Tag Archives: 2015 NFL Preseason

Don’t Go to Sleep This Spring on Patriots CB Darryl Roberts

Steve Balestrieri
May 10, 2016 at 8:53 am ET

Still an Unproven Quantity at CB, 2nd Year Player Has Plenty of Upside

The Patriots drafted Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones with their first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft with the 60th overall pick. Jones is expected to immediately contend for slot corner duties immediately with a chance at moving outside later. Another player who can possibly vie for starting reps outside in 2016 is 2nd-year corner Darryl Roberts.

Roberts was drafted by the Patriots with a 7th round draft pick (247th overall), out of Marshall last season. An incredibly gifted athlete, he had a big performance at Marshall’s Pro Day running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash with a 6.66-second time in the 3-Cone Drill, a 4.06-second short shuttle, a 39-inch vertical leap, and an 11’1”-inch broad jump. He also benched 225 pounds 23 times.

He’s the tallest of the Patriots corners currently on the roster, just topping out at 6’0 and 190 pounds. Roberts is a tough, physical corner with long arms that he uses aggressively in press coverage. He has outstanding change of direction skills and has the speed to mirror receivers downfield as well as recover when the ball is in the air.

With the huge turnover at the position last season, the competition was essentially wide open entering training camp. Roberts was tossed right into the mix, getting essentially first team reps against Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola early in training camp. The results were about what one would expect.

Coming from a small school, Roberts wasn’t prepared for the quickness off the line of the Patriots shifty receivers. He was playing too high in his backpedal and wasn’t able to get a good jam at the line. As a result, for the first couple of days, he was getting beat regularly.
Roberts-Edelman
Roberts-Amendola

But the light quickly came on and Roberts began to improve markedly as camp wound along.  His coverage got tighter, his physicality improved and he began making more and more plays as the days passed. Was he rising ala Malcolm Butler in 2014? No, not quite. But his level of play had increased to the point of being noticeably better.


Darryl Roberts came on strong during 2015’s training camp before landing on IR. (SBalestrieri/PatsFans.com image)

One day during the dog days of August, he broke up four passes in the training session, one of which was intercepted. He earned the start in the Patriots first preseason game of the year against the Green Bay Packers and it was in this game that his season came to a halt.

In trying to tackle the Packers Eddie Lacy, Roberts badly dislocated his wrist. The recovery time for that injury is about 8 weeks but the Patriots made the decision to place him on season-ending IR. He was fully healed by the time the season ended.

Now with a clean bill of health, Roberts should have no issues with once again competing for a spot on the roster and possibly for some starting reps. Unlike Jones who can play inside or out, Roberts is ideally a fit for the perimeter. There, his length, athleticism, and physicality can impact the play, giving the Patriots another option at covering opponents’ wide receivers.

He joins a crowded group of ten corners this spring including, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, E.J. Biggers, Brock Vereen, Cre’Von LeBlanc, V’Angelo Bentley, Jonathan Jones.

But with Logan Ryan being an unrestricted free agent in 2017, the Patriots will be looking within to see if there is a player currently on the roster that can step up and play on the outside. Jones is one of those guys but for now, he’ll compete with Justin Coleman for reps in the slot. Roberts should vie with Biggers initially for reps backing up the starters outside in Butler and Ryan.

If last season is any indication, he may indeed by ready for a bigger slice of the pie. He also has special teams’ capability with his speed and athleticism, something that the Patriots always covet in their players.

While all eyes will be focused on Jones this summer and rightfully so, don’t be surprised if Roberts, the 7th round pick from last season starts to turn heads again once the players hit the field.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Is the NFL’s Pendulum Swinging Back to the Running Game?

Steve Balestrieri
February 12, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The NFL is a passing league and it is driven by the quarterbacks. With the plethora of talented passers and athletic receivers in the league, it has led to an explosion of passing yards, touchdowns and offenses that love to spread out defenses and find mismatches.

That has led to smaller, faster and more athletic defenses that have to try to keep up with these offenses. Denver’s defense is a prime example, a very athletic, blistering fast unit that uses speed to overwhelm their opponents.

But the NFL is always evolving and the league is trending back to being more run based but at a bare minimum, it is going to be much more balanced in terms of offense. A quick look at the final eight teams that rounded out the NFL’s season from the Divisional Round thru the Super Bowl shows that for the most part,  teams that ran the ball well were the ones standing in the end.

All four of the teams from the NFC were in the top 12 of rushing. Carolina was the #2 rushing team in the NFL averaging 142.6 yards per game. Seattle was the #3 rushing team, even without Marshawn Lynch down the stretch averaging 141.8. Arizona came in 8th with 119.8 yards per game and Green Bay rounded out the NFC at #12 with 115.6 yards per game.

Over in the AFC, Kansas City was the #6 rushing team in the NFL averaging 127.8 yards per game. Pittsburgh came in 16th with 107.8 yards per game. But they lost LeVeon Bell after only six games in 2015 with him serving the first two games of the season on a suspension and then him going down with a season ending injury, tearing an MCL in Week 8.

Denver was right behind Pittsburgh in 17th place in the league averaging 107.4 yards per game. But that number needs to be looked at closer. After Peyton Manning was sat down, and Brock Osweiler took over, Gary Kubiak finally installed the running game as he envisioned it with the QB under center. The results were startling. In the last seven games of the season, Denver averaged 134.9 yards per game, which would have put them right around 5th/6th place over the course of a season.

Only the New England Patriots were the anomaly in the final eight, rushing for a paltry 87.8 yards per game, 30th in the NFL. Their success had more to do with the ability of Tom Brady than anything else and why they made it the conference championship.

