Patriots know Texans WR Johnson still a threat

958087.jpg

Patriots know Texans WR Johnson still a threat

FOXBORO -- Safe to say, Andre Johnson is back.

After missing more than half of last season with a torn ACL, the Texans wide receiver is once again one of the most productive in the league. He ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,114 yards and he's seventh with 87 catches.

Johnson's former college teammate at the University of Miami, Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, sang the receiver's praises on Thursday.

"Talk about a team player," Wilfork said. "He has a heart of a champion. He's very quiet. He doesn't say much. I just remember playing with him in college. He was always quiet but he was a fireball on the field. He gives it his all. He plays hurt. He's a tough, tough football player."

Johnson could make life tough for Patriots defensive backs on Monday night. He doesn't have the breakaway speed he possessed when he was named a First-Team All-Pro in 2008 and 2009, but he still finds ways to get open.

The Texans running game is so potent with running back Arian Foster that Johnson is oftentimes the beneficiary of play action. When teams begin to overplay the run, that's when quarterback Matt Schaub and Johnson are able to connect for big plays.

Wilfork said that Houston's offensive line -- which utilizes a zone blocking scheme, a staple of former offensive line coach Alex Gibbs -- does a good job of disguising both the run and the pass.

"They cut. They don't cut. They man block. They double. They keep it moving," Wilfork said of the Texans offensive line. "They definitely keep it moving. You really can't get a beat on them when they running a zone, or when they running the ball, or when they passing the ball because they do a real good job up front of showing you the same look on run and pass.

"We're just going to have to rely on technique, good fundamentals. Play what we see. Games like this, it always comes back to playing good technique."

Bell excused from Steelers practice for 'personal reasons'

steelers-leveon-bell.jpg

Bell excused from Steelers practice for 'personal reasons'

FOXBORO -- The Patriots have had perfect attendance at each of their last two practices. The Steelers, on the other hand, have been working with less than a full deck.

All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell has been conspiculously absent from Pittsburgh's practices each of the last two days. On Wednesday, he was listed on the injury report as a non-participant due to non-injury related reasons. On Thursday, coach Mike Tomlin announced that Bell had been excused from practice due to "personal reasons."

Tomlin added that Bell will be ready to go against the Patriots on Sunday so it seems as though the team is painting this as a nothing-to-see-here situation. And it probably is. Whether or not Bell practices at all this week won't necessarily have any bearing on the AFC title game; if he's healthy, he'll be a factor. 

If for some reason he doesn't follow up his 170-yard performance against the Chiefs with another strong game, however, people will wonder how his preparation was impacted by missing out on the first two of his team's on-the-field sessions this week.

Sandoval’s offseason transformation doesn't guarantee he's Sox starting third baseman

Sandoval’s offseason transformation doesn't guarantee he's Sox starting third baseman

BOSTON - The weight room, as much as Instagram, has been Pablo Sandoval’s home in the offseason leading up to the 2017 season.

His change in diet and routine have clearly led to visible results, at least in terms of appearance. His play is yet to be determined. But his manager and teammates have taken notice.

“Compliments to Pablo,” John Farrell told reporters before Thursday’s BBWAA dinner. “He’s done a great job with the work that he’s put in, the commitment he’s made. He’s reshaped himself, that’s apparent. He knows there’s work to be done to regain an everyday job at third base. So, we’ll see how that unfolds. We’re not looking for him to be someone he’s not been in the past. Return to that level of performance.”

Farrell noted that Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge are the other two players in contention for time at third base and while others, such as prospect Rafael Devers, may get time there in the spring, those are the only three expected to compete for the job.

“The beauty of last spring is that there’s a note of competition in camp,” Farrell said. “And that was born out of third base last year [when Travis Shaw beat out Sandoval at the third base]. That won’t change.”

Sandoval's 2016 season ended after shoulder surgery in April. 

While the manager has to be cautiously optimistic, Sandoval’s teammates can afford to get their hopes up.

“Pablo is definitely going to bounce back,” Xander Bogaerts told CSNNE.com “Especially with the weight he’s lost and the motivation he has to prove a lot of people wrong, to prove the fans wrong.

“He’s been a great player for his whole career. He’s not a bad player based on one year. Playing in Boston the first year is tough, so, hopefully this year he’ll be better.”

Prior to Sandoval’s abysmal 2015, his first season in Boston, when he hit .245 with 47 RBI in 126 games, the 2012 World Series MVP was a career .294 hitter who averaged 15 home runs and 66 RBI a year.

If Bogaerts is right and Sandoval can be that player again, that will be a huge lift in filling in the gap David Ortiz left in Boston’s offense.