Friday, July 13, 2018

Trey Flowers one of PFF's highest graded defenders from 2015 NFL Draft

By Tanya Ray Fox
July 12, 2018

Trey Flowers had a disappointing rookie debut for the New England Patriots back in 2015 after a shoulder injury kept him out for most of the season, but in the two seasons since, he continued to grow into his role on the defensive line. Now he’s one of its most important players heading into 2018.

The 24-year-old defensive end was taken 101st overall in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, and he earned an impressive 87.8 grade for his 2017 season from Pro Football Focus, making him the third-highest graded defender from his draft class behind Adrian Amos (Bears) and Landon Collins (Giants), both safeties.

Isn’t it just like Belichick to grab a player like that in the fourth round?

Flowers’ 13.5 sacks over the last two seasons leads the team by a large margin, and as they try to build a new and improved pass rush this year, they will have to rely on Flowers consistency. Luckily he’ll have some help on the other side from Adrian Clayborn, who will meet high expectations in New England after having a career-best season with the Atlanta Falcons in 2017.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Detroit Lions: Jeff Davidson; Lions’ secret weapon

Jeff Davidson has a history of successful running games and should be able to help the Lions take the necessary steps forward to take this offense to a whole new level.

By Zack Moran
July 8, 2018

Stop me if you have heard this one before; the Detroit Lions’ running game has been atrocious for a while now. It seems like you can’t go a day without that being said from everyone concerning the Lions. The Lions have signed LeGarrette Blount and drafted Kerryon Johnson this year. They also drafted Frank Ragnow to solidify the offensive line and Tyrell Crosby for much-needed depth. One move that deserves more attention; the hire of Jeff Davidson as the offensive line coach.

When Jim Caldwell was removed as head coach, there was only one other coach to fired along with him; and that was former offensive line coach Ron Prince. With all of the upgrades along the line, Prince was never able to put everything together successfully. Some reports even came out saying he was not well-regarded in the locker room and he rubbed the veterans the wrong way. In lieu of Prince’s firing, Jeff Davidson became the new offensive line coach when Matt Patricia was brought in as head coach.

Davidson’s rushing success

Jeff Davidson has had some success through his time as an NFL coach. His most recent stint with the Denver Broncos as the offensive line coach; they averaged 115.8 yards per game on the ground which came in at 12th in the league. His other stints with the Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, and the San Diego Chargers; all featured a strong rushing attack.

My biggest reason for optimism for Davidson is the consistent rushing success wherever he goes. He was able to take bottom-ranked rushing teams and transform them into a respectable rushing team time and time again. If you want to get an idea of Davidson’s track record; check out Nate Atkins from article. At the end of the day, through Davidson’s time as an offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, offenses averaged 10th most yards per carry in the league. Also, had multiple 100-yard rushers in a season, sometimes even in the same game. He will be the much-needed spark that will bring the rushing game out of purgatory.

Help to the passing game

Along with helping the running game, he might be able to solve the sack problem as well. Matthew Stafford was sacked 47 times last year. For the amount of money the Lions are investing in Stafford, that is completely unacceptable. Sacks are drive killers and run the risk of your quarterback getting injured. We need Stafford to stay healthy in order to have a successful season is a complete understatement. If Davidson is able to bring a simpler block scheme into the mix, it will allow Stafford to do what he does best in the passing game and shred defenses with his arm.

Also with an already solid passing attack in place, the running game just needs to be average. It’ll make the offense more well-rounded and make defenses respect every aspect of the Lions’ offense instead of just the passing game.

Davidson is the Lions’ secret weapon when it comes to the offense. The number of resources invested into the rushing attack and Davidson’s successful running pedigree, the Lions should have no problem running the ball this year. Also, with the hopes of keeping Stafford cleaner this year, he will help this offense become one of the best in the league.

Friday, June 29, 2018

A big payday awaits Redskins guard Brandon Scherff

Brandon Scherff could be in line for a big payday thanks to a rival’s recent contract. (Doug Kapustin/Associated Press)

By Kareem Copeland
June 28, 2018

Washington Redskins guard Brandon Scherff had to be wearing a massive smile when Zack Martin signed an extension earlier this month.

The Dallas Cowboys guard landed a six-year, $84 million deal, with $40 million guaranteed, to become the highest-paid player at the position in the NFL, additional proof of the increasing value teams are placing on guards. The importance of the quarterback and the NFL’s continued development as a passing league have funneled more money to those who protect the franchise player, but offensive tackles are no longer the only ones landing hefty contracts.

Scherff can patiently await his own lucrative deal. He has a great case for cashing in.

As he enters his fourth NFL season, Scherff already is a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and Pro Football Focus ranked him ninth among the league’s guards last season. Martin ranked first; Andrew Norwell, who signed a five-year, $66.5 million contract (including $30 million guaranteed) with the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency, was fourth. Norwell is the second-highest-paid guard in the league.

Scherff is still on his rookie deal and will make $705,000 in base salary in 2018, according to salary website He’ll take home more than $6 million from signing and roster bonuses.

Scherff’s salary rises to $12.525 million in 2019 if the team exercises his fifth-year option, but the Redskins would like to secure his services for the long term. The team doesn’t want to go into the final year with the 2015 draft’s fifth pick on the edge of unrestricted free agency. Preserving salary cap space for Scherff is likely a reason Washington took a conservative approach to free agency this offseason.

When tackles Trent Williams and Morgan Moses are healthy, the Redskins have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL, and they need it to protect the $94 million investment they just made in quarterback Alex Smith. There’s also new hope for a previously floundering running game with the addition of running back Derrius Guice and the development of Chris Thompson.

Scherff is off to a strong start to his NFL career, and offensive line coach Bill Callahan said the 26-year-old is still getting better.

“His work ethic is off the charts,” Callahan said. “He’s a guy that continually challenges you as a coach and every day wants to get better, wants to know specifically what he needs to work on to improve. We go over that list continually.

“He’s a guy that you just love to coach because you tell him one time and he gets it and he’s got it. You can do a lot of different things with him because he has that type of versatility and that type of adaptability as well.”

Monday, June 25, 2018

Q&A: Olympian and Super Bowl winner Nate Ebner on how rugby and NFL compare

With rookies Christian Scotland-Williamson and Jordan Mailata both attempting to make the switch from rugby codes to the NFL, ESPN's Mike Reiss caught up with Nate Ebner -- a Super Bowl winner with the New England Patriots and a U.S. Olympic Sevens rugby player -- on the challenges they will face to make the grade. Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

By Mike Reiss
June 22, 2018

Mike Reiss: What did you find most challenging about the transition from one sport to the other?

Nate Ebner: "That's a big question. I grew up playing football. I didn't play in high school. But I've been around it; I watched it every day. It's part of our culture. I transitioned in college too; I was in my second year in college and I had three years of eligibility before the NFL when I walked on, so I had some time to do it at Ohio State.

"That first year was actually a humbling experience, because I thought I would be able to go in and lean on my athletic ability a bit more. But learning the ins and outs and stuff that has to do with football -- offensive formations as a defensive player, and all the different packages, I could go on and on about that. It's basically a lot to learn. It was hard. You play rugby -- there are 15 guys on the field and you don't sub [out].

"I play rugby union, Jordan Mailata plays rugby league, and that's different. Rugby league is a different version of rugby.

"But again, the transition for me was a humbling one. There's a lot to learn, but you just have to grind away at it. That's the biggest thing I can say. My biggest learning years were definitely my rookie year in the NFL. I played three years of college football and didn't really grasp it like I did in my rookie year. So to come straight into the NFL right away with no real experience, it's going to be challenging [for Mailata and Scotland-Williamson]. It's challenging enough as it is just to make it, for everyone, even if you grew up playing the sport your whole life."

Nate Ebner left the New England Patriots for a spell in 2016 to compete for the United States sevens rugby team when the sport made its debut at the Rio Olympics. PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images

MR: What surprised you? Something maybe you didn't see coming?