It also isn’t surprising that the league’s top five scoring teams (Car, AZ, NE, Sea, Pitts) are also on this list, again only the Patriots are the wildcard with the vast onus being on the passing game. Kansas City finished with the 9th top scoring team in the league.

Does this mean that the NFL is going back to the 4 yards and a cloud of dust days? Hardly, as long as QBs like Brady, Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger et al. are under center teams are going to throw the ball and do so very well.

But to combat the fast nickel and dime defenses that teams are playing more and more with five and six defensive backs on the field, teams are going back to more of balanced run based approach. It keeps the downs and distances manageable and when facing third and short, teams that run effectively have the option of mixing things up and keeping the chains moving.

The NFL is a copycat league, with the success of both Denver and Carolina having very good running attacks and fast, athletic defenses, look for the other teams in the league trying to duplicate their success. The age of the mobile, big-armed QBs are here and now the defenses will have to adjust accordingly again.

Bill Belichick likes to stay a step ahead of the trends in the game, when the Patriots play their nickel and dime defenses, they frequently do so with extra safeties instead of cornerbacks. Part of the reason is in the AFC East, they play the Bills and Jets, two teams that run the ball extremely well.

Safeties who take the place of linebackers in the big nickel defense have to be able to stuff the run and still be able to cover tight ends and running backs and the occasional slot receiver. Big safeties who can stuff the run and cover will become increasingly sought after as teams play more in their sub-packages than in their base defenses.

What does this mean for New England? Well one last look at the coach’s film from the AFC Championship Game shows that at a bare minimum, they’re going to need a complimentary running game if they want to get back to the big game.

They can’t rely on Tom Brady chucking the ball 80 percent of the time. Being one-dimensional against a very good defense like Denver’s hurt them twice in 2015. Brady took a beating in both games. With him turning 39 this season, they can’t afford to have him going down because the defense is just pinning their ears back.

So while the Patriots haven’t valued the running back position in recent years, perhaps this is a good time, to reverse that trend a bit and spend the money and/or draft picks to get themselves a higher tier running back. They’ve proven they can throw it with the best of teams, but with a viable running game, not only will it make the passing game even more effective, it will limit the abuse your 39-year old QB has to take.

There are some intriguing names out there both in free agency and the draft, several that can be had in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds. The league is trending towards having better rushing attacks again. The Pats are already well equipped to stop those. Now they need to get to work on getting one of their own.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile – Dekoda Watson

Steve Balestrieri
February 6, 2016 at 8:45 am ET

The Patriots have a couple of decisions to make in regard to free agents this off-season, but they are mainly to do with their role players and not with the starters like last year or the upcoming 2017 season.

One of their free agent signings this offseason and a player who spent three different stints with the team in 2015 was linebacker Dekoda Watson.

Watson spent time with the Bucs, Jaguars and Cowboys before being signed by the Patriots in May of 2015 bringing the roster to the 90-man limit at that time. He was originally drafted by the Bucs in the 7th round of the 2010 NFL Draft with the 217th pick from Florida State.

He was released at the end of training camp, signed in mid-September, released again a few weeks later and was re-signed in December and played well down the stretch for the Patriots. He kept in shape and was ready once he got the call to come back.

His best season came in 2013 with Tampa Bay where he produced 42 tackles, two sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one pass defensed, three tackles for loss and one blocked kick. He’s a fast, disruptive linebacker who can be a liability in coverage against running backs.

He ended up with New England after undergoing double groin surgery which slowed his 2014 progress and eventually was the call for his release from Jacksonville and Dallas. “I came off the surgery and they were expecting something more once I came back and it kind of lingered a little bit,” Watson told the media at the time. “Once I was at my peak, I was able to play against Dallas and I played with high energy, I felt good about it and I came with a lot of confidence.”

The 6’2, 240-pound linebacker is slightly undersized but runs with good speed, logging a 4.55 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. And despite his stature, he’s a physical downhill player, a good tackler and plays off blocks pretty well.

He can blitz off the edge and has a good initial burst. Watson also has good play recognition and has a quick reaction time. During the AFC Divisional Round against Kansas City, when Chandler Jones left with an injury, Watson filled in at defensive end. “Dekoda gave us some good rushes there on the edge,” Bill Belichick said after the game.

Given his versatility, besides filling in for Jones at defensive end, he can play either the SAM or WILL linebacker positions and is a core special teamer. He sprung Danny Amendola for a big punt return against the Chiefs.

“It’s great to be back,” Watson said to Phil Perry of CSNNE. “It’s great to be back in this environment. It’s not necessarily the football part of it, but just the camaraderie with the players, just seeing old friends and things like that. Being able to just sit in a meeting room is a blessing.”

“People don’t understand that. Just to be able to do things like that, it’s the small things. To come back, they show you love, everybody’s excited to see you and things like that. There’s just some things that you’ll never be able to take away when it comes to football. It’s just good. It’s a great blessing. A great opportunity.”

Why Watson Will Return: Watson is the kind of versatile depth player that Bill Belichick loves to fill the bottom of the roster with. He can play WILL/SAM linebacker positions and as he showed in the playoffs, can even jump in at defensive end.

He’s always been known as a good special team player and that aspect of his game served him and the team well against the Chiefs. The Patriots need depth at linebacker after starters Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower especially with the uncertain return of Jerod Mayo given his three successive years of major injury and his $11 million-dollar cap hit in 2016.If he is resigned, he’ll join Jonathan Freeny, Jon Bostic and Darius Fleming as the team’s depth players.

