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FOXBORO — During his weekly interview on WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show, Tom Brady made a point of saying it’s hard to count on young receivers. He talked about it being a challenging position, reminding everyone of its checkered history, saying, “There’s not a lot of young players who have had major contributions in our offense . . . that’s just the reality of the position.”

Translation? The 42-year-old Brady would rather not depend on rookies to pull out wins at this stage of his illustrious career.
Well, with the reality of the Patriots’ salary cap (just $2.8 million in cap space according to the Boston Sports Journal’s Miguel Benzan) and both Josh Gordon (knee) and Julian Edelman (chest/rib) listed on the injury report, Brady might not have a choice.

If the Patriots don’t do some cap maneuvering and add to the receiving corps before the Oct. 29 trade deadline, Brady is just going to have to deal with the hand of receivers he’s been dealt. He’s going to have to count on undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers a little bit more. And after Week 9, it might also mean working in first-round pick N’Keal Harry.
Currently, the depth on the roster beyond Edelman, Gordon and Phillip Dorsett consists of rookies. It is what it is. With Edelman still not quite 100 percent and Gordon banged up, it really behooves Brady to work Meyers in and look to him if he’s open when Josh McDaniels puts him out there. Maybe Gunner Olszewski gets a few more snaps in the offense as well.

It’s not like Brady hasn’t had success with rookies or first-year players before. During Super Bowl LI, and the amazing comeback from down 28-3 to the Falcons, one of Brady’s most trusted targets was rookie Malcolm Mitchell. He caught six passes for 70 yards, five of those catches coming in the fourth quarter.

He relied on Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez their first seasons as rookie tight ends. So it’s not unprecedented.

In case you haven’t heard yet – the Washington Redskins announced on Friday that veteran quarterback Colt McCoy will be their starting QB during their Week 5 game against the New England Patriots. The decision makes sense, as McCoy has experience in the offense, which is more than rookie first round pick Dwayne Haskins can say.

McCoy’s presence on the field on Sunday may bring back memories from nearly a decade ago. Back in 2010 was the last time McCoy got to start against the Patriots, and it led to one of the biggest regular season upsets in New England during the Brady-Belichick era.

Let’s roll back the clocks and set the scene: It was Nov. 7, and McCoy had one of the hottest names in the backfield that year – Peyton Hillis. Ben Watson was the starting tight end in Cleveland, and Danny Woodhead was a beloved player in New England. The Browns had a losing record (2-5), while New England was near the top of the AFC (6-1).
The Week 9 game was supposed to be a landslide victory for the Patriots. But that wasn’t the case that day in Cleveland, OH.

New England lost that game 34-14. Hillis scorched the Patriots defense for 184 yards and two touchdowns, which was the best single game rushing performance in his seven-year career. McCoy completed 14-of-19 passes for 174 yards, while also rushing three times for 20 yards and a touchdown. He had a 101.6 QB rating that day, which was very impressive when considering his three top targets that day were Mohamed Massoquoi (four catches, 58 yards), Hillis (three catches, 36 yards) and Watson (one catch, 24 yards).

Brady completed 19-of-36 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns that day. The leading rusher for New England was Woodhead (nine rushes, 54 yards) and the leading receiver was tight end Aaron Hernandez (five catches, 48 yards, two touchdowns).

Cleveland finished off the season winning only two more game after that Week 9 bout, which brought their record at the end of the season to 5-11. For the Patriots, that was one of only two losses they suffered during the regular season. They finished the regular season with a 14-2 record and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the New York Jets by a score of 21-28.
That game was a flash in the pan for the Browns. But it has nevertheless stuck in the minds of Patriots fans. This will only be the second time in McCoy’s career that he will take the field against New England in an NFL game. Consider it a revenge game of sorts for a Patriots team and fan base that hasn’t forgotten about that day back in 2010, even if it was a meaningless day in the end.

Brady has been not-so-subtly calling for veteran receiver help because he’s thinking about tough defenses like the one he just faced in Buffalo. Antonio Brown was here, but couldn’t stay in line, so he was bounced after 11 days. Maybe the Patriots make a trade. Maybe they get Brady more veteran help.

But it wouldn’t hurt to see Meyers, at the very least, get a few more looks. The undrafted rookie receiver knows the drill and understands the dynamics. He said he knows he’s not in the inner circle of trust just yet, but he’s working toward that goal.
“Every day I get better, with just the little things Tom wants. Being where he expects me to be,” he said. “So hopefully as the season goes on, he can trust me more.”

