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Jabaal Sheard: Familiarity with Patriots, Mike Lombardi made it easy to settle on New England as free agent 03.20.15 at 3:45 pm ET
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Pass rusher Jabaal Sheard joins the Patriots via Cleveland. (Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

Pass rusher Jabaal Sheard joins the Patriots via Cleveland. (Brian Kersey/Getty Images)

He signed as a free agent with the Patriots last week, but Jabaal Sheard has been on New England’s radar for a long time.

The Patriots’ interest in the edge rusher dates back to 2011 when he was coming out of college. That’s when he took a visit with New England, and in that time, he was struck by how the Patriots handled their business.

“It was real business-like, real focused; you could tell that it was going to be all business once you get there,” he said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “I mean, it was a bit nerve-wrecking, I can’t lie. I was a bit nervous.”

That previous visit — combined with Sheard’s background with former Browns GM Mike Lombardi, who is now with the Patriots — set the stage nicely for him signing with New England earlier this month as a free agent.

Sheard, who also drew interest from Seattle and Tampa Bay, said his stint with Lombardi “definitely” play a role in his new deal with the Patriots.

“I think that was huge. I think that’s what got New England interested in me right away,” Sheard said. “Obviously, he believed in me coming out as a rookie into the league and seeing what I could do. I think that’s going to translate to this year.”

One thing the Patriots hope translates is an ability to consistently get after the quarterback. Sheard’s pass rush numbers have dipped every year he’s been in the league, going from 8.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011 to two last year. Sheard pulled no punches when asked to assess his game the last few years: It wasn’t a switch in Cleveland’s scheme or injury, but his own level of execution.

“It was just me not executing, me not sticking to the game plan,” he said. “But I’m more focused; I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been. Like I said, I look forward to getting with these coaches and learning new things. Pass rushing is about learning new things, getting comfortable and coaches helping you out along the way. I just can’t wait to get started.”

The 25-year-old Sheard has played both outside linebacker and defensive end, and said Friday he feels like he “can play anywhere up front.”

He added: “I think my main strength is knocking guys back and creating penetration in the line of scrimmage, ultimately stopping the run and being a big factor there and getting after the quarterback or dropping, whatever else may come with it. Ultimately my strength, personally I think, is knocking guys back and creating penetration.”

Sheard is also looking forward to enjoying a level of consistency in New England that wasn’t necessarily there in Cleveland.

“I envision that they have some great plan for me, just knowing the system that they run,” he said of the Patriots coaching staff. “I’ve been around three different systems in my last three years so I’m ready for whatever. I’m always ready to embrace something new and something different and I’m up for the challenge, whatever it is.”

“I definitely look forward to working with Chandler [Jones] and Rob [Ninkovich]. Those guys are definitely excited, just talking to them a little bit. I think we’ll make a nice three-[man] tandem. We’ll get after guys and create a lot of [havoc] in the backfield and on quarterbacks.”

Read More: chandler jones, Jabaal Sheard, Mike Lombardi, Rob Ninkovich
Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Defensive line 02.17.15 at 8:00 am ET
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Bill Belichick, Vince Wilfork and Matt Patricia celebrate at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick, Vince Wilfork and Matt Patricia celebrate at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand. We’ve looked at special teams, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, quarterback, offensive line, safety and cornerback and linebacker. Now, we wrap it up with defensive line:

Depth chart (regular-season stats via coaches film review): Chandler Jones (43 tackles, 6 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Alan Branch (14 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Sealver Siliga (27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Vince Wilfork (47 tackles, 1 quarterback hit, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed), Chris Jones (27 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits), Rob Ninkovich (56 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery), Joe Vellano (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit), Zach Moore (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery), Michael Buchanan (1 tackle), Dominique Easley (9 tackles, 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits) and Akeem Ayers (15 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 1 pass defensed). Jake Bequette remains on the practice squad.

Overview: The heart of the New England defense, the line was able to hold strong after a sluggish start and really one together nicely as the year developed and into the playoffs. At the center of it all was a resurgent Wilfork. The veteran had to knock a little rust off at the start of the season, but he was a huge part of the defensive success enjoyed by the Patriots over the course of the 2014 season, not only from an on-field perspective but as a leader and mentor to a group of younger defensive linemen. Along the interior, Wilfork was ably backed by youngsters Siliga and Jones, who returned to their roles as mostly complementary players.

