Cruz brings breakout season to Foxboro

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Cruz brings breakout season to Foxboro

FOXBORO As an undrafted rookie in 2010 with the New York Giants, Victor Cruz was an absolute stud in the preseason, leading all receivers in just about every meaningful category in an otherwise non-meaningful portion of the season.

That success didn't immediately translate into playing time or big numbers for Cruz.

But it proved that he had the potential to make a major impact.

And that time is now.

The former UMass standout has been one of the NFL's unexpected surprises this season for a New York Giants team looking to do what no NFC team has been able to do since 2002 -- defeat the Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

The self-proclaimed elite quarterback for Giants, Eli Manning, will impact the game. Ditto for a Giants pass rush that has an NFL-best 26 sacks this season.

But the play of Cruz will certainly have a say in the game's outcome as well.

"He's an explosive guy, inside, outside," said Patriots cornerback Antwaun Molden. "He's gifted."

Safety Josh Barrett echoed similar sentiments about the 6-foot, 204-pound Cruz.

"He's a go-to target," Barrett said. "He's been steady, ever since the preseason. He's got good strength, able to get through tackles. And those big plays, they really stand out."

For Cruz, like most young players, consistency remains an issue.

One minute he's dazzling you with his athleticism and circus-like catches. The next, he's fumbling the ball away in a close game in the fourth quarter, as was the case in New York's Week 5 loss to Seattle.

But considering that he still has much to learn, and plenty of room to improve, the Giants are more than happy with what they've seen thus far.

He has 28 catches for 497 yards this season, which includes four touchdowns. His 17.8 yards per catch average ranks fourth among NFL players with 25 or more catches this season.

"Victor Cruz has made some big plays," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "He's been a young man who has tried to learn the game. I'd like to say he's a sponge."

That involves video study, to some degree.

For receivers preparing for the Patriots secondary, well here's what Cruz had to say about what he has seen thus far.

"They're going through a phase right now where they're having some trouble (defending the pass)," Cruz told reporters. "You know, looking at film we see some opportunity where we can take advantage of that and we're definitely excited to go out there and play."

Playing well is one thing.

But the one thing Cruz has done that typically flies under the radar in terms of a young receiver's development, is to gain the trust of the franchise quarterback.

The more you watch the Giants play, the more clear it becomes that Manning has no hesitation when it comes to looking for Cruz in a critical passing situation.

"He's made a lot of plays," Manning said. "He's a young guy who each week is learning the ins-and-outs of this offense and he has a natural playmaking ability. He's stepped up to make big plays in key situations."

And to think, not a single NFL team felt strongly enough about his play to draft him.

Rather than sulk, Cruz simply focused on maximizing whatever opportunity he would get in the NFL. And for most young players, that means treating preseason games and practices as if they're the biggest event ever.

To his credit, Cruz did just that.

And the results have him easily among the biggest surprises in the NFL as it nears the halfway point of the season.

As far as him not being drafted and overlooked, none of that matters now.

"He's been putting it on film all season," Barrett said. "You have to take it for what it is. He's been a playmaker, regardless of where he came from or his past. He's definitely a player we have to keep an eye on and try to limit as much as we can."

Zolak: Bennett helps with Gronk loss, but Pats need to manage him

Zolak: Bennett helps with Gronk loss, but Pats need to manage him

Scott Zolak said on Pregame Live Sunday that the Patriots are better-suited to survive a season-ending injury to Rob Gronkowski than they were a season ago. 

Zolak said that given the health of Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and the signing of Chris Hogan, the offense has more stability at other positions to make up for the loss of Gronkowski, whose season is over due to back surgery. As for the tight end position, Zolak said he feels the Patriots traded for Martellus Bennett to protect themselves against scenarios like the one they currently face. 

“This offseason they [acquired] Martellus Bennett, I think for this very reason: to prepare for what really happens year after year, is some sort of issue comes up with Rob Gronkowski and you have to play without him,” Zolak said.

Bennett was questionable with an ankle injury for this week’s game, but is expected to play. Asked about the health of Bennett, Zolak said that he believes the tight end is good to play, but that his importance to the team with Gronkowski out means the Pats will need to be careful. 

“I think he’s healthy enough to get through about 30-35 snaps,” Zolak said. “They’ve got to balance him now moving forward.” 

Ryan open to changing role: 'It's not track and field where it's all about you'

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Ryan open to changing role: 'It's not track and field where it's all about you'

FOXBORO -- Logan Ryan goes into Sunday's game with the Rams coming off of arguably his two best games of the 2016 season. Coinciding with those performances against the 49ers and Jets has been a more permanent shift for the fourth-year corner into the slot. 

