Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Michigan assistant Pep Hamilton is 'too creative' and 'so smart'

By Mark Snyder
January 30, 2017

Matt Hasselbeck was trying to push himself in the final years of his NFL career. As a quarterback in Indianapolis, he knew it was Andrew Luck’s starting job, but he had to stay ready.

Fortunately, he had an offensive coordinator in Pep Hamilton who was with him at every step.

“What he would do with us is he would hang with us,” Hasselbeck, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, said last week of his 2 1/2 years under Hamilton. “Andrew Luck, myself and the other quarterbacks, we’d do this pretty intense warm-up before every practice, and he would do it with us. If we were running conditioning, he would do it with us. There were other guys on the team he might do abs with them after practice or he might run with them in the off-season or he might lift with a group of guys.

“You don’t get that a lot from coaches. He breaks down a barrier that sometimes exists between boss and player, coach and player.”

That probably sounds familiar as the philosophy of Jim Harbaugh, who demonstrates drills in practice and throws and catches passes in pregame warm-ups.

Now that Hamilton is the Wolverines’ new passing game coordinator, replacing Jedd Fisch, his energy is expected to invigorate the offense.

Hamilton’s time in Indy peaked with the NFL’s No. 3 offense in total yardage in 2014.

“He’s very creative, almost too creative,” Hasselbeck said of Hamilton. “One of his things he loves to say: There are no ‘can’t dos’ in this offense. A lot of times, in an offense, you’ll have a guy who’s stuck in his ways -- he’s been doing the same thing forever, his background’s in offensive line and running backs, so we’re never going to go empty backfield, we’re never going to go an extra lineman in the game. They’ve got all these ‘never gonnas.’ Pep’s a guy, he’s very proud of (saying) there’s nothing we can’t do. This week, the best thing to do is go five wide receivers, no running backs, no tight ends, that’s what we’ll do. If, the next week, we’ll go two tailbacks, no receivers and bring in extra offensive linemen, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Michigan has shown some of that flexibility over the past two years, taking Harbaugh's NFL mentality to script a game plan and introduce different plays each week, depending on the opponent. Many college offenses are consistent, week-to-week, trying to refine what they do well in the limited practice time available.

Harbaugh reportedly is telling recruits such as Alabama receiver Nico Collins that the Wolverines will incorporate more spread elements this year. That might be Hamilton’s early effect.

Unlike Fisch, Hamilton gets to begin a year with a returning quarterback starter, Wilton Speight.

“(Hamilton) absorbs information like a sponge,” Hasselbeck said. “He’s pretty smart that way. He does a nice job of communicating to the entire offense, whether it’s running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers, offensive line. He’s a very, very bright guy. The challenge for Pep sometimes is he’s so much smarter than everybody else. The thing he can probably work on the most is he’s so smart that he has to slow down for the rest of us. It’s a great thing when you have a guy like that on a staff that’s strong, and they can really work together and collaborate together. The guy knows football. There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be a head coach someday, and he’s fun to be around.”

Hamilton’s biggest challenge as the quarterbacks/receivers coach might be to figure out which of the talented young receivers is ready to play immediately. Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford showed flashes last season, and this year’s class has elite receivers in Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black as early enrollees. None of them has had a significant role in a college offense.

Hamilton’s teaching ability is one of his unique traits.

“I played 18 years -- I played 15 years in the NFL (before Indy) and I thought I had learned everything I could have learned about offense in football,” he said. “I got to Indianapolis and I learned a lot of football being around Pep and being around the guys in Indianapolis. It was fun. That made it really, really fun to learn new ways to do things. Just creative, creative stuff.”

Hamilton’s decision to leave his role as an assistant head coach with the Cleveland Browns showed Harbaugh’s pull.

It helped that Michigan is able to pay him $1 million per year, but the NFL lifestyle is easier, especially compared with working for Harbaugh. Yet he still left, just as he did in going to Stanford from the Chicago Bears in 2010.

“I think it’s a similar situation, where he believes in Jim Harbaugh, he believes in the kind of school Michigan is and he’s got to take a look at the roster and say, 'Wow, we can do something special, much like we did at Stanford,'” said Hasselbeck, who spoke at U-M's satellite camp at Indianapolis Bishop Chatard in 2016. “For that reason, it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that he went back to college.”

Friday, January 27, 2017

A healthy Trey Flowers gives Patriots' defensive line a boost

New England defensive end Trey Flowers (98), who has a team-high seven sacks this season, became a starter midway through the year.

By Trevor Hass
January 26, 2017

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Their stories of breaking into the league are quite similar, but they happened nearly 10 years apart.

Rob Ninkovich was drafted in the fifth round in 2006 and was eager to contribute right away for the Saints, but a season-ending ACL injury early in the season hindered all the momentum he had built up.

The Patriots took Trey Flowers in the fourth round in 2015, but he played one game last year while dealing with a lingering knee injury.

Earns starting role

Ninkovich eased his way into the league the next few seasons, but once he came to New England and got playing time in 2009, everything clicked and he jump-started his career. Flowers' ascension to a standout player happened more quickly, and he earned a starting role midway through this season.

When Flowers was down last year, Ninkovich served as a voice of reason. He told him that he just had to be patient, and his time would come.

He was right. Now Flowers, a 6-2, 265-pound defensive end out of Arkansas, hasn't just become one of the Patriots' better pass rushers.

He's also become their best, from a results standpoint, at getting to the quarterback - racking up a team-high seven sacks this year heading into the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 at NRG Stadium.
Ninkovich noticed Flowers' potential right away, so he's not surprised to see him shine on the biggest stage.

"It's real frustrating, especially when you get into the playoffs and you want to be there," Ninkovich said. "Trey's done a great job of rehabbing, coming back, getting into the program and hitting the ground running."

Ninkovich said Flowers is built perfectly for playing on the edge and wreaking havoc inside. He may not be the biggest guy out there, but his long arms help him shield off defenders so they can't hold him, Ninkovich said. He said the most impressive part of Flowers' ability to get to the quarterback is that most of his sacks come from the inside, which is less common.

He also praised Flowers' technique and drive.
Flowers isn't going to talk too much, Ninkovich said, but he's always paying attention and learning. Even when he was sidelined last year, rather than sulk and feel sorry for himself, he was absorbing information daily.

After admiring his natural skill set, work ethic and desire to be great from afar for a year, Ninkovich is thrilled to see Flowers excel in big games like he knew he could.

"His future looks bright," Ninkovich said.

The future and present have often looked bright for Flowers, and last season was the first splotch on an otherwise clean path to success. He started playing football in Huntsville, Ala., at age 7, and he worked his way up to Arkansas and eventually the NFL.

Difficult to digest

He wasn't used to unexpected hiccups, which made last year even more difficult to digest.

"It was something that was hard to deal with, sitting out a year," Flowers said. "It was my first year sitting out since I started playing, and it was tough being on the outside looking in."

But he learned to never take playing football for granted. He knew that when he got back - whether it was that season or this one - he would make the most of it. He didn't pity himself, but he constantly thought about where he was and where he wanted to go.

Now that he's had so much success this year, Flowers is a household name for Patriots fans. Last year, he was just another guy trying to make it in the NFL. This year, he's a standout contributor on one of the NFL's best defenses.

