Here are the key areas of focus from a Patriots' standpoint:
Stronger start desired. Is there a slower starting team in the NFL than the Patriots? It's hard to imagine so when considering this is how the Patriots have opened their first two games:
- Three-and-out after gaining six yards on offense followed by a blocked punt that was turned into a touchdown versus Miami.
- Surrendering a seven-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in which the defense was sliced up with relative ease versus Minnesota.
So with the vulnerable Raiders coming to town, it's Football 101-type stuff as to why the coaching staff has stressed a faster start this week. This is the type of situation where you don't want to give a team on the ropes the chance to recover. Don't be surprised to see an up-tempo offense right off the bat as a possible spark.
Gronkowski's snap count rises. Tight end Rob Gronkowski played 38 snaps in the season-opener before the number dipped to 28 in Week 2 against the Vikings, in part because the Patriots were so focused on the run game, and offensive tackle Cameron Fleming was used as a blocking tight end. Gronkowski, who is still rounding into form, seemed to be chomping at the bit for more action last week, and he should see plenty of time early and often in this one. Do we see noticeable progress?
Interior offensive line solidified? After rotating backup center Ryan Wendell into the mix in the season opener in place of right guard Jordan Devey, the Patriots stayed with the same five offensive linemen in Week 2 until the game was well in hand. Wendell's knee injury (he was inactive) might have been part of the consideration in sticking with the same five, and we're interested to see if that continues this week or if rookie center Bryan Stork (12 snaps in mop-up duty last week) emerges among the top unit at some point.
Revis as a matchup option. The chess piece that is cornerback Darrelle Revis was used by the Patriots' coaching staff to mostly shadow receiver Greg Jennings last week, and the results were impressive. That was a reflection of how the staff viewed Jennings as the player to take away from the Vikings, and similar to how it was with Aqib Talib early last season, there is weekly fascination in how the Patriots might employ Revis. Is it against receiver James Jones? Someone else? Or is it simply a case of playing it straight up because the Raiders aren't overly threatening?
Furthermore, the Patriots are coming off a game in which they recorded six sacks and four interceptions, and the defense should have opportunities to add to those numbers while facing rookie quarterback Derek Carr, who makes his third career start.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Raiders 14
Accountability check (what we said last week): I think Patriots players and coaches bounce back this week in a hard-fought victory. I added the coaches because the season-opening plan seemed flawed defensively, not putting the players in the best position to succeed (e.g. Chandler Jones as a 3-4 defensive end), and it was hard to tell if there was any noticeable in-game adjustment. This is a solid coaching staff and a solid team, and they should show better against the Vikings. Specifically, I think it will help that Cameron Wake isn’t on the opposite sideline. The Vikings have a good defense, but no pass-rusher with that get-off and explosion as Wake, who helped turn that game around last Sunday.
From the 'ice pick method' to iPads. Belichick was self-depreciating when talking about how he's "overwhelmed" by many of the technological advancements in today's game. "Without somebody holding my hand and helping me through it, there’s no way I could get a fraction of what I get," he said. He then reflected on how he used to write plays on cards for the Colts in '75, punch holes in them, and use the "ice pick method." Fun stuff compared to what happens today, with tablets used on the sideline. Belichick was also insightful when speaking of how the team has changed its teaching methods based on what works for today's players. For an extended look at that topic, and Belichick's tip of the cap to IT specialist Dan Famosi, the video of Belichick's remarks is on Patriots.com, as is the transcript.
Praise for McCourty. Belichick's view on safety Devin McCourty was reflected in how he answered a question on McCourty's presence helping the team rotate at the safety spot next to him. "If we had more players like Devin McCourty ... we’re lucky to have one," he said, earlier adding that he's one of the most experienced defensive backs on the team in terms of knowing the system.
Not watching a lot of college football. Asked how much college football he watched on a regular Saturday, Belichick said: "Not a lot. I watch a ton of college football from February ‘til April. Hundreds of games. During the season, not too much."
Easley's interception a surprise. When the progress of rookie defensive tackle Dominique Easley was brought up, Belichick was complimentary of the team's first-round pick. "I wouldn’t have thought that his kind of first big play would be an interception, but I think that’s kind of typical of Dominique," he said. "He’s around the ball, he has good instincts, he has good awareness. He made a really good play on the interception. He’s just a very instinctive player."
