Monday, November 13, 2017

Winners and losers from Patriots' throttling win over Broncos

By Henry McKenna
November 13, 2017

Here are the winners and losers from the New England Patriots’ win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday night in Week 10.


Rex Burkhead, RB:
Not only did he score a receiving touchdown, but he also blocked a punt. That’s versatility you rarely see from a running back.
He had 10 rushes for 36 yards and three receptions for 27 yards along with that touchdown catch.

Patriots at Broncos Snap Count Report: Rex Burkhead has taken over as the top running back

By Evan Lazar
November 13, 2017

Below are the Patriots' final snap counts on offense and defense in their win over the Broncos.


The game ball goes to running back Rex Burkhead in this one.

Burkhead delivered an all-around performance making key contributions on both offense and defense,
but the surprise scratch of fellow running back Mike Gillislee created the opportunity for Burkhead in the Patriots' backfield. Burkhead played a season-high 36 snaps and has seen an uptick in playing time since returning from injury in Week 7.

However, Burkhead wasn't the only player in the Patriots' backfield to see more playing time against the Broncos.

The Patriots opted to go heavy on Sunday night with fullback James Develin tallying a season-high 45 snaps. Develin's usage continues to rise as the Patriots have morphed the offense into a power-run unit over the last few weeks.

In terms of pass catchers, there are two performances of note from a playing time perspective on offense.

First, in his return to New England tight end Martellus Bennett logged 7 snaps. Bennett caught three passes for 38 yards in his return, including a 27-yard reception in the first half.

Second, with Chris Hogan inactive due to injury, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett played a season-high 49 snaps. Dorsett had just two catches for 16 yards in those 49 snaps but was one of just three Pats wide receivers to see the field along with Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola.

Finally, the Patriots did indeed empty the bench a bit on offense on their final possession of the game. Backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, fourth tackle Cameron Fleming, running back Brandon Bolden, and center Ted Karras all saw time in the blowout win.

Vikings' first-half MVP? Look no further than tackle Riley Reiff

Keep this on the down-low: Riley Reiff has not allowed a sack this season

By Mark Craig
NOVEMBER 11, 2017

My pick for Vikings MVP through eight games?

Riley Reiff.

I went to the sturdy left tackle on Wednesday to give him this bit of life-changing news. He looked at me, sort of smiled and proclaimed, “Sorry, I only talk after games.”

Thursday, the big fella of few words responded through a team official, saying, “The thing that’s great about this team is nobody cares about individual awards. We’re only halfway through the season. We haven’t done anything yet.”

He may be quiet off the field, but Reiff’s play on the field is, to me, the keystone at the very foundation — offensive line — upon which this team sits heading into Sunday’s Week 10 game at Washington.

“You easily could make an argument for Riley being the MVP,” backup guard Jeremiah Sirles said.

And what better week to do so?

The 2016 Vikings also spent Week 10 at Washington. By that time, they were down to Jake Long as their third starting left tackle, and Sam Bradford had the pile of sacks to prove it.

Three plays from the end of that game, Long tore his Achilles’ tendon. Sirles rushed onto the field as the team’s fourth left tackle in nine games.

It was fourth-and-17 from the Washington 28. Eleven seconds remained. The Vikings trailed 26-20.

“It was not a good situation,” Sirles said. “One play, one sack. It still haunts my dreams.”

The Vikings fell to 5-4 after starting 5-0. By the end of their 3-8 free fall, five people had lined up at left tackle in what became a swinging gate to Bradford’s blind side.

“Left tackle is a different animal,” Sirles said. “That’s why it’s so cool to see how well Riley is playing.”

Reiff has started every game, played all but one quarter, allowing zero sacks. He’s the leader of a rebuilt line that has allowed the passing game to rank 14th with backup quarterback Case Keenum playing all but six quarters, and the running game to stay in the top 10 without Dalvin Cook.

Yes, this remains a defensively oriented team with superstars on that side of the ball. But we found out late last year that its dominance fades dramatically without a functional offense to keep it fresh.