"He's definitely coming into his own, making big plays," said defensive tackle Alan Branch, whose locker is next to Flowers'. "He's a huge part of our defensive front and he's always working on getting better."

'A dream come true'

As the season winds down, and Flowers approaches the biggest game of his life, he thinks back to where he was as a rookie. What was tough at the time is now a distant memory, and he's eager to help the Patriots earn a win over the Falcons.

He's amazed at how much can change in a year.

"It's definitely a dream come true," Flowers said. "It's something you work hard for your entire life, and now you're finally there. You've just got to not make the moment too big and give it everything you've got."

After sitting out last season, Trey Flowers blessed to be heading to the Super Bowl

January 26, 2017

By Mark Daniels

FOXBORO - Trey Flowers didn't get much of a feel for the NFL during his rookie season. Of course, he only played one game and didn't register a single statistic, so he'd be hard-pressed to gain much momentum off that 2015 NFL season.

Nevertheless, the second-year defensive end burst on the scene this year. After a slow start in the first half of the season, Flowers started every game for the Patriots after the Week Nine bye week. Now, the 23-year-old heads to Super Bowl LI as a first-time starter and team sack leader.

"It's pretty big," Flowers said. "I guess you could say after last year, being on the outside looking in, just being able to come back and prepare myself and allow myself to contribute and produce for my team, to go out there and play with my brothers. It's definitely a different feeling. I'm just blessed with the opportunity just to have another opportunity to come out here and play one last game with my brothers."

Flowers leads the Patriots with seven sacks and has wowed teammates with his potential and raw talent. Before he plays in his first ever Super Bowl, the defensive end said he's leaned on the veteran players to help get him prepared for the upcoming week in Houston.

"They just kind of let us know how big the game will be and all things that come around with it," Flowers said. "Just be prepared for media and things going around throughout the week. The biggest advice is stay focused."

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Baltimore Guard Marshal Yanda Was The NFL’s Best Offensive Lineman This Season

Baltimore Ravens G Marshal Yanda was recently named the winner of Pro Football Focus’ Best Offensive Lineman award for the 2016 NFL season. To see the winner of every PFF award, visit our NFL awards page.

JANUARY 25, 2017

For the past two seasons, Ravens’ guard Marshal Yanda has been the best guard in football. This year was no different. The Ravens offense as a whole didn’t have nearly the success running the ball this season as they have in the past, but it had little to do with Yanda and more due to trying to replace Kelechi Osemele and dealing with injuries across the offensive line. Yanda continues to be one of the best run blockers in the league, regardless of position. He has proven to excel in both zone and man blocking schemes, though his niche is reaching defenders on zone runs. Through his combination of athleticism and technique, he can quickly overtake leverage on defenders, and he possesses the size and strength to finish blocks by overpowering defensive lineman to seal and widen the point of attack.

While Yanda shines in both facets of blocking, he has always been a marginally better run blocker compared to pass protection — at least until the last season or two. In 2016, he allowed just six hurries on 612 snaps this season for a 99.2 pass-blocking efficiency, the highest rate by a guard in the PFF era (since 2006). To put that in another perspective, there were 28 occurrences this year where a guard gave up as many or more total pressures in a single game than Yanda allowed over 13 games. Dating back to the 2015 season, Yanda has not allowed a sack or hit in 1,014 consecutive pass-blocking snaps, a streak that will continue heading into next year.

While a couple other players may be close to Yanda’s level, the thing that has set him apart from everyone else is his consistency week-in and week-out. Out of his 13 games this season, Yanda did not have one in which he earned an overall grade that was below-average, and just two that were in the average range. In fact, he has gone a staggering 52 regular and postseason games without having a poor overall performance (Week 10 of the 2013 season versus the Bengals being the last) and 41 of those outings he graded above-average or better. If that weren’t impressive enough, he has done so while playing three different positions along the offensive line.

Yanda missed three games this season due to a torn labrum in his shoulder. When he returned midway through the season, the Ravens moved him to left guard to help lessen the effects of the lingering injury. Impressively, he graded slightly better at left guard than he did at right guard despite have never playing a snap at left guard in his pro career prior to the 2016 season. There are a few offensive linemen at the peak of their game right now, but no one has been better than Yanda of late and overcoming the injury and position change makes this season just that much more special.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Marshal Yanda: Time To Appreciate How Good He Really Is

With all of the questions surrounding the Baltimore Ravens this off-season, they know they have something special with Marshal Yanda.

By Joe Schiller

January 23, 2017

There is no doubt that the Ravens have problems on the offensive line in 2016. Injuries during the season forced the line to start different combinations all year. Rookies Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis were brought in and started most of the season. The inconsistencies were just one of the issues the team had in their 8-8 season.

Even with a mediocre season, there is one man who seems to continually get the job done is right guard Marshal Yanda. Yanda was a third round pick in 2007 and has developed into the best offensive guard in the league. He plays at a position where his production can go unnoticed by the casual NFL fan. But if you are Ravens fan or a football expert, you know how good Marshal Yanda is.

All Purpose Guard

Teams are lucky if they can find offensive lineman that can either pass or run block. With Marshal Yanda, he has the ability to do both, and he’s really good at it. At 305 pounds, he is a force to be reckoned with. He is the rock that has lead the way in establishing the run game for Ray Rice, Justin Forsett, and now the duo of Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon.

His toughness is an intangible that you cannot teach. During last season, Yanda dealt with an excruciating left shoulder injury that he suffered against the Washington Redskins in week 5. As a right guard, it is important to have full use of your inside shoulder. The injury forced him to miss the following two games and it was unsure if he was going to be able finish out the season. Instead of sitting out the rest of the season, when the Ravens came up against the Cowboys in week 10, Yanda made the switch to left guard to keep playing. This way his healthy right shoulder was on his inside. He played out the rest of the season and waited until the off-season to opt for shoulder surgery. His durability speaks for itself.

An Impressive Resume

Pro Football Focus has ranked Yanda as the best guard in the NFL in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Before the 2016 season, Pro Football Focus also ranked him as the 13th best player in the league. Keep in mind, this is the league that features players such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr. and many more. For an offensive guard to be ranked up there is a testament to how well Yanda has played in his career.

Not only is that impressive, but he has racked up numerous of other awards. He was a first team all pro in 2014, 2015, and second team all pro in 2011, 2012, and 2016. He was also elected to his 6th consecutive Pro Bowl this year.

All of these awards and honors have been achieved in just 10 years of football.
Some players dream of becoming an All-Pro or being elected to a Pro Bowl just once in their career. Yanda signed a four year extension with the Ravens in 2015 and will continue to add to his resume.

I will go as far to say that he is as important to the Ravens as Jonathan Ogden was. There is no doubt he will be a in the Hall of Fame once his career is over.

Monday, January 16, 2017

‘Workaholic’ Hamilton will take UM to another level

By Angelique S. Chengelis

January 15, 2017

Even when Pep Hamilton was a quarterback at Howard University, his coach, Steve Wilson, saw a future coach from the way he asked and answered questions in the quarterback room, how he understood defenses and his ability to convey concepts to his teammates.

