Patriots coverage switched gears in second half to slow Bengals

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Patriots coverage switched gears in second half to slow Bengals

FOXBORO -- It was as if the Patriots defense just said screw it. 

Through the entire first half and one drive into the third quarter, the Patriots mixed their zone and man-to-man looks in the secondary. They tried to keep quarterback Andy Dalton on his toes by showing him different variations in coverage, but he was slowly picking them apart. 

When Brandon LaFell caught a five-yard touchdown with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Dalton improved to 17-for-21 passing for 201 yards. By then, Bengals had possessed the ball for almost 22 minutes, and they held a 14-10 lead.

Changes needed to be made. 

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia pulled linebacker Dont'a Hightower aside on the sideline to talk things over. Then he met with members of the secondary. Everyone was going to have to be on the same page, and the difficulty the Patriots had with their communications system may have further underscored the need for some good sideline discussion.

"They were just capitalizing on maybe -- I wouldn't want to say a weakness -- but kind of like . . . a hole," said safety Duron Harmon after the game. "And we kind of just got through it and took away where they were trying to exploit it. We tried to make them go elsewhere and it worked in our favor."

The Patriots plan of attack shifted from both a scheme and a personnel standpoint.

Whereas they were mixing their coverages earlier in the game, allowing Bengals receivers to find soft spots in their zone looks, Patricia's unit shifted to more of a man-to-man focus in the third quarter. In so doing, the Patriots also altered some of their matchups, deploying corner Eric Rowe much more often in the second half, using his athleticism to mirror Pro Bowl wideout AJ Green.

It was a plan that relied more on phyiscality and aggressiveness, and it helped force Dalton to complete just four of his final 10 attempts for 53 yards.

In order to fix the problem, first the Patriots had to diagnose it. 

Openings in New England's zone looks -- which led to first downs for Green (11:54 remaining in the second quarter), Tyler Boyd (4:26 left in the second) and Green again (3:51 left in the second) -- helped get the Bengals on the board with a two-yard Dalton touchdown run.

Those gaps hurt them again early in the third quarter when Green converted a third-down opportunity with a 23-yard reception that was dropped in behind corner Logan Ryan and in front of Harmon. Boyd found another hole on the same drive between corner Malcolm Butler and linebacker Elandon Roberts for a 27-yard chunk play. 

Receivers were being allowed to move freely through the Patriots secondary, and when they sat down in open areas, Dalton had time to find them. 

On the drive following LaFell's score, linebacker Dont'a Hightower then changed the game with his safety, but it appeared as though the Patriots had already started to make changes by matching up on the back end -- perhaps helping force Dalton to hold onto the ball for as long as he did before Hightower caught him. 

The next time the Patriots defense was on the field, Ryan covered Green for a play, helping force an incompletion at the line of scrimmage. Then Rowe took Green -- allowing safety Patrick Chung to match up with Bengals tight ends -- in New England's three-corner looks. 

Acquired in a trade with the Eagles just before the start of the regular season, Rowe had not played a defensive snap for the Patriots going into the Sunday as he learned the system and worked to overcome an ankle injury. But on Sunday, he capitalized on his chance, using his 6-foot-1 frame to jam Green at the line of scrimmage and prevent him from getting the timing he wanted with his routes. On one play down by the Patriots goal line in the fourth quarter, Rowe got physical with Green -- grabbing his arm at one point mid-route -- and batted away Dalton's attempt in the corner of the end zone. 

"The key is just you gotta get a jam on him," Rowe said. "I made sure each time I was lined up with him, I got a hand on his chest. I didn't want him to have a free release because that makes my job tougher . . . Then playing the ball in the air [on the pass breakup]. Once I saw his eyes get big, I just looked back for the ball . . . But really, the main thing is just getting a hand on him."

As the first half came and went, Rowe knew there was a chance that things could change in the game. He knew that all of a sudden he could be checking one of the game's best receivers in his first time playing for coach Bill Belichick, and he relished the opportunity. 

"It felt great just getting back on the field, getting that adrenaline rush again, especially with the challenge of going against AJ Green," Rowe said. "Man, I missed that . . . That's kind of what I'm best matched with: tall long guys like AJ that like to run deep routes. I like to run. I can run with them. So that kind of is a good fit for me."

