Giardi: Patriots have some players besides Brady they can't afford to lose

Giardi: Patriots have some players besides Brady they can't afford to lose

Covering the NFL for almost 20 years allows you to make relationships with a bunch of people. So I thought I'd tap into some of those people for a series of topics we've been kicking around.

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The panel consists of one former Pats player still in the game, two scouts of AFC teams, one front-office member in the AFC, and one NFC scout. They all requested anonymity for obvious reasons (as the player said, "Hey, I might want to end up back there!"). I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I had talking to these guys.

Today's topic: Which player (besides Tom Brady) can the Patriots least afford to lose?

Scout 1: Before I answer, I think they can win with [Jimmy] Garoppolo [at quarterback if Brady were injured]. But to your question, it’s Julian Edelman. He’s the little engine that could, the player that makes that offense go. He turns good slot corners into slappys. Slappies. I don’t think he runs quite as well after the catch as he did, say, in 2014, but it’s not this dramatic drop off. His football instincts are as good as [Brady's]. Even if he’s not reading it the same way as Brady, his feel for where a defender is, trying to leverage him, puts him where he’s suppose to be. He’s also a money player. Him, [Danny] Amendola, [James] White. You saw it in the Super Bowl. That catch was ridiculous. The catch and run in the Seattle Super Bowl (when he nearly got beheaded) was ridiculous. I’ll take him on my side any day.

Scout 2: I think this one is a slam dunk. It’s [Dont’a] Hightower. And I think Bill [Belichick] knows it too. That’s why you pay him what they did despite all the talk about injuries and the fact that Hightower always seems to be dealing with something. He’s kind of a freak, right? A massive ‘backer with the ability to move from the middle to the edge with ease. His power at the point of attack makes sense when you look at his size, but it’s the translation of that power into speed and quickness that seems to give the offense such a hard time. I’ve seen him split 650 pounds of offensive linemen in a double, but then accelerate and haul a back down from a bad angle. That’s something.

Scout 3: Can I pick [Nate] Solder again? Ok, ok. I’ll say Trey Flowers. He and Hightower are the only two that can get to the passer consistently in that front seven, and that’s not something they usually let Hightower do. Flowers was on our radar prior to that draft [in 2015]. We weren’t quite sure what to do with him. Leave it to Bill and [Matt] Patricia to figure it out. He was a bitch the couple of times I watched him late in the year. Found my eyes being drawn to him. Watch his hands. So quick. He’s a keeper.

Current NFL exec: The moose at tight end (Rob Gronkowski). You can’t duplicate what he brings to the field on Sundays. You just can’t. One of the better blocking tight ends in the game and an impossible cover. Edelman may be Brady’s favorite target, but Gronkowski is the better target. (In what sense?) His size. Put it somewhere in the ballpark and he’s going to win. You can’t say that about Edelman, even though he’ll win more 50/50 balls than 99 percent of the players his size. I don’t mean that as a slight on Julian, but it’s pretty cut and dried for me

Former Patriot/current player: Gronk. It’s gotta be Gronk. I know what just happened last year (Pats winning a Super Bowl with Gronkowski on IR), but [Martellus Bennett] is [bleeping] good, too. Now it’s Dwayne Allen as the backup? Yeah, I’m not a big Allen guy. They certainly can’t ask him to do what Gronk does if anything happens. They could do some of that with Marty. Besides, Gronk is one of the toughest covers in the league. Crazy catch radius. Physicality. Yeah, give me Gronk.

Curran: Texans perfectly positioned to slow down Brady and the Patriots

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Curran: Texans perfectly positioned to slow down Brady and the Patriots

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady’s completed less than 50 percent of his passes in 14 of the 273 games he started and finished. The Patriots are 6-8 in those games. Among the 14 are three games against Rex Ryan’s Jets, including two in 2013 and the second game of the season in 2009. There’s also the 2015 AFC Championship against Denver, the playoff win over the Texans last year, and the season-opening loss to the Chiefs this year.

The common denominator in those six games? Outstanding defenses with coordinators and personnel that new Brady well and -- in all but the win over the Texans last January -- a dearth of wide receivers.

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Every year there’s a search for the BLUEPRINT!!! for slowing down the Patriots offense and making Brady look mortal. Google “blueprint for beating the Patriots” and you get 370,000 results. Many of those say the 2007 Giants crafted it first. Few of those mention praying for dropped interceptions and helmet catches in the final two minutes.

The most sure way to slow down the Patriots offense is to have really good defensive players who can bring pressure and (this is the key) hoping the Patriots are banged up at wideout and can’t do their usual damage in the middle of the field.

That’s your blueprint. And it’s in place this week. This isn’t saying the Patriots will lose to Houston, who I’ll wager won’t produce more than 10 offensive points. But I’ll also bet you straight up that Brady completes fewer than half of his passes against Houston.

No Edelman, Gronk with a groin, Danny Amendola coming back from concussion and Brandin Cooks still getting adjusted will leave the Texans knowing their key to success is jamming the middle and making Brady work outside.  

The Texans were fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt last season (5.83), second in passing yards allowed per game (201), first in first downs allowed per game (17) and second in completion percentage against (58.68).

