Curran: Patriots defense takes baby steps


Curran: Patriots defense takes baby steps

By Tom E. Curran Patriots InsiderFollow @tomecurran
OAKLAND - Better. Still not good. But better. The New England Patriots are a quarter of the way through the 2011 regular season. Defensively, the numbers are ugly. A total of 1,910 yards allowed (478 per game), allowing conversions on third down 48 percent of the time, six sacks (four in the first game of the year) . . . you've seen it, I've seen it. They are not that good on defense. But they were better on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders and - at this point of the season - getting better is what teams hope for. The loss of Jerod Mayo is going to hurt. He and Vince Wilfork are the two best front-seven players the Patriots have. And with the secondary struggling and banged up, his absence as the leader of the back part of the defense is a blow to their trying to make improvements. But the Patriots' early season problems have been as much about scheme as they've been about personnel. And on Sunday, the Patriots got back to playing a style that best fits their guys. For three weeks, the Patriots asked theircorners to play a ton of man-to-man. They asked them to get up on receivers, jam them and allow the pass rush to force the ball out quickly. Trouble was, too often the corners weren't rerouting receivers and the pass rush never got there. And the results were staggering. On Sunday, New England played a little softer. And while Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell still rolled up some yards, the avalanche of deep passes to outside receivers who'd beaten either Leigh Bodden or Devin McCourty ended. And the Patriots tackled on Sunday. There were still some misses - Shaun Ellis' Dawn of the Dead lumber after Jacoby Ford applies here - but ususally the grabbing and calf-roping we'd seen in the first three weeks was replaced by wrap-em-up, bring-em-down sticks. "We got better this week," said McCourty. "The goal is to win and we did that but throughout the week in practice we got better."The Raiders brought a very clear-cut challenge to this game. The NFL's leading rusher coming in was Darren McFadden. Throughout his coaching career, Bill Belichick has been someone that stresses taking away the one thing an opposing offense really, really likes to do. On Sunday, the Patriots held McFadden to 75 yards on 14 carries. And 41 of them came on one play. The Patriots otherwise held McFadden to fewer than 3 yards per carry. Sure tackling was a big part of that. "We took that as a challenge to come out here and help those guys up front," said McCourty who, along with Kyle Arrington (starting in place of Bodden) led the Patriots with eight tackles. "Our front seven does a great job against the run but if a guy comes outside or gets in the open field we got to do a good job coming up and making tackles."The Patriots were disgraceful in that department the past few weeks, especially in the linebacker and secondary group. There are still some alarming trends - how did Gary Guyton get so slow so fast? - but at least their seems to be a settling in process underway. And while Belichick mayregard points allowed as the end-all, be-all, yardsallowed is an indicator of something.If you're 32nd in the league in yards allowed, it's impossible to hide from the fact you can't stop a nosebleed (to borrow a phrase). Thefact Oakland gained 504 net yards is still alarming. And the fact that one of their drives ended in anunforced end-zone interception thrown by Jason Campbell from the Patriots' 6 isn't evidence that the Patriots bent but didn't break. It's just evidence that Campbell is a mid to low-tier NFL quarterback. But after allowing 268 first-half yards, the Patriots allowed just 133 total yards in the second half before the Raiders had a 99-yard jaunt in garbage time. Again, improvement. "As a player you want to get that down," said McCourty. "We come out and work hard every day to come out and play well and that's one way of seeing how well we play. We always want to get the yards down."McCourty's been under siege a bit. I asked him if it was getting tiresome answering questions about what went wrong every week. "I've explained and talked about it," he said. "When we watch those plays, we want to correct them. We want to get those yards down, we want to get those numbers down. We feel like we're a good defense and when we come out there and let things happen, like Mayo said, 'That's what we are,' that's what the stats shows. We want to get that down and keep playing well."The Patriots have personnel issues stacking up silently against them. They've lost two of their best young interior pass rushers, Myron Pryor (IR) and Mike Wright (concussion). Albert Haynesworth has missed two games with back problems. Now Mayo is hurt and the secondary still has two starting safeties - Josh Barrett and Patrick Chung - running around with casts on their hands. They face the Jets and Cowboys over the next two weeks and both of them have better offensive personnel than Oakland. The challenge is very clear. Whether they're going to be able to meet it is up in the air. But the indications are better on this Monday than they were last Monday. Tom E. Curran can be reached at Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Titans roll to 36-22 victory over Jaguars


THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Titans roll to 36-22 victory over Jaguars

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - There's nothing like a visit from the Jacksonville Jaguars to make the Tennessee Titans remember how to protect their home field.

Marcus Mariota threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns to end his home struggles and the Titans had their highest point total of the season in a 36-22 victory over the Jaguars on Thursday night.

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Develin stays on top of tight end techniques in case he's next man up


Develin stays on top of tight end techniques in case he's next man up

FOXBORO -- Once the Patriots traded AJ Derby to the Broncos for a fifth-round pick earlier this week, they were left with just two tight ends on their roster. While those two tight ends -- Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett -- have played as two of the best tight ends in football this season, it's a position group that has been considerably thinned. 

Until coach Bill Belichick adds another player at that spot, James Develin would be the logical "next man up." A position group unto himself as the team's lone active fullback -- the other fullback in the locker room is practice-squad player Glenn Gronkowski -- Develin meets with Patriots tight ends and coach Brian Daboll on a daily basis because the fullback and tight-end responsibilities in the Patriots offense are similar, particularly in the run game.

As much time as he spends with that group, Develin tries to absorb what he can when it comes to the nuances of the position. 

"I always kind of try to prepare, obviously, for my fullback role, but then in any other role that I might be called upon for," Develin said on Thursday. "A couple years ago, we had a bunch of injuries during the offseason program, during OTAs, and I filled in a little bit at tight end. I try to keep myself familiar with all those techniques and that tight end role so if the day were to come where I needed to go out there and do it, I'd be able to go out there and do it."

When the Patriots began the season relying more on the run, Develin was called upon to play a relatively significant role in the offense. He averaged 21.3 snaps per game through the first three games of the season, but that number has fallen to 13.6 since Tom Brady's return from a four-game suspension. Still, his role can be a critical one. 

The Patriots' running game faltered last season after both Blount and Dion Lewis went down with season-ending injuries. Having Develin in the mix as an extra blocker would not have guaranteed a more efficient attack, but it may have helped the team's running-game woes late in the year. 

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels now has the luxury of bringing Develin onto the field when he wants some added muscle for his blocking schemes, and should the Patriots need a tight end in a pinch, Develin could do that too.

"A lot of times, especially in the blocking game, really the only difference [between fullback and tight end] is that I'm five yards off the ball in the backfield and they're up on the line," Develin said. "The angles are a little bit different. But a lot of times the assignment is typcially the same thing. It's just the technique of getting there and the angles that you take.

"Then in the passing game, as a tight end, there's just a lot more routes and stuff like that. I try to work on that to help me as a fullback to be a little bit better in space . . . It's a sybiotic relationship." 

As it is, Develin will line up occasionally outside. Though not a threat as a receiver in that spot in the same way that Gronkowski or Bennett would be, he understands some of the different looks tight ends have to be comfortable with.

If an emergency arose and he was asked to fill that role, he wouldn't hesitate.

"There's a little bit of carry-over depending on what we're doing or whatever play we have called where I'll line up on the line," he said. "But that's kind of what a fullback has to do. You kind of have to be able to be thrown into whatever position on the field that you gotta do and you gotta just do your job."