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Catching up with … the Panthers 07.24.13 at 7:30 am ET
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As we count down to the start of training camp, we’€™ll take a look at all 13 opponents on the Patriots’€™ regular-season schedule and break down each one of them. We’€™ve already featured the Bills, Jets and Dolphins, as well as the Buccaneers, Falcons, Bengals, Saints and Steelers. Now, it’€™s the Panthers.

Specifics: The Patriots will put the wraps on the NFC South portion of their schedule when they travel to Carolina on Nov. 18 for a Monday night game against the Panthers. (Unless something strange scheduling quirk takes place down the stretch, it’ll be the only “MNF” appearance all season.)

Say goodbye to … cornerback Chris Gamble, wide receiver Louis Murphy, defensive tackle Ron Edwards, tight end Gary Barnidge, linebacker Jason Phillips, guard Mike Pollak.

Welcome … wide receiver Domenik Hixon, cornerback D.J. Moore, wide receiver Ted Ginn, safety Mike Mitchell, cornerback Drayton Florence, linebacker Chase Blackburn, defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.

Recent history: With the exception of Super Bowl XXXVIII, it’s been a fairly nondescript series of games between the two, with New England holding a 3-2 series lead, with wins in three of their last four games. The game that really stands out was the Super Bowl contest, one of the highest-scoring contests in the history of the big game, as Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme (Jake Delhomme!) engaged in a memorable shootout. The last time they squared off was on Dec. 13, 2009, in Foxboro, and that game was won by the Patriots, 20-10.

The Patriots should be worried because … Carolina quarterback Cam Newton really played well down the stretch last season, so much so that it could have been the start of his coming-out party. Newton led the Panthers to wins in five of their last six games, throwing 11 touchdown passes and just two picks in that stretch. (The Panthers finished 7-9, but seven of the losses were by seven points or less.) Even without the possibility of the read option, Newton established himself as threat to run the ball — he has 1,447 rushing yards, 5.7 yards per carry and 22 rushing touchdowns in two years in the league. Now, if he can add some consistency in the passing game, he could emerge as a real force in the NFC South.

The Patriots shouldn’€™t be worried because … not to sound like a broken record when it comes to talk about the NFC South, but New England should be able to put up points on the Panthers. Despite the fact that Carolina was involved in a bunch of close games, most of those were shootouts. The Panthers have former BC linebacker Luke Kuechly in the middle, as well as highly-touted draftees Lotulelei and Short. But it remains to be seen if this defense can help improve a defense that was statistically in the middle of the pack in 2012.

The skinny: This isn’t one of the marquee games on the schedule, but it could ultimately end up being one of the more underrated games of the season based on Newton’s progression as well as the evolution of the Carolina defense. The feeling right now is that the Patriots have an edge on the Panthers on paper, but if Carolina can get its relatively young team to jell on both sides of the ball, New England could be in for an interesting night. In the context of this conversation, it’s also important to note that the Patriots will be coming into this game after their bye — they’ll have 15 days between their Nov. 3 game against the Steelers and the Nov. 18 contest with the Panthers, which should help New England.

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Report: Jake Ballard removed from PUP list 07.23.13 at 10:04 pm ET
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Tight end Jake Ballard and defensive back Kanorris Davis both passed their physicals and were removed from the physically unable to perform list and non-football injury list, respectively on Tuesday, according to Field Yates of ESPN.

Each are now eligible to participate in practices when camp opens on Friday.

Ballrd was on the shelf for all of 2012 because of a knee injury he suffered in Super Bowl XLVI while playing for the Giants against New England. He is expected to have a sizable role in the 2013 offense, as the Patriots are expected to be without Rob Gronkowski (who was placed on the PUP list himself earlier in the week) as he continues to recover from offseason surgery on his back and forearm.

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Countdown to Camp: Running backs 07.23.13 at 9:56 pm ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’€™ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks, defensive line, offensive line and tight ends. Now, it’€™s the running backs:

Depth chart: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount, James Develin, Leon Washington, George Winn, Ben Bartholomew.

Overview: It’€™s debatable whether or not it was young talent stepping to the forefront or the fact that opposing defenses spent more time worrying about the pass than the run, but the New England running game really emerged as a potent option for the Patriots last season. As the lead back, Ridley finished the season with 290 carries (he was 10 short of becoming the first New England running back since Corey Dillion in 2004 to break the 300-carry barrier) and 1,263 yards, while Danny Woodhead was the first Patriots running back to finish the season with at least 40 carries and 40 receptions since Kevin Faulk in 2008, while Bolden and Vereen shone nicely in complementary roles. With all the changes at wide receiver and tight end over the offseason, the running backs will be asked to replicate — and perhaps improve — on that performance in 2013. But before the new season begins, let’€™s take one last look back and acknowledge the work they did as a group in 2012, a year when there was real balance to the New England offense because of a very nice group of backs.


