Butler, Patriots’ secondary impresses Saints in joint practice


Butler, Patriots’ secondary impresses Saints in joint practice

FOXBORO - It’s not easy to play defensive back in a league that not only wants their quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns every week, but has tilted the rules to favor this previously unseen offensive explosion league-wide. 

How many times have you watched a game and wondered if a cornerback can even lay a hand on a wide receiver and escape without a penalty? It’s getting rarer than a great steak from Davio’s, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t players in the NFL who aren’t throwbacks to another place and time where physicality was not only encouraged but allowed.

Take Malcolm Butler for instance. The Pats’ third-year corner is not the biggest player, but he takes pride in getting his hands on opposing wideouts and control them on their release. The Saints’ Willie Snead got a hard lesson today in joint practices.

In 11-on-11 red area work, Butler got in Snead’s face when he lined up in the slot, had his hands into Snead’s chest within the first full step of his release and immediately knocked Snead off balance. The talented receiver tried to get back into his route but Butler stayed on him, again assaulting Snead with his hands to prevent the 69-catch and near 1,000-yard receiver from a season ago to get to his proper depth on a crossing route. 

Butler punctuated the play by once again jabbing Snead while he was still within that 5-yard halo of the initial line of scrimmage. 

The result was an incomplete pass and Butler preening in an agitated Snead’s face. Saints coach Sean Payton took notice, not just of that play, but the aggressive nature of the Pats in pass coverage all morning.

“I thought by and large we struggled at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “New England does a real good job with their press technique and their disrupting of the passing game, so whether it was the tight ends or receivers, we’ve got to be better separating and handling some of the man to man coverage looks we get.”

That kind of chatter is music to safety Devin McCourty’s ears. 

“It’s a big part of what we do,” the Pats safety noted. “I think if you watch us, you know that’s something we coach a lot here and every guy that comes in, whether it’s the starters or a guy that comes off the bench, everybody is playing the same way, same mentality.”

That’s why these joint practices are a much welcome break from the monotony of training camp sessions against teammates.

“Our offense is a different offense, this week [it’s] New Orleans,” said McCourty. “We gotta kinda get that going. We did a good job of coming out and being aggressive - obviously it wasn’t perfect - but I think we came out with the right mentality that will get us better as a group and we can work on.”

I’m not sure that’s what Willie Snead wants to hear.

Bill Belichick issues statement following Patriots kneeling


Bill Belichick issues statement following Patriots kneeling

Bill Belichick issued the following statement on Monday, a day after 16 Patriots took a knee in protest of racial inequality and Donald Trump's comments against the NFL:

“I have immense respect and admiration for our players, for how they conduct themselves professionally as New England Patriots and for how they represent themselves, their families and community as men.  I have coached football for over four decades and one of the greatest things about being in this environment is the diversity of people, backgrounds, viewpoints and relationships we are fortunate to experience.  As with any large group of people, there is a variety of perspectives and opinions on many topics.  Discussions occur between myself, individual players, groups and the entire team on an ongoing basis.  They concern the team and other issues surrounding the team.  I am going to keep the specifics of those conversations private.  I will do what I feel is best for the team in my role as head coach and collectively, we will work together to find the best way to proceed.” 

Tom Brady on pace to dwarf deep-ball passing numbers from 2016


Tom Brady on pace to dwarf deep-ball passing numbers from 2016

FOXBORO -- When the Patriots traded their first-round pick in the 2017 draft for Brandin Cooks, they gave Tom Brady one of the most productive deep-ball receivers in the NFL over the course of the last few seasons. 

The Cooks acquisition not only made the Patriots offense more versatile, it also may have signaled an acknowledgement that the team needed more pass-catchers who could produce down the field and outside the numbers.

In the playoffs last season, against Houston's and Atlanta's defenses -- both of which were effective at times in taking away the short-to-intermediate areas of the field -- the Patriots could have benefited from someone like Cooks. In both games, the Patriots were able to hit on throws deep and on the outside in critical moments with likes of Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell. 

Now after three weeks, and after having faced two defenses in Houston's and Kansas City's that were intent on packing the middle of the field with defenders, it's clear that the move to grab Cooks is paying dividends. 

In Sunday's win over the Texans, 36-33, Brady threw eight passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, and he completed five for 185 yards and three scores, according to Pro Football Focus. On the season, Brady leads the league with 22 attempts of 20 yards or more, per PFF. He's completed 11 of those for 368 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating on deep attempts (135.4) is second in the league. 

Compare that to last season's totals for Brady on deep passes -- 23 completions for 834 yards and eight touchdowns -- and he's on pace to blow those numbers away. Whereas he only attempted deep passes on just over 11 percent of his throws last season, according to PFF, so far this year one in every five of his throws is traveling 20 yards or more.

The biggest beneficiary of the new approach? Cooks, of course, who Brady has dubbed "Cookie." 

PFF says Cooks is leading the league in deep-ball receiving through three weeks, with 187 yards on five deep catches. Three of those came on Sunday and they resulted in 111 yards and two scores. In Week 1, Cooks had three catches for 88 yards -- including a 54-yarder -- and he drew three penalties that resulted in an additional 38 yards. In Week 2, Cooks had two catches for 37 yards -- including a 22-yarder.

Last year? The leading receiver for the Patriots on passes that traveled 20 yards or more was Hogan (10 catches for 397 yards). 

One more indication that the Patriots offense has shifted with Cooks in and Edelman sidelined: Cooks leads the NFL in yards per catch through three games (25.6 yards per reception), while Danny Amendola (16.4 yards per reception, seventh) and Rob Gronkowski (14.9, 13th) are all found among the league leaders in that category.  

Opposing defenses may continue to play the Patriots as the Texans and Chiefs did this season: Flood the middle of the field and pressure Brady with just three or four linemen. They may be content with allowing Brady to attempt lower-percentage throws down the field as opposed to letting him slice them up with shorter tosses. 

It worked well enough for the Chiefs to win, and it nearly worked well enough for the Texans. Perhaps "the blueprint" is still the blueprint. But with the addition to Cooks, Brady and the Patriots have proven that they've evolved to more efficiently combat those schemes.