Watson won’t break the bank and he can be signed pretty inexpensively. He has got good speed and is still relatively young, turning just 28 on March 3.

Why Watson Won’t Return: The Patriots may look to get younger and get another bigger run stuffer in the draft already having Fleming and Freeny on the squad. When Hightower went down with an injury, Mayo filled in but has been slowed by injuries and the run defense suffered. The team lacked that big, physical presence inside.

Bottom Line:  The money will drive the train here in relation to his coming back, if he wants too much money, which isn’t likely, the Patriots would most likely pass.

If they can come to a modest salary cap hit there is no reason to believe that the Patriots wouldn’t entertain at least the possibility of Watson trying to earn a roster spot in training camp. Speaking of which, the biggest impression we remember of Watson during last year’s camp was of him wearing a hoodie under his uniform on those sweltering late July and early August days.

Watson is a versatile and speedy linebacker who can be a core special teamer. He won’t be a star, but the back end of the Patriots roster is always chock full of guys like him that have a role and do it well. Jonathan Casillas from the 2014 Super Bowl winning team comes immediately to mind. Watson fits that role to a tee.

For that reason and the fact that he already is very familiar with the system, I’d say there is a 70 percent chance that the Patriots resign him and bring him back in 2016.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile – Tarell Brown

Steve Balestrieri
February 5, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

The Patriots have a couple of decisions to make in regard to free agents this offseason, but they are mainly to do with their role players and not with the starters like last year or the upcoming 2017 season.

One of their free agent signings was CB Tarell Brown who came on-board on July 23, just prior to training camp which started on July 30. Brown signed a 1-year deal worth $2 million dollars. Brown had spent seven seasons with the 49ers and Raiders after being drafted in the 5th round of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Brown was known as a smart, solid, fundamentally sound player. A good starter as a number 2 cornerback. Of course when the Patriots signed him, I immediately (and wrongly) pegged him as a depth player only with little chance of becoming a starter. He did arrive with a foot injury issue, which is why the Patriots had him in for visits twice before signing him in July.

But what drew Brown to New England wasn’t just that the team had a huge turnover at the corner position. But that the players are expected to be prepared every day and held to a higher standard than other teams do.

“That’s one of the reasons why I came here is just because these guys are held to a higher standard,” Brown said during training camp. “Day in and day out, you compete and that’s what we’re here to do and there’s nothing less than winning is accepted.”

What drew the Patriots and Bill Belichick to Brown was his studious, analytical side of playing the position. One of the things that the Patriots do and do a lot of on defense is what is commonly referred to as “mixing things up.” That just doesn’t mean switching from man-to-man to zone, which every team does. But depending upon the call by the defense, the situation and the opposition, a player’s responsibility will change. Sometimes players will rotate sides and a hallmark of the Belichick way is knowing what all the other parts are responsible doing.

Brown had a week to try to learn the defense and he reportedly spent a lot of time with Devin McCourty learning the calls, the responsibilities and the different coverages.

“It’s a craft,” Brown said of  playing corner. “You gotta be able to study and be a student of the game. It’s not just about athletic ability anymore. You can get away with that in college, but once you get to the NFL, being able to study, being able to enjoy and understand your craft and when to use things, that’s what’s important.”

When camp opened, Brown’s foot was still an issue, but he caught on very quickly and was turning heads early in the sessions. On August 2, he was arguably the best player on the field, breaking up passes to Edelman in the end zone, a deep pass to Tyms where he was beaten initially but reacted well to the ball being in the air and knocked it away at the last moment, and another deep pass to Brandon Gibson.

Once the season started he was the #2 corner opposite Malcolm Butler and played well. When the team went to the nickel look with three corners, he’d move inside and Logan Ryan would come in and take his place outside. But his foot issues were never fully behind him and he was only able to play in three games with two starts before being placed on IR on October 17.

The 5’11, 190-pound Brown just turned 31 in January and would be very interested in coming back for a second stint with the team.

Why Brown Will Return: Brown, provided he’s healthy gives the Patriots a savvy, smart veteran who will be able to compete for the #2 corner position and be versatile enough to slide inside to play the slot.

His analytical approach and work ethic definitely resonates with Belichick and the Patriots. He’d be a very good sounding board for the younger players. Plus, he’s a proven veteran who can step in and play whenever and wherever he’s needed.

Another thing in his favor was, after he was placed on IR, he stayed in Foxboro and did his rehab there. He helped out in any way he could the corners on the roster in the film room and with their technique. Those are the kind of things that endear a player to the coaching staff. His salary won’t break the bank and he’d be very affordable.

Why Brown Won’t Return: The Patriots may decide that his foot injury will be one of those chronic type injuries that will haunt him for the rest of his career and therefore become a guy that they feel they can’t rely upon.

Or they could decide just to go younger and bring in another young guy. Butler and Ryan are still young and will be starting their third and fourth years respectively. Coleman is only going to be 23 when the OTAs begin, and Darryl Roberts who got the start in the first preseason game, is just 25 and entering his second season.

But the main issue with Brown will be his health, specifically his foot.

Bottom Line:  Brown was a pleasant surprise for the Patriots last summer. He signed a week before camp and had a solid summer that translated into an opening night start against the Steelers. He played well when he was on the field.  While his injury issue is the driving force here, he’d compete once again for starting reps.