Hamilton last week was officially named Michigan’s assistant head coach and pass-game coordinator, rejoining coach Jim Harbaugh, who had hired Hamilton at Stanford to coach receivers in 2010. He has more than 10 years of NFL coaching experience and most recently was the Browns’ associate head coach on offense.

He replaces Jedd Fisch, who left Michigan after two seasons to become UCLA’s offensive coordinator.

“I would think we’re going to play tough, smart Michigan-style football, and that’s one of the many things I’ve learned from coach Harbaugh over the years, that if you can control the line of scrimmage it’s going to open big plays for you in the run and the passing game,” Hamilton, 42, said last week in an video.

Hamilton’s given name is Alfonza, but he’s always been Pep.

“We didn’t even know he had another name,” Wilson said, laughing.

He likely would be in the banking world right now had it not been for Wilson’s persistence. After graduating in 1997 with a business degree from Howard, where Hamilton was a two-time winner of the school’s scholar-athlete award, he had a job lined up at Bank of America.

Wilson offered him a position as a graduate assistant. The banking career still appeared to be a go. A week later Wilson offered him a job as a full-time assistant, and the bank was willing to hold off a few months to give him room to sample this other career. Coaching was a go.

“Pep had a coach’s mind while he played. It was easy to see,” Wilson told The Detroit News. “He helped me in just so many ways with all of my quarterbacks. He was a coach long before he became a coach.

“He had some other options. I knew being the type of guy he had been around the football program, he had a bright future in football, but I knew he could have had a bright future in business, too. He’s a smart man, who always has been able to communicate well with others and can command respect.

“He always helped me with breaking down film and calling plays while he was still an undergraduate. When you’ve got a player who sees the game like that — he was well-coached in high school in Charlotte — when I got him, we had a stream of great quarterbacks. So Pep played between both those guys but he coached both of them. A lot of their success was from him being in their ear in practice and games and probably in the dormitory, too.”

Ted White set quarterbacking records at Howard in part because of Hamilton’s assistance. White threw a record 92 touchdowns and accounted for 9,845 offensive yards and played five years professionally. While Hamilton is now known more for his work with NFL quarterback Andrew Luck, White in many ways was the first quarterback he helped shape.

Hamilton grew up in Charlotte a huge Michael Jordan fan and was point guard on an AAU team that included Jeff Capel, now on the Duke staff, that won several state titles. But he loved football and studied the game.

Wilson found Hamilton asking questions he had never received from a player.

“He’s a workaholic,” Wilson said. “He doesn’t mind putting in the time. He’s an exceptional, exceptional teacher. That’s one of the things that really, from my standpoint, has always stood out. He could take any concept and make it a situation he can relate it and teach it and digest it. Everybody doesn’t have that ability particularly when you’re still playing. I did a lot of teaching through Pep and I decided as a coach to continue to challenge him.”

Wilson had been an NFL defensive back who played for Tom Landry in Dallas and with quarterback Roger Staubach and then won two Super Bowls in Denver with John Elway at quarterback. His father played with three Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and although Wilson played defense, he understood how vital it was to have a well-seasoned quarterback.

He got into coaching because Landry encouraged him and stressed he should coach a position even as a head coach.

“My job on the offense was to teach defense,” Wilson said. “Our kids knew how to attack defenses. You teach the science of football and we talked about defense and how to exploit it. Our quarterback had the opportunity to be the coach on the field, which he really is. They had a say in what they did, and Pep was probably the best example of that. I wanted him to attack the defense as he sees it (on the field), not as I tell him (from the sideline).”

Wilson sees himself as part of Hamilton’s coaching lineage, but mostly as the man who showed him there was a future for him in the profession.

“When you look at his resume, his resume is a who’s who of football,” he said.

Hamilton, in his MGoBlue interview, said his job is to make his players the best they can be. He inherits quarterback Wilton Speight, who helped lead Michigan to a 10-3 record last season in his first year starting, and backups John O’Korn and Brandon Peters, along with incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey.

“It’s all about having the opportunity to help the young men within this program realize their full potential as students and as athletes,” Hamilton told the website. “The ultimate goal in the program is to win the national championship.”

And to reach that point takes great quarterbacking, as Wilson always preached.

“His greatest impact will be on the quarterback position,” Wilson said of Hamilton. “He was a fabulous quarterback coach. Michigan has a pretty good quarterback, and I think they’re going to take it to another level now, I really do.”

Broncos hire Jeff Davidson as OL coach, hold onto Eric Studesville

By Josh Alper

January 14, 2017

The offensive coaching staff under new Broncos head coach Vance Joseph is continuing to come together.

The Broncos hired Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator and his offensive line coach when he was the head coach of the Chargers will be coming to Denver as well. The team announced Saturday that they have hired Jeff Davidson as their offensive line coach.

Davidson played for the Broncos from 1990-93 and has been a coach in the league since 1995. He was the offensive coordinator for the Panthers from 2007-10 and the offensive line coach for the Vikings for 2011-15 before making the move to San Diego to work for McCoy.

The Broncos haven’t made an announcement regarding running backs coach Eric Studesville, but Mike Klis of KUSA reported Friday that he will remain on the staff. Studesville had an interview with the Jets for their offensive coordinator vacancy, but Rich Cimini of reports the Jets want to talk to other candidates and Studesville apparently opted for a sure thing.

Klis also reports that Luke Richesson will remain on board as the team’s strength and conditioning coach.

Nebraska reportedly hiring ex-UConn coach Bob Diaco as next defensive coordinator

By Bryan Fischer

January 13, 2017

Nebraska head coach Mike Riley surprised many when he let longtime defensive coordinator Mark Banker go this week but didn’t leave Cornhuskers fans wondering what direction he was going to go on that side of the ball for long.

The Lincoln Journal Star reported on Friday evening that former UConn head coach Bob Diaco was taking over as Big Red’s new defensive coordinator.

The youthful coach went 11-26 over three seasons in Storrs, pulling a few upsets along the ways but struggled to get things going on the offensive end that eventually led to his replacement by former head man Randy Edsall.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the Blackshirts will be undergoing a transformation on the defensive side of the ball with the hire of Diaco, as he is highly regarded for his 3-4 defenses. The team mostly ran the 4-3 under Banker.

Diaco won the Broyles Award as the nation’s best assistant coach back in 2012 when he coordinated Notre Dame’s defense when they completed an undefeated season and made it to the BCS national title game. He reportedly was also in the running to take the same position at Arkansas among others.

With Wade Phillips gone, will new names emerge in Redskins D-Coordinator search?

By JP Finlay

January 13, 2017

When the Redskins fired Joe Barry, it seemed the team had a logical list of possible replacements.

As the coaching carousel has turned, many candidates have taken other jobs.

Notably, reports show that Wade Phillips will join Sean McVay with the Rams, and it seems quite possible that Gus Bradley will take over as defensive coordinator for the Chargers.

Neither defensive coach was a sure thing for Washington, but Bradley had already interviewed with the team and Phillips met with the team in 2015 extensively, and his son is already on the coaching staff. There was also some interest in Steve Wilks, but he's been named defensive coordinator in Carolina.

