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Bye-week breakdown: Defensive line

11.11.13 at 12:57 pm ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend, we’€™ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team. We kicked things off with a look at special teams and offense. We open on the defensive side of the ball with the defensive line.

Overview: At the start of the season, the one rock-solid defensive position for the Patriots was defensive line. Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich were bedrocks for New England, while Chandler Jones flashed positively enough at times as a rookie to be considered a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, and new defensive tackle Tommy Kelly was so enthused about the idea of playing on a team that had a chance to just finish above .500, he told anyone who would listen he was simply happy to be in New England.

Fast forward to November, and no position has undergone more drastic personnel changes than the Patriots front four. Wilfork and Kelly are done for the year, the victims of season-ending injuries (Wilfork suffered an Achilles’ injury, while Kelly injured his knee). In their place, the Patriots have turned to rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. The two have played about as well as could be expected — both have held up well when it comes to working as pass rushers (Jones in particular has shown a nice ability to get after the passer with five sacks through nine games), but have struggled at times against the run — New England’s numbers against the run have taken a sizable hit with Wilfork out of the middle, as they have gone from 105 rushing yards per game allowed (13th in the league) after four weeks to 128.2 rushing yards per game (30th) entering the bye week.

To help bolster the front four, two veteran faces were added to the mix: New England swung a deadline deal for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, a former Eagle who is known for his stoutness against the run. The Patriots also reacquired pass-rush specialist Andre Carter to provide depth at defensive end. Last weekend against the Steelers, both appeared to hold up well, and both figure to be a sizable part of the mix going forward.

While the group as a whole isn’t necessarily the rock-solid position that many thought it was at the start of 2013, the continued high level of play from Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, as well as the infusion of talent from Chris Jones, Michael Buchanan and Sopoaga and the veteran leadership of Carter, it’s in good shape to this point. An increased focus on stopping the run will serve them better down the stretch.

Depth chart: Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich (46 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles), Chandler Jones (53 tackles, 8.5 sacks), Andre Carter (two tackles, one sack), Michael Buchanan (two tackles, two sacks) and Jake Bequette; defensive tackles Chris Jones (29 tackles, five sacks), Joe Vellano (33 tackles, one sack), Marcus Forston, Isaac Sopoaga (Wilfork and Kelly on season-ending injured reserve).

Best moment: Late in the Patriots 30-27 win over the Saints, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees attempted to pick up a few extra yards with a naked bootleg, but he was met by Chandler Jones, who tripped up Brees for a 5-yard loss. It was a relatively simply play, but Jones later acknowledged that Ninkovich tipped him off to the fact that the play might be coming. It’s impressive on two levels: one, it speaks to the level of film study that Ninkovich engages in every week. (That’s not to suggest that every player doesn’t do it — just that it rarely pays off in such a timely fashion.) And two, is displays a level of communication between two teammates that can’t be faked — it takes time to be able to acquire that level of trust, and it’s clear that Jones and Ninkovich have arrived at that point.

Worst moment: The losses of Wilfork and Kelly on back-to-back weeks. Wilfork went down with his season-ending Achilles injury in a Week 3 win over the Falcons, while Kelly was lost for the year the following week in a loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati.

By the numbers: Chris Jones has five sacks through the first nine games of the season. That’s more sacks than Osi Umenyiora, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Orakpo, Jared Odrick or Clay Matthews. Jones, a 6-foot-2, 302-pounder out of Bowling Green, was a sixth-round pick of the Texans this past spring, but cut loose in the spring. After a cup of coffee with the Bucs, he was claimed off waivers by the Patriots, and has been one of the unsung heroes of the 2013 defense to this point in the season.

Money quote: “You just don’€™t replace Vince Wilfork. We’€™ll still have his presence around the team and in the locker room and those types of things, which he’€™s great at. On the field, we’€™ll miss him, but whoever is out there, those other 11 guys that are out there, we’€™re all going to have to pull a little bit harder, including the coaching staff and all that. It’€™s a big loss, but we’€™re just going to have to find a way to do it. That means everybody doing their job. Obviously somebody is going to have to replace him and whoever those people are, they’€™re going to have to answer the bell. But collectively as a team, we’€™re all going to have to pull together. There’€™s no one person that can replace Vince Wilfork.” — Coach Bill Belichick on the loss of Wilfork, Oct. 2.

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Adam Schefter on D&C: ‘I don’t think [Richie Incognito] plays for the Dolphins again’

11.11.13 at 10:44 am ET
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ESPN’€™s Adam Schefter joined Dennis & Callahan on Monday to discuss the issue involving Dolphins linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, and how it affects the future of a number of members of the Miami organization.