Considering he won’t command a ton of money against the salary cap, I think there’s a 70 percent chance of the Patriots bringing him back for another year. They could basically set it up much like last year’s contract where there’d be a very small signing or roster bonus,  or possibly just a straight salary deal. That way if they decide they don’t want to keep him at the end of training camp, there would be no issue with dead money against the cap.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Free Agent Profile – Brandon Gibson

Steve Balestrieri
February 3, 2016 at 12:00 pm ET

The Patriots suffered a slew of injuries in 2015, and ended up with 21 players on injured reserve. The wide receiver position was especially hard hit both early in the preseason and then during the regular season.

During the 2015 offseason the Patriots signed former Dolphin WR Brandon Gibson and the 28-year old 6’0 WR quickly caught on and was pushing hard for a roster spot before tearing his ACL in a preseason game with the Saints and being placed on IR.

Josh Boyce and Brian Tyms also were lost in preseason, Julian Edelman tweaked an ankle in early August and missed the entire preseason. Then Aaron Dobson lost another season to injury, Edelman broke his foot and missed the last two months of the regular season. Danny Amendola dealt with knee issues as did Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler. It wasn’t an easy season for the Patriots receiving core.

Gibson had two decent seasons as a Miami backup with 30 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, followed by 29 catches for 295 yards for a touchdown in 2014. He had a couple of solid seasons in St. Louis as well, catching 53 passes in 2010 and 51 for 691 yards and five touchdowns in 2012. From the early days of training camp, he put his nose to the grindstone and worked hard and strived to find that coveted comfort level with Brady.

It was in the second week of camp where due to injuries, he was getting a lot of work with Brady. On August 6, he was easily the best player on the field for the offense, catching seven catches from Brady including a beauty over the top of Malcolm Butler.

Brandon Gibson

From there on he seemed to be making plays every day on the hot, training camp practice fields. In the first preseason game he was targeted just four times but caught all four for 29 yards. In the second preseason game against New Orleans he was targeted nine times and caught eight for 68 yards.  Then came the injury.

“Just have to pray for the best, that’s all you can do,” Gibson said after the game that night.

Now the Patriots have decisions to make on not only Gibson but on Boyce and Dobson as well. They’re entering their fourth seasons and have yet to make an impact on the field as they were envisioned when they were drafted due to injuries. Tyms is another matter, as he seemed destined for a role as well as Gibson when he went down.

Why Gibson Will Return: Gibson has seen some success in the league with Miami and St. Louis and has shown he can put the work in and gain Brady’s trust. He won’t ever be a prolific receiver but he was and can be again a solid role player who can come in and contribute and can spot start when called upon.

He’ll only be 29 during training camp on August 13 and has a history with Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels. He shouldn’t break the bank and at a minimum will provide solid competition for one of the backup wide receiver slots.

He’s the kind the veteran that the team needs as a backup that can step in and contribute whenever his number is called.

Why Gibson Won’t Return: The Patriots will undoubtedly look to upgrade their arsenal for Tom Brady in the 2016 and their plans may not involve Gibson. Especially if his knee isn’t all the way back yet once training camp starts.

There should be plenty of competition, Tyms, Boyce, Dobson as well as Chris Harper and DeAndre Carter will all be vying for spots on the roster. That is before they add any names via free agency and the 2016 NFL Draft.

In a numbers game, Gibson may find himself the odd man out.

Bottom Line: Gibson, barring any setback from his ACL tear should be ready to contribute in 2016. It makes sense to bring back the veteran who won’t cost much and is a proven NFL wide receiver.

For that reason, if he’s healthy this season there is a 70 percent chance that the team brings him back to the fold for this upcoming season. Then it will be up to him to once again show that he’s worthy of a roster spot.

Something tells me that he will be around in the beginning of September.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Three Keys to Victory, Patriots – Bills

Steve Balestrieri
September 18, 2015 at 6:53 am ET

The New England Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills on Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. in Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park. Both teams enter at 1-0 and the upstart Bills are looking to get a great start of the season by knocking off both teams from the AFC Championship Game last season in successive weeks.

Rex Ryan has the Bills’ fanbase and players fired up for the possibilities of the 2015 season. They have one of the top defensive units in the league and have added some improved weapons on offense. Now they have to put it together to end the Buffalo long playoff-less drought.

In Thursday’s “Razor’s Edge” article, we broke down the key matchups between the team’s offense, defense and special teams. Now we’ll give you three keys to the game from a Patriots perspective to coming away with a win on Sunday.

Key #1: Start Early Offensively – This one sounds simplistic but it is the best way to keep the crowd from becoming and staying a factor throughout the game. If Tom Brady and the Patriots offense can get into a rhythm and get some points on the board early, it will quiet the crowd to a degree and put the pressure on Buffalo’s offense.

The Bills will be looking to disrupt Brady’s timing and make him hold onto the ball, the opposite of last week’s game plan against Andrew Luck, and then bring that pass rush to bear. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will be under pressure to break free of jams at the line and get open quickly. That will allow Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler to attack the seams and pressure the safeties and linebackers.

The Patriots will look to avoid getting into those obvious passing situations, the second or third down and long yardage where Ryan loves to send pressure. The running game with LaGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis will have to avoid losing yardage and find some quick holes to keep the defense off-balance.

If they do this, and put some points on the board, then the pressure will be on Tyrod Taylor to be forced to keep up. Everything went his way in the opener, with the Bills stifling the Colts offense and Buffalo jumping out to big, comfortable lead. New England will want to take that comfort level away with Brady and Co.

Key #2: Take Away the Run and Force the Bills to Throw – Taylor will be making just his second start in the NFL. The Bills and Ryan always want to run the ball first and then open up play action passing and hit some big plays down the field with Percy Harvin and Sammie Watkins. So slowing down LeSean McCoy and Taylor from running becomes a big point of emphasis.

