Cardinals blitzes may be familiar to Patriots

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Cardinals blitzes may be familiar to Patriots

FOXBORO -- It's been almost four years since the Patriots last played Arizona, but they'll be familiar with the blitz schemes they face on Sunday.

Arizona's defensive coordinator Ray Horton was an assistant in Pittsburgh, his time there overlapping with current Cards head coach Ken Wisenhunt between 2004 and 2006. Under renowned Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Horton got an education on the zone blitz packages he now puts to use in his current position.

Since Horton took over last year, the Cardinals blitz early and often -- they brought five pass rushers in just over half their plays in Week 1 against the Seahawks and blitzed on 40 percent of their plays last season under Horton, according to ESPN -- and the Patriots know it.

"You just have to be prepared for it," said Logan Mankins. "The play-callers have to be aware of it and as linemen we're always aware that there's always a good chance of pressure when you play a team like this. You gotta be ready for it."

Mankins, now the senior member of the offensive line, said there may have to be a bit more communication when facing a blitz-happy defense like Arizona's. But Patriots offensive linemen are doing their homework this week in the hopes that they will recognize whatever looks they see Sunday.

"If we've done enough studying and can see our keys, we shouldn't have to talk a whole lot," Mankins said. "But there's gonna be times in the game where they might confuse us with the amount of things they do, and we'll just have to get to the sideline and learn from that."

The Patriots offensive line gave up just one sack last week against the Titans. Though Tom Brady's nose got busted up, it was a solid performance from the guys up front. This week, however, will be a very different challenge. Between Arizona's varied blitzes and their ability to pass rush with defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, New England's offensive linemen will have their work cut out for them, especially if they are missing any of their regulars.

Starting right guard Dan Connolly missed time because of a concussion he suffered in Week 1, but he returned to practice Thursday and could be in line to play against Arizona. Backup Donald Thomas would likely fill in if need be.

"Being able to fill in where I can in the interior line, you just never know what can happen from week-to-week and you have to be ready to go," Thomas said. "And I think we all understand that, and we all know we can play multiple positions so we have to be able to play them."

No matter who is out there, they'll inevitably face pressure. What's important is how they react to it.

"That's gonna be key for us this week," Thomas said, "is to be able to identify what's going on before the snap of the ball and all of us to be on the same page and pick up the blitz is gonna be key."

Belichick: ‘I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency’

Belichick: ‘I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency’

FOXBORO – We’ve mentioned – a few thousand times – that the Patriots have a fleet of key free agents up at the end of the 2016 season.

There’s Jamie Collins, Donta Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, Duron Harmon, Martellus Bennett and Logan Ryan. Malcolm Butler, meanwhile, will be a restricted free agent. How does the team maintain its laser-focus on the games of 2016 while knowing that – if these business decisions aren’t addressed – the games of 2017 could look starkly different.

I asked Bill Belichick Friday morning about stealing a glance at the business side of things and planning for the future while the season’s ongoing.

“In general there’s some team planning you can do,” Belichick said after noting the team’s immediate focus is currently on Sunday’s game with the Bills. “Sometimes, if you can work out a contract with a player during the season – we’ve done that with various players – if you can work it out, you work it out. If you can’t, then there’ve been a number of players that we’ve signed – our players – that we signed once free agency has started. Devin [McCourty] to pick a name.

“I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency,” Belichick continued. “It’s not like if a guy gets to free agency you can’t re-sign him. You’re in a competitive market but, you know, you’re in a competitive market anyway.”

There are things that occur now, that could occur this weekend that can drastically impact every plan laid. It’s my impression that the Patriots are slow-playing this free agent class. Waving lucrative extensions in front of players before knowing how they’ll make it through this season and before knowing what their appeal will be on the open market is short-term satisfaction.

It will satisfy the players who want the security and it will squelch hand-wringing that EVERYBODY’S GOING TO LEAVE in the media.

Long-term, it’s risky.

Consider Donta Hightower. He’s got a knee issue that’s kept him down two games. He played three-quarters of the year in 2014 and 2015 and this year isn’t trending better. He brings absolutely everything the Patriots want in a player except the durability. The onus is on them to factor that into any contract offer they extend. Meanwhile, the onus is on Hightower to – if he isn’t getting what he and his agent feel he can command – to find out if another team will give him different terms if the Patriots’ aren’t suitable.

As Belichick pointed out, “These guys know that they have other options depending on who the player is and what the situation is. They have other options but we know there’s only so much money to go around. If you can work it out, then you have that security. If you can’t then you have your options. They have their options, we have our options. That’s professional sports. I don’t think that’s anything revolutionary. I don’t think it’s different than any other pro football team or any other pro team. You see the same in all the other sports.”

In general, the Patriots have shrewd free agent operators. Pulling the ripcord on Darrelle Revis and Wes Welker were two of the tougher calls made in recent years. Both decisions caused howling from the fanbase and predictions of doom from the media. Both were prescient decisions.

