Rivers: 'This was a step backwards'

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Rivers: 'This was a step backwards'

HOUSTON For weeks Doc Rivers has talked about the strides taken by his club even in the face of defeat.

But Friday's 101-89 loss at Houston was different.

There was no obvious silver lining in this loss for Rivers.

"We have to figure this out," a visibly disappointed Rivers said afterward. "This is the first game in a while - we've been trending well - but this was a step backwards in the way we play, this was a step backwards for us."

Boston's defensive rotations were as slow as we've seen this season.

And while the bevy of lay-ups by Houston might seem as though the C's big men were the problem, Rivers said the issue on Friday night was dribble penetration by Houston's guards which forced the big men to at times over-rotate and thus made for a slew of easy buckets for the Rockets.

No one feasted off the C's defensive problems more than unheralded Houston forwardcenter Greg Smith who had 20 points on 8-for-9 shooting to go with six rebounds and three blocked shots.

"They (Boston) were going to overcompensate to James (Harden), they were going to overcompensate to Jeremy (Lin)," said Rockets coach and former Celtic Kevin McHale. "So if you roll behind there's going to be some openings and Greg did a great job of presenting himself, catching and finishing around the basket."

Paul Pierce who led the Celtics with 18 points on 5-for-18 shooting, had similar thoughts on the C's regression on Friday.

"I thought we had our opportunities," said Pierce, who made note of the C's struggles in the first and third quarters sandwiching a strong showing in the second. "We're still trying to put four quarters together. That's what we need to do. You can't play (well) every other quarter and expect to win games."

Rajon Rondo was disappointed with the loss, but has a different view on Friday's loss and its impact on the positive strides Boston had made coming into the game.

"It isn't," Rondo said when asked if it was a step back. "It's one loss."

A loss that was in stark contrast to recent defeats in which the C's could in many ways see the pieces coming together for what they still believe will be a formidable club when it counts - playoff time.

Fortunately for them, it'll be clear in about 24 hours if Friday's loss was as Rondo put it, "one loss" that they move on from with a win at San Antonio, or whether Saturday night's game against the Spurs will end in defeat and put the C's right back to where they have been most of the season which is a slightly better-than-.500 ball club.

Mitchell, Hogan reportedly good to go for AFC title game

Mitchell, Hogan reportedly good to go for AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The Patriots haven't had all of their receivers simultaneously healthy and in uniform since they acquired Michael Floyd on waivers last month. That appears as though it could change Sunday. 

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, wideouts Malcolm Mitchell (knee) and Chris Hogan (thigh) are expected to play in the AFC title game. Tight end Martellus Bennett (knee) is also expected to play, per Schefter. All three were listed as questionable on the team's injury report. 

Mitchell has not seen game action since injuring his knee mid-way through the third quarter against the Jets in Week 16. Hogan suffered a thigh injury against the Texans last week, left the game in the third quarter and did not return. 

Patriots receiver Danny Amendola was also listed on this week's injury report with an ankle issue. Last week, he played in his first game since Week 13.

If Mitchell, Hogan and Amendola are all healthy enough to play, the Patriots will have their choice of five wideouts against the Steelers since Julian Edelman and Floyd are also physically able to suit up. 

Will they all be in uniform? That remains to be seen. The Patriots haven't taken five receivers on their 46-man game-day roster yet this season. However, because all five bring something different to the Patriots offense, perhaps Bill Belichick and his staff will find it valuable enough to activate all five.

If the Patriots opt to take the receiver-heavy route, they'll have to go lighter elsewhere -- perhaps de-activating a core special teamer -- in order to make room.

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.