NE: "The amount of studying that you have to do. In rugby, and coming from all my experiences, we studied film a little bit but not to that extent; it's a game where you go out and practice. The amount of film study was a surprise, how much detail went into it. Knowing what I know now, I realized it's what you need to do to gain every edge you can on your opponent and totally understand situations.

"Another surprise is that people who really understand football, it's almost like a second language. There's so much verbiage, and that verbiage changes from team to team and can even change from week to week within the same team. But there's definitely a football language out there that you have to learn and understand. That was news to me as well."

MR: How much time did it take to adjust to the pace of the game?

NE: "It felt fast at first, but that's because I didn't know what I was doing. If you do anything for the first time that requires speed, it's going to feel fast until you understand it. Until you get used to it, it feels like everything is flying.

"The biggest thing I learned is that you can't have any false movement in the plays. In rugby, you can afford a couple wasted steps here and there. The game's constantly flowing, you don't really get a break, so people are tired. In football, you can't afford to be going the wrong direction or take false steps. No wasted movement -- that was new."

MR: What skill sets from football lent themselves to rugby?

NE: "That's such a tough thing to answer. For me going back to rugby like I did, I would say the biggest thing that helped was just the explosiveness and strength you gain training in football, and football made me a more explosive rugby player. It's a different ball, it's a different skill set, even the way you tackle and play defense can be different. People love to correlate the two because they're contact sports and you tackle, but they're also very different sports too. Man-to-man coverage is nothing like being in a ruck and vice versa, there are plenty of examples."

MR: How challenging was the mental switch from one sport to the other?

NE: "For me going from rugby to football -- I had a lot to learn. I couldn't just let the game flow and play because your footwork is important, your eye control is important, what you're thinking about in certain situations is important.

"I think the speed of playing in the NFL helped me slow the game of rugby down. But even with that, my first World Sevens Series event that I did in Singapore felt like the game speed was flying, compared to when I was in the [2016] Olympics just a couple months later. So it still took some getting used to.

"The hardest part for me going from football back to rugby wasn't mental, it was cardiovascular. Trying to transition from six years away from rugby and playing in the NFL where I get a break after six seconds of playing with all-out effort, to having to continually move -- tackle, pass, get up, run, ruck; all those things -- that cardio was a monster.

"It's unlike anything most football players have experienced, and would be a very different kind of challenge to do what those men do on the Sevens team day in and day out. Again, another part of the game that is very different."

Nate Ebner runs on to the field at Super Bowl LI in Houston flanked by Danny Amendola (left) and Tom Brady (right), seven months after playing rugby at the Olympics. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

MR: How did a rugby tactics book compare with a playbook?

NE: "This is another aspect of rugby that, to me, is more like basketball. Whatever you think of a basketball playbook, I'd say rugby is more similar to that. A football playbook is on a completely different level.

"A lot of basketball is running down the court -- fast breaks, 3-on-2s, 2-on-1s, some double teams so try to find the open guy. Rugby is a lot like that -- quick turnover, fast break, we're going the other way; try to find the overlap, try to find the 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 situation. It's very similar in that regard.

"Every once in a while you will have the set piece, like a half-court play, where you run a certain play and it's not an exact play where something specific has to happen. It's kind of like there are suggestions off this play, like a pick-and-roll [in basketball]. You can keep the ball, or shoot it, or hit the roll guy. You have to take what the defense gives you and rugby is the exact same as that."

MR: How did you find the different shape of the balls?

NE: "I grew up with a football and a rugby ball, sitting side by side. If you're an athlete, we do drills with tennis balls all the time, it doesn't matter -- the ball, you catch it."

MR: How does the buzz of playing in the Olympics compare with playing in the NFL?

NE: "To me, they're completely two different things. Playing in the NFL is a great experience, walking out to play in a Super Bowl, for a championship, that's what you do it for. It is the most-watched event in all of sports. It's amazing to be a part of, special in its own right.

"But walking out with a United States badge on your chest and being on a completely different continent and walking out for the opening ceremonies and having a different country cheer for you because you're representing the United States -- and getting a chill because you know what you represent, what's on your chest and what you're there to do and how this thing is so much bigger than you -- that's an unmatched feeling in and of itself. They're both awesome."

MR: Any final thoughts?

NE: "Professional sports require so much more than just athletic ability. There are going to be challenges along the way. Some people have a lot of potential. This kid [Mailata] is 6 feet 8 inches, 350 pounds and runs like a tight end. That's some God-gifted size and ability. Just look at his highlights. So he has a start right there.

"But he's going to be competing with guys who are similar size and they know what they're doing. I think it's a hard transition. There is a lot to football. But it's doable. I've done it, others have done it. But it's hard, a lot of guys have failed, too.

"It's challenging at the top of anything. You can talk about business, art, sports, etc. The best in the world are the best for a reason. So it's tough... but you can do it if you work hard enough."

Trey Flowers projected to make Pro Bowl in 2018

June 22, 2018

If he hadn't already, Trey Flowers looks like he's going to blossom in 2018.

In a piece projecting various players throughout the league to make it to the Pro Bowl for the first time in their careers on, former Cowboys VP and current senior NFL analyst Gil Brandt has tapped the Patriots defensive end as New England's candidate.

Here's his explanation and breakdown of Flowers' game:

Flowers has led the Patriots in sacks in each of the past two seasons (with 7.0 in 2016 and 6.5 last season), and he was one of just four Patriots to play every defensive snap in Super Bowl LII, which further shows you his value to this team. He has 34-inch arms and an 85-inch wingspan, two traits that are very helpful to a pass rusher.

Statistically, Flowers hasn't put up the numbers of the elite pass rushers in the NFL, but he plays every bit the part of it within the Patriots' defense. The Arkansas product was drafted by New England back in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but really didn't start making an impact until 2016 after dealing with a shoulder injury.

Flowers wasn't kept a secret for long as he was able to make his presence known on the biggest stage during Super Bowl LI against the Falcons. The pass rusher was able to sack Matt Ryan on a critical second down with 3:55 to play to essentially keep New England's hopes of their historic 25-point comeback alive. For that game, he totaled 2.5 sacks and his rise to notoriety began, despite his somewhat underrated sack being overshadowed by Dont'a Hightower's strip sack of Ryan and Julian Edelman shoe-string catch.

Flowers has been budding for quite some time, so he does seem like the right call by Brandt. And it couldn't be better timing as he's set to hit free agency this upcoming offseason.

Another sleeper candidate could end being Chris Hogan given that he'll likely receive more looks from Tom Brady during the first quarter of the season with Julian Edelman suspended as well as the quarterback still works to build chemistry with his new pass catchers. While he's been a clutch player for New England since arriving to Foxboro, Hogan could now be in position to put up the statistical numbers in 2018. It's certainly a long shot, but I wouldn't rule it out entirely.

Speaking of Edelman, if he does lose his appeal of his four game PED suspension, then he would be ruled ineligible for that honor, per league rules.

The rule states, "In addition to the suspension imposed on him, any Player suspended for a violation of the Policy will be ineligible for selection to the Pro Bowl, or to receive any other honors or awards from the League or Players Association, for the season in which the violation is upheld (i.e. following nay appeals) and in which the suspension is served."

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Our Dynamic Duo

June 19, 2018

"2018 Michigan Heavyweight Camp brought in one of the best! Great working with Stephen Neal 2x NCAA Champ, '99 Freestyle World Champ and 3x Super Bowl Champ with the New England Patriots!"

-Adam Coon

Friday, June 15, 2018

Bodybuilding Heroics Highlight College Football Talking Season

June 14, 2018
By paulmbanks

The World Cup has now arrived to help fill the void of the baseball-only doldrums that mark this portion of the annual sporting calendar. Off course, the United States of America didn’t qualify for this one, so for many sports fans, this period will remain dull until football season gets here.

At the very least, football talking season will be here soon, as it’s only a month or so away now. Football talking season arrives when college football media days begin in mid July.

A consistent staple of these prolonged media sessions are the glorious tales of bodybuilding heroics. Discussions of power cleans, incline press, squats, bodybuilding shoes, weightlifting gloves, protein consumption, added mass, repping out and maxing out are what these conversations are all about.

