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With Patriots looming, embattled Bears turn on each other following loss

10.19.14 at 5:35 pm ET
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The Patriots face the Bears next Sunday at Gillette Stadium, and if what happened following Chicago’s loss to the Dolphins is any indication, it could be an interesting afternoon in Foxboro. In the wake of the Bears’ latest defeat — a 27-14 loss to Miami — reports are that things got pretty heated in the locker room, particularly between wide receiver Brandon Marshall and his teammates.

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Brandon Browner has ground to make up after missing first 6 games

10.19.14 at 4:20 pm ET
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Brandon Browner

Brandon Browner

Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner made his season debut in last Thursday’€™s win over the Jets after missing the first six games — the first four because of a substance abuse suspension and the last two due to an ankle injury.

Browner started at corner opposite Darrelle Revis, but played 41 of a possible 87 defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Playing roughly half the snaps may not be what many thought would happen going in, but following the game he admitted he needed to work on his conditioning and on Sunday Bill Belichick noted Browner has ground to make up on the rest of the league having missed the first six weeks of the season.

“€œWe’€™re almost at the halfway point. Teams have had a ton of practices, a lot of games, a lot of reps, a lot of meetings, a lot of corrections,”€ said Belichick on a conference call. “I’€™d say overall as a league, teams are doing things pretty well, certainly a lot better than they were at the beginning of September. So when you miss that time and everybody else is moving ahead and individually, if a particular player isn’€™t, he has to make that ground up. It’€™s doable but it’€™s still a gap.”

Browner was able to workout with the team and attend meetings at the facility during the first four weeks, but was not able to practice. Although he was able to take mental reps in meetings, there is a lot to be said for playing in actual games, which is something Browner is going through right now trying to get up to speed with the rest of the league.

“[Browner] practiced and did everything with the team all through the spring, all through the offseason program, all though the spring and all through training camp, including the Giants preseason game,” Belichick said. “Then, he wasn’€™t able to participate on the field with the team for those four weeks, but he was able to work out and be in meetings and keep up with the adjustments and game plan things that we put in from week-to-week.

“Now he’€™s had an opportunity to get back on the field and refine those skills — at game speed or practice slash game speed that are important. That’€™s really what it’€™s about for and [Brian] Tyms too, for that matter. No different than if a player coming back from an injury where again, he’€™s around the team. He’€™s able to keep up with the mental part of what’€™s going on in his area, his side of the ball, but he’€™s not able to actually go out there and participate and get his timing and technique work on the field.

“€œThat’€™s the part that takes time and reps to gain confidence and to achieve that high level of execution that we see in the league now at this point in the season.”

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Bill Belichick has high praise for Jay Cutler as Patriots begin preparing for Bears

10.19.14 at 1:05 pm ET
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Bill Belichick says Jay Cutler does a number of things well as the Patriots prepare for next Sunday's game against the Bears. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick says Jay Cutler does a number of things well as the Patriots prepare for next Sunday’s game against the Bears. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Through the first seven games of the season the Patriots have gone up against some of the more weaker quarterbacks in the NFL.

This will change this coming week when the Patriots host Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears at Gillette Stadium. Belichick had nothing but high praise for the nine-year veteran on Sunday’€™s conference call.

“He’€™s got an excellent arm. He really can make any throw that you want him to make,” Belichick said. “He’€™s accurate on long throws, intermediate routes, comeback routes, inside cuts — on the catch and run plays, underneath the defense. Smart guy. Reads coverage’€™s well. Recognizes blitzes.

“He has a lot of weapons. He knows how to use them. There are different skill levels there and certainly he knows to use the size of receivers and tight ends and puts the ball where only they can get it — they can box out the defender. Gives their receivers a chance to make a play on the ball and a lot of the times they can just go up, box the defender out and rebound it, make a catch even though they are actually technically covered, but not well enough from keeping them from catching the ball. Cutler does all those things pretty well. He’€™s mobile. He’€™s a hard guy to get in the pocket, he has quickness and the ability to keep plays alive.”

Cutler enters play Sunday fifth in the league in passing yards with 1,628, as well as having the fifth-best completion percentage at 68.1. His 13 touchdown passes are also fifth in the league, tied with Tom Brady.

