Curran: Five thoughts from Patriots 34, Bills 3

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Curran: Five thoughts from Patriots 34, Bills 3

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com
BUFFALO - Buffalo Bills, the Beasts of the AFC East outside of Foxboro? Oh, yeah. I was buying that line of shizzle. Well, the Bills tossed up a field goal a little less than five minutes into the game and then didn't score again over the next 55 minutes as the Patriots poleaxed them for their 13th win of the year. Here's 5 reasons why.

1. HE CAME, HE SAW, HE GRONKEREDBack in his native Western New York, Rob Gronkowski played a featured role. Seven passes were thrown his way. He caught four. Two went for touchdowns. Another was a 23-yard gain off a one-handed stab. Happy? "Yeah, mad excited. Being home, kind of like a homecoming in front of the family, its just great going home and scoring twice in front of them. Its a dream come true. I wouldve never thought this was going to happen, when I was back in high school and college, this is amazing." With Aaron Hernandez unable to go (hip), Gronkowski andveteran Alge Crumpler took all the reps. AndCrumpler - mainly a blocker this season - got himself a touchdown too. That's 16 scores for the tight ends this year. "Alge's been a great leader. I love a man who leads by example with everything, its great having him on the team. Were just out there working hard, whatever role us tight ends get, were going to go out there and do our role and do our own job. Hopefully its always a significant role." It's been a major role this year." 2. MANKINS A DIFFERENCESince Logan Mankins' return, the Patriots have run the ball with authority not seen, really, since Corey Dillon was lining up in their backfield. Certainly, a lot has to do with the backs and the rest of the line but Mankins' impact week in and week out has been tremendous. Sunday was Mankins' eighth game back with the team. They're 7-1 since his return. The only loss came in his first game back (Cleveland). I asked him if he would have come back early as he did if the team had been struggling. "I'd have done it the same way," he answered. "I woulda come back at the same time. I'm a football player. I knewI was coming back then. That was the dateI had in mind the whole time." 3. IN THE BLACK BY PLENTYThe Patriots are now plus-27 in turnover differential. They haven't committed a turnover in an NFL record seven games. Buffalo turned it over seven times on Sunday. The Patriots have taken it away 36 times (24 picks). They've given it up nine (5 picks). They had a six-turnover edge on the teams tied for second in plus-minus (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia). Next week against Miami, the Patriots will likely set the record for fewest turnovers in a season (the standard was set in 1982 when the Chiefs had 12 in a strike year). "We talked about that on the sideline today, saying Those guys dont fumble; those guys dont give up the ball. Thats a great credit to our offense. Staying on the field and not turning the ball over and giving us chances on defense to go out and turn the ball over and give it back to them, so its a hand-in-hand thing," said linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. Tom Brady's amazing string of 311 passes without a pick (and counting), meanwhile, continues. Told that Brady set the record against the Bills, breaking Bernie Kosar's record of 309, Bill Belichick said, "I didnt realize. That's great. Tom does a good job . Today they didn't get their hands on too many balls like (the Packers) did last week. He does a great job of placing it. Unfortunately, itlooked like we dropped a few. Tom does a great job of managing the game and taking care of the ball, he deserves that (record)."4. BLUES TRAVELERSThe Patriots were forced to spend Sunday night in Rochester, New York as the blizzard prevented them from getting back to New England. The World Juniors hockey championships being held in Buffalo this week made it impossible for the team to find enough rooms in Buffalo. "Pretty excited about staying here," Belichick said sarcatically. Dan Koppen said this was the one week he didn't bring an extra change of clothes. Belichick, meanwhile, said the team would "rest" Sunday night. Monday is usually a day for treatment and film review. Given the fact the team isn't playing for anything other than to keep sharp next week against the Dolphins, it's not a great blow football-wise. It is tough, however, after having to pull up stakes on Christmas Day to get out of town. 5. SOLDIERING THROUGHBelichick opened his comments by mentioning how difficult a week it was health-wise for the team. "It was a tough week," he said. "I really have a lot of respect for our players. We had abunch of guys with the flu, the injuries, bumps and bruises coming off the Green Bay game. They did a nice job fighting through it." Said Brady: "I thinkevery team has those weeks where some guys are in and some guys are out. There are injuries and this week, quite a few guys got sick. I think the guys fought through it and showed some mental toughness. That's been a big word for us this year."The inevitable question now becomes whether the Patriots rest players against Miami in the finale.Brady said, "I want to play. Whatever (Belichick) asks us to do, we're going to do. Miami is a good team. We struggled with them last time offensively so hopefully we'll go out andplay better."Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Cooper carted off, reportedly dealing with plantar fascia injury

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Cooper carted off, reportedly dealing with plantar fascia injury

FOXBORO – There was some offensive line attrition this morning at the first full-contact practice of training camp.

Most notably, guard Jonathan Cooper left the field on a cart.

