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Thursday Morning 3rd and Long: Three Rings and Counting

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After only 7 full-pad practices, it's hard to gather many negatives from the Patriots' 47-12 drubbing of the Jacksonville Jaguars in last Thursday's first preseason game of 2011. Hard, but not impossible.

Let's start out with the positives: first and foremost, middle linebacker Dane Fletcher has been on the tip of many tongues following his outstanding performance in a starting role. The 2010 undrafted free agent out of Montana State wore the green sticker on his helmet, emblematic of the defensive play caller. Though Fletcher will almost certainly not occupy that role during the regular season, he had New England's defense firing on all cylinders after a relatively shaky start. On the growing pains of relaying signals, Dane had this to say about his learning curve: "For the first few plays, there's a lot going on in your headset, a lot going on everywhere with adjustments and whatnot. Once you get settled in - and I felt like I got settled in after the first drive - I think our defense played pretty well after that." 

Fletcher patrolled the middle of the defensive field, occasionally firing up to the line of scrimmage to either feign a blitz or attack right through the Jaguars' offensive front. Number 52 played with speed and aggression, rarely hesitating while flying through the line multiple times to register a sack and a few tackles for loss. Mark Farinella quotes Bill Belichick on Dane's progression in his second year: "Those are things that he really wouldn't have been comfortable doing last year," he added. "Somebody else would have been telling him. This year, he's helping to tell other people. With that understanding and that confidence, it allows the player to become more aggressive and to react quicker because there's just less thinking involved and he's just more assured of what he's doing."

With Brandon Spikes' recent injury woes, Dane has seen a bulk of the snaps alongside Jerod Mayo for the first defensive team, and I for one would love to see Fletcher in a starting role at some point in the season. Although Spikes may supposedly carry an edge in run-stopping ability, Dane has shown no lack of strength when matched up with blockers, and also exhibited an ability to recover when getting behind a play to make his way back into the scrum. Fletcher carries a great attitude about his role in the depth of linebackers the Patriots possess: "There's a lot of competition and I'm at the bottom of the depth chart," he said. "So I don't feel any leeway whatsoever. Every play I'm out there and every practice I'm out there, it's to earn a spot and keep a spot on this team." If Fletcher continues to play with the same aggression, speed, and edge he showed against Jacksonville, there's no doubt he'll maintain a steady stream of reps once the regular season begins.

Mike Reiss wrote a great piece in the offseason about Fletcher getting leaner and quicker, while still managing to put on around 6 pounds of weight- getting up to around 248 pounds (only two less than Brandon Spikes' listed weight).  Bill Belichick isn't sure that either factors into his obviously improved skillset on the field: "I don't know how much quickness and strength he's gained," he said Friday. "It might be a little bit because he has worked hard and he's in good condition, but I'd say more than that it's probably his reactions, being able to recognize things quicker, anticipate them. Dane has started to take on a role, especially last night as the middle linebacker, of making calls, making adjustments, helping to tell other people what to do or how we're going to handle a certain formation or a certain set." Dane's reactions were certainly on display last Thursday. He seemed to be involved in almost every play from sideline to sideline, generating pressure when called upon but also taking up blockers and swallowing the running back on multiple occasions.

Another positive that has generated little discussion was the excellent play of another 2010 undrafted free agent, defensive tackle Kyle Love. Though he didn't register much on the stat sheet, Love carried an intimidating presence in the middle of the defensive line. In the past, Kyle has been compared to Vince Wilfork, and has even gone so far as to say he's tailored his style of play since college to more closely resemble the 2010 Pro Bowler. It definitely showed last Thursday. Love looked fantastic, manhandling his way through the offensive line on several occasions while holding firm against double teams on others. While re-watching the first half of the preseason game, I was shocked to see just how much presence Love had on the field alongside fellow starter Darryl Richard, who himself registered 2 sacks. The lack of Kyle's numbers on a stat sheet might mean something to those who crave numerical validation in the current fantasy culture of football, but I'm positive that his effect will be reflected in New England's film room. At the very least, we have to recognize Love's fantastic approach.  Karen Guregian recently quoted Kyle on his attitude towards his coach: "It's always been like that. I love playing for the Patriots. I love being around the coaches," Love said. "(Bill) Belichick, he's a great coach. I want to give my all for him. That's the kind of respect I have for him. So my intensity level is going to stay like this. I always feel like I gotta fight (for him), so I'm going to continue to think like that." Impressive play? Check. Fawning attitude towards the best coach in football? CHECK.

