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Rob Gronkowski cites preparation, inconsistency as reasons for loss 09.17.12 at 1:25 am ET
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FOXBORO — In the second quarter of the Patriots’ loss to the Cardinals, Tom Brady‘€™s eyes likely lit up as he saw Rob Gronkowski get behind the secondary and race toward the back of the end zone. Brady unloaded a bomb that fell in … and out of the outstretched arms of the All-Pro tight end. The play exemplified Gronkowski’€™s up-and-down day.

‘€œI have to go out there and play better,’€ Gronkowski said. ‘€œThe first three quarters, I got to go out there and play better. The start of the game, I have to go out there and start faster and start stronger. Overall, I just have to improve in every aspect of the game.’€

The game was a mixed bag in every possible sense for Gronkowski. His line of six catches for 75 yards and a touchdown was solid, but along with the rest of the sputtering offense, Gronkowski seemed out of sync at times. His critical touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter brought New England within two, but he couldn’€™t gain enough separation from Kerry Rhodes to connect with Brady on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt. Perhaps worse was the holding penalty called on Gronkowski that negated Danny Woodhead‘€™s touchdown run that would have given New England a lead with under a minute left.

‘€œI felt like it was a clean block,’€ Gronkowski said about the call. ‘€œMy hands were inside [his shoulder pads], but I have to look at the film. You guys so it, too, you saw probably the replay, so you can tell me if my hands were outside or not.’€

Regardless, Gronkowski was more focused on playing well for 60 minutes and better preparation in practice than pondering about the fourth quarter what-ifs.

‘€œWe were playing awful,’€ he said. ‘€œI was playing awful. I have to go out there play better, play faster, and play stronger and not just in the fourth quarter. Just staying in the game is not good enough. You have to go out there the whole game playing hard.

‘€œClearly we didn’€™t practice good enough,’€ Gronkowski continued. ‘€œI didn’€™t practice good enough all week. We have to pick that up and be ready for all situations at all times. I just feel like you go out there and [practice] is where it all starts at. But I mean, obviously, it’€™s game day where it’€™s all played, but we have to execute all game.’€

While admitting Aaron Hernandez is a vital part of the game plan every week, Gronkowski, to his credit, wouldn’€™t let the injury to his fellow tight end’€™s ankle explain the uneven performance.

‘€œYou have to be ready for any situation in any game,” he said. “That’€™s what practice is for all week.’€

Read More: Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady,
The more things change, the more Deion Branch stays the same 08.21.12 at 4:07 am ET
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FOXBORO — It’s the waning moments of a game between the Eagles and Patriots, presumably a matchup that holds a special place in Deion Branch‘s heart.

After all, it was eight years ago in Super Bowl XXXIX that Branch lit the Philadelphia secondary up to the tune of 11 catches for a total of 133 yards. On Monday night, Branch was at it again against the Eagles. And even though this was the second game of the Patriots preseason schedule, for Branch, none of this matters.

And he made as much clear in his post-game interview. He doesn’t care if he is catching passes from Brady, Ryan Mallett, or even Curtis Painter. We often hear how the Patriots want players who value the game of football not just as a job, but as a passion. Branch has always fulfilled that part of the job requirement. And as the 33-year-old spent an inordinate amount of time resting on the sidelines, and did not participate in the preseason opener against the Saints, he became increasingly excited to be back.

“It felt good,” Branch said smiling. “I was pretty excited to get back on the field. It’s not like riding the bike.”

Branch’s night was productive. He registered three catches for 51 yards in typical fashion: He ran a deep cut, broke from on a crossing pattern and picked up extra yards after the catch, and finally worked the sideline for a catch on his back shoulder in a timing pattern.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Snap Judgments: Patrick Chung hurt; Patriots reserves make the most of their opportunity in loss to Eagles 08.20.12 at 11:21 pm ET
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Patrick Chung never returned to action after leaving during the first quarter of the Patriots 27-17 loss to the Eagles on Monday night. The team announced that Chung’s return from a shoulder injury, presumably suffered while tackling LeSean McCoy, was questionable. Chung does have an injury history, as he missed half of last season due to a foot injury.