Teams splinter when the seasons end. And the second-guessing about the business decisions is inevitable.

“It’s been that way … since we had free agency,” he said. “That’s what it is. That’s the way it is in all sports. Basketball season’s over, you’re talking about a few guys going here, going there, staying with their team, whatever. You’re not gonna be able to get around that. Even if we were to sign a couple of those guys or whatever that is, there’s gonna be a couple of guys that aren’t so you can talk about those. Same thing we come in here Monday after every game. Somebody had production [but media asks], ‘But what about these guys this guy didn’t catch that many passes, this guy didn’t get that many carries.’ There’s always those guys to ask about. There’s no simple answer to it.”

This season, the questions seem even more challenging.  

 

Green has big game as Bengals dominate Dolphins 22-7

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Green has big game as Bengals dominate Dolphins 22-7

CINCINNATI -- For most of the game, A.J. Green piled up more yards than the entire Miami Dolphins offense in a virtuoso performance. As an encore, he thrilled the crowd by juggling some Florida citrus.

The Bengals receiver followed his disappointing game with a dominating one - 173 yards and a touchdown - and a Cincinnati defense that was inspired by Vontaze Burfict's return clamped down on the Dolphins for a 22-7 victory Thursday night.

The Bengals (2-2) rebounded from a 29-17 home loss to Denver on Sunday with a solid all-around game against a depleted team.

Green led the way, beating the Dolphins (1-3) on every type of route . He was upset with himself after he dropped a pivotal third-down pass and failed to make an impact against the Broncos.

"I hold myself to a very high standard," said Green, who had 10 catches. "I know what I'm capable of. Last week I didn't perform to that level. I had to refocus on a short week."

During the first three quarters, Green had 166 yards on catches while Miami had 152 total yards. The Bengals' season-long problem of stalling out near the goal line forced them to settle for Mike Nugent's season-high five field goals.

Afterward, Green and Andy Dalton appeared on the postgame show, and the receiver entertained the dozens of Bengals fans who stayed around by smoothly juggling three oranges at the interview desk.

"Any time he was one-on-one, he was able to make the play," Dalton said.

The Dolphins were missing four starting offensive linemen, two linebackers, running back Arian Foster and tight end Jordan Cameron. They had one big play - Ryan Tannehill threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills - but couldn't do anything else on offense.

"We've got to get it fixed and quick, and by that I mean Monday," Tannehill said. "We're kind of in a dark spot right now. It's squarely on our shoulders."

The Bengals' defense expected to get a lift from Burfict's return. The volatile linebacker was suspended by the NFL for the first three games because of his illegal hits. He got a loud ovation when he ran onto the field during introductions wearing a baseball cap. Burfict knocked down a pass and had three tackles.

"He's amazing," end Carlos Dunlap said. "Did you see the plays he made? Those aren't plays you can coach. He came off his couch and played great. It's good to have him back."

Mostly, it was Green's show. He caught a 51-yard pass off Dalton's scramble in the first half, and had a 43-yard catch that set up another field goal in the third quarter for a 19-7 lead.

REMEMBERING FERNANDEZ

A large fan banner in the upper deck at Paul Brown Stadium honored Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who died with two friends in a boat crash early Sunday near Miami Beach. The banner read: "Jose 16 Heaven's Bright."

STILL CAN'T RUN

The Bengals rushed for 77 yards and only a 2.1-yard average against the second-worst run defense in the league, one missing two starting linebackers.

SLOPPY DOLPHINS

Miami had seven penalties for 68 yards. The most egregious was by Terrence Fede, who pushed Kevin Huber to the ground after he punted in the third quarter. The penalty gave Cincinnati the ball, and the Bengals got a field goal out of it.

INJURIES

Dolphins: LT Branden Albert and C Anthony Steen were inactive with sprained ankles. Also missing were LBs Koa Misi (neck) and Jelani Jenkins (groin). C Mike Pouncey has missed all four games with a hip injury.

Bengals: TE Tyler Eifert was inactive again, contributing to the Bengals' trouble close to the goal line. He's recovering from offseason ankle surgery and returned to practice on a limited basis last week. CB Dre Kirkpatrick was inactive with a hamstring injury suffered Sunday. G Clint Boling sat out most of the fourth quarter with an injured left shoulder.

ANTHEM STATEMENTS

Stills and Dolphins safety Michael Thomas knelt with their hands over their hearts during the anthem.

FANTASY IMPACT

Tannehill was 15 of 25 for 189 yards with a touchdown, an interception, a fumble and five sacks. Dalton was 22 of 31 for 296 yards with a touchdown and a sack.

UP NEXT

The Dolphins begin a stretch of four straight home games against Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the New York Jets.

The Bengals have a tough two-game stretch, playing Dallas and New England on the road. They're 1-5 in Dallas, dropping their last three. They've dropped their last six at New England, last winning in 1986.