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As expected, new Texans coaching staff has heavy New England influence 02.05.14 at 5:39 pm ET
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Bill O’Brien

The Texans and new head coach Bill O’Brien announced Houston’s new coaching staff on Wednesday, and it’s hardly a surprise that it has a heavy New England influence.

Joining O’Brien — who spent five seasons on Bill Belichick‘s staff with the Patriots — will be Romeo Crennel (former New England defensive coordinator who will also serve as DC in Houston) and George Godsey (who was the Patriots’ tight ends coach, but will be quarterbacks coach with the Texans). In addition, Patriots players Mike Vrabel (linebackers) and Anthony Pleasant (assistant strength and conditioning) will join O’Brien’s staff as assistants.

‘€œWe’€™ve put together a great staff of enthusiastic and passionate coaches with good character who have successful backgrounds in coaching,’€ O’€™Brien said in a statement issued by the team. ‘€œIt was important to put together a group who will be great teachers and I’€™m excited to begin our preparations for the 2014 season.’€

The following is a portion of the press release issued by the team:

Crennel comes to Houston following a three-year stint with the Kanas City Chiefs (2010-12) where he served as defensive coordinator (2010-11), interim head coach (2011) and head coach (2012). Prior to Kansas City, Crennel spent four seasons as head coach of the Cleveland Browns (2005-08) following a highly successful stretch as defensive coordinator with the Patriots from 2001-04, where he helped the team win three Super Bowl titles. His first role as a defensive coordinator came in 2000 with Cleveland after stints with the New York Jets (1997-99), New England (1993-96) and New York Giants (1981-92).

Godsey joins the Texans after three years with the Patriots, first as offensive assistant in 2011 and then as tight ends coach the past two seasons. Prior to joining the Patriots, Godsey spent the previous seven seasons (2004-10) at Central Florida under head coach George O’€™Leary, who O’€™Brien coached with at Georgia Tech from 1995-01. Godsey played quarterback at Georgia Tech from 1998-01, where he first crossed paths with O’€™Brien, the running backs coach from 1998-00 and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2001.

Pleasant was the defensive line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2010-13 after working with the team as part of the NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship in 2009. The former defensive lineman played 14 seasons in the NFL, including separate stints under Crennel’€™s guidance with the New York Jets (1998-99) and Patriots (2001-03)

Vrabel served as defensive line coach at Ohio State for the 2012-13 seasons after starting his coaching career as the linebackers coach for the Buckeyes in 2011. A former NFL linebacker for the Patriots, Vrabel was a part of three Super Bowl victories (2001, 2003, 2004) in his 14-year NFL career.

Read More: Anthony Pleasant, Bill Belichick, Bill O'Brien, George Godsey
Rob Ninkovich ‘still trying to fill the shoes’ of Mike Vrabel 01.17.13 at 10:03 pm ET
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Rob Ninkovich smothers Mark Sanchez for a game-clinching sack in overtime. (AP)

Rob Ninkovich smothers Mark Sanchez for a game-clinching sack in overtime. (AP)

FOXBORO — From the moment he took the number 50 with the Patriots, the comparisons began for Rob Ninkovich.

How does Ninkovich stack up to Mike Vrabel?

Ninkovich began his career in New England in 2009, the year Vrabel was traded to Kansas City.

Ninkovich was asked Thursday if he’s ever met Vrabel, who is now an assistant coach at his alma mater, Ohio State.

“No, never have, never met him, never talked to him, maybe one day,” Ninkovich said Thursday. “I’m sure he’ll probably give me some crap for taking his number.”

“I mean his whole career, the performance that he’s had his whole career, kind of speaks for itself. So just to even have the comparison, it’s an honor. But you know, different football players. You know obviously there’s … I think he was like four inches taller than me, his arms were way longer, so he has the advantage there.”

Actually two inches, as Vrabel stands 6-foot-4 and Ninkovich 6-2. But Ninkovich has more than stood tall this season with five forced fumbles and four recoveries.

Has Bill Belichick ever shown Ninkovich any tape of Mike Vrabel?

“Well, growing up, I’m a little bit younger than him so I always watched the Patriots and watched their successful seasons in the past when I wasn’t a part of the team,” Ninkovich said. “So, definitely, still trying to fill the shoes.”

