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Patriots defense looks to find fix for third-down woes of last few years

07.23.14 at 12:24 pm ET
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FOXBORO — For the past few seasons there has been one consistent issue with the Patriots defense — getting off the field on third down.

According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, dating back to the 2010 season there hasn’t been one year in which the Patriots finished higher than 20th in the league in third-down defense. Last year the unit got off the field 42.7 percent of the time, 25th in the league, so on a little more than half of the third-down plays, opponents were successful. 2010 was the worst season of all, as New England allowed opponents a success rate of 47.1 percent, dead last among all 32 defenses in the league.

This is one of the areas in which the defense as a whole knows it needs to get better as preparation for the 2014 season begins with training camp opening on Thursday.

“We have to get off the field, that’s huge,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “Some of the third-and-long situations we weren’t able to get off the field. I know third-and-long screens hurt us, too. Specifically that play and third and long as a whole, we need to do a better job. Obviously everything is working together, so coverage-rush, rush-coverage, everything works together. That’s just one area we definitely need to work on this year.”

A good amount of the conversions have come on screen plays, some even going for long yardage. Stopping the play comes from not just one specific group of players, but the entire defense.

“It’s just different things you can work on,” defensive back Devin McCourty said of how to stop the screen. “I think one of the greatest things here is we have coaches that find any and everything we can do to get better. I think one of the big things is getting to the ball. It’s a play you try and get the linemen up field and guys drop into coverage, so just effort and everything on that simple basis can help improve the screen game.”

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Read More: Devin McCourty, Patriots, Rob Ninkovich,

Bill Belichick has ‘no further comment’ on text messages with Aaron Hernandez

07.23.14 at 10:28 am ET
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Bill Belichick had no further comment Wednesday on texts with Aaron Hernandez (above). (AP)

Bill Belichick had no further comment Wednesday on texts with Aaron Hernandez (above). (AP)

FOXBORO — Bill Belichick was not in the mood to talk anything but football on Wednesday, on the eve of training camp opening outside Gillette Stadium.

A TV reporter asked the Patriots head coach if he were concerned about the text messages exchanged between Aaron Hernandez and members of the Patriots organization, including Belichick himself.

“I think that was addressed by a lawyer last week and I don’t have any further comment on it,” Belichick said, referencing the statement put out last Friday night by Andrew Phelan, a partner at Bingham McCutcheon. Phelan clarified that there were not 33 pages of texts between the two sides but rather a total of 34 texts.

“Earlier this week, a report indicated that an exchange of text messages between the team’s head coach and Mr. Hernandez totaled 33 pages,” Phelan said in Friday’s statement. “While it is unknown how the texts were printed or displayed, I thought it was important to clarify that during an early investigation conducted by state prosecutors, the team produced a total of 34 text messages (not pages of texts) spanning a period of five months (December 2012 – April 2013) between the head coach and Mr. Hernandez.”

On Tuesday, Michael Fee, an attorney for Hernandez, said the dispute over text messages had been resolved.

Hernandez is in a Boston jail awaiting trial in two separate murder cases. Hernandez is accused of killing Odin Lloyd in June 2013. He was released by the Patriots before the calendar turned to July. Hernandez is also accused in the double homicide in Boston in Feb. 2012, just weeks after taking part in the Super Bowl loss to the Giants in Indianapolis.

Still, the reporter continued her line of questioning with Belichick Wednesday morning at the end of the 12-minute news conference.

Is it something you routinely do with your players, texting back and forth?

“I don’t have any further comment on it,” Belichick said.

Do you approach your new players differently now based on what [Hernandez] allegedly did weeks before camp [in 2013]?

“No further comment,” Belichick said before the news conference came to an end.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Andrew Phelan, Bill Belichick, Michael Fee

Bill Belichick: Rob Gronkowski ‘cleared to play’

07.23.14 at 8:50 am ET
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FOXBORO — Bill Belichick said Wednesday that Rob Gronkowski has been in the facility in the days leading up to training camp, and has been “cleared to play.”

As a result, the tight end — who ended last year on injured reserve after a knee injury against the Browns — apparently will not start the year on the physically unable to perform list.

“Rob has always worked hard. He worked hard as a rookie,” Belichick said of the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski. “He’s been consistent.”

In four seasons with the Patriots, Gronkowski has 226 catches for 3,255 yards and 42 touchdowns. However, he’s been dogged by injury issues, including problems with his knee, back and forearm.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Read More: Bill Belichick, Rob Gronkowski,

Countdown to camp: Linebacker

07.22.14 at 3:36 pm ET
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Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We looked at the offensive side of the ball, as well as special teams. To open things up on defense, we examined the state of the defensive line. Now, it’s the linebackers. (For the complete series, click here.)

