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Bill Belichick has one message for Tony La Russa: ‘Go Cards!’

10.28.11 at 1:52 pm ET
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FOXBORO — It has to be a pretty big deal to keep Bill Belichick up past midnight watching a baseball game in the midst of getting ready for the Steelers this Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Apparently, cheering on one of his best friends in sports qualifies as big enough.

Belichick has developed a long and trustworthy friendship with St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. So, as the Game 6 of the 2011 World Series flew well past midnight, he kept an eye on the TV. –

Then, David Freese belted a solo homer to center to end it in the bottom of the 11th, giving the Cardinals a 10-9 win and the sports world a Game 7 in the World Series.

“No, I fell asleep,” joked Belichick, who wore an authentic La Russa Cardinals home jersey in the locker room for all to see Friday. “Yeah, I did watch it. What a game, what a game. It’€™s just behind five times, whatever it was, scored in the last however many, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh? Happy for Tony and wishing him well tonight. That team has shown a lot of resiliency and physical toughness, mental toughness from being way behind in September and in the Series in various games. They’€™ve lost a couple games I’€™m sure they feel like they should have won. They’€™ve been able to bounce back from those and now it’€™s a one game season. It’€™s two good teams. The Rangers are a good team too. It’€™s two good teams. Great series.”

Funny Belichick would mention resiliency and physical toughness. Those are certainly two traits he looks for in his own team.

“We have a couple mutual friends, one in particular,” Belichick said. “It’€™s good to talk to sometimes people in other sports. Coaching is coaching ‘€“ dealing with players, dealing with coaches, dealing with other situations. There is certainly a lot of common ground there. I’€™m fortunate to have a great relationship with a person like Tony or [University of Florida basketball coach] Billy Donovan or [Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach] Dave Pietramala, guys like that that are real good coaches, different sports but again I think we share some common philosophies. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Bill Belichick, Billy Donovan, Chris Carpenter, Dave Pietramala

Danny Woodhead on M&M: Steelers defense great as usual

10.28.11 at 12:53 pm ET
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Patriots running back Danny Woodhead joined Mut & Merloni on Friday morning for his weekly appearance. To hear the interview, go to the Mut & Merloni audio on demand page.

Woodhead missed New England’s win over the Jets two weeks ago with a left ankle injury, but the running back could play this week against the Steelers.

“I’m just going out there, just working hard, whenever I have an opportunity, I want to be ready,” Woodhead said. “I’m just working hard every single day.”

When the Pats take on Pittsburgh Sunday, it will be a clash of two opposing forces, as the NFL’s top offense will be going up against the Steelers’ typically stout defense, which is third in the NFL in total defense.

“They’re just a great defense like they have been in the past years,” Woodhead said. “Really at every position, they have really good players and we just have to be ready to execute our plays against their plays.”

Over the last decade, Pittsburgh and New England have developed a rivalry, as they have been two of the most successful teams in the AFC during that time. But Woodhead said that the team does not treat the Steelers differently than any other team.

“Week by week, we take the week that we’re on as the most important because it really is,” Woodhead said. “I don’t know if there’s a difference. Every game counts and it’s obviously a big game and we’re excited to play.”

With Kevin Faulk coming off the PUP list this week, Woodhead could stand to lose some snaps in the upcoming weeks. The third-year back said that he is not concerned about his playing time.

“That’s something that I’ve never really thought about,” Woodhead said. “My thinking is to go out there and work as hard as I can for my teammates and that’s the biggest deal and that’s something that I’m not going to change.

Read More: Danny Woodhead, Kevin Faulk,

In Focus: Closer look at Patriots’ decision to cut Leigh Bodden

10.28.11 at 11:52 am ET
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The Leigh Bodden era in New England started strong but ultimately fizzled as the cornerback struggled to reclaim the form that made him one of the league’€™s most sought-after defensive backs in free agency 20 months ago.

Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Duquesne by the Browns in 2003, Bodden bounced around the league before signing a one-year deal with New England prior to the 2009 season. That year, he was a pleasant surprise, starting 14 of 15 games, leading the team with 19 passes defensed and tying for the team lead with five interceptions. On the strength of that performance, he entered free agency as one of the most desirable corners on the market. After a brief look at some other options (including the Texans), he re-signed with the Patriots, inking a four-year, $22.03 million extension.

However, he injured his shoulder the following summer and spent all of 2010 on injured reserve. This season, even after the Patriots decided to move on from Darius Butler, the 30-year-old Bodden spent a lot of time in the slot and struggled to stay on the field because of injury — officially, he was limited in practice on Thursday because of a recurring thumb injury. According to Pro Football Focus, in five games as the team’s primary nickel corner, Bodden had been thrown at 22 times this year and allowed 12 receptions and one touchdown. He has four passes defensed and has played 222 snaps for the Patriots.