Overall, Monday was an encouraging performance from New England. Despite resting key players such as Vince Wilfork and Tom Brady, the Patriots had an 11-0 lead before coughing up the football twice in the second quarter inside their own 25-yard line. The Eagles took advantage, punching in touchdowns following both mishaps. The Patriots were able to tie the game at 14 apiece by halftime, but Philly stormed 80 yards in the opening drive of the second half take take a 21-14 lead and never looked back.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

- Bill Belichick had to like the spirit and play of his defense Monday night, especially from the reserves who were given an opportunity to shine against Michael Vick and the Eagles first-team offense. Kyle Love (and to a lesser extent Ron Brace) generated great pressure up the gut while stepping into the interior defensive line in place of veteran mainstays Gerard Warren and Vince Wilfork, both of whom were given the night off.

Love’s pressure halfway through the first quarter forced Vick to scramble right into a ferocious hit by Jermaine Cunningham, knocking the Philly signal caller out of the game with a rib injury. Speaking of Cunningham, he and Chandler Jones continued to go full throttle rushing off the edge and thus collapsing the pocket on Vick and back up quarterback Nick Foles. This is the type of pressure the Patriots have been yearning for. In turn, the secondary — namely Will Allen – was able to be aggressive.  Even YouTube rugby legend Nate Ebner, who has had a few interceptions in camp lately, got involved with an interception just before the end of the half.

- The curious camp of Ryan Mallett continued during his start against the Eagles under the bright lights of Monday Night Football. He started off poorly on the first series, almost getting picked off on an out pattern to the sideline intended for Donte Stallworth. Mallett slowly settled in as the game progressed.

The good? He seemed more comfortable out of the shotgun, flashed some nifty play fakes to set up screen passes to Shane Vereen, and he hung tough in the pocket taking several hits while delivering strikes down field. As cliched as it sounds, when Mallett was simply playing football and not over-complicating things, he shined.

The bad? Mallett was almost picked off three different times. First, there was the aforementioned first out pattern to Stallworth. Next, Nnamdi Asomugha intercepted the same pattern up the the sideline later in the first half, but it was negated due to a dubious roughing the passer call. The very next play Joselio Hanson deflected a crossing pattern that, if he had turned around sooner, could have been picked off as well.

The good outweighed the bad and, ultimately, this was a step forward for Mallett. He finished 10-of-20 for 105 yards and a touchdown.

- The Alex Silvestro To Tight End Movement looks like it has some validity and staying power. Who would have thought? Silvestro showed good instinct working the sideline while Mallett bought some time and turned out a nice 11-yard completion to start the Patriots first scoring drive. Later, he and Mallett connected again on a seven-yard touchdown pass.

PURGATORY

- Deion Branch, who has seen an inordinate amount of time off during training camp, had a solid night. He gained separation consistently from the Philly defensive backs and caught three balls for 51 yards. Stallworth, Branch’s perceived chief competitor, was targeted just as much but only came away with one grab for 20 yards.

WHAT WENT WRONG

- Tough day for undrafted training camp standout Brandon Bolden. He muffed a punt in the second quarter and was rocked while returning a second. I’m not sure he’s the second (or 14th) option to return punts at this point. Anyway, this gaffe led to an easy 24-yard touchdown drive for the Eagles.

-Like Mallet, Brian Hoyer had an underwhelming first drive, getting strip sacked on his second drop back which led to a 12-yard touchdown drive. Of course, this was worsened by the fact it happened during the ensuing possession after Bolden’s fumble. Unlike Mallett, Hoyer never really found his groove. He led a 14 play, 63-yard drive which took nearly six minutes and led to a field goal, but that was the extent of Hoyer’s success. He finished the first half 5-of-12 for 55 yards.

- That strip sack wasn’t all Hoyer’s fault. Belichick won’t like what he sees out of Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon Monday night. The two were abused throughout the evening, leaving Hoyer and Mallett to suffer the consequences. In addition, Vereen only tailed 20 yards on the ground, largely due to the line’s inability to create holes.

- The defense didn’t exactly come out gangbusters in the beginning of the second half. The unit gave up an eight play touchdown drive which covered 80 yards to start the third quarter. Yikes. To make matters worse, Foles went 5-of-6 on the drive, including a 40 yard bomb to DeSean Jackson who beat Sterling Moore down the middle of the field (Note: To be fair, Moore was stuck in single coverage.).

