Chung thrilled to return to action

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Chung thrilled to return to action

FOXBORO -- The Patriots are very, very happy to have Patrick Chung back.

"It's huge," said Kyle Arrington. "Pat's a physical presence to our secondary. He's a great playmaker so it speaks volumes having him back."

But nobody was as excited as Chung.

Usually a hard-nosed competitor who keeps interviews strictly to business, the safety was enlivened Sunday night. He stood before his locker getting ready, then turned to accept the media huddle with open arms. Chung hasn't seen game action since Week 9 because of the foot injury; answering questions was no inconvenience because it meant he finally got to play.

"It feels good, man," he smiled. "Feels good to be back with my family -- my brothers out there -- just having some fun.

"The first play I was definitely nervous. First play I got a little bug, but after that it kind of went away and the game just comes to you. You just play football."

It didn't look as though he has missed a beat.

Chung got involved immediately with a huge hit on Buffalo's first series. It was the fifth play of the game, on a Bills third-and-6. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick looked short to Stevie Johnson and got the completion, but Chung was right there -- he came flying out and drilled Johnson to hold the gain to five yards. Buffalo was forced to convert on a fourth down.

"It kind of got my body warmed up because I haven't hit anybody in a while," said Chung. "It's just football. I'm glad to be out there, I'm glad to be running out there with my guys."

Fresh legs out there, Pat?

"Six weeks, brother?!" he exclaimed with a derisive twist of the head. "This is fresh legs! That's as fresh as they can come."

He quickly returned to charm.

"But it's not about me, man. We just won. We just took the No. 1 seed so we're good."

Chung circled back several times during the scrum to the idea of "team" -- a common tact for the secondary. They comprise a crew that's guaranteed criticism after every game because of a league-worst defense that's been maddeningly consistent. Chung's absence absolutely contributed; replacing him has been experimental at best. Nate Jones tried by fire just a few days after being brought in, wideout and special teamer Matthew Slater shocked with a few starts at safety, and rookie cornerback Sterling Moore was also forced into service.

Nothing really seemed to work.

But for as much anxiety as Patriots fans have felt to watch this revolving door on defense, Chung has struggled too. He doesn't deny it was difficult to sit handcuffed the sideline. Was he happy New England won seven straight? Of course. He's just happier when forcing incompletions on fourth down. One quarterback hit and seven tackles against the Bills (best of the secondary, tied with Mayo and Anderson among all defenders) show he's already making a difference.

And not a moment too soon.

Crouched and waiting on the other side of the bye week is playoff football. Chung considers himself lucky to have squeaked in some regular season snaps before the postseason. Shutting out Buffalo for three quarters -- against the pressure of being down 21-0 -- is exactly what he needed.

"It's very important. You can't go just straight into the playoffs. You have to have a warm-up game to get your legs right, get your footwork going and get your mind back on football. And then see how it goes from there."

Tough to imagine things won't get better now.

Foster playing catch-up, could help his cause vs. Panthers

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Foster playing catch-up, could help his cause vs. Panthers

FOXBORO -- When DJ Foster took the field for Patriots OTAs, he looked as advertised: quick, a crisp route-runner, and the owner of a pair of dependable hands. But that was back when players wore shorts to every practice. Since then, the undrafted rookie running back out of Arizona State hasn't had the opportunity to do much other than work on his conditioning while the majority of his teammates practiced. 

That could soon change. Though Foster has dealt with what he calls a "nagging" injury throughout much of training camp, he felt well enough this week to return to practice, and on Friday night he is likely to see preseason game action for the first time this summer.

The reason Foster's preseason debut could carry some importance is that he happens to play a position that may qualify as the thinnest on the Patriots roster right now. Because sub back extraordinaire Dion Lewis will not be healthy enough to start the season, and because coach Bill Belichick opted to part ways with veteran Donald Brown recently, the team is low on numbers in their running back room.

If Foster can capitalize on the opportunities he's given, he may make a case for a roster spot. James White, who is expected to be Lewis' primary replacement, is the other lone true sub back on the roster. Brandon Bolden can fill in at that role on an emergency basis, and Tyler Gaffney has shown he can catch the football when asked, but neither has the kind of pass-catching upside of Foster, who played receiver for the Sun Devils as a senior and racked up 222 receptions during his four-year college career. 