Overall, the 6-foot-1, 193-pound cornerback has 362 tackles and 18 interceptions during his 95-game career with the Browns (2003-07), Lions (2008) and Patriots.

The Patriots now have five corners on their roster: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Antuwan Molden and Phillip Adams. While the move won’€™t affect McCourty and Arrington (the two likely will continue to serve as the primary starters at corner), at first glance the move means an increased workload for Dowling, a youngster who has struggled to see the field over the course of his first season in the league. Through six weeks he’€™s played just 93 snaps, none of them since a Week 2 win over the Chargers. Molden also is expected to benefit from the move and get more opportunities.

In addition, New England has three players eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list in Kevin Faulk, Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick. The release of Bodden could free up a roster spot for one of them.

As for Bodden (who is making a base salary of $3.9 million each of the next two seasons), he will be exposed to waivers. Any team that claims his contract will be on the hook for just over $2 million in base salary that remains for this season.

Read More: Antuwan Molden, Brandon Deaderick, Darius Butler, Devin McCourty

Devin McCourty on D&C: ‘Got to try to match’ Steelers’ physicality

10.28.11 at 10:05 am ET
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Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty made his weekly appearance on the Dennis & Callahan show Friday morning, as the Patriots prepare for Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

The Steelers are 5-2, but they have no impressive wins. They are 0-2 against teams that currently have winning records. However, McCourty said he expects a typically tough Steelers team.

“They have a physical team, they have guys that will hit you and they kind of get after it. I don’t think anybody’s that’s played the Pittsburgh Steelers kind of goes into this game thinking that [it will be easy]. They going into the game knowing they’re a very physical team and you’ve got to try to match that or it will be a long day for you.”

Third-year receiver Mike Wallace has shown no signs of slowing down after a very productive 2010, and McCourty and the Patriots have taken note.

“He’s probably the fastest receiver in the NFL,” McCourty said. “I’m sure a couple of receivers will argue that, but if you see him on film, he’s just moving past everyone.”

Added McCourty: “I think you just have to always be aware of where he’s at and what he’s able to do, getting vertical down the field. Even after he catches the ball, just try to surround him because he can break tackles. And if he breaks one tackle, he has a chance to go the distance.”

Wallace is only one of the Steelers’ weapons on offense. Of course, it all starts with Ben Roethlisberger.

“He’s a little different quarterback than really anybody in the NFL with his strength,” McCourty said. “His arm strength is good, but just his natural strength as a player, he’s able to make defensive linemen miss sometimes, break tackles. What you think sometimes is a sack, he’s able to escape and throw the ball deep — real deep — and then he’s got guys that can run under it.”

Read More: Ben Roethlisberger, Devin McCourty, Mike Wallace,

Santonio Holmes deal could provide framework for new Wes Welker contract

10.28.11 at 1:18 am ET
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So how much is Wes Welker worth?

The Patriots wide receiver, in the final season of a five-year, $18.5 million deal he signed in 2007, is having a salary run like few others the league has ever seen. Through six games, Welker leads the league in receptions (51), targets (74) and yards per game (130.8), and is second in the league in receiving yards (785). He’€™s just off the pace to shatter the league records for most catches, but can still break the record for most receiving yards in a season — at this rate, Welker will have 136 catches and 2,093 receiving yards.

Asked about his contract situation earlier in the season, he said it’€™s not his focus right now, clearly indicating that he wants to leave that up to his agent, David Dunn.

‘€œWell, of course I want to stay here,’€ Welker said. ‘€œBut as of right now, I don’€™t really think about it. I just try to focus on this year and everything I can do to help the team this year.’€

So what kind of offer should he expect? Andrew Brandt has a unique perspective on situations like this one. He’€™s been on both sides of the table — he’€™s worked as a representative for ProServ and Woolf Associates, was GM of the Barcelona Dragons in the NFL’€™s World League and served as a team vice president of the Packers from 1999 to 2008, negotiating contracts and managing the team’€™s salary cap.

Brandt acknowledged the gold standard for wide receivers is the deal that was signed by Arizona’€™s Larry Fitzgerald in August, who inked an eight-year, $128.5 million contract with the Cards shortly before the start of the regular season.

‘€œOf the recent top-of-market wide receiver contracts, I think it is understood leaguewide that the Larry Fitzgerald contract is an outlier, an eye-popping deal that took advantage of the player’€™s great leverage in eliminating a franchise tag equation in the previous negotiation and coming off of the top wide receiver contract prior to this one,’€ said Brandt, who writes for the National Football Post and also serves as ESPN’€™s NFL Business Analyst.