This discourse is a lot more fun and interesting than your typical media day interviews, which are dominated by corporate cliches, mind-numbing pablum and worthless platitudes. When you talk shop on bodybuilding and weightlifting, you’re dealing with numbers, metrics, facts and figures, not coachspeak catch phrases that would fit only a motivational cat poster.

Two past tales of weight room heroism remind of us what is to come in 2018.

In 2017, Northwestern Wildcats defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster was able to do 37 reps of 225 on the bench press, which was a higher number than any NFL Draft prospect at the Scouting Combine that year.

In 2014, former Iowa Hawkeyes Offensive Tackle Brandon Scherff power cleaned 443 pounds three times.

“He’s not just a weight room freak,” Iowa Hawkeyes tailback Weisman said of Scherff. “He’s a football freak.”

Indeed he was then and he is now. Scherff went on to be selected as the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, and thus ended the Big Ten’s long drought of having no top ten overall picks.

The streak dated all the way back to 2008, when Michigan OT Jake Long went 1st overall.

Scherff made the all rookie team, and has now started 46 games in the NFL. He’s made the Pro Bowl twice in his first three seasons. Audio of the Brandon Scherff interview can be found on Sound Cloud at this link.

Moving on to Lancaster, he’s a prime example of how the capacity to bench press one’s own body weight is an accurate marker of good physical fitness.

In 2017, we learned at media day that Lancaster can bench 450 pounds, which is 140 above the 310 that he’s currently listed. For comparison’s sake, 300 is typically regarded to be an elite bench press max out for a layperson. You really have to be pretty “do you even lift, bro?!” to even get anywhere near that benchmark (pun intended)

Lancaster could also deadlift 740 pounds, and also possesses a broad jump of 9’4” and a 27-inch vertical. It’s easy to see why last summer saw Lancaster named #32 in the nation on the list of Sports Illustrated’s “workout warriors.”

His former Northwestern teammate Godwin Igwebuike described Lancaster’s ability to bench press 225 37 times as “scary.”

The weight of 225 (two plates on each side, a “plate” is the vernacular for a 45 pound weight, as it equals the weight of the bar) is considered the football standard for “repping out.” It’s the level at which one tests muscular endurance by trying to execute as many repetitions as possible.

Repping out measures endurance while maxing out is to test pure brute strength. Lancaster believes he’s much stronger and better in one area than the other.

“I feel like my repping out is a lot better than than the max, but 450 I think is still pretty good,” he said before later describing what’s going through his mind when he’s on the bench doing work.

“You’re in the zone, it’s just about you and the bar. It’s a fight, it’s a battle with yourself- can I do this extra rep? One more, one more, one more, one more.”

Audio of the Tyler Lancaster interview can be found on Sound Cloud at this link. Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald spoke of Lancaster’s tremendous work ethic, not just in the weight room, but all around.

”He’s always been a great worker in the weight room, and a great player, but to see him kind of take it to the next level has been really spectacular. He’s not a guy that says a lot. He’s a guy that speaks more through his actions,” said Fitzgerald.

“He’s done that since he got here and to see the relentless nature in which he attacks every day is really special.”

Lancaster did not get drafted by the NFL this past spring, but he was signed by the Green Bay Packers. Facing long odds, he will get his opportunity to make the squad when training camp opens up in July.

Jamie Meder "one of the best run players in the NFL"

From Steve Doerschuk's "82 days before opener, Browns coaches say all systems go"
June 14, 2018

BEREA — In his spare time, Bob Wylie flies airplanes, performs magic tricks and plays musical instruments.

Wylie’s full-time employer is looking for the magic that might make an 0-16 team fly out of an era whose theme song has been Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

The Browns’ 67-year-old offensive line coach has a body-shape and bearing akin to Pop Fisher, the crusty manager from filmdom’s “The Natural,” who needed a miracle to revive his baseball team.

Old Pop’s dreams came true when aging Roy Hobbs fell out of the sky doing a superb Babe Ruth impersonation. It’s the other way around for Wylie, who has lost aging Joe Thomas, the best player from the Browns’ expansion era.

Yet, Wylie is optimistic he can get a left tackle ready in time to help the Browns do their take on coming out of nowhere.

“We have 83 days until we play the Pittsburgh Steelers on the ninth of September,” Wylie said as minicamp dispersed Thursday. “If we can’t get it done in 83 days, it probably can’t be done.”

All around him, Wylie’s colleagues popped up with examples of why something amazing can be done.

As a No. 1 overall pick from the 2017 draft, isn’t defensive end Myles Garrett supposed to be amazing?

“If he stays healthy,” defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said, “watch out.

“Earlier in camp, when we were running sprints, Myles didn’t run with the defensive linemen. He ran with the DBs and the wide receivers. Here’s this 280-pound lineman and they were having a hard time keeping up with him. I am just looking, going, ‘Wow.’ ”

Williams admits he loves Bradley Chubb, the defensive end half of Browns Nation seemed to want as the No. 4 overall pick. Williams laughs at Chubb’s “weakness” — he would have no chance trying to cover Antonio Brown. The Browns sorely needed a cover corner and spent the No. 4 on former Nordonia and Ohio State standout Denzel Ward.

Williams raved at how quickly Ward endeared himself to Browns veterans with his attitude. His talent?

“He’s one of the best press-cover guys I’ve seen at this level,” said Williams, who first worked in the NFL before Bill Belichick was hired to be coach of the Browns.

Williams said holdover Emmanuel Ogbah is more than a consolation prize after passing on Chubb.

“Knock on wood,” said Williams, “if Ogbah stays healthy, he’s going to really stand out this year.”

Williams seems jazzed about so much of what might be in his second year as coordinator.

By way of example, he called Jamie Meder, one of only two defenders (along with Christian Kirksey) who has played more than three years with the team, “one of the best run players in the NFL.”

Of safety Jabrill Peppers, who spent his rookie year on the warning track in center field, Williams said, “It’s so much fun having him in the box.”

Safeties coach Jerod Kruse said he sees Peppers living up to his status as a Round 1 pick.

“He’s better for having had that experience [of playing so deep],” Kruse said. “He was seeing it from the top down.”

Former Alabama quarterback Freddie Kitchens, the Browns’ new running backs coach, was hit by a vision in the final minicamp practice. It happened while running back Carlos Hyde was timing a run to explode through a crease at the exact right moment.

“The way he ran the ball there looked like the guy in Pittsburgh,” Kitchens said.

“The guy in Pittsburgh” is Le’Veon Bell, a No. 48 overall draft pick out Michigan State in 2013 now regarded as one of the top three running backs in the league. Hyde was a No. 57 overall draft pick out of Ohio State in 2014 who started for the San Francisco 49ers.

Kitchens, who spent recent years with Bruce Arians in Arizona, also has been handed rookie No. 35 overall draft pick Nick Chubb. Kitchens alluded to the fact Browns general manager John Dorsey has never been involved with drafting a running back as high as 35.
“I don’t know that John factored that in,” Kitchens said. “I know that Nick was sitting there at 35, and that John loved him, and I loved him.”

Speedster Antonio Callaway is supposed to be a fourth-round steal if he can get past off-field issues. He has looked the part when he has practiced, coaches say.

“The Callaway kid is stepping up,” said new special teams coordinator Amos Jones, eyeing the young wideout as a punt returner.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley suggested Tyrod Taylor is more than the latest starting quarterback.

“Tyrod has done a tremendous, tremendous job establishing himself as the leader of this offense,” Haley said. “His car is in its parking spot every morning when I get here and it’s there when I’m leaving.
“We threw a lot at him. I’ve been really impressed.”

Linebackers coach Blake Williams said he loves where his unit might be headed with Jamie Collins returning from injury and Mychal Kendricks signing on after starting for the Eagles in a Super Bowl win.

Williams talked as if there is no odd man out, even though someone will have to be in terms of playing time.

Of Pro Bowl “Mike” linebacker Joe Schobert, Williams said, “I feel like he grew three years in one year.”

