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Final Thoughts on Steelers-Patriots

11.03.13 at 6:00 am ET
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Tommy Kelly was signed as a free agent this past spring by the Patriots. (AP)

Tommy Kelly was signed as a free agent this past spring by the Patriots. (AP)

1. The loss of Tommy Kelly for the rest of the season is an unfortunate story on a few levels. One, Kelly is a veteran who has been in the NFL for an extended stretch — and considered one of the truly underrated defensive linemen in the game — but because he was stuck in Oakland, he never had the chance to really experience winning. (His two best years came in 2010 and 2011 when the Raiders were 8-8.) After arriving in New England this offseason, he talked a lot about being excited about the chance to play for a winner. Two, his loss will be felt on the field, where he played a major role in the fact that the New England run game started the season on an excellent note — through the first four games of the season, with Kelly and Vince Wilfork up front, New England was 13th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game, yielding an average of 105 yards per game. But over the last four weeks, they’ve given up 646 total rush yards to the Bengals, Saints, Jets and Dolphins — an average of 156.5 yards per game. Going into this weekend’s game against the Steelers, the Patriots are allowing 130.8 rushing yards per game, 31st in the league. And third, he remains a terrific quote. He’s a smart veteran with a great perspective on the game, and was always a straight shooter in his brief time in the New England locker room. Asked in the spring about how he could help transform the defense this year, he responded quickly: “You see how many people they get rid of around here? Make the team first, then worry about all that.” Kelly has a two-year deal, so it’s conceivable he could return in 2014 if his knee is healthy. I have to imagine that if he feels good, Bill Belichick would welcome him back.

2. The loss of Kelly means that four players who were thought to be absolutely indispensable to the success of the 2013 Patriots are now on season-ending injured reserve: Kelly, Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Sebastian Vollmer. (A fifth, Shane Vereen, was placed on injured reserve after a Week 1 win over the Bills, but was given the designated for return classification. He’s eligible to return in Week 11.) It’s staggering to think of the losses the Patriots have suffered to this point in the season. If memory serves, a few other New England teams went through a similar stretch where they lost key players to IR: the 2005 team saw Rodney Harrison, Randall Gay, Matt Light and Dan Koppen all go on injured reserve before the end of the year. The following season, Harrison, Junior Seau, Eugene Wilson and Josh Miller all ended the year on IR. And in 2008, Tom Brady, Harrison, Laurence Maroney and Adalius Thomas all saw their seasons come to a halt because they landed on injured reserve.

3. One of the things an alert Tweeter pointed out was that despite the personnel losses suffered by the Patriots to this point in the season, they remain pretty mentally tough in that there doesn’t seem to be many cases where they’ve thrown in the towel on a bad situation. They’ve certainly had their chances — even in their two losses, there was some fight at the end of the game. Against the Bengals, they came within a missed connection on a 4th and goal attempt in the fourth quarter. And in the overtime loss to the Jets, they still managed to battle back from a woeful third quarter with a drive at the end of regulation that forced overtime. The losses could still be too much to bear going forward, but at least at this point, they remain a mentally tough bunch with some character. That approach will serve them well over the second half of the season.

4. A lot will likely depend on the state of the free agent market, as well as what the draft looks like, but you have to figure that New England would invest a relatively high draft pick in a defensive lineman in this year’s draft. Not to suggest they’d be able to pick up the likes of a Jadaveon Clowney, but when you consider the relative lack of depth up front — as well as the fact that two of their younger projects from the last two years in Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick didn’t work out — it’s a safe bet they’ll be interested in diving back into that pool sooner rather than later.

5. Had a chance to speak one-on-one with rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce this week in the locker room, and talked with him about what it means to essentially take a redshirt year at the NFL level. Through the first eight games, he has taken 56 snaps (per Pro Football Focus) and has one catch to this point in the season. He’s been a healthy scratch the last three weeks while serving as a backup to veteran Austin Collie. It’s clear that with a competitor like Boyce, he wants to be on the field as much as possible, but he’s aware of the situation he faces. He’s in an odd spot — the franchise clearly sees something in him, and while he does have practice squad eligibility, there’s no way they would try and risk getting him through waivers to the practice squad, because he’d be picked up immediately. So he sits in sort of a roster limbo, working on the game plan through the week but well aware that work isn’t likely to pay off down the road. It’s worth mentioning that Vereen and Stephen Neal are two players who were part of similar situations when they were younger, and both ended up being key contributors later in their careers.