The Patriots passing defense will be put to the test as it entered Thursday’€™s contest with the Jets third in the NFL in passing defense and allowed 226 passing yards to Geno Smith. In four of the seven games, the defense has allowed 205 passing yards or fewer, while Cutler has thrown for 225 yards or more in five of his six games entering Sunday, including two, 300+ yard games.

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Fantasy Football Week 7 Live Chat at 11 a.m.

10.19.14 at 9:09 am ET
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Let Pete Davidson of and help guide you in setting your Week 7 fantasy football lineups. Davidson will be answering all your questions, while advancing the fantasy football conversation, starting at 11 a.m. (For this week’s starts and sits, click here.) Get your questions in now:

Live Blog Fantasy Football Week 7 Live Chat

Sunday NFL Notes: Going inside the numbers with 2014 Patriots

10.18.14 at 11:54 pm ET
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Tom Brady's stats through seven games this year are better than they were at the same point in 2013. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Tom Brady‘s stats through seven games this year are better than they were at the same point in 2013. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With seven games in the books for the 2014 Patriots, the strengths and weaknesses of the team are starting to come into sharper focus. You can use stats to make any argument you want, but from this viewpoint, when given some context and deconstructed with the help of some film breakdown, they can be very illustrative, and help give a clearer picture of where a team succeeds or fails. With that in mind, here are 10 numbers that help shed some light on the state of the team after seven games, and where they could be headed the rest of the way.

1) 21.1 — The difference in passer rating for Tom Brady between the first seven games of the 2014 season when stacked against the first seven games of the 2013 season. (Brady’€™s rating for the first seven games of this season is 96.4, while he was at 75.3 over the first seven games of 2013.) Much of that is likely attributable to the presence of Rob Gronkowski — he missed the first six games of the 2013 season, and it took him a few games after that to get up to speed in the offense. This year, even though the big tight end only recently returned to 100 percent, he has a clear impact on several aspects of the offense, and the passing game in particular. Even when he’€™s a decoy, he opens things up underneath for other pass catchers like Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen.

Here’€™s a complete look at Brady’€™s numbers from the first seven games in 2013 measured against the first seven games of 2014:

2013: 158-for-285, 1,708 yards, 55 percent. 8 TDs, 5 INTs, 20 sacks
2014: 151-for-246, 1,775 yards, 62.1 percent, 13 TDs, 2 INTs, 13 sacks

2) 7 — The difference in sack totals for Brady from the first seven games of the 2013 season (20) to the first seven contests of the 2014 campaign (13). There are multiple reasons for the change — when you put a stopwatch on him, it’€™s clear that quicker release times have been the focus. But while there have been major issues with pass protection through the earlier part of the season — and pressures still remain an issue — things have started to even out slightly over the course of the last month. If the Patriots get center Bryan Stork and guard Dan Connolly back for next Sunday’€™s game against the Bears, those numbers should get better.

3) 0 — The number of pass plays of 40 yards or more the Patriots have allowed over the course of the first seven games of the season. The Patriots are the only team in the league to not yield a pass play of 40-plus yards to this point in the season. The old-school “Get The [Bleep] Back”€ directive has been employed to great effect this year, as the New England secondary hasn’€™t been beaten deep. At the same time, the priority or now allowing deep balls can occasionally be a double-edged sword, as it leaves a pass defense more vulnerable to shorter and intermediate pass plays. We’ve seen that on occasion, as teams have taken advantage of some softer spots in the Patriots secondary to occasionally pick up chunk yards in the passing game. But for a defense that was routinely torched by the long ball over the last four years, it’€™s a tradeoff they appear to be safe making.

4) 190 — The number of different offensive lineup combinations used by the Patriots over the course of the first seven games, which includes seven different starting lineups. It’€™s not completely fair to judge New England against the rest of the league — the fact that the Patriots and Jets played on Thursday night throws the numbers slightly out of whack — but it’€™s unlikely any team will be able to surpass New England by the end of the week, as the Patriots are miles ahead of the rest of the league. The Jets are No. 2 at 156, and the Lions are next at 154 different lineup combinations on offense. (On the other end of the spectrum, the Broncos have utilized just 43 different lineup combinations.) Much of it has to do with the constant shuffling along the offensive line, but there has also been a lot of different combinations in the backfield as well.