He said Kirksey is so good at pass coverage that there’s no sense in replacing him with a safety on some passing downs.

“We’re really blessed with the linebacking corps,” Williams said.

For what it’s worth, Blake’s father, Gregg, has called his son “the best young coach I’ve ever had.”

Can things actually turn quickly for the Browns? Last year was so bad.

The tone among coaches coming out of minicamp was all good.

Josh Cribbs, who is still strapping on the cleats to perform his new role as an intern return-game coach, sounded ready to pull on some boxing gloves.

“I get offended when people talk bad about us,” Cribbs said.

There was no chance of Cribbs being offended as long as he hung out in Berea on Thursday.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The Patriot Way is why Rex Burkhead re-signed this offseason

By Tyler Sullivan
June 4, 2018

Rex Burkhead decided to double-down on his time with New England, showing that he's a-ok with the Patriot Way.

After one season with the club in 2017, the Patriots running back hit free agency and had the rest of the NFL in front of him. After a season where he showed his versatility as a runner and pass catcher in New England’s offense totaling 518 combined yards and eight touchdowns, he likely could have carved himself a nice spot with someone else if he so chose.

Instead, he decided to come back to Foxboro inking a three-year contract with the club worth $9.7 million earlier this offseason. While a player re-signing is hardly an uncommon occurrence in the NFL, it's newsworthy in the sense that the Patriots are in the midst of an offseason where stones have been thrown at their dynasty for how their militaristic culture operates.

Eagles lineman Lane Johnson has been one of the louder NFL figures bashing the Patriots this offseason, but just recently former Pats linebacker Cassius Marsh also elected to rip the organization for how much he "hated" his time with the team. That report was later followed up detailing a halftime tirade the linebacker went on during a Patriots blowout of the Raiders down in Mexico City after playing in just two snaps.

While some NFL-ers have decided to condemn playing in Foxboro, Burkhead has embraced it. In fact, he told Henry McKenna of Patriots Wire that it was the winning culture that drew him back there this offseason.

“Privileged to have the opportunity to come back to a place like this, play for an organization like this with this group of guys,” Burkhead told McKenna at Patriots OTAs last week. “It’s the type of atmosphere you want to be in as a competitor as a person that loves the game of football. There’s no better place like this.”

He added: “It was my second time in free agency, so you just go through all the pros and cons or whatever. But this is where I want to be. I wanted to be back here and have another opportunity these next few years to put another run at it.”

And it's that type of mindset that the Patriots must scout when looking to bring players in. While every team will look for players of specific skill-sets to fit their scheme, New England must be even more careful about what kind of player is coming through those doors. If they've shown signs that they can't handle their way of coaching, you'll likely get a Cassius Marsh-like result.

If they nail it, you're looking at a player in Burkhead, whose only mission in 2018 is to do something that the Patriots have been able to do better than every other team in the NFL over the last two-decades: win.

“Make another run,” Burkhead told McKenna of his aspirations this year. “We were so close last year. We have a long way to go, but hopefully we can put ourselves in that position again.”

Spoken like a true Patriot.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Breaking Down the New England Patriots Defensive Line

By David Latham
May 30, 2018

Free agency, the NFL Draft, and organized team activities are officially in the rearview mirror for the New England Patriots. With training camp upcoming, the Patriots office at Last Word on Pro Football has been breaking down the roster position by position. So far, we have covered running backs, wide receivers, offensive line, linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. This week, we breakdown of the New England Patriots defensive line.

Analyzing the New England Patriots Defensive Line

Edge Rushing Locks: Adrian Clayborn, Trey Flowers

The New England Patriots defensive line was arguably the weakest link on defense last season, and Bill Belichick set out to fix that with the addition of former Atlanta Falcon Adrian Clayborn. While Clayborn isn’t the strongest run defender, he’s certainly an upgrade on what the Patriots sent out last season. He thrives as a pass rusher and is great at collapsing the pocket. While he doesn’t always finish the play, he’s still an above-average starter who should drastically improve the defense.

Trey Flowers has proven to be one of the best steals of the 2015 NFL Draft. After missing essentially all of his rookie year, the former fourth-round pick has established himself as the Patriots best defensive linemen the past two seasons. He’s a monster setting the edge against the run and getting to the passer. His numbers were down last year, but that was mostly due to factors outside of his control.

Thanks to an abundance of injuries on the defensive line, Flowers was essentially the only difference-making edge defender for most of the season. Because of this, teams put more effort into blocking Flowers, knowing that the other defenders couldn’t beat the one-on-one matchups. With Clayborne by his side, teams can no longer do this. Expect a big uptick in production out of Flowers this season.

Interior Locks: Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy

The 2017 Patriots were uncharacteristically bad against the run last season. While most of that was due to a lack of edge defenders, the interior run defense hasn’t been great either. Fortunately, Belichick addressed that need by trading for run-stuffer Danny Shelton.

Shelton, the former first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, is an immovable object in the middle of the defensive line. While he offers nothing as a pass rusher, he’s a perfect space eater capable of taking up double-teams. The Patriots love having guys like this, as it frees up their linebackers to make plays in the backfield.

Former first-round pick Malcom Brown has improved every season in the league and has turned into an above-average starter at defensive tackle. He’s solid against the run and is good for about three sacks per season. He won’t be on any Pro Bowl teams, but he’s a solid starter who’s more than capable of doing his job. On a Belichick defense, that’s really all you can ask.

Lawrence Guy was one of the bright spots along the Patriots defensive line last season. After departing the Baltimore Ravens in the off-season, the first-year Patriot recorded 58 tackles and one sack, serving as the team’s second defensive tackle. He was quietly a solid starter for the Patriots, earning a 76.6 ranking from Pro Football Focus.

The New England Patriots love to rotate their defensive tackles, and these three players should see the most snaps. Each one is more than capable of eating space in the middle and stuffing the run. While none will rack up sacks, that’s typically not what the Patriots ask of their interior lineman. This should be a solid unit who can win at the point of attack and do the dirty work in the trenches.

Edge Near-Locks: Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise Jr.

While these players don’t quite have the roster security of Flowers and Clayborn, it would take a lot for either to miss the Week One roster. Thanks to several key injuries along the defensive line, then-rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. saw significant playing time in 2017.

All things considered, the rookie did a great job with the expanded role. Playing as the second edge defender for most of the season, Wise recorded five sacks his rookie year. While he wasn’t an All-Pro by any means, Wise was able to provide somewhat consistent pressure en route to being the best rookie on the 2017 Patriots. If he can improve his play against the run, he’ll be one of the better depth pieces in the league.

New England drastically missed Derek Rivers along the defensive line last season. Rivers went down in the preseason with a season-ending ACL injury, but he’s fully recovered and ready to go. Rivers should be one of the most well-rounded guys on the defensive line, as he has the size to set the edge while his college tape shows a player capable of blowing up tackles on a play-by-play basis.

Nobody knows how missing his rookie year will affect his development, and he may come out of the gate slow because of it. However, if he finds the form which merited a third-round selection, Rivers could push Clayborn and Flowers for a starting spot.

Battling for Depth: Adam Butler, Vincent Valentine, Eric Lee

These three players are battling for a maximum of two roster spaces, and each one brings a different element to the table. As a rookie, Adam Butler outplayed every expectation set upon the undrafted rookie. Butler is a decent interior pass rusher, consistently recording pressure during his rookie year en route to posting two sacks. However, Butler is a subpar run defender and gets pushed around by larger offensive linemen. As of now, he’s nothing more than a situational interior pass rusher.

Vincent Valentine is arguably the best of these three if he’s healthy. However, the 2016 third-round pick missed the entirety of the 2017 season, so health isn’t a guarantee. As a rookie, Valentine was the third or fourth defensive tackle on the roster, normally being used as a run stuffer. While he lacked consistency, he did have a knack for producing big plays (3:59).