6. It’s dangerous to read too much into the mood of the locker room over the course of the week, but two things really stood out for me: One, the Patriots were exceptionally loose this past week. Maybe it was because of the Red Sox, maybe it was the nice fall weather or maybe a good series of practices. Whatever the case, there were a lot of smiles. Belichick was joking with reporters earlier in the week about Brady’s scramble for a first down against the Dolphins, and cracked that he was thinking of using left tackle Nate Solder to play the role of oversized Pittsburgh Ben Roethlisberger on scout team duty. Brady appeared to be a similar mood, reminiscing about Halloween and offering up some holiday memories of his own. And two, you couldn’t help but notice cornerback Aqib Talib didn’t speak with reporters. There are rare cases where an injured player will talk with the media (Rob Gronkowski had that sort of situation earlier in the year), but in Talib’s case, he was out of sight all week. That usually means he’s not going to play on Sunday. In his case — with the bye looming the week after the Steelers game — it might be a wise course of action to sit him down. Pittsburgh’s passing game has struggled this season, and while Antonio Brown has put up some nice numbers, if the Patriots can hold them in check with Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and rapidly improving rookie Logan Ryan, two more weeks for Talib to get his hip right before the Patriots open a particularly rough stretch might be the best possible scenario at this point.

7. Interesting to hear from receiver Emmanuel Sanders this week about how things went down this offseason. He was courted pretty heavily by the Patriots this past spring — New England ended up signing him to a one-year offer sheet worth $2.5 million before he ultimately returned to Pittsburgh. Sanders talked to reported this week about how it all went down, saying that coach Mike Tomlin stepped in and made it possible for him to return to Pittsburgh. “It was pretty cool what took place this offseason of, not only the New England Patriots wanting me, but the other teams that were also involved with the deal,” he said. “I work extremely hard and when Mike (Wallace) and Antonio (Brown) were here, I was the No. 3 (wideout). I felt like I was hidden a little bit, but it felt good to know that other teams recognized my talents.” Through seven games, Sanders has 31 receptions for 396 yards and two touchdowns. For more on Sanders and his take on the offer from the Patriots and how he feels about his current situation in Pittsburgh, check out this story from Behind the Steel Curtain HERE.

8. It hasn’t always been this way — several members of the Patriots were dismissive of Joey Porter when he played for the Steelers roughly a decade or so ago — but there seems to be a genuine level of respect between the Patriots and Pittsburgh on a number of levels. Belichick and Tomlin have spoken highly of each other in the past, and this week, Roethlisberger spoke glowingly about Brady, saying that Brady’s championships are what separate him from the rest of the field. “To me, he’s the best quarterback in the league and he’s done it for a long time,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday on KDKA-FM in Pittsburgh. “That’s no disrespect to some of these other guys that are doing some amazing things in the NFL right now. But to me, it’s about wins and championships — and he’s got more championships than anybody.” For more on Roethlisberger’s comments on Brady, click HERE.

9. I was reminded of the tenuous nature of the NFL this week when the Bengals had defensive tackle Geno Atkins go down with a knee injury in a loss to the Dolphins. It was later confirmed that Atkins will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. All you had to do was go back and flip on the game film from the Patriots-Bengals contest earlier this year to see the sort of impact Atkins can have on a game. (No wonder that Belichick noted that if they held a reset of the 2010 draft, Atkins — a fourth-round pick taken with the 120th pick — would go first overall.) A dominant force, the loss of Atkins is a potential game-changer for the Bengals, who looked to be in solid shape heading into the second half of the season. Now, Cincinnati appears vulnerable — it will be interesting to see how they respond as a group down the stretch.

10. It’s never easy to admit a mistake, but when I put together a checklist of the New England rookies and listed their accomplishments at the midway point of the season, I omitted the work of punter Ryan Allen. Allen hasn’t reinvented the position, but has done relatively well when called upon. He’s 12th in the league with a 46.2 average, and has dropped 16 of his punts inside the 20 (tied for sixth in the league.) Belichick was asked about his performance this past Tuesday. “He’s definitely got a big leg and the ability to change field position. I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement. He’s got a good level of talent but also consistency is an issue and these conditions that he’s in, kicking through the second half of the season up here will be, I’m sure, challenging at some point,” Belichick said. “I think he’s coming along. He’s getting better and again, just regular punting, situational punting, holding, all the areas that he’s involved in and still has a lot of room for improvement. If he keeps working hard and can stay focused and can stay consistent, I think he has a good opportunity for a real good career.”

11. If you’re on your way to Sunday’s game, you’re going to want to leave extra time to get inside Gillette for a couple of reasons: First, the Red Sox will be honored on the field prior to the contest, and it’s expected several players will be there (that is, if they can track down Mike Napoli in time), as well as the World Series Trophy with them as part of the pregame ceremonies. And two, the NFL’s new bag policy has resulted in increased security measures this season, leading to longer lines at the entrance. Bottom line? If you want a chance at seeing the trophy, you might want to think about cutting your tailgate short.

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