On the edge, Ninkovich and Chandler Jones weren’t an overwhelming pass rush duo, but Ninkovich became the first member of the Pats to register three straight seasons of at least eight sacks since Hall of Famer Andre Tippett. Jones struggled with a hip injury and missed roughly two full months in the middle of the year, but Ayers — acquired from Tennessee in October — was able to provide relief as a pass rusher while holding up relatively well against the run. And Branch, who was plucked off the street in October, managed to find a role as a run-stopper and steadying part of the rotation up front.

Ultimately, it wasn’t an overwhelming defensive front, but in the spirit of good complementary football, it was more than enough to lift the Patriots over the top: In six of their final 11 games (including the playoffs), the Patriots held opposing teams under 100 yards rushing, and finished ninth in the league in rush defense (104.3 yards per game allowed).

Going forward, one of the offseason storylines worth monitoring will be what happens with Wilfork and his contractual situation. The veteran could be one of several players who might be asked to have his deal restructured in hopes of creating more financial flexibility. At the same time, most of the rest of the key parts are under contract for 2015, including 2014’s first-round selection Dominique Easley, who had recurring knee issues through the year and ended the season on injured reserve. Count on him to be a major part of New England’s defensive plans in 2015.

Best moment: Lots of moments to choose from here, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the work that the defensive front did over the course of the six-game gauntlet against (mostly) division leaders that would come to define the Patriots as the physical bunch they turned out to be. In that series, New England yielded an average of 81 rushing yards per game and just one rushing touchdown.

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Read More: Alan Branch, chandler jones, Dominique Easley, New England Patriots
Patriots’ improvement on third down helped pave way to Super Bowl title 02.09.15 at 6:00 am ET
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Rob Ninkovich, and the Patriots' third-down defense played a major part in their Super Bowl title run. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Rob Ninkovich, and the Patriots’ third-down defense played a major part in their Super Bowl title run. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“We have to get off the field, that’€™s huge. Some of the third-and-long situations we weren’t able to get off the field. I know third-and-long screens hurt us, too. Specifically that play and third and long as a whole, we need to do a better job. Obviously everything is working together, so coverage-rush, rush-coverage, everything works together. That’€™s just one area we definitely need to work on this year.” Rob Ninkovich, July 23, 2014 — the first day of training camp and media availability of the season

It was evident the Patriots defense needed to improve on third down, as dating back to the 2010 season there hadn’t been a year in which the Patriots finished higher than 20th in the league in third-down defense.

In 2013 the unit got off the field 42.7 percent of the time, 25th in the league, and 2010 was the worst season of all, as New England allowed opponents a success rate of 47.1 percent, dead last among all 32 defenses in the league.

This season was a huge improvement as the Patriots finished 16th in the NFL, getting off the field on third down 40 percent of the time, but it was in the postseason when the group took things to another level and helped lead the way to the fourth Super Bowl title in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.

In the three postseason games, the Patriots defense held opponents to just 7-for-30 (23.3 percent) on third down, including holding the Seahawks to 3-for-10 in Super Bowl XLIX.

One of the keys to getting to the Super Bowl was the Patriots’ come-from-behind win over the Ravens in the divisional round where they came back from two 14-point deficits. It was on the Ravens’ drive before Brandon LaFell’s game-winning touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter where Baltimore got inside the red zone, having first-and-goal from the 9-yard line and the game tied at 28.

The Patriots defense stepped up, including a huge Patrick Chung deflection on third down in the end zone on a pass intended for tight end Owen Daniels, which forced a Justin Tucker field goal giving the Ravens a three-point lead, instead of what could have been seven.

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Read More: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich, Super Bowl XLIX
For Patriots, creating game plan for success in Glendale starts with good week of practice in Foxboro 01.22.15 at 4:02 pm ET
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Rob Ninkovich says maximizing practice time is key when it comes to Super Bowl prep. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Rob Ninkovich says maximizing practice time is key when it comes to Super Bowl prep. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — For the Patriots, one of the big points of emphasis this week before they leave for Glendale, Arizona, next Monday is maximizing prep time while at their own facility. While the two teams have been gifted with two weeks between the conference championship and the Super Bowl, the key comes down to using your time wisely.

