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The Big Nickel: The Clay Matthews debate, a penalty watch preview and Louis Leonard’s arrival

12.14.10 at 3:08 pm ET
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Here are the five most important things you need to know about the Patriots on Tuesday:

1. Expect a lot of Clay Matthews talk this week. The Patriots had a chance to take him in the 2009 draft, and decided to pass on the linebacker out of USC who has gone on to become one of the best pass-rushers in the league with the Packers ‘€” he had 10 sacks as a rookie last season, and has 12.5 sacks this year, good for second in the league. In hindsight, the idea of Matthews in a New England uniform is a tantalizing thought, especially for a team that has struggled to put together a consistent pass rush over the last two seasons.

‘€œClay is fast, quick. He’€™s got real good balance,’€ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on a conference call with the media on Tuesday afternoon. ‘€œHe’€™s a guy with a high motor, so even at times when it looks like he’€™s blocked, he can still come out and get in on the play. He’€™s a good pursuit player, but I’€™d say his speed and his quickness are big assets.

‘€œHe’€™s a guy that’€™s never really out of the play. You can run away from him but he can run you down or you can run to him and it kind of looks like you might have him blocked, but he spins out of things and uses his quickness and his athleticism to get out of tight situations, stay alive and make plays. So, [he'€™s] a good football player.’€

It was clear the Patriots at least had an interest in Matthews for several reasons, not the least of which was that his father played 19 seasons in the NFL ‘€” three of which were for Belichick in Cleveland in the 1990s ‘€” and Belichick would later say he was ‘€œlucky’€ to have the chance to coach the elder Matthews. Before the 2009 draft, I spoke with the father (as well as the son’€™s high school coach, Charlie Wegher) about the possibility of the son playing for Belichick and the Patriots. (Check out the story here.)

‘€œI was always impressed with the way that Bill took a real thorough approach to the team. Everything was analyzed,’€ Matthews’€™ father told me. ‘€œFor a player, you were always put in position where you had the best chance to succeed. And speaking selfishly as a father, you always want to see your son put in a position where he will be successful. And you know Bill does that.’€

‘€œClay’€™s a good football player,’€ said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said on a conference call with the media on Tuesday afternoon. ‘€œIf you go back and actually look at that USC defense, there are a lot of good football players on that team. They had [Brian] Cushing. They had [Ray] Maualuga. They had Matthews. They had [Kaluka] Maiava who the Browns had taken. I think the Packers are happy that they have Matthews. And we’€™re certainly happy with the players that are on our team.’€

2. Working on the numbers for a story that I’€™ll have later today, but I was looking at the Patriots’€™ penalties this season, and it’€™s clear that one of the reasons they’€™ve had so much success over the last month or so is the fact that they’€™ve come close to playing penalty-free football. New England has committed just 11 penalties in the last four games (including just one penalty each in wins over the Colts and Jets), and is now fourth-best in the league when it comes to assessed penalties with 65, behind only the Falcons (49), Dolphins, (55) and Colts (64).

Three notable names ‘€” Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Danny Woodhead ‘€” have yet to draw a single flag this season, while key positional players like wide receiver Wes Welker, safety Pat Chung and offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have picked up only one penalty all season.

The most penalized position for the Patriots is defensive back, where they’€™ve picked up 18 flags for 229 yards ‘€” Devin McCourty (five penalties for 45 yards) and Brandon Meriweather (three penalties for 77 yards) have the worst numbers. Meanwhile, the least assessed position is defensive line, where they’€™ve been flagged once (Mike Wright for defensive offsides) for a total of zero yards.

3. The Patriots have reportedly reached an agreement on a deal with free agent defensive tackle Louis Leonard. Leonard, 26, is a Fresno State product who is 6-foot-4, 330 pounds. An undrafted free agent in 2007 who has also played for San Diego, St. Louis, Cleveland and Carolina, his best season came in 2008 when he played in all 16 games with the Browns and finished with 25 total tackles.

