Michael Felger: Break time

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Michael Felger: Break time

By Michael Felger

A half-dozen thoughts from the Patriots' come-back-to-earth debacle in Cleveland:

The single biggest issue on the team remains the third-down defense. The Pats went into Sunday's game ranked dead last in the NFL by allowing opponents to convert 47.4 percent of their chances, and it's hard to believe they'll move out of the basement after allowing the Browns to pick up 7-of-13 opportunities (53.8 percent). Cleveland came into the game converting just 37.8 percent of the time.

It's obvious Bill Belichick is re-emphasizing his bend-but-don't-break philosophy like never before but ranking 32nd out of 32 teams is ridiculous.

It actually looked okay early on, as the Pats held Cleveland short of the stakes on the first three attempts. But then Colt McCoy and the Browns converted their last two attempts of the second quarter and first four of the second half and the next thing you know, the Browns had 17 consecutive points and the win.

We all believe this defense had begun to make strides prior to Sunday, but until the unit can operate at under 40 percent on third downs (at least), it's hard to take it seriously.

Is there less room for the offense to operate down the field since the trade of Randy Moss? Naturally. Of course there is. But the game did nothing to shake my belief that the Pats will be, or already are, a better team without him. You had to know there would be a game where Moss' departure would show up in a loss (and therefore give true ammo to the crowd who felt it was a bad trade) and this happened to be the one.

But I still believe the fundamentals are the same: The Pats will have, or already have, a better offense when it matters most (in the second halves of games, against good competition, in the playoffs, etc.). The aggregate point total won't be the same, but the results will be better.

That being said, a few things need to happen on that side of the ball:

Brandon Tate has to be better. He dropped two passes against the Browns that would have gone for first downs and finished with just one catch for 12 yards. Take out a few big plays last week against the Vikings and Tate's been invisible since the trade. He's the only thing approaching a vertical threat on this team. He needs to be a viable option.

They have to go to Deion Branch more. Or Branch needs to get healthy again. Or he needs to do a better job of getting open. Or all of the above. Branch caught just two passes on Sunday after having only one against Minnesota. It seems Branch and Tom Brady picked up their old rhythm right out of the shoot against the Ravens four games ago, but it's been largely absent since.

Fred Taylor needs to get healthy.

And, of course, Rob Gronkowski can't continue to play like a rookie. He needs to figure out how to get on the same page as Brady. And I don't care that he was fighting for the touchdown at the end of the first half. He can't allow himself to get stripped in that situation.

Obviously, Brady needs to be better, too. But I think that goes without saying. He remains the least of your worries.

I also have to take it on faith that the run defense isn't a worry because if it is, then all bets are off.

Vince Wilfork has told us repeatedly that you can't run on the Pats in their base 3-4 defense. And, for the most part, that's been true this season. So that means we have to treat what Peyton Hillis (184 yards on 29 carries) and the Browns (230 team rushing yards) did to the Pats as an aberration. Right?

You see Brandon Meriweather get lit up by Joshua Cribbs on McCoy's touchdown run in the third quarter?

Poetic.

Justice.

Belichick got out-coached pretty badly in this one. For one thing, Eric Mangini had his team far more ready to go than Belichick's. But there were also some schemes that totally had the Pats flummoxed, such as the inside-reverse handoff to Chansi Stuckey out of the wildcat that went for a touchdown at the end of the second quarter. The Browns lulled the Pats to sleep and hid Stuckey behind an offense line that remained in a stand-up position at the snap of the ball.

And did you notice the zero-defensive lineman scheme in the fourth quarter? Wonder where Mangini got that one.

Belichick made the mistake of taking a veiled shot at Mangini last week by talking about the Browns' "West Coast" offense, implying that team president Mike Holmgren was exerting more control over the Browns than Mangini. It's not like Mangini needs extra motivation to play the Patriots but Belichick gave it to him.

All that said, the Pats win Sunday night in Pittsburgh. The beauty of the NFL is that one week rarely translates into the next. In fact, the opposite often happens. And so it will against the Steelers.

Felger's report card posts Tuesday morning. E-mail him HERE and read the mailbag on Thursday. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.

Mike Giardi: Don’t think Patriots will use franchise tag on Dont'a Hightower

Mike Giardi: Don’t think Patriots will use franchise tag on Dont'a Hightower

Mike Giardi discusses the odds that the New England Patriots franchise tag Dont'a Hightower and what he expects the Pats to get if they were to trade Jimmy Garoppolo.

Arizona Cardinals place franchise tag on Chandler Jones

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Arizona Cardinals place franchise tag on Chandler Jones

PHOENIX - The Arizona Cardinals, in an anticipated move, have placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on outside linebacker Chandler Jones after failing to reach a long-term deal with the player.

The non-exclusive tag allows the Cardinals to continue negotiating with Jones through July 15. If another team makes him an offer, Arizona can either match it or receive two first-round draft picks.

It's unlikely that any team would express interest in Jones, however, given what it would cost.

Under the franchise tag, Jones would receive about $15 million for the coming season.

Acquired in a trade with New England a year ago, Jones had 11 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 15 tackles for loss last season

Jones has 25 1-2 sacks over the past two seasons, third-most in the NFL over that span.

The Cardinals' move came two days before the NFL deadline for making franchise designations.

It also came on Jones' 27th birthday, prompting teammate David Johnson to tweet "Happy BDay to `The Man,' `Mr. Franchise' himself.....The one and only."

The franchise tag move came as no surprise.

Club President Michael Bidwill has stated all along that Jones would not be going anywhere, that the team didn't make the trade - sending guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round draft pick to New England - to keep him just for one season.

"We're not going to mess around with that," Bidwill said in a recent interview on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. "He's a great pass rusher, but if we can't agree to terms that work for us, we're just going to franchise him, and his people know that."

Jones immediately upgraded what had been an average Cardinals pass rush at best. His fellow outside linebacker Markus Golden had 12 1-2 sacks and seven tackles for loss. Together they form one of the better outside pass rush combinations in the NFL.

By all accounts, the contract talks with Jones have been cordial and Jones has said he wants to stay in Arizona.

"I love it here," he said near the end of last season. "I love the vibe that the people give off and I can see myself being here for a long time."

Chandler heads a long list of free agents that the Cardinals must either re-sign or let go. That group includes starters defensive tackle Calais Campbell, safety Tony Jefferson and inside linebacker Kevin Minter.