Mankins looks to lead emotionally-charged O-line vs. Ravens

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Mankins looks to lead emotionally-charged O-line vs. Ravens

FOXBORO -- As if you didn't already know, there's a lot on the line Sunday.

A chance -- for some, maybe a last chance -- to go to the Super Bowl is a big deal. It's a dream come true for every player on the field and every coach on the sidelines.

For that reason, emotions will run high -- higher than they normally do. And when you're talking about the Patriots and Ravens, well, let's just say we'd like to be in those pregame huddles.

Tom Brady. Vince Wilfork. Logan Mankins. Ray Lewis. Terrell Suggs. Anquan Boldin. The list goes on.

"I think we're two emotional teams, so stuff happens out there and you just always have to be smart about it," Mankins said. "Any penalty just hurts your team, so you could take it a little ways you just have to make sure you don't take it too far."

Mankins, particularly, is a player that's never been afraid to bring the nasty. He's the grit of the team's offensive line. You'll see Mankins get into it on the field with the opposing team on numerous occasions. Mild-mannered off the field, something changes when he's out playing.

He gets angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.

"I don't know, I've always been asked that question," Mankins said calmly when asked to explain the difference in himself on game days and non-game days. "It's just who I am, I guess. That's the only way I know how to play, and I'm going to keep doing it until they tell us we can't."

Nate Solder is in his second year in the league, and while he doesn't seem to have that same nasty edge as Mankins, there's plenty of time to develop one. Meanwjile, he's learning a lot from the four-time All-Pro.

"He's great. He's taught me a lot," Solder said of Mankins. "He and every one of the guys I've played next to this year. We've been able to work well together. That's a testament to Scar offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and all the other coaches who have prepared us."

The Ravens defense will bring it, no holds barred, on Sunday. The Patriots offensive line will have to fight that fire with their own fire, and Mankins will undoubtedly lead the way.

"I'll say this: When he plays, he plays really passionate," Solder said. "He has a lot of energy and I think that really permeates the whole group."

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

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.