Patriots 'D' makes strides, but not enough

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Patriots 'D' makes strides, but not enough

FOXBORO -- They were so close.

On Sunday night, the Patriots defense was seven minutes away from being the story of the game, specifically, a redemption tale.

Their performance against Pittsburgh just one week earlie looked like rock bottomr. New England let Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers complete 36 of 50 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns, convert 10 of 16 third-down plays, and control almost 40 minutes of ball possession. It was an embarrassment.

After the 25-17 loss, pressure for Week 9's match up against the Giants was immediately heaped upon Tom Brady and the offense. With the Patriots' 'D' close to useless and New York's barely better, the game was billed to be a shootout.

Nobody expected what happened.

The Patriots and Giants entered halftime tied at zero. Zero points. Nada. Zilch. What they did have was 10 combined punts, six being New York's. New England's defense finally looked alive, which was impressive in itself, but more so because the offense needed them. Brady went three- or four-and-out on three first-half drives; the defense held the Giants to 1-for-7 on third-down conversions. Brady threw an interception; Eli Manning was held to 8-for-18 passing. The Patriots -- because of consistently terrible field position -- only saw the red zone once; the Giants never did.

Finally, it looked like they stopped 'hoping' for improvement and improved.

So what changed?

"Eli Manning made some pretty good throws," cornerback Kyle Arrington shrugged. "That's all I can say."

Some good throws and some better breaks. Once some New England fumbles and bumbles got the Giants' scoring going, the fault lines started to appear. One major fissure was the pass-interference call on Arrington in the fourth quarter. New York got 35 yards and an automatic first down. The field position was too good to mess up and Manning found Mario Manningham for a third-and-5 touchdown. Arrington's coverage wasn't bad, but the throw was perfect. The Giants, after being limited 1-for-11 by New England's 'D', converted on its final three third-downs.

"It's tough," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "As a defense you hate giving up any touchdowns and toward the end of the game we know there's only a few possessions left and we've just got to get those stops.

"There's nothing we can do about it now, but this'll happen again. Close games like this, once you get toward the end of the season -- it seems like they happen each week. We've got to just learn from this game and be prepared when it happens again."

With the defense's weaknesses being so obvious -- the secondary's painfully so -- opponents know how to game plan against the Patriots. After Pittsburgh's 25-17 win, injured receiver Hines Ward admitted he didn't feel the need to push through his ankle ailment that week.

"I probably could have forced it and played but we have some great wideouts," Ward said. "I wasn't really concerned. And against the Patriots, we felt we could exploit their secondary."

The Giants did when it mattered. Now New England's forced to scrutinize back-to-back losses, the first time that's happened since 2009. With a meeting against the Jets in New York on the horizon, the streak could reach three unless the leaks get plugged.

They keep saying it's possible.

After each loss the Patriots promise to study their flaws, the problem seems to be in applying those lessons to game-day scenarios. No minor thing. For all the early improvement the defense seemed to show Sunday, in the fourth quarter it twice needed to preserve the lead and didn't -- couldn't. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich stood up to answer for the performance.

"We've got to do exactly what we did last week: come in, watch the tape, see the things we didn't do right, and can't dwell on the things in the past. It's in the past now. We've just got to . . . improve and go from there for next week. Next week's a division game and we've got to make sure we go into New York and do a good job on defense."

Another week to work things out. One more week before visiting the AFC East's first place Jets. If they don't stop trying and start doing, the Patriots' 2011 story could end a lot sooner than they want it to.

Malcom Brown already considered a leader for Patriots in second year

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Malcom Brown already considered a leader for Patriots in second year

FOXBORO -- Late last year, Bill Belichick went out of his way to explain just how far then-rookie defensive lineman Malcom Brown had progressed over the course of his first professional season. 

From the sounds of it, the first-round defensive tackle's on-the-field growth was atypical. 

"I think he’s really come on through the season, which isn’t always the case with first-year players," Belichick said on Dec. 30. "It took him a while to get to that point through training camp and the early part of the season, but he’s become much better and more consistent in every phase of the game – running game, passing game, play recognition, communication, adjustments – just everything. It seems like every week he just builds on it.

"He’s really hit a good slope, good incline. He’s worked hard. There is a lot on every rookie’s plate. There’s a lot on his plate as a rookie in the different situations that he plays in and the number of things that we do on the front, so it’s not easy, but he’s improved his techniques, his fundamental play and he’s improved his communication and overall understanding of the multiples that are involved. It’s been good."

