|01.08.15 at 12:57 pm ET|
FOXBORO — The bitter cold inside Gillette Stadium didn’t keep the Patriots from posting perfect attendance for a third straight day.
The Patriots braved the cold and practiced on the game field at Gillette Stadium on Thursday in preparation for Saturday’s divisional round game against the Ravens. Every player on the 53-man roster and practice squad was in attendance at the start of practice.
It was the second straight practice on the stadium field and the second straight that was held in sweats and shells after Tuesday’s full pads practice. After working out in 11-degree wind chill on Wednesday, the team endured a wind chill of zero and single digit temperatures on Thursday.
The big of good news for the players was the bright sunshine that warmed spirits, if not bodies, on the field.
Bill Belichick explained earlier Thursday that he wants his team practicing outdoors in the bitter cold to get ready for Saturday.
For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.
|01.08.15 at 12:39 pm ET|
Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. joined Middays with MFB on Thursday to discuss the upcoming game with the Patriots, his past time with the Panthers and his relationship with Brandon LaFel. He also talked about how he almost joined the Patriots this past offseason. To hear the interview, go to the MFB audio on demand page.
Smith was teammates with LaFell in Carolina for three years before both players departed after last season with LaFell heading to New England and Smith to Baltimore. He says the two still keep in touch.
“Brandon LaFell was drafted in Carolina and I saw a young man and when I look at the film now — I still watch his film and I still give him little tips, text him — [New England] has a man, and I am so proud of him,” Smith said. “He walked in as a teammate and we both walked out as brothers.”
Smith was scheduled to have a meeting with the Patriots on a Monday, but met with the Ravens on the previous Friday and was signed before the Patriots even had the chance to meet with him. Smith said he and LaFell kept in touch through their whole free agent process.
The wideout explained the free agent process and how he ultimately ended up in Baltimore.
“Honestly, I had never really been a free agent so everything is new to me,” said Smith. “I was just trying to absorb everything in and also look at the situation and look at everything without being biased. If you’re going to sit here and ask me would I turn down an opportunity [with New England]? No, I didn’t turn down an opportunity, but I also knew once I got into an organization and started going through the process I liked it [in Baltimore].
“It’s not to say I wouldn’t have liked it in New England because I never got the opportunity because I chose to play here off my visit here. When I walked into Baltimore, I walked into Baltimore saying, ‘I am going to evaluate this place based on what I see and feel and not on where I may go, or may have an option to go to after this.’ That is kind of how I walked in there. Would I have loved to play with Tom Brady? Of course. Who doesn’t want to play with such a phenomenal quarterback? But at the same time, I also had a feeling with my gut and that is what I went to. I don’t have any regrets.”
|01.08.15 at 11:02 am ET|
FOXBORO — Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness nor brutal cold will keep Bill Belichick from accomplishing his appointed rounds Thursday. Even if it means subjecting his team to the sub-zero wind chill on the main Gillette Stadium field.
“We play outside, we practice outside,” was his reply to a suggestion that he’s “mean” for making his Patriots practice outside in single-digit temperatures, just over 48 hours before kickoff with the Ravens in the AFC divisional contest in Foxboro.
Did he have any concerns about the health of his team that made him think about moving the practice indoors to the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse?
“Nope,” Belichick answered.
The main reason he is having his team practice outside is because the forecast for the 4:35 p.m. Saturday kickoff calls for temperatures in the mid-teens with winds out of the west making it feel like zero.
Belichick was asked if there’s a bigger physical or mental edge he gives his team by practicing outside.
“What mental side of it? We’re practicing in it. Whatever we practice in, I’m sure at some point we’ll play in it,” Belichick said. “We’ve practiced in everything this year, hot, cold, windy, still, day, night, rain, whatever it is, it is.”
Belichick was also asked if he could recall previous cold games that he’s coached in.
“There’s been a few but I don’t think any of those really matter right now,” Belichick said. “Just trying to get ready for Baltimore right now.”
For the record, the coldest Patriots game on record is the playoff game, also in the divisional round, against the Titans on Jan. 10, 2004 when the Patriots outlasted Steve McNair and Tennessee, 17-14, at Gillette Stadium. The game was at 8 p.m. and temperature at kickoff was 4 degrees with a wind chill of minus-10.
Another brutally cold day for Belichick came in Jan. 1986 in Chicago. That’s when Giants punter Sean Landetta whiffed on a punt and the Bears advanced to the NFC championship with a 21-0 win. Bill Parcells was the Giants head coach and Belichick was on Parcells’ staff.
|01.08.15 at 7:00 am ET|
There is no denying the Ravens have a good defense that has done well against Tom Brady in the playoffs.
In Brady’s three playoff games against the Ravens, he has a 1-2 record and is 74-for-132 passing (56 percent), for 713 yards, with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s thrown multiple interceptions in every game.