The shift to using Rowe and taking on Cinci's "12 personnel" packages with three corners instead of three safeties meant a little less playing time for Harmon, but he knew, "we had to get up on them."

"We had to make a few adjustments defensively and it worked," Harmon said. "It worked well. All you can be is excited that the coaches saw the game plan that needed to be changed. We changed it, and it worked in our favor."

After the game, Belichick credited coaches as well as players for being able to communicate and change course in the secondary. On Monday morning, he went even more in depth on how helpful having players like Harmon and safety Devin McCourty can be in games like Sunday's. 

"When you play that position, you know, a good player back there can really see all 22 guys," Belichick said. "He sees the players in front of him. He can [see] the players on the outside  -- the receivers, the corners -- and really get a good feel for the game. It’s a picture that you don’t see from the sideline or from the press box. And so throughout the course of my career, those players a lot of times can give great information and great perspective on how they see the game from back there, where they see the quarterback looking, where they see things from receivers or route combinations or formations and so forth.

"With Duron and Devin back there, those are two very smart players. They’re experienced players. They know what they’re looking for. They know the passing game very well from just an overall schematic standpoint, but then specifically with each team that we play and the quarterback, and again, the route combinations and situational tendencies that our opponents have or have shown.

"It’s not unusual during the course of the game to ask them or for them to comment on something that’s happening or isn’t happening and how the quarterback is reading a certain coverage or a certain look or where receivers are located and so forth. As I said, it’s something where I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of guys throughout my career who have really done a good job with that and Devin and Duron I would say are two very good ones."

McCourty, in particular, seemed to help spark some of the right changes, according to Belichick. 

"As he normally does in the course of that type of a game, you know, some of the comments and observations that [McCourty] made affected some of the things we were thinking about doing," Belichick said. "I think as usual he was right on the money with his observations, especially when you go back and take a look at the film a little more closely today. You see what he saw."

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Rex Burkhead knew he was staring at a rare opportunity.

Going into Cincinnati's 2016 season finale, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back was averaging just three carries per game. But with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard injured, the fourth-year player out of Nebraska understood he had a chance to put something on tape that would help him land a job in the offseason. 

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"Can't lie," Burkhead told his college teammate Adam Carriker. "Going into free agency, I knew that game was huge. It was a good opportunity for me to show what I could do. I guess it kind of helped me out."

It certainly didn't hurt. 

Burkhead ran 27 times for 119 yards and two scores against the Ravens, showing off an intriguing blend of toughness and elusiveness in the process. 

Burkead was already an accomplished special-teamer -- he led the Bengals in special-teams tackles last season -- but his performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense made it clear that he could be leaned upon for more than just a few carries every week.

The Patriots must have taken notice. 

They signed Burkhead earlier this month to a one-year deal that will pay him $1.8 million in base salary and carry what some considered a relatively surprising maximum value of $3.15 million. That's more than the $1 million LeGarrette Blount was offered on his one-year deal last year, and it's enough to make Burkhead the highest-paid running back on the roster. 

What did the Patriots see from Burkhead that made him worth that kind of money? Let's take a closer look at his film -- particularly what he did in Week 17 last season -- to get a sense of what he might be able to do in New England. 

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The Patriots have long had a "big back" on their roster. Most recently, that's been Blount, who has been complemented by sub back James White and all-purpose runner Dion Lewis. 

Before Blount it was Stevan Ridley. Before Ridley, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You can go all the way back to Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Belichick likes runners who can get what's blocked, protect the football, then create their own yards in the secondary by punishing defensive backs.

Burkhead doesn't quite tip the scales as those players listed above -- though he comes close to Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) -- yet he's currently the biggest back on the Patriots roster, and he seems to run with a bruiser's mentality. 

On his very first carry against the Ravens, when he got through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he saw that safety Matt Elam had him lined up. Instead of trying to spin away from Elam or hurdle him, Burkhead lowered his shoulder and became the aggressor. 

Elam, who was thought to be one of the biggest hitters to enter the league four years ago, had to give himself a moment before popping back up to his feet after the collision. 

Statement made. 