Foster has only so much time to prove he's worthy of a job. The Patriots have to reduce their numbers to 75 by Aug. 30. They need to be down to 53 by Sep. 3. Foster could be a tantalizing prospect to stash on the practice squad, but surely he'd like to make a push for a greater role. 

He explained this week that, despite his recent physical limitations, he won't be holding back whenever he does get a chance to prove himelf. 

"The coaches do a great job at just kind of making sure I'm OK and stuff," he said. "For me, when I'm in there, do what I can, give everything I got -- every rep, every chance I get with the reps. Stay in the playbook, stay involved in the meetings, and just try to learn as much as I can. Whenever I do get an opportunity, go out there and make the most of it."

Against the Panthers, the Patriots coaching staff will have to balance the need to evaluate players like Foster against good competition versus getting the entire team ready for Week 1. For example, they'd like to get a good look at Foster, whose practice reps were next to nil before this week. They'd also probably like to get White as many reps as possible so that he's prepared for the Cardinals. 

Who should play when? And how many snaps do they need? 

"You can’t see D.J. Foster play in this league. You have Arizona State film but that’s all you have, and some of the spring work that he did which is obviously encouraging," Belichick said earlier this week. "We still have him, but there’s just no body of work. Donald Brown, you can see Donald Brown . . . Players like D.J., it’s hard. You don’t have much to go on. But maybe he’ll be able to do more. We’ll get an evaluation of him soon, hopefully."

Friday night could be the night. 

Patriots vs. Panthers: Five things to watch

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Patriots vs. Panthers: Five things to watch

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HOW LONG FOR TOM?

Somehow, Tom Brady’s stated desire to play this preseason devolved into discussion of whether he’s selfish, whiny and power-mad. Eh, it’s a living. How much will practice-game reps in August help him in October? I don’t know. You don’t know. But he apparently thinks they’ll help so let the guy prepare to do what you pay him a lot of money to do – play quarterback for a little while. “How little?” is the question. In my opinion, letting Jimmy Garoppolo take the first two drives then turning it over to Brady for 20 plays would give Garoppolo the chance to see the Panthers early, make adjustments after the first drive and then yield to Brady. My impression is that there’s nothing etched in stone as to who will play how long, rather, it’s something Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will let develop as they see fit.

CAN MINGO MAKE A GO

Will the Patriots unveil their brand-new Barkevious? Barkevious Mingo did reportedly make the trip to Charlotte so he’ll be on the sidelines at least soaking up some of what the Patriots do defensively. What will Mingo do defensively is a bigger question. He’s 6-4, 250 and built more like an NBA small forward than a standard edge defender. His strength lies in his burst and moving upfield, though, so giving Mingo some of Geneo Grissom’s late-game reps on the edge would give the team some early impressions on which to work.

WHICH SHIFTS DO KNIGHTON/BRANCH GET

Seeing Terrance Knighton on the field late in the fourth quarter last week against the Bears was a bit of an eye-opener. Did it signal that he is a down-the-roster player like most of the other players on the field at that juncture in the preseason? Or was he out there because the Patriots needed someone at DT and Knighton was the guy. Phil Perry contemplates Knighton’s role on the roster here. Meanwhile, Branch is just back from a week-long team suspension for undisclosed agitations. He may not be ready to go, having missed a few days of practice, but if he is I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Patriots playing him right up until the final gun as a test of his willingness to play in 2016.

SECONDARY CHALLENGES

Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn all bring something to the table which will test the Patriots secondary. Benjamin is a huge and athletic wideout that brings the size component into play; Olsen is one of the league’s faster, more surehanded tight ends and Ginn is a jet. The Patriots have let up some plays on the perimeter in each of the first two preseason games. The Bears’ first two drives last week were 10 plays and 11 plays long. Getting off the field on third down early against Carolina’s potent offense would be an encouraging sign. 

BETTER TEST FOR RUNING GAME

Last week, the Patriots ground attack showed some life against the Bears. It had been a long time coming. Tonight, the test will be much more stiff. The Panthers have the league’s best linebacker in Luke Kuechly, another outstanding one in Thomas Davis and a front that features Star Lotuleilei, Kawann Short, Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy. While the progress made against Chicago was nice, make some headway against this group and then you can really get optimistic.