The addition of Leonard could signal the fact that Wright ‘€” who suffered a concussion last month against the Colts ‘€” could be out long-term. In addition, fellow defensive lineman Myron Pryor has missed the last few weeks because of a back injury. And Ron Brace was knocked out of Sunday’€™s game with a head injury, so New England could be chasing after all sorts of help up front in an attempt to get some depth along the defensive line.

4. It’€™s clear Belichick and the Patriots have a ton of respect for is cornerback Charles Woodson. The Michigan product, in his 13th season in the NFL (and his fifth year with Green Bay) is a 34-year-old who has been able to continue to consistently play a high level.

‘€œOutstanding. Outstanding,’€ Belichick said of Woodson on Tuesday. ‘€œHe does everything well: man-to-man coverage, zone coverage, reads the quarterback well, has good anticipation of route and route combinations, outstanding ball skills, blitzer ‘€“ [he'€™s an] excellent blitzer ‘€“ [and] good run-force player. When he plays inside in the slot position, or even in the perimeter, he plays very well. I’€™d say Woodson, [Antoine] Winfield, there are a handful of guys that really stand out in that area [and Woodson] would be in that group. [He'€™s] an excellent tackler. You rarely see him miss. So, I think he’€™s as good and complete player in that position that you will find in the league.’€

‘€œCharles Woodson ‘€“ he’€™s done it year after year after year,’€ said Patriots defensive backs coach Josh Boyer. ‘€œHe’€™s been very successful in the league. The thing with Devin is that he’€™s done some good things and he’€™s working hard to improve it. We expect that to continue to improve from him. With his work ethic and his skill set, the more he works at it ‘€“ hopefully he can do that for a continued period of time.’€

Of course, Woodson is perhaps best known around these parts as playing an important role here when he was with the Raiders: Look for No. 24 as one of the key figures in one of the most memorable plays in New England franchise history.

5. McRib Watch, Tuesday edition. No new updates on the health of McCourty, who reportedly had an MRI on his ribs on Monday after suffering an injury in Sunday’€™s win over the Bears in Chicago. More should be known about his status on Wednesday, when the first injury report of the week is released.

‘€œI would say he improves every day. Again, the thing with him is that he has such a great work ethic. He has the good ability to pick things up quickly,’€ Boyer said. ‘€œYou see things like that from the Bears game. The first play of the game was very similar to that third-and-one play that he was able to make a stop on. He just kind of picked up on that and was able to make a good play for us and get us off the field on third down. It’€™s little things like that.

‘€œOnce he sees it, the more experience he has with it. He’€™s just very instinctive on things like that. It’€™s just kind of a process for him seeing things. The more he sees, the better he is. And the more he works at it, the better he is.’€

With Jonathan Wilhite still battling a hip injury and if McCourty is unable to go on Sunday, look for the Patriots to turn to newcomer Chevis Jackson, a recent signee out of Louisiana State who was inactive last week against the Bears. In addition, New England would also likely lean on Darius Butler, who saw a sizable increase in playing time against the Bears on Sunday, and could see even more action against the Packers if McCourty is sidelined.

Butler said on Monday that no matter the injury situation among New England’€™s defensive backs, he’€™ll continue to prepare in the same fashion as he has all season, something that’€™s impressed his position coach.

‘€œHe’€™s been very consistent in the way he’€™s approached the game. He’€™s approached it each week like he was going to approach every snap,’€ Boyer said. ‘€œThe other thing with Darius is the technique that we’€™ve asked him to work on, he’€™s improved on that.

‘€œThere is still a ways to go as with all of our guys in the back end. We’€™re always trying to improve. He’€™s been very consistent on his approach. He has stepped in the last couple weeks and he’€™s made some plays for us. He had a breakup in the Jets game for us. He had a breakup in the Chicago game for us. He’€™s been able to make some plays for us and we feel good about his progress and where he’€™s going. The guys that you see on the field, those are the guys that we have confidence in. I give a lot of credit to Darius for his approach week in and week out.’€

Read More: Bill Belichick, Brandon Meriweather, Brian Cushing, Charles Woodson
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