With the Vikings sitting atop the NFC North at 6-2, people spent the bye week bickering about who is most deserving of midseason MVP.

Never mind that it’s a team game. It’s sports in 2017 and we must argue while gouging each other’s eyes out!

Right, Latavius Murray?

“Well,” he said, “I think everyone in a sense has contributed to where we’re at.”

Too logical. Too calm. You’d make a terrible fan.

I’ve seen several names thrown about. All deserving. Shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes. Sacks leader Everson Griffen. Re-energized Anthony Barr. Tackling machine Eric Kendricks. Do-everything Harrison Smith. Adam Thielen because he’s surprisingly good and someone on offense has to be mentioned, right?

But there are five names I haven’t seen anywhere. They play offensive line. Four of them — Reiff, Pat Elflein, Joe Berger and Mike Remmers — have started every game for a team that burned through 12 linemen last season.

“That’s par for the course,” Sirles said. “But we don’t need the recognition. We see what we’re doing.”

Heading to Washington a year ago, the Vikings were averaging 2.7 yards per carry. This year, the average is 4.0. Last year, they had thrown 276 passes and been sacked 21 times. This year, they’ve thrown 277 passes and been sacked 10 times.

Asked if that kind of protection allows him to let more pass plays develop, Keenum laughed and said, “Yeah, I mean when you’re getting the crap knocked out of you, you tend to try and get the ball out sooner.”

Four of the five linemen who started last year’s game at Washington aren’t even on the roster this year. And the most criticized of those four, tackle T.J. Clemmings, now plays for Washington. Or tries to.

As Washington’s third-stringer, he started his second game last Sunday. He gave up three sacks.

Three more reasons to make Reiff the midseason MVP.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Patriots DE Trey Flowers disrupts while blooming

By Rich Garven
November 8, 2017

FOXBORO — Defensive end Trey Flowers capped the Patriots’ bye week with a four-day getaway to his family home in Alabama, during which time he rested, relaxed and recharged from a taxing first half of the season.

It was a welcome and much-needed break mentally and physically for Flowers, who has performed at a Pro Bowl-worthy level when he has been out there — which is pretty much always — after his breakout campaign a year ago.

“It’s a long season,” Flowers said during a break in preparations for Sunday night’s tilt with the Broncos in Denver. “It’s a tough game, the NFL. So you’re going to have some bumps and bruises along the way. To get an extra week under your belt and get refreshed and things like that is very important.”

Flowers’ ascension from unremarkable rookie to indispensable defensive disrupter has been incredibly impressive.

Drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round (101st overall) in 2015, Flowers played four snaps in his lone appearance as a rookie. He finished the year on injured reserve with shoulder and knee woes.

However, the 6-foot-2, 265-pound Flowers made his presence felt last season, appearing in all 19 games and trending upward from September to February in terms of activity and impact.

He earned 29.8 percent of the defensive snaps in the first half of the season, 40.6 percent in the second half and 86.6 percent in the postseason. Along the way, he recorded a team-high seven sacks over the final nine games of the regular season and added 2½ sacks in Super Bowl LI.

“His understanding of what we do, I think it’s along the natural progression,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “There’s not that many guys that just come in ... play all the snaps immediately. So he’s a guy that falls into that category.

“Someone that’s worked really hard to try to earn himself some time on the field and has shown the consistency to be out there as much as we can get him out there and put him in those positions. I would definitely say his work ethic and the way that he approaches the game is great.”

It’s been more — make that much more — of the same in his third season.

Flowers played 91.1 percent of the snaps in the first eight games, helping the Patriots to six wins. He’s collected 36 tackles, 3½ sacks, an additional 9½ quarterback hits, a pass defensed, and, whew, a forced fumble.

All that while never taking a play off. Flowers has a better motor than a McLaren F1 and puts out more energy than National Grid.

