Saints be praised: Gregory, Pats defense embrace new challenge

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Saints be praised: Gregory, Pats defense embrace new challenge

FOXBORO -- Steve Gregory rushed in off the edge of the Patriots defensive line and made a beeline toward Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Coming in on a safety blitz, Gregory wasn't allowed to finish off the play full speed; Brees, along with every other quarterback on the field, was wearing a "no contact" red jersey. Still, the Patriots safety explained that Tuesday's joint practice with New Orleans was an effective simulation of what Patriots players might see once games begin.

"It simulated a game a little bit more than going against your own guys for so long," Gregory said. "It kind of gave that game atmosphere a little bit. You kind of had to be on top of your stuff, play your schemes, against something where you don't really know what's coming at you so. It was a good test for us."

Gregory signed a three-year deal with the Patriots this offseason after six seasons in San Diego. He said his new team's first practice with the Saints helped him and the rest of the Patriots secondary get better at their on-field communication as they saw formations and plays they haven't seen for the last two weeks. He admitted that as the Patriots defense went against the Patriots offense so frequently during camp, players began to pick up on each other's tendencies, making it easier to be in the right place at the right time to make a play. Tuesday was different.

And going against the Saints -- one of the best offensive teams in football in recent years -- made it an especially challenging day.

"To get out there and communicate with each other, against another team, in a situation that would be game-like, that was great," said Gregory, who picked off a Brees pass in 11-on-11 work. "It was great for us to grow today and get better back there.

"The Saints have a lot of talented guys out there, especially Drew, their running backs, receivers and tight ends. It poses challenges for defenses so it's good for us to go against an offense like that."

Gregory will be back at it again later this morning, trying to get a handle on Patriots coverages at something close to full speed. And even though he's not allowed to sack Brees, Gregory hoped he'd be at the line again, rushing in hard, not letting up until the last second.

"It's awesome man," Gregory said of the two opportunities he had to rush the quarterback on Tuesday. "DBs, we always think we're the best blitzers on the field. Any time we get a chance to go, we love it."

Curran: Even after all that's gone down, sun still shines for Brady

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Curran: Even after all that's gone down, sun still shines for Brady

I wasn’t looking to get nostalgic last Thursday. But I got that little twist in the tummy. It was a song that did it. It reminded me of how things were and how things are.

The song was “Beautiful Day” by U2. It was, for a few years, practically a Patriots anthem. It was the first song the legendary Irish band played during its halftime set at Super Bowl 36, a mini-concert that was sad, hopeful, jubilant and defiant all at once. 

It’s not hard to recall what things felt like in early February of 2002.

Five months earlier, the September 11 attacks stripped away the sense of security and insulation we'd come to enjoy as our birthright. Anger, indignation, unity, national pride and a sense of resolve emerged that probably hadn’t been felt in 60 years.

But our new reality also meant a palpable sense of unease, too. Vulnerability.

It was at sporting events in the wake of 9/11 that we got an introduction to how things had changed and how we’d been changed. Armed security, bomb-sniffing dogs, personal searches and patdowns fueled our new trepidation. But once inside, a strength-in-numbers feeling emerged. The vulnerability was replaced by a near-universal sense of community and patriotism. The focus was on what we had in common as Americans, our shared interest in being safe and maintaining who we were.

The feeling isn’t quite the same now, is it? A lot’s changed.

It was near the end of that Thursday practice that the song came on. Blaring. It was supposed to replicate crowd noise during an 11-on-11 drill but it had the additional impact of causing me to reflect on that time and Tom Brady.

Brady was standing behind the offense watching rookie Jacoby Brissett take the reps at quarterback. Next to Brady was Jimmy Garoppolo.

Brissett was 9 years old when U2 played at that Super Bowl while Brady sat in the visitor’s locker room at the Superdome, improbably in possession of a 14-3 lead and 30 minutes from taking the first step on the road from “cool story” to “legend.” Garoppolo was 11.

How many rookie quarterbacks has Brady seen come and go since he was a rookie himself in 2000? How many backups has he dispatched since Brady himself was a backup in 2001? A lot.

He’s so far removed from the 24-year-old kid who, upon winning the MVP in that Super Bowl, put his hands to his head in beaming disbelief.  Does he think about that game? That atmosphere? That song?

That was an amazing day. I remember the military presence all week in New Orleans and on Super Bowl Sunday especially. Soldiers with M-16s surveyed and patrolled all along inside the barriers set up outside the Superdome. Inside, the Patriots were the ultimate Cinderella team going against a dynasty-in-waiting. They were -- hard as it is to believe now almost 15 years later -- beloved nationally. And the country didn’t hate Boston fans then, either. They mostly felt bad for us because of the constant sports heartbreak.