Brady talked about the “high level of communication,” and the “high level of detail,” involved with the Patriots offense. Every receiver who has come and gone also has talked about it. “Sometimes it takes guys a few years to understand that,” Brady said.

Some catch on. Others, even veterans who have come in, don’t always connect.

Meyers was one of the best receivers during training camp. He doesn’t dispute Brady’s contention that learning the offense and what’s expected here is a different animal.

“I agree with him. It’s not like instant rice where you put it in the microwave and it comes out ready. It is a long process,” Meyers said. “It definitely takes a lot of getting used to, you have to feel your way around, and carve out your role in the offense. Just seeing how he goes about his business, and what he expects of everybody, to be with the older guys, I can just come in and learn from the mistakes, or even the success of everybody else.”

Meyers has no problem starting on the outside and working his way into Brady’s circle. He’ll make the most of his opportunities, and hope Brady keeps coming back to him.

After Edelman went down against the Jets, Brady hit Meyers twice for 38 yards.

“I haven’t always been the guy. I’m kind of used to having to work my way up from the bottom,” he said. “I’m taking the same approach here. Just grind it out, day by day, be patient for when my time is called, I’ll be ready to go . . . I want to be ready so I can show people what I can do.”

With both Gordon and Edelman hobbled, Sunday’s game against the Redskins seems like a good time to see what Meyers can do.

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New team, same number.

On Wednesday, the Patriots announced that their newest addition in linebacker James Harrison will don No. 92 while helping the New England defense try to win its third Super Bowl in four years. 92 was previously worn by defensive end Geneo Grissom, but he has since surrounded the number to the elder statesman and will now wear No. 96.

Typically, there is some sort of gesture involved for the veteran/newbie to get his signature number, so it’ll be curious to see if there was anything that Harrison had to do to get No. 92 from Grissom.
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Harrison has worn No. 92 since 2004 while putting up Hall of Fame caliber seasons in two stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers along with a brief appearance as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013. The 39-year-old landed in Foxboro after the Steelers released their longtime figurehead on defense during Christmas weekend.

After clearing waivers on Monday, Harrison met with the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday and inked a one-year deal.

Immediately, Harrison fills a need on defense as New England was in great desperation for healthy pass rushers and the 6-foot, 275 pounder is as fresh as they come this time of year only playing 40 total snaps in 2017.

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In some sense, personal punt protectors are like long snappers, or even catalytic converters.

You don’t normally hear about them unless something goes wrong. Which, in the New England Patriots’ case against the Miami Dolphins last week, something did.

Right at the same time it went right.

Nate Ebner fielded the direct snap from Joe Cardona on New England’s opening drive of that game. And from there, the 2016 second-team All-Pro rushed up the right sideline before being flung off the turf and out of bounds along with the football.

The fourth-and-8 fake netted 14 yards and a conversion for the Patriots, and it was Ebner’s check on the Dolphins’ alignment that made it so. But that check, initiated by a subtle point to his Riddell Revo Speed helmet, came at the cost of New England’s core special-teamer for the rest of the season.
And in came Jordan Richards.
It was Richards, a fellow reserve safety, who replaced the injured Ebner as punter Ryan Allen’s last line of defense versus Miami. It was a responsibility the 2015 second-round pick out of Stanford retained on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills as well.

It was recent territory for him, as Bill Belichick noted Monday on WEEI’s Dale & Holley with Rich Keefe.

“If you remember, Nate missed the first couple games of the year and Jordan did that as well in those games, too,” said the Patriots head coach. “And in a couple at the end of the preseason – Detroit and, I want to say, the Giants game.”

Like those previous fill-ins, Richards’ name wasn’t called much by the time New England had a 35-17 win in at Gillette Stadium over Miami. Nor was it called much in the 23-3 win at New Era Field over Buffalo. That wasn’t a bad thing; it meant that Richards kept things from going bad.

“Jordan’s done a good job for us in multiple roles,” Belichick added of the third-year pro. “But that one is one that he’s filled in this year for four or five games, including preseason.”

There were no unaccounted-for rushers charged to No. 37 versus the Dolphins or Bills. There were no blocked punts, bobbled snaps, or field-shifting returns, either. Outcomes like that can make personal punt protector a relatively anonymous job. But it is a job that can be graded pass or fail. And that, in and of itself, can make it a high-leverage one.

Plenty of layers await fourth down.

“It’s a tough spot. Yeah, It’s a tough spot,” Belichick said. “There’s a lot of things that can happen, a lot of variables, a lot of different looks and a lot of situations that can come up in the punting game. In addition to the looks, just the time, score, field position, wind, etcetera. It’s not easy.”

