Patriots still trying to figure out what they have on offense

Patriots still trying to figure out what they have on offense

On their very first defensive play from scrimmage Monday night in Minnesota, the Saints tried to play with 10 men.

Now you could argue they’ve been short on that side of the ball for years. But actually trying to play a man down is a new strategy, one not crafted in the film room.

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“It wasn’t a good tape,” coach Sean Payton told the team’s website about the Saints' defensive performance in their season-opening 29-19 loss to the Vikings. “I thought defensively, we struggled in coverage at times. For the early portion of the game, the penalties hurt in the first series. There was 30 yards [in penalties] in the first series that led to their game-tying field goal, and then, as the game wore on, I thought the explosive plays hurt us. There were some MEs [mental errors], some poor decisions. Overall, not good enough.”

A season ago, the Patriots would have been licking their chops, knowing they had the personnel to exploit a young and wildly inconsistent defense. They still do, even without Julian Edelman. But right now, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is walking a fine line, immersing himself in New Orleans' players and schemes while also trying to figure out exactly what he has in his own huddle.

By the end of the Pats' 42-27 loss to the Chiefs in their own season opener, McDaniels was rolling out a slot receiver acquired the weekend prior (Philip Dorsett), an outside receiver dealt for just prior to the NFL Draft (Brandin Cooks) and a pair of running backs who were free-agent acquisitions (Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead). Unusual for the defending Super Bowl champions.

“We've got a lot of good players and, whether they've been here for multiple years or a few months or, in some cases, a couple weeks, that's our responsibility,” said McDaniels. “We're supposed to get used to them, learn what they can and can't do well, and then make sure that we put them out there and put them in position to do something productive for the team in their position. There's really no time to stop and think about that, and it doesn't really matter anyway because every team is dealing with the same set of circumstances at some point, at some position, somewhere along their roster, on their team during the course of the season.”

McDaniels publicly pooh-poohing the issue makes sense. It’s rare for the Pats coaching staff to make excuses. But this is unusual so early in the season. What on paper looked to be an embarrassment of riches at the receiver position is now a test of the staff’s creativity and of the player’s intelligence and versatility. Wait, we don’t have a slot receiver? Can Player X do it? How about Y? Can we take an outside guy and turn him into an inside guy? Is the inside guy better suited to play as a boundary receiver? These are the questions you want to have a good grasp on coming out of training camp. Based on injuries -- and what some players believe was a wasted week of camp with the joint practices and preseason game against their Week 3 opponent, the Houston Texans -- McDaniels doesn’t have the same grasp we’re accustom to.
 
“[If] you have a certain grouping that maybe you don't have as much depth in, you've got to make sure you're smart with how you use it and you can't put all your eggs in one basket,” said McDaniels. “You never can in this league because you don't have an unlimited number of players in each game. You always have to have multiple personnel groupings. You always have to have contingency plans ready to go, which you hope that you build in during the week of practice so you're not making stuff up in the middle of the first quarter. Again, that's a very, very, very common occurrence in the National Football League for each team each week. So, what we're dealing with now, we're going to be dealing with in November, and so is every other team.”

Yet if that’s the approach McDaniels took this year, why was it that Dorsett, with his limited grasp of the playbook, was the first option to replace Danny Amendola after the latter suffered a concussion? Wouldn’t players with more knowledge of the system have been a better option? Or different personnel groupings that gave Tom Brady the players he worked with considerably more often this spring and summer? The Pats have always been able to adjust on the fly. They didn’t do that nearly as well in the second half of their loss to the Chiefs. And now, with a few extra days to prepare, McDaniels and the offense must study up on a Saints team they don’t know as well as they would like.

“They've got a lot of new players, whether that's through the draft or free agency, in each level of their defense,’ noted McDaniels. “Certainly, they're aggressive. Coach [Dennis] Allen calls an aggressive style of defense. You know they're definitely going to pressure you with a lot of different people, different variations, blitzes. They mix the coverages up pretty good. They've got good team speed, they get to the ball, they play hard and they're going to, obviously, be excited for their home opener. This is always a tough place to play. So, it's going to be a big challenge for us to get familiar with the people that we're going to be matched up against across the board and really get used to their scheme and have a great week of practice and try to go down there and put forth our best effort.”

Or face a long flight home.

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Watt: Brady, Belichick hurricane relief donation 'speaks volumes about their character'

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Watt: Brady, Belichick hurricane relief donation 'speaks volumes about their character'

JJ Watt ended up raising over $37 million for his Hurricane Harvey relief fund online. As it turns out, that number got a bump from a couple of his rivals in the AFC.

According to The Houston Chronicle, Watt told reporters on Wednesday that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were among the over 209,000 people who donated to his fundraising efforts.

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"That's  an incredibly kind gesture and shows what kind of people they are and speaks volumes about their character," Watt said. "They're good people."

Watt will square off against Brady and Belichick when the Texans visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday. Belichick said on Wednesday that his team will have to focus on Watt, who was injured and unavailable during last season's Divisional Round matchup between the two clubs. 