Eric Lee is the odd-man out here. After joining the 2017 Patriots via the Buffalo Billspractice squad, Lee enjoyed an improbable two-week stretch of immediate success. In his first two games with the squad, Lee recorded 2.5 sacks, eight tackles, and a red zone interception against his former team.

Unfortunately for Lee, his season went downhill from there. The former Bill recorded only one sack the rest of the season and was a constant liability against the run. He doesn’t have the size to be a defensive lineman or the speed to be a linebacker. He’s not a good enough pass rusher to serve a situational role, and it’s hard to see a fit for him on this team.

Last Word on the Defensive Line

Final Roster (eight) – Adrian Clayborn, Derek Rivers, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler

Of the eight spots, seven of them are fairly set in stone. The eighth spot, for now, goes to Adam Butler, although Vincent Valentine could easily steal it. The reason Butler earns the nod now is that his production is more recent. Valentine missed the entirety of his sophomore season and has health injuries dating back to college. Meanwhile, Butler has remained relatively healthy throughout his career.

Additionally, Butler is capable of lining up inside and outside, while Valentine stays in the middle. Granted, Butler is considerably better on the inside, but he lined up wide on multiple occasions in 2017. Belichick values versatility in his defenders, and that’s especially true with depth pieces. While Malcolm may be gone, chances are there will still be a Butler on the 2018 Patriots.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

NFL Razorbacks: Trey Flowers a household name in New England

By Tyler Davis
May 26, 2018

Outside of quarterbacks and left tackles, perennial edge pass rushers have become premium assets in the NFL. Former Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers found his niche in the big leagues doing exactly that. Paired with another former Razorback, Flowers has made a name for himself on the New England Patriots defensive line.

Selected by Belichick’s Patriots with the 101st overall pick in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Flowers signed a four-year, $2.8 million deal. Despite recording a sack on the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers in his very first preseason game, he missed all but one game of his rookie season after being placed on injured reserve in December 2015.

Flowers came back better than ever, breaking out in his second year. He logged 45 total tackles, seven sacks and a pass deflection in eight starts and 16 appearances. Flowers’ biggest performance of the season came in the grandest of moments as the 6-2, 265-pound defender racked up 2.5 sacks in the Patriots Super Bowl LI victory over the Atlanta Falcons. He followed up his impressive campaign by playing just as well in his third year. Flowers increased his tackle total to 62, including 6.5 sacks, three pass deflections and two forced fumbles in 14 starts. He tied for the most quarterback hits among all edge pass rushers in 2017 and ranked 14th among 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity.

As a member of Columbia High School in Hunstville (Ala.), Flowers earned all-state nods in both his junior and season seasons. An unheralded stud, 247Sports rated Flowers as a three-star prospect and the No. 42 player in the state of Alabama. Receiving offers from only the likes of UAB, Georgia Tech and South Alabama, Flowers went with his biggest opportunity, playing for the Arkansas Razorbacks in the SEC.

Named to the SEC All-Freshman team, Flowers contributed 28 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack in 13 appearances. Starting all 12 contests as a sophomore, he racked up 50 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks, including 3.5 quarterback takedowns against Auburn, earning him SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. Flowers improved to second team All-SEC as a junior in 2013, putting up 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Deciding to return for his senior season, Flowers was named second team All-SEC again by the league’s coaches for his 68 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He ended his college career with five tackles and a sack in a blowout Texas Bowl win over the Longhorns.

Flowers completed his Arkansas career as the SEC’s active leader and tied for second in the country in tackles for loss with 47.5. He also finished ninth in Razorback history in sacks with 18. At the 2015 NFL Combine, Flowers was a top performer in the vertical and broad jumps, measuring at 36.5 inches and 10 feet-1 inch, respectively. Though he didn’t increase his draft stuck much by returning for his senior year, Flowers ended up in a perfect situation in Foxboro (Mass.).

Heading into this season, Flowers remains the go-to guy at right defensive end and is backed up by Derek Rivers. Former Arkansas defensive lineman Deatrich Wise sits at second team left defensive end behind Adrian Clayborn. If Flowers makes the same jump in year four that he saw in his second and third seasons, he could be looking at an All-Pro type of showing. With the value of defensive ends constantly increasing in the modern era, Trey Flowers should have a role in the NFL for a long, long time.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

New o-line coaches bringing a unique perspective to Lions

May 22, 2018
By Tim Twentyman

Having both played in the NFL, new offensive line coaches Jeff Davidson and Hank Fraley bring a unique perspective to the Lions.

As the Lions progress through the offseason training program, the offensive linemen are learning new ways to do things with the addition of new o-line coaches Jeff Davidson and Hank Fraley (assistant).

In Davidson and Fraley, the Lions have hired two line coaches with extensive NFL playing experience, which is something veteran T.J. Lang can already tell brings a little different element to the table.

“Obviously, Jeff is a guy who’s been around for a long time,” Lang said. “He’s a former player himself, so he understands what it’s like sitting in those chairs. I think it’s been a great addition to the team.

“I think both him and Hank, the assistant o-line coach, Hank is a guy that played a long time, too.”

Davidson played for the Broncos and Saints over a five-year career from 1990-94. He moved into coaching in 1995 with the Saints after a shoulder injury ended his playing career.

Fraley’s playing days spanned a decade with the Eagles, Browns and Rams. He finished his playing career in 2010 before getting into coaching with the Chargers in 2012.

“I think that having someone with a lot of their own personal experiences can help me and younger guys in our locker room getting our technique down, and a lot of questions he’ll be able to answer,” veteran Graham Glasgow said of the addition of Fraley as Davidson’s assistant upfront. “And I think that he, especially for the centers and the interior lineman, is a very good resource to make sure we can be the best we can be.”

There are a lot of very good NFL coaches who never played a down in the NFL as a player, but those players that do make the transition to coaching have a unique perspective.

Davidson played both tackle and guard, and Fraley played center, so the pair have every position upfront covered.

Lang said the players are still learning the new terminology, blocking schemes and exactly how the new coaches want things run, but everything has been “very positive” to this point.

A new message can’t be a bad thing after the Lions struggled upfront last season with injuries and consistency. Detroit’s rushing attack finished last in the NFL last season, and quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked 47 times, second most in the NFL (Jacoby Brissett, 52).

“I would say that Jeff seems like a fantastic guy,” Glasgow said. “He’s a very down to earth coach and I think that he’s somebody who will help our position group improve and get better throughout the year.”

Bucs OTAs: Chandler Catanzaro nails all his field goals on Day 1

By Bonnie Mott
May 23, 2018

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked off Day 1 of OTAs Tuesday and among the biggest highlights from the day is kicker Chandler Catanzaro nailing all five of his field goal attempts. Meanwhile, rookie kicker Trevor Moore finished the day 4-for-5 on field goals.

Considering all the drama surrounding the Bucs placekicking position, this is great news for the Buccaneers, especially after the past few seasons which have consisted of shuffling the team’s roster and one too many kicking game woes.

Although the Buccaneers just signed Catanzaro to a new deal in free agency, the position has been one of the team’s most prominent issues and among their biggest concerns for quite some time now. Considering all the issues surrounding the Bucs “kicking curse” and lackluster kicking game, it’s no surprise to see general manager Jason Licht and company determined to ensure Tampa Bay’s kicking game woes don’t resurface once again this season. Catanzaro finishing the day with a flawless performance is definitely one step in the right direction no doubt.

The next media OTA is Thursday at One Buc Place, so be sure to stay tuned for more updates and news throughout the week.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Learn from the Leader: Katie Smith Talks About Becoming Liberty Head Coach

MAY 18, 2018

There are two full courts at the New York Liberty’s practice facility in Tarrytown, NY. Katie Smith, the Liberty’s new head coach, stands between them on the sideline, watching her squad go through a 5-on-5-on-5 drill. The Liberty’s roster has been split into two teams and a group of college-level men’s players make up the other five. They go back-and-forth in a fast paced drill, trying to score three points. Get a bucket, stay and sprint to the other side to try and get another. The losers of the drill have to run baseline-to-baseline.

A few moments later Smith stands on the court with a big smile on her face and lines up the losers. She blows her whistle and darts out of the way of an incoming sprinter, looking over at her assistant coaches and laughing.

Then she kicks everyone off the court and goes through a shell drill, walking the Liberty through one of their offensive sets. Fourth-year forward Rebecca Allenraises her hand and asks Smith to detail the play again.

“[Smith is] teaching it,” Liberty assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon says. “There’s a difference in coaching and teaching. There’s a huge difference. It’s about stopping and talking about the small details so the kids can understand the proper angle to set screens, the proper way to have your feet, the movement, the timing. She’s teaching that.”

Smith, 43, has already locked up a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame because of what she did as a player—two-time WNBA champion, 2008 Finals MVP, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, seven-time All-Star. Now she’s just a few days away from her first season as a head coach.

“Being a player is way easier than a coach,” Smith says. “The time, it just never ends. Honestly, most of my career, I didn’t want to coach. I literally said it, all the way up until four years left. And then Bill [Laimbeer] was like, ‘Hey, you want to coach?’ And I didn’t have anything lined up.”

Smith played her last pro season with the Liberty in 2013 and then transitioned right to the bench. It was only a matter of time before she was given the reigns in New York.

“I wouldn’t say I expected it but I had a good feeling that it was going to be somebody that we were familiar with,” Liberty guard Brittany Boyd says with a grin. “Katie’s been here since I came in. I was excited, you know, to get to play for Katie. It’s a good experience to have a new head coach for the first time.”

Smith says that she’s been calling around to her former coaches learn as much as possible in an effort to put Boyd and the rest of her players in the best position to win.

She says that Brian Agler and Cheryl Reeve have been key during the offseason to helping her in all aspects of coaching, from writing practice plans to effectively teaching technique.

“What’s also been special about the game is not just the playing. It truly is the relationships,” she says, standing underneath one of the baskets at the practice facility. Two of her former teammates, Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman, are to her left. Weatherspoon, dribbling around the gym, has played against her and coached with her for well over 20 years. The recently retired Swin Cash was intensely watching today’s practice. She played on Team USA and two WNBA teams with Smith.

Boyd says Smith, with all of her knowledge and years of playing, is already a good coach. “She explains things, she’s breaking stuff down. But she’s also holding us all accountable for our mistakes. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you make a mistake, she’s going to put you on the line and run. I think we’re learning from that,” the fourth-year guard says.

But Smith is also known for constantly joking around. Practices are always light, with lots of laughs. Smith and Weatherspoon have spent the last few seasons working with the Liberty’s guards and forwards before games start. Those pregame warmup sessions regularly feature trash talk, smirking and mock games of one-on-one.

“If they see that with us, it trickles to them,” Weatherspoon says. “We walk in, it’s about having fun, they’re going to have fun. It’s important.”

“I think that breeds an environment of excitement,” Smith says. “Because it is work, but we’re also playing a game. You just don’t want them to get so worried. You want to go out there and play a little bit.”

The Liberty are gearing up for a big season. They’ve been the three seed in the playoffs for the past two years and they’ve been bounced out early in each of those postseason runs. One-time WNBA MVP Tina Charles is still in her prime and Smith has veterans like Zellous, Coleman, Epiphanny Prince, Kia Vaughn and Sugar Rodgers to help Boyd, Bria Hartley, Kiah Stokes and the rest of NY’s young players.

That’s why the first-time head coach hasn’t stopped working.

“You go home and start thinking about it at night,” Smith says. “Maybe I should pull up some new plays. Like, how can I help them? Your brain is just never off.”

Smith, with the weight of the franchise on her shoulders, walks to the far baseline after a moment, right past Weatherspoon, who’s forever dribbling.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Secret Behind Notre Dame’s Offensive Line: Harry Hiestand

May 18, 2018
By Eric Olson

This year, for the only the third time in 50 years, two offensive linemen from the same school were selected in the top 10 picks of the NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts drafted guard Quenton Nelson 6th overall and the San Francisco 49ers drafted tackle Mike McGlinchey 9th overall, both hailing from Notre Dame. While this is no doubt an impressive feat in and of itself, it becomes even more impressive when you consider that Notre Dame has had an offensive lineman selected in the first round in 3 of the last 5 years (Zack Martin in 2014 and Ronnie Stanley in 2016). So, what gives? Has Notre Dame simply gotten lucky on their recent string of OL recruits? While good recruiting mixed with a little luck is definitely part of the explanation, there is one variable that has remained constant over the five year period of sustained OL success: Harry Hiestand. I contend that the biggest reason for the success upfront at Notre Dame is Harry Hiestand and his ability to teach both individual technique and simple run schemes incredibly well.

Teaching the Scheme: Inside Zone

Last season, Notre Dame finished 8th in the country in rush yards per game. What’s even more impressive about this statistic is that that nearly all of the teams ahead of them were option-centric teams, while Notre Dame establishes the run game with a simple inside zone scheme. So, what exactly do I mean when I say ‘Inside Zone’?

While inside zone is just about the most simple run play you can design, it is not always as simple as just blocking the zone in the correct direction of the play. The basic rules are as such: if your zone is occupied at the line of scrimmage, you block that man. If your zone in unoccupied and there is a man in your backside zone, you double team him up to second level defender that is in your zone. How this usually manifests upfront, against a base 4-man front, is two sets of two-for-twos and one blocker going one-on-one. Meaning, the backside OT and the backside G are responsible for the backside DT and the backside LB, the C and play-side G are responsible for the play-side DT and the play-side LB, and the play-side OT has a one on one block with the play-side DE:

There are an infinite amount of variations of inside zone that can be run. The one diagrammed above incorporates a quarterback read to hold the backside defensive end. The point of the diagram is not to show this particular variation, but rather, to show the combination blocks that ideally will occur between the backside OT & G and the C & play-side G. When the backside DT is lined up as a 3 technique (in between the guard and tackle, shaded onto the guard), with a front side 2i technique (in between the center and guard, shaded on the guard), there are two easy double teams up to the second level defender.

These double teams are the lifeblood of any inside zone play; if you get movement on the DTs and account for the second level defenders, your play will be successful. Notre Dame executed this concept up front better than nearly any college program I have ever seen. Does it help that they had two top 10 picks working on double teams together? Obviously. Yet, the technique that they display is exceptional and can directly be attributed to the coaching they have received from Hiestand.

My college offensive line coach used to drill this phrase into us when it came to double teams: “hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder”. This ensures that you are working in unison, in the same direction, making sure the down lineman cannot split you, and gives the OL that is not peeling off onto the LB a chance to take over the block and stay engaged. Watch how square both McGlinchey (LT #68) and Nelson (LG #56) are to start the play above, their shoulders are nearly parallel. This allows them to move the DT off the ball and gives McGlinchey the ability to stay balanced and easily come off on the LB while Nelson remains on the DT. Furthermore, the play-side double team is nearly as good. Again, both hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, ready to account for both the down lineman and the LB. This is how you coach an inside zone double team.

Double teams are easy when the defenders stay put. Conversely, the hardest thing to do when running inside zone is to block movement. Doing so requires you to stay balanced, disciplined and remain on your zone track all while maintaining ‘man awareness’ and understanding that your responsibilities may shift. You must have awareness for the individual defenders, but not chase somebody who has abandoned your zone.

Both Nelson and McGlinchey execute these fundamentals perfectly here. Nelson takes the necessary steps to double team the DT, but instead of chasing him when he slants to the C gap, Nelson simply stays on his zone angle, tracking the LB until the point of contact, where he then aggressively delivers a beautiful two-handed punch and finishes him into the ground. McGlinchey’s fundamentals are equally as impressive. As a tackle on a double team with the guard, you are the designed ‘drive man’. The guard’s job is to post up the DT and the OT comes in violently to create movement off the line of scrimmage. A line must be toed by the OT where he is coming in aggressively enough to move the down lineman, but is on balance enough to handle movement. This is exactly what McGlinchey does. He takes a step in which he is ready to double team the DT, feels the movement, stays on balance and walls off the defender, giving the ball a crease to go.