5) 3 — The number of times the Patriots have allowed 190 or more rushing yards this season, which was first brought to our attention by our pal Kevin Duffy. In the opener, the Dolphins rushed for 191 yards, while the Chiefs hit for 207 in the Monday Night massacre last month. And on Thursday, the Jets rushed for 218 yards.  (To put this number in perspective, from 2005 through 2013, New England allowed 190-plus rushing yards five times.) The statistical damage has been minimized slightly because the Patriots have held their four other opponents (Minnesota, Oakland, Cincinnati and Buffalo) to less than 80 yards on the ground, but as several defenders noted following the narrow win for the Jets, the run D is top priority for the New England defense.
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In Focus: Charting offensive opportunities for Patriots’ skill position players

10.18.14 at 5:54 pm ET
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Every week, we list the Patriots’€™ “€œoffensive touches,”€ a running tally of which one of the offensive skill position players is getting the most looks. Like our weekly look at targets, it can occasionally be an inexact stat, but it remains a good barometer of how confident the coaches (and quarterback) are when it comes to the skill position players at their disposal. Here’€™s a breakdown of the 2014 New England offense after seven games:

RB Stevan Ridley: 98 (94 carries, 4 catches), 8 negative runs
RB Shane Vereen: 77 (53 carries, 24 catches) 1 negative catch, 2 negative runs
WR Julian Edelman: 50 (6 carries, 44 catches)
TE Rob Gronkowski: 31 (31 catches)
WR Brandon LaFell: 19 (19 catches)
RB Brandon Bolden: 17 (16 carries, 1 catch), 2 negative runs
QB Tom Brady: 13 (13 carries), 13 sacks, 5 kneeldowns
TE Tim Wright: 10 (10 catches)
WR Kenbrell Thompkins: 6 (6 catches)
RB James White: 6 (3 catches, 3 carries)
FB James Develin: 5 (1 carry, 4 catches)
WR Danny Amendola: 5 (5 catches)
RB Jonas Gray: 3 (3 carries)
QB Jimmy Garoppolo: 3 (3 carries) 1 sack, 3 kneeldowns
WR Aaron Dobson: 3 (3 catches)
TE Michael Hoomanawanui: 2 (2 catches)
WR Brian Tyms: 1 (1 catch)

Notes: The Patriots had three negative plays from scrimmage on Thursday — one sack of Brady and two negative runs by Vereen. … On the season, New England has run 460 plays from scrimmage, and 28 of them have gone for negative yardage, not including kneeldowns. …  Against the Jets, the Patriots ran 53 plays, with 8 of them in no-huddle (7 percent). … In addition, 27 of their 53 snaps (51 percent) were in shotgun formation. … On the season, the Patriots have run 33 of their 460 plays out of no-huddle (7 percent) and 151 snaps in shotgun (33 percent). By way of comparison, over the course of the 2013 regular season, the Patriots were in shotgun for 42 percent of their offensive snaps and they ran no-huddle on 11 percent of their snaps.

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Target Practice: Tracking opportunities in Patriots passing game

10.18.14 at 3:04 pm ET
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Targets have been compiled by the NFL since the start of the 2009 season, and while it remains a vaguely imperfect stat — a badly thrown ball from a quarterback can often go against the record of the receiver as opposed to the quarterback — it remains a good indication of the confidence level a passer might have in his pass catcher. Here’€™s a look at the target breakdown after seven regular-season games this year.

WR Julian Edelman: 44 catches on 65 targets
TE Rob Gronkowski: 31 catches on 56 targets
RB Shane Vereen: 24 catches on 35 targets
WR Brandon LaFell: 19 catches on 39 targets
TE Tim Wright: 10 catches on 11 targets
WR Kenbrell Thompkins: 6 catches on 11 targets
WR Danny Amendola: 5 catches on 11 targets
RB Stevan Ridley: 4 catches on 5 targets
FB James Develin: 4 catches on 4 targets
RB James White: 3 catches on 3 targets
WR Aaron Dobson: 3 catches on 4 targets
RB Brandon Bolden: 2 catches on 4 targets
TE Michael Hoomananwanui: 2 catches on 2 targets
WR Brian Tyms: 1 catch on 2 targets

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