While that’€™s out of the realm of possibility, Brandt believes there is a comparable deal people might be able to point toward as a possible framework. If Welker does reach the open market, Brandt believes the five-year, $45.25 million deal (with $24 million guaranteed) Santonio Holmes signed with the Jets in July is a good model.

Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Andrew Brandt, David Dunn, Drew Bledsoe

Rob Ninkovich proving to be a real edge-setter for Patriots

10.27.11 at 12:03 pm ET
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FOXBORO — It’s one of the buzz-phrases around Gillette and the NFL this season: Setting the edge.

It’s what’s required of any linebacker who plays on the outside in a 4-3 scheme and carries with it a ton of responsibility.

It’s what has made Rob Ninkovich so valuable in the Patriots defensive system in 2011. He will be called upon to help stop the edge running game of Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and the Steelers.

But the running back is just part of the rushing game for the Steelers. They also have the game’s best blocking receiver in Hines Ward, someone Ninkovich will keep an eye on at all times.

“Hines Ward is always someone out there who’s going to be able to throw those blocks to get that outside running game going so you have to be aware of where he is at on the field so you have to be prepared to play them tough,” Ninkovich said. “He’s definitely a big guy out there and he’s coming in on those cracks [crackback blocks] so you’ve got to be alert for him because he’s out to get you pretty good.”

Mendenhall, Redman and Mewelde Moore lead a rushing attack that has complimented the passing game of Ben Roethlisberger, an attack that is surprisingly considered pass-first and run-second in the city once home to rough and tumble football.

“They’ve got great running backs,” Ninkovich said. “Everybody is explosive, they’ve got speed and you have to respect everyone they have in the backfield because any play they have the ball, they can break a big one.

“They have a rotation going on that’s maybe keeping those guys a little more fresh but they’re all running hard so you have to respect everyone they have.”

With a bigger demand for pass rushing last season and the team still playing a base 3-4 defense, Ninkovich was called upon to rush the quarterback.

In 2010, during the Week 4 game against the Dolphins, Ninkovich recorded his first career interception, and later in the game added another interception and a sack. He finished the season with a career-high 62 tackles, four sacks, and two interceptions in 16 games played (10 starts).

The Patriots signed Ninkovich on Aug. 2, 2009. He made the team’s 53-man roster and recorded his first NFL sack in Week 5 against the Broncos. The Patriots liked what they saw early on, giving him a contract extension through the 2011 season on Nov. 6, 2009. Overall, he played in 15 games for the Pats in 2009, finishing with 23 tackles and one sack.

Since then, he has become one of the most reliable (and undervalued) players on the Patriots defense, a defense that has suddenly found its groove in the red zone, helping the Patriots to a 5-1 record.

“Right now, it’s so early in the season,” Ninkovich said. “We have a long way to go. You can’t look into records.”

Read More: Hines Ward, Ike Redman, Isaac Redman, Mewelde Moore

Michael Lombardi on D&C: Patriots are ‘the kind of team that gives Pittsburgh the most trouble’

10.27.11 at 10:39 am ET
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NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi made his weekly appearance on the Dennis & Callahan show Thursday morning to discuss Sunday’s Patriots game against the Steelers and the latest news around the NFL.

New England quarterback Tom Brady has always performed well against the Steelers, running a 6-1 record against Pittsburgh while throwing for 2,008 yards, 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions, earning a 104.8 quarterback rating. Lombardi said Brady’s success against Pittsburgh is no surprise given Brady’s understanding of the Pittsburgh defense.

“Tom has a really good understanding of what Pittsburgh’s trying to accomplish with their defense,” Lombardi said. “Tom and the New England Patriots always have a game plan that’s set up to attack the checks and the adjustments within the Steelers’ defense so therefore, they’re able to get the right play off that attacks the weakness within the scheme. I think that’s really been the success.

“They have the kind of team that gives Pittsburgh the most trouble. When you can spread Pittsburgh out and you can make them defend the width of the field as opposed to trying to go in there and run the football on them, that gives them the most trouble. It puts their skill players, their corners, their safeties in a very tenuous position.”

The Steelers lead the AFC North with a 5-2 record, but Lombardi said those numbers are misleading. Pittsburgh has played just one team (Baltimore) with a winning record, and the Steelers lost that game 35-7. Lombardi said one of his greatest doubts about the Steelers is their defense against a strong offense.

“The only team they’ve played offensively that has any semblance of a passing game is Houston,” Lombardi said. “So they haven’t really faced anyone who attacks. Jacksonville obviously can’t do those things. Tennessee’s passing game is really sporadic at times, especially without Kenny Britt. I think this is going to be a true test of Pittsburgh.”

Following are more highlights of the conversation. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Andrew Luck, Michael Lombardi, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tom Brady
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