night as the Patriots posted 35 points in the second quarter alone, including offensive, defensive and special teams touchdowns in a 52-second span, on their way to a 49-19 thrashing of the struggling New York Jets.

``We all saw how quickly that a very competitive game last night, that was a scoreless tie, a battle back and forth, then all the sudden it's 35 points up there. But that's what happens,'' said New England coach Bill Belichick, who became the eighth coach in NFL history with at least 200 career wins. ``A big play, a turnover, score, another turnover, another big play and when you get all those yards in one play, whether it's on a big play or a turnover, then that's what defines explosive plays. It certainly changes the whole dynamic of the game.''

One of the worst pass defenses in the league over the past year-and-a-half has swiftly shifted into one of the most feared, more closely resembling the units that keyed New England's three Super Bowl victories than the one that allowed the second-most yards passing in the league last season and ranks similarly this year.

Just five days before the Patriots feasted on five Jets turnovers Thanksgiving night, they capitalized on a handful of Colts miscues as well, returning two interceptions for touchdowns and a punt return for a score in a 59-24 win over Indianapolis on Sunday.

``I think last night is the `Exhibit A' on how quickly the game can change,'' Belichick said. ``Turnovers are a huge part of the game and other than points, they're probably statistically the highest correlation to winning.

``We had a lot of turnovers earlier in the year and we didn't get enough point production out of those turnovers. A lot of times, we'd turn the ball over and end up leaving with not many points,'' he added. ``So even though we had a turnover differential advantage, that didn't really translate into a big point advantage with those turnovers. The past few weeks, that number has changed more in our favor where the turnovers have been converted into points and in a lot of cases, touchdowns.''

As usual, the Patriots' potent offense had little trouble shredding the opposing defense.

Quarterback Tom Brady accounted for four touchdowns, including one rushing, and finished 18 of 28 for 323 yards, becoming just one of six players to reach 3,000 yards passing for the 10th time.

Brady, who has thrown 14 touchdowns against no interceptions during New England's current winning streak, also passed Dan Fouts for 10th place on the career passing list.

Running back Stevan Ridley chipped in with 97 yards and a touchdown.

But it was the defense that started the scoring spree this time.

The points parade began when safety Steve Gregory intercepted quarterback Mark Sanchez and Brady led the offense on a 15-play, 84-yard drive, capped by Wes Welker's 3-yard catch on the first play of the second quarter.

That was the beginning of the end for New York.

One play after Gregory recovered a fumble by Jets running back Shonn Greene on fourth-and-inches from the Patriots 31, Brady threw a swing pass to Shane Vereen. He darted untouched up the left sideline for an 83-yard touchdown that made it 14-0.

The scoring surge continued moments later when Sanchez fumbled after slamming into right guard Brandon Moore's backside. Gregory picked up the ball and ran it 32 yards for a touchdown to extend the lead.

New England was far from finished.

Joe McKnight fumbled the ensuing kickoff on a hit by Devin McCourty and Julian Edelman scooped up the loose ball and bolted 22 yards for another score, finishing off the 21-point blitz in less than a minute. Brady and Edelman later connected on 56-yard touchdown to stretch the lead to 35-0 late in the second period.

``I thought that really set the momentum for the game,'' Gregory said. ``It really turned things into a lopsided feel there.

``They're a good football team, but I think we're a little better this year.''

The numbers certainly support that.

Boasting the most prolific offense in the NFL with 37 points and 435.8 yards per game, both best in the league, New England has now scored 190 points in its past four games, the most in a four-game span during a single season since the 1950 Rams scored an NFL-record 208. The Patriots also top the AFC in turnover margin at plus-17.

``I thought it was almost impossible to score 35 points in a quarter, but they found a way to do it,'' said Jets coach Rex Ryan. ``You have to give them a ton of credit. That's a great football team. Like I said, they don't need any help, and when you don't protect the football . 35 points in a quarter is ridiculous.''

The Patriots' mantra all season has been to play a full 60 minutes. On Thursday, however, 52 seconds was more than enough to quiet the Jets.

``This team is a steady group. When we play together, we play well. Good things happen,'' nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. ``It starts being fun when you score 28 points in a quarter. All you can say is, `Wow.' ``

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Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

The Wizards' selection of Troy Brown of the University of Oregon with their first round pick has been met with a strong reaction among fans, many of whom argue he doesn't play a position of need, that it was a luxury pick when other areas could have been addressed, most notably in their frontcourt. Big man Robert Williams of Texas A&M, for example, was still on the board. 

The Wizards, though, did address needs by picking Brown. And really, they arguably filled more pressing needs in the short-term than those at power forward and center.

Though the Wizards clearly need some help at big man in the long-term, as both of their starting bigs are on expiring deals, they need help immediately at both shooting guard and small forward. Brown, though he is only 18 years old and offers no guarantees to contribute right away, can play both of those positions.