Nearly two weeks ago, a lunchroom incident sparked the abrupt fleeing of Martin, Miami’€™s second-year left tackle. In the following days, reports indicated that the incident was not isolated and instead served as Martin’€™s breaking point.

‘€œThat is not typical of what an NFL locker room is like. That is excessive,’€ Schefter said. ‘€œYes, there’€™s tough talk, yes, there’€™s joking and all those things like that, but I think this is a case where basically this is above and beyond what we’€™ve seen in a locker room, is the fact of the matter.’€

At the center of myriad bullying allegations was Incognito. The Dolphins suspended him indefinitely almost immediately after a report that Incognito left a lewd message on Martin’€™s phone in which he used a derogatory racial term to describe Martin.

‘€œNo, I don’€™t think [Incognito] plays for the Dolphins again,’€ Schefter said, adding: ‘€œHis contract’€™s up with the Dolphins after this year, so now the question becomes, ‘€˜What comes out of this investigation, what comes up in those findings?’ And is there a team out there that’€™s willing to give him a chance to play for them next year.’€

Reports that key members of the Dolphins organization enabled Incognito and encouraged physical retribution by Martin toward Incognito may have jeopardized the job security of coaches and staff members, chiefly general manager Jeff Ireland and head coach Joe Philbin.

‘€œPeople in that organization are very nervous and very fearful about what’€™s going down, and I think that people know that there are going to be people, ultimately, here who pay for this with their jobs, which there will be,’€ Schefter said.

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Bye-week breakdown: Offensive line

11.11.13 at 7:15 am ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend, we’€™ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team. We kicked things off with a look at the special teamers, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends and quarterback. We finish off the offense with the offensive line.

Overview: Over the first nine games, the New England offensive line has faced some of the best defensive fronts in the league — the Jets and Bengals have eaten up good offenses, and stymied the Patriots as well. And there are plenty of times where the group has looked truly elite — if you put a stopwatch on quarterback Tom Brady while he’s been in the pocket, he’s had five-plus seconds to deliver the ball, which should be enough to find a target and properly execute the play

At the same time, it’s clear that something is not right with this group. Whether it’s injuries, personnel, scheme or opponent, there have been times where they’ve struggled as a group. They hold themselves to an almost impossibly high standard, and so they will be the first to tell you their performance hasn’t been enough over the first nine games of the season. A few days after an ugly Oct. 20 loss to the Jets, left guard Logan Mankins acknowledged they have been some problems up front.

“It’€™s not all on us, but there’€™s enough of it on us,” he said when talking about the struggles of the offense and the offensive line. “A perfect example is the other [afternoon]. Come out in third quarter, sack, sack. A lot of that was on us. Mental assignments. Guys just getting beat. Whenever the line’€™s not playing good, it’€™s hard to score for us.

“We expect a lot out of ourselves and I think that’€™s why we were disappointed after the game the other night. We thought we played good until the end of the second half there. Third quarter was bad, and then I think we played better in the fourth. But we had that lull right there in the third quarter that hurt us and hurt the team. We can’€™t just play like that.”

Despite the fact that the line is missing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the rest of the season, given the history of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and the majority of players currently in place — particularly Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder — there’s no reason to think that this group won’t be able to eventually diagnose the issues it currently faces and get things turned around between now and the end of the season. (It should get a boost from the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski to something close to full health — he’s universally accorded as one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.) While much is made of the turnover at the skill positions and the fact that they have had to learn how to play together as a group, the offensive line is just as important to the success of the Patriots down the stretch and into the postseason.

Depth chart: Left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, right guard Dan Connolly, right tackle Marcus Cannon, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, tackle Will Svitek, Chris Barker, Josh Kline.

Best moment: The line was dominant in a September win over the Falcons, helping control the tempo and being physical with the Atlanta defensive front. In addition, it’s been mentioned several times before for several other offensive positions, but the game against the Steelers was another good afternoon for the group.

Worst moment: At the start of the second half in the Oct. 20 loss to the Jets, the first six offensive plays for the Patriots went as follows: sack/interception/four-gain gain/five-yard gain/no gain/sack. By the end of the quarter, a 21-10 lead turned into a 27-21 deficit. By Mankins’ own admission, it went south at the start of the third, thanks in large part to breakdowns along the offensive line.