After all the comparisons were only natural. He is a versatile outside linebacker who was converted to an edge pass rusher, who can not only get to the quarterback but also force fumbles and always find a way to jump on a loose ball on the field.

He did it again last Sunday in the final five minutes when the Texans appeared to be on the verge of converting an on-side kick, trailing 38-28. Ninkovich recovers the bouncing ball, crisis averted and Patriots seal the deal, 41-28.

“As a defensive player you’re always thinking that the ball is a key,” Ninkovich said. “You’re looking at the ball on the snap, you’re trying to find the ball in pursuit. When people are around the ball making plays you’re always aware where it’s at. You know if it’s fumbled or if it’s on the ground you have to get on it. Let everyone else decide what’s going on as long as you get the ball, it will all work itself out. As a defensive player, that’s in your mind all the time is being prepared to get on top of it.”

For more Patriots news, visit the team page at weei.com/patriots. WEEI-FM 93.7 will broadcast the AFC championship game between the Patriots and Ravens on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

Read More: AFC Championship, Baltimore Ravens, Mike Vrabel, New England Patriots
Bill Belichick and the sweet science of the turnover 11.30.12 at 3:05 pm ET
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A bundled up Bill Belichick had his players practice indoors in the heat Friday. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

FOXBORO — The Patriots lead the NFL in turnover differential by a landslide. They have a +24, twice the number of the Ravens, the No. 2 team in the AFC in that category. The plus-24 is also 11 better than the next closest team in the NFL, the Bears.

Why?

Because the Patriots have perfected the art of stripping the ball from the carrier – rusher, receiver or quarterback – better than anyone. And like anything with Bill Belichick, there’s a science to it.

The Patriots have recovered 18 fumbles while committing just five of their own.

How often do they work on it?

“Every day,” Belichick said Friday. “We work on stripping the ball every day; recovering them every day. We talk about opportunities to get the ball out as we watch film. It’s no different than the way it’s been – we’ve done that since I was with the Giants. It’s part of your defense.”

The Patriots are about to seal their 12th straight winning season under Belichick. Turnover differential is arguably the biggest reason why.

Only twice in Belichick’s 13 seasons have they had a negative number. In 2000, his first season, they were minus-2 and finished 5-11. In 2005, they were minus-6, the worst in his 13 seasons but still finished 10-6 and won the AFC East.

Since 2005, they have posted six straight seasons of plus turnover differential and are well on their way to making it seven.

Usually this is a team stat but there’s two stars on this team that have perfected it – Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich, each with five. Ninkovich has recorded all of his on strip sacks this season, matching Mike Vrabel in 2007 for the franchise record. Why is he so good at stripping it and recovering it as opposed to some other guys who look clumsy trying to pick up the ball?

“It’s just like everybody else, some guys are better at some things than others,” Belichick said “Other guys are better at some things than they are at other things. I don’t know. A big part of causing fumbles is awareness, timing speed can play into it, coming up from behind – that’s usually a good opportunity to cause fumbles is by a defensive back or a linebacker, could be by a defensive linemen running down guys from behind, backs, receivers, quarterbacks, whoever it happens to be.

“Those are usually good strip opportunities. He’s had a number of those. Rob has good awareness, he’s a good athlete and he does a lot of things well. He runs well, has good quickness, catches the ball well – he’s had a bunch of interceptions for us. I think guys that have those kind of skills have a little more propensity to find the ball, knock it out and come up with it cleanly.

Does Belichick watch how opponents’ ball handlers carry the ball?

“Carry it, throw it, yeah,” he said. “Again, whatever opportunities we have. When we see certain types of plays, certain techniques, we point those out to the players – If we were in this situation, we would have an opportunity to be in the throwing lane or disrupt the ball or strip it out or if we read this, we would have a chance to undercut the route and intercept it or whatever it happens to be. As we’re watching plays we talk about those things, sure. Maybe it’s not on that particular play because of what the other team’s defense is in but we’d say, ‘OK, if we were in this defense, if we were here or if you were in this position, then this is the play you would want to try to make.’ Then there would be a drill, maybe we wouldn’t be doing it that day, but a drill that we have done that we would talk about and say, ‘OK, here’s an example of how we would use this drill or this technique.’ Yeah sure, we talk about it all the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Bill Belichick, Brandon Spikes, Miami Dolphins, Mike Vrabel
Trying to figure out why the Patriots would kick the tires on veteran tight end Dallas Clark 05.18.12 at 1:14 pm ET
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Dallas Clark reportedly visited with the Patriots on Tuesday. (AP photo)