“I just go out there with the mentality to make a play, do the best I can,” Flowers said. “If I’m out there I just see it as an opportunity for me to make a play. As far as staying out there, being out there a lot of snaps, that’s all due to preparation throughout the week, doing a little extra cardio, extra things that allow you to stay in shape to continue with a high motor even throughout the long games.”

While Flowers regularly stuffs the stat sheet, he also frequently influences plays that others end up finishing.

Think back to linebacker Kyle Van Noy tackling receiver Taylor Gabriel for a 5-yard loss on fourth and goal early in the fourth quarter of a win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 7. Afterward, Van Noy credited his free path into the backfield to a block Flowers made at the line of scrimmage.

It’s all about taking what Flowers hears from his coaches and sees on film over the course of a week and translating it to the field during a span of three hours on Sunday, Monday or Thursday.

“Say I’m in there and hear different communication within the O-linemen, I can just call something to kind of put our defense in the right position to make plays or the right position to be productive on that play,” Flowers said.

“So I think it goes into just being in the league, definitely having the IQ and paying attention to how the offense or the offensive line wants to block us.”

Rested and relaxed, Flowers is ready for the second half of a season that has seen him to play a lot and make a lot of plays while becoming arguably the Patriots’ most important defender.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

"One of the best football coaches at any level"

By Peter King
November 6, 2017

Ten Things I Think I Think:

4. I think these are my quick thoughts on Week 9:
o. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is one of the best football coaches at any level, and I don’t just say that because of the 55-24 wipeout of Ohio State.

Parents who have high school prospects should want to send their kids to play for Ferentz, and not just for the winning. He wins, he loses, he develops people.

Best Defensive Player Award: Trey Flowers

The Blitzies: Handing out the Patriots’ awards from the first half

By Jeff Howe

November 6, 2017

Unlike, say, the Oscars, Grammys and NFL Honors, the Blitzies mean something. The Herald’s sixth annual midseason awards have gained universal respect, and it’s not just another award show that puffs out its chest and tells everyone to love it.

Look, don’t take it from us. One recipient the other night was overheard saying, “This is the greatest night of my life, and I have three kids and a wife.”

So if you couldn’t get tickets into the sold-out event or you missed the live coverage on TV, here’s a recap of the 2017 Blitzies.

The G.O.A.T. Blitzie

For the best first half

Quarterback Tom Brady won this award for the sixth consecutive time, to the point where the committee had to change the name last year. The 40-year-old has been so good that the Patriots traded both of his backups, and he’ll be in the MVP conversation in December for the eighth consecutive season. Brady leads the NFL in completions (206), attempts (309) and yards (2,541), and he has 16 touchdowns to two interceptions. The one-man wolf pack is on pace for the second 5,000-yard season of his career.

The Bob Saget Award

For the most offensive player (non-Tom Brady section)

Tight end Rob Gronkowski is being challenged unlike any season of his career without Julian Edelman to take the pressure off him over the middle, but Gronk is second on the Patriots with 34 catches and 509 yards, and he is tied for the lead with five touchdowns. Defenses are doubling him with more aggressiveness and physicality, and Gronk isn’t getting much relief because backup Dwayne Allen has been a non-factor. Gronk’s teammates are benefitting from his presence, and if he plays the final eight games at this level, he could be a first-team All-Pro and earn that full $10.75 million salary.

The Kevin Garnett Award

For the best defensive player

Defensive lineman Trey Flowers encounters a steady stream of double teams, but he is still consistently the Patriots’ best pass rusher even though the sacks are down. He is tied for the team lead with 3.5 quarterback takedowns, though he doesn’t have one since Week 5, and he also has a team-best 11 quarterback hits, nine pressures and two batted passes. But wait, there’s more: Flowers has a forced fumble, two run stuffs and a drawn holding penalty.

The Andy Bernard Award

For the most improved character

Running back James White was a healthy scratch in 16-of-19 games as a rookie, and he is on his way to another record-setting season. White broke out last year, so the “most improved” label might be more of a lifetime achievement award than anything specific to this season. But really, it comes down to this: White was a complementary piece last year, and he is now a certified weapon. White leads the Patriots with 43 catches to go along with 365 yards and a touchdown, and he could be the first running back in the Tom Brady era to lead the Patriots in receptions. Tony Collins caught 77 passes in 1986 to set the franchise record for catches in a season by a running back, and that could fall soon.