By the numbers: In nine games, Brady has been sacked 26 times. He was sacked 27 times in all of 2012 and 32 times in 2011. He’s on pace to be sacked 46 times, which is a career-high.

Money quote: ‘€œI think that, yes we have given up more sacks at this point than we did all last season. Believe me, I understand that. So, what is it? I think that I probably have to do a better job coaching and getting them to do things better. I think our players are working at it very hard ‘€¦ and you know, sacks are a byproduct of a lot of different things. So, I’€™ll pretty much just leave it at that and hopefully, as we’€™ve said, we’€™re going to try and [be] better doing the things that we’€™re doing going forward.’€ — Dante Scarnecchia, Nov. 5.

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Patriots don’t play, but get a boost when Colts, Bengals both lose

11.10.13 at 10:17 pm ET
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The Patriots didn’t play this weekend, but they still managed to have a pretty good Sunday for a few reasons, not the least of which was the fact that two of the teams that they could find themselves jockeying with for playoff seeding (Bengals and Colts) both lost. Meanwhile, a divisional rival (Bills) dropped further behind in the race for the AFC East title.

Here are a few quick notes on the day:

Ravens 20, Bengals 17 (OT): The Bengals dropped their second straight overtime decision on Sunday, losing in the extra session after Ravens kicker Justin Tucker nailed a 46-yarder for the win. Cincinnati was lucky to force OT — Andy Dalton found A.J. Green on a 51-yard Hail Mary late to tie the game. But in the extra session, the Ravens persevered and snapped a three-game losing streak in the process. The Baltimore (4-5) victory prevented the Bengals (6-4) from taking command in the AFC North, and sparked optimism among the Ravens that they might be able to start putting together some momentum for a possible late-season run. As for Cincinnati — which currently holds the No. 4 playoff seed — even though they would have a leg up on the Patriots if there was a tiebreaker based on their Oct. 6 win over New England, the Patriots hold a 1 1/2 -game difference with six games to play when it comes to the chase for the No. 2 playoff seed.

Rams 38, Colts 8: OK, raise your hand if you saw THAT coming. Indy was run out of it’s own building by the occasionally erratic Rams, thanks in large part to the work of St. Louis rookie receiver Tavon Austin, who caught two passes for a remarkable 138 yards and averaged 36 yards on his four punt returns. Indy (6-3) had issues without veteran Reggie Wayne, as Andrew Luck ended up 29-for-47 for 353 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. As how all of this relates to the Patriots, New England needs keep the Colts in the rearview — Indy is currently No. 3 in the playoff picture, one game ahead of the Bengals and one game behind the Patriots.

Steelers 23, Bills 10: Buffalo got rookie quarterback EJ Manuel back in the lineup, but he was clearly rusty after an extended stretch on the shelf, as Pittsburgh dominated the Bills at Heinz Field. One week after being scalded for 610 yards and 55 points by the Patriots, the Steelers were far more stingy this time around, yielding just 227 total yards (95 rushing yards, which is 50 below Buffalo’s per game average) and 10 points to the Bills. Buffalo, which dropped to 3-7 in the process, went 3-for-14 on third down, while Manuel finished 22-for-39 for 155 yards with one touchdown and one pick. There’s still a lot of football between now and the end of the regular season, but it would be an enormous task for the Bills to just finish the year at .500, let alone make a serious challenge for a playoff spot. (As for the rest of New England’s AFC East foes, the Jets have the weekend off, while the Dolphins meet the Bucs on Monday night in Tampa. For more on the current state of the rapidly developing NFL playoff picture, click here for the latest updates.)

It wasn’t a perfect Sunday for the Patriots, as the Broncos managed to hold off the Chargers in San Diego, 28-20. With head coach John Fox watching at home on television after undergoing heart surgery and Jack Del Rio at the helm, Denver played an impressive contest, showing good complementary skills: Peyton Manning threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns and the Broncos sacked San Diego’s Philip Rivers four times. The win moved Denver to 8-1 on the season. Provided that the Patriots beat the Panthers next week in Carolina and the Broncos beat the Chiefs at home (no small feat, as Kansas City will enter the contest as the last undefeated team in the league), when New England and Denver meet on Nov. 24, the Patriots will come into the game at 8-2 and the Broncos at 9-1.

Fantasy Football live chat: Getting you ready for Week 10, 11 a.m.

