Doc Rivers State of the Celtics

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Doc Rivers State of the Celtics

WALTHAM -- Doc Rivers knew there would be challenges in finding consistency with a team that had been newly pieced together this summer. Unlike past years in which several key members returned from the previous campaign, less than half of this season's team suited up on the 2011-12 squad.

The Boston Celtics are at .500 (13-13) as they depart on Monday for a four-game road trip to wrap up 2012. Following their final home practice of the calendar year on Sunday, Rivers addressed the state of his team, from clicking on the court to establishing swagger, using the word 'soft' to fixing everything at once.

"Soft" is hard-hitting: Following the Celtics November 28 loss to the Brooklyn Nets in which Rajon Rondo was ejected for getting involved in an altercation with Kris Humphries, Rivers did not hide his frustration -- "Were a soft team right now," he said at at the time. "We have no toughness." How does he think the Celtics have responded since then?

"I think we're playing better, we're just not winning," said Rivers. "But we are definitely playing better. I haven't used that word again, so I think I like where we're trending as a team. But the facts still say we're a .500 team right now and we have to do a lot of things better."

The Celtics fear factor: The Celtics quickly became the team to beat when "The New Big Three" was established in 2007. For years, opponents would mark their calendars for when the Celtics would come to town, and the C's traveled around the league with a target on their backs. When asked if the Celtics still have that swagger on the road, Rivers has sensed a change since then.

"We may, but I don't know if the other team senses it yet," Rivers said. "You've got to earn that. You've got to earn it every year, and we haven't earned that right yet. Our record suggests no. I think every year, teams don't go into the next year thinking about the team you had last year. They go in trying to beat this year's team. Until you go on a roll and start playing well and getting people's notice, no, I don't think anybody fears us right now."

Time is ticking on clicking: The Celtics jump-started their chemistry building process this summer when Rajon Rondo organized an offseason team trip to Los Angeles for workouts. A month later, the C's traveled to Europe for training camp where they furthered their bonding experiences. They have their cohesion figured out off the court, now it is a matter of finding it during the games that is an area of concern for Rivers.

"You feel that every year, you really do," Rivers said of being worried if the team will mesh on the court. "That's a fear, even when you're playing well. You may have a good record but your eyes tell you something different or your feel tells you something different. I think this team wants to and I think they have to learn how to. I've had teams here in the past that we've won with. Early on, I didn't feel like they wanted to and somehow they did it, they got there.

"I think our minds are in the right place, I think our heads are in the right place, it is a good group of guys that wants to win. There are a lot of guys from different places bringing a lot of different habits, and their habits show under pressure right now and it breaks down things we do offensively and defensively. That's what we're trying to focus our guys on, and it's staying in good habits, in our habits."

A Work in Progress: If only it were as simple as improving defense or offense or one area in particular of the Celtics performance. But Rivers is tasked with improving multiple facets of the C's play, which presents a unique set of challenges.

"Usually with teams one area takes off and the other lags behind," said Rivers. "This has been a team that has gradually just gotten better in each area, and unfortunately that doesn't a lot of time translate into wins. It's usually when one side, like even defensively you're getting way better and it explodes and it can carry your offense for a while, or the other way even sometimes. Right now it's a little bit of everything."

Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

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Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- There are plenty of damn good running backs in the NFL but there is only one Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers star shuffles, darts and then dashes, often with bodies crashing all around him, many of them intent on doing serious bodily harm . . . but often failing.

“He’s very unique,” said linebacker Shea McClellin. “I don’t think anyone else runs quite like he does, but it’s efficient and it works.”

Defensive end Chris Long concurred: “His style is so unique, his patience, what he’s able to do with his vision. And as far as breaking tackles, being a complete player, catching the ball, he can do all that stuff.”

Now don’t get it twisted. The Pats respect the hell out of Bell, but they’d prefer they weren’t in charge of corralling him Sunday because everyone has failed during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak. Bell, who played in eight of those games, has piled up over 1,500 yards from the line of scrimmage during that stretch -- 1,172 yards rushing, 336 yards receiving -- while scoring 9 touchdowns. 

“He’s really fun to watch unless you’re getting ready to play him,” said Long.

The respect Bell commands in Foxboro is evident when talking to the Pats running backs, who spoke glowingly about the former first-rounder and in LeGarrette Blount’s case, former teammate.

“No one can do what he does,” Blount told me. “They can try, but it won’t work.”

“That’s his style,” added Dion Lewis, himself a shifty fella. “You can’t try to do that. I’m pretty sure he’s the only guy that can do that.”

So how do the Pats accomplish something no one has been able to do over the last two-plus months? How do they slow Bell down, as they did back in Week 7, limiting him to 81 yards rushing (only 3.9 yards per carry)? 

“I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps.”

“If there’s space or if there’s a gap in the defense or if there’s an edge in the defense, he’s quick to take advantage of that,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told us during a conference call earlier this week. “He’s going to be able to get into that open space pretty quickly so you can’t really -- I don’t think you want to sit there and guess.”

If the Pats defenders, especially at the linebacker level, do that -- guess and attack a gap aggressively in attempt to make a splash play -- they may fill one gap but open two others. And that’s where a four-yard gain can turn into 40.

“Everyone on the field, it’s their job to get to him, gang tackle and be aggressive,” said Rob Ninkovich. “It can’t be just one time but every time you’re on the field.”

“There’s no one guy that can stop him,” added Belichick. “You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”

The Pats are a terrific tackling team, and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season (actually, not since November of 2015), but the red-hot Bell will put recent history to the test. 
 

Report: Bennett playing with cracked bone, bone chips in ankle

Report: Bennett playing with cracked bone, bone chips in ankle

FOXBORO -- Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett admitted last week that he has been dealing with a variety of physical ailments throughout the course of his first season with the Patriots. "I've been fighting through [expletive] the whole year," he said, "and I'm not gonna stop now."

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

Bennett suffered a knee injury against the Texans last week that limited him in practices leading up to the AFC title game, but he's also had to cope with ankle and shoulder issues for much of the season.

On Sunday, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport tweeted: "Patriots love Martellus Bennett's toughness. Example: He plays with a cracked bone [and] bone chips in his ankle. Surgery likely this spring."

Bennett initially showed up on the Patriots injury report with an ankle issue after having his leg twisted awkwardly during a win over the Browns in Week 5. It hampered him for much of the regular season, and he seemed to aggravate it further while being tackled during a Week 12 victory at Met Life Stadium over the Jets. The following week, a win against the Rams, Bennett admitted he had what was probably his worst game of the season.

Bennett has continually played as the top tight end on the Patriots roster since Rob Gronkowski landed on injured reserve. He played in 64 of a possible 69 offensive snaps against the Texans in the Divisional Round, and he has played at least 43 snaps each week since the Patriots' bye in Week 9. For the season, he has played in 78 percent of New England's offensive snaps.

Bennett is due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. He'll turn 30 years old in March.