Cooper, acquired from the Cardinals in the Chandler Jones trade, went down during a drill when the offensive line was firing off and hitting bags and carrying the blocks out. It appeared to be his right foot that was afflicted. He was down for a few minutes and the team had to move the drill away from him as he stayed down. Quarterback Tom Brady went over to check on Cooper before Cooper was helped gingerly to a cart alongside trainer Jim Whalen and was carted away.

Ian Rapoport from NFL Media reported after Cooper went down that the former first-rounder is battling plantar fascia, a painful foot ailment.

That’s what led to him needing to be held off, according to Rap.

Meanwhile, center Bryan Stork kinda just slipped out of practice. He was first noticed missing when he did not take part in 1-on-1s which came early in practice. He was out there for the beginning of practice so whether he was hurt, sent off for whacking people or had a dentist’s appointment isn’t known.

Bill Belichick wasn’t available after practice. Otherwise we’d have the full scoop.

We’ll keep an eye on that for Sunday.

Running back D.J. Foster and guard Shaq Mason meanwhile didn’t take part in 1-on-1s and retired to a lower field for some conditioning. Guard Josh Kline’s workload is also a bit limited while guard Tre Jackson and tackle Sebastian Vollmer are on the PUP list still.

The Patriots have practice Sunday and are in the stadium for a night practice on Monday before getting Tuesday off.

Tom E. Curran can be followed on Twitter: @tomecurran

Patriots happy to experience 'real football' on first day with pads

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Patriots happy to experience 'real football' on first day with pads

FOXBORO -- With pads on the docket to be introduced for the first time during Saturday's practice, it gave Patriots coaches an opportunity to put together a plan that focused on the running game. 

Early in practice, defensive ends worked on setting an edge, while receivers practiced sealing off defensive backs on the outside. Linemen got to go at each other in one-on-one drills, and running backs got to lower their shoulders and try to run through contact. 

While the session featured fewer passes at which the thousands of fans in attendance could marvel, it did set the table for some hitting that elicited oohs and ahhs from the crowd. 

Though some players were on the receiving end of a forceful hits, the consensus at the end of practice seemed to be that players on both sides of the football were pleased with the summer's first truly physical session. 

"You see a run game, finally, not just passing every play," Devin McCourty said. "I just think it’s real football. We come out here and we get to work on fundamentals and all of those things. We’re seeing guys’ mentalities, being able to play violently. That’s what football is all about."

For players on the offensive and defensive lines in particular, padded sessions provide them with an opportunity to shine. When practices are held in shorts and t-shirts, there's only so much those big bodies can do. But on Saturday, they were focused on opening up and clogging holes in the running game. 

Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said he's been waiting for Saturday for some time.

"Training camp started today," he said. "Yesterday, the day before, [that] was preliminary. It was all about seeing who came back in good condition, getting back to their playbook. Real football is with a helmet on and shoulder pads. 

"There's just something about putting on these pads and thudding up, and coach giving us one period today to go live, see who [can] really man up. That's what it's about with the pads on. See who's gonna show up. See who are the real men out here. See who can play 11-on-11."

The first big collision of the day came between LeGarrette Blount and Jamie Collins. During a run-specific drill, Blount got through a hole and put his head down. He hit Collins hard, knocking the linebacker backwards, but he lost his feet and fell to the turf. That started a steady stream of solid "thuds" -- not wrapping up or tackling to the ground -- throughout the afternoon.

With contact, often comes some chatter, and Saturday was no different. 

"You got the offense bickering back at us and we're bickering back at them," Knighton said. "They make plays, we make plays. All day, it's a competition. If everyone was out here quiet, going through the motions, it would be boring. You won't get nothing out of it. You try to be competitive. At the same time you also try to work on your fundamentals and do what you gotta do." 

"It was fun," said Chris Hogan of the contact. "We were looking forward to it. We're playing football now. There's no more with the shells on or just helmets. This is real football now. We look forward to this. We kind of had our minds right for the one-on-ones with the DBs and the blocking drills and all that kind of stuff. It was a lot of fun today." 

Later on Saturday, players and coaches will go back over the tape of their first day of hitting. That's where, Knighton said, the rubber will meet the road for some players who talked a big game leading up to this day. 

"Guys always talk about what they'll do when the pads come on," he said. "We'll watch the tape today, and the eye in the sky won't lie."

Postcard From Camp, Day 3: Patriots in pads for physical practice

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Postcard From Camp, Day 3: Patriots in pads for physical practice

FOXBORO -- Every day from Patriots training camp, we'll be providing you news and observations from what occurred on the field with Bill Belichick's club. Day 3 of on-the-field work was the team's first day of work in pads. Here's what we saw...

* The Patriots had a few new absences on Saturday. Rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell was not present, nor was rookie defensive lineman Vincent Valentine, who traveled to Nebraska for a friend's funeral. Running back Brandon Bolden was also a new absence. 