The Mosi’s Mooses Award

For being an ace special teamer who blossomed elsewhere

The Patriots acquired cornerback Johnson Bademosi from the Lions prior to Week 1 to fill Matthew Slater’s role while the special teams captain was recovering from a torn hamstring. The five-year veteran had three starts on his resume and wasn’t used on defense this season until Week 6, when he leapfrogged Jonathan Jones and filled in for a concussed Stephon Gilmore. Bademosi’s physicality was well-established, but he really impressed his teammates with his defensive intellect. Quarterbacks throwing in his direction were 9-of-12 for 104 yards, and he added a third-down pass breakup. The Patriots were probably concerned about their depth at corner with Gilmore and Eric Rowe (torn groin) out, but Bademosi added confidence in case he is needed again.

The Michael Scott Award

For the best boss

Running backs coach Ivan Fears has been instrumental in White’s development and had to keep Dion Lewis’ confidence intact early in the season when the offense looked elsewhere. The Patriots also had big plans in store for Rex Burkhead before his Week 2 rib injury. All the while, Mike Gillislee still leads the Pats with 98 carries, 344 yards and four touchdowns. The Patriots rank 15th in rushing, and White, Lewis and Burkhead have combined for 65 catches, 551 yards and two touchdowns.

The ‘Who Else but Gronk’ Award

For the Gronkiest Gronk moment

When the defense was struggling, who did they call for help? Gronk, obviously. Rob Gronkowski soared with the seagulls to break up Deshaun Watson’s Hail Mary in the end zone to close out a wild victory against the Texans.

The Dodgeball Award

“Bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off.”

Bill Belichick’s decision to trade Jimmy Garoppolo was shocking, and no one will know for quite some time if it was the right call. In the short term, Tom Brady will need to stay healthy despite already being banged up and barreling toward a career-high 42 sacks. In the long term, if Brady does indeed continue to play at a high level — or just close to it — for another five years, it really won’t matter what Garoppolo turns into with the 49ers. It won’t look like such a great move if Brady goes down this season and Brian Hoyer can’t keep the playoff seeding intact, or if Brady only plays for another couple years and Garoppolo turns into a star. But again, there’s no way to forecast any of that right now and Garoppolo wasn’t going to sign an extension to be a backup, regardless of the money involved.

Runaway Bus Award

For the most speed

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks is the fastest weapon at Tom Brady’s disposal since Randy Moss, and the speedster has paid dividends with 33 catches for a team-high 563 yards and three touchdowns, including the nifty game-winner against the Texans. Cooks has a chance to set a career high in receiving yards, and his 17.1 yards per catch is on pace for the best mark of his career and leads the NFL among players with at least 30 catches. To think, he should be even better in the coming months.

The Henry Rowengartner Award

For the Rookie of the Year

Defensive end Deatrich Wise has been a godsend for a defensive edge that lost Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long to free agency, Rob Ninkovich to retirement, Derek Rivers to a torn ACL, Shea McClellin to an injury and Kony Ealy to misguided expectations. Wise is third on the Pats with three sacks, plus second to Flowers with 10 quarterback hits and seven pressures. He also has a run stuff, batted pass and drawn penalty. Something to monitor, though: Wise’s playing time skyrocketed the past three weeks and his production dipped, so it’s vital to keep him as fresh as possible.

The Big Turkey Award

For the unit that needs to improve by Thanksgiving

Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said he, his line and Bill Belichick aren’t happy with the group’s performance this season, which should be obvious considering the beating Tom Brady has taken. It’s even more shocking because they’ve got the same group as the successful unit from 2016. Nate Solder, who is clearly dealing with some personal challenges, allowed four sacks in the first three games but hasn’t surrendered one since then. Marcus Cannon got rolled up during the first series of the season and has allowed 6.5 sacks, which is already more than all of last year. Solder has been playing better, and maybe Cannon will benefit from some extra rest. If the tackles turn it around, it’ll make life easier for everyone.