“You’ve got to be efficient in what you’re doing with your time, especially right now,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said before practice on Thursday. “Looking at extra tape, looking at yourself, film of yourself and the things that you need to work at are key. Right now, it’s getting better and everyone as a group — defensively, offensively, special teams — working to get better. That’s what it’s all about.”

This will mark the second Super Bowl for Devin McCourty, who indicated that its important to keep a sense of normalcy in the days leading up to departure for the Super Bowl.

“It’s huge — to be in our normal setting, coming in, going to practice and doing what we do on a normal basis,” McCourty said. “That’s kind of the easiest way to prepare and get ready to go. We can really take advantage of this time and get a lot done as far as preparing and having a little edge or a little step ahead once we go down to Arizona.

“It’s a little harder once you get in a new setting. If you can take care of a lot of things and kind of be going over it for a second time once we get into Arizona I think that’ll give us a big advantage going into the game.”

Wide receiver Brandon LaFall, who will be going to his first Super Bowl, echoed McCourty, saying that the four days worth of practice before they leave for Arizona — Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday — are vital to creating a foundation of success.

“It’s very important,” he said. “These four days we are really working on ourselves and [when we] start putting the game plan in and get the basics down. And when we get out there, the goal of everything is [to] just go over your final walkthrough of things to make sure you got everything understood.”

Read More: 2015 NFL playoffs, Brandon LaFell, Devin Harris, Rob Ninkovich
Patriots locker room reaction over Deflategate flap: ‘We’re just focusing on Seattle’ at 3:07 pm ET
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FOXBORO — A handful of Patriots players addressed the charges of under-inflated footballs in last Sunday’s AFC title game against the Colts in the locker room Thursday morning:

Special teams captain Matthew Slater: “Certainly that is something we have addressed and will continue to address. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla. Your families are really excited but we have a job to do. This is not a vacation for us. This is not a celebration. We have a job to do and at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to and that’s where our focus needs to be. As a team, to a man, we need to make sure we have our minds in the right place, our focus in the right place, and that’s playing football. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”

Slater on any worries about Deflategate? “I feel pretty confident in saying we’re just focusing on Seattle. … We’re all about focusing on what’s going on inside these doors here and there’s always going to be a lot of buzz going outside these doors, and we’ve been trained to ignore that, and we have to. We can’t allow ourselves to get caught up in positive or negative things. We just have to focus on us and doing our jobs.”

Defensive end/long snapper Rob Ninkovich: “I’m not even getting into that, because really I’m focused on what I have to do, and that’s get better today. Practice for the biggest game of my life. I’m moving on from that — I have nothing to say about that. I’m going to focus in on what my job is and that’s to play good football. I’m not even thinking about anything from the past. I’m thinking about the future.

“The only time I touch a football is if I recover it or if I’m snapping it. Or intercept it. Or causing fumbles. I’m past that. I’m looking forward ti another opportunity that you don’t get often. I’m excited — very, very excited to get this week of preparation going, and get gong in the process.”

Cornerback Kyle Arrington: “Well, I’m sure like a lot of guys have said — and I’m no different — that I don’t have anything to do with that process or that nature when it comes to the footballs. I can’t really comment. … We’re only concerned about the guys in this locker room and winning the football game.”

Arrington on whether or not he can tell if its a deflated football: “Well, considering that typically, historically, we all have the worst hands of anyone on the football field, I don’t care what condition it’s in, as long as we can catch it. … I don’t really handle the ball too often. It’s not really my concern.”

Punter Ryan Allen: “I can’t really shed any further light on the whole ball situation. We’re just focused on what we need to do this week and next week to prepare for Seattle.”

Running back Jonas Gray on Deflategate: “I have no idea. I think that’s the one thing about this entire team. We really don’t know anything about the balls and inflation. I didn’t know they even checked it beforehand. It’s one of those things where we just go out and play the game.”

Read More: 2015 NFL playoffs, Deflategate, Jonas Gray, Kyle Arrington
Julian Edelman on MFB: ‘We just so happened to do a lot of things right’ vs. Colts 01.19.15 at 12:59 pm ET
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Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman and defensive end Chandler Jones joined Middays with MFB on Monday to discuss Sunday’s rout of the Colts in the AFC championship game. To hear the interviews, go to the MFB audio on demand page.

The Patriots had their way with Indianapolis on both sides of the football Sunday night.

