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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 WEEI.com and Rotobahn.com 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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Bye-week Breakdown: Tight ends

11.08.13 at 9:52 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 Patriots. We kicked things off with a look at the special teamers, wide receivers and running backs. Now. it’s the tight ends.

Overview: Where to start? There might not be another positional grouping across the league that underwent a more radical change from 2012 to 2013 than the New England tight ends. Aaron Hernandez was released this offseason, and Rob Gronkowski underwent multiple surgeries on his back and forearm. As a result, the Patriots opened the season with Zach Sudfeld, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan at tight end, with Gronkowski on the roster but not available to play.

While the will-he-or-won’t-he drama played out around Gronkowski for the first month or so, Hoomanawanui assumed the bulk of the playtime, and did well. He certainly wasn’t to provide the offensive oomph of Gronkowski, but he served as a good blocker and dependable set of hands when called upon — he had a pair of big pickups against the Saints, and did well when it came to skating his lane.

When Gronkowski returned in Oct. 20 loss to the Jets, he clearly wasn’t back to 100 percent, but demanded attention pretty much wherever he went. Since then, his influence has escalated, peaking with last Sunday’s outing against the Steelers, where he had nine catches and worked nicely as a receiver and blocker. His work against Pittsburgh, combined with the fact that Stevan Ridley and Danny Amendola were on the field with his for an extended stretch, was a reminder that a healthy Gronkowski is a transformative presence, one who completely changes the face of the New England offense. The only question is whether or not he can stay healthy. If so, and he can continue to ramp up over the course of the second half of the season, there’s no reason to think he shouldn’t be able to finish the season in the neighborhood of 50 catches and play a major role in determining just how deep this team plays into January.

Depth chart: Gronkowski (19 catches, 284 yards, one TD), Hoomanawanui (9 catches, 112 yards), Mulligan (1 catch, 1 yard, 1 TD).

Best moment: In his best performance in almost a full calendar year (his last outing on this level was the win over the Rams in London last October), Gronkowski was a dominant performer against the Steelers. He not only brought the offensive thunder that had been missing from the tight end spot over the first eight games with nine catches (on 10 targets) for 143 yards and a touchdown, he affected the entire offense — he was double-teamed, which opened things up for the rest of the skill position players. And he worked as a blocker, helping pave the way for Ridley to top 100 yards for the first time on the season.

Worst moment: Simply put, there haven’t been a whole lot of bad moments over the season at the tight end spot — without Gronkowski in the lineup, it’s occasionally just been underwhelming. We’ll go with two: one, the drop from Sudfeld in the regular-season opener against the Bills. And two, the missed connections involving Gronkowski in his first game back against the Jets. (One where he lost the ball in the sun, and another where he wasn’t able to haul in a pass that would have almost certainly gone for a touchdown late in regulation.)

By the numbers: (tied) One, In his first game back (Oct. 20 against the Jets) Gronkowski was targeted 17 times by quarterback Tom Brady. To that point in the season — the first six games — the rest of the tight ends as a group had been targeted 15 times. And two, among all the offensive skill position players other than the quarterback, Hoomanawanui is second in most snaps over the course of the first nine games. (Julian Edelman is first at 545, while Hoomanawanui is at 486, per Pro Football Focus.)

Money quote: ‘€œHe brings a whole lot to the table. He’€™s productive, and I don’€™t know how many yards or catches he had, but it was a lot in both categories. He’€™s a major part of this offense, and as long as we get him going, that will open up a lot of opportunities for other players, [like] opportunities in the run game. He’€™s a big part of our offense.’€ — Running back LeGarrette Blount on Gronkowski, Nov. 3 following his performance against the Steelers.

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Peter King on M&M: Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito situation ‘sounds almost like it’s the battered-wife syndrome’

11.08.13 at 1:17 pm ET
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Sports Illustrated’s Peter King made his weekly appearance on Mut & Merloni on Friday to talk about the disturbing situation with the Dolphins as well as Patriots news.

The Richie IncognitoJonathan Martin saga seems to take a new turn every day, with Incognito getting support from teammates after being suspended by the team for his treatment of his fellow offensive lineman.

“It’s too easy to say Incognito ought to be sentenced to 10 years with Miss Manners or something, or to say Martin is wrong — or one of them is wrong, one of them is right. There’s fault on each side,” King said. “Honestly, I can’t get past Incognito and the name-calling. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what other walk of life, what sort of band of brothers [in which] it’s OK to call a person with one white parent and one black parent a half-N-word. I can’t get past that.”

The Dolphins organization has been criticized for its handling of the matter, but King said management might have been in the dark as to the extent of the problem because Martin apparently was hesitant to address it with anyone.

“That’s the problem here — I don’t know that he ever did. I’m not sure that Jonathan Martin went to any person in the organization,” King said, adding, “It sounds almost like it’s the battered-wife syndrome, where you don’t want to tell anybody because you think that’s just going to make it worse.”

Looking at the future for the players, King said he thinks both will return to the league.

“If Richie Incognito is cut at some point and he serves whatever suspension he’s served either by the Dolphins or the league, if he has the ability to come back at any point this year, in my opinion, I think he’ll be signed by a playoff contender, and I think he’ll play down the stretch,” King said. “There might be some guys who look at him like, ‘We’ll go on the field together, but don’t talk to me. I don’t want to know you.’ But I think that football, and contending in football, and the NFL playoffs, and stories like this, they make strange bedfellows. And I think that a desperate team that might need a guard is going to call him.

“Having said that, you ask about Martin, Martin is one of those guys who, he is going to play football somewhere, and he’s going to be welcomed back by a segment of the locker room, but there’s also going to be a segment of whatever team he goes to who’s going to think he’s a rat. And that’s all there is to it — fair, unfair, whatever. You know that guys in NFL locker rooms now are going to brand this guy as somebody who went outside the family to share his problems and to try to get his problems fixed.

“You and I and any normal person outside NFL locker rooms would say, what kind of help is he going to get, what kind of relief is he going to get telling Richie Incognito, ‘Hey, please stop picking on me.’ Or stop laughing about it, and all that. I think he will go back, but I think it will be a tough road for him.”

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