1. Ridley is one of the best backs in the game. Critics point to his occasional fumbles, but from a pure statistical perspective, Ridley did more than enough last year to be considered one of the best young backs in the game. At the age of 23, Ridley finished with 1,263 rushing yards — the only back in Patriots history who had a better season before the age of 24 was Curtis Martin, who had 1,487 rushing yards in 1995 at the age of 22. In addition, Ridley is only the 28th running back in the history of the game to gain at least 1,250 rushing yards in a single season before his 24th birthday, and last year came within 10 carries of joining exclusive company: backs who posted 300 carries and averaged at least four yards every carry (it’€™s a group that includes Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster). It figures to be his show again in 2013.

2. There will be a lot on Vereen’€™s plate this year. The shifty third-down option out of Cal showed great proficiency as a pass catcher as a collegian — he finished his college career with 74 receptions. In relatively limited reps over the course of the last two seasons, he provided real moments of brilliance in the passing game, with perhaps his finest moment coming in a Thanksgiving night win over the Jets when he connected with Brady on an 83-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. With both Wes Welker and Woodhead now gone, Vereen will almost certainly be in line for more reps and asked to fill the void. If he stays healthy, his versatility (he can line up split wide, as well as in the backfield) will provide a dynamic offensive element to the New England offense this season.

3. Of the guys at the back end of the depth chart, Winn has the most intriguing resume. He’€™s certainly a longshot to make the roster, but Winn was revealed as the most explosive running back in all of college football last year. The 5-foot-10 1/2, 218-pounder, who was signed and then waived by the Texans this spring (thanks in large part to a deep backfield in Houston that left the Texans with no other choice) had a slow first three years as a collegian but really busted out in 2012 as a senior with the Bearcats when he finished with 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns on 243 carries. But this story from Jon Moore of RotoViz went inside the numbers and came away with some remarkable stats on Winn’€™s work, saying he ‘€œmight be the most explosive and underrated running back in the 2013 NFL draft‘€ because of his ability to break off long runs. Moore notes that in Winn’€™s 13 games as a senior, he had 10 games where he finished with at least one rush of 18 yards or more (77 percent). That’€™s a better percentage than any of the other elite running backs who were a part of this year’€™s draft class, including Eddie Lacy or Montee Ball. Not sure if he’€™ll be able to make that translate to the next level, but on a team that prides itself on finding running backs in the most out of the way places, certainly the kind of player who will catch your eye.
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Tom Brady on Aaron Hernandez: ‘I’ve moved on’ 07.23.13 at 3:30 pm ET
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In his first public comments regarding former teammate Aaron Hernandez, quarterback Tom Brady said Tuesday that he’s “moved on” from the situation, and adds that he’s looking forward to the 2013 season.

‘€œI’€™ve seen a lot of things over 13 years, and what I have learned is that mental toughness and putting aside personal agendas for what’€™s in the best interest of the team matters most,’€ Brady told Peter King of ‘€œMy job is to play quarterback, and I’€™m going to do that the best way I know how, because I owe that to my teammates regardless of who is out there on the field with me.

‘€œI have moved on. I’€™m focusing on the great teammates I have who are committed to helping us win games. The only thing I care about is winning. Nothing is going to ever get in the way of that goal. I’€™m just excited to report to camp and see what we can accomplish as a team. The fate of our season will be determined by the players in our locker room’€”nothing else.’€

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Catching up with … the Steelers 07.23.13 at 11:31 am ET
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As we count down to the start of training camp, we’€™ll take a look at all 13 opponents on the Patriots’€™ regular-season schedule and break down each one of them. We’€™ve already featured the Bills, Jets and Dolphins, as well as the Buccaneers, Falcons, Bengals and Saints. Now, it’€™s the Steelers.

Specifics: The Patriots will host the Steelers at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 3 at 4:25 p.m.

Say goodbye to … wide receiver Mike Wallace, outside linebacker James Harrison, guard Willie Colon, running back Rashard Mendenhall, defensive tackle Casey Hampton, quarterback Charlie Batch, center Doug Legursky, offensive tackle Max Starks.

Welcome … running back Le’€™Veon Bell, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, wide receiver Markus Wheaton, cornerback William Gay, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, tight end Matt Spaeth, punter Brian Moorman, running back/returner LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Recent history: The Steelers have had the edge over the course of the series, holding a 15-11 advantage over New England since the two teams first met in 1972. The Patriots won six of the seven games between the two teams that were played from 1998 through 2007, but Pittsburgh has won two of the last three games, including a 25-17 win over New England at Heinz Field on Oct. 30, 2011.

The Patriots should be worried because … the Steelers do what they do — play tough, physical defense and try to wear you down on offense with a steady, consistent ground attack (with a little passing mixed in for good measure). Even in a relatively down year in 2012, Pittsburgh was plenty stingy on defense — the Steelers were 8-8, but were first in the league in team defense and passing defense, second in rush defense and sixth in overall scoring defense (19.6 points per game).

The Patriots shouldn’€™t be worried because … Pittsburgh has some questions on the offensive side of the ball, including a troublesome offensive line situation and new faces at wide receiver in Wheaton and running back in Bell, both of whom were taken with high draft picks. (In fact, setting aside the offensive line, there are some comparisons to the New England offense in that both teams have a proven veteran at quarterback who has won on the big stage but now have offenses in a state of flux that could go through some growing pains early in the season before they start to come together.)