11.10.13 at 9:27 am ET
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Join and fantasy football expert Pete Davidson for a live chat, starting at 11 a.m. Sunday. Davidson will help you set your fantasy football lineups for Week 10, and beyond. Get your questions in now …


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Some final thoughts on Patriots bye week, midseason awards and scouting Carolina

11.10.13 at 6:30 am ET
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1. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots have a 10-3 mark coming out of the bye week. The likely post-bye highlight for the Patriots under Belichick was the Nov. 16, 2003 clash at a frozen (38 degrees) Gillette Stadium between New England and the Cowboys, who were led by former Patriots coach Bill Parcells. In that Sunday night showdown, New England got the better of Parcells and Dallas, taking a 12-0 win. In that game, Adam Vinatieri booted a pair of field goals and running back Antowain Smith added a 2-yard rushing touchdown (the extra point was off the mark). It’s worth mentioning that the three losses were all by eight points or less, with the last one coming in 2011 when the Patriots came out on the short end of a 25-17 defeat at the hands of the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Here’s a complete rundown of the Patriots post-bye week performances since Belichick took over:

‘€¢ 2000: OT loss to the Bills, 16-13
‘€¢ 2001: win over Panthers, 38-6
‘€¢ 2002: loss to the Broncos, 24-16
‘€¢ 2003: win over Bill Parcells and the Cowboys, 12-0
‘€¢ 2004: win over the Bills, 31-17
‘€¢ 2005: win over the Bills, 21-16
‘€¢ 2006: win over the Bills, 28-6
‘€¢ 2007: win over the Bills, 56-10
‘€¢ 2008: win over the Niners, 30-21
‘€¢ 2009: win over the Dolphins, 27-17
‘€¢ 2010: OT win over the Ravens, 23-20
‘€¢ 2011: loss to the Steelers, 25-17
‘€¢ 2012: win over the Bills, 37-31

2. With nine games in the books and the Patriots in the middle of the bye week, it’s a good time to take a look back and hand out some midseason awards.

a) We’re going to give the defensive MVP to defensive back Devin McCourty. (He just beats out Aqib Talib and Rob Ninkovich.) McCourty gets the nod because of his durability (he leads the team in defensive snaps), versatility (he’s lined up at both safety and corner) and his all around high level of play (as we have already pointed out, he’s at a Pro Bowl level). As for Defensive Rookie of the Year, it’s cornerback Logan Ryan just beating out defensive end Michael Buchanan — Ryan has played well over the last few weeks with 1.5 sacks and an interception, just edging out Chris Jones and Buchanan.

b) Our offensive MVP goes to Julian Edelman, who stepped into the void over the first seven games and became an important part of the passing game. (He leads the team with 43 catches, 473 yards and two touchdowns.) Other candidates include running back Stevan Ridley and left tackle Nate Solder. Our Offensive Rookie of the Year is wide receiver Aaron Dobson: the second-round pick out of Marshall had his struggles early, but his 31 catches for 454 yards and four touchdowns over the first nine games earn him the honors.

3. While Patriots fans get the chance to kick back this weekend, they’ll almost certainly be keeping an eye on the Panthers, who will host New England next Monday night in Charlotte. Carolina travels to San Francisco this weekend for a date with the Niners — the contest should serve as a good measuring stick when it comes to measuring their overall chances against New England. One of the surprise teams in the league this year, for the first time in five seasons, the Panthers are least two games over .500 with a 5-3 mark after eight games. A few things worth watching if you’re a Patriots fan scouting this contest: One, former BC linebacker Luke Kuechly is part of a stout defense against the run — entering Sunday’s action, the Panthers allow 79.1 rushing yards per game, the second-best figure in the league. Two, Cam Newton is a rapidly maturing quarterback, one who can beat you on the ground (he’s scored a rushing touchdown in three of the last four games and has 251 rushing yards on the season) or through the air (he’s completed 64.4 percent of his passes, and has a respectable 13-7 touchdown to interception ratio). And three, while the Panthers don’t have anyone in the league in the Top 50 in receiving yards, they do have four guys (Greg Olsen, Steve Smith, Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell) who all have at least 350 receiving yards, which will likely test the depth of the New England secondary.

4. LaQuan Williams, who was acquired this week, is a familiar face when it comes to the Patriots special teamers. The former Ravens receiver gained a small measure of infamy with a forced fumble in the 2011 AFC title against the Patriots, knocking the ball away from kickoff returner Danny Woodhead. It was a play New England special teamer Matthew Slater recalled when asked about Williams this week. “That was a big play for them in a big game,” Slater said of the 6-foot, 195-pounder. “He plays very hard. He has a high motor. He can run really well. He has a lot of experience and those guys in Baltimore are well coached and they play the game the right way. He was around some great players in [Brendon] Ayanbadejo and Corey Graham, so I’€™m sure he learned some things from those guys. It will definitely be a boost for us. We’€™re happy to have him. He was eager to work hard today and asked a lot of questions and tried to get caught up to speed.”