Keeping on the subject of defensive lineman, I was also very impressed with Landon Cohen and Mark Anderson. Cohen was an addition to the Patriots in 2010, playing only in 2 games, but has already shown glimpses of promise leading into this season. His pass rush capabilities were frequently aided by the excellent play of Anderson, who was lined up in multiple positions across the defensive line and played often in pass rushing situations on third down. Andersons' play has been a hot topic, and even gained him the best of fans in one Bill Belichick: "Mark is a versatile player, a real hard-working kid. He competes hard on the practice field; very attentive, wants to do well, puts a lot into it, can play both sides,'' Belichick said. "He actually played inside in Chicago as well - some 3-technique and worked some as an inside pass rusher, so he's pretty adept when he lines up outside and comes inside."


Belichick seems to believe that Anderson will have a lot to contribute to the Patriots' pressure and pass rush going forward: "He's flashed some good pass rushes through the course of camp in one-on-ones and in our team work and then again [against the Jaguars]. He's definitely adjusting to what we're asking him to do and he's got a pretty good skill set. He's an experienced player who's rushed against a lot of good players in this league, so he has a good set of moves and skills to attack them with. We'll see where it goes from here, but I'm glad we have him.'' Mark- much like Kyle Love- had a fantastic game that failed to register on the stat sheet but was obvious when examining his effect on the offense. There were multiple times that Anderson came within inches of a sack or directly disrupting a pass, including an opportunity in the first half of action where the former Chicago Bear nearly swatted the ball away from Blaine Gabbert in mid-throwing motion.

On to the negatives; as a University of Connecticut alumnus, I'm very disappointed in the regression of Darius Butler from his 2009 rookie season into the first preseason game of 2011. Butler's coverage was often exposed by the Jaguars, allowing Jacksonville to convert in several situations where the Patriots defense had moved upfield towards Gabbert and forced the rookie to make a quick decision. Upon second examination, it appears that Darius has trouble adjusting to cuts in routes and making sharp turns when the receiver for which he is responsible comes back towards the ball. Darius showed the ability to make tackles when he was beaten for receptions, but overall still had a rather disappointing showing to begin the 2011 season. Will Butler have a role in the secondary once the season begins? Rookie second round pick Ras-I Dowling still being sidelined will help the case for Butler having a roster spot.  At the very least, Butler's conditioning is on point- as he was seen playing every defensive snap for New England in the preseason opener.

The second negative I take from Thursday was Aaron Hernandez's apparent contracting of the fumbles. Hernandez, who did not register a single turnover in 48 touches (rushing or receiving) during 2010, opened the Patriots' first offensive possession of the 2011 preseason with a fumble and nearly recorded a second later in the first half after making a great catch and closing in on the endzone. Hernandez was able to recover and the Pats were able to punch the ball in later for 6 points, so not much was made of the fumble- but if this were a regular season game, you can bet that Coach Belichick would not be happy about a fumble on the 1 yard line. Although Aaron is by all accounts having a fantastic camp, his inability to secure the ball could have negative implications for his role within New England's offense during the season, especially considering the hype surrounding Rob Gronkowski's progression into his sophomore season. It's possible that the lack of full-pad practices has impacted Hernandez's ability to receive a hard hit and retain possession of the ball, and one can be certain that opposing defensive players will be doing their part to test that aspect of the second-year Florida Gators' product's game. Patrick Chung must be aware of this fact, as by all accounts he had a herculean hit on Hernandez in red zone work last Monday.  Hernandez said this about the hit: "You need to know what it's like to get hit," Hernandez said. "And when you get hit like that, you need to learn to hold onto the ball, which we know from last week."