The Buddy the Elf Award

For the guys who need to be at their best by Christmas

Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore have been inconsistent. The Patriots have gotten by without them at their best, but the bottom line is they need to get there in time for the playoffs to solidify an improved defense. Gilmore had his best performance while apparently playing through a concussion against the Buccaneers, so he was trending in the right direction before his three-game absence. Butler has allowed five touchdowns this season, one more than he yielded in 19 games in 2016, and the last three games have been a microcosm of his season. He has been largely brilliant, but he has given up a touchdown in each outing — no one would blame him for the Julio Jones catch. Butler just has to shake off that one bad play per game.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Patriots' D at midpoint: Trey Flowers' value to unit has never been higher

The Patriots will need Trey Flowers to be productive and stay healthy in the second half. AP Photo/Steven Senne

By Mike Reiss
November 3, 2017

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When looking at the New England Patriots’ defense at the midpoint of the season, and using playing-time statistics as a prism to do so, one thought jumps to the forefront: Where would the Patriots be without defensive end Trey Flowers?

The 2015 fourth-round draft choice has led the way at arguably the thinnest position on the roster,
and his continued health will be critical for the team in the second half of the season.

Patriots followers could always count on the edge being set with Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich, but that hasn’t been a guarantee this year. It’s why the potential return of the retired Ninkovich has been speculated in media circles, especially after third-round draft choice Derek Rivers tore his ACL in the preseason, linebacker/end Dont’a Hightower tore his pectoral muscle Oct. 22, and trade acquisition Kony Ealy didn’t pan out.

The Patriots’ dangerously thin personnel at end leads off the midpoint snap-count analysis for the D:


Trey Flowers: 91.1

Deatrich Wise Jr.: 51.4
Cassius Marsh: 50.1

Wise has been Patriots’ most productive rookie, with his primary competition coming from undrafted defensive tackle Adam Butler. His work against veteran tackle Russell Okung in Sunday’s win over the Chargers highlighted how his long arms and developing pass-rush repertoire can give even experienced blockers some problems. He looks like a keeper. Meanwhile, Marsh’s best fit appears to be as a nickel rusher. When asked to hold the edge on early downs, there have been some struggles.

Lawrence Guy: 55.4
Malcom Brown: 52.7
Adam Butler: 39.5
Alan Branch: 28.7

Brown, the 2015 first-round pick, has notably improved from last season while Branch was a healthy scratch in Tampa Bay on Oct. 5 but has rebounded to contribute in what is essentially a three-man rotation with Guy and Brown. Butler is learning on the job and appears to have a promising future.

Kyle Van Noy: 95.8
Dont’a Hightower: 44.8
Elandon Roberts: 41.8
David Harris: 8.9
Marquis Flowers: 6.0
Harvey Langi: 1.1
Trevor Reilly: 0.6

Van Noy’s emergence as a signal-caller and every-down player wasn’t projected coming into the season, but Hightower’s injuries (knee, then pectoral) played a part in it unfolding that way. Van Noy’s versatility to sometimes line up at the end of the line of scrimmage puts him in position to fill some of what Hightower did on D. Roberts is a disruptive run-blitzer and hard-hitter, while Harris is finally starting to see the field more; after playing just seven snaps in the first six games, he was on for 19 and 21 each of the last weeks.

Malcolm Butler: 96.2
Stephon Gilmore: 61.8
Johnson Bademosi: 34.8
Jonathan Jones: 32.7
Eric Rowe: 17.0

The play of Gilmore and Rowe early in the season wasn’t up to projected expectations, which led to some rocky moments. With Rowe missing the past four games (groin) and Gilmore the past three (concussion), it has helped build more depth and Bademosi has stepped in and played well, while Jones has twice been lauded by Bill Belichick for his knack for finishing plays. For those who say availability is as important as ability, what’s not to love about Butler? These are his playing-time stats each of the past three years: 98.8, 96.7 and 96.2. The latter number would be even higher if he wasn’t used as the No. 3 option against the Saints on Sept. 17.