Bradley appeared to be the Redskins' No. 1 priority at defensive coordinator, as he had ties to Bruce Allen, Jay Gruden and Scot McCloughan. If he takes the Chargers job, as many expect, that will leave the Redskins with Mike Pettine, who the team already interviewed, and internal candidate Greg Manusky left on their notable list of possible replacements for Barry.

Unless there are other names that could emerge.

One name gaining buzz around the NFL is Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel. In fact, Vrabel was supposed to interview for the Rams head coaching job, but his Houston team won their first playoff game last weekend and he would not be able to interview until the playoffs conclude. In the meantime, the Rams decided McVay was their guy, and cancelled the interview with Vrabel.

Considered by many a future star, Vrabel even has the endorsement of his former coach Bill Belichick.

"Mike does a tremendous job. As a player he was very astute, had a great understanding of his position and technique and how to play his spot and corresponding positions from an overall standpoint," Belichick said via The Houston Chronicle. "He had a very good grasp of the overall defensive and offensive concepts and how they would attack different fronts."

Vrabel won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, and was named All-Pro in 2007. His work as a player is clearly defined, but his potential as a coach seems to be just beginning. Last year, Vrabel declined an offer to go run the San Francisco defense, instead getting a raise from the Texans.

Houston finished this season with the No. 1 defense in the NFL.

There are no high-level connections between Vrabel and the Redskins. The former Ohio State linebacker also played for the Steelers and the Chiefs, but never in Washington. There has also been little to suggest Washington has identified Vrabel as a potential candidate.

It is possible the Redskins are waiting for the opportunity to speak with candidates after the Divisional Round of the playoffs this weekend, and that could include Vrabel.

If Houston loses in New England this week - and the Texans are massive underdogs in that game - then 'Skins brass could reach out. It's also unknown if Vrabel would be interested in the Washington defensive coordinator position.

Even if it's not Vrabel, some fans are overreacting to the news of Phillips officially and Bradley quite possibly signing on to coach elsewhere. Pettine is highly qualified to run a defense, as is Manusky, and other candidates could also emerge.

New NU defensive coordinator Bob Diaco becomes highest-paid assistant in program history

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco works with his players prior to a game against Navy in 2012.

From staff reports
January 14, 2017

Bob Diaco, Nebraska's new defensive coordinator under coach Mike Riley, is the highest-paid assistant in program history.

Diaco's contract with NU is for two years, with a salary of $825,000 in the first year and $875,000 in the second year.

NU's previous defensive coordinator, Mark Banker, made $580,000 last year. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf's three-year contract pays $500,000 per year.

Diaco made $1.7 million in his final season while serving as head coach at UConn last season. Husker coach Mike Riley earned $2.8 million in 2016.

With his new paycheck, Diaco is currently third-highest among reported salaries of Big Ten assistants, though Penn State — a private university — doesn't publicly share salary information. Last season, only Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown ($880,000) and Wolverines offensive coordinator Tim Drevno ($850,000) made more than Diaco's $825,000 starting pay.

Kevin Wilson Makes J.T. Barrett Legitimate Heisman Candidate

By Thomas Scurlock

January 14, 2017

Just what J.T. Barrett needed?

Newly minted Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, perhaps Urban Meyer’s greatest coaching hire ever, is a quarterback whisperer. Will he turn J.T. Barrett into a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback?

Wilson’s history suggests he will, not can do it.

Set aside what he helped accomplish at Miami, Northwestern and Indiana, impressive coaching in its own right and instead look at what achieved between 2003-2010 as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator.

Jason White became the full-time starter for the Sooners in 2003 and proceeded to throw for 7051 yards with 75 touchdowns and 19 interceptions over two seasons capturing the 2003 Heisman Trophy.

With White at the helm, the Sooners made back-to-back BCS Championship appearances.

After a two-year blip with Paul Thompson and Rhett Bomar, Wilson unleashed Sam Bradford on the Big 12 in 2007.

Over two seasons, Bradford passed for 7841 yards with 76 touchdowns and 16 interceptions winning the 2008 Heisman Trophy. Bradford led the Sooners to the 2009 BCS Championship where they lost to Florida 24-14.

Bradford was injured early in the 2009 season and Wilson’s offense did not miss a beat when Landry Jones took over the reins.

Landry passed for 7916 yards with 64 touchdowns and 26 interceptions over the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

If you are keeping count, over six seasons Wilson’s quarterbacks totaled 22,808 yards with 215 touchdowns, 61 interceptions and two Heisman trophies.

By comparison, Barrett has thrown for 6381 yards with 69 touchdowns and 21 interceptions over three seasons. Commendable, especially given Ohio State’s history with quarterbacks, but it rings a little hollow without the hardware.

I wrote last week, and I believe my colleague Charlie Lockhart agrees, that Barrett’s leap from good quarterback to great quarterback might be more simple than we think.

Take more chances. Trust the receivers to make plays. Don’t worry about turnovers.

No coach would argue that turnovers are good, but Barrett was too conservative with his decision making last season. In 2014, he threw 10 interceptions which is consistent with Wilson’s quarterbacks at Oklahoma.

Look at DeShaun Watson who threw up 50-50 balls time after time against Alabama in the championship game. Why? He knew his receivers would win the battle most of the time and if not, he trusted his defense to bail him out.

That’s Wilson’s top priority in the spring. Get Barrett to trust his playmakers like he did against Oklahoma where Noah Brown made him look good.

Barrett already owns most of Ohio State’s quarterback records. I expect Wilson to do what he has done for most of his quarterbacks making the records untouchable.

If J.T. Barrett wins the Heisman, he’ll bury the criticisms surrounding him today while leading the Buckeyes back to the playoffs to finish off what they let slip away in 2016.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Bill Belichick: Texans' Mike Vrabel always had coaching mind

Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus, left, enjoys a lighter moment with Mike Vrabel, his position coach, before a game this season.

By Aaron Wilson

January 10, 2017

When Mike Vrabel was a versatile All-Pro outside linebacker for the New England Patriots who doubled as a potent red-zone threat as a tight end and earned three Super Bowl rings, many of his conversations with coach Bill Belichick revolved around his future.

Vrabel saw himself as a future coach, and now he is one for the Texans who's in demand as a linebackers coach scheduled to interview for the Los Angeles Rams' head coaching vacancy. Vrabel declined the San Francisco 49ers' offer last year to be their defensive coordinator, receiving a raise and additional responsibilities to remain with the Texans.

"Yeah, we talked about that several times during his career," Belichick said. "Mike does a tremendous job. As a player he was very astute, had a great understanding of his position and technique and how to play his spot and corresponding positions from an overall standpoint. He had a very good grasp of the overall defensive and offensive concepts and how they would attack different fronts. We talked about that.

"Of course, I never worked with Mike as a coach. As a player, he certainly showed those qualities. A lot of players understand the game well and have a good awareness, but Mike has good leadership, good communication. He's direct. He gets along with everybody, has a good way of working with people, got good leadership skills. Those things are very important."

Vrabel is regarded as a tough, passionate coach who relates well to his players. The former Patriots standout has a demanding style, but he also communicates well. He's been instrumental in the development of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, John Simon and Benardrick McKinney with veteran Brian Cushing remaining productive under his coaching tenure.