And if you want to nitpick — and we will, because hey, it’s the preseason! — the defense lost containment on the two second quarter touchdown drives. It’s easy to pin the ears back and go after the quarterback, but it’s also necessary to maintain gap discipline. Then again, both drives were from a combined 36 yards out.

Ten Things We Learned Sunday at Patriots Training Camp 08.05.12 at 6:06 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Sunday’s training camp practice, which lasted just over two hours, was peppered with bright moments from young players along with frustrating mental lapses from reliable mainstays.

Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer were missing from the offensive line again. Meanwhile, defensive end Jonathan Fanene missed his fourth straight practice. Special teams maven Tracy White, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and fullback Spencer Larsen also were not seen on the practice field.

Tight end Daniel Fells, defensive linemen and Rob Brace and Myron Pyror, rookie cornerback Alfonzo Denard, and tackle Markus Zusevics joined their teammates, but were donning shorts.

Here are nine other things we learned from Day 9 of training camp:

HEAD AND SHOULDERS

Ras-I Dowling is making a case to start opposite Devin McCourty in Thursday’s preseason opener against the Saints. The second-year defensive back had a highlight-reel interception on a deep ball thrown by Brian Hoyer intended for the outreached arms of Aaron Hernandez toward the corner of the end zone.

Dowling was there stride for stride, and showed good balls skills on the play. His size (6-foot-1) may make it harder while dealing with shiftier wideouts (he had issues with Wes Welker during one-on-one drills), but it gives him leeway when defending taller wide outs and tight ends.

STRIKES AND GUTTERS, UPS AND DOWNS

The first-team offense had a scattered day. During 11-on-11 passing drills, Tom Brady overthrew Jabar Gaffney, who had beat Dowling on a go-route toward the back of the end zone. Brady also missed Brandon Lloyd, who had gained mild separation down the sideline on an deep out route. Later in the drill, Hernandez found a soft spot in the defense in between Mayo and Dowling, and Brady hit him for a touchdown.

Though, in the two-minute drill, the offense fell into a lull yet again. There appeared to be some miscommunication between Brady and Hernandez, and the quarterback spent a considerable amount of time going over the mishap with the tight end afterward.

LINE DANCING

With the uncertainty of Brian Watersplaying status heading into the upcoming season, Mankins and Vollmer both absent due to injury, and Robert Gallery announcing his retirement Saturday the offensive line saw various combinations throughout Sunday’s session. Dan Connolly and Donald Thomas were the biggest benefactors of the incessant shuffling. Connolly a great deal of time at right guard, and Thomas got plenty of reps at left guard.

WHAT’S THE CATCH?

As Chris Price noted last week: In Josh McDaniels‘€˜ last season as the offensive coordinator in New England, the Patriots targeted running backs 105 times and came away with 78 catches. But since then, the running backs’€™ impact in the passing game has lessened considerably: In 2009, it dipped slightly to 74 catches on 105 targets. In 2010, it was 61 catches on 86 targets, and last season, it was 37 catches on 58 targets.

During Sunday’s session, running backs worked with quarterback’s on passing drills, specifically going over wheel routes. This onus of the passing game out of the backfield was amplified during 11-on-11 drills, as Brady frequently dumped the ball off to Stevan Ridley. McDaniels may bring some of his two-back formations back to New England’s offensive scheme as well. Eric Kettani earned a healthy amount of reps as the lead full back throughout the practice.

WELCOME TO THE NFL, KID

The one-on-ones between skill position players were highlighted by Hernandez leaving linebacker Dont’a Hightower in the dust after swiftly juking by the rookie. Rob Ninkovich also had issues keeping up with Danny Woodhead.

BRANCHING OUT

Deion Branch suited up for practice, but he might as well have been in shorts and a t-shirt. The veteran wide receiver didn’t participate in drills. This may be nothing more than a veteran’s day off, but it should be noted since the Patriots didn’t practice on Saturday. Donte’ Stallworth got most of Branch’s reps along to go along with his kick returning duties.

MENTAL LAPSES

Both the offense and defense were flagged for 12-men on the field penalties by the coaching staff. Each unit was spared the penalty lap, but Lloyd and Thomas ran after each committed a false start penalty. Additionally, Brandon Deaderick ran a lap for a perceived offside penalty during one-on-one drills.

SOARING SILVESTRO

Alex Silvestro‘s conversion to a pass-catching tight end continuing to develop. At first it appeared he was just involved in jumbo formations, but the role in the offense seems to be expanding.  Silvestro was prominently involved in the second-team offense’s sets.

