Curran: Five thoughts from Patriots 31, Packers 27

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Curran: Five thoughts from Patriots 31, Packers 27

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com

1. PATS VS. BACKUPS

Wow. That Matt Flynn. How often are you going to see something like that against the Patriots, a backup lighting up a Bill Belichick defense? Doesn't Professor Hoodie normally leave young, inexperiencedquarterbacks wailing at the moon andyearning for the warm, comfortable womb of the sidelines? Not exactly. The best performance of the season prior to Flynn's 24 for 37, 251-yard, three-touchdown, one pick evening was actually Colt McCoy's ultra-efficient 14 for 19 for 174 (one rushing TD) day in the Browns' upset of the Pats. In the past, it's happened that way as well. Matt Schaub stepped in foran injured Michael Vick back in 2005 and threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-28 loss. A.J. Feeley stepped in for Donovan McNabb in 2007 and threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns (and three picks) when the Eagles went toe-to-toe with the Patriots. The first time the Patriots saw Mark Sanchez, he went 14 for 22 for 165 and a touchdown in his second career start. Maybe it has something to do with the fact the Patriots prefer to sit back in coverage and make a quarterback think his way down the field and string together plays as opposed to bringing extra rushers and allowing the chance of getting beaten with a lucky punch (which the Pats kind of were on James Jones 66-yard touchdown catch). Whatever the cause, it's happened enough for it to be more than a coincidence. 2. DEFENSE CHEWEDAfter weeks of getting leads and then stepping on opponents' necks, the Patriots defense breathed life into the Packers offense by being godawful on third down. Green Bay finished the night 11 for 19 (58 percent). The Packers' scoring drives were 11, 3, 13, 13 and 11 plays. The Patriots' defense couldn't get off the field (40:48 time of possession to 19:12). "The little things," lamented inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. "We prepared well this week, we just didn't go out and execute like we had to. Usually in base we're pretty tough against the run (Green Bay ran for 143 yards). We have a lot of work to do. I felt like we prepared just as well this week as we have the last five weeks. How many missed tackles did we have? A lot of missed tackles and that extended drives. We can't play like this next week."3. BRADY PICK STREAKTom Brady dodged a few more interception bullets Sunday night but emerged from the game with his pickless streak intact. He's now gone 292 attempts without an interception. He now holds the record for most passes without throwing a pick in a single season. He passed Jeff George (279) Sunday night and will pass Bart Starr (294) if he can make throw three more without a pick. Bernie Kosar's all-time mark of 308 is just 16 throws away. The nearest Brady came to throwing an interception was on the Patriots' first drive of the game when he hit Charles Woodson in the hands and the Packers corner dropped it. A.J. Hawk also had a chance on a tipped ball in the fourth quarter and didn't come up with it. 4. FLAGS FLYINGThe Patriots entered the game with 55 accepted penalties in their first 13 games. That was the fourth-lowest total in the league. They got flagged seven times for 52 yards on Sunday night. Bill Belichick threw a little chum in the water when asked about what would have been the most costly penalty of the night, Tully Banta-Cain's hands-to-the-face flag. "Look, these guys (referee Ed Hochuli's crew) call the most penalties of any crew in the league and they called them. We knew it was going to be a tight game and it was. We've just got to do a better job of that. I've got to do a better job preparing the team."5. ARRINGTON, CONNOLLY CHIP INBIGCornerback Kyle Arrington keeps on making big plays. He didn't havea lockdown night on the right side of the Patriots defense, but his pick on a pass intended for James Jones early in the second half was a huge play. His 36-yard return put the Patriots out in front 21-17 just three minutes into the half. "I got beaten earlier in the game on a slant and I decided if I saw that again, 'I'm gonna go for it.' The ball was there and I was in the right place at the right time." Arrington punctuated his return by stepping around and through four differentPackers. "The goal line wasn't too far so I was happy I could get there," said Arrington, whose impressive strength packed into a small body helped him power through. If he looked a bit like a natural, it's because he's got experience with the ball in his hands from playing running back in youth football and high school. "It's like riding a bike," he said."It's like muscle memory, you know?" Meanwhile, the 71-yard kickoff return by Dan Connolly at the close of the first half was not likely foreshadowed by any reps at running back earlier in his football career. Connolly, a left guard, took a squibbed kick back to the Packers' 4. That, along with Arrington's pick-six, were the two plays that turned the game for New England. Or at least kept them in contact with Green Bay until the offense awoke.

Belichick explains matching in the secondary

Belichick explains matching in the secondary

FOXBORO – Here’s a leftover from last week I’m dredging up because it’s really instructive in giving insight to something we all flap our arms about: how the Pats decide whether to play zone, man-to-man or match receivers with their secondary.

The jumping off-point was asking about Trumaine Johnson -- a long-tall corner for the Rams. As Belichick about Johnson and the difficulties he poses, at 6-foot-2, it brought to mind the team’s acquisition earlier this season of Eric Rowe. The 6-2 corner they got from the Eagles filled a need in that the Patriots other corners are not very tall, headlined by 5-9 Malcolm Butler.

