Stopping Seattle's Lynch is key to Patriots defense

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Stopping Seattle's Lynch is key to Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- Give Vince Wilfork credit. At least he was diplomatic.

On Thursday, when given the opportunity, he spoke glowingly about the talents of Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and the play-making ability of Seattle's receivers. All along, though, Wilfork knew that they were of peripheral importance to the real key for the Patriots defense on Sunday.

"It's going to be one of those games," Wilfork said, "where it's going to come down to can we stop Marshawn Lynch and this running attack."

Lynch is currently third in the NFL in rushing with 508 yards. How he accumulates those yards is what's concerning to New England.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has often said that the ability to get yards after contact makes a good running back, and by that logic, Lynch is great. At 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, he is one of the strongest runners in the NFL, and, according to ESPN, he leads the league in yards after contact with 229.

"The number of yards that he gets after contact is very impressive, whether he runs through a tackle or just uses his quickness to make the guy who really should make the tackle miss it," Belichick said Wednesday. "But, yeah, Lynch is outstanding. He's got great feet, good balance, he's a powerful guy and there are times that he does get tackled, but a lot of times it's with three or four extra yards because of his good pad level and ability to maintain his leg drive through contact. And by the time the defender gets him on the ground, it's an extra two, three yards that Lynch has created on his own. Absolutely, he's one of the best."

Although the Patriots haven't played Seattle in four years, they are familiar with Lynch's style. At the beginning of his career, he spent three seasons and part of a fourth with the Buffalo Bills. The last time Lynch played New England he was in September of 2010 when he ran for 79 yards on 13 attempts -- a 6.08 yards-per-carry average.

"We have a lot of history with that guy when he was in Buffalo," Jerod Mayo said. "He's a tough runner. It'll take 11 guys to get him down."

Watching the film this week, Wilfork was reminded just how tough it was to bring Lynch down at times.

"He breaks a lot, a lot of tackles. A lot of tackles," Wilfork said. "He's been running hard ever since facing him in Buffalo. He's just a tough, tough back. He's strong. He's a physical runner. He's quick, shifty. He's well put together. You talk about backs, an elite back, I don't think he gets enough credit. He's probably one of the tougher backs in the league because he can go anywhere. Sometimes he don't even need blocks. He can go out there and take on the defense himself."

Against a runner like Lynch, Wilfork said, it's important that no one on the defensive side of the ball gives up on plays early when it looks like Lynch is about to go down. Odds are, he's not.

"Everybody's gotta go to the ball," Wilfork said. "Just because you're backside . . . the play is not over with a guy like this."

Seattle is seventh in the league in rushing and possesses two other talented backs: Leon Washington and rookie Robert Turbin. Washington is a shiftier back (and a focal point on special teams for the Seahawks), while Turbin is built similarly to Lynch.

"They have different styles," Belichick said. "But when Turbin is in there, he makes a lot of yards too on contact and avoiding guys too. If you're not really studying the backs, you're just kind of watching them, I don't want to say you can't tell them apart, but both guys run hard, both guys make yards after contact, both guys are very good runners, and so is Washington, so it doesn't really matter who is in there. All those guys, that's a very good group."

But Lynch is their horse, and the Patriots know that stopping him will be key to keeping Seattle's offensive production down.

"We've faced some good runners, but this guy is probably -- he's at the top," Wilfork said. "We have our work cut out."

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.