McCoy has been slowed by a balky hamstring, but I would expect him to play on Sunday. Taylor is a mobile QB and with OC Greg Roman coming from the Niners, expect a similar attack that the Patriots saw a few years ago in Foxboro (and had trouble stopping), this week.

Against Pittsburgh, the Pats went with a light front in an attempt to stop the passing game of Ben Roethlisberger. This week look for a lot more of a base defense with the big bodies, (Sealver Siliga, Alan Branch and Malcom Brown) inside. Jerod Mayo should see more playing time this week. Pat Chung will see more playing time as they’ll slide him up in the box to help combat the run.

The onus this week will be on the defensive ends, Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard to keep Taylor in front of them and to stay in their lanes. One area that the Patriots have been gashed on in the past is when their DEs lose the edge and allow QBs to scramble and gain big yardage.

Keeping Taylor in the pocket will also force him to beat you through the air, which is what the team should be looking to do. The Bills have some nice weapons in the passing game but Taylor’s inexperience could be used against him by Bill Belichick and force him into making mistakes.

Key #3: Win the Turnover Battle – In these tight divisional games, a turnover or two can easily turn the tide and momentum in your favor, (see KC Thursday night). The last thing Brady and Co. need is to drive the ball down the field into the red zone and come away empty.

The Patriots under Belichick have traditionally done extremely well when winning the turnover battle. Their playoff record is an astounding 19-1 when the opponent turns the ball over more and the team was 8-1 in 2014 including the playoffs when winning the turnover battle.

This is an area where Bill Belichick coached teams have always done well in, and on the road in a loud stadium, nothing will quiet the noise quicker than having the home team turnover the ball.

If the Patriots can follow these three keys on Sunday afternoon, there is a very good chance they come home from Buffalo with a 2-0 record. As we stated in our matchup piece from Thursday morning, we’re going with a Patriots 27-21 win.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

New England Patriots News 9-13 and AFC East Notes

Steve Balestrieri
September 13, 2015 at 5:00 am ET

“I just think overall, it’s kind of sad really, to see some stories obviously have an agenda to them with misinformation and anonymous-type comments… it’s a sad commentary and it’s gone to a pretty low level. It’s sunk pretty deep.”  Bill Belichick

Good morning, here are Sunday’s Patriots news notes and what’s happening around the division:

Belichick Has Enough…Finally And Blasts Critics: Bill Belichick has stayed mum through a lot in his tenure as head coach of the Patriots. But the accusations by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers web site that the Patriots were nefariously to blame for their headset problems during Thursday’s game were too much.

Belichick didn’t mince words and he blasted his critics and anyone else who has accused the Patriots of cheating during the Super Bowl years.  After the NFL, SI and ESPN were made to look bad for their incessant Deflategate negative spin on New England, including publishing misleading and outright fabrications in the name of evidence, they dredged up eight year old Spygate nonsense under the guise of “new evidence” to get the negative spin off of themselves and put it back on the Patriots.

And once the Steelers non-story hit the web, Belichick had enough. It wasn’t only the Steelers whose headsets weren’t functioning properly during the game. Fortunately for Pittsburgh their problems were ironed out by the end of the first half. The Patriots headsets issues lasted into the fourth quarter, the team was ready to change helmets for Brady as his communication equipment was completely non-functioning.

“I just think overall, it’s kind of sad really, to see some stories obviously have an agenda to them with misinformation and anonymous-type comments,” Belichick said on Friday. “Complaining about warm drinks and trash cans and stuff like that, I think it’s a sad commentary and it’s gone to a pretty low level. It’s sunk pretty deep.”

Belichick then rattled off more than 20 names of players who played on those Super Bowl teams and said those teams’ accomplishments stood on their own.  

“To take away from what those guys accomplished, what those teams accomplished, how good they were, how many great players we had, how well they played in big games, how they consistently showed up and made big plays and game-winning plays. It’s not right.”

Belichick spoke about the Patriots own headset problems and rather than whine about them, he said the team dealt with them and offered some of the sternest statements yet about his critics.

“It’s not an uncommon problem,” Belichick said. “We had to signal some of our plays offensively because we couldn’t get them in. We look at it as something you have to be ready for every week, and we practice it.”

“Let’s say that I think that our program here is built on competition and trying to improve every day and trying to work hard,” he said.It’s not built on excuses.”

Blount Cleared For Return: Running back LaGarrette Blount has been cleared to return to the Patriots facility and is eligible to return to practice immediately. Blount was suspended for the first game of the season for actions last year when he was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers while in the company of Le’Veon Bell. Bell was suspended for three games for DUI arrest and marijuana possession charges.

In lieu of Blount last week, the Patriots used Dion Lewis as the lead running back as well as in the third down role. Blount should see plenty of action against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park next week. In a corresponding roster move the team released DE Eric Martin this afternoon.

Easley Dodges Bullet, Injury reportedly not serious: Patriots 2nd year defensive tackle Dominique Easley who has a history of knee injuries went down early in the Pittsburgh game and didn’t return. It was initially thought that his knee buckled under him but now his injury is being reported as a hip pointer and that he should only miss a week or two.

Not fully recovered in his rookie season, he was shut down late last season. This summer he was regaining his trademark burst off the line and was primed for a bigger role in 2015. If he can stay healthy, Easley and 1st round draft pick Malcolm Brown should be an exciting, productive tandem for years to come.