In fact, the former defensive lineman turned tight end even came down with a nice jump ball in traffic during 11-on-11 drills. Later, he caught a pass in stride up the seam from Hoyer. Maybe the coaching staff is just testing out different possibilities, or simply experimenting. Whatever the case may be, it’s hard to say Silvestro isn’t passing with flying colors.

NOT A GOOD DAY FOR THE MEN IN 74

Both Kyle Love and Darrion Weems — who each wear No. 74 — left the practice field with injuries. Love went to the ground for a few minutes during one-on-one drills after walking to the sidelines under his own power, he was examined further by the Patriots medical staff.  Weems left the field while walking gingerly.

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Teaching Points: Pepper Johnson eager to spread a wealth of knowledge 06.13.12 at 4:05 pm ET
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FOXBORO — One of the many mantras recited in the Patriots locker room is “Do your job.” The statement speaks to the collective parts making the whole operation efficient, but understanding of the moving parts around a position is sometimes just as important.

Case in point is Patriots linebackers coach Pepper Johnson. He played linebacker for over a decade in the NFL, and was known for his tenacity on the field. Presumably, this experience would benefit him in his recent change from defensive line to linebackers coach, but knowing even the minute details of everything happening around him helped him not only as a player surviving in the league, but as a coach as well. In fact, he made the transition sound as easy as north to south.

“Instead of coaching guys going forward, I’m coaching guys running backwards in coverage,” Johnson said after Wednesday’s mandatory minicamp practice ended.

“As a player I learned everything I possibly could about football,” he continued. ”Coaching the defensive line as close as I was working with them as a player, I felt I know a lot about it. The things I had questions about I asked players, and I had long conversations with a lot of players I highly respect while I was playing the game.”

Johnson inherits a group of linebackers that showed flashes of excellence last year while maturing as a group. Rob Ninkovich continued to improve and had a stellar postseason. Brandon Spikes missed part of the season due to injury, but was effective in the run blitz and even had a nifty interception in the AFC Championship against the Ravens. Lastly, Jerod Mayo came into his own as a leader of the unit, earning a five-year contract extension in December of 2011.

Where Johnson’s acumen will be beneficial is getting the rookies and newcomers up to speed. Through OTAs and the first two days of minicamp, Johnson has been particularly impressed with Dont’a Hightower and Bobby Carpenter.

[Hightower] is a guy that football means something to him,” Johnson said. “He wants to learn, he’s not only just listening, he’s asking questions. Making things are sure before he goes out onto the field.

“[Carpenter] is a workaholic, he’s constantly going, you have to slow him down on the field. I don’t want to slow him down, but he’s goes constantly. He’s going to be a plus for us, he already has been a plus.”

Read More: Pepper Johnson,
Highlights from Bill Belichick’s press conference Wednesday 06.13.12 at 1:20 pm ET
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At his press conference before the second day of mandatory minicamp Wednesday afternoon, Bill Belichick spoke about practicing in the rain, the acquisition of Jake Ballard, Joseph Addai‘s work ethic, Shane Vereen‘s progress going into his second season, defensive lineman Alex Silvestro playing tight end, and hosting Tony La Russa and Tom Thibodeau at practice.

On practicing in the elements: “Rain, wind, hot — we’ve had a little bit of everything. Sooner or later, we’ll play in those conditions. It’s a learning experience for us, some guys had played in it more than others. But look, this is where we live and this is where we play, whatever we get, we’ll deal with it.”

On signing Ballard after the Giants tried to clear him through waivers: “He obviously had a real productive year last year. We’ll see how that goes. There aren’t any unwritten [rules]. I’m sure you are aware you can’t negotiate a contract with a player while he’s under contract. You can’t negotiate a contract, release him, then renegotiate another contract with him that was already done in advance. I’m sure the Giants weren’t doing that. If a player is on waivers, he’s on waivers. Any time you put a player on waivers, you know there are 31 other teams out there that can take them if they want them. We all know that, there are no secrets about that. I don’t know when [Ballard] will be ready, but we wouldn’t comment on injuries even if we did.”