"Coach Vrabel has done an unbelievable job of teaching me where to be, in the right spot," said McKinney, who leads the Texans with 129 tackles and also has five sacks. "He's an unbelievable coach. He loves the game of football. He tells us how much he loves coaching us. He's a great coach. I'd be happy with whatever coach Vrabel decides to do. He's a great guy and a great coach."

One of a kind: Patriot teammates say Trey Flowers is a rare talent

By Phil Perry

January 10, 2017

FOXBORO -- Trey Flowers looked to the ceiling, laughed a sheepish laugh, and shook his head. He couldn't believe it.

It was bad enough for Flowers that the CBS broadcast team had announced to its national audience that Patriots players had nicknamed him "Technique." But somehow it had been revealed that teammates also occasionally refer to him as "the G.O.A.T.," as in the greatest of all time.

"Aw, man," Flowers said, embarrassed that label made its way back to a reporter. "I just let it roll off and keep working."

Flowers is a quiet 23-year-old from Huntsville, Alabama who likes to spend extra time in the trainers room, usually with his headphones on, keeping to himself. But what he's accomplished on the field in his second year as a pro has been so impressive that it has invited waves of compliments -- including over-the-top monikers -- from those who watch him on a daily basis.

"We're trying to just have fun with that guy," said corner Logan Ryan. "He's not going to say much about himself so we'll throw some wild nicknames on him and see if he comes out of his shell."


Patriots players like to tease Flowers because he's become something of a reluctant teacher's pet. Highlighted in meetings and practices, held up by coaches as the model for how certain plays should be carried out, he was jokingly dubbed "Technique," and occasionally, "the G.O.A.T."

Jokes aside, the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder's unique skill set and unrelenting effort this season -- his first season as a regular contributor -- have left even veteran teammates in awe.

"He's able to stand-up double teams, split 'em, and still make plays," said 10-year veteran Alan Branch. "I honestly haven't seen too many players with the size he is who can defend the run and the pass on the inside like him. He's the only one I've ever met like that."

Flowers was drafted in the fourth round out of Arkansas in 2015 as an undersized but dogged defensive end. Now, after spending almost the entirety of his rookie season on injured reserve, he's made an eye-opening impact lined up at just about every position on the defensive line, particularly during the second half of the season.

He's set the edge as a defensive end. He's used his strength to hold up at the point of attack in goal-line packages. And his ability to pass-rush from the interior has blown his teammates away.

Using his quickness advantage over heavier-footed centers and guards, as well as 34.25-inch arms that help him create leverage, Flowers led the Patriots in sacks (7.0) and quarterback hits (9) this season. He was also third on the team in quarterback hurries (19), according to Pro Football Focus.

All of his sacks have come since Week 8, and after the Week 9 bye his playing time reflected his value to the Patriots defense. During the second half of the season, Flowers' workload of 40.6 snaps per game was more than that of Chris Long (36.0), Rob Ninkovich (34.1) and Jabaal Sheard (27.3).

"I think he has a really good combination of length and strength and quickness," Long said. "He's able to play like he's 300 pounds, but he's not 300 pounds. It gives him versatility, and he has a really good feel for where people are leaning.

"He's a really smart player. He's one of the smartest players on our defense and one of the best players, if not the best player, on our defense."

Despite his eye-opening numbers and his recent bump in playing time, Flowers did not have the overall snap count (578 total plays) to accumulate some of the statistics that would earn him a Pro Bowl nod or All-Pro consideration. But, on a per-snap basis, he has been remarkably efficient.

For example, he's averaging one quarterback pressure (a sack, hit or hurry) for every 16 snaps played, per PFF. Ndamukong Suh (one pressure every 17 snaps), Leonard Williams (16) and Calais Campbell (15) -- all of whom do the majority of their pass-rushing from the interior -- are in a similar range.

Flowers isn't the full-time force those players are, yet the point remains: When he's out there, he's a problem.

"I think sometimes it takes stats for people that are just kind of watching to wake up to somebody's abilities," Long said. "Now he's got the production to kind of validate what's easy for guys to see that work with him everyday, which is his really unique skill set, great work ethic and really good production.

"To be rushing from the inside like that and have those numbers, I mean, look around the league. That's tough to come by."


Flowers played in just one regular-season game as a rookie before going on season-ending IR with a shoulder injury. Until this season, he was mostly known for being the guy who admitted he fell in love with football by watching Adam Sandler's character in the movie Waterboy.

But Flowers' talent was evident to some well before he had an opportunity to contribute in regular-season action. It didn't take much.

In the first quarter of his first preseason game as a pro, Flowers worked off the right edge, slapped down the hands of Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari -- who was recently named a Second-Team All-Pro -- and smothered Aaron Rodgers for a sack.

The play still sticks out to veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich.

"I think that when you've been around football for many, many years you can just see things that certain guys are able to do," Ninkovich said. "And you can kind of quickly analyze, 'Oh this guy's got some skills that are really going to help him.' . . .

"The first few days I was around him, I said, 'This guy's got some tools. He's going to be a good player.' On top of that, his work ethic and the way he comes into work everyday, that helps guys that have some skill set to let that continue to grow and get better and better."

Flowers didn't see a great deal of time on the interior in college, but the Patriots saw him rush from the inside in a win over Louisiana State in 2014 when he picked up a sack while lined up over the right guard.

Intrigued, at Patriots rookie minicamp last year the coaching staff tried him on the inside and he embraced it. He stayed late at practice. He tried to carry out every instruction he received from defensive line coach Brendan Daly.

"They put me in positions," Flowers said, "where I could get experience with that. Get the feel of the game. Try to understand it and create an arsenal of moves."

After more than a year of sharpening his skills, Flowers has had the opportunity to put his full repertoire of inside moves on display.
Against the Broncos in Week 15, Flowers lined up as a nose tackle on center Matt Paradis. On the snap, Flowers got his hands into Paradis' chest and ripped Paradis forward.

"We call him 'Technique' for a reason," Branch said.

Like a bouncer grabbing the lapels of an unruly patron, Flowers controlled Paradis by the chest plate on his shoulder pads and got PFF's highest-graded center this season on the ground.

"Obviously I can't push everybody around just because of the size difference," Flowers explained, "so you have to use their momentum against them sometimes."

With some help from linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who crashed down to occupy the right guard, Flowers had a clear lane into quarterback Trevor Siemian for the sack.

"He's just really good at using his hands, using his arms, using his leverage. All those things work together," Ninkovich said. "If you're a defensive lineman, you gotta have a bunch of things and he's got them.

"He's got great leverage. He knows when to counter and use the opponent's weight to his advantage. He really has a great feel for it. I'm trying to learn from him."

The Patriots were able to run a similar play when they hosted the Ravens the week prior. This time it was Hightower who helped clear a lane for Flowers.

When Flowers got off of his initial block on the nose, he was able to change direction and gather himself quickly enough to swarm Joe Flacco before the ball came out.

"We’re able to do a lot of different things with him in there," said Hightower. "He’s kind of a smaller-build guy, but he plays a lot bigger than that. [You saw] that in the first three or four plays in the Miami game."

The Miami game. Flowers may have saved the best performance of his breakout season for last. He didn't record a sack in the regular-season finale, but he had two quarterback hits that led to incompletions, and he posted four stuffed-runs.