The 24-year-old Richards is a viable second option for the not-easy. He’s worked throughout the kicking game, as well as at defensive back, and more extensively, hybrid linebacker in sub-package sets this season. And through 12 games, the safety-in-title has seen action in each while starting five contests and recording 185 snaps on defense and 213 on special teams.

Richards has notched a forced fumble, a pass deflection and 20 tackles along the way. And moving forward, he’s first in line for a duty that goes on without much of an existence – on a good day.

It takes a full diagnostic check to make for one. Ebner knows. So does Patrick Chung and those before him.

“Those guys I’ve coached that have played that position through the years have always spent a lot of time in understanding all the things that are involved and done a good job with it,” Belichick continued. “But that’s what it is.”

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Jacob and Cody Hollister aren’t the only Patriots with off the field talent.
Last week, Sports Illustrated launched its Most Valuable Performer talent competition, and the Hollister twins showed off their musical skills by covering an Ed Sheeran song, and now another Patriot has tossed his hat into the ring.
Joe Thuney put his talents to the test in Week 2 of the competition, and he broke out his Rubik’s Cube to show the NFL what he’s made of. Yes, Joe can solve a Rubik’s Cube in impressive fashion. His record, he says, is a little under two minutes.
In his video, Joe walks us through the process of solving one of these bad boys, and even though Joe said that if he were totally focused, he wouldn’t be talking as he solved the puzzle, he still put up a crazy good time. In the minute and 40-second long video, Joe begins solving 18 seconds in and finishes the puzzle with a whopping time of about one minute and 18 seconds.
Casual.
Check out Joe’s insane skill in the video below, and don’t forget to vote for him and the Hollisters on the Most Valuable Performer homepage.

Sports Illustrated

@SInow
When the @Patriots’ @JosephThuney isn’t protecting Tom Brady from pass rushers, he’s solving Rubik’s Cubes like a pro

Check out the rest of the @NFL players who are showing off their unique talents and vote for your Most Valuable Performer ➡️ http://on.si.com/2y96rWE
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Since being traded from the New England Patriots to the Indianapolis Colts, Jacoby Brissett has spent a fair amount of time on the turf. The 23-year-old has been sacked a whopping 47 times this season, the highest in the NFL. But he has kept his poise all season, turning in some respectable performances despite the team around him being an unmitigated disaster. And that’s not lost on his veteran teammates. Running back Frank Gore has been in the league since 2005, and has garnered respect around the NFL while earning five Pro Bowl selections. So when he raved to ESPN.com about Brissett, it truly was high praise. “He’s tough as (expletive),” Gore told reporter Mike Wells. “I forget sometimes that he’s so young, because for him to come in and do what he did and stay focused and his mind stays strong … I can tell he’s happy to be in this situation. To be the man even though he’s been taking a beating this season, he’s happy he’s gotten this opportunity to play and to show he can be a starting quarterback in this league.” Brissett has been a fixture for the Colts, appearing in 12 games and starting 11. His 10-7 touchdown to interception ratio certainly is concerning, but he has rushed for 206 yards and passed for 2,572. It’s a good thing he’s tough, too, because the weekly beatdowns he’s taking thanks to his offensive line likely won’t subside anytime soon. Thumbnail photo via Thomas J. Russo/USA TODAY Sport Images.

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New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones did not get drafted because he stood at 5’9, 186 pounds at the NFL combine and nothing he did was able to impress the scouts.

It didn’t matter that Jones ran a 4.33s 40 yard dash, the fastest at the combine for a defensive back. It didn’t matter that Jones threw up 19 reps on the bench press, the most at the combine for a defensive back. It didn’t matter that Jones recorded 30 pass break-ups and 7 interceptions in his two years as a starter in the SEC.

Jones went undrafted and the Patriots took a chance that is seriously paying off.

“He’s done a good job for us,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about Jones. “He’s played primarily inside but he can play both. He’s played both outside and inside. He’s got good catch up speed and does an excellent job of finishing. He has really good awareness of the receiver’s hands, the timing of the throw, when to reach for the ball, not to get interference calls, try to get into the pocket of the receiver and so forth. He’s got good speed, and good quickness and he’s a tough kid. You see that in the kicking game. You see it on defense, too. He’s tough.”
Jones carved out a role as a core special teams player for the Patriots before earning more time on defense in the wake of the injuries to Eric Rowe and Cyrus Jones. Jonathan Jones plays inside and outside and the coaches seem to call his number whenever the opposing team has a speedy receiver that needs to be covered deep down the field, just like this week’s opponent with the Miami Dolphins and receiver Kenny Stills.

