Cowboys Big Three receivers are tough covers

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Cowboys Big Three receivers are tough covers

FOXBORO The New England Patriots have seen their share of big receivers and pass-catching tight ends this season.

But the Dallas Cowboys?

They have the kind of three-headed receiving monster unlike anything this Patriots defense has seen all season. When talking about the Cowboys' passing attack, you have to start with tight end Jason Witten, the team's leader in receptions (27), yards (366) and Pro Bowl selections (7).

"I evaluate (Witten) as one of the all-time greats," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "There's a lot of good tight ends in the league and there's good players at every position, but he's as good as any player and I'm glad we only play him once every whatever it is -- three or four years -- that's plenty."

Dallas also has 6-foot-2 Miles Austin, who had more than 1,000 yards receiving a year ago. And rounding out their trio of talented pass-catchers, is 6-2 Dez Bryant who is . . . we'll let Pats safety Patrick Chung tell you about Bryant.

"He's good. He's big, fast, strong," Chung said of Bryant. "He knows how to go up there and get the ball. He's good after the catch. He's a beast."

New England has had mixed results this season in dealing with big-time wide-outs and tight ends. In the 38-24 win to open the season against Miami, the Patriots had lots of problems trying to contain 6-4 Brandon Marshall who had seven catches for 139 yards.

The following week, New England defeated the San Diego Chargers 35-21, despite Vincent Jackson having a huge game. The Patriots took away San Diego's top receiver at the time -- tight end Antonio Gates -- and did not allow him to make a single catch. Gates had just one ball thrown his way.

"They made it difficult for me to get off the ball," Gates said following the loss. "They made it difficult for me to make a play on a ball. Every time I looked around, there were two guys around me. They had a game plan. They wanted to take me out of the game, and that's exactly what they did."

A similar approach to defending the Cowboys, however, seems unlikely.

Trying to take out any one of their Big Three receiving targets would in all likelihood create more opportunities for the other two to make plays.

However, having seen a number of large receivers and other talented tight ends already this season, should bode well this week for the Patriots in preparation for a Dallas passing attack that's ranked third in the NFL.

"It always helps that this is not the first time we've seen it, going against different guys this season," said Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty, who leads the Pats in tackles with 39. "The biggest thing is just the physical nature of the bigger receivers. Most of the time, they're bigger than the corners they're facing. They try and use that to their advantage."

And the Patriots will try to use the momentum gained from a solid defensive performance last week against the Jets, as a springboard going into the Cowboys game.

"That's what you want, to get better from one week to the next," said Patriots defensive lineman Shaun Ellis. "I think with us and our defense, we're doing that."

Patriots release veteran wide receiver Nate Washington

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Patriots release veteran wide receiver Nate Washington

FOXBORO -- The Patriots cut down on their numbers at the receiver position on Wednesday by releasing veteran Nate Washington, Tom E. Curran has reported.

Washington, who will turn 33 later this month, was signed in the offseason to a one-year deal with $60,000 guaranteed. His presence on the roster provided the Patriots with some veteran depth as an outside receiver, but when he vomitted at the end of the team's first training camp practice and then missed several practices thereafter, he had difficulty making up for lost time. 

Washington did whatever he could in order to stay involved. Oftentimes he walked in and out of the huddle with teammates even though he would not be involved in the play, and during one practice he ran routes alone on an adjacent field while the Patriots offense went through plays nearby.

The former Steelers, Titans and Texans receiver was eager to prove he had more to give at this late stage of his career. Last season in Houston, in an offense similar to the one in New England, he caught 47 passes for 658 yards and four touchdowns. Prior to last season, during which he played 14 games, Washington had not missed a regular-season game since before the start of the 2006 season. 

With Washington no longer a factor in the wide-receiver picture in New England, the Patriots have one less competitor for what appears as though it will be just one or two open roster spots at the position. 

At the top of the depth chart Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell are essentially locks to be included on the final 53-man roster. (Amendola is on the physically unable to perform list at the moment but is progressing toward a return.) Matthew Slater can also be included on that list, though his contributions will come primarily as a special teamer.

That means Keshawn Martin, Aaron Dobson, Chris Harper, DeAndre Carter and Devin Lucien could be competing for just one roster spot.

Washington's release gives that situation a little more clarity, but the overall picture is still a hazy one that may sort itself out over the course of the next two weeks. 

Bryan Stork, starting center in 2014 Super Bowl, released by Patriots

Bryan Stork, starting center in 2014 Super Bowl, released by Patriots

The first mildly-surprising release of training camp is in the books as the Patriots have parted ways with third-year center Bryan Stork, Tom E. Curran has confirmed. 