5. Williams raised some eyebrows a few days after he was picked up by the Patriots for what appeared to be a tongue-in-cheek Tweet about the New England playbook. In a Tweet that has since been deleted, Williams asked former New England receiver Chad Johnson for some help via Twitter, adding, “No joke at all. Any advice would be a step in the right direction.” As some noted, maybe Williams would have been better off asking someone like Deion Branch for help as opposed to Johnson, who had 15 catches for 276 yards and one touchdown in his single season with the Patriots.
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Bye-week breakdown: Quarterback

11.09.13 at 7:30 am ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend, we’€™ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team to this point in the season. We kicked things off with a look at the special teamers, wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. Now, it’s the quarterback.

Overview: In many ways, it has been the most difficult season of Tom Brady‘s career. Now 36 and stripped of many of the essential elements that made him an MVP, he’s helped create the best of an occasionally bad situation on the way to a 7-2 start and the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC. He was able to pull out wins worth fourth-quarter drives against the Bills and Saints, and engineered a series at the end of regulation against the Jets that forced overtime.

That’s not to say he’s always been the Brady of old — he’s missed several throws over the first nine games. He’s completed less than 60 percent of his passes (he’s never finished at less than 60 percent for the season), his streak of games with a touchdown pass was snapped at 52 in a loss to the Bengals, and he’s has had three games in which he’s thrown for less than 190 yards. In addition, the occasional sideline fits of Marinoesque rage directed toward his younger receivers came off as small and immature. (Considering what was surrounded with, there were moments where you couldn’t blame him. Imprecise routes and dropped passes are a relatively new problem to adjust to, especially for a veteran quarterback who has won multiple Super Bowls.)

However, if last weekend is any indication, things have started to turn for Brady and the offense. The sideline outbursts have subsided, the drops have decreased and with the return of Rob Gronkowski, the offense appears to have (at least for now) righted itself. Surrounded by 95 percent of his elite offensive options (everyone except Shane Vereen, really), the quarterback had a thunderous 432-yard passing performance last Sunday against the Steelers.

As we have written on multiple occasions, there’s a growing sense that this team mirrors the 2006 group in that there’s a lot of new talent, but it’s taken some time for the passing game to come together. That team found its rhythm roughly around the halfway point, and would go on to finish 12-4 and make it all the way to the AFC title game. If Brady can somehow will the offense to a similar finish — or even better — it could go down as the most impressive season of his career for several reasons, including the fact that he would be just the fifth quarterback of all time to win a Super Bowls after his 35th birthday: Johnny Unitas was 37 when he led the Colts to a win in Super Bowl V; Roger Staubach was 35 when the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII; a 36-year-old Jim Plunkett led the Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XVIII; and John Elway was 37 and 38 when he led the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII. Pretty good company.

Depth chart: Brady (194-for-340, 57 percent, 2,256 yards, 13 TDs, 6 INTs), Ryan Mallett.

Best moment: In terms of best singular moment, you can’t overlook the fourth-quarter comeback against the Saints, where he was pretty bad for the better part of the afternoon, but managed to wake up the echoes late in the day and lead a game-winning drive almost 12 years after doing it for the first time as a pro in 2001. But the start-to-finish performance against the Steelers — 23-for-33, 432 yards, 4 TDs — was vintage Brady. If you’re looking for a complete game, might be as close as you’re going to get this season.

Worst moment: The loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati was one of the worst of recent memory: he finished 18-for-38 for a season-low 47 percent completion rate, didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 53 straight games, was sacked four times and with the game on the line in the fourth quarter and a chance to tie, misfired on the final drive of the afternoon.

By the numbers: 38. The number of times Brady has led his team to victory following a fourth-quarter deficit or tie, including two times in 2013 when he led the team to a win at Buffalo and vs. New Orleans.

Money quote: ‘€œIn my opinion, [it’€™s] by far the most impressive performance in any season that Tom has had. I know the numbers are not Tom Brady-like numbers. But based on the situation, the cast around him, the fact he is more of a player-coach, which is always tough; you’€™re teaching in the huddle, at the line, getting guys lined up. It is a testament to how good he really is.’€ — Brett Favre, speaking about Brady on Oct. 20 on NFL Network.

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