And now, back to the positives. Ridley me this: how surprised were any of you that our third round pick out of Louisiana State University- who was supposedly drafted to eventually usurp the fullback role from Sammy Morris- was able to not only utilize a hard-charging style and break through initial resistance of the Jaguars defense but also show fantastic speed in breaking to the outside and soft hands in gathering seven receptions? I've heard some discussion about Stevan taking over BenJarvus Green-Ellis's position in the depth chart, but let's not get ahead of ourselves- the "Law Firm" still carries the incredible statistic of not having fumbled throughout college and into the NFL. BenJarvus will definitely be our starting running back entering the season, but having the slightly larger Ridley in New England's stable is certainly something to be excited about. He managed to make a few good blocks when called upon, another huge attribute necessary for a back who is the last line of defense for Tom Brady in passing situations. Some may have expected Stevan to look good in his debut, but no one could have predicted his stat line would include 111 all-purpose yards and 3 total touchdowns.

I wrote last week about Taylor Price and the buzz building regarding his potential during this preseason camp. Taylor could not have impressed me more, amassing 105 receiving yards and one picture-perfect touchdown reception from Brian Hoyer. Price's body control on the reception was amazing, as he was able to completely turn his body to catch the ball thrown behind him in step, snag the football on its backside, and retain possession while getting both toes in bounds.  Price on his eye-opening first professional touchdown reception: "It's a baseline in cut. [Brian] Hoyer made the right read, put the ball in the spot and I've got to get myself in the back of the end zone, tap the feet down and be ready to catch, squeeze the ball and drag the feet." Taylor showed good physicality and great speed, and will be an invaluable weapon at receiver going forward. Much ado has been made regarding his position on the depth chart, and currently it would seem he hovers around fourth or fifth at wideout based upon how one views Julian Edelman. Deion Branch has never been the most durable player, so it's likely that Price could spell Branch if the latter encounters any difficulties during the season. It's almost a given at this point that Taylor will be ahead of the under-performing Brandon Tate in targets, and Tate was able to grab 24 receptions last year. I expect Taylor to get close to or beyond that number, even if he remains behind Chad Ochocinco and Deion Branch at the outside receiver position.

The last big positive to take from New England's first preseason contest was obviously the play of our two backup quarterbacks, rookie Ryan Mallett and third year professional Brian Hoyer. Both look composed in the pocket, and if analyze the performance of the Patriots' quarterback position as a whole against Jacksonville we'll see a stat line of 27 completions in 40 attempts for 335 yards and two touchdowns. Mallett's performance was even good enough to merit ESPN's John Clayton ranking him highest among rookie quarterback performers.  


This Week In Albert Haynesworth

Last week I promised a more in-depth breakdown on Albert Haynesworth, but unfortunately to this point it would appear that Albert is either unable to make his way onto the practice field, or the Patriots' coaches know what they have in Haynesworth and are keeping him away from the media and full contact practice, much like Randy Moss in 2007. I did like this quote from Pepper Johnson on perception versus reality with Haynesworth, and take this quote to imply that the Patriots indeed know what they have in Albert: "He's very unlike what a lot of you read about," Johnson added. "Albert is a great guy. It's kind of hard to see some of the things that you hear that are negative about him coming from that person. I've seen in other aspects and from other people in general... You need to know both sides of the story. I think Albert is a great person. He's been trying to work his way out on the field, and he's been tremendous in the classroom (to) date. I'm expecting a lot from him."

Johnson on if it's been difficult to coach Haynesworth: "Before he came into the door, that's when a lot of people were telling me, ‘Hey, he must be some guy that's hard to deal with.' But I'm born and raised in Detroit, so, I don't know if there are too many people that would be hard for me to deal with," Johnson said. "I'm not a person who sits up and judges. The Albert Haynesworth that came through the door and shook my hand and started talking to me, that's the person I'm dealing with. His past is his past."