“They’re a good team. We just so happened to do a lot of things right,” Edelman said. “We played a complementary football game. … We were just able to execute at a high level last night. Hopefully that goes on to two weeks.”

Said Jones: “It’s good for the coaches to give out a game plan, but at the end of the day it’s up to the players to execute and buy into what the coaches are coaching. I feel like our players did a good job of buying into the coaches’ game plan, and we outexecuted the other team and it definitely showed on the scoreboard at the end of the game.”

Jones credited fellow defensive end Rob Ninkovich with having a standout game.

Chandler Jones

Chandler Jones

“I want to personally take the time to point out Rob Ninkovich‘s game that he had last night,” Jones said. “I just finished watching him. Rob had a tremendous game. It might not show on the stat sheet, but he did a really good job of pressuring Andrew Luck. Like I said, I want to shout him out. That was a great game by Rob Ninkovich.”

Edelman said he knew nothing about the controversy regarding allegedly underinflated footballs.

“I’m not even getting involved in this one,” Edelman said. “Ask coach Bill Belichick on all situations.”

Added Edelman: “Those guys [on the sideline] didn’t do anything. They’re probably just overreacting on something. It’s ridiculous, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. We’re going to just try to get better for Seattle.”

Offensive lineman Nate Solder scored a touchdown in the third quarter, catching a short pass from Tom Brady and running into the end zone. Edelman said he was happy to share the spotlight with his underappreciated teammate.

“Those big dogs, they do all the grinding work each and every week. They don’t ever get the credit they deserve,” Edelman said. “To see one of your big dogs get a touchdown, especially in such an important game, it’s always awesome. You get to see those guys, they light up like a Christmas tree. It was awesome to see that.”

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Read More: chandler jones, Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich,
Patriots defensive line looks to avoid being cut down by Ravens zone-blocking scheme 01.07.15 at 4:07 pm ET
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Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Patriots defensive front will face a unique challenge this Saturday in the Ravens zone-blocking scheme. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Patriots defensive front will face a unique challenge this Saturday in the Ravens zone-blocking scheme. (Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — This week, the Patriots will be going against a Ravens’€™ offensive line that utilizes a zone-blocking scheme. The zone-blocking front operates differently than many traditional lines in that the focus is on clearing lanes and specific spaces as opposed to blocking individual defensive linemen. The goal is to create lanes for a running back or quarterback. In this system, quickness, coordination and technique often trump size and strength.

It’s a philosophy backed by Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who implemented the system when he was an offensive coordinator in Denver and a head coach in Houston. It’s a system that Bill Belichick has schemed against several times over the years.

It’s also an approach that not all defensive linemen are crazy about, because it also calls for cut blocking — a move that calls for offensive linemen to occasionally dive at a defenders knees in hopes of taking him out of the play. It’s a completely legal maneuver, but one that could ultimately be addressed sooner-rather-than-later in the name of player safety.

When asked Tuesday if Baltimore utilizes cut blocks, Belichick flashed a small smile.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” he replied.

“The same offense they ran in Denver, the same offense they ran in Houston is the same offense Kubiak runs in Baltimore,” he added. “So, all the characteristics from those other teams are the same characteristics in Baltimore.”

When asked about the challenge of facing a zone-blocking scheme this week in the Ravens, veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said the first thing you look for are the cut blocks, utilized primarily in hopes of springing running back Justin Forsett.

“Facing a team like this, they cut block,” he said. “And then, also, they make the play-action pass look the same exact way. That’s probably one of the hardest things to figure out during the course of the play is if it’s a [bootleg] or if it’s a run. And they make it look exactly the same, so that’s a credit to them.

“It’s always challenging to face a team that runs this type of an offense, just because there are so many things that they can do off of it with the cut blocks, with the play-action pass, trying to get the ball vertical, not knowing where the running back is going to cut,” he added. “So, it gives their offense a lot of different areas that they can actually create lanes up front. So, we’re going to have to do a real good job up front of just playing good technique.”

In his first season as a starter with the Ravens, Forsett has done very well. Serving as a multidimensional threat, the Cal product ended the season with 235 carries for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns, and became the only running back in the NFL to finish with at least 1,200 rushing yards and average at least five yards per carry (5.4). The 5-foot-8, 197-pounder also has 44 catches on 59 targets for 263 yards.

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Read More: 2015 playoffs, Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, Gary Kubiak

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