Even though all players were present for the open-media stretching portion of practice, the Patriots still have an extensive injury report.
Ten players were listed as limited participants at practice on Thursday, including linebacker Jamie Collins (thigh), running back Shane Vereen (shoulder), wide receiver Julian Edelman (back) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (knee).
The Patriots will release an updated injury report later on Friday, which will tell us the game participation levels of each player.
The team was out on the practice fields behind the stadium and players were wearing sweats and shells.
“And he came here in really good condition. He ran well. He dropped some weight; he leaned up. He worked really hard between the beginning of June and the end of July. He was definitely ready to go, had a good camp, performed very well. And caught up to all the things we were doing in a short amount of time. The more time we spent around him, the more impressed we were.”
Fleming, a 6-foot-6, 325-pound tackle out of Stanford, was selected by the Patriots in the fourth round (140th overall). In the Patriots’ 30-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, Fleming played 28 of 67 plays as a tight end, equaling tight end Rob Gronkowski’s workload.
“When you draft a guy, I don’t think you draft a tackle to play tight end,” Belichick said. “We didn’t draft [Nate] Solder to play tight end but even in his rookie year he played a lot of that position. Sometimes it just works out that way one way or another depending on your team and a little bit on the player’s skills.”
Fleming could be on a similar track as starting left tackle Nate Solder, who was a tight end during his freshman season at Colorado and also played tight end as an extra blocker in his first season with the Patriots.
“I think Cam showed us repeatedly in both practice and in preseason games, practices against Philadelphia and Washington, he could earn time on the field,” Belichick said. “Sometimes you sit in there as a staff and say how do we get our best players on the field -- get our best blockers on the field. We knew one way to do it in this case.”
Fleming is making a smooth transition to blocking at tight end, which is a bit different from playing tackle.
“It’s one guy further away from the ball,” Belichick said. “There’s a lot of different looks a tight end has to see relevant to the outside linebacker, the defensive end, the safety, sometimes the corner on the backside, slot. There’s a lot of configurations back there that are a lot different than what a tackle sees, but he has done a good job of that. Identifying them, recognizing, sorting them out, working in conjunction with either another tight end or the tackle to the inside of him.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – There is a stunning contrast between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders in the past 15 seasons.
Consider this statistic, brought to the fore this week by ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates: Since head coach Bill Belichick was hired by New England in 2000, the Raiders have had eight head coaches and 18 starting quarterbacks.
The Patriots, with one head coach and three starting quarterbacks (Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, Matt Cassel) in that span, represent stability, while the Raiders are at the opposite end of the spectrum.
The story takes on a different twist when considering that the Raiders had interviewed Belichick to be their head coach in 1998, an experience Belichick reflected fondly upon in later years.
The teams square off Sunday in New England’s home opener, and ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Bill Williamson (Raiders) discuss the matchup:
Reiss: Bill, those were strong comments from Charles Woodson after the Raiders’ loss to the Texans last Sunday. I think everyone knows where things stand with the 0-2 Raiders right now, and how this could be a make-or-break time for head coach Dennis Allen. So let’s get a bit deeper into the personnel. When Woodson was a free agent in 2013, some folks in this area were hoping the Patriots would consider signing him. How has he looked with the Raiders?
Williamson: He’s been one of the Raiders’ best defensive players at the age of 37. He had 100-plus tackles last season and has been a playmaker this season. He made a leaping interception in Week 1 against the Jets and he came back and had eight tackles in Week 2 against the Texans. Woodson will have to be accounted for by the Patriots. Also, he is a terrific leader. As you said, he was very blunt in his assessment of his team after the Raiders fell to 0-2 on Sunday. He doesn’t pull punches. Woodson is a true leader.
Mike, is there someone like this on the Patriots’ defense?
Reiss: They have a lot of them, Bill, and that was a topic of conversation after the team’s 30-7 victory over the Vikings on Sunday. It was a tough week in New England after a season-opening loss at Miami, and Bill Belichick and other players noted the role that some of the team’s leaders played in keeping the team on course. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and safety Devin McCourty are the three defensive captains, but they have quite a few others who could be as well -- Rob Ninkovich and Darrelle Revis among them.
