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 on Long's sack: One of the best defensive plays of the year

Belichick on Long's sack: One of the best defensive plays of the year

It came against a rookie quarterback. It came against an offense that averages a league-worst 15.0 points per game. It came against an offense that has fewer yards than any other. 

Still there are signs that Bill Belichick is pretty pleased with where his defense is after beating the Rams 26-10 on Sunday. One came on Wednesday when Patriots.com published its "Belichick Breakdown" for a closer look at a handful of plays from the team's most recent win.

Belichick called his team's third-and-eight stop with about 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter "probably one of the best good, team defensive plays we've had all year."

The Patriots show a five-man front, but linebacker Kyle Van Noy feigns a rush only to drop into coverage.

"Van Noy in here does a good job on the rush," Belichick said, "and also on the coverage on the back. Just good team defense. Good pass coverage down the field. The quarterback really doesn't end up having a lot of time, but there's no one to throw it to right away."

Belichick noted that all four rushers -- Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Dont'a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich -- all are able to pressure Jared Goff on the play. Combined with strong coverage in the secondary, the Rams nver really had a chance.

Belichick said it looked like a "tidal wave" of defenders bearing down on the quarterback.

"Long wins here . . . on the inside spin," Belichick said, "and Trey Flowers and Hightower both win on the little twist game inside. Then that's Rob with good speed-to-power on [Rams tackle Rob] Havenstein on the outside. Four good rushers. Plus a fifth guy...Van Noy getting that two-for-one on the guard and the back.

"Good team defense. That's great to see. A lot of hard work an execution on the practice field to make that happen."

Harbaugh on Belichick: 'I feel like we have a good relationship'

Harbaugh on Belichick: 'I feel like we have a good relationship'

FOXBORO -- They sounded like a couple of old pals. 

First it was Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who spoke of Ravens coach John Harbaugh during a conference call like one of his favorite fellow lacrosse dads.

"John and I saw a game a couple of years ago, a [Johns] Hopkins vs. Maryland game," Belichick said, adding that Harbaugh's love for the sport is just starting to blossom. "Yeah, I think John is seeing the light."

Belichick added that the two might be closer if they weren't competing so often, both in-season on the field and for free agents in the offseason. 

"As you know, we get into a situation like we’re in now where they have a good team, we have a good team, we’re playing a big game on Monday night," Belichick said. "Both teams are going to do everything they can to compete as hard as they can on Monday night. That’s what it is and that’s what we all signed up for. We all know that’s a part of it.

"When we’re not going head-to-head, which isn’t very often because we compete against each other in the offseason, we compete against each other to build our team and so forth, it just puts things in a little bit of a different situation."

During his press conference with reporters on Wednesday, Harbaugh echoed Belichick's sentiments. Belichick was famously one of Harbaugh's biggest supporters earlier in his career, calling the Ravens on Harbaugh's behalf when the franchise was looking for a new head coach. And if only they weren't so frequently competing against each other, they might be even closer, Harbaugh indicated. 

"I feel like we have a good relationship," Harbaugh said. "Like you said, we're probably not socializing that much, but I don't know how many coaches really do. We're all so busy. I'll see him or any coach at the Combine or at the owner's meetings, and we have a chance to talk. It's always good. I have a ton of respect for him. I really like him as a person. I think he's a great coach -- greatest coach of this generation. He's earned that title.

"And I study him. I've always studied him. I've always studied coach Belichick from when I first met him when I was an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, and he came in and just was great to be around.  [We have a] similar background with the special teams and that sort of thing. All of that kind of goes out the window when you compete against one another. It's like anything else, you want to win. I'm sure he feels the same way."

The recent history between their respective franchises is rife with emotion: There was Baltimore's irate reaction to Belichick's unusual formations in the AFC Divisional Round two seasons ago; there was the Ravens' supposed involvement in sparking Deflategate; and there was Harbaugh's subsequent denial. But Belichick and Harbaugh made it sound on Wednesday as if all's good between them.