Belichick watched 'Bama-Clemson to root for Saban, see future NFL picks

Belichick watched 'Bama-Clemson to root for Saban, see future NFL picks

FOXBORO -- As a good friend of Alabama coach Nick Saban, Bill Belichick had a rooting interest in Monday night's national championship game between Clemson and the Crimson Tide. Even with a Divisional Round matchup with the Texans less than a week away, and even with the college title game finishing well after midnight, the Patriots coach was watching.

But Belichick wasn't watching strictly to support his pal Saban, whose team fell to Clemson late in the fourth quarter, 35-31. It was a chance to do a little advanced scouting on two of the most talented college rosters in the country.

"We'll see what it looks like in a couple of months, but I'd say there's a lot of good football players on the field," Belichick said. "Some of whom I knew about. Some of whom I need to find out more about. I remember watching that game last year and watching it probably, [had to] be at least 10 times in the offseason because there's so many players.

"The ones that played last year and didn't play this year or are being replaced by guys that are going to be a factor in the NFL that are now draft-eligible. And you get to see them against other players that are comparable. Whether they're draft eligible or not, guys playing in this game are pretty good. If they're not draft eligible this year, they'll be draft-eligible next year or soon thereafter.  

"Competitively it's a great game to watch. It was a great game to watch last year . . . Just from a competitive standpoint, two great teams, two great programs. Again, coming down to a play. You got a lot of points scored like that, it's a lot of plays, but in the end, it's one or two plays that go the other way, you get a different result. That's the level of competition we're talking about."

Down three points with two minutes remaining in the game, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson drove the Tigers 68 yards in nine plays and found receiver Hunter Renfrow for a goal-line score to win it.

When Belichick was asked about the game during his Tuesday morning press conference, he said it exemplified the type of game fans of pro football and college football alike can expect at this time of year.

"Games like that, any play can be a big play, whether it's a conventional play . . . or just a great player making a great play, or a situation play," Belichick said. "It's fourth-and-one . . . I mean in the end the national championship came down to a yard. We've been in that situation before. Both ways. 

"That's the kind of football you see this time of year. Whether it be the NC level or the NFL playoffs. You get a lot of games like that, that come down to one play, one yard defines an entire season. You gotta be prepared for that."

Texans pass-rush reminds Tom Brady, Patriots they're dangerous

Texans pass-rush reminds Tom Brady, Patriots they're dangerous

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia -- Joe Thuney was covered in sweat and little bits of grass as he raised his eyebrows and shook his head. The topic of conversation had shifted to JJ Watt.

"Obviously he's a really talented player and he has a very high motor," Thuney said after spending a chunk of Tuesday morning trying to stop one of the generation's best defensive players in Tuesday's joint practice with the Texans.

"He never stops. He's just a great combination of size and speed. You just gotta hone in on your technique and play through the whistle to block him. It's a great challenge."

Even after season-ending back surgery last year, even in a training camp practice where hitting quarterbacks was off limits, Watt looked strong in the first of two joint workouts with the Patriots at the Greenbrier, adding a one-on-one matchup nightmare to a defensive front that gave the Patriots fits in last year's Divisional Round game at Gillette Stadium. That night Tom Brady was sacked twice, hit eight times and hurried on 12 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, leading to a 47.4 percent completion percentage.

Though Brady wasn't hit at the Greenbrier resort -- life is good in a red non-contact jersey -- Tuesday's workout was more of the same for Texans pass-rushers and Patriots offensive linemen.

Yes, the Patriots were without Nate Solder, arguably their best pass-blocker. But the Texans were without Jadeveon Clowney, and they still found ways to have success.

Whitney Mercilus beat up on the combination of LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming, who have been filling in for Solder at left tackle as Solder makes his way back from an injury. Watt had some good battles with both Marcus Cannon and Joe Thuney, but he won more than his share. He also got by Waddle and Shaq Mason for pressures.

On one snap near the end of practice -- about the time Brady started to give it to his teammates as the frustration built -- Watt drove Thuney into the backfield, and as Brady tried to elude the pressure, he and Thuney got their legs tangled. For the first time in 11-on-11 drills in this year's camp, Brady ended up on the ground.

"You can report on whatever you want to report on," Watt said when asked about getting Brady down without touching him. "I'm not here to talk about any of that."