Brown finished the year as the Patriots interior defensive lineman with the most snaps played (his 517 snaps trailed only Jabaal Sheard, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich among defensive linemen), and he established himself as a trustworthy option in the team's steady rotation on the interior of its front. 

According to one of Brown's newest teammates, free-agent acquisition Terrance Knighton, Brown is now serving as a leader on the interior of the defensive line. Though he's only in his second season, Brown's understanding of the Patriots defense gives him a leg up on players who may have more experience in the league but are new to New England. 

"Malcom Brown has basically been leading the group," Knighton said after an OTA practice last Thursday. "Being in his second year, he's probably the most experienced guy in it right now as far as this team. I'm picking his brain to see how things are done around here."

 

Knighton acknowledged that once the Patriots have Alan Branch back on the field -- Branch was one of 17 players missing from Thursday's OTA -- they'll get another player with a sound understanding of the defense. But right now, Brown is looked to as a source of information for veterans like Knighton and Markus Kuhn as well as rookie fourth-rounder Vincent Valentine. 

"Young guy, obviously played at a high level last year and you can tell he's feeding off of that," Knighton said of Brown. "He's only continued, from what I've seen on tape to now. That's one of the things I try to talk to about with the young guys is being on the up, and not going up and down in your career. That's something I've been through in my career so I just try to share knowledge and help guys out."

Brown, who turned 22 in February, certainly ended last season "on the up." In the early going this offseason, it seems as though he's on track to continue that trajectory.

Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

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Patriots making contract statements with OTA absences?

Malcolm Butler was one of many not spotted during OTAs on Thursday when the media got a looksee at one of the practices.

Butler wasn’t the only one. But he did stand out as a missing player who hadn’t (to my knowledge) had a surgery but did have a contract that needs addressing. Another one? Rob Gronkowski. If we really want to extend it out, throw in Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan.

This is the point where it’s important to point out that these workouts are voluntary – VAW-LUN-TERR-EEEE! Players don’t have to be there. Additionally, I’m not even sure Butler or Gronkowski (or Ryan and Harmon) weren’t at the facility. All I know is they weren’t on the field. And, per usual, nobody’s tipping his hand as to why.

But we do have this, relative to Butler. ESPN’s Mike Reiss wrote Sunday that he “wouldn’t be surprised if it was related to his contract status.” Reiss said that Butler “told teammates and friends he plans to push for an adjustment to his contract before the 2016 season, and staying off the field in voluntary workouts would be a decision that limits injury risk and also could be viewed as a statement to the organization that he's unhappy with the status quo and/or the movement/specifics of contract talks.”

In the same vein, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gronkowski opted out as well for the same reason, especially since he threw out a tweet that signaled dissatisfaction with his pact in March.

But in terms of a statement, not going to OTAs is more of a throat-clearing than a noisy proclamation.

Not to minimize the move if Butler, Gronkowski or anybody else is actually staying away because of business. The Patriots usually enjoy almost perfect OTA attendance. Also, there hasn’t been much contract strife around here for the past five seasons.

Money matters were an annual issue for the Patriots from about 2003 through 2010. Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Ty Warren, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Randy Moss, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vrabel and – quietly – Tom Brady all had their contract dances back then. But the only one that got hairy in the recent past was Wes Welker.

It’s still too soon to know if any of these will get contentious. When will we know? When either a player or his agent spouts off. Or, when someone’s a no-show at mandatory minicamp beginning June 7.

That would amount to a shot across the bow. Of all the players likely to take that shot, Butler seems a reasonable bet. His base pay this season is $600K after a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015 that saw him check the opposition’s best wideout on a weekly basis. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year. He deserves longer-term security than he currently has. Gronkowski has a lot less to kick about. He may make less than lesser players, but he also was the league’s highest paid tight end when he was missing scads of games due to injury.

After Butler, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower would figure to have the strongest cases to want new deals and want them snappy. Ryan and Harmon would be right behind those two. Then Jabaal Sheard.

Sheard, Hightower and Collins were all on the field Thursday. 

Can the Patriots get all these guys reupped? Will they even try? How do they have them prioritized? If the guy who howls loudest gets to the front of the line, the time to make some noise is close.

But we have yet to hear any of these players loud and clear.