The Patriots had tight end Dallas Clark visit Foxboro on Tuesday, according to Shalise Manza-Young of the Boston Globe. Clark, who will turn 33 next month, has impeccable credentials — the former All-Pro has 427 catches in nine years in the NFL, including a whopping 100 in 2009. As the old core continues to be dismantled in Indy, it appears that the free agent will be the next to officially leave the Colts.

Despite Clark’s resume, on the surface, it appears to be a puzzling move — New England has two premiere young tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and they added a veteran in Daniel Fells over the course of the offseason. But one thing worth noting is that the 6-foot-3, 252-pounder is represented by agent Neil Cornrich, who has worked very closely with Belichick in the past. How closely? Cornrich has worked as Belichick’s lawyer in the past, and has steered some relatively under-the-radar players in Belichick’s direction before, including Stephen Neal (after the former college wrestling champion was looking for a place to play professional football) and Mike Vrabel, who was working as a backup linebacker in Pittsburgh before he signed with the Patriots prior to the 2001 season.

Whether it’s Belichick doing a favor for a friend or genuine interest on the part of New England, it’s not a big surprise that the Patriots would at least bring him to kick the tires and see what he has left. If he can still play and the money is right, New England would find a spot for him. The Patriots have added wide receivers at a dizzying pace this offseason — why not an extra tight end or two? After all, Clark passes what we call the Rosevelt Colvin test: Belichick has raved about him over the years, often unprovoked. Check out this quote from Belichick on Clark from 2009:

“He’s a terrific player, very hard to defend,” Belichick said of Clark. “He pretty much can do everything that you would ask a tight end to do. He’s a great vertical receiver. He can get open on the short and intermediate routes. He’s a good possession receiver on third down and in the red area. He’s good after the catch. He does a good job blocking.”

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Dallas Clark, Daniel Fells, Mike Vrabel
Rating the Roster, Part 2 02.11.12 at 7:50 pm ET
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Vince Wilfork is our highest-rated defensive player. (AP)

With the 2011 season in the rear-view mirror — and the Patriots facing a number of key personnel decisions — it seems like a good time to break down the current 53-man roster, taking a look at who might be the most valuable members of the franchise.

We arrived at this list by considering a combination of factors, including overall ability, positional versatility, expectations, contract situation and place on the depth chart. We also looked at what might be best described as intangibles — loosely defined as a mixture of clubhouse character and willingness to work. In all, it helped us determine the overall value of each player within the Patriots system.

A quick note: The 53 players were taken straight from New England’s postseason media guide, the most up-to-date listing available. That means injured players such as Andre Carter, Mike Wright, Jermaine Cunningham, Dan Koppen and Ras-I Dowling, as well as practice squadders, are not included for purposes of this exercise.

We started with No. 53 through No. 26. Here’s No. 25 through No. 1:

25. Punter Zoltan Mesko: A borderline Pro Bowler, Mesko had an excellent year and was singled out earlier this season by an NFL scout we spoke with who acknowledged his work when it came to helping the Patriots win the battle of field position, especially early in games when New England was struggling to score points. Should be one of the best in the league for years to come.

24. Defensive back Sterling Moore: Released by the Raiders in September, he ended up playing significant minutes down the stretch and into the postseason. He made what was likely the defensive play of the year when he knocked the ball out of the hands of Baltimore’s Lee Evans in the AFC championship game. Regardless of what the Patriots do in free agency or the draft, he has played his way into the regular rotation of defensive backs going forward.

23. Tackle Sebastian Vollmer: It was a lost season for the big German, who struggled with back and foot issues for much of the season. Presuming that left tackle Matt Light will return as the starting left tackle in 2012, Vollmer will face a fight for his starting job next year at the right tackle spot with Nate Solder.

22. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski: A very good year for Gostkowski, who remains one of the more steady and consistent kickers in the league.

21. Defensive lineman Kyle Love: Love is likely the best and most consistent young defensive lineman on the roster. He played roughly half the snaps for the Patriots this season at the defensive tackle spot, and gained a wealth of knowledge playing much of the season alongside Vince Wilfork. It will be interesting to watch his progression into 2012, especially with a lockout-free offseason.

20. Wide receiver Deion Branch: He’s not the receiver he once was, but he maximizes the tools that are still at his disposal, including his smarts, his knowledge of the game and his relationship with Tom Brady. Prior to a couple of ill-timed drops in the Super Bowl, he still showed a knack for coming up big in big moments. A free agent, he’s one of the really intriguing decisions the Patriots face this offseason.

19. Running back Stevan Ridley: An interesting rookie year — he showed genuine flashes of greatness at times, running the ball for 5.1 yards per carry with real explosiveness. But there were a couple of fumbles late in the season, which ultimately meant that an occasionally promising year ended on something of a sour note. With a good offseason (lockout-free), he could push BenJarvus Green-Ellis for the role of lead back in 2012.

18. Defensive end Mark Anderson: One of the pleasant free agent surprises of 2012 (along with Andre Carter and Brian Waters), Anderson saw his role expand over the course of the season from that of a pure third-down pass rusher to a more complete defender. He’s not quite a complete three-down player yet in the New England system, but certainly progressed over the course of the season. Like Carter, his better-than-expected performance on a one-year deal will leave the Patriots with a decision to make at the start of free agency.

17. Tackle Nate Solder: The Patriots’ Rookie of the Year, he had a very good rookie season, working as a right and left tackle, a part-time tight end as well as getting reps on special teams. (According to Pro Football Focus, he was eighth on the offense in total snaps with 1,044, more than veterans like Dan Connolly, Deion Branch and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.) He struggled in the Super Bowl, but will almost certainly push Vollmer for the starter’s job at right tackle in 2012.

16. Running back Danny Woodhead: An up-and-down season for Woodhead, but when he was on, it was clear he’s emerged as a mostly positive heir to Kevin Faulk as the teams’ third-down/changeup back. (He’s not the blocker Faulk is, but has shown himself to be a statistical equal in several other areas.) Woodhead had a very good Super Bowl, and stands ready to be an integral part of the New England offense going forward.

15. Cornerback Devin McCourty: A mixed bag this season for McCourty, who struggled mightily in coverage over the first half of the season but did show some improvement over the second half, returning to his old physical self. He flashed some versatility late in the regular season and into the playoffs with a move to safety on third down and other passing situations, and he didn’t appear overwhelmed when he made the switch. Like Julian Edelman, he’ll bear watching in minicamps and other OTA’s when it comes to where he lines up. What the Patriots ultimately decide to do with him could have a sizable impact on the rest of the secondary.
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Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Andre Carter, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Bill Belichick
Take me to your leader: Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo now in charge of Patriots’ defense 01.18.12 at 8:57 pm ET
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Vince Wilfork (AP)

FOXBORO — The last time the Patriots faced the Ravens in the postseason, the New England defense was a fundamentally rudderless ship.

Caught in the throes of transition, New England was trying to take the first few steps beyond the Tedy Bruschi/Rodney Harrison/Richard Seymour/Mike Vrabel era, and made several missteps along the way, both when it came to personnel and off-field chemistry. In many cases, the veterans who were around wanted no part of being a leader (or were simply lousy at the job), while the young guys who might have had leadership potential didn’t feel like it was their place to speak out.

Two years later, the Patriots are back in the playoffs against Baltimore, and the leadership situation for New England on the defensive side of the ball is far different than it was in 2009. In the time since that hideous postseason defeat, the Patriots made a clear effort to flush out anyone who might have been a problem in the locker room. In their place, new leaders have emerged. Two guys who were a little cautious about speaking up in 2009 now have no such problems. Vince Wilfork — who delivered a memorable rant before the start of the 2010 season about the need for a new era of leadership with the Patriots — has emerged as a bonafide defensive leader, while linebacker Jerod Mayo has also stepped forth to put his imprint on this team.

