Patriots, Ninkovich must beware of the 'trap'

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Patriots, Ninkovich must beware of the 'trap'

FOXBORO -- Most Patriots who spoke after the Jets game told a version of the same story: Everything leading up to that day was "extra." Cold off a two-game slide, New England went into preparations for its AFC East rival desperately trying to stoke some flame. The players said they watched more film, conditioned harder, put in longer days and pushed themselves to the limit to win.

They did, 37-16, and it was the team's best game in weeks. 329 yards and three touchdowns for Tom Brady. Mark Sanchez was hounded by the defense all day. It wasn't just a win; it was their first triumph over truly stacked odds this season.

"The feeling that you have after that game, how great everyone felt, that's what keeps you going because you want to have more of those great feelings," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "Going into the Jets home territory and their backyard, it's a great feeling to get a win out there, so you want to continue with that success. Obviously, we put in extra work so we've got to continue to do that."

The question is how.

How do the Patriots maintain an elevated level of play? How to they keep everything "extra" going from the Jets . . . to the Chiefs? Even beyond divisional storylines, the matchups couldn't be more different. If the Patriots limped into enemy territory on three legs last week, the Chiefs are dragging themselves to Gillette on two.

Ninkovich claims the Patriots will keep their guard up.

"The thing about the NFL is, every week there's so much talent on every team, that week-to-week you never know what's going to happen. You've got to prepare with each team the best that you can because every Sunday there's great teams, great players that can make plays on you. So you've got to do your best and not let that happen."

It's not a crazy idea. There's been plenty of bi-polarity in the NFL this season: the Eagles, Chargers, Ravens, Falcons, and Bills are some that have experienced the spectrum. How does it affect the Patriots? Inconsistency leads to unpredictability, which could spell trouble for a high-flying opponent coming off a huge rivalry game.

A trap.

This could be a week that Bill Belichick hangs little red mouse traps all over the building -- a trick learned from Bill Parcells. If so, defensive captain Vince Wilfork says they won't be surprised. The key is not simmering in old success.

"We turned the page real quick," said Wilfork. "We can't really sit back and think about the win. There's just so much stuff that goes into it each week. We approach this game with the same motto, that we want to win, but the whole game plan is different, so you have to be able to turn the pages quick.

"When you beat a divisional rival you want to be able to sit and enjoy it. But the only enjoyment you have is that plane ride home. Once we touch down, it's back to work."

One has to wonder about the new kids.

A veteran and defensive captain like Wilfork talk about staying grounded makes sense, but the Patriots are working with a mixed bag these days. Two practice-squad players, safety Sterling Moore and linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, started against the Jets. Cornerback Antwuan Molden and linebackerspecial teamer Tracy White -- two more guys who don't have jerseys in the team store -- also got significant time. While none of the four had a breakout performance, nobody turned out to be a major defensive liability, either.

These "scrubs" no doubt understood the gravity of the situation. Even with limited experience, once a player dons a Patriots jersey he understands what it is to hate the Jets. Turning it on against the Chiefs won't be so instinctual. That's where it comes back to guys like Ninkovich, Wilfork and Brady.

"I think the reserves are hungry," said Jerod Mayo. "They'll follow the lead of our veteran players."

An example must be set in practice. According to Wilfork, the newcomers will have to battle through preparation first before getting the reward of game day, "the fun part." His job is to put them, as well as the rest of the team, through hell on the field. There won't be a whole lot of chit-chat. It's November; there shouldn't have to be.

"For the most part these guys understand," Wilfork said. "It's not hard to get 'em to play. It's not hard. They know what we want to do and in order to do that we have to continue to keep preparing well."

We're back to that fundamental issue again: keeping the prep elevated. New England hasn't often been an underdog in recent years. The team's now dispatched of the Jets twice in 2011 and is returned to the top of the AFC East. Difficult to have your back against the wall from that perch, no?

The combined win total for the rest of New England's opponents -- Kansas City, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Washington, Denver and Miami -- is 21.

21 wins out of 64 games.