Why I'm pretty sure that the Patriots did not pick up Haynesworth, just to cut him and set an example as was recently posited: "I think Albert has been great since he's been here. He's worked hard. He's done more than really what we've asked him to do. He's put in a lot of extra time and a lot of extra effort to get back on the field, to study, to catch up on things from a playbook standpoint that's he a little behind on." - Bill Belichick


More Great Quotes from/about Pepper Johnson

-On "experimenting" with the 4-3 and different formations throughout camp: "Experimenting - that word scared me when you started off with experimenting. But we're always going to throw out different formations at the defensive group just to have the communication [and] guys getting adjusted, and from our standpoint, different blocking schemes that we might see from Kansas City - teams that [we play] later on in the season that show stuff early in the year. That's just a part of preparation. If we have that opportunity then [there are] a few more runs, a few more formations, shifts in motion that we might throw out there just to get the guys prepared, and that's what we're doing; that's what training camp is for."

-When being questioned about the difficulties of coaching new faces:
Q: What's the most challenging aspect for you having all of these new players coming in?
PJ: Bill Belichick.
Q: I'm sorry?
PJ: Bill Belichick.

-Mark Anderson on working with Johnson: "He's a great defensive line coach. He goes over every day how specifically he wants us to shed blocks, about attacking the blocker, squeezing the tight ends, just little details," Anderson said after practice Sunday. "We're hitting every detail there is as a defensive lineman."


This Year in Brandon Meriweather

Brandon Meriweather's inability to turn the corner as a starting safety in New England has become almost comical at this point. It seems like every year we are having a discussion as to whether or not Meriweather should be traded. Actually, it doesn't just seem; it IS a conversation that Patriots' fans have year in and year out.  Richard Hill wrote a retrospective pregame piece last year before New England's week 16 contest against the Buffalo Bills, referring to our week 3 victory over the hapless Bills in which Brandon struggled: "Meriweather just seems like a player who will never realize his potential and I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots used one of their second round picks in the draft on a top free safety prospect." 

At certain points last season, Bill Belichick's faith in his 2007 first round pick waivered, and it would seem that things have not changed given Sergio Brown's recent 1st string practice reps alongside Patrick Chung. Meriweather's 12 interceptions over the past three years would indicate a definite playmaker quality, but he plays much too inconsistently for Belichick's defensive system and at times last year was a liability because of his aggressive hitting style. New England's director of player personnel, Nick Caserio, recently gave his opinion of Brandon's progression as a Patriot: "Brandon is a player that had a lot of versatility coming out of Miami. He played some corner, some safety, actually played a little bit of star," Caserio said. "We've tried him in a number of different roles. Brandon has been a productive player since he's been here. A lot of experience in our system, he's a talented player. Is he perfect? No. Is he working hard to get better? That's the most important thing. I think the biggest thing is, each year is kinda its own entity."

Nick does not go as far to explicitly say that Meriweather has been a disappointment, but I think that if we read in between the lines we can interpret that Brandon's production is not what the Patriots' front office projected it to be at this point. I agree that "the Party Starter" is talented, and has playmaking abilities; but at this point, I'll take a reliable amount of consistent production over an unreliable and inconsistent playmaker. In his most recent mailbag, Mike Reiss seems to agree: "Sanders is exactly what they need at safety right now, a steadying presence who might not be a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but you know what you're going to get him from on a daily basis. I've often felt Belichick would prefer the player who might be a consistent 7 on a scale of 1-10 over the player who might flash a 9 one day, but then a 5 the next. I think that is the dynamic in play at safety right now, with Sanders in the straight 7 category and Brandon Meriweather the more volatile 5 and 9 guy." Sanders has been kept out of practice as of late, so it would seem that Bill is hoping Sergio Brown might turn into the "straight 7" type of player that James was. It hurts that New England lacks real depth at the safety position, as Jarrad Page made his way to the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this offseason. One integral part of having a successful offense tailored around the Patriots' apparent new emphasis on pass rush is having the coverage to make that rush successful; with the limited depth of reliable secondary players, Patriots' fans have to hope that our projected main contributors at cornerback and safety stay healthy throughout the season.