Roster (stats taken from coaches’ film review): Steve Beauharnais (1 tackle), Jamie Collins (38 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Ja’Gared Davis, Dont’a Hightower (137 tackles, 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Chris White (1 tackle), Jerod Mayo (66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon, Josh Hull, Taylor McCuller, Deontae Skinner, James Anderson

Overview: The New England linebackers had quite a season last year — the indestructible Mayo was lost for the year after going down with a pectoral injury after just six games. Hightower was up, and then down/benched, and then up again. Collins came on like gangbusters down the stretch and revealed himself to be an athletic freak of a defender who is capable of multiple things (working in coverage, rushing the passer) at the NFL level. And Brandon Spikes went out in the most “Brandon Spikes” way possible, falling out of favor with the team after missing a meeting because he couldn’t get out of his driveway after a snowstorm. (After leaving town, he compared his time in New England to slavery.) In the midst of all of it, the Patriots were able to survive with a combo of Spikes-Hightower-Collins-Dane Fletcher. But they really missed the multiple abilities of Mayo, who had could work in coverage, rush the passer and operate with the green dot on the back of his helmet, all effectively. Going forward, while there are serious questions about depth beyond the starters, Anderson might be in position to work as a nickel linebacker on third down and other passing situations. There also appears to be some snaps open for one of the youngsters (Beauharnais? Fleming?) to fill the role of special teamer/backup that Fletcher did so well over the last few seasons. (Hull, who made his bones as a special teamer with the Rams and Redskins, could also figure in the mix there as well.)

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Jerod Mayo makes everyone around him better.

Mayo’s critics have roundly derided him as not being an elite-level linebacker on the same plane as someone like, say, Patrick Willis. But Mayo’s absence for the better part of last season really exposed the deficiencies of the group as a whole — no one on the roster has a skill set like Mayo. He can run with tight ends in coverage, occasionally rush the passer or work as the defensive leader. If you think of him as a student, he’s not necessarily the type who would garner A’s across the board. But at the same time, he rarely drops below a B- level of work. Just a steady, dependable, reliable presence who is fundamentally an extension of Bill Belichick on the field. And when Vince Wilfork decides to call it a career, this will become his defense. (It will be interesting to see if his responsibilities are altered at all this season — particularly against the run — now that Spikes is gone to Buffalo and the Patriots are left without a top-shelf run-stopper.)
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Read More: Countdown to Camp,

10 things to keep an eye on at Patriots training camp

07.22.14 at 6:00 am ET
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Darrelle Revis will be in the spotlight during his first training camp with the Patriots. (AP)

Darrelle Revis will be in the spotlight during his first training camp with the Patriots. (AP)

With the Patriots set to open camp this week in Foxboro, here are 10 things we’ll be keeping an eye on as things get underway:

1. How Darrelle Revis does as he continues to get acclimated to the Patriots system.

Revis is an elite defender — it’s a safe bet he’d be able to excel in just about any system. But with any new player on a new team, it takes some time to get used to new schemes, responsibilities and expectations. When it comes to Revis, it’s presumed he will act in much the same fashion as Aqib Talib did for the last year-plus — that is to say, he’ll be deployed most of the time in man coverage against the oppositions’ No. 1 option in the passing game. (Remember, Talib wasn’t necessarily utilized on wide receivers, as he also spent time shadowing tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Charles Clay.) It was clear Talib was going to have a pretty good 2013 when he first surfaced in camp and was shutting down anyone and everyone who dared to line up across from him. However, his real expertise was seen in the joint practices, when he was able to take his skills to the next level. Revis against Philly’s Jeremy Maclin and Washington’s DeSean Jackson will be fun to watch during the joint practices next month.

2. Tom Brady‘s relationship with his younger receivers.

To paraphrase Reggie Jackson, Brady remains the straw that stirs the drink. The quarterback, who turns 37 next month, went through a trying 2013 as he attempted to get on the same page with several new teammates on offense. While it was a rocky road at first, the passing game was able to road into form as the season went on. It will be interesting to see if the bonds that were forged between Brady and young receivers like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins last season will pay off with big numbers in 2014. One thing that’s worth mentioning in this context — while Brady had absolutely zero continuity in the passing game between the 2012 and 2013 season, there’s no such concern this time around. The Patriots lost 305 catches between the 2012 and 2013 season — 75 percent of the output in the passing game. From a percentage standpoint, when comparing New England’€™s 2013 lineup with the 2014 roster, the Patriots have a retention rate of 97 percent when it comes to catches (370 of 380) and receiving yards (4,226 of 4,343), and 96 percent (24 of 25) when it comes to touchdown receptions.