Burkhead's strength, it seems, is his strength. Just ask Eric Weddle and the rest of the Ravens how he turned this play into a nine-yard gain to help the Bengals bleed the clock late in the fourth quarter. 



Burkhead consistently fought through first contact and fell forward to pick up maximum yardage snap after snap versus Baltimore's stingy run defense. On his first touchdown of the game, he was tripped up near the line of scrimmage but showed good balance by stumbling into the end zone from five yards away. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Burkhead's performance against the Ravens was his ability to keep the Bengals out of negative plays. On multiple occasions, he was hit at the line of scrimmage or behind it and consistently made his way back to the line or beyond it. 

Early in the fourth quarter, he was hit for what looked like it would be a three or four-yard loss yet somehow he was able to twist and dive back for no gain. Midway through the second, he was hit at the line and turned it into a four-yard pickup. 



One of the reasons Lewis has been so valuable to the Patriots when healthy the last two seasons is that when things break down up front, and when it looks like Tom Brady is about to be looking at second-and-11, he cuts and knifes forward for a yard or two or more. 

Those aren't big plays in the box score, but they're critical when it comes to extending drives. It seems like Burkhead has the ability to submit the same kinds of small-but-important gains with a hard-charging style all his own.

VISION, QUICKNESS TO FIND RUNNING ROOM
For someone who seems to enjoy imposing his will on would-be tacklers, Burkhead has a good amount of wiggle to his game. His vision and lateral quickness helped him make Ravens defenders look silly at times. 

As opposed to burrowing into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, his jump cut to the right helped him find space in the open field for an eye-opening eight-yard run. 



On the very next down, he was stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage but was able to pick up three thanks to another jump cut that allowed him to stretch the run out wide.

In the fourth, Burkhead showed good patience by stalling behind the block of receiver Brandon LaFell, picking a path, and running decisively once he did. 



Burkhead may not be Lewis when it comes to his elusiveness, but he has the ability to mix in some off-speed stuff in between snaps spent trying to bowl over tacklers. 

Asked by Carriker if he preferred powering through defenders or bouncing around them, Burkhead said he'd actually go with the latter. 

"I think making a guy miss just because I feel like they don't expect that from me a lot of times," Burkhead explained. "But growing up I always took good pride in that. Just my quickness, my ability to make my guy miss."

MR. VERSATILITY
Part of what makes Burkhead's signing so interesting is that he doesn't fit tightly into the definition of either "big back" or "sub back." He seems somewhat like a larger version of Lewis -- an all-purpose runner who he can be used in a variety of packages and deployed in a variety of positions.

Burkhead has run out of the I-formation and the shotgun. He's caught the ball out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver, where he spent most of Cinci's 2014 Divisional Round game against the Colts. He caught three passes that day for 34 yards and ran a reverse for a gain of 23. 

"He has tremendous short-area quickness," then-Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said during training camp two years ago. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented [as a receiver]."

However Burkhead is used, he'll very likely continue to see time as a contributor in the kicking game. Not only does he have a wealth of experience when it comes to covering kicks, but he's served as a kick-returner in the past as well. 

So to recap: Running back...receiver...special-teamer.

Sure sounds like someone Belichick would be willing to invest in.

Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

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Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

Even for some of the nation's top athletes, confident 20-somethings with the rest of their (perhaps very lucrative) lives ahead of them, there's a feeling you just can't shake when Bill Belichick walks into the room. 

"When you first meet him, you're scared," said Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, per WBZ. "He's quizzing you. It's like a little test. But after you get done with the test, the quiz or whatever, drawing up the defense, it's pretty cool. They're real down to earth people. Really cool."

Belichick was spotted at Ohio State's pro day getting a closer look at McMillan and his teammates on Thursday. He then headed off to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the Wolverines showcase Friday.

During various scouting trips across the country, the Patriots appear to be showing significant interest in the incoming class of linebackers. Belichick spent some extra time with Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham -- who's projected to be a first-rounder -- at his pro day. The team reportedly scheduled a meeting with a speedy linebacker from Cincinnati. And Matt Patricia caught up with Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu once his workouts finished up on Thursday. 

As for McMillan, the 6-2, 240-pounder was a second-team All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten choice. He's instinctive, but there's some question as to whether or not he has the strength to hold up inside at the next level.