"The quickness that J.J. has with the power that he has is a pretty rare combination," Belichick said. "On top of that, he’s got great length and he’s got a great motor. You're not talking about a 6-foot-1 guy. You’re not talking about a guy that takes plays off. You’ve got to deal with his length, his power, his quickness on every single play. That in itself is difficult. He just wears guys down with effort and toughness.

"Then when you take the skill that he has and combine it all together, that puts him at a very – I mean you're talking about the best defensive player in the league for more than one year. He's got a lot going for him and he’s facing it every week. It’s not like he’s sneaking up on anybody. You know when you’re playing him that he’s going to get some extra attention. Every team knows where he is and every team is trying to make sure he doesn’t ruin the game, yet he’s still very, very disruptive. He’s a great player."

Belichick describes UDFA strategy: Be honest with the plan, give them a shot

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Belichick describes UDFA strategy: Be honest with the plan, give them a shot

FOXBORO -- The Patriots have had a number of undrafted rookies arrive to New England and have success. Malcolm Butler is an obvious example. Same goes for newly-named captain of the offensive line David Andrews. Last year it was Jonathan Jones who made an impact as an undrafted player out of Auburn. This year defensive lineman Adam Butler is leading the charge among a trio of undrafted rookies who've made the club.

Why is Bill Belichick's club able to land players who weren't drafted but still may be coveted around the league? How do successfully find players who fit?

That they're willing to pay doesn't hurt. They shelled out a significant amount of cash for linebacker Harvey Langi and tight end Jacob Hollister after this year's draft, both of whom made the 53-man roster out of training camp. 

But the other parts of the formula are reasonably straight-forward, and Belichick explained them on Wednesday: Have a consistent message, be honest with players before they arrive, then give them a chance. 

"I know I've talked to other players, we all have, that have been at other teams, other organizations," Belichick said, "and a lot of times the player will make comments along the lines of, 'My coach wanted me to do this, but my coordinator wanted me to do that, or my coordinator wanted me to do this, but my coach wanted me to do that. Or a personnel guy drafted me to do this, but the coach wanted me to play this way, or somewhere else. Sometimes within an organization or within a team between the head coach, the coordinator, the position coach, personnel, scout director, GM, whatever -- sometimes, whether that's in college or in the NFL -- sometimes it's not a totally consistent message.

"One of the things I tell the players is that whatever message I'm giving you, that's the way it's going to be. That collectively as a staff and as the head coach, we're gonna all be on the same page. Whatever it is I'm telling you, whatever it is the position coach is telling you, we've already talked about that and it's gonna be consistent. I think if you have any questions about it, there's always somebody who can verify it, be it another player or another coach or another somebody that that person knows that that player knows or his representatives or somebody that can verify that, yeah, that's the way it was in these other examples that we can usually cite based on our longevity.

"I just believe in being honest with a player. If it's not what he wants to hear, then that's OK. Then we're both probably better off with a different decision. I'd want to hear from the player, how he really feels, not him trying to sell me something because that doesn't really help us either. Guy tells you something and that's not really what it is, and it doesn't work out, then that's sometimes probably why it doesn't work out. I try to be as honest as I can with a player.

"Sometimes things change. If that happens, I'll tell the player that. 'This is what we brought you here for, this is what we want you to do, but look here's the situation we're in now so we need for you to move and do something differently than what we talked about. I'll tell the player that. That comes up from time to time because that's -- we're not really being dishonest about that. That was my intent with the player. But because of circumstances, that may change, and I want to do what's best for the team.

"Most of the time I'm able to tell the guy pretty clearly what we envision him coming in as and what the opportunity will be and that it'll be up to him to compete in that situation and make the most out of the opportunity. If that's him doing it or somebody else doing it, I can't control that. I can't control performance. I can just control opportunity and situation to a degree. Then from there it's up to the player. But that's how I've always tried to do it."

Take Adam Butler as an example. Belichick met with Butler at Vanderbilt and liked what he saw. He couldn't guarantee a spot for Butler if he ended up with the Patriots, but he told him what he liked about Butler's game -- namely, his versatility -- and how it might work out. 

It has worked out, as Butler has played 45 snaps against the Saints, which was second among Patriots defensive linemen behind only Trey Flowers. 

"When Adam and I were at Vanderbilt and we met down there, that's one of the things we talked about. That's one of the reason we were interested in him was his versatility," Belichick explained. "When he wasn't drafted, we had a conversation on the phone about signing here after the draft, we talked about that again, about how his versatility would be a big attribute for him coming here if he could make that work, which I'd say he has to a degree. That's one of his strengths.

"He did it at Vanderbilt. I saw that when we watched film. We went through his different roles in the defense, in regular and in sub. I thought he explained them very well to me, he had a very good understanding of how he was playing when he was on the nose, on the guard, as a 5-technique in their 3-4 defense and so forth. How it changed and what he needed to do differently and how he would adapt his technique or his read based on the different positions.

"It was clear to me he had a very good understanding of that. He's been able to do that here as well. Not perfectly by any means, but good and getting better. That's been a big asset for him is being able to do different things for us: play inside and outside, and run situations and pass situations, and run games and so forth. We've given him a lot. He's been able to handle it."

It sounds like the opportunities will continue to come for Butler so long as he continues to earn them. As was the case with Malcolm Butler, David Andrews and Jonathan Jones before him.

Hard to argue with the formula.