On Addai’s transition to the Patriots’ system: “Joe is a veteran player that has obviously been in some big games. He’s been in a system that has had some multiples in terms of changing plays, audibles and things like that. But I think our system is different from probably any other system the way it’s formulated. So it’s an adjustment for any new player or coach, just like if we went anywhere it would be an adjustment for one of our players or coaches to go somewhere else. I don’t think that is anything unusual. Joe’s worked hard at it, he’s a very conscientious guy that wants to know what you want to do, and wants to get it right. I respect that.”

On Vereen’s sporadic playing time last season: “We were trying to get him active last year. He did play and then he missed a little bit of time at the end of the season, but he was more ready to play in the playoffs even though he didn’t play.”

On Silvestro’s versatility: “He [played tight end] last year on the scout team for our defense running plays for the other team’s offense, so he was able to give us some snaps there. He’ll still work on defense and offense, we’ll see how it goes. That’s what this spring is for —  to evaluate that and make a decision on that going into training camp, whether it’s one or the other or maybe a combination of both.”

On hosting La Russa and Thibodeau: “It’s great to have them here. I have all the respect in the world for Tom and Tony. They are great coaches in their respective sports. Tony has won 2,000-and-how-many-it-is games, [he's won] more games in a month than I’ve won in my career. Tom has done a great job, I respected him with what he did here in Boston with his defensive patterns, and obviously what he has done in Chicago. There’s a lot of questions I want to ask them about running the team, getting ready for the season, things like that, and I think they’ll be able help me out.”

Read More: Bill Belichick, Jake Ballard, Joseph Addai, Shane Vereen
Stevan Ridley wants to be the man, but knows he has to earn it 06.12.12 at 7:03 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The Patriots locker room was ecstatic after their 45-10 thrashing of the Broncos in last season’s divisional playoff round. The maligned defense put together a staunch effort and the offense scored at will.

Still, despite the win, rookie running back Stevan Ridley sat at his locker confounded and upset, not at anyone else, but just himself. It was the second straight week the 23-year-old had fumbled, and he knew the coaching staff wouldn’t be inclined to give him opportunities during the rest of New England’s playoff run due to his ball security issues.

“As a running back, you never want to see the ball on the ground,” Ridley said following the first day of mandatory minicamp on Tuesday. ” You can either hang your head on it, or you can move forward and continue to be a better player. That’s what I have to do. That was last year, it’s a new year, I’m not looking back. All I’m going to do is look at what’s in front of me, try to be a better player, and not make the same mistakes.”

The late-season fumbling woes aside, Ridley’s rookie season is best described as enticing. He showed spurts of power and breakaway speed, hit the hole hard, and developed nicely without the benefit of a normal training camp because of the lockout. The departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis to the Bengals during the offseason created an opening for the 23-year-old to grasp the spot as the Patriots primary ball carrier. The catch is Green-Ellis’ enduring legacy being that he never fumbled the football in over 500 rushing attempts in his time with the Patriots.

Not once.

“You can’t make excuses for the ball being on the ground,” Ridley said. “[Green-Ellis] was very fortunate to have the career he had. But that’s what I learned from him, to hold onto the ball, squeeze it high and tight, and bring it back to the huddle every play.

“I wouldn’t say it’s my time, because I’m not the coach,” Ridley continued. “I can’t make that call, but it’s my time to go out there and work hard, I know  that. I’m going to have go out there and bust it everyday if I want to see the playing field.”

The Patriots notoriously use the passing game to set up the running attack, and often feature multiple running backs. The team filled the void left by Green-Ellis with veteran Colts running back  Joseph Addai. Ridley and Addai both went to LSU and have trained with one another previous offseasons in Baton Rouge. While Ridley is chomping at the bit to become New England’s lead rusher, he also values strength in numbers approach the Patriots utilize, and realizes he can learn a great deal from Addai.

“It’s wide open,” Ridley said. “We’re not the ones who say who it’s going to be. We’re not really focused on who’s going to be the guy. We’re just trying to help each other out and learn together. One person is not going to get it done all the way through the season, and we know that, so we have to be able to depend on everybody.

“To have this time with [Addai], like I had with [Kevin Faulk], I’m going to cherish that, and try to learn everything I can from him. He’s an awesome guy, he’s a leader, somebody who has seen it all. He’s blocked for Peyton Manning, he’s run the ball, and he’s a well-rounded back. Joe is very willing to teach, he’s a vocal guy and open guy.”

Read More: Stevan Ridley,
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