Having said all this, I can't hyperbolize the situation. I have always been a fan of Meriweather's, and I enjoy watching his hard-charging style. Having Brandon either starting or being the third man in the safety rotation is certainly not a make-or-break situation for the success of the 2011 Patriots. With him approaching the end of his current tenure with New England, we can at least be assured that he'll put in his best effort to be able to capitalize on free agency, whether it be with the Patriots or elsewhere. I think that many Pats fans carry a similar sentiment- we love seeing his hard hits patrolling the midfield, but we abhor the terrible angles he takes in certain situations that end in his tackling his own teammate out of bounds.

No Huddle 

- I took notes during last Thursday's game that Matthew Slater, the Patriots 2008 5th round pick out of UCLA, really impressed me with his speed on special teams and a fantastic catch from Brian Hoyer.  Slater led the Patriots with 21 special teams tackles last year, and seems to have carved himself out a niche in that regard.  If he can flash more potential as a receiver as he did with that single downfield reception, I think Brandon Tate might be skating on even thinner ice than was initially thought.

- Nate Solder has been taking first team reps in the continued absence of Matt Light this week (he was recently taken off the active/PUP list), and it appears as if he'll make the start against Tampa Bay.  Solder looked even bigger than advertised in the first preseason game, and if he can continue to play error-free football while protecting our most valuable asset it would seem Patriots fans have about 13 feet of young offensive tackle to boast about.

- As we approach roster cuts, the competition between grizzled veteran and young buck will be a great dynamic on the practice field.  Our defensive line has been performing very well as of late, and it will be interesting to see what kind of combination of veteran and unproven young talent Belichick will decide for his final team.  I've heard a lot of debate on whether Bill will use the PUP list to stock the team with reserves in case some of his initial roster decision do not play out during the first 6 weeks of the season.  The names I'm hearing most frequently in this regard are Kevin Faulk, Shaun Ellis, and Ron Brace.

- I'll have more on the state of our linebackers next week, but I think the competition to start is going to get really intense.  Rob Ninko-Vrabel (tell me you don't see 50 and daydream) looked pretty good against the Jaguars, and was often a fifth body on the line.  I'm pulling for Dane Fletcher, and obviously Jerod Mayo will be starting.  Will Brandon Spikes find himself pushed out of a starter role when he returns to the field?


Preparing for Tampa Bay

In Coach Belichick's own words: "Tampa, really, I think has been an impressive team. Last year they were 10-6 and played a lot of good football. [They] really dominated Kansas City last week in the first preseason game. They're fast. They're aggressive. I mean, they're obviously young. They have a lot of talented players and they play at a high tempo. So, I think this is a lot different type of style than what we saw last week from Jacksonville, so it will be interesting to see how we match up [against] not only different players, but a different style of play. So, that's where we're at here today."

- What I'll be looking for in Tampa Bay:  Quarterback Josh Freeman and running back Legarrette Blount, specifically because my fantasy football leagues are nearing their draft days.

- What I'll be looking for in New England:  Though most of our primary contributors from 2010 were absent in the first preseason game, most are expected to play against the Buccaneers.  Taylor Price is apparently nursing an injury and will most likely not play, which is unfortunate because I was hoping to see him catching at least a ball from Tom Brady.  Hopefully we'll get to finally see Chad Ochocinco on the field.  All reports have been that Wes Welker has had a great camp and looks nearly unstoppable in the slot, so I'm hoping to see him returning to the form of the top reception-getter in the league.  Finally, I'm hoping to see an improvement in the communication of our secondary.


Next Week

Who knows?  Obviously, I'll break down our performance against the Buccaneers, and give a preview of what to look for against Ndamukong Suh and the Detroit Lions.  Let me know if there is anything else in the comment section that you'd like me to include in my long winded breakdown!