Some good, some bad for Patriots secondary

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Some good, some bad for Patriots secondary

FOXBORO -- The Patriots allowed 300-plus passing yards for the third-straight game on Sunday. This time, it was Peyton Manning doing the damage.

Manning also threw for three touchdowns. And while the end result is really all that matters, the spotlight was once again on cornerback Devin McCourty, who failed to make the big plays when those big plays came his way.

McCourty didn't speak to the media after the game. But if he did, the questions would have been mostly about the plays he didn't make, regardless of the outcome.

It helps, of course, that the Patriots won. But that's because any comeback that the Broncos were attempting in the second half was stopped by Rob Ninkovich and his two forced fumbles.

Before that, the finger could be pointed at McCourty for Denver's first two touchdowns.

The first tied the game at 7-7, nearly a minute into the second quarter. It was a one-yard play-action pass to Joel Dreessen. But it was set up with the help of a Devin McCourty pass interference call, as he covered Eric Decker deep down the right sideline. McCourty has tight coverage in the back-right corner of the end zone, but he never turned around to make a play on the ball, forcing the official to throw the flag, and give the Broncos a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

Had McCourty turned and made the play cleanly, the Broncos would have had to kick a field goal on fourth down. But Denver's touchdown instead tied the game at 7-7.

The Patriots took a 31-7 lead in the second half, but the with a minute left in the third quarter, Manning went to Decker once again in the right corner of the end zone. This time, Decker made the catch, as McCourty once again didn't turn around to play the ball.

The result was a 31-14 game, with plenty of time left.

Denver added another touchdown in the fourth quarter to cut new England's lead to 31-21, and Manning wasn't done picking on McCourty.

With under five minutes left in the game, the Broncos were driving. And on 4th-and-1 from the Patriots 42-yard line Manning went deep down the right sideline to Demaryius Thomas, who was being covered by McCourty.

Thomas came back to make the catch at the Patriots' 14-yard line, mainly because McCourty out-ran the route. Fortunately for the Patriots, Ninkovich forced his second fumble of the game two plays later, essentially ending the game.

"Obviously, you never want to give up big plays," said Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo after the win. "But at the end of the day, it's all about winning the game."

As the end result shows, the Patriots' secondary wasn't all bad on Sunday. Rookie safety Tavon Wilson made his first career start, as Steve Gregory was held out with a hip injury.

Wilson held his own, for the most part, along with fellow rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who made his NFL debut, and made a couple big plays himself.

"Those guys came in and played well," said Mayo. "And it's always good to see that. Those guys practice hard each and every week. They put the extra film time in. They do a good job for us."

Sterling Moore also can't be overlooked for his contributions in the patriots' secondary on Sunday against the Broncos.

Moore got burnt by Thomas deep down the left sideline during Denver's opening-game possession. Manning found Thomas for a 43-yard completion, and the only thing in sight after the catch was the end zone.

But Moore never gave up on the play, and used a right-handed uppercut to punch the ball out of Thomas' hands for the fumble, which Moore also recovered, preventing an early Denver touchdown.

"It was a big play for them that turned into a big play for us," said Mayo. "And that's always huge. We strive to get turnovers. And any time we get the ball back over on that side, it's a good thing."

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.