Devin McCourty: 99.8
Patrick Chung: 83.0
Duron Harmon: 81.9
Jordan Richards: 24.0
Rob Gronkowski: 0.2

It’s hard to imagine there is another team in the NFL with three safeties who have all topped 80-percent playing time, which reflects what Belichick sometimes says: The Patriots run their big nickel (3 safety package) as much as any team in the NFL. Chung’s versatility to cover tight ends and receivers in the slot is an impressive aspect of his skill set. That’s not a typo: Gronkowski lands in this category after playing one snap, defending a late Hail Mary attempt from Deshaun Watson.

For Jack Hoffman and Rex Burkhead, inspiration is mutual

November 2, 2017
By Angelique Fiske

It was an unlikely friendship from the start, but then again, many of the best are.

A 6-year-old boy and his favorite University of Nebraska running back spent a day together in the fall of 2011 -- eating lunch, touring the football facilities and racing on the field. As a kid growing up in Nebraska, Jack Hoffman looked up to Rex Burkhead as his role model on the football field, but just months after his family gave him his first Burkhead jersey, Rex would come to mean so much more.

When he was just five-years-old, doctors found a brain tumor and were unable to remove the entire tumor safely. So before Jack's second brain surgery in Boston, his family took a chance.

They reached out to the University of Nebraska to see if Jack could meet Rex, and that afternoon together cemented a friendship that neither could have predicted.

Six years later, Rex runs as an NFL player, still wearing the red bracelet Jack gave him the first time they met that reads, "Team Jack Pray." Jack and the Hoffman family still play a huge role in Rex's life and vice versa, as Rex sits on the board of directors of the Team Jack Foundation, and last Sunday when the Patriots took on the Los Angeles Chargers, the Hoffman family was there to cheer him on.

Jack had another MRI scheduled in Boston, and his dad Andy said they planned it so they could be at Gillette Stadium, their first time at a football game in Foxboro. As the skies opened up before the game, the Hoffmans stood on the sideline, putting on ponchos and taking in the moment.

“It’s really just an amazing experience to be able to tie all of this together. Rex has been a very special part of our journey as a family. He’s been with us starting with some of the darkest days of our lives,” Andy said.

Back in 2011, just days before Jack’s second surgery, Rex and the Huskers were trailing to Ohio State late in the game. With Jack as his motivation, Rex pushed himself, scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns to help Nebraska comeback with a win.

And while the Patriots didn’t need a comeback on Sunday, Rex had one of the best games of his NFL career, catching all seven passes thrown his way for 68 receiving yards. He career highs in both of those categories, and all with Jack and his family cheering from the stands.

For Rex, the friendship he has forged with Jack and his family has been an inspiration.

“It means everything. For me, it’s an encouraging and inspiring thing just to see how Jack is battling,” Rex said the following day. “He knows what he is going through, but he continues to fight and stay positive and enjoy his life. That’s special and a huge inspiration for me if I have anything going on in my life to look at it a lot differently.”

The connection goes far beyond the football field. As a board member for the Team Jack Foundation, Rex has used his platform to raise awareness for pediatric brain cancer, hosting fundraisers and even using the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats initiative to shine a light on it.

“I can’t even really put it into words. He’s been so supportive throughout our whole journey,” said Jack’s mother, Bri. “I can’t really put a price tag on what he’s done for our family and for our foundation. It’s been amazing.”

“What he’s done with his platform is simply amazing,” Andy said. “To me, Rex sets the example of what others could do … It doesn’t matter what the cause is. I would encourage all athletes to look at Rex Burkhead and try to emulate him. Even as a grown adult, I need to be more like Rex Burkhead. He’s someone everybody should look at and say, ‘That’s what you should be like. You should grow up and try to be like him.’”

To learn more about the Team Jack Foundation, visit its website.

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