On paper, the Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden combination at running back looks solid. How is that coming to life on the field?
Williamson: The running game was supposed to be a strength for the Raiders, but we haven’t seen it. A big reason why is the Raiders have been playing from behind and can’t establish the ground game. Coach Dennis Allen and players have noted the importance of that changing this week. Jones-Drew has a hand issue and didn’t play against Houston. McFadden didn’t have much of an impact with 37 yards on 12 carries.
Mike, do you think the Patriots’ run defense will control Oakland?
Reiss: It depends which run defense shows up --– the unit that gave up 191 rushing yards to the Dolphins in the season opener or the unit that effectively limited the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings in Week 2. I thought they got back to playing fundamentally sound football last week, making the correct decision to return Chandler Jones to an end-of-the-line role, and I would expect that to continue this week. They’ve been hurt in the past by the Wildcat, so the Raiders might try to get that going.
Bill, there are some players with New England ties on the team: UConn’s Sio Moore and Tyvon Branch. How do they fit into what the Raiders are doing?
Williamson: They are a big part of the defense. Moore is a starting linebacker and Branch starts at safety. Neither player is perfect, but they are both very active players. In his second season, Moore has a chance of being an upper-level player. Moore sat out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday with an ankle injury.
Both of these players, however, are also part of the Raiders’ biggest problem: The defense has allowed a total of 400 yards on the ground in two games. That is the beginning of Oakland’s woes.
Mike, do you think the Patriots can take advantage of Oakland’s run defense woes?
Reiss: Yes, especially after seeing the commitment they made to the run against the Vikings, playing 28 snaps with 320-pound rookie offensive tackle Cameron Fleming as an eligible receiver at tight end. They obviously didn’t have Fleming in the game to catch passes. He was there to block and they restored order at the line of scrimmage after struggling in that area in the opener. It wouldn’t be surprising if there is a similar approach this week.
Along those lines, here were a few takeaways from the "Thursday Night Football" Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Atlanta Falcons game:
Importance of directional punting: Atlanta's Devin Hester set the NFL record with his 20th career return for a touchdown on a 62-yard punt return in the second quarter, and earlier in the game had a 48-yard return that was negated because of offsetting penalties. A punter's ability to control the football and use the sideline to his advantage can be critical in negating a dangerous returner, as we saw with New England's Ryan Allen this past Sunday in Minnesota. The Buccaneers failed in this area, as they allowed Hester's dangerous return skills to be a factor.
Ball security for those who don't usually handle the football. A fumble recovery by Buccaneers safety Mark Barron on the Falcons' second drive could have been a big play in the game, but he had the ball stripped away on the return, which Atlanta recovered and later turned into a touchdown, because the ball wasn't kept tucked close to his body. Safeties like Barron don't usually carry the football, but it's a good reminder as to why all players should go through ball-security drills. That was sloppy.
Why March headlines don't necessarily result in September wins. Do a Google search from the offseason on NFL teams who were most successful in terms of a free-agent moves and the Buccaneers were widely lauded by respected voices. From that, this thought crossed the mind while watching the 0-3 Buccaneers get dominated: Those "A" and "A-minus" grades might mean it's time to revisit the grading curve. Former Patriots Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli once said something like this: "Any team can win a Super Bowl in March, but the key is building a team to win it in late January and early February." The Buccaneers might get there in time, but the optimism from earlier this year hasn't produced the expected results.
Thoughts on Mankins and Fletcher. Former Patriots Logan Mankins (starter at left guard) and Dane Fletcher (starter at middle linebacker in place of Mason Foster) played extensively. Mankins is playing through a knee injury and it showed on some plays -- he was driven back by blitzing linebacker Paul Worrilow in the second quarter. Mankins still brings a nastiness to the field, as his first play ended with a powerful shove of Kroy Biermann into the turf. Fletcher led the defensive huddle and was active with a pass deflection on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan's first incomplete pass. At times, his over-aggressiveness was exploited in the running game, but he generally seemed to account well for himself and was effective as a blitzer up the middle.