When you run inside zone, the RB’s typical aiming point is the front side hip of the center. However, as opposed to many other schemes, very seldom does the ball actually go where it is ‘supposed to’. For instance, in a power scheme, 9 times out of 10, the ball will follow the pulling guard, behind the front side double team. This is not the case with inside zone. It is the job of the offensive line to create movement, block all the defenders they are responsible for and allow the running back to find a natural crease. While this play is designed to go to the right, Notre Dame’s creates so much distortion moving that direction that a natural cut back lane to the left emerges. Look how in-sync the line looks, all moving on their zone angles and accounting for all the necessary defenders. While many of the above plays contained some fantastic individual efforts from exceptional players like Nelson and McGlinchey, this play, across the board, is how inside zone should look and that can be attributed to coaching.

A similar sentiment exists here from the previous play. This play is really devoid of a truly great individual effort. It is just five guys, on the same page, doing their job. Again, it is plays like this where coaching truly shines through. For instance, the RT does not block the man he is originally responsible for. His defender completely over scrapes, but instead of chasing him, he simply stays on his track and blocks the defender who shows up in his zone, allowing RB Josh Adams to break loose for six.

The best offensive linemen are not that ones that do anything particularly flashy. Rather, they are the ones that do the simple things extremely, extremely well. A guard who can pull in open space, track down some defensive backs and make a highlight reel block is all fine and well, but it means nothing if he can’t execute the fundamentals required on a basic inside run play (or he can do both and his name is Quenton Nelson). The Notre Dame offensive line embodies this sentiment. They take the simplest of run concepts and run them as well as anybody in the country. When the entire line consistently flashes the ability to execute a particular concept at an extremely high-level, it can be directly attributed to the coaching they receive.

Exceptional Individual Efforts

You probably thought that I was going to start with a McGlinchey or Nelson highlight, didn’t you? While this would have been the easy way to do it, and I will cover both of them below, it shows more about Hiestand if I shine the spotlight on some of the less heralded players on the Notre Dame OL.

The players to watch here are the RT and RG. This is a phenomenal double team. As mentioned above, it is the job of the OT to be the drive man on a double team. The RT here executes this technique perfectly: he comes in violently, but on-balanced, and drives the defender 4 yards off the ball into the lap of the LB, allowing Josh Adams to break free. The best thing a double team can do, surprisingly, is not block both the DT and the LB. Rather, the best thing that a double team can do is knock the DT so far off the ball that the LB does not have a place to fill and is taken out of the play without ever being touched (look at #37 on Temple).

What do you know? More inside zone from Notre Dame. The player to watch here is Quenton Nelson (#56). While you have probably all seen his crazy suplex-style blocks that have made him famous, I contend that it’s plays like this that make him so special. This is the most basic thing that you can ask a guard to do, a 1 on 1 drive block. Despite being ‘basic’, it also one of the most difficult things you can ask a guard to do. In order to move a defender, by yourself, you must use superb technique. To put it bluntly, this is some of the most picture-perfect run blocking technique I have ever seen. The three things to look at are Nelson’s feet, hips and hands. Nelson keeps his feet apart through the entire duration of the play, snaps his hips on contact and shoots his hands right under the defender’s chest plate to control the block.

You can keep going down the coach’s checklist of what to look for in a run block and Nelson is executing it in spades. Elbows tight to the rib cage, check. Weight on the insteps on the feet, check. Powerful, positive-moving steps, check. Strain to finish the block, check. The point is, it would be hard to draw up better run blocking technique. It takes a special player to execute this technique, but it takes a special coach to teach it to him.

For a college OT, McGlinchey is incredibly polished, especially in the passing game. The best pass sets are ‘smooth and quiet’. Look at how ‘quiet’ McGlinchey’s movements are. His arms are not pumping to help him move back, his kick steps are quick, powerful and not over exaggerated, and his upper body is relaxed but upright. The less variables or moving parts in a pass set, the better. You want to be relaxed, but ready to strike. You want to move back quickly, but be balanced with your feet apart. It may sound counter-intuitive, and may be hard to explain, but you see someone like McGlinchey do it and it becomes a little more clear.

Blocking in space is not easy. You are asking a 300+ lb. man to block a much smaller, much more athletic defender while moving and trying to stay on balance. You may think that the secret to success as an offensive lineman in space is to have an extremely athletic offensive lineman. While, obviously, this helps, the real secret is in technique you use and discipline you display. My OL coach used to give these coaching points: meet him where he is going to be (if you try to just outrun him, good luck), wait until you can step on his toes to block him and at the point of contact you step, dip and strike. All of these tactics are designed to give yourself, as a much lesser athlete, the best chance to block a far superior athlete. Well this is exactly what Nelson does. He pulls at the perfect angle, waits until the last second and then steps, dips and strikes the defender, giving the ball a place to go.

The uniformity of excellence across multiple positions and multiple different techniques cannot simply be attributed to great players. Between the way that Notre Dame so effectively ran their base run schemes and the success of the individual players, an argument can be made that the secret behind their recent string of OL success may be the man coaching them. Like any great player/coach relationship, it remains unclear where the lionshare of the credit belongs, however, with this recent string of success upfront at Notre Dame, one thing is for sure, Harry Hiestand is a hell of a coach and Chicago got a great one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Kevin Wilson Has Been Here Before

May 14, 2018
By Tony Gerdeman

Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has been around and has run a variety of offenses in his time. He’s had run-first quarterbacks, pass-only quarterbacks, and dual threats that allowed him to be whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it.

So while moving from a dual-threat quarterback like J.T. Barrett to a pass-first guy like Dwayne Haskins might be jarring for the Ohio State identity, it is nothing new for Wilson.

When he was at Indiana, his quarterbacks had a disastrous 2014 thanks to injuries and inexperience. Starter Nate Sudfeld missed the final six games with an injury, which then threw the situation into a tailspin. Things got so bad that the Hoosiers were eventually playing a linebacker at the position.

In 2015, however, Sudfeld was good to go and played in 12 of Indiana’s 13 games. He ran the ball 46 times, most of which were actually sacks. He was a pass-first guy, but the offense didn’t suffer because of it.

In fact, Indiana led the Big Ten in total offense that year, averaging 504.3 yards per game. They were first in passing with 293.8 yards per game. Perhaps most impressively, however, was that they were also able to finish second in the conference in rushing, averaging 210.5 yards per game.

The Hoosiers had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers that season.
Jordan Howard carried the ball 196 times for 1,213 yards and Devine Redding carried it 226 times for 1,012 yards. Only Northwestern (600 att.) ran the ball more than Indiana (592 att.) in 2015.

The quarterback may have been pass-first, but the offense was as balanced as any in the country. And Kevin Wilson hasn’t forgotten it.

“We basically ran the same offense at my previous school,” he said. “So all of the sudden when I had a quarterback that wasn’t a great runner, there was two kids with 1,000 yards because those carries went to the second tailback. And then all of the sudden we were, instead of the quarterback pulling it and keeping it, he was throwing it and that’s why he had three receivers with over 50 catches.”

Looking at Ohio State’s offense, they currently have two tailbacks that have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season. Now, with the quarterback carries dropping considerably, there is a legitimate shot at both Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins rushing for 1,000 yards in 2018.

The offense will still be recognizable, because the staples won’t change. Just like Indiana in 2015, the running game will be the key, but the distribution of the ball from the quarterback is what will be different.

“But it was still inside zone, power,” Wilson said. “It was the same plays, but where the balls got distributed. So again, as we go, the offense isn’t changing. We’re going to develop what we got and then those quarterbacks, in time, we put it together to, is it read, is it run, is it, you do a little bit of both.”

Factoid that may only interest me

By Peter King
May 14, 2018

2008: Anthony Gonzalez, a second-year wideout for the Colts, catches two touchdown passes from Peyton Manning to lift Indianapolis to an 18-15 upset of the Patriots on Sunday night football.

2018: Anthony Gonzalez, a rookie Republican politician, wins the Congressional primary in a northeast Ohio district, and will run for an open Congressional seat in the 16th District of Ohio in the November general election.