Brady Shines in Opener, No Distractions: One question frequently asked during the preseason was, if all the nonsense during the Deflategate suspension, appeal and court case was affecting Tom Brady’s on-field performance. His numbers over the preseason weren’t even close to what we’ve come to expect from #12.

But it appears that missing half of his starting cast this summer was more of the cause than off-field distractions. On Thursday night, and getting his two favorite targets back in Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, he did what he’s done so many times in the past; he dissected the Steelers defense.

Brady completed 25 of 32 passes including 19 in a row, a new franchise record, for 288 yards and four touchdowns. Brady was calm, cool and collected in the pocket. He was in complete control of the offense and himself throughout and his performance was vintage Brady.

He also set an NFL record with his 161st victory, the most ever by an NFL quarterback with a single franchise, breaking Brett Favre’s record of 160 with the Packers. He improved to 8-2 against Pittsburgh throwing 24 touchdowns against just three interceptions.  Headsets? No….In their heads? Absolutely.

Patriots Honor Boston PD and Former Army Ranger: One of the forgotten sideplots of the festivities on Thursday night was the Patriots honoring Officer John Moynihan of the Boston PD’s Gang Task Force Unit to serve as the team’s honorary Captain for the coin toss.

Moynihan a former Army Ranger who served in combat in Iraq between 2005 and 2008, was shot in the face during a traffic stop back in March. He required multiple surgeries and was visited in the hospital by owner Robert Kraft.

Kraft in his visit not only invited Moynihan to the opener but asked him to be an honorary captain. Nice classy move by Kraft and the team that was a bit overshadowed by the Super Bowl banner drop and the Brady news this week.

East Bound and Down…Notes Around the AFC East:

Jets Open With Browns With Plenty of Questions: The Jets just cleared some salary cap room for kicker Nick Folk but they are a team  with a new coach, a different quarterback but a terrific defense and they’re facing a Clevelan Browns team that is a bit of a mess right.

Look for the Jets to win rather easily in a low-scoring affair.  The Browns allowed over 140 yards a game last year and Chris Ivory should have a big game. After this week? There will be plenty of questions to be answered. How will Brandon Marshall get along with QBs Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick,  Todd Bowles was a fantastic defensive coordinator like his predecessor Rex Ryan, but will he be a good head coach? That’s the biggest question facing Gang Green heading into 2015.

Bills Taylor Will Have Pressure of Starting Vs Luck: New Bills QB Tyrod Taylor won the starting job this summer and will be at home in front of a rabid fan base that is itching for success. Taylor was electric at times during the preseason, but will be facing AFC Finalists in the Colts and QB Andrew Luck in his first start.

The Bills are another team with an excellent defense that will have to hold the fort and hope their QB can play well enough to lead them to a playoff berth.

Dolphins Add Gray to Active Roster: Former Patriots running back Jonas Gray was signed to the Dolphins practice squad this week after his release by New England. Now the big back has been added to the Miami active 53 man roster prior to their game against the Redskins on Sunday. That certainly will add an additional flavor to the games between the two teams this season and puts a little more incentive in those divisional games.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Players to Watch, Patriots – Steelers

Steve Balestrieri
September 10, 2015 at 6:47 am ET

The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers kick off the 2015 NFL season on Thursday night in Foxboro; the game will be broadcast on NBC with Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michelle Tafoya on the call.

Kickoff is slated for 8:30 p.m. and advanced weather forecasts call for periods of heavy rain with some lightning possible.

The Patriots will drop the Super Bowl banner prior to the game and coupled with the fact that Tom Brady’s suspension was vacated in Deflategate, the atmosphere in Gillette is expected to be electric.

Here are three players from each team to watch in Thursday night’s game:

Patriots –
Tom Brady: With all that he’s gone thru both in the lead-up to and following the Super Bowl during the off-season with Deflategate, the toll it had to take on him was enormous. Now he can focus on just football and attempting to defend the Super Bowl title.

His friends and those close to him say that he’s ticked off and ready to prove naysayers wrong once again. One constant through the years has been that a ticked off Brady is a motivated and sharp one. This will be an interesting game to watch unfold.

Rob Gronkowski: The big man is entering this season as healthy as he’s been in the last several. Pittsburgh has already gone on record as stating that he will be their focus in trying to stop the Patriots offense.

Gronkowski is by far the best overall tight end in the game today, and he’ll be putting pressure on the Steelers secondary, who will attempt to chip him and play physical at the line to try to slow him down and throw off the timing between him and Brady.

Gronk could be in line for a big game on the national stage on Thursday night.

Malcolm Butler: Butler has had quite the year; he went from an UDFA from West Alabama to making the team out of training camp to being a Super Bowl hero. Now with Darrelle Revis gone, he’s moving into Revis’ spot at left cornerback for the Patriots.

While no one can replace a Revis, the comparisons are going to be made all season and Butler will be firmly under the microscope. Every pass completion will be dissected closely and he’ll be scrutinized like no other 2nd year player as he attempts now to become an every down solid cornerback.

He had a fantastic summer but now the games are for real and he’s facing one of the biggest threats in the league in Antonio Brown. This is his first test and it is a major one. But after watching him for the past 14 months, our bets are on him being just fine.

Steelers –
Antonio Brown:
Brown had a phenomenal year in 2014, catching 129 passes for 1698 yards and 13 touchdowns from QB Ben Roethlisberger. The duo was one of the top combinations in the NFL and Brown has become Big Ben’s go-to guy.

Brown can do it all; from bubble screens and shallow crossing routes underneath to intermediate plays along the sideline and across the intermediate area in the middle of the field to the deep ball. He seems to always time his leap on the deep jump ball perfectly belying his height of 5’10, making him seem much taller.