But the Patriots said all the right things Wednesday. When asked about finding motivation to fight statistically neutered opponents, cornerback Kyle Arrington took a moment. Then he laughed; the answer seemed so simple once he landed on it.

"It's our job. It's all about attitude and 'want to'. We're going to watch the same amount of film week in and week out. It's on the players when we're at home, when it's not asked of you -- when no one's looking -- to put that time in yourself and prepare week-in and week-out like that."

It's about attitude.

The season doesn't end when you beat the Jets, especially not for this Patriots team. One win, even a great win, doesn't prove the offense won't struggle without a downfield option. It doesn't mean the secondary won't get gashed again. Winning the games they're supposed to might be just as important because this stretch, largely devoid of drama, will test of New England's 'want to' in a different way.

"We always say, whoever can play the best football from November on will have the best chance at winning it," said Mayo. "So that's our mindset."

Easier said than executed? We'll find out in the coming weeks.

Five things to look for from the NFL annual meetings this week

Five things to look for from the NFL annual meetings this week

PHOENIX -- Bill Belichick may not be speaking with the media here this week, but there will be plenty for us to examine at the annual league meetings. 

Reporters were informed via a team spokesperson that the Patriots coach would not be in attendance at the AFC coaches breakfast Tuesday morning -- where in the past orange juice has been sipped and tape recorders have been bulldozed -- due to a scouting conflict. 

The breakfast is not mandatory for coaches so for Belichick to use his time at a college pro day (Florida, Texas and Iowa State all have theirs scheduled for Tuesday) or a private workout comes as little surprise. He's been busy on the Trail of Due Diligence in recent weeks, making visits to Vanderbilt, Ohio State and Michigan in order to get a closer look at prospects.

Five weeks behind, remember? No days off. 

Patriots owner Robert Kraft is planning to meet with reporters on Monday so we'll have an opportunity to hear from him on a variety of topics when that comes to pass. 

Here are some of the other Patriots-related stories we'll be doing some digging on this week as we keep you updated with blog posts, occasional television hits, tweets (@PhilAPerry), Instagram shots (@PhilAPerry), and maybe even a podcast or two.

-- What does the rest of the league think when it sees the way the Patriots have attacked this offseason? How will the new pieces fit? Do other coaches and executives see it as Belichick going all in on 2017? Or is this just a case of a team adhering to its motto of doing "what's best for the football team" -- both in the short and long-term?

-- What's next for the Patriots? They're not done building the roster, so where might they turn next? Will they add other lower-level free agents? Will they be looking to trade back into the first and second rounds? Which positions seem to be of interest to them in the draft, and how might that signal the direction this roster is headed?

-- What is the feeling on the future at the quarterback position in New England? We know the Patriots aren't looking to give away Jimmy Garoppolo, but do people around the league really feel as though a haul of draft picks won't get the Patriots to think twice about trading him? Is it possible that in this rare scenario -- where the franchise quarterback is playing at an MVP-level but headed into his 40-year-old season -- people could see the Patriots paying two passers a starter's salary?

-- Will anything happen with Malcolm Butler before the meetings are out? Some have speculated that if his status as a restricted free agent (with an unsigned first-round tender) is to change anytime soon, it could happen here, where presumably his agent will be able to hear offers from one or more clubs in person. Will Butler find a team willing to give him an offer sheet and relinquish its first-round pick to the Patriots? Or will he sign his tender -- whether it's with the intent to play for the Patriots in 2017, or to be traded?

-- Rules changes are coming. We just don't know which ones. Will the linebacker leap (executed by Jamie Collins and Shea McClellin under Belichick) be eliminated? Will Stephen Gostkowski soon be looking to blast kickoffs through the uprights due to the passing of a rule that would place the ball at the 20 as opposed to the 25 for such a feat? Will real-time replay decisions suddenly shift from the officials on the field to the NFL offices at 345 Park Avenue? We'll let you know which proposals are held up, which fall flat, and how the Patriots might be impacted. Belichick and his staff did not submit any proposals for the second consecutive year.

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.