Curran: Steelers feast on weak Patriots secondary

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Curran: Steelers feast on weak Patriots secondary

PITTSBURGH Candor was going to be in short supply in the Patriots locker room Sunday evening.

So instead of going in there to be served the simple pablum of gotta look at the film and gotta play better and they did some good things out there and we have a lot of work to do, I chose to go to the Steelers locker room.

In there, I hoped, insight into what exactly the Patriots were attempting to do on defense might be gained. It was easy to see what they werent doing: Covering eligible receivers. But what appeared to be their plan?

I didnt even get to their locker room before I was getting answers. Hines Ward, who didnt play on Sunday because of an ankle injury, laid it out for me in the hallway outside the Steelers locker room.

Offensively, it felt like we could spread the ball out and we didnt have to take shots down the field, Ward explained. We felt like our wide-receiver corps could take advantage of the secondary. Considering they didnt really have a huge pass rusher, it gave us time to go spread. It was a great game plan and we just executed.

Last years 39-26 Patriots win was the catalyst for Sundays game plan laid out by Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

We watched the game last year and that game could have been closer than it was, said Ward. It was more what we were doing than what they were doing. We felt like, especially with Leigh Bodden, when we found out he wasnt there, with our wide-receivers corps, thats probably the strength of our team in terms of having depth. We felt like we could exploit and take advantage of the secondary coverage.

Exploit would be an understatement.

From the first drive, when tight end Heath Miller was allowed to roam free in the yawning space between the blitzing Patriots front and the deep-dropping secondary, the Patriots were maddeningly ineffective, especially on third down.

The Steelers converted a third-and-11, a third-and-12 and a third-and-15 during the day as part of a game in which they went 10-for-16 on third down and Ben Roethlisberger put it in the air 50 times.

Going into the game, everybody had success throwing the ball against them because those guys were 32 (in the league against the pass), explained Mike Wallace. Some of it was because of those guys running up the score and teams trying to catch up (and gaining yards) but you still dont get there, last (in the league against the pass), by just blowing people out. Other people had success against them.

The bulk of the success against the Patriots came in the first three games. They seemed to settle down against Oakland and neither the Jets nor the Cowboys did enough to challenge a secondary that seemed ripe for abuse.

The Steelers carried no such illusions about the Patriots secondary being a daunting group. The Patriots strategy of blitzing Roethlisberger, playing deep zone coverage and making the Steelers think their way down the field blew up in their faces.

"We knew we had a great matchup and that theyd play zone coverage and give us an opportunity to hit em across the middle," said wide receiver Antonio Brown. "Heath Miller did a great job getting open across the middle, we did a great job of converting third downs and controlling the ball.

I think they just wanted to blitz Ben. Get Ben confused and thinking the younger guys wouldnt be on point with the hots (hot routes that are broken off when blitzes are sent). I think that was their aim and I think we did a great job counteracting that. They played zone coverage (because they were) scared that Mike Wallace was gonna get deep. That allowed us to get the middle open and make some big plays on third down.

Aside from the scheme, though, there seemed to be a matter of poor communication in the zones. Safeties could be seen gesturing after plays to each other trying to figure who missed a read. Often, it seemed there were defenders leaving receivers to go cover targets who were already being attended to. The 7-yard Antonio Brown touchdown was a perfect example where two defenders were bird-dogging Wallace and Brown was left completely alone.

And the tackling? Still woeful.

Patriots safety Patrick Chung tried to keep a stiff upper lip after the game, saying, We gotta keep playing. Whatever coach Bill Belichick wants to do, well do. Were a good football team, Im not worried about all that stuff.

The release of Bodden on Friday and this performance Sunday really underscores how weak the Patriots are at corner. Antwaun Molden, who got most of the early reps that were normally Boddens, was benched. Devin McCourty continues to struggle, this time with tackling. Its an alarming spot to be in entering the eighth week of the year.

The Patriots better adapt and do so quickly, because after Sundays performance, any offensive coordinator who doesnt attack the New England secondary is plainly not doing his job.

It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

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It's official: Patriots nab third-round compensatory pick in Collins trade

The Patriots received a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018 from the Browns in return for Jamie Collins. That's how the trade was described on the league's transaction wire. 

The "condition" of that fourth-rounder? Well, if the Browns received a third-round compensatory pick in 2017, the Patriots would nab that pick instead. 

On Friday, the NFL announced that the Browns had in fact been awarded a third-round compensatory pick, which meant that almost three full weeks after Super Bowl LI, everything was still coming up Patriots.

In actuality, the odds were pretty good all along that the Patriots would get what they got

Cleveland lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in free agency last offseason when he opted to sign with the Falcons. Because compensatory picks are based on free agents lost and free agents acquired, and because the Browns did not sign any similarly-impactful free agents, there was a good chance Mack's departure would render a third-round comp pick that would be shipped to New England.

Had Mack suffered a significant injury that forced his play to drop off or limited his time on the field, a third-rounder may have been out of the question, but he played well (named a Pro Bowler and a Second Team All-Pro) and stayed healthy -- lucky for the Patriots -- missing just 17 total snaps in the regular season. 

The Browns comp pick that will be sent to New England is No. 103 overall. The Patriots were also awarded a fifth-round comp pick, No. 185 overall. That was a result of the league weighing the departures of Akiem Hicks and Tavon Wilson against the arrival of Shea McClellin.

The Patriots now have nine selections in this year's draft: One first-rounder; one second-rounder; two third-rounders; one fourth-rounder*; two fifth-rounders; two seventh-rounders.

The third-round compensatory pick acquired by the Patriots carries additional value this year in that it is the first year in which compensatory picks can be traded. A near top-100 overall selection may allow the Patriots to move up the draft board or build assets in the middle rounds should they be inclined to deal. And we know they oftentimes are. 

* The Patriots forfeited their highest fourth-round selection in this year's draft as part of their Deflategate punishment. They acquired a fourth-round pick from the Seahawks last year. Because that would have been the higher of their two selections, that's the one they'll lose. They will make their own fourth-round pick at No. 137 overall.

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

Gronkowski says he has 'no doubt' he'll be ready for start of next season

When it comes to projecting Rob Gronkowski's health, it's been best to steer clear of absolutes. There have been too many injuries, too many surgeries, to predict exactly how he'll feel months in advance. 

Still, in speaking with ESPN's Cari Champion recently, he said he had "no doubt" he'll be ready for Week 1 of the 2017 regular season. 

"Yes, for sure," he replied when asked if he expected to be good to go. 

Gronkowski also fielded a question about his long-term future in the sit-down. Lately it's been his coach Bill Belichick and his quarterback Tom  Brady who receiver all the life-after-football queries, but Gronkowski, 27, was asked how much longer he'd like to play. 

"I’m not really sure," he said. "I mean, I still love playing the game, and as of right now, I want to play as long as I possibly could play. My mindset is to keep on going."

Gronkowski landed on season-ending injured reserve in December after undergoing a procedure on his back -- his third back surgery since 2009. He's had nine reported surgeries -- including procedures on his knee, forearm and ankle -- since his final year at the University of Arizona.