The skinny: While it lacks some of the rivalry juice of a Patriots-Ravens game, Patriots-Steelers is always compelling theater. (Even though Pittsburgh is coming off an 8-8 season, the networks had the good sense to move this one to a 4:25 p.m. start.) This year should be no exception, as a Brady-Ben Roethlisberger matchup is always good fun. This Week 9 contest will be the final game for New England before its bye, and by this point on the schedule we should know what sort of team the 2013 Patriots really are before they start a key five-game stretch that will have them facing the Broncos, Texans and Ravens.

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Rob Gronkowski, Jake Ballard, Julian Edelman placed on PUP list 07.23.13 at 8:18 am ET
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Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jake Ballard and receiver Julian Edelman have been placed on the active/physically unable to perform list, which means they are not cleared to practice for the start of training camp.

In the case of all three players, it wasn’t a surprise. Gronkowski has undergone several surgeries this offseason on his forearm, as well as one on his back. Ballard was on the shelf all last season because of a knee injury, while Edelman has had foot issues and was spotted this offseason wearing a walking boot.

They all can removed from PUP at any time during camp. If they were placed on PUP at the start of the regular season, they would be ineligible for at least the first six weeks of the season.

In addition, offensive lineman Nick McDonald was placed on the active/PUP list, while defensive lineman Armond Armstead was placed on the non-football illness list and rookie safety Kanorris Davis and rookie center/guard Matt Stankiewitch were assigned to the non-football injury list.

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Countdown to Camp: Tight ends 07.22.13 at 10:39 pm ET
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As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’€™ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks, defensive line and offensive line. Now, it’€™s the tight ends.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski, Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld, Brandon Ford.

Overview: In 12 months, this went from being the strongest, deepest position on the team to one with the most question marks. The Patriots enter the 2013 season without Aaron Hernandez, who was the most dynamic and versatile offensive presence on the roster. Meanwhile, Gronkowski underwent multiple offseason surgeries on his back and forearm, and his availability remains in doubt for the start of the 2013 season. That leaves a collection of tight ends who, while having spent some substantial time in the league over the last three seasons, don’€™t have nearly the resume of either Hernandez or Gronkowski. Fells, Ballard and Hoomanawanui all have experience in the system (Ballard was around in 2012 but spent the whole season on the bench because of a knee injury in Super Bowl XLVI), so there’€™s something to be said for the fact that they won’€™t have to spend much time getting up to speed in the system. Sudfeld opened some eyes this spring, but at this point it’€™s not realistic to count on much from him or Ford this year.


1. Much of the success of the New England passing game in 2013 will hinge on a healthy Gronkowski. Despite all the offseason losses, as well as the fact that they hit the reset button at the receiver position, if Gronkowski can be something resembling his old self down the stretch (like he was late in his record-breaking season of 2011), it could stabilize the passing game. The combination of Gronkowski, Ballard, receiver Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen (with Julian Edelman and one of the two rookie receivers providing depth) could provide quarterback Tom Brady with enough options in the passing game to restore some sense of order. Gronkowski demands attention when he’s on the field at all times, and that would open things up for the others. It wouldn’t be the same as it was when Hernandez and Wes Welker were around, but it’s better than nothing. Of course, it all hinges on a healthy Gronkowski. While New England will still feature itself a game-plan offense, fair or not, much of the success or failure of the passing game will fall on Gronkowski.

2. The Patriots are going to have to rely on Ballard for a stretch of the 2013 season. No one is quite sure what to expect from Ballard, who was on the shelf for all of 2012 with a knee injury he suffered when playing for the Giants against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. The undrafted free agent out of Ohio State carved out a nice niche for himself in 2011 with New York, finishing the year with 38 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns (and adding five more receptions in the postseason). While he was on the field with the rest of the squad during spring practices, it appeared he was still working his way back, looking a little slow at times as he worked with Brady to pick up some of the nuances of the passing game. If Gronkowski is out for any period of time — and it’€™s expected he will start the regular season on PUP — look for Ballard to pick up some of Gronk’€™s reps. While he’€™s not an exact replica, the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Ballard might be the closest thing the Patriots have to a Plan B when it comes to holding things over until Gronkowski is at 100 percent.

3. The Patriots have gotten used to playing without Hernandez and Gronkowski. I’€™ll give you that this is strictly glass-is-half-full stuff we’€™re presenting here — and it should be taken with a grain of salt because Welker was still on the roster — but New England got a look at what life without the duo was like for a good portion of last season. Both Gronkowski and Hernandez were banged up pretty much from start to finish last year, with Hernandez going down with an ankle injury in a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals. (He ultimately missed six-plus games.) Meanwhile, Gronkowski suffered a broken arm on Nov. 18 against the Colts and missed five weeks. According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez played just 573 offensive snaps in 2012, barely more than the 514 snaps he played as a rookie in 2010. As for Gronkowski, he played 743 offensive snaps in 2012, the lowest total in his three seasons in the league. The decreased snaps led to a dramatic change in targets from 2011 to 2012. The Patriots tight ends had a combined 169 catches on 237 targets in 2011. In 2012, that dipped to 116 catches on 182 targets.
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