Jones uses his speed to stay in the pocket of receivers and close in to break up any passes in his direction, with his 8 passes defended ranking second on the team. Belichick believes that Jones’ speed helps to compensate for the cornerback’s lack of height, too, and that is something that makes Jones unique.

“I’d say there’s no such thing as too much speed,” Belichick said. “It doesn’t exist. You can’t coach that, either.”
Jones ranks second on the team in special teams snaps and third for cornerbacks, behind only Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore. He has his role and he continues to shine.

And that will only lead to more opportunities for Jones.

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Dont’a Hightower leaves a big hole in the New England Patriots defense and his teammates know it.

Following the news that the linebacker tore his pectoral muscle and is out for the remainder of the season, Devin McCourty was left answering questions about how the defensive unit is set to wage out without one of their cornerstones.

“It’s a tough loss,” McCourty said of Hightower during his Thursday press conference. “I mean, obviously, he’s a guy who’s been out there for a lot of years now, played multiple roles on the defense, different spots, communication, everything. I mean, he’s a huge part of what we do.

“We’ve been out there for a couple games without him, so we know what that’s like, but it’s always the same thing – when a guy like that goes down, a bunch of guys have to step up and kind of try to fill that role, and in this case, a bunch of different roles. It’s a tough loss for us defensively, but it’s something we’ll have to overcome. ”

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Hightower’s loss does come at an unfortunate time as New England’s defense did look like they had turned a corner holding the Falcons to just seven points in Week 7. While that part is tough, McCourty doesn’t get frustrated at that aspect of losing Hightower. Simply, he feels bad for his teammates.

“It’s a part of the game,” he admitted. “When a guy gets hurt for a year, I never kind of look at it like, ‘Oh, man, what are we going to do defensively?’ Like my instinct is to feel bad for that guy. We all give a lot of time, sacrifice time with our families and doing different things, so when your season ends and now you’re back and the only thing you have to look forward to is rehab and recovery, that’s what I think about first.”

He continued: “As a team, we’ll always figure it out. I firmly believe our coaching staff spends a lot of hours in here figuring out what we need to do personnel-wise, who needs to play here, what works, what won’t work, so we’ll figure it out. Whether that takes a quarter or two quarters, it’ll happen.”

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Kyle Van Noy has been one of the few stable elements of the New England Patriots defense this season. He has more sacks this season, 3.5, than he had in his entire career combined leading up to the year, but he has also been a meaningful contributor in coverage and against the run. With the rest of the unit in flux, Van Noy has been one of the only constants as they round into form.

Matthew Slater has taken notice, and according to Zack Cox of NESN, compared him to some of the best linebackers in Patriots history.

“I think he’s done a great job of being a leader this year and really growing more comfortable in his role,” Slater said Monday. “The thing about Kyle is he’s always been eager since he got here to improve. He’s been eager to earn the trust of his teammates. He’s been eager to do things the right way. He asks a ton of questions about (Jerod) Mayo and (Tedy) Bruschi and (Junior) Seau and those guys that some of us played with.

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Bill Belichick felt the same way during his Monday media conference call. He knows he can put Van Noy on the field for just about any situation.

“He’s the type of player that wants more responsibility and likes the challenges of doing different things — coverage, pass rush, playing the run, playing on the line, playing off the line,” Belichick said Monday in a conference call. “His hard work has paid off in a lot of opportunity and a lot of production in a number of different areas. The one area that stands out is, of course, the number of plays that he’s on the field for.”

The Patriots do this almost every year. They steal a player from some unsuspecting team and turn him into a valuable starter. First it was Aqib Talib, then Akeem Ayers, now Van Noy, and Johnson Bademosi is even looking like a potential find in that regard as well.

No team does a better job of utilizing undervalued players from other teams. Van Noy wasn’t even on the team a year ago, but now he seems like one of their leaders. Just like Bruschi was.

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Without the benefit of film review, an initial look at which New England Patriots were “up” and “down” from the team’s 33-30 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday:

DOWN

Marcus Cannon — Returning after missing a game with a concussion, the starting right tackle looked like he was shaking off some rust, as Julius Peppers had two sacks for the Panthers. On one of them, Cannon appeared to have a technique breakdown in his drop, giving Peppers an easier time to gain the edge and beat Cannon over his outside shoulder. The pressure quarterback Tom Brady faced more often seemed to come from that side of the line instead of the back side, where left tackle Nate Solder appeared to play his best game of the season.

