Times have changed at Gillette Stadium


Times have changed at Gillette Stadium

With seven weeks remaining on the regular season, it's a little early to assume too much about the 2012 Patriots. Despite all we've seen and learned about this team, there's still time for something to click on defense. (In Talib We Trust?) There's still time for the offense to find a consistent identity and nurse itself back to health. While seven weeks may not be an NFL lifetime, recent history leaves us well aware of how much everything can and will change.

The 2005 Steelers were 7-5 after 13 weeks, before winning four straight, and then four more on their way to a title. The 2011 Giants were 7-7 after 15 weeks, before sneaking into the playoffs and never looking back. The 2011 Patriots were 6-3 after 10 weeks, the same place they are now, amidst an eerily similar whirlwind of questions and concerns. They didn't lose another regular season game and came within one improbable drop (Wes Welker) and one improbable catch (Mario Manningham) of winning it all. In turn, to think that we'll feel the same way about the Patriots on the eve of the playoffs as we do right now is more unrealistic than Karl Rove's argument for Ohio.

But at the same time, with more than half a season in the books, the Patriots Picture is certainly coming into focus. Unlike the Celtics, who are still at a stage when nothing is real, and every assumption leaves you susceptible to ultimate embarrassment, 10 weeks in the NFL is a pretty solid sample size. And while keeping in mind that nothing's set in stone, I feel pretty comfortable making the following two simple, yet wildly important statements:

No. 1: The Patriots offense is fine. Not perfect, but fine. Fine enough to almost guarantee 30 points a week a number theyve now reached in six of nine games (while finishing with 29 in one of the three misses). For all the concerns about drops, injuries, inconsistent play calling and Bradys phantom flinching, when you can count on 30 points, you can generally chill out. The offense will be OK.

No. 2: The Patriots defense is not fine. Not by a long shot. After yesterdays game, Bill Belichick was somewhat defensive (pun sort of intended) when pressed about Buffalos 31-point explosion. I just got through saying that I think they have a real good group of skill players that are hard to tackle," he said. "Part of that is a credit to them, but we've got to do a better job.

And you know, its easy to look at the Bills roster with a gunslinging QB, two elusive running backs, a fleet of athletic receivers and an enormous, sure-handed tight end and believe the hype. But in reality, Buffalos offense isnt very good. They entered Sunday ranked 18th in points and 21st in yards. In their previous four games, they scored 30 points only once (against the 32nd ranked Titans defense). In the other three, they scored three points against the 49ers, 19 points against the Cardinals and nine points against the Texans. Lastly, yesterday was only the second game all season in which the Bills amassed more than 400 total yards. The other time? Yup, Week 4 against the Pats.

If you want to get into the nitty gritty of what makes New England's defense such a disaster, Tom E. Curran has you covered here. For this column, lets just say: For now, the defense is as bad as the offense is good. As a result, we've seen, and will continue to see a lot of these Patriots games come down to the wire. Yesterday won't be the last time that one defensive stand will serve as the difference between victory and defeat. And in that case, if history's any indicator, well have absolutely no clue what to expect.

Will they force a miraculous turnover like they did against Arizona? Surrender 72 yards in a minute like they did against the Ravens? Give up a crunch time bomb like they did in Seattle? Strip-sack the quarterback like they did against the Jets? Pull an end zone interception out of their ass like they did on Sunday? Its a total crap shoot. There's no rhyme or reason as to how things will unfold. All you can do is hold your breath and hope for the best while undoubtedly fearing the worst.

Yesterday afternoon, I was in the stands at Gillette for New England's latest psychological thriller, and all I can say is that there's no question that this defense has wreaked havoc on the state of Patriots Nation. But before I explain, a quick disclaimer:

I'm admittedly the poster boy for the changing face of Patriots fans in this post-dynasty era. Back in 2003, when I officially moved back to Boston (after four years of college in New York and a quick pit-stop in Vermont) my father bought season tickets from a friend, and from that moment we didn't miss a game for five years. Actually, that's not true. We missed one game: The snowstorm against Miami. But even skipping that was an unbelievably difficult decision, and we regretted it the whole afternoon. Back then, Gillette was everything to us. It wasn't a Patriots home game unless we were there to support them. We were part of the masses that trekked to Foxboro every single Sunday to be part of what, at the time, was without question one of the greatest home crowds in the NFL.

But times have obviously changed. Earlier this month, NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal wrote a story where he ranked the best home crowds in the league, and broke them down into four categories: Top Tier, Next Level, Middle of the Pack and Bottom Rung. Pats fans were in the Bottom Rung, and honestly, as much as it hurts, it's hard to disagree. Anyone who was at yesterday's game will tell you that the crowd by NFL standards was pretty much a non-factor; a far cry from the glory days. And the question is: How did this happen?

The most common answer is that increased ticket prices and a deflating economy have phased out the real fans and turned Gillette into an apathetic country club, and to a certain extent that's true. But it goes deeper than that. After all, tickets prices have always been expensive. For most fans, going to a game (even more, having season tickets) has always been about sacrifice. There have always been better, more sensible and pressing ways to spend your money. But these days, more and more die hard Patriots fans are choosing not to. Over the years, the idea of battling the cold and traffic grew less and less appealing to my father and I, and we sold off most of our tickets. A few years back, we started having trouble finding buyers. Last year, we couldn't even give away tickets to some of the games. This year, we gave the tickets up all together. It was emotional decision, but at the end of the day, it just wasn't worth it anymore. And I know we're not the only ones who feel that way.