Running back Dion Lewis (on the physically unable to perform list) was not present, though other players on PUP (Sebastian Vollmer, Tre' Jackson, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Clay Harbor) were around as spectators. Defensive lineman Alan Branch (on the non-football injury list) was also not spotted. Nate Washington, who became ill at the end of the first day of practice of camp, did not participate for the second consecutive day, but he was present. 

* Soon after the start of practice, offensive lineman Shaq Mason and running back DJ Foster went to a lower practice field for some conditioning. 

* Guard Jonathan Cooper went down about an hour into practice during a drill where offensive linemen worked on finding their blocking assignments and hit other offensive linemen carrying foam pads. Trainers tended to what appeared to be his right foot. He walked slowly off the field with the help of the training staff. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Cooper is battling plantar fascia.

* The first contact drills of camp appeared to focus on the running game. While at one end of the field tight ends and fullback James Develin blocked defensive ends setting the edge, at the other end, corners tried to get by run-blocking receivers. Edge defender Chris Long put a good pop on tight end Bear Pascoe to start the drill. 

* After a set of one-on-ones between receivers, corners and safeties, Tom Brady congratulated Aaron Dobson for an impressive grab. Chris Hogan went airborne to give Dobson a congratulatory bump, and Matthew Slater went out of his way to give both Dobson and Hogan a fist-bump. 

* The first good collision of camp came when LeGarrette Blount took a handoff from Tom Brady and ran hard into Jamie Collins. Collins felt the brunt of the impact, but Blount fell down. One snap later, Dont'a Hightower filled a running lane and pushed rookie guard Joe Thuney back behind the line of scrimmage. Later, during the same drill, Long had another noticeable rep where he set a firm edge and ripped rookie tight end Steven Scheu to the ground. 

* During a kickoff period, Brady and Garoppolo worked a side session with Rob Gronknowski, Martellus Bennett and Aaron Dobson. Nate Washington and Julian Edelman watched closely. 

* During a half-field period, Keshawn Martin had a perfectly-placed deep ball from Jimmy Garoppolo slip through his hands with Justin Coleman in coverage. Martin, who beat Coleman in a one-on-one drill earlier in the day, had a step on his defender but couldn't convert. 

* Joe Thuney stood out as one of the top performers in one-on-ones between offensive linemen and defensive linemen. He appeared to win matchups with Malcom Brown, Frank Kearse and Trey Flowers. Fellow rookie lineman Ted Karras also held his own in that period. 

* Rob Ninkovich looked quick in one-on-ones. Now in his 11th season, he ripped by Marcus Cannon twice relatively easily. 

* During a non-competitive 7-on-7 hurry-up period, Brady had a pass deflected by a paddle. It was the second straight day Brady had a pass blocked by a ball boy, and he was audibly displeased. Fans may want to pull out the earmuffs next time that happens. 

* Jacoby Brissett was picked off by Vinnie Sunseri later in that non-competitive 7-on-7 drill. 

11-ON-11s

* During 11-on-11s, James Develin put a sound block on Dont'a Hightower to clear a hole for LeGarrette Blount. 

* Garoppolo (who took the first reps), made a high throw to Chris Hogan that was dropped. Hogan said later that it was a pass he should have caught, and one that he probably didn't need to jump for. On that rep, Jabaal Sheard got around Marcus Cannon and would have put a hit on Garoppolo.

* Terrance Knighton showed good mobility down the line of scrimmage to put a thud on James White for no gain. He's more than just a space-eating tackle, he said following the session.

* Chris Harper, who had a good day catching the football on Friday, showed up as a blocker at one point Saturday. He sealed off Jordan Richards to open a running lane for Blount. Harper later beat Cyrus Jones over the middle for a diving catch on a Brady throw. Jones made what may be considered a rookie mistake, running by Harper without touching him down while Harper was on the turf. Harper alertly got up and ran for extra yardage. That may be a teaching point for the rookie second-round pick later in meetings. 

* Cre'von LeBlanc came up with a nice pass breakup on a Jacoby Brissett pass to Harper.

* During the 11-on-11 period, Blount fumbled, and the ball was recovered by Ninkovich. Hard to tell who forced the fumble, but Blount was sent for a lap after his turnover. 

* Perhaps the play of the day came on a well-thrown corner route from Brady to Gronkowski. The big tight end reached in the back corner of the end zone, reeled in the pass, and fell to the turf. Patrick Chung, perhaps the team's top defender of tight ends, was in coverage. Brady went out of his way to give Gronkowski an attaboy after the play, which had fans roaring. 

* Malcolm Butler couldn't believe it when Hogan caught a touchdown in the back of the end zone. It looked like Butler had a hand on the ball as Hogan brought it in, but the Pro Bowl corner couldn't knock it out. 

* Call it a draw between the offense and the defense during goal line work at the end of practice. Blount got in the end zone twice for offensive wins. Shea McLellin showed up with a run stuff on the goal line, and Long was held by tight end Bryce Williams on the final rep, giving the defense the win there, in my opinion. 

Phil Perry can be followed on Twitter: @PhilAPerry