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media was the first to report the news. 

Stork was involved in one of the most hotly-contested battles of camp, vying for the starting center role along with 2015 undrafted free agent David Andrews. The pair split reps through the spring and into the summer, but Stork suffered what was reported as a concussion, missed a week of practice, and lost ground to Andrews that was never made up. Andrews started each of the team's first two preseason games, and he was consistently the first center on the practice field even after Stork's return. 

Andrews started and played every snap for the Patriots through the first nine games of last season, helping the team go 9-0 in that stretch. When Stork was activated off of the short-term injured reserve list, he re-gained the center job and Andrews a reserve role. 

Stork made an almost immediate impact with the Patriots after he was drafted out of Florida State in the fourth round in 2014. He made his first start in Week 4 and started 11 games in total. He also started in the Divisional Round against the Ravens that season and in Super Bowl XLIX. 

Stork's release was likely a result of a handful of factors, including Andrews' rise, his own injury history, and perhaps a certain level of on-the-field unpredictability he displayed at times. Stork was removed from two Patriots practices this preseason -- one during OTAs and one during training camp -- for fighting. He also drew an unnecessary roughness penalty during last season's AFC title game. 

The Patriots will move forward under unretired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia with Andrews, Josh Kline and sixth-round rookie Ted Karras as the players who have taken center snaps in training camp practices. 

Brady: Preseason reps help you adapt to the speed of the game

Brady: Preseason reps help you adapt to the speed of the game

FOXBORO -- It's clear that Tom Brady wants to play at some point this preseason. What's a little less clear is what he thinks he stands to gain from preseason game reps in August when he won't be playing meaningful snaps until October. 

After explaining why he missed Thursday's preseason game with the Bears, which he was scheduled to start, Brady was asked on Tuesday if he feels as though he needs game reps before matching up with the Browns in Week 5.

"I don’t think any of them hurt," he said. "I think just do the best you can do. We’re preparing a lot of guys to get ready to play. I fit into that, but so do a lot of other guys. I’m just taking the advice of coach [Bill Belichick], and whatever he wants to do. I’m going to do everything I can to be ready to go when I am called upon. That’s what my responsibility is so that’s what I’m preparing to do."

If the only benefit of having Brady play against the Panthers in the third preseason game amounts to, "Well, couldn't hurt..." then it would come as some surprise if Belichick opted to play Brady anyway. Because it could hurt. It could hurt quite a bit should something flukey happen and Brady ends up worse off than he was after his recent run-in with a pair of scissors. 

Former assistant to the Patriots coaching staff Mike Lombardi, told WEEI recently that Brady needs to work in a preseason game before serving his four-game suspension. Why? 

"The speed of the game changes," Lombardi said. "You have practices against the Bears, but it’s kind of simulated and controlled. I think Tom wants to get the flow of the game . . . Because it’s the third preseason game, Jimmy [Garoppolo] is probably going to play as much into the third quarter as possible, and then you don’t want to put Tom out there with a lot of other guys that perhaps won’t make the team. The second game was kind of a game where he should have played a little bit to get his feet wet. He’s not going to play the fourth game against the New York Giants. That’s going to be Jacoby Brissett’s game. 

"I think [the Bears game] was the time, and that’s why [Brady] was going to play. Obviously something happened with the injury and that’s why he didn’t play . . . I know Tom needs to play in the preseason. He’s not just going to go waltz onto the field and feel the game is going to come right to him."

It feels as though Brady, after 16 years in the NFL, would be able to adapt to the speed of the game relatively quickly with or without preseason reps. But Brady expressed an opinion similar to that of Lombardi when asked about the difference between preseason snaps and practice snaps. He's seen plenty of the latter against the Bears, Saints and his own teammates.

"Well, I think you’re getting hit so just the space awareness, guys around you and ball security and things like that," Brady said. "For whatever, the last 30 practices, quarterbacks aren’t touched. Just standing there in the pocket, holding the ball knowing that they’re coming to get the ball and knock it out of your hands, hitting the ground, those types of things and so forth are important.

"You just have to feel things out, and the game is really the only place to get it because it’s regular speed. You don’t know what’s coming. We prepare, but we don’t obviously get to walk through the looks that we’re going to get. When you get out there you just have to make good decisions and go play quarterback the way that I’ve always tried to do."

Maybe it's to adapt to the pace of the game. Maybe it's to be faced with the real threat of contact. Maybe it's just because he can't stand not to be on the field when the Patriots are playing. Either way, Brady obviously hopes that he'll play on Friday night in Carolina. 

The question now is are the benefits great enough that Belichick will allow him to?