One of those stuffs came when he was aligned over left guard Laremy Tunsil, the 13th overall pick in last year's draft.

The Dolphins tried to run a stretch play to the offensive left side of the formation. As Flowers flowed with the line, he saw what was developing in front of him and hurried to put a stop to it.

With his left hand, he grabbed Tunsil's left shoulder pad and stuck his right cleat in the ground, preventing himself from being ejected from the play as it was designed. Knifing into the backfield, Flowers tackled running back Jay Ajayi for no gain.

Vision. Strength. Length. Balance. Technique. It was all there.

Practice-squad defensive tackle Darius Kilgo resides at a locker a few stalls down from Flowers in the Patriots locker room. As a member of the Broncos for parts of the last two years before he was claimed by the Patriots in November, Kilgo had the chance to study big-name interior defenders like Malik Jackson (now in Jacksonville) and Derek Wolfe up close.

Even with that background, what Flowers does on film stands out.

"For a guy his size to be able to go in there and do that," Kilgo said, "is unbelievable."


Flowers was one of the biggest reasons why the Patriots jumped from 28th in the league in sacks after eight weeks to 16th by season's end. He led the team as it racked up 21 sacks in the second half of the season under the guidance of Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

Whatever pass-rush success the Patriots find in the postseason could hinge on the play of their second-year standout on the interior.

"He’s been very productive for us in there," Belichick said, "has caused a lot of pressures, and his penetration in the middle of the pocket a lot of times opens things up for one of the other defensive tackles or defensive ends that wrap around into the space that he has created with that penetration. So it’s not just the plays that he makes, but he creates some for his teammates, too."

Flowers has become a lose-lose proposition for opposing offenses, it seems: Either focus your attention on him and allow others to make plays, or divvy up your resources and watch him embarrass you one-on-one.

Would you rather be the Jets, who allowed a Chris Long strip sack late in the fourth quarter of a Week 12 loss while Flowers was doubled inside? Or would you rather be the Broncos, who allowed left guard Max Garcia and right tackle Donald Stephenson (below) to be abused by Flowers swim moves one-on-one?

Patriots offensive linemen know what it's like. They've been faced with the Flowers conundrum on a daily basis since training camp.

"When you bring him up, the first word that comes to mind is relentless," said rookie left guard Joe Thuney. "He's always trying to get off the block, always trying to get around you. You have to stay locked in and focused on working together for the whole play when you're blocking him. He represents a pretty unique challenge."

"Trey's one of those guys who just doesn't stay blocked," said right guard Shaq Mason,
before happily steering a reporter to center David Andrews, who has the misfortune of being matched up with Flowers more often than anyone else during workouts on the fields behind Gillette Stadium.

"His movement skills are very good," Andrews explained. "He's got a lot of good pass-rush moves, and he does a good job of working. He doesn't stay blocked. That's the thing, he always works to stay uncovered."

The living embodiment of Bobby Boucher's approach and a technician's polish, national attention was coming one way or another for Flowers. It just so happens that his rise to prominence has come with a nicknames that make him squirm. At the very least, he acknowledged, they may be a sign that he's doing the right things at this stage of his young career.

As if his numbers weren't enough.

"I'm intrinsically motivated anyway," he said. "But any time you can get guys to let you know you're doing good, I guess it's pretty cool."

Monday, January 09, 2017

Ministers of defense: Hightower, Flowers have emerged as Pats' new defensive leaders


January 7, 2017

FOXBORO - At this time last year, it was thought that the future of the Patriots' defense rested in the hands of Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins - two physically gifted individuals, recent draftees headed for free agency, but accomplished enough to be seen as potential cornerstones of a successful unit for years to come.

But things can change in unanticipated ways in the NFL, and so it is that as the Patriots prepare for their first playoff opponent at the end of this week, Jones and Collins have long since been dismissed and others have emerged as leaders for both now, and potentially, the future.

"Trey's been one of the hardest workers on the team," linebacker Dont'a Hightower said of defensive tackle Trey Flowers. "He's one of the guys who's first in, last out. He stays after practice. For him to be playing the way he's playing, it doesn't surprise me at all."

Flowers emerged from a rookie season that ended on the injured reserve list to lead the 2016 Patriots in sacks with seven, adding another team-leading 12 quarterback hits and 46 tackles, including 23 solo hits.

He was practically forced into action in the first four games of the season while Rob Ninkovich sat out a four-game suspension, then proved talented enough and versatile enough to earn snaps at both end and interior tackle down the stretch run to the playoffs.

"I'm impressed, absolutely, but it's expected from a guy who works as hard as he does," Hightower said of the player that has earned the nickname of "Technique" because of his devotion to film and playbook study. "We're able to do a lot of different things with him in there. He's kind of a smaller-build guy, but he plays a lot bigger than that.

"You've seen that in the first three or four plays in the Miami game," Hightower continued. "I think he was in on every play. As long as he can continue to grow as a player and we can all just grow and learn from a lot of things that he's doing, a lot of those pass rush moves."

Flowers said he didn't pay much attention to the pundits that said his stock was rising over the course of the season.

"I just had my head down, focused, tried to do better and tried to make plays every time I'm out there," he said. "Maybe my role increased, I just made sure I was prepared for it. However many plays I get in a game, I make sure I'm productive in those plays."

Hightower has also emerged as a leader. He was the fourth-leading tackler on the team with 65 (31 solo) and had six pass defenses, as well as emerging as the defensive signal-caller.

That hasn't been the easiest thing, because the Patriots were already phasing in some new faces on defense after having traded Jones to the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason, and then again after Collins was dealt to the Cleveland Browns at midseason.

"I feel like the communication aspect is big and it's a lot better," Hightower said. "Earlier in the year, we had a lot of new pieces, even with Shea (McClellin) coming in and Chris (Long) coming in and guys moving around and playing different spots and doing things that they weren't necessarily accustomed to, and then obviously Trey coming in and stepping up as well as he's playing.

“The communication has gotten a lot better," he continued. "I think guys have gotten comfortable. I think we've kind of got that chemistry built. There have been times now that me and KV (Kyle Van Noy) can kind of just look at each other and we kind of know what to expect, what we're thinking. Whenever you get that, you can play a lot faster and kind of anticipate things. You try and get a jump on the offense."

That comfort level will be important, Hightower said, as the Patriots transition from a self-improvement week to specific preparation for their first playoff opponent.

"You want to play with passion, you want to play with emotion, but you also want to play smart," he said, "That's one thing we're able to do that's a real big key around here, especially in the Patriot Way, is smart football. All of it kind of boils down to when to play with emotion and when not to, and we have the right preparation, we do the right study and everything else, so it really comes down to execution.

"You don't want to let down your brothers and everybody that's worked so hard to get up to this point just for an emotional play," he said.

But you can forgive Flowers if he's a little emotional and excited about the coming opportunity. The Patriots' fourth-round draft pick out of Arkansas last year, he had to endure a year on the shelf before he got a real chance to prove to the coaching staff what he was capable of doing.

"It's definitely a blessing," he said. "God gave me the opportunity to come out and play. Obviously, last year was a hard year for me. That was my first time sitting out since I started playing at 7 years old, so to be able to come back and just be prepared and just be able to help my team win is a definite blessing."