There were emotional juxtapositions that day -- from U2's moving halftime tribute to those killed on 9/11 to the Patriots stunning win -- that by the end felt cathartic. It was like an Irish wake.   

Brady doesn’t beam too often anymore. At least not publically. He’s got 17 years in the league, 16 minicamps, four Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl losses, three Super Bowl MVPs and two league MVPs under his belt. The novelty’s worn off some.

There’s also the matter of the NFL itself deciding it would bring the franchise that went from Cinderella to Godzilla to heel by over-prosecuting the team in 2007 and trumping up charges against Brady himself in 2014.

Can’t beat ‘em? Delegitimize ‘em.

For Brady to find himself a reviled athlete, a target of the league office, a media piñata must have been beyond comprehension.

But on Thursday, there was a sign that maybe he’s making some peace with that, too.

The person who was at a loss for words in an uncomfortable 30-minute press conference a year ago January, who set his jaw and refused comment last summer walking in and out of New York courthouses, who welled up in September talking about the impact the investigation had on Jim McNally and John Jastremski . . . that guy actually walked past the media on Thursday when practice was over.

He didn’t stop. He only smiled and waved a few hellos. But compared to last year, when he’d exit the practice fields 100 yards from the media and didn’t speak from the Super Bowl until September, this was a departure.

There is no bigger point I’m trying to make here about football, patriotism, party politics, the decline of civility or the Patriots being a national treasure or blight.

All this was just something that occurred to me last Thursday. Which just so happened to be the first legitimately beautiful day of the year. 

Big weekend: Timberlake likes Gronk's moves; Edelman cries 'Free Brady'

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Big weekend: Timberlake likes Gronk's moves; Edelman cries 'Free Brady'

Rob Gronkowski has never been one to keep his dance moves from the public eye. While he's received a wide range of critiques -- the body-slamming of one of his brothers in Las Vegas was not quite as well-received as his girating on a Duck Boat early last year -- the compliment he received this weekend will be hard to beat.

In Nantucket with teammate Julian Edelman, Gronkowski got on stage to dance to Justin Timberlake's new song "Can't Stop the Feeling." When the artist found the video on Twitter, he gave the Patriots tight end a social-media thumbs up in the form of the hashtag "#thosemovestho".

Gronkowski had an eventful day for himself -- with camera phones seemingly recording his every move -- as did Edelman, who began the weekend in Boston at the Boston Calling music festival to scream "Free Brady!"

Seahawks taking their cues from Patriots on how to use Browner

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Seahawks taking their cues from Patriots on how to use Browner

Brandon Browner helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl with his physical play in the secondary, highlighting his one-year stint with the team by making one of the most important jams at the line of scrimmage in the history of the NFL, clearing space at the goal line for Malcolm Butler's championship-saving interception.

One season later, as a member of the Saints, he had a tough time. He committed 24 penalties (most in the league), allowed 17.2 yards per catch (second-most in the league among players who played at least 75 percent of their teams' snaps), and quarterbacks had a rating of 122.5 when throwing in his direction (worst in the league, according to Pro Football Focus). 

Browner was released after one year in New Orleans -- though he was happy to point out to Saints fans on Instagram that he made good money for that one year -- and has been since been signed by Seattle, where he was a member of their vaunted Legion of Boom secondary from 2011-13. 

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told ESPN that Browner will be used this season similarly to the way he was used at times in New England. Rather than forcing him to play on the outside in man-to-man coverage, he'll be in the box as a safety, where his physicality will be best served. He'll still be asked to cover from time to time, but those assignments will pit him primarily against tight ends -- something Patriots coach Bill Belichick liked to do in 2014 -- instead of quicker, smaller wideouts. 

"He was wide open to it," Carroll said of the positional change. "I had the chance to see him play in positions like he's being asked to play now when he was in New England, and we saw some really good things we thought we could mix into our stuff, and he's very much looked the part. But I really think it's about him; we like the guy so much."

How the shift will work remains to be seen. Working inside the box is something he's done before with the Patriots, but now it's a full-time gig. 

"Being on the outside, it’s more of a man-to-man concept: You’re a corner on an island," Browner said. "Being in that box, you’re accounted for from the linemen in the run. You’ll get some run keys from the end man on the line of scrimmage. Things are just a little different. But you’re a football player in there. Playing corner, it’s more of a one-on-one thing. We’re playing basketball out there on that island. When you’re in that box, that’s football, I think."