Ryan began the year as an every-down player, playing as one of two starting corners along with Malcolm Butler. But in Week 7, his playing time dipped. He was on the field for just 31 of 73 snaps against the Steelers as Eric Rowe took over as a starter. 

Belichick admitted that mid-season -- with Ryan, Rowe and Justin Coleman all vying for snaps -- the team was in a "transition period" in terms of figuring out how to deploy its corners.

"We were kind of in a little bit of a transition earlier in the year with the secondary, and Logan in particular, outside, inside," Belichick said. "I think the last couple of weeks he’s really given us a good level of communication, of run force. He’s made several tackles in the running game, plays off of the edge. But again the overall communication and consistency in there has been good. We’ll try to build on that. So I think that’s been a positive for us here over the past couple of weeks."

It's been a shift for Ryan, who helped the Patriots lock down receivers like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins and Denver's Demaryius Thomas last season on the outside. But when asked about his changing role during the week, he said he welcomed it.

"It's cool with me, man," he said. "I'll take whatever they give me. And I'm trying to do it at a high-level. The thing about being inside is there is a lot more communication that doesn't go noticed.  I'm closer to [Dont'a] Hightower, closer to Devin [McCourty], getting things out to the corner, getting things out to the front. 

"I just love the freedom in there to blitz, to cover, to drop in zone, read the quarterback, cover guys in the slot. I just think the versatility in there works well for what I try to do in being versatile. It's fun."

It's not a totally foreign gig for Ryan. He's seen practice time at safety, in the slot, and outside since arriving to the Patriots as a third-round pick in 2016. But in order to pick up a few tricks of the trade inside this season, he's studied tape of Arizona's Tyrann Mathieu and Denver's Chris Harris -- two of the best slot corners in the league. 

Whatever he's doing is working. Ryan has seen 11 targets over the last two weeks. Though seven of those have been caught, they've gone for only 46 yards. He also has three pass breakups in that span, including two against San Francisco when he was tasked with matching up with slot man Jeremy Kerley. 

Though he may not be seeing close to 100 percent of the team's defensive snaps as he was earlier this season, he said he's working to be as effective as possible whenever he is called upon. 

"I'm a player, man. I've got to play when they ask me to play," he said. "The coaches have been doing it for a long time at a high level. It's their job to figure out the snaps and how to use the personnel. I'm just trying to be as versatile as possible to get as many snaps as possible. When I'm asked to go out there, I just try to make it a positive and go out there and be disruptive and make plays on the ball and get the ball-carrier down. I'll let the coaches worry about that. I just got to control what I can control."

On his fluctuating workload he added: "It can be challenging but we play a team sport. I've played team sports my whole life, and they are all about sacrifice. It's not track and field where it's all about you. It's about what's best for the team and doing what's best for the team. Some days that might be more, some days that might be less, but at the end of the day it's about getting wins and trying to compete at a championship level, which I've fortunately been able to do in the past and I want to continue to do. There's no better feeling in the end when you know that you sacrificed for the team and the team counts on you as well."

Belichick left open the possibility that Ryan could shift back to the outside, but it sounds like the change could be one that the Patriots roll with for the stretch run. 

"I think he’s really done a good job in there," Belichick said, "of playing not only the slot position but again the communication, the decision making, some of the adjustments that come from that inside spot that have to relate to linebackers, sometimes the end, certainly the safeties. There are a lot of moving parts in there that a good experienced player at that position . . . it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. It doesn’t show up necessarily on film but in terms of the overall operation, the overall communication and smoothness of the defensive play and help everybody else play better. It’s definitely there and he’s done a good job of that."

Ryan and Belichick spoke about Ryan's playing-time situation as it was being altered, and just as the coach appreciates his player's openness to the move -- which Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran noted here -- the player understands what it means to be a professional and focus on that which he can control. 

Facing the prospect of unrestricted free agency, Ryan's future is somewhat uncertain. But he indicated that all he can do in order to help himself is what he's asked. 

"Show up to work every day and figure out how to get better, figure out how to help the team,  figure out how to maintain my job," Ryan said of his approach. "We've got a lot of young talented players in our room, a lot of young talent in the league, and the Patriots are always a team that's trying to improve and not settle at all. So I'm just trying to do what I have to do to play here and thrive here, and to help the team win, and to help my family and at the same."