While Wilfork’s leadership skills have come to the fore when it comes to working with the other defensive linemen, Mayo’s has been more across the board. This offseason, it was Mayo who provided the spark when it came to organizing workouts, and watching a few minutes of those unofficial practices, it was clear that Mayo was running the defense.

Wilfork, who said Mayo “by far (is) one of the best leaders that we have on this team,” acknowledged that while Mayo was a special player from the start, it took a few years before he got used to the idea of being a leader. Part of that likely stemmed from the fact that at that time, the rookie was part of a defense that included veterans like Bruschi, Vrabel, Harrison and Seymour. But when all those guys departed within months of each other, he was quickly pushed into the spotlight.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Jerod Mayo, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour
Rob Ninkovich owns Tim Tebow while reminding Pats fans of Mike Vrabel 01.15.12 at 1:42 am ET
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Rob Ninkovich never let Tim Tebow out of his sights - or grasp - all night. (AP)

FOXBORO — Rob Ninkovich has heard the whispers turn into full-fledged screams throughout the course of the season.

Tom Brady makes up for all the failings of the 32nd ranked defense in the NFL. The Patriots won’t go anywhere in the playoffs because of their defense. The secondary will eventually get burned for a big play at a bad time.

Following New England’s 45-10 throttling of Tim Tebow and the Broncos Saturday night in frigid Foxboro, what does he think of all of that criticism now?

“Just like all season, in one ear and out the other,” Ninkovich said with a good-natured smile beaming through his mountain-man beard.

Flying all over the field like Mike Vrabel used to do in the last decade, Ninkovich was all over the place Saturday night – in a very controlled way – keeping an eye on Tebow and not losing containment on the triple-option.

But it was was a play that he made on Tebow on Denver’s first drive that might have set the tempo on defense for the night, a night that ended with Tebow completing just 9-of-26 passes for 136 yards. On Denver’s first drive, Tebow escaped on 3rd-and-5 and ran 14 yards for a first down. Willis McGahee ran 19 yards up the middle to the Patriots 38.

Then two plays later, Ninkovich broke through and before Tebow could raise his arm, he sacked the Broncos quarterback, forcing a fumble. Brandon Spikes landed on the ball at the Patriots 41. Tom Brady would capitalize with another TD drive and the Patriots were in business, up 14-0.

All because Ninkovich, like Vrabel did years back, was able to play his run responsibilities while picking the right time to rush the QB.

“It was a good play, just turning the momentum in our favor to get that 14-0 lead,” Ninkovich said. “It’s great whenever you can get the sack, fumble and recovery. It’s a good play all the way around. I was happy I was able to do that and help the team.

“It definitely helps the momentum of the game and get the defense really pumped up and into the game, like, ‘Hey, we can control the game. We can give our offense the ball anytime.’ We just have to continue that mentality.”

Remember when Vrabel had two sacks of Jake Delhomme – including a forced fumble – in Super Bowl XXXVIII, making him an MVP candidate before Tom Brady led the game-winning drive?

On Saturday, Ninkovich finished with 1.5 sacks, five total tackles, two quarterback hits, one tackle for a loss and a forced fumble.

But Ninkovich also remembers what happened on Dec. 18 in Denver. Tebow was able to get to the edge, along with Willis McGahee and Lance Ball, on their way to 173 rushing yards in the first quarter. On Tebow’s first touchdown run, it was Ninkovich who was shedded by the big quarterback – something that seemed to inspire him Saturday night.

“The first series down in Denver, they were able to get the ball to the edge a couple of times and, being an outside linebacker, that falls on my shoulders, so I took that to heart,” he said. “Coming into this game, I wanted to be sure I was able to do that.”

That 14-yard run by Tebow on the opening drive Saturday was the biggest he had. Tebow would run the ball four more times, losing two yards in the process. And all because Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo were able to keep containment.

“It’s difficult because when you’re out there playing and you want to go one way because you see him, you know he’s got the ability to get outside and really hurt your team,” Ninkovich said. “It’s about discipline and keeping containment. You have to do that with a quarterback like that. If you don’t, that’s when big plays can happen. We were able to contain him tonight.”

Read More: 2012 playoffs, Denver Broncos, Mike Vrabel, New England Patriots
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