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Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Eric Rowe — On a tough day for the secondary, Gilmore and Rowe represent the cornerbacks and McCourty the safeties, as they looked to be most involved in costly breakdowns and/or penalties. Gilmore had two illegal-hands-to-the-face penalties, the second of which was a crusher because it negated a third-down stop on the Panthers’ game-winning drive. He was also involved in a communication breakdown with McCourty on Fozzy Whittaker’s 28-yard screen pass for a touchdown, while Rowe looked hesitant because of pre-snap confusion/uncertainty on Devin Funchess’ 10-yard touchdown reception. It’s hard to remember the last time the secondary had this many communication issues in a game.

Defensive coaches — It’s not all on the players, as head coach Bill Belichick pointed out after the game. “We’ve got to do a better job of coaching, a better job of playing,” he said. “We need to do better in all three phases for 60 minutes. It’s just too inconsistent.” When there are as many breakdowns as the Patriots had in this game, something is amiss — and it’s up to Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia & Co. to figure it out.
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski connected on three field goals in Sunday’s loss, including a career-long 58-yarder at the end of the first half. AP Photo/Charles Krupa
UP

Danny Amendola — The wide receiver finished with six catches for 42 yards and one touchdown. Of his six receptions, four produced either a first down or touchdown. He was often Brady’s go-to target in got-to-have-it situations, such as a third-and-3 in the fourth quarter (Amendola took a big hit) and the fourth-and-1 touchdown catch in the final quarter to tie the game.
Stephen Gostkowski — He hit three extra points and also three field goals from 41, 35 and 58 yards, with the final field goal coming at the end of the first half as it clanged off the right upright and through. “You just try to be ready to go when you get a chance like that. It’s one of those kicks where it’s like you have nothing to lose,” Gostkowski said of the 58-yarder, which was a career long and also the longest in Patriots history. “You’re not expected to make it, so you kind of have a different attitude going out there. It was set up nice, the wind was behind my back and it was a nice day. But it kind of feels like a foul ball because we wound up losing. It took the wind out of my sails.”

Short-yardage running — A lingering issue after failing to gain a yard on two fourth-and-1 situations in the season opener, and then a third-and-1 run in Week 3, the Patriots were better in short-yardage situations against the Panthers with running back Mike Gillislee following lead-blocking fullback James Develin on a second-and-1 rush in the second quarter. The Patriots also picked up 8 yards on second-and-1 in the first quarter, while Brady successfully executed a sneak on third-and-1 for 2 yards in the second quarter. Outside of a second-and-1 rush that was stopped for no gain in the fourth quarter (Gillislee cut down), this was an overall bright spot for New England.

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NEW ORLEANS — Cornerback Malcolm Butler has been one of the New England Patriots’ most durable and available players in recent years. Two of his most impressive statistics over the past two seasons have been his playing-time totals:

2015: 98.8 percent

2016: 96.7 percent

Those reflect how Butler was almost always on the field, no matter the defensive package: base, traditional nickel, big nickel, dime or seven defensive backs.

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So when the Patriots opened Sunday’s win over the New Orleans by voluntarily having Butler on the sideline, it was a decision that naturally caught the eye.

Instead of Butler, the Patriots used Eric Rowe at the cornerback spot opposite of Stephon Gilmore. The defensive grouping was their big nickel package, which has three safeties and two cornerbacks on the field.

Asked Monday morning why the Patriots felt that was the best decision for the team, Bill Belichick didn’t elaborate.

“A lot of things go into it,” he said. “But that’s what we decided to do.”

With Belichick electing to keep his reasons in-house, here are a few external points of analysis to consider:

Saints have big receivers. The Saints’ top receivers are bigger than the norm, with Brandon Coleman (6-foot-6, 225) and Michael Thomas (6-3, 212) leading the way. While Butler (5-11, 190) still matched up with them at times in the traditional nickel package, the decision to go more with Rowe — who is bigger at 6-1, 205 — might have simply been based on size.

Butler’s performance has dipped. When including the preseason and the regular-season opener, Butler has seemingly had some uncharacteristic technique breakdowns, particularly in the end zone. So it could be as simple as a performance-based decision.

He was still the No. 3 corner. The Patriots played the majority of the game in their big nickel package, but when they called on the traditional nickel with three cornerbacks, Butler came on to the field as the third corner. So it wasn’t as if he wasn’t part of the defensive plan (49 of 65 snaps). If Butler had been removed as a significant part of the plan, it might have signaled there was something other than football considerations at the root of the decision.

Butler could be back this week. With Rowe leaving the game in the second half with a groin injury, which he told reporters after the game didn’t seem serious, Butler could be back in the top spot Sunday against the Texans depending on how Rowe progresses.