So I asked Belichick if the team strives to have different sized players in the secondary.

“That’s if you move them around,” he explained, meaning size only matters if you intend to put size-on-size. “If you don’t move them around, if you play a guy at one positon and he plays on the right side or the left side, you cover the guy that’s over there, which I’d say is more the situation than not. There are some teams or some situations where you’ve got him, he’s got the next guy, you’ve got somebody else, but I’d say that’s by far the lower percentage of the plays, by far. Generally, you see a corner play – some games are different. We’ll match to this guy and somebody else matches to that guy. Teams will do that. There’s some of that, but by and large, most teams play at one position and whoever is in that spot, that’s who they cover.”

With matching receivers being the exception rather than the rule, the next logical question is why? Why would you let a little guy cover a big guy if you also have a big guy who could cover?

Because offenses make it complicated, Belichick answered.

“The easiest thing in the world is for one player to match another,” he explained. “‘OK, you go cover this guy.’ Alright, great. But what do the other 10 guys do? That’s the problem. It’s easy to matchup one guy. That’s simple. What do the other 10 guys do? What if he’s here? What if he’s there? What if he goes in motion? What if he’s in the backfield? What if it’s this personnel? What if it’s that personnel in the game? Then how does all the rest of it matchup? That’s where it gets tricky.  You can be spending all day, literally, on that. OK yeah, you take this guy but what are you going to do with the other 10?”

Belichick also delved into other options including a coverage concept the Pats used when Darrelle Revis was here. Giving Revis the opponent’s so-called No. 2 receiver and doubling the No. 1.

“You can matchup and put your best guy on their best guy, or you can matchup and put your best guy on let’s call it their second best guy and put your second best guy on their best guy and double him,” Belichick said. “If you’re going to put your best guy on their best guy and double him anyway then you kind of lessen the matchups down the line. It’s like setting a tennis ladder, or whatever. If you put your bad guy at one and you win two through seven, great. If you put your best guy at one and he gets beat by their one and then your two versus their two, you know. That’s what you’re doing. You have a three to four-man ladder there with the receivers and your DB’s [defensive backs], except we don’t have to match them that way. You can match them however you want.”

It’s a fascinating discussion and it comes into play the next two weeks as the Patriots will see a true test with receivers like the Ravens Steve Smith and Denver with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas.

The Patriots will have decisions to make. Chances are they’ll use a little bit of everything. But these are some of the the things they weight when doing so.

Call-up coming? Belichick likes what he's seen from p-squad receivers

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Call-up coming? Belichick likes what he's seen from p-squad receivers

The Patriots find themselves in a difficult spot following Sunday's win over the Rams: They are a team that likes to lean on three-receiver sets, yet they have only three healthy receivers.

Danny Amendola suffered an ankle injury during a punt return over the weekend that further thinned an already thin position group. The healthy receivers left on the depth chart are Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell.

The Patriots will in all likelihood make an addition to their 53-man roster at some point in order to bolster their depleted receiving group, and in a way, they've been preparing for this.

With just four true receivers on the active roster, the team has been adding and subtracting wieoutes on their practice squad for much of the year. They began the season with rookie seventh-round pick Devin Lucien and fourth-year wideout Devin Street on the p-squad. On Sept. 14, they added DeAndrew White as a third receiver on the 10-man unit, giving them a relatively unusual amount of practice-squad depth at one spot. 

After Street was signed away by the Colts, the Patriots gave practice-squad shots to Da'Ron Brown and Shaquelle Evans. Neither of those players stuck, but Lucien and White have.

"I think they’ve made good progress . . . They both have been consistent," Bill Belichick said during a conference call on Tuesday. "They’ve been out there every day. They work hard. They’ve made plays for us in practice on the scout team against our defense, so overall our guys on the practice squad do a good job.

"They certainly help us get ready for the games by simulating our opponent’s schemes and playing styles and at the same time they’ve improved with their individual skills and techniques. Both of those guys – they’ve done a good job for us."

ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reported on Sunday that the Patriots voluntarily increased the salary of White (from the minimum of $6,900 per week to $10,000 per week), perhaps an indicator that he's the favorite as a call-up to the 53-man roster.

White, who has been named one of New England's practice players of the week three times this season, is in his second year out of Alabama. He was signed by San Francisco in May of 2015 as an undrafted free agent, and he played in four games as a rookie, catching two passes for 18 yards. He also returned six kicks and returned one punt for the 49ers.

There are free-agent options available to the Patriots should they choose to go that route.

Keshawn Martin, who was released by the Niners on Nov. 8 and is a free agent, could be an attractive option given his punt-return experience and his understanding of the Patriots system. Others who are out there and have spent time with the Patriots include Aaron Dobson, Nate Washington and Kenbrell Thompkins.

Should the Patriots feel as though they would be straining to add a receiver to the 53-man roster, they could find some help with the depth they have at running back. Dion Lewis, James White and DJ Foster are all capable pass-catchers who have the ability to line up wide or in the slot. Foster, who was a college teammate of Lucien's for one season, played receiver as a senior at Arizona State.