Woodhead an important piece to Patriots new rushing attack

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Woodhead an important piece to Patriots new rushing attack

FOXBORO -- With Stevan Ridley putting together back-to-back 100-plus yard rushing games, and Brandon Bolden throwing in one of his own, the Patriots ground game has gotten some good attention this season.
Danny Woodhead also deserves a share of the credit.
Sunday against Seattle, New England rushed for only 87 yards as a team. Woodhead averaged 6.3 yards on his four carries. He added 46 yards on five catches.
Though his numbers aren't gaudy, they still made an impact.
The Patriots needed 6 yards and Woodhead got 7. They needed 4 and he got 9. They needed 10, he got 12.
"Danny is obviously a very important player for us," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "Hes made a lot of critical plays, whether its catches or runs, third-down protections or blocking blitzers. Danny has filled that role and done a really nice job with it."
Could Woodhead's work in clutch situations evolve into a third-down role similar to Kevin Faulk's?
"Kevin was certainly one of the best Patriots ever and had a great career and did a lot of similar things, but I think theyre different players," McDaniels noted carefully. "Danny did definitely show up and make some important plays for us yesterday like he has all year."
His responsibilities have at least shifted in the locker room, if not by default. When BenJarvus Green-Ellis was traded to Cincinnati, Woodhead, at age 27, became New England's most senior running back. Ridley and Shane Vereen are in their sophomore seasons. Bolden is a rookie.
So it's for Woodhead to answer, not ask questions.
"It's not something that I think about too much. I like to think of myself as a young guy, still. You guys are starting to make me feel old," he laughed. "But, whatever it may be . . . if I am older, I guess I'm older."
The Patriots may ask even more of him in the coming weeks. Bolden suffered a knee injury in Sunday's loss to Seattle and has missed practice since. If he's inactive for Sunday's divisional game against the Jets, the running back corps will have to rally.
Woodhead isn't worried.
"We're a very close unit. All of us are great friends. It's a very, very, very unselfish group of guys. That's what you need in a room like that. When you get off the field, if you make a play, the other guys are the first ones to be there to congratulate you. We've got a very tight room."

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."