The Patriots defensive philosophy is always to take away the opponent’s best offensive weapon and make them beat you with complimentary players. With Brown that will be easier said than done. But expect the Patriots to give him plenty of attention on the field with Butler and some over the top help.

Ryan Shazier: The 2nd year linebacker from Ohio State may be tasked with covering Gronkowski at times for the Steelers defense. Shazier, 6’2, 229 is a slightly undersized but very athletic linebacker in the remade Steelers defense.

Shazier should be a big focal point in the Steelers defense against New England this week, as he’ll be asked to use his athleticism to cover a lot of ground underneath where the Patriots like to attack.

“He’s a huge guy with a great catch radius and he knows how to make plays,” said Shazier to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on Gronkowski. “Brady and he have been playing together for years and they have amazing chemistry. He’s just a really good player with a great quarterback.”

Cody Wallace: The Steelers back-up center will have some big shoes to fill in replacing starting center Maurkice Pouncey who had ankle surgery and will be out until Week 9. Wallace bounced around a bit before finding a home in Pittsburgh and has had starts at center and guard since arriving in 2013.

He’ll have to not only try to replace the physical Pouncey ‘s production but in calling out the signals for the offensive line and maintaining the communication in the blocking schemes. Look for Bill Belichick to test him with some delayed A-gap blitzes from both Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins this week.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com and we’ll have post-game analysis of the opener as well as transcripts from Bill Belichick’s press conference immediately after the game.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Offense Goes Thru Rob Gronkowski, Jammed or Not

Steve Balestrieri
September 8, 2015 at 6:02 am ET

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski will be the focus of not only the Pats this Thursday but the Steelers as well. Pittsburgh has already stated that they plan on jamming the big man in an attempt to disrupt the timing of the Patriots offense.

It is a sound plan because however Gronk goes thus does the Patriots offense. It is no secret that without Gronkowski at the end of the playoffs in the 2011 Super Bowl and the 2012-13 Conference Championship games, the Patriots offense was a shell of itself without the big man. And a look at the playoffs in 2014 with a healthy Gronk shows how potent this attack can be.

But there is a vast difference between facing a New England offense without Gronkowski and trying to take him away. Above I said the plan was sound because everything in the Patriots offense is based on timing, so if you can throw the timing of the routes off, it messes with Tom Brady’s rhythm and can impact the offensive production.

The Steelers are in a transition defensively; gone is Dick LeBeau and the master of those zone blitzes that the Steelers thrived on for so many years. Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor are all gone from the defense as well. They’re trying to change to a faster, more athletic defense under new coordinator Keith Butler who was the Pittsburgh linebackers coach.

The Steelers were 27th against the pass in 2014, an anomaly for them so something had to be done. Now Butler is rebuilding on the fly with a new system, new players but the same hard-nosed attitude. Not surprisingly, they struggled badly in the preseason. They’ll eventually get it figured out, so for the Patriots, although facing somewhat of an unknown defense in Week 1, it may be better seeing them now rather than in December.

Much of how the Patriots react to the strategy of jamming Gronkowski will depend upon who the Steelers use to jam and how they’ll play the big man.

One tactic that worked to perfection in the Super Bowl was to split Gronkowski out wide, if the defense puts one its linebackers out there, it opens up mismatches elsewhere and if Gronkowski can beat the jam at the line, not many linebackers can run with him.

Look for Brady to put Gronkowski in motion, he’ll drag a defender a defender across the field with him and will be harder to slow down when he’s already moving. If Pittsburgh chooses to double team Gronk it will open up a big piece of real estate for fellow tight end Scott Chandler. Chandler was added this off-season during free agency and he, Gronk and Brady worked a lot during the spring and summer on red zone offensive plays. At 6’7, 270 Chandler is even bigger than Gronkowski and is adept at attacking the seams and finding ways to get the ball with a huge catch radius.

During his Monday morning press conference, Bill Belichick spoke about having the Twin Towers (Gronk/Chandler), and how teams may attempt to slow them down.

“Each team will probably have its own way or game plan or whatever of how to deal with whatever personnel we have out there,” Belichick said. “There are different combinations of people that we can have, so it’s hard to talk about just one or two players, who are the other three guys, and how are they aligned formationally. I don’t know.

“We’ll try to create situations that stress the defense, and if they overplay one thing and underplay something else, then hopefully we’ll be going to that softer point. That’s pretty much what we’re trying to do anyways. Whoever the players are out there, that’s kind of the basic philosophy.”

Covering Gronkowski and Chandler will probably fall to the safeties, Mike Mitchell and Will Allen. They’ll have their hands full with those two and it will be a key area to watch. If Pittsburgh is placing multiple players on Gronkowski to slow him down, it should open up some real estate for Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson. Dobson had the best game of his career against Pittsburgh back in 2013. It was also a game where Gronkowski caught 9 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown.

Belichick spoke about how the Steelers defense, is multiple and they change fronts and coverages. One thing that is a philosophical difference from years past is that this season’s Pittsburgh team will play more Cover-2/Tampa-2 than their predecessors.

Where they gave up a lot of big passing plays, the Cover-2 is designed to take that the deep ball away. The variant, the Tampa-2 is like the Cover-2 but splits the deep part of the field in thirds and adds a MLB into the mix to take away the deep ball.

Brady has had plenty of success thru the years against the Cover-2 because the New England offense isn’t a deep passing attack. They have the short-medium passing game that takes advantage of the seams and underneath routes of the defense.

