Cardinals blitzes may be familiar to Patriots

881127.jpg

Cardinals blitzes may be familiar to Patriots

FOXBORO -- It's been almost four years since the Patriots last played Arizona, but they'll be familiar with the blitz schemes they face on Sunday.

Arizona's defensive coordinator Ray Horton was an assistant in Pittsburgh, his time there overlapping with current Cards head coach Ken Wisenhunt between 2004 and 2006. Under renowned Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Horton got an education on the zone blitz packages he now puts to use in his current position.

Since Horton took over last year, the Cardinals blitz early and often -- they brought five pass rushers in just over half their plays in Week 1 against the Seahawks and blitzed on 40 percent of their plays last season under Horton, according to ESPN -- and the Patriots know it.

"You just have to be prepared for it," said Logan Mankins. "The play-callers have to be aware of it and as linemen we're always aware that there's always a good chance of pressure when you play a team like this. You gotta be ready for it."

Mankins, now the senior member of the offensive line, said there may have to be a bit more communication when facing a blitz-happy defense like Arizona's. But Patriots offensive linemen are doing their homework this week in the hopes that they will recognize whatever looks they see Sunday.

"If we've done enough studying and can see our keys, we shouldn't have to talk a whole lot," Mankins said. "But there's gonna be times in the game where they might confuse us with the amount of things they do, and we'll just have to get to the sideline and learn from that."

The Patriots offensive line gave up just one sack last week against the Titans. Though Tom Brady's nose got busted up, it was a solid performance from the guys up front. This week, however, will be a very different challenge. Between Arizona's varied blitzes and their ability to pass rush with defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, New England's offensive linemen will have their work cut out for them, especially if they are missing any of their regulars.

Starting right guard Dan Connolly missed time because of a concussion he suffered in Week 1, but he returned to practice Thursday and could be in line to play against Arizona. Backup Donald Thomas would likely fill in if need be.

"Being able to fill in where I can in the interior line, you just never know what can happen from week-to-week and you have to be ready to go," Thomas said. "And I think we all understand that, and we all know we can play multiple positions so we have to be able to play them."

No matter who is out there, they'll inevitably face pressure. What's important is how they react to it.

"That's gonna be key for us this week," Thomas said, "is to be able to identify what's going on before the snap of the ball and all of us to be on the same page and pick up the blitz is gonna be key."

Gronk: 'Can't wait to compete again and play ball'

Gronk: 'Can't wait to compete again and play ball'

Rob Gronkowski's been having more than his share of fun this offseason, based off what we've seen on social media, but he sent out a Tweet Sunday night that makes it sound as if he can't wait for training camp to begin.

Gronkowski played in only eight games in 2016 because of back issues that eventually required surgery, and missed all of the Patriots' run to the Super Bowl championship.

Of course, if you check Gronk's timeline beneath his 'I-can't-wait-to-start-playing-again' Tweet, you'll find a) a couple of hypes for his new show MVP, b) a re-Tweet in which he's helping Mojo Rawley get ready for Wrestlemania, and c) quasi-ads for the various products he endorses.

Five things to look for from the NFL annual meetings this week

Five things to look for from the NFL annual meetings this week

PHOENIX -- Bill Belichick may not be speaking with the media here this week, but there will be plenty for us to examine at the annual league meetings. 

Reporters were informed via a team spokesperson that the Patriots coach would not be in attendance at the AFC coaches breakfast Tuesday morning -- where in the past orange juice has been sipped and tape recorders have been bulldozed -- due to a scouting conflict. 

The breakfast is not mandatory for coaches so for Belichick to use his time at a college pro day (Florida, Texas and Iowa State all have theirs scheduled for Tuesday) or a private workout comes as little surprise. He's been busy on the Trail of Due Diligence in recent weeks, making visits to Vanderbilt, Ohio State and Michigan in order to get a closer look at prospects.

Five weeks behind, remember? No days off. 

Patriots owner Robert Kraft is planning to meet with reporters on Monday so we'll have an opportunity to hear from him on a variety of topics when that comes to pass. 

Here are some of the other Patriots-related stories we'll be doing some digging on this week as we keep you updated with blog posts, occasional television hits, tweets (@PhilAPerry), Instagram shots (@PhilAPerry), and maybe even a podcast or two.

-- What does the rest of the league think when it sees the way the Patriots have attacked this offseason? How will the new pieces fit? Do other coaches and executives see it as Belichick going all in on 2017? Or is this just a case of a team adhering to its motto of doing "what's best for the football team" -- both in the short and long-term?

-- What's next for the Patriots? They're not done building the roster, so where might they turn next? Will they add other lower-level free agents? Will they be looking to trade back into the first and second rounds? Which positions seem to be of interest to them in the draft, and how might that signal the direction this roster is headed?

-- What is the feeling on the future at the quarterback position in New England? We know the Patriots aren't looking to give away Jimmy Garoppolo, but do people around the league really feel as though a haul of draft picks won't get the Patriots to think twice about trading him? Is it possible that in this rare scenario -- where the franchise quarterback is playing at an MVP-level but headed into his 40-year-old season -- people could see the Patriots paying two passers a starter's salary?

-- Will anything happen with Malcolm Butler before the meetings are out? Some have speculated that if his status as a restricted free agent (with an unsigned first-round tender) is to change anytime soon, it could happen here, where presumably his agent will be able to hear offers from one or more clubs in person. Will Butler find a team willing to give him an offer sheet and relinquish its first-round pick to the Patriots? Or will he sign his tender -- whether it's with the intent to play for the Patriots in 2017, or to be traded?

-- Rules changes are coming. We just don't know which ones. Will the linebacker leap (executed by Jamie Collins and Shea McClellin under Belichick) be eliminated? Will Stephen Gostkowski soon be looking to blast kickoffs through the uprights due to the passing of a rule that would place the ball at the 20 as opposed to the 25 for such a feat? Will real-time replay decisions suddenly shift from the officials on the field to the NFL offices at 345 Park Avenue? We'll let you know which proposals are held up, which fall flat, and how the Patriots might be impacted. Belichick and his staff did not submit any proposals for the second consecutive year.