Tippett, Haynes reflect on today's NFL

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Tippett, Haynes reflect on today's NFL

FOXBORO -- It's a fun game to play, thinking about how the stars of yesteryear might fit into today's game. Would they keep up? Would they still be the game-changers they were in their own eras, when the game was so different?

Mike Haynes and Andre Tippett, two of the best defensive players in the history of the Patriots and Pro Football Hall of Famers, visited the Gillette Stadium press box before tonight's game between the Patriots and 49ers. Turns out, they like to play that game, too.

They answered questions about how much the NFL has changed since their heydays in the 1970s and 1980s. Though both agreed the rules have been altered to favor offense, they believe their own personal styles would have allowed them to succeed nonetheless.

Tippett, an outside linebacker for the Patriots between 1982 and 1993, finished his career with 100 sacks. He smiled when asked how he might have fared in today's NFL.

"I probably would've gotten more sacks," Tippett said. "Because of all the quarterback drop backs. I love it. You got these guys getting 100, 140 sacks, I tell people it's a little bit different now. Watch these guys with these outside linebacker tags and they're not really outside linebackers. They're hybrid defensive ends just rushing up the field. I played the game from a run-pass standpoint. I consider myself a complete linebacker that happened to be pretty good at rushing when I was called to blitz."

Haynes played cornerback in New England from 1976 to 1982 and then with the Raiders from 1983 to 1989. His eyes lit up when he thought about the number of passes thrown in every NFL game nowadays.

"They'll pass on every down," said Haynes, who had 46 interceptions in his career. "They'll pass to get two yards, they'll pass to get three yards. I think that makes it a lot more exciting for the fans and it would've made it a lot more exciting for me, too. I would've loved to have been playing."

Tippett and Haynes, along with Curtis Martin, will serve as honorary captains for the Patriots tonight to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tippett has stayed involved with the Patriots since retirement and has become close with New England's current crop of linebackers: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower. For all the changes the game has undergone, those three players remind Tippett of how linebackers played years ago.

"I love them all," Tippett said. "It's funny I can say this now, I love them all like my sons. I whisper in their ear from time to time, just to say, 'Hey keep up the good work, I admire what you're doing. I think you guys are playing hard. I think you guys are bringing it, putting it on the off people like it needs to be done.' It's a game of tough guys and it's fun watching those guys play. and I let them know that and I appreciate it."

Tom Brady on pace to dwarf deep-ball passing numbers from 2016

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Tom Brady on pace to dwarf deep-ball passing numbers from 2016

FOXBORO -- When the Patriots traded their first-round pick in the 2017 draft for Brandin Cooks, they gave Tom Brady one of the most productive deep-ball receivers in the NFL over the course of the last few seasons. 

The Cooks acquisition not only made the Patriots offense more versatile, it also may have signaled an acknowledgement that the team needed more pass-catchers who could produce down the field and outside the numbers.

In the playoffs last season, against Houston's and Atlanta's defenses -- both of which were effective at times in taking away the short-to-intermediate areas of the field -- the Patriots could have benefited from someone like Cooks. In both games, the Patriots were able to hit on throws deep and on the outside in critical moments with likes of Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell. 

Now after three weeks, and after having faced two defenses in Houston's and Kansas City's that were intent on packing the middle of the field with defenders, it's clear that the move to grab Cooks is paying dividends. 

In Sunday's win over the Texans, 36-33, Brady threw eight passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, and he completed five for 185 yards and three scores, according to Pro Football Focus. On the season, Brady leads the league with 22 attempts of 20 yards or more, per PFF. He's completed 11 of those for 368 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating on deep attempts (135.4) is second in the league. 

Compare that to last season's totals for Brady on deep passes -- 23 completions for 834 yards and eight touchdowns -- and he's on pace to blow those numbers away. Whereas he only attempted deep passes on just over 11 percent of his throws last season, according to PFF, so far this year one in every five of his throws is traveling 20 yards or more.

The biggest beneficiary of the new approach? Cooks, of course, who Brady has dubbed "Cookie." 

PFF says Cooks is leading the league in deep-ball receiving through three weeks, with 187 yards on five deep catches. Three of those came on Sunday and they resulted in 111 yards and two scores. In Week 1, Cooks had three catches for 88 yards -- including a 54-yarder -- and he drew three penalties that resulted in an additional 38 yards. In Week 2, Cooks had two catches for 37 yards -- including a 22-yarder.

Last year? The leading receiver for the Patriots on passes that traveled 20 yards or more was Hogan (10 catches for 397 yards). 

One more indication that the Patriots offense has shifted with Cooks in and Edelman sidelined: Cooks leads the NFL in yards per catch through three games (25.6 yards per reception), while Danny Amendola (16.4 yards per reception, seventh) and Rob Gronkowski (14.9, 13th) are all found among the league leaders in that category.  

Opposing defenses may continue to play the Patriots as the Texans and Chiefs did this season: Flood the middle of the field and pressure Brady with just three or four linemen. They may be content with allowing Brady to attempt lower-percentage throws down the field as opposed to letting him slice them up with shorter tosses. 

It worked well enough for the Chiefs to win, and it nearly worked well enough for the Texans. Perhaps "the blueprint" is still the blueprint. But with the addition to Cooks, Brady and the Patriots have proven that they've evolved to more efficiently combat those schemes.

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Morning Skate: Blackhawks looking for right mix on fourth line

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Morning Skate: Blackhawks looking for right mix on fourth line

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading. while readying for the last home game of the preseason tonight. Boy that went by quickly.

*Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is looking for the right mix on the fourth line for the Hawks.

*The NHL is coming late to the China party and it makes one wonder what will happen for the Winter Olympic Games set to be played there in 2022.

*PHT writer Adam Gretz has the Arizona Coyotes wanting to retire the freshly-retired Shane Doan’s number in the future.

*Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan says that the decision to accept the White House’s invitation was independent of politics. Certainly, it was, but the timing of it and the feeble statement to go along with it left a lot to be desired.

*Pierre Lebrun goes 1-on-1 with Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien to talk about his past, his present and his future behind the bench with the Habs. I had always intended to subscribe to the Athletic, and this is the article that finally got me to do it as I get to read a few moments with one of the classiest individuals in the NHL in Julien. It certainly had a few rocky moments toward the end here in Boston for Julien, but I will always respect that guy as a coach and, more importantly, as a person.  

*For something completely different: an interesting look at Alejandro Villanueva, the only Pittsburgh Steelers player, and a proud veteran, to stand outside the tunnel and on the field for the national anthem prior to the Steelers game on Sunday.