There will be plenty of sub-plots on Thursday night, the last time these two teams met in Foxboro in November 2013; they rolled up over 1130 yards of offense. But one of the key areas and players to watch will be Gronkowski. They’ll be jamming….but do it at your own risk.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots 2015 Opponents, Five First Impressions of the Steelers

Steve Balestrieri
September 7, 2015 at 8:44 am ET

The Patriots 2015 season kicks off with a Thursday night prime time match-up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The will be televised nationally by NBC with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth on the call and Michelle Tafoya handling sideline duties. Kickoff is slated for 8:30 p.m.

The Steelers (11-5) have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. QB Ben Roethlisberger set career records for attempts (608), completions (408), yards with 4952 and tied his touchdown record with 32 in 2014. His 106-52 record as a starting quarterback is fourth best among active QBs putting in the company of Brady, Manning and Rodgers. His start on Thursday will make him the all-time leader in QB starts in franchise history.

The defense is going through a transition period with the departures of long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, as well as long-time Steelers Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor. The onus now by new coordinator Keith Butler will be on fast, athletic players and having their defensive linemen tee off and come after the quarterback. It may take them time to gel as a unit with so many changes in both personnel and philosophy.

Here are our Five First Impressions of the Steelers:

Bell, Brown and Ben Cornerstones of the Offense: The Steelers have arguably the best offensive trio of QB, WR and RB of any team in the NFL, led by RB Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.

They mark a very impressive trio that vaulted the Steelers to the #2 offense in the NFL last season. Bell won’t play on Thursday, having to serve a three-game suspension for a DUI arrest and drug possession charges. Although he’ll be missed, former Panther DeAngelo Williams and Dri Archer still give them a formidable duo.

Brown’s 129 catches last season were the second most in NFL history for a single season. He’s Roethlisberger’s go-to guy and with Markus Wheaton and newcomer Sammie Coates, the Steelers have plenty of speed outside. The venerable Heath Miller returns for an 11th season, providing Roethlisberger with a reliable safety valve.

Allen Replaces Thomas At Safety: Pittsburgh announced that 12-year vet Will Allen will replace Shamarko Thomas at strong safety this week and play opposite free safety Mike Mitchell. Thomas, the 3rd year safety was originally drafted to replace Polamalu but has struggled this preseason.

He allowed a 31-yard scoring play against the Jaguars, as well as a 67-yard scoring play against the Bills and a 49-yard touchdown run versus Carolina where he missed a key tackle. He still may see the field in some sub-packages on Thursday.

Allen and Mitchell will be tasked with stopping the Patriots tight end tandem of Gronkowski and Chandler which will be one area of interest to watch in this week’s game.

Offensive Line, Once a Weakness, Now a Position of Strength: The Steelers offensive line for years took a lot of flak, some of it deservedly so for their play in protecting Roethlisberger. But part of the reason was that the big QB would hold the ball for incredibly long stretches trying to allow plays to develop. While many big plays developed, Roethlisberger also took a terrific beating.

Now with an improved offensive line, perhaps the best in his time in Pittsburgh and a passing game of OC Todd Haley that is keyed on his getting the ball out quicker, the offense has thrived.

Maurkice Pouncey anchors the line at center, although he’s hurt now and will miss the first eight weeks of the season. But Big Ben’s blindside is firmly protected by left tackle Kelvin Beachum and left guard Ramon Foster. Beachum is a good story, a 7th round pick who worked his way into a job and has been steadily improving. The right side is held down by T Marcus Gilbert and G David DeCastro.

This is a very solid unit and will provide a great test for the Patriots new improved front seven this week.

Change in Philosophy on Defense Still Working Out Kinks: The zone blitzes of the Steelers defense under Dick LeBeau was known as Blitzburg. But he’s gone, now in Tennessee and former LB coach Keith Butler has had to retool on the fly.

Instead of the two-gap responsibilities of the past, this Steelers defensive line will probably get after the quarterback in a more aggressive style.Cameron Heyward had a breakout season last year and Stephon Tuitt will have to fill big shoes with Keisel retiring. Steve McClendon leads a group of large bodies in the interior with Daniel McCullers, Clifton Geathers and Cam Thomas.

The linebacking group will have to pick up the slack in the pass rush department with James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and newcomer Bud Dupree.

The Steelers secondary was a problem, compounded by a weaker pass rush in 2014. They’re most probably going to use a Cover-2/Tampa-2  system to cut down on the big plays that they gave up last season. In the Tampa-2, the safeties and MLB drop and cover the deeper part of the field to take away the deep ball, but against New England with a shorter passing game, which is very effective against that, we may see some other looks. But the secondary of Cortez Allen, William Gay, Mitchell and Allen will be under the microscope early this season.

Feel Good Story, Army Ranger Villanueva Makes Roster: The Steeler have a big offensive lineman that made the roster this season. Huge 6’9, 335 pound Alejandro Villanueva made the initial 53-man roster out of training camp.

Villanueva is a West Point graduate and served in the 1st Ranger Bn at Hunter Army Airfield as well as in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division. He earned a Bronze Star for Valor while rushing to the aid of pinned down fellow soldiers under fire in Afghanistan.

He gained 90 pounds from his military weight of 245 due to a strict workout and his wife’s cooking. He’s a versatile player who can play multiple positions and has impressed the Pittsburgh coaches with his work ethic and professionalism, hallmarks of a military officer.

He was signed to the Steelers practice squad last August and earned his way onto the 53-man roster this season. Note to the Patriots coaches….there ARE other services other than the Navy…

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.