The most obvious reason is the vast improvement of the at-home viewing experience. HD TVs, the Red Zone and fantasy football have turned Sundays on the couch into one of the most enjoyable experiences in a sports fan's life. My dad and I still get together every Sunday, and forge the same Patriots memories. We still scream and yell like we're crammed into Section 121, but it's hard to beat the warmth of the living room and the ability to keep tabs on the rest of the league over on Channel 899. Then again, the enhanced at-home experience isn't unique to New England. Every NFL city's dealing with these technological threats, but not all of them are suffering through the same home field heartache.

What is unique to New England, however, are the three Super Bowl victories in four years; the fact that, over this past decade, Patriots fans have been spoiled beyond belief. And when that kind of success is followed by seven years of coming up short, it's only natural to experience a significant drop in interest and intensity. In other words, the regular season just doesn't mean as much as it used to around here. The regular season has become a formality; something that the Pats merely have to survive in order to assume their automatic playoff berth. There's no urgency in Weeks 1-17 because we've trained to believe that Weeks 1-17 don't matter. That the Pats can start 1-2 and still win the Super Bowl, or go 14-2 and get upset by the Jets in the first round. It makes it less likely for fans to want to deal with the increasing inconveniences of an afternoon at Gillette, and for the fans that do make the trip, it makes it harder to get that lost in the moment; to let loose and really believe that a third down stop here or a goal line stand there will have any significant impact on the season's outcome. Combine that with the still burning resentment of two crushing Super Bowl losses, and these days Gillette's filled with far more cynicism than enthusiasm. And honestly, you can understand why.

The in-game experience at the stadium doesn't help matters either. While the Jumbotron still features plenty of "Let's get loud" graphics and clips of players trying to pump up the crowd at key moments, for some reason there's no sound. The stadium speakers are completely muted. And while I assume there's a reason for this, I'm sure that it makes no sense. As someone who spends way too much time at the Garden, I can tell you that Celtics fans are never more rabid than when Kevin Garnett's face and voice comes over the Jumbrotron. When he looks everyone in the eye and says: "Yo, this fourth quarter. We need you Celtics fans. Come on, I need to feel it. I need to FEEEEEEEEEEEL IIIIITTTTTTT!" You don't get the same vibe at Gillette when Brandon Spikes pops up on the screen to deliver some weird form of motivational sign language. I don't get it. Spikes is the perfect guy for this kind of situation, too. He's closest the Patriots have to KG; a player who's 100 percent insane, and whose insanity is beyond contagious. Instead, he's basically a mime. He's useless.

And speaking of the Jumbotron, I still have no idea why the Pats refuse to show controversial replays. What do they think is going to happen if the crowd sees a replay they don't like? Are they going rush the field and riot like it's a soccer match in Senegal? No. They're not. In fact, they're going to get loud. And angry. And not the kind of contrived anger that comes from the Jumbotron silently encouraging fans to stand up and cheer on third down GENUINE ANGER AND EMOTION. The very thing that the stadium lacks. For instance, Spikes' hit to the head on Ryan Fitzpatrick was the perfect opportunity to get the fans riled up yesterday. Forget the fact that no one even got a chance to see the hit because we were all watching the ball. Forget that the ref made the right call. But that was an essential play. A play the fans deserved to see again, and one that would have without question taken the intensity to a level that the crowd had yet to reach. It would have helped the Patriots! But there was nothing. No replay. It was like the play never happened. Instead, the screen cut to shot of the Pats doofy mascot standing in a sea of cheerleaders and holding a sign that said "Let's Get Loud!"

No one got loud.

But when it comes down to it, it really comes backs to my initial point.

The defense.

Because the truth is, despite all the factors that interfere with Patriots fans being as enthusiastic and intimidating as they were once upon a time, the fans are still looking for a reason to get crazy. They're still drunk. They're still wound up. They still want to make the best of their Sunday escape from reality and scream and yell with everything they've got.

But with this defense, it's really hard.

Back in the glory days, the crowd and the defense were a team. They worked in tandem. The fans put every ounce of energy and passion into making life hell for the opposing team. They went out on a limb, put their pride on the line, and let the visiting offense know that there was no way in hell that they were going to score. And the Patriots always backed them up. They earned every decibel of sound and respect.

In 2012, the defense hasn't earned anything. And it's hard for the fans to lose themselves in the moment when they're simultaneously bracing for collapse; when after nine weeks, all they can do is hold their breath and hope for the best. During that final drive yesterday, there was no confidence in the air; no intensity coming from the crowd. It was just fear. And when Devin McCourty picked off that pass, there was no fingering pointing and taunting in the Bills direction. There was just one enormous sigh of relief. It's tough situation. It's really unfortunate. But that's just the way it is.

Thankfully, the Pats still have seven more weeks to try and change it.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

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'


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."