Patriots defense holds the line against Dallas

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Patriots defense holds the line against Dallas

FOXBORO -- Come clean: You didn't think they could do it.

You never thought that if Tom Brady and the Patriots offense was taken out of a game, the defense could hold the line.

But New England beat the Cowboys Sunday, 20-16 -- because of the defense, not in spite of it.

A win within the win.

"We wanted to stick together," said Kyle Arrington. " It's, 'We all we got,' that's what we always say defensively. I think we just all banded together and left it all out on the field."

Of all the statistics being fired at football fans this season, New England's 32nd-ranked defense always gets radio play. Largely because the flaw adds insecurity to long-term postseason plans. (It also makes lovers of The Other 31 giddy.) Average yards surrendered per game: 433.0. Total receptions surrendered: 154.

The numbers are those that teams like Dallas feed on.

Despite a 2-3 record, there are certain offensive dangers the Cowboys pose. Tony Romo's a gunslinger, and he's got some good targets in Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten. The trio of receivers had caught all of Romo's seven touchdowns going into Week 6. And, believe it or not, Romo's reputation as a self-saboteur isn't something you rest a game plan on.

The same way the Patriots can't plan to rest on Brady.

On Sunday, they couldn't. Brady was sacked three times and threw two picks on the night. DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and the rest of the Cowboys 'D' loomed large on every play. First-quarter drives: field goal, interception, fumble. First-quarter time possession: four minutes, 38 seconds.

New England's defense was forced to mature.

It did.

The Patriots held Dallas to 33-percent efficiency both on third down and in the Red Zone. Contributions came from all over, whether in Gerard Warren drawing a hold and recovering a Vince Wilfork-forced fumble, Kyle Arrington picking off a pass, or Andre Carter putting Romo on the ground -- twice.

"You know what it does?" Arrington quipped. "It sets the standard, especially with an explosive team like the Cowboys . . . a very talented offense. That's a great outfit over there. For us to play 'D' like that, it just sets the standard. There's no reason why we can't do that week-in and week-out."

Andre Carter was more cautious in his postgame assessment.

"Lord willing, we're coming along," he said. "We still have a long way to go, especially on those long drives in the second quarter and a little bit in the third. So if we can eliminate those and be consistent then we're headed in the right direction."

They need to eliminate missed tackles, too. There were plenty, and some were costly. Like on Romo's final drive of the first half, when Bryant got the better of Patriots linebacker Gary Guyton and safety Patrick Chung for 33 yards up the sideline. The play grew into one of those long drives Carter bemoaned in the postgame: 11 plays, 93 yards, zero third downs and six points.

The missed and broken coverage, you'd better believe that will be a focus of this upcoming bye week. But for one night, the defensive corps could take pride in securing the win.

They earned it; there's been no bigger test in 2011 Dallas' third drive of the fourth quarter.

Romo got the ball with a 16-13 lead and three-and-a-half minutes on the clock. New England squashed the first two plays with tackles for a loss of three total yards. The Cowboys shot themselves in the foot with a five-yard false start penalty to wind up at third-and-18. Dallas then picked up just eight on the run and chose to punt.

They won the ball back for Brady. The offense returned the favor with a touchdown.

"As a defense, that's what you want: you want to have the confidence of the offense," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "If they go out there and have a bad play, have a turnover, they know they're going to get the ball back."

That's exactly what happened Sunday against Dallas. And that's exactly why the Patriots won.

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.