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Marshal Yanda named Best Guard on Pro Football Focus 2016 All-Pro Team

By Sam Monson
January 5, 2017

With the 2016 regular season now in the books, it’s time to reflect on the season that was before we dive into playoff football.

The Pro Football Focus All-Pro team recognizes the best players at each position, with some new wrinkles this season to reflect changes in the official AP All-Pro team.

The AP has come around to PFF’s way of doing things—eliminating the archaic positions of defensive tackle, defensive end, and outside linebacker that threw wildly different players together from different schemes—and instead grouped them as edge defenders, interior defenders, and off-the-ball linebackers.

They have also added a “flex” position on offense and defense, essentially to reflect the changing personnel tendencies in the NFL. That extra offensive player can be another running back, wideout, slot receiver, fullback, or tight end, depending on who was the most deserving player that particular year; the defensive back can be a perimeter corner, slot defender, or safety.

To select this team, our analysts have drawn on all of PFF’s data, including—but not exclusively limited to—the grades, before adding the subjective expertise of our analysis team to individual players. Certain players may have made the team with a lower overall grade than others, but were outstanding in one particular area which we felt warranted the move, or their scheme asked more of them than somebody else.

With those qualifiers in mind, it’s time to reveal Pro Football Focus’ 2016 All-Pro team.

Left guard

First team: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens, 92.0 (No. 1 G)

Marshal Yanda ended the season with seven starts at left guard and six on the right side, with little discernible difference in his play on either side, executing a midseason switch seamlessly. He didn’t surrender a single sack or hit on the QB all season, and in 899 snaps of action, surrendered just six hurries. Yanda remains the standard by which all NFL guards are measured,
and despite missing time due to injury, he narrowly edges Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele, his former teammate, for the No. 1 spot at left guard. Osemele, for his part, was also excellent, surrendering no sacks and 11 total pressures in his debut season for the Raiders.

Second team: Kelechi Osemele, Oakland Raiders, 88.1 (No. 3 G)

Honorable mention: Josh Sitton, Chicago Bears, 86.2 (No. 8 G)

Rex Burkhead shines in first start for Bengals

By C. Trent Rosecrans
January 1, 2017

In Rex Burkhead’s first career start at running back, the fourth-year pro set career-bests with 27 carries, 119 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the Bengals’ 27-10 victory over the Ravens, and offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth noted it was “unfortunate” for the Bengals.

It wasn’t unfortunate for Sunday’s result, but for the team’s ability to keep Burkhead, 26, who will enter free agency for the first time this offseason.

“He's a free man and I'm sure teams are going to turn that film on and there are going to be a lot of teams that are going to be real interested in Rex Burkhead,” said Whitworth, who will enter free agency as well.

Drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, Burkhead played mostly on special teams until this season, when injuries to Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard finally gave him an opportunity to display what he could do.

“I'm confident in my skills, I knew what I can do, (I) just needed an opportunity,” Burkhead said following Sunday’s game. “For me, it came year four into the NFL, so I've been patiently waiting for it and just did my best out there when I got the chance.”

The fact he capitalized on his chance didn’t seem to surprise anyone in the Bengals’ locker room.

“He's an excellent ballplayer. He's a consummate professional,” said H-back Ryan Hewitt. “He shows up and does what he's asked to do. It's just a matter of time with guys like him. Just give him opportunities and he's going to make plays.”

It didn’t take long for him to show that ability, rushing for 17 yards on his first carry of the game.

“The more carries you get, the rhythm you get into, the game slows down,” Burkhead said. “And it takes you back to when you're younger and getting a ton of carries. It's fun.”

Burkhead noted it’d been since his college days at Nebraska that he’d recorded more than 20 carries in a game.

Getting 27 carries, Burkhead had nearly half of his career carries (60) and rushing yards (256) in just the one day.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh noticed — “Rex Burkhead is a really good player. He’s really special” — and he probably isn’t alone among teams around the league.

Hill and Bernard are still under contract for 2017, making a return by Burkhead difficult, especially if he feels he can play a larger role - and he hasn’t been given that opportunity in his four years in Cincinnati.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said he’d like to re-sign Burkhead, but with the other two already under contract and several other key pieces also needed to be resigned, it seems unlikely.

“I love it here in Cincinnati, I hope I can stay here,” Burkhead said. "So we'll just have to see what happens. It's too early to tell. I haven't really thought too much about it or seen much into it, but I like it here. I love my teammates, love the coaches. We'll just have to see what happens.”

But he wasn’t blind to what Sunday meant for his future.

“It's huge. It's very important,” he said. “I’m not going to back down and say it's not.”

Given a chance, perhaps his first 100-yard game as a pro won’t be his last.

“It was absolutely a pride factor," said Bengals guard T.J. Johnson, who roomed with Burkhead after they were drafted together in 2013. "I love Rex, I love the way he runs. He’s a guy that you want to fight for."

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Hard work and a focus on technique have paid off for Trey Flowers

By Tim Britton
January 4, 2017

FOXBORO, Mass. - A Patriots defense that had been maligned in the first half of the season ended it allowing fewer points than anybody in football. Over their final seven games of the season, the Pats allowed a total of 87 points, including only 20 in the final three weeks.

No single player is as symbolic of New England's second-half defensive revival than Trey Flowers, who has accumulated all seven of his sacks this season over the final nine games. He's no longer just a cog in a solid defensive-line rotation with Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard. He's become the line's biggest force.

Flowers' evolution this season has helped New England overcome the loss of Chandler Jones' 12.5 sacks from a season ago. Lining up both on the outside at end and the inside at tackle, Flowers has shown a unique ability to create pressure over the latter part of the season.

On the interior, he's able to mitigate his size disadvantage against bigger guards by using his long arms.

"They want to get their hands on me so I can't maneuver and squeeze my way out of it," he said. "Using my extension to not let them get my hands on me is a good part of my game."

It's unsurprising that Flowers would break down his interior success this way. This is a man whom teammates call "Technique" - a nickname that makes up for its lack of flash with an apparent sense of respect for the second-year man.

"It started off as a joke, guys kind of teasing me about how I work. I guess it stuck," Flowers said, adding he'd need to "find out the mole" after the moniker was revealed during Sunday's game broadcast. "I've always been one of those guys that always wanted to work on his craft and perfect it. Even doing extra things after practice and doing things that help me elevate my game, I've always been one to work on that."

"Trey just does a great job of playing the fundamentals the way that we want him to," defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Monday. "He's a guy that really tries to improve himself. He studies very hard, really tries to do the things the way that we want them done. He understands the scheme.

"He's a guy that's just really kind of accepted a bunch of different roles and has really tried to excel at all of them and just tried to improve every day. He's a true professional that comes in, works hard and studies, really pays attention and takes great notes."

That understanding of the scheme allows Flowers to flourish whether lining up inside or out - something he had some experience with from his college days at Arkansas.

"In this defense, you've just got to understand the scheme of things and understand that if you're in this position, you're doing this thing and in that position you're doing that thing," he said. "You've just got to be able to move in and out like that. I don't think it's tough."