Monday, May 14, 2018

New England Patriots RBs coach: Rex Burkhead is 'something special'

New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead (34) breaks free from Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson (21) in Super Bowl LII, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018 in Minneapolis. The Eagles defeated the Patriots 41-33 to win their first Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Doug Benc)(Doug Benc)

By Kevin Duffy
May 14, 2018

FOXBOROUGH -- Rex Burkhead's first season with the Patriots was interrupted twice by injury, but the team must have liked what it saw.

Burkhead was brought back on a three-year deal this offseason. And, based off comments from Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, Burkhead looks like a strong candidate to grab the starting running back job this summer.

"This time last year, he started showing us what he could do," Fears said on Friday. "Once you get a chance to see it, you sort of build on it. Rex is something special. I like him."

Burkhead carved out a unique role in the 2017 Patriots offense; he emerged as the team's top goal line back, but he also was a mismatch in the passing game, taking advantage of linebackers in coverage.

He took a screen pass 46 yards in Super Bowl LII, and he easily beat Broncos safety Darian Stewart for a 14-yard touchdown on a slant route during a Week 10 matchup in Denver. Despite missing seven games (playoffs included) due to an injury to his ribs and a sprained knee, Burkhead showed enough to warrant another contract in New England.

"He's a great kid," Fears said. "He has that passion for the game that I sort of have too. I sort of love that. It makes it easy. I don't have to worry about him getting work done off the field...He's a real professional player and loves what he's doing."

With Dion Lewis in Tennessee, the starting job is up for grabs. Burkhead's ability as a runner and receiver will give him a solid shot to get on the field early. First-round pick Sony Michel also will challenge for the No. 1 role.

James White's role in the passing game is entrenched. And then there's the battle between Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill. The Pats figure to keep one of the two as a between-the-tackles threat.

Fears, who has coached running backs in New England for nearly two decades, is intrigued by Hill.

Formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals, Hill is looking to revitalize his career. He rushed for 1,124 yards while averaging 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie in 2014, but has seen his numbers steadily decline in the three years since.

"I was really high on him coming out of college, from LSU," Fears said. "I thought the world of him. I thought it was a good grab by Cincinnati. Hey, I'm sort of looking forward to this challenge and seeing what he can do for us."

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Ex-Ohio State, NFL player Gonzalez wins GOP US House primary

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 7: Wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez #11 of the Ohio State Buckeyes looks on during the game against the Bowling Green Falcons at Ohio Stadium on October 7, 2006 in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State won 35-7. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)

May 8, 2018

CLEVELAND — A former Ohio State University football star has won the Republican nomination in the race to succeed Rep. Jim Renacci in Ohio’s U.S. House District 16.

Renacci’s northeast Ohio seat is coming open because of his run for U.S. Senate.

Former Buckeyes and Indianapolis Colts receiver Anthony Gonzalez won a three-way primary Tuesday with state Rep. Christina Hagan and physician Michael Grusenmeyer. Both Hagan and Gonzalez aligned themselves with Republican President Donald Trump on issues such as building a border wall.

Gonzalez is the son of a Cuba-born Cleveland businessman.

Six candidates were battling Tuesday in the Democratic primary in the district.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Former Ohio State football captain Christian Bryant earns sociology degree

By Stephen Pianovich
May 6, 2018

Former Ohio State safety Christian Bryant was back in Ohio Stadium on Sunday as he got his degree from the university.

Bryant, who played with the Buckeyes from 2010-13, earned his diploma in sociology. Ohio State Football’s Twitter account posted a picture of Bryant in his cap and gown.

Bryant was a captain with the Buckeyes during his senior season in 2013. He was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes and finished his college career with 171 tackles and 2 interceptions. The St. Louis Rams picked Bryant in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft, but he was not on an NFL roster in the 2017 season.

The Buckeyes had a handful of players graduate this weekend.

Eliminate kickoffs? Not if Nate Ebner has a say

By Paul Daugherty
May 6, 2018

There are people who talk about things, and there are people who know about them. It’s the difference between taking a picture of a sheer rock face, and climbing one. Which gets me to the NFL, kickoffs in the NFL and an Ohio guy named Nate Ebner.

He’s a 7th-year pro from Springfield, who walked on at Ohio State and was drafted in the sixth round by the New England Patriots. Ebner is a quintessential “teams’’ guy. A relentless, driven badass. Or, in his words, “a dog. Every great special teams player is a dog. Whatever it takes, floor it, no back down, be a pain in the tail.’’

Ebner’s not happy the NFL is talking about booting the kickoff. Green Bay Packers CEO and president Mark Murphy, a member of the league’s competition committee, said recently, "If you don't make changes to make it safer, we're going to do away with it.’’

Murphy doesn’t lack credibility. He played eight years in the NFL and was an all-pro safety. Murphy has been on the rock face.

The threat is worrisome enough that a dozen or so special-teams coaches, including the Bengals’ Darrin Simmons, have offered changes designed to lessen the head-injury risk in playing on a kickoff team. They’re suggesting ways to cut down the speed of collisions and the yardage between combatants. Fender-benders instead of front-end manglers. Opposing players would run with each other, not into each other. Kickoffs would resemble punts.

It’s an effort to save the play from the boneyard. It’s also an existential question for players. Football is a violent game. Pain is implied in the contract. Everyone understands this. Are we not men? What's the problem?

“Nobody cares more about player safety than the players,’’ Ebner says. “I don’t want to get hurt. I’m rehabbing my knee right now (torn ACL). I don’t want to have CTE. But I’m not afraid of it. I’m not going to let it take my dream away.’’

When he walked on at Ohio State in 2009, Ebner hadn’t played football since middle school. The chances of making the Buckeyes as a non-preferred walk-on are almost zero. The chances of actually playing are even less. In three years as a Buckeye, Ebner never missed a game on special teams. Beyond teams, his OSU career consisted of three plays on defense (as a safety) his senior year.

Then the Patriots drafted him at No. 197, in 2012. That was two spots higher than they’d taken Tom Brady 12 years earlier. By all rights, Ebner had no business playing college or pro football. But special teams rewards and glorifies its selfless strivers. It loves its dogs. There’s something very noble about that.

(Ebner is also the only active NFL player ever to be an Olympian, having played on the U.S. Rugby 7s side in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. But that’s another story.)

Ebner speaks for most NFL players when he wonders about the NFL’s future. If the league bans kickoffs, what’s next? “I don’t want to see such an ingrained part of the game taken away,’’ he says. “I’m not as concerned about running down on kickoffs as I am playing (defense) on 3rd-and-1 at the goal line. Fullback’s the lead blocker, middle linebacker’s coming into the hole. You don’t think that’s a collision?

“At least on kickoffs, I have a lot of space. I have plenty of room to move my guy. The good players on kickoffs aren’t just running into people. They’re using their feet to create space, they’re using their hands.

“I’ve seen three (head injuries on kickoffs) over seven years,’’ Ebner says. “Two were mine, because I didn’t have my head in the right place. That was my fault.’’

The NFL finds itself in a position of historic irony. Not just with the kickoff question, but with every facet of the sport. Part of the league’s appeal is visceral. We love big hits. They’re a guilty pleasure. Players are taught to play with violent, instinctive intelligence. How do we take part of that equation away?

Play hard. Sort of.

But head trauma — and the pounding the league’s image has taken because of it — has to be addressed. The NFL says its numbers show that last season, concussions happened on kickoffs five times more than on any other play.

Ebner also notes that eliminating the kickoff would eliminate jobs. Something else would be lost, too: The long-shot chance for people like Nate Ebner to play the game. Marginal players find a foothold on special teams. Their diligence and persistence are rewarded. They might be a little nuts. But it’s a good nuts.

“There’s no better feeling than making a big hit or knocking the ball out on a special teams play that totally changes the momentum of the game,’’ Ebner says.

Mark Murphy says the kickoff is on a “short leash.’’ Does he recognize the dogs he’s dealing with?

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