Shooting guard is where he can help the most. The Wizards have one backup shooting guard in Jodie Meeks and he is due to miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season while serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Even when Meeks was available this past season, he only helped so much. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three. Head coach Scott Brooks often chose to rely more on starter Bradley Beal than go to Meeks as his replacement. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any player in the NBA.

More depth at shooting guard will help relieve Beal of some of that workload. That would be great for keeping him fresh throughout the season and help him be at his best when they need him most in the playoffs.

The Wizards also have some urgency at small forward. It is their strongest position in terms of one-two on the depth chart, but they have no logical third option. That was magnified in the playoffs once Otto Porter got injured. They were left with Kelly Oubre, Jr. and had to trot out Tomas Satoransky, who has limited experience at the position.

Brown can play both shooting guard and small forward, giving them much needed depth. If he can play well enough to earn a rotation spot, the emergency situations the Wizards encountered last season could be avoided in 2018-19.

The Wizards still need to find long-term solutions at power forward and center, but they were going to need to find answers at shooting guard and small forward as well. Both Meeks and Oubre have one year left on their deals. Brown helps solidify the long-term outlook at wing.

Now, there's no denying the Wizards already had considerable talent at both shooting guard and small forward with Beal, Porter and Oubre. That begs the question of how much Brown can offer particularly in the first year of his career. But the Wizards would like to play more positionless basketball and to do that requires depth at wing.

The Boston Celtics have helped make positionless basketball famous and their roster shows that the one player-type you can't have enough of is similar to Brown. Boston has Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. All are around 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 and offer versatility on both ends of the floor.

The Wizards also now have four players of that size and with positional versatility in Brown, Porter, Oubre and Satoransky. They can roll out different combinations of those guys and possibly have an advantage on defense with the ability to switch seamlessly on screens.

In the age of positionless basketball, players of Brown's ilk have become major assets especially for teams that have many of them. There is such a thing as having too many point guards or centers because they can't coexist on the floor. Versatile wings, in most scenarios, can play together in numbers.

It's different but in a way similar to certain positions in other sports. In baseball, you can have too many catchers but you can't have too many talented pitchers and utility players. In football, you can have too many running backs or tight ends, but you can't have too many defensive linemen. 

Brown gives them options from a roster perspective in the long-term. Oubre has one year left on his contract and if he continues his trejectory with a strong 2018-19 season, he could price himself out of Washington. Brown could move up the depth chart as his replacement one year from now. The Wizards also now have the option to consider trades at the position given their depth.

The problem, one could argue, with drafting Brown over a Williams-type is that it limits their options at center in particular. Drafting Williams would have made it easier to trade Marcin Gortat, for instance, because they would have had depth to deal from. Now, it's more difficult to trade Gortat, whom they have shopped on and off for months, without a plan to replace him. Finding a Gortat substitute in free agency with the limited resource they have would not be easy.

But big man wasn't their only need and in Brown the Wizards may have found a solution at other areas where they clearly needed help.

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

The first round of the NBA Draft played out expectedly for what the Wizards had planned for the night. In Troy Brown, they clearly got the guy they wanted all along, seeing as there were many interesting prospects they passed on to choose him.

The second round was a bit more chaotic. Team president Ernie Grunfeld said there were a few players picked just ahead of them at No. 44 that they had their eyes on. They contemplated trading up, but no perfect deals were presented.

So, they decided to think long-term, like really long-term. In choosing Ukrainian point guard Issuf Sanon, the Wizards understand it may be years before he plays in the NBA.

"We hope to have him developed in a few years," Grunfeld said.

Sanon, just 18, plays for Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia. He may stay in Europe into his 20s before he comes to the United States.

The Wizards have utilized the draft-and-stash model with other players. Their 2015 second round pick, Aaron White, has been playing in Europe for the past three seasons.

Sometimes those players never convey and contribute for the Wizards. But sometimes they do and Grunfeld pointed to a player already on their roster as a model to consider.

"We drafted Tomas [Satoransky] at an earlier age, he went overseas [and] he played at the highest level and it got him ready for the NBA," Grunfeld said.

The difference between now and then is that the Wizards have a G-League franchise starting this fall, the Capital City Go-Go. Because of that, it seemed more likely going into the draft that the Wizards would use the second round pick on a guy who can play there right away. 

Grunfeld, however, opted for roster flexibility. By keeping Sanon in Europe, the Wizards can have another open roster spot. They could either fill that spot, or leave spots on the end of their roster open as they did for much of last season.

"We want to preserve a roster spot, so just because you draft someone in your second round, if you sign him, he still has a roster spot even if you let him play for the GoGo," Grunfeld said.

Sanon may have a bright future. He is a 6-foot-4 point guard with impressive athleticism who doesn't turn 19 until October. He said he models his game after Russell Westbrook, as a guard who can score the ball. More will be known about him once he plays for their summer league team in July.

The Wizards passed on several interesting prospects to pick Sanon. Still on the board were Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State, Hamidou Diallo of Kentucky and Svi Mykhailiuk of Kansas, three players they brought in for pre-draft workouts. But instead, they went with a long-term investment, hoping they found the next Satoransky.

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