Mayo's wife, Chantel, shared a picture of Mayo with the couple's new baby on Thursday morning:
Jones, who is tied for the team lead with three special teams tackles, has been hobbled the last two days. While he was listed as not having participated Wednesday, reporters did see him at the start of practice.
On the Raiders' side, veteran running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who missed last Sunday's loss to the Texans, was upgraded to limited participation along with cornerback Carlos Rogers and defensive lineman Justin Tuck.
Gronkowski ready for anything: Tight end Rob Gronkowski is past the need for a big hit to put him into football mode. “Body feeling good. ... I’ve taken a few hits now, a few tackles, a few blocks and everything now,” Gronkowski said. “I’m over that stage, ready to play football, whatever contact comes, comes. I’m ready for anything.”
Revis tips cap to Woodson: Revis admires Raiders safety Charles Woodson, especially the fact that Woodson is in his 17th year in the league and still makes plays. "I’m still in year eight right now -- focusing on that," Revis said. "Big fan of [Woodson], too. Watched him at Michigan and looked up to him. Hopefully he is a future Hall of Famer, because he has played great ball in the league and is still making plays ... he’s still making them in Year 17. So, I tip my hat off to him. I have a bunch of respect for him."
McCourty likes the gelling secondary: Safety Devin McCourty, who is also a captain and leader on the defense, is enjoying the hard work put in at practice by his teammates in the secondary. "I think we all understand it’s a process," McCourty said. "We have to keep getting better each week. It starts at practice, and if we keep having good practices, it will lead to having a good showing on Sunday. I think that has been key for us throughout the preseason and now in the regular season. I like the work ethic of the group -- coming out to practice and whatever the coaches have for us we have just gone out there and done as a group. That’s key to us being a great secondary."
Wilfork on Hightower: Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said he isn’t surprised by the impressive play of linebacker Dont’a Hightower. "I’ve seen it in college, so not impressed. We knew what we had when we drafted him and he is starting to blossom -- and that’s a good thing," Wilfork said. "A guy like that, it means so much to this team, not just the defense; he’s a big player. I’m really happy we have him, and I’m glad he is showing everybody what he is capable of doing. We kind of saw it last year when he took over the defense and improved last year. We knew it all along that he had it, and he knew it. Sometimes you have to be in a situation to make it come out, and he is picking up where he left off from last year."
Gaffney sighting: Sometimes people wonder if injured players are around in the locker room. Rookie running back Tyler Gaffney, who was signed off of waivers from Carolina on July 28, was in the locker room on Thursday. Gaffney is on the team’s injured reserve because of a left knee injury that required surgery. He figures to be in the mix for running back in 2015.
Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's the home opener, against the Oakland Raiders (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):
Mike: The Raiders (0-2) are one of the worst teams in the NFL, so let's start with the players' perspective on a week like this. It seems like this is the type of situation that is as much of a mental challenge as anything. When you played, what type of environment did Bill Belichick create in weeks like this?
Tedy: Part of me looks at the Raiders and thinks, "The Patriots should handle them." But being a former player, you can't have that mindset, and maybe that's just the Bill Belichick in me, but the first thing you have to prep for before any game is realizing that you can be beat. There is evidence of that in many games I've played. Bill Belichick talked about the Miami game when we lost to them in the 2004 Super Bowl season. The Super Bowl against the Giants when we were 18-0 and everyone thought we were going to win. Even the Super Bowl win over the Rams is one you can reference.
1. Brian Tyms, Brandon Browner and the status of their suspensions.
2. Tom Brady and his play through two games.
3. Danny Amendola and the Patriots not getting value.
4. Closer look at too many penalties ... and why they will be cut down.
5. Concern about linebacker depth.
6. Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and the running game.
With Mayo’s return and safety Don Jones (hamstring) present at practice, the Patriots’ 53-man roster had perfect attendance. The practice squad also had perfect attendance, as the mystery man from Wednesday, who was wearing a No. 41 jersey, is defensive back Daxton Swanson.
All other players listed as limited participants in Wednesday’s injury report were taking part in the stretching portion of practice. The Patriots were wearing shells and shorts.
In a comedic moment, defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower swapped jerseys creating some confusion about who was who.