3. The backup quarterback spot.

At this point, Ryan Mallett is expected to serve as the primary backup to Brady, while rookie Jimmy Garoppolo will work as the third stringer. (For what it’s worth, the last time the Patriots entered the regular season with three quarterbacks was 2011, when Brady, Mallett and Brian Hoyer were all kept around.) But the in-game progress of Garoppolo will certainly be worth monitoring as the preseason rolls along. Will this be the last summer in Foxboro for Mallett, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal?

4. The interior of the offensive line, specifically center and right guard.

Incumbent center Ryan Wendell has been near the top of the league in snaps played the last two seasons, and suffered some dropoff in 2013. Is it the start of a trend, or just because he’s been going up against the likes of Haloti N’gata on a regular basis? He’ll likely be challenged by rookie Bryan Stork, who did about a million laps for perceived infractions over the course of the spring workouts. (OK, so it wasn’t a million, but it sure seemed like every time we looked up, he was circling the field.) Stork arrives in Foxboro with an impressive resume, having won the Rimington Award as college football’s best center for a national championship team — he’s also got a beard that makes him look like Logan Mankins’ younger brother. As for starting right guard Dan Connolly, he could also be pushed by Jon Halapio, a sixth-rounder by way of Florida who put together an impressive college career with the Gators.

5. Rob Gronkowski.

The knee. The forearm. The back. All health issues that have dogged the big tight end over the last year-plus. When it comes to the 2014 season, you can look at it one of two ways: if you’re an optimist, you can point to the fact that it sounds like he won’t open training camp on the PUP list, as well as the fact that not too long ago, he was considered as durable as any tight end in the league. (He had a consecutive games played streak of 46 to open his professional career.) However, if you’re a pessimist, there’s the fact that he’s only played in nine of a possible 26 games since he his arm was crunched while blocking on that fateful extra-point attempt against the Colts in November 2012. He spent the spring sessions working with a rehab group in the corner of the field, and then retreated to the practice bubble to continue his attempt to get back to action sooner rather than later. He’s indicated a desire to play all 16 games in 2014, but if he can get back in time for Week 1, it would represent a seismic turnaround from a potentially devastating knee injury — maybe not as epic as Wes Welker‘s return in 2010, but not too far removed.
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Report: Patriots add Dominique Easley to NFI list, while Alfonzo Dennard and Aaron Dobson will start camp on PUP

07.21.14 at 5:27 pm ET
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With camp looming later this week, the Patriots reportedly made some procedural roster moves Monday designed to allow some of players who are injured or coming off offseason surgery more time to rehab before they get on the field.

According to Field Yates of ESPN, defensive lineman Dominique Easley, running back Roy Finch, linebacker Deontae Skinner and tackle Chris Martin have been placed on the non-football injury list.

Meanwhile, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard; wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Jeremy Gallon; defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and special teamer Matt Slater were placed on the physically unable to perform list. Most of the players in this grouping were either limited (working with a rehab group) or not present during the media portion of the spring workouts.

In both cases — the active/physically unable to perform list as well as the active/non-football injury list — they can come off the list and return to practice at any time after they have been cleared by the team’s medical staff.

One thing worth noting is that both lists do not include tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, all of who suffered season-ending injuries last year.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Read More: Aaron Dobson, Alfonzo Dennard, Chris Martin, Deontae Skinner

Patriots sign DL Eathyn Manumaleuna, release DL Seali’i Epenesa

07.21.14 at 4:38 pm ET
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The Patriots announced Monday they have signed rookie free agent defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna and released rookie free agent defensive lineman Seali’i Epenesa.

Here’s a portion of the statement from the team on the moves.

Manumaleuna, 25, was originally signed by the New York Giants as a rookie free agent out of Brigham Young on May 12. The 6-foot-2, 305-pounder, was released by the Giants on June 19. He played as a true freshman for BYU in 2007 and then served a two-year mission. He returned to the starting lineup in 2010. After suffering an injury early in the year as senior in 2010, Manumaleuna was granted a medical redshirt year after suffering an injury early in the year as a senior in 2012 and came back to start all 13 games in 2013. He finished his college career playing in 56 games and finishing with 143 total tackles and 5.5 sacks.

Epenesa, 22, was signed by the Patriots as a rookie free agent out of UCLA on June 17. The 6-foot-1, 310-pounder, played in 41 games and finished with 46 total tackles and one sack during his four year college career. He played in 12 games with seven starts as a senior in 2013 and was credited with 16 tackles and one sack.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

Read More: Eathyn Manumaleuna, Seali’i Epenesa,
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