“They’re a very tough team, they’re physical, they’re smart, [and] they’ve got a lot of playmakers,” Brady said Tuesday. “It’s a lot of fun — we’ve got a great history with them so we’ve got a lot of meaningful games against them. I’m sure this will be another one.”
Baltimore gets it done by getting after the opposing quarterback. They were second the NFL with 49 sacks this year, and in their wild card win over the Steelers, they were able to sack Ben Roethlisberger five times last Saturday night. With the intensity of the Ravens defense and stepping up their play in big games, the Patriots will surely need to take their pressure into account, but it doesn’t mean they are unbeatable — there are ways to offset the pressure.
As Chris Price pointed out earlier this week, running the no-huddle offense would be a good start. Even though the Patriots ran just seven percent of their plays in the no-huddle this year, they’ve had tremendous success in the past, and at some points this season — including sparking the offense in Week 16’s comeback win against the Jets.
Going uptempo would keep the Baltimore defense on its heels and prevent them from subbing in and out their defensive linemen, as they constantly do, keeping players fresh and giving them a better shot of getting to opposing quarterbacks. If the Patriots can run the no-huddle offense with success, it will certainly limit the pressure Brady is under.
Another way is Brady getting the ball out quick before the pressure can get to him. The Patriots have done this a lot this season — and over the years — primarily with quick wide receiver screens and quick passes to tight end Rob Gronkowski. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has thrown the ball in less than 2.5 seconds from snap-to-attempt on 66 percent of his drop backs this season, which is the second-highest in all of the NFL. His 399 attempts are also the second-most in the league.
Brady is actually statistically better when he gets the ball out fast, opposed to when he takes more time. Also per Pro Football Focus, Brady is completing 70.7 percent of his passes when taking less than 2.5 seconds from snap-to-throw with a 101.1 QB rating. This, compared to when he takes more than 2.5 seconds, his completion percentage drops to 50 percent and he has an 89.3 QB rating.
|01.08.15 at 6:10 am ET|
FOXBORO — Sometimes a player can make his impact without stepping on the field.
In rare cases, that player can help inspire his teammates to a new level that helps them achieve something special and unexpected.
For Dont’a Hightower, that player is Jerod Mayo.
Like he did in 2013, when he tore his pectoral muscle midway through the season and missed out on the playoff run that ended in the AFC championship in Denver. History unfortunately repeated itself on Oct. 12 in Buffalo when Mayo injured his knee. Season over. Again.
But ever since then, Mayo has made it a point to stay involved with direction and focus of the defense. It’s that involvement as a type of sounding board that Hightower pointed to as a big reason for the maturity of defense and its evolution into a dominant unit.
“Most definitely. A guy that’s been in this defense as long as he’s been in [it] and a lot of games, big games he’s played in and a lot of big plays he has,” Hightower said Wednesday. “We all still stay pretty close. We’ll run [things] by him, we’ll catch film, he’ll throw pointers out there and different things. He’s run this defense for so long. Me, him and Jamie [Collins], we’re always still picking each other’s brains as far as different perspectives on things.”
Hightower can only sympathize with Mayo not being able to play in the playoffs for a second straight season.
“Mayo is a great player and he means a lot to this team and this organization,” Hightower said. “He’s not taking it for granted. He’s still, what little he can do as far as off the field, as far as his film study or giving us actual notes, maybe he’s watched the game a week or two in advance that we haven’t and he sees some things. He’s still in our ear and our back pocket. He’s still out there with us.”
Mayo isn’t the only player who has been taking Hightower and fellow young linebacker Jamie Collins under his wing. Vince Wilfork made it clear that he’s never had more trust in the pair than he does heading into this playoff push. Having a healthy Wilfork for most of the season has allowed Hightower to reach another level, something Wilfork was unable to do last season since he was lost in Week 4 with a torn Achilles.
“Last year in this spot we weren’t able to have as much meat ‘ best way to say it ‘ in the front,” Hightower said. “Vince helps a lot, especially having an older guy, a veteran guy who knows the game as well as he does. It slows everything down. It slows the offensive line from getting on top of us. Nobody is just going to leave Vince Wilfork single-blocked at all. He helps a lot, as well as Sealver [Siliga] and [Alan] Branch and Chris Jones as well.”
|01.08.15 at 12:35 am ET|
While Saturday’s matchup will be a showdown between some of the more high-profile players in the AFC, there are more than a few individuals who are under-the-radar types who will likely play a sizable role in the outcome of the contest. When it comes to New England players who could be asked to rise to the occasion on Saturday – and beyond – here are our five choices:
Cornerback Kyle Arrington: Before he went down with an injury late in the season, the slot corner had become one of the most durable defensive backs in the league — his streak of 83 consecutive regular-season games played was one of the best on the team, a mark that stretched all the way back to 2009. Because no quarterback wants to risk targeting Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner on a regular basis, when the Patriots have faced elite passing games — as they will in the postseason – this New England pass defense is only as it as its third corner. Regardless of who has been in the game, when the Patriots have been in their sub defense, we’ve already seen several really good quarterbacks go after the third or fourth option at corner. While Arrington has demonstrated an ability as one of the better slot corners in the league, he also brings nice depth to the secondary, and could potential cover over any deficiencies that could pop up in the playoffs. Look for him to have a central role this postseason, especially with a handful of intriguing matchups possibly looming. (Denver’s Wes Welker? Indy’s Reggie Wayne? Seattle’s Doug Baldwin? Green Bay’s Randall Cobb?)