There were occasions, though, when it looked as though Watt wanted to let everyone know he could have hit Brady if he only would have been allowed.

Whenever Watt made his way around the edge and ran by Brady, he kept his hand in the air as he jogged toward the Texans sideline. Maybe it was his way of working on keeping his hands high around the edge to go for the football; strip sacks, like all sacks, are not permitted in camp practices. But it seemed to be more a case of Watt saying something to the effect of, "There's another."

The Patriots have done well to neutralize Watt in the past, but it's hard to imagine he wouldn't have helped last year's front that caused Brady problems.

"If you take the defensive MVP and put him anywhere," said Texans defensive tackle DJ Reader, "it makes a difference, right?"

The Patriots won't say it, and they don't want you to either, but odds are they'll be the ones coming out of the AFC. Yet with Watt back in the mix, the Texans pass-rush may be what makes them the ultimate thorn in the side of the reigning champs.

Teams like the Raiders and Steelers look much more formidable offensively, obviously, but if the equation to beat the Patriots is to make life miserable for Brady, who's built better than Bill O'Brien's club to do just that?

Even with Watt and some semblance of competent quarterback play, the Texans will be a longshot to knock off the Patriots in January. But they may have as good a shot as anyone in the conference, which makes their West Virginian rendezvous this week all the more intriguing to watch.

Giardi: Patriots embracing competition in joint practices

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Giardi: Patriots embracing competition in joint practices

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – Tom Brady barked his cadence loudly before tapping his foot once. His slot receiver, Julian Edelman, released quickly off the line of scrimmage, getting on to Houston cornerback Jonathan Joseph in a snap. Joseph tried to get his hands on Edelman in an attempt to gain balance and leverage. The Pats wideout wasn’t having any of it, using his arm to fend of Joseph’s right hand, then turning his shoulders, creating even less surface space for Joseph to grab. Scrambling to gain control, Joseph opened his hips slightly. Huge mistake. Edelman planted off his inside, left foot and cut hard toward the sideline. Joseph got turned around completely, leading to an easy completion and plenty of running room. 

Why is this noteworthy? Well aside from Joseph being one of the best corners in the AFC, it highlights another reason why joint practices are a critical part of Bill Belichick’s formula. Prior to the session with Jacksonville last week, Edelman and his fellow receivers were finding less and less space to operate against the Pats defensive backs. Yes, those guys get paid too, but after a while, there are no secrets between teammates, especially as we get deeper into training camp.

“That’s the great thing about these practices,” said Edelman. “You have an opportunity to get out of training camp…it’s almost like you’re in school and you go on a field trip. You may be learning things but it’s like 10 times better than when you’re in class. It’s the same thing with joint practices. You get to go out, hit someone new, use your techniques that you’ve been working on for so long against someone new, and see how they stack up.”

That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s not. Houston’s defense is as good as you’ll see and Edelman and the rest of the Pats offense discovered that for the better part of the 2-plus hour practice Tuesday. But there were moments, be it in the aforementioned example featuring Edelman and Joseph, or later, when Chris Hogan ran by both Joseph and Kareem Jackson some 45 yards or so down the field to reel in a beautiful thrown bomb by Brady. Stephen Gilmore, Malcolm Butler or Eric Rowe would have known how quickly Hogan can get even and then go by you. Joseph and Jackson did not.

“It’s great to be able to have this,” said Brandin Cooks. “Last week, it was Jacksonville, this week now having a great defense in Houston. All it’s doing is just sharpening your game. Not having the same people in front of you, having the mix and the feel for the competition that we’ll be seeing all year round, I think it’s a great thing we’re doing.”

Edelman had a different way to describe it. He was in full storyteller mode (maybe that has something to do with a certain book he wrote with one Tom E. Curran).

“It’s the brother syndrome,” said Edelman. “You go out, your mother is not around, you’re with your brother and all day you hang out and you guys end up beating each other up. When you get to go out and play with someone else, it’s a little different. You get to have fun, and take pride on that, and you’re actually closer with your brother who’s there with you and you work harder together as a family.“

Based on how uneven the offense was on day one, I’d bet the two chief babysitters of this family - Belichick and Brady - will be asking for even more work from the skill position players. And there is no better time to do - and discover what works and what doesn’t - then in these sessions. Right mom?