Brady knows what’s coming. He talked about it earlier this week on WEEI with Kirk and Callahan, saying, “They were the No. 1-ranked defense in the league last year. I don’t think I completed many passes in that game, either. I think I was below 50 percent. They just did a good job of putting pressure and when you put pressure, the ball has to come out quick and they had a lot of guys in coverage, too. It was just tough to get rid of it quick. The one positive we took out of that game was we made a lot of big plays. Some teams are going to decide to take away some shorter throws, and they give up longer plays. I think we had seven plays over 20 yards in that game. We moved the ball pretty well. It just didn’t look super rhythmic."

The Texans were able to get pressure and drop a lot of guys in coverage because they have exceptional talent up front.

Brady broke down the Texans’ front on Wednesday, starting with J.J. Watt, saying, “Earlier in his career you used to kind of get a bead on where he’d be, [which] could help you out a little bit. But now they move him so much he’s going to really face every guy that you have up front. [He’ll] be on both sides, be inside, be outside. They run a lot of games. They’ve got a lot of scheme stuff that they use to try to get their guys free in the front, but all of those guys are exceptional athletes. J.J. is an incredible player. He’s been Defensive Player of the Year (three times). He’s got speed, quickness, power, he’s got all the moves, got all the counters. He’s just a tough guy to block.

“Then you pair him with Whitney Mercilus, who’s one of the most underrated players, I think, in the league in terms of rushing the passer to everything that he does to help that team. I know practicing against that guy how good he is. And then with Jadeveon [Clowney], he’s one of the most athletic guys in the league. He does some things that other people can’t do. He’s just size, speed, explosiveness. So all those guys on the same field at one time is a big problem for any offense. You don’t want to be holding the ball too long because you know that they’re going to get home at some point and I think that means we’ve got to really stay on track. We can’t have many negative plays. We’ve just got to play a really consistent kind of football for the entire game.”

The Texans are in a little bit of trouble at corner this week. One starter, Kevin Johnson, is down with an MCL and Johnathan Joseph will be playing with a shoulder injury that forced him from last week’s game against the Bengals.  

The Patriots made it look easy last week against the Saints, which caused people who’d been pointing out Brady was BORN IN 1977!!!! stare at their shoelaces for a few days. But they’re just resting because they’ll be back Sunday evening and into Monday with the same “old” song, ignoring the facts of the case.

The facts are that Brady -- with a full complement in the playoffs last year and the Texans missing J.J. Watt -- had his hands full to the tune of a 47.37 completion percentage, the lowest completion percentage in 34 career playoff games. Without Edelman in this season's opener (and losing Amendola midway through), he completed 44.44 percent of his passes -- fourth-worst among games he started and finished.

The key in this one could be Cooks. As Brady pointed out, the Texans yielded some chunk plays. Cooks, who’s got speed to spare on the outside, will likely be looking at press coverage that -- if he can be beat it -- will give him a chance to run under some Brady duck-and-chucks. And there will be some of those.

Texans head coach Bill O’Brien -- whose defense is run by former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and former Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel -- isn’t looking at the KC game as a blueprint. He’s looking instead at the 27 points scored and the points left on the field by New England.

“When I look at their offense, obviously they didn’t win the game, but there were several things that they did in the game that were very good,” said O’Brien. “They’re a very dangerous team on offense. They play fast. They play with great efficiency. They have a different game plan every week, different personnel that they’re using and so, it’s difficult. You don’t really know what to expect. The combination of Tom and Josh [McDaniels], the brains behind that offense, it’s hard. It’s hard to deal with that and we’re just going to have to see what it is when the game starts and do the best we can to keep up with what they’re trying to do and go from there.”

The Patriots offense knows generally what’s coming from Houston and vice versa. The Patriots won’t be “rhythmic” and there will be balls skipping in the general vicinity of where Brady hoped a receiver would be when he let it go with Watt or Mercilus bearing down on him. Bet on it.

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Branch on reduced role vs. Saints: 'Ask Bill'

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Branch on reduced role vs. Saints: 'Ask Bill'

FOXBORO - If Alan Branch is worried about his spot with the Patriots, he isn’t acting that way. A notorious slow starter, Branch played just six snaps in Sunday’s win at New Orleans. And to hear him talk, it’s business as usual.

“It’s not like you can practice 3 technique on a store clerk,” said Branch late Wednesday afternoon. When informed that he probably could if he wanted, Branch smiled and noted “you’d probably get arrested for that.”

All kidding aside, it was stark to see Branch’s ample behind stapled to the bench. He earned a two-year contract this offseason, and his presence on the interior has been critical to the defense’s success. But after getting pushed around a bit too often in that opening night loss to the Chiefs, Branch spent a lot more time watching then playing. Did he know that he wasn’t a big part of the plan?

“That’s another question you gotta ask Bill, man” said Branch. “That’s not something I can talk about.”

Branch has - at times - come off as nonchalant about the game. Wins, losses, big plays, no plays, none of it seems to change his demeanor. Knowing that, I asked him if he was frustrated by his lack of playing time.

“I mean every player wants to be on the field so it is what it is,” he responded. 

Does he think that he’ll be more involved Sunday against the Texans?

“I don’t know what they plan to do with me,” he said. “i just need to go in there and keep my head to the grindstone and work.”

That may be Bill Belichick’s plan: sitting the player to motivate him. It would also seem to be potentially the last resort, and with someone who clearly marches to the beat of his own drum, it’s unclear how he’ll respond.