Guard Dan Connolly: When he’s been healthy, Connolly has been one of the most consistent offensive linemen on the New England roster. (Ryan Hannable had an excellent breakdown here of what it’s meant to have a healthy Connolly – as well as the other four starters — up front this season for the Patriots.) But the veteran has struggled with injury over the course of the season, and has missed three games this year with a variety of issues, including a concussion and an ankle injury. He was not in the lineup for the final two games of the year, and left tackle Nate Solder appeared to struggle at times as a result. A healthy Connolly would go a long way toward stabilizing the offensive line, and provide more time in the pocket for quarterback Tom Brady. If he’s not at 100 percent, it could make for a dicey situation for Brady’s blind side.
Defensive lineman Sealver Siliga: Siliga has performed very well as a complimentary piece along the defensive line, working alongside the likes of veterans like Vince Wilfork and Alan Branch, becoming an integral part of New England’s rotation of defensive linemen. The Utah product is versatile, and just as adept at getting after the passer as he is to two-gapping and holding up offensive linemen to allow linebackers and fellow defensive linemen to make plays. Ever since he came back from designated for return-injured reserve in Week 14 against the Chargers, he’s been a steady and consistent presence, playing 61 percent of the defensive snaps over the last three weeks. Look for that role to continue to expand going forward into the postseason.
Special teamer Matthew Slater: This isn’t so much Slater, but more of a nod to special teams as a whole. (From this viewpoint, using the special teams captain only seems fitting.) As a grouping, they’ve managed to distinguish themselves as one of the best and most impactful group of special teamers in the league. Every week, there’s some sort of momentum-changing play. Whether it’s been a blocked field-goal attempt, blocked punt, punter kick return or a big coverage tackle, they have become a sizable part of New England’s success, and a big reason the Patriots have gotten as far as they have this year. It’s not just the potential high-impact plays, but the work of grunts like Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Tavon Wilson that has continued to allow New England the success that it has had on special teams.
Tight end Tim Wright: Wright has distinguished himself as the most dependable pass-catcher in recent Patriots’ history, having caught 79 percent of the passes that were sent his way over the course of the season — a high for any offensive skill position player who was targeted at least 20 times in a single season. The tight end broke the previous mark of 77 percent, set by five different pass catchers, most recently Danny Woodhead (who caught 34 of 44 passes in 2010). Of course, that sure-handed skill is nothing new for Wright, who now has a two-year total as a pro (with the Buccaneers and Patriots) of 73 percent, a remarkable total for any receiver. With the focus of opposing defenses likely to be on fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, Wright will almost surely have his opportunities in the passing game.
|01.07.15 at 7:10 pm ET|
BALTIMORE — Depending on what Steve Smith does this weekend, we may look back at him as last offseason’s great what-might-have-been.
It’s easy to forget that before signing with the Ravens, Smith drew the interest of the Patriots. But a scheduled visit to Foxboro never happened, because Smith never made it out of Baltimore.
He signed a three-year, $11 million deal, and on Saturday the 35-year-old projects to be a pivotal player in a playoff showdown against the Patriots. He’ll probably spend most of the game matched up with All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis.
“One, I think with the flights there was a little bad weather,” Smith said. “Two, this was my first time being a free agent. Everything was new to me. I really went in everywhere not thinking about what was lined up, but taking one trip at a time and going with my gut and experiencing being a free agent for the first time.”
His gut led him to Baltimore and he has no regrets. The longtime Carolina Panthers standout finished his 14th season with 79 catches for 1,065 yards and six touchdowns. He emerged as Joe Flacco‘s favorite target and picked up the slack for the slow-starting Torrey Smith.
He’ll face his greatest challenge of the year in Revis, the league’s best shutdown corner. Smith scoffed when asked, “Is Revis is still Revis?”
“Is Revis still Revis?” he repeated incredulously. “I think his ID and social security number say he’s still Revis. He’s a great corner. I don’t think you get a one-year deal for $10 million for being a slouch. Revis can play. He’s a great corner. He’s a corner you’ve got to prepare for and watch film. You can’t just walk in thinking, ‘Oh.”’
Informed that Revis had referred to him earlier Wednesday as “electrifying,” Smith jokingly patted himself on the back and exclaimed, “Thanks, Revis!” Then he got serious.
“I think that’s a great compliment,” he said. “I’ll take that. I respect the heck out of him. I don’t anticipate any nonsense and he doesn’t anticipate any with me. It will be a great veteran game. On the run plays, I’ll look out of for him, he’ll look out for me.”
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