All this work has clearly paid off in Flowers' second season after being selected in the fourth round in 2015. Flowers' rookie season was more or less silent. It wasn't that he didn't register a sack; he didn't register a single stat. He played only one game before hitting injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

"Obviously last year was a hard year for me. That was my first time sitting out since I started playing at seven years old," he said. "To be able to come back and just be prepared and just be able to help my team win is definitely a blessing."

With a bye this week and the next opponent still unknown, Flowers said he and his teammates are spending their time working on themselves. Why not? It's paid off all season for Technique.

Bengals Burkhead makes the most of his first career start

Free agent running back likely will draw interest from other teams

By Laurel Pfahler
January 1, 2017

Rex Burkhead knew he had to make the most of the opportunity he waited four years to get, especially with his future up in the air.

The fourth-year Cincinnati Bengals running back earned his first career start Sunday with Jeremy Hill inactive and quickly proved he belonged.

Burkhead, who is a free agent this offseason, enjoyed a career day with 119 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 27 carries to lead the Bengals to a 27-10 win over Baltimore in the season finale at Paul Brown Stadium. The Ravens had the second-best rush defense in the league.

“It was huge, very important,” Burkhead said of the timing of his best game. “I’m not going to kind of back down and say it’s not. It is. I’m excited for the future, and I like Cincinnati. I love it here. I hope I stay here, but we’ll see what happens.”

Since Giovani Bernard tore his ACL on Nov. 20 against Buffalo, Burkhead has been the team’s most effective rusher, but he was still playing behind Jeremy Hill until a knee injury limited Hill’s production in a 12-10 loss to Houston on Dec. 24.

Burkhead had 186 yards on 41 carries in his last five games before Sunday, including 12 carries for 42 yards at Houston. He had 54 yards on 11 carries in the first half against Baltimore.

“What a beast,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “That’s incredible. Rex is one of the guys everyone knows busts his butt every day, knows his assignments, fundamentally sound on special teams and offense. His number was called and he performed. I don’t think there was anyone more happy than the O-line for him. In the huddle everyone was like, C’mon, Rex. Get you one. Let’s go.’ We played hard for him and I’m happy to see he had the day he did.”

Burkhead’s first carry went for 17 yards, and it was smooth-sailing from there.

He put the Bengals on the board that first drive, scoring on a 5-yard run and dive to the end zone for his first score of the season and just his second career rushing touchdown.

“You kind of get into the zone,” Burkhead said. “Things start to slow down for you, and it kind of takes you back to when you were younger getting a bunch of touches and carries. It was fun. It was good to be out there with the guys for a lot of plays, and like I said, the offensive line did a tremendous job.”

The last time Burkhead had more than 20 carries was while playing at Nebraska.

The Bengals took him in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, and he saw action on offense in just 10 games combined his first two seasons. He had four carries last year and began this season in a bigger role on special teams with Cedric Peerman out.

“I’ve been waiting four years for it, I guess, and I was just ready to let loose,” Burkhead said. “It was a great opportunity today. The team did a great job. The offensive line did a tremendous job, Andy (Dalton) did a great job checking run plays and it was fun. I’ve just been waiting for it, and I just tried to catch the moment.”

Burkhead also capped off the scoring with a 5-yard run behind Ryan Hewitt’s block with 2:20 left. Including his 25 yards receiving, he finished with 144 yards from scrimmage in his first 100-yard rushing performance.

“Rex Burkhead showed he’s a No. 1 back in this league,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “The rush defense for (the Ravens) is tremendous. For him to run it like he did today — unfortunately for the Bengals, he’s a free man and I’m sure teams are going to turn that film on and there is a lot of teams that are interested in Rex Burkhead.”

Hill and Bernard are both set to return next season, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said “there is no question” Burkhead is a guy he would like to have going forward.

“He has continued to do what I think everybody expected Rex to do with every opportunity he has been given,” Lewis said. “He did a really good job today of running the football. He was decisive and ran the ball downhill and that’s what we are looking for. He stayed true to the plan all day, and that was great.”

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Sunday's Best

Marvin Lewis says Bengals want to re-sign impending free agent Rex Burkhead

Rex Burkhead is about to hit free agency for the first time. Will he be back in Cincinnati?

By Jason Marcum

January 2, 2017

Rex Burkhead rarely saw the field on offense during his first four years with the Bengals, and he may have played his last snap in the Queen City on Sunday.

If so, he went out with a bang, as Burkhead carried Cincinnati to a 27-10 win over Baltimore. He finished the game with a career-high 119 rushing yards on 27 carries (4.4 yard per carry average) and two touchdowns. He added two catches for 25 yards as he was the driving force behind what was just the third time the Bengals scored 27-plus points this season.

But with Cincinnati already having Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard under contract next year, it's not certain the Bengals will re-sign Burkhead this offseason, especially with guys like Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth hitting free agency.

The latter would actually like to keep blocking for Burkhead going forward.

"He proved today, man, he can run the football. I'd take him as a No. 1 any day of the week," Whitworth told "I don't think there's too many teams where he wouldn't fit. He runs the ball well. He's got great agility. He's got eyes, he's got it all. The whole team has wanted him to get his opportunity and see what he does. Especially the defensive players because they know what Rex used to do to them. He's a talented kid."

Head coach Marvin Lewis also said re-signing Burkhead was something the Bengals want to do this offseason.

"There is no question. We always like our guys (in free agency)," Lewis said. "As far as hard work, Rex is the epitome and what he does all the time and the professionalism."

Burkhead himself hasn't thought too much about his impending free agency. He's just happy he finally got a chance to show what he's made of.

As it stands, Burkhead will be one of the more intriguing free agent running backs this offseason. He has very little wear and tear on his body, but has been very productive with what little playing time he got this season.

“He has continued to do what I think everybody expected Rex to do with every opportunity he has been given,” Lewis said of Burkhead on Sunday. “He did a really good job today of running the football. He was decisive and ran the ball downhill and that’s what we are looking for. He stayed true to the plan all day and that was great.”

One would think teams in need of running backs will offer Burkhead a nice one-year deal that pays him like a starter or high-priced backup. Plenty of NFL teams pay their No. 2 backs good money. Just look at the Bengals who are paying Bernard more than $4 million annually.

This season, Burkhead tallied 344 yards and 2 touchdowns on 74 rushing attempts, averaging an impressive 4.64 yards per carry. Comparatively, Jeremy Hill notched 839 yards on 222 attempts with 9 touchdowns, good for a 3.8 yard per carry average. Takeaway Hill's two best games against the 1-15 Browns, and his stats are far less impressive and his yard per carry average falls to 2.97. That’s essentially unacceptable for an NFL starting running back. 27 of Burkhead's 47 rushing attempts this season came on Sunday; it's really a shame the bulk of his carries came in a meaningless game and that the Bengals didn’t utilize his talent when it mattered more for the season.

But with Bernard recovering from an ACL tear and Hill having his worst season as pro while hitting a contract year in 2017, re-signing Burkhead is something the Bengals will try to get done. We just probably won't know how it turns out until after free agency starts in March and Burkhead tests out the waters on the open market.

Patriots' success owes much to a transformed defense

HEAT’S ON: Trey Flowers puts pressure on Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore.

Changes key to unit's prominent role

By Jeff Howe

January 3, 2017

The Patriots believe that all season they were overlooked and underappreