Francis mentored by childhood idol Wilfork


Francis mentored by childhood idol Wilfork

FOXBORO -- All he has to do is stand at his locker and look his left to realize just how far he's come. When Justin Francis does that and sees the nameplate of his childhood idol Vince Wilfork a few feet away, he shakes his head in disbelief.

"I was a big University of Miami fan back in the day," said Francis, who grew up in Opa-locka, Fla. "I watched Vince coming up as a kid, and I didn't play football but I just looked at him saying, 'I want to be like him.' I actually got goosebumps just thinking about it because I'm here sharing this with him. I feel like it's my duty to just stay on top of my job and get it done so that he can enjoy his job as well."

As this season has progressed, Francis, an undrafted rookie defensive lineman out of Rutgers University, has had more opportunities to do his job for the Patriots during meaningful moments of important games.

In New England's 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, Francis played nearly one third of the team's defensive snaps. He registered four tackles, and he was around the ball during a 49ers fumbled center-to-quarterback exchange in the first quarter.

Francis credits his teammates on the defensive line, and Wilfork especially, for preparing him to make an impact.

"Our main guy is Vince," Francis said. "He's definitely the guy that we look up to and the guy that we go to when things aren't looking too good, or when we need a question answered. I try to pick his brain as much as I can. He's a great player. It's a blessing that I'm in the same room as him."

Wilfork has been seen walking around the Patriots facilities lately wearing a t-shirt that reads: "Do your job. Mine is taken care of."

Francis knows that as a rookie reserve, a big part of his job, essentially, is to learn -- learn his position, learn his role in the Patriots defense, learn how to be a professional. According to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, he has that taken care of.

"Hes a competitive player, he works hard," Belichick said on Wednesday. "Hes got some good ability and hes -- like any young player -- hes learning through sometimes trial and error. Sometimes experience. Sometimes the hard way. But he works hard to get better and I have a lot of respect for that. There arent many people that work harder than he does. He competes every day in practice, both in the classroom and out on the field to learn and improve and hes definitely improved a lot, no question."

That's the story of his young football career. Francis started at a disadvantage compared to many of his peers when he didn't play consistently until his senior year of high school. Then with little more than a year of organized football under his belt, he was offered a scholarship by Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano.

Though Schiano -- a friend of Belichick's -- called Francis "one of the toughest kids he's ever been around," Francis went undrafted. Signed and brought to Patriots training camp this summer, Francis stood out almost immediately with his quickness and the way the motor inside his 6-foot-2, 268-pound frame hummed relentlessly.

Francis has had to transition from a three-technique defensive lineman (meaning he lined up between the offensive guard and tackle) in college to more of an end in New England's 4-3 scheme, and he's done it relatively quickly, gaining the trust of the Patriots coaching staff along the way.

It took some time, though, before he finally saw the field. His first action didn't come until Week 6 as a member of the punt coverage unit.

While he waited, Wilfork's advice helped him get by.

"Of course, for a person that works hard, you want to see yourself out there," Francis said. "But in due time . . . guys like Vince explained that to me. 'You're time's coming. You're time's coming. It's gonna come.' "

Now that it's here, Francis hopes his voracious appetite for football will help keep him in the rotation.

"Watching film, coming in, spending extra time in the building," he said, ticking off some of the good habits he's developed in his first season. "Even off the field, just constantly thinking about what my job is, thinking about football, watching games that I recorded at home that we played just to run through those clips, just to keep stuff fresh in my mind."

Francis has been solid enough that Belichick was asked if he may have an edge on teammate Jermaine Cunningham for playing time when Cunningham returns from his four-game suspension after Sunday's matchup with the Jaguars.

Belichick didn't say what would happen when Cunningham returns, but Francis knows he's made an impression. He's seen his playing time rise, and he heard the nice things Belichick said about him in the coach's mid-week press conference.

"I thank him for it, and I appreciate it, but I just take that and use it kind of as fuel," Francis said. "I take that and keep it in my back pocket and just keep on working."

And if he ever needs a little extra motivation -- to be reminded how far he's come, and realize how much room there is for him to improve -- he can find it when he glances from his locker over to his idol's just a few feet away.

Steelers know they'll have their hands full with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett


Steelers know they'll have their hands full with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett

PITTSBURGH – So far this season, Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski have combined for 39 catches, 644 yards and five touchdowns. Making the numbers that much more impressive is the fact the numbers were rolled up with Gronk inactive for two games and fairly useless in another thanks to his hamstring injury.

Will the Steelers slow the roll of Robellus Grennetski?

Hard to imagine. As Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out, Gronk alone has tuned up the Steelers with 26 receptions for 403 yards and seven touchdowns in six meetings.

Fittipaldo explored the strategies the Steelers defense may unveil Sunday afternoon when the Patriots and Steelers get going. He also pointed out that the return of linebacker Ryan Shazier after a three week layoff and injuries for safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden may put Pittsburgh at a disadvantage.

Said Shazier: “They have the tandem they want at tight end. Now they can use tight ends the way they want. You have to respect everyone on the field. Both of them are good blockers, good pass threats and great at running after the catch.”

Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said Pittsburgh will alter its approaches.

“We have to be able to play more than one defense,” Butler said. “They’re very good and they’ll pick you apart if they can figure out what you’re doing. We just have to execute the defense more than anything else. If we can do that … that’s been our problem for the most part. Some of the things that went on last week, we missed some things we should have made mentally.”

What “went on last week” was a 30-15 loss to the Dolphins.

Pittsburgh hasn’t been a big-play group so far -- eight sacks and three picks -- nor have they seen a gauntlet of great quarterbacks in the first six games. 

Interestingly, their losses have been to Ryan Tannehill and rookie Carson Wentz, probably the two quarterbacks one would figure Pittsburgh would do best against.
Between a smoking hot Brady and a can’t-be-stopped tight end tandem, there’s probably not a lot Pittsburgh can do aside from hoping for an off day.

Said linebacker Arthur Moats hopefully: “You have to continue to mix it up against (Gronkowski). You can’t give him the same look over and over. He has success on guys like that. If we disrupt him, and rush Brady and speed up his clock, I definitely think that will help out.”

In theory, perhaps. In practice? We’ll see.

Game notes: Patriots vs. Steelers


Game notes: Patriots vs. Steelers

A quick look at the information you need to know about today's Patriots-Steelers game:

TEAM RECORDS: Patriots 5-1, Steelers 4- 2

GAME TIME: 4:25 p.m. EST


TV ANNOUNCERS: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms and Tracy Wolfson


NATIONAL RADIO ANNOUNCERS: Larry Kahn, Mark Carrier and Troy West

LOCAL RADIO NETWORK: Anchored by WBZ-FM (98.5 The Sports Hub)

LOCAL RADIO ANNOUNCERS: Bob Socci and Scott Zolak


LAST MEETING: Patriots 28, Steelers 21 on Sept. 10, 2015 at Gillette Stadium

* * * *
-- The Patriots are 8-11 against the Steelers in Pittsburgh in their history, but are 4-2 at Heinz Field. Included in those four Heinz Field victories are two in AFC Championship Games (in the 2001 and 2004 seasons).

-- Tom Brady is 8-2 against the Steelers in his career.

-- The last time Brady played the Steelers, in 2015, he set a Patriots franchise record with 19 consecutive pass completions.

-- The Patriots are 108-70 (.607) in road games since 1994, the best record in the NFL over that span. The Steelers (97- 82, .542) are second.

-- The Patriots have yet to throw an interception in 2016, setting a team record for consecutive games without an interception at the start of a season (6). The NFL record for consecutive games at the start of a season without a pick is 9, set by the 1960 Browns. The Patriots' franchise record for overall consecutive games with no interceptions is 8, set in 2010.

* * * *
-- Rob Gronkowski has 67 overall touchdowns and needs one to tie Stanley Morgan (68) for the franchise record.

-- Gronkowski has 66 receiving touchdowns and needs one to tie Morgan (67) for the franchise record.

-- Gronkowski has 22 100-yard receiving games, including two in 2016, and is tied with Jackie Smith for the third-most among all NFL tight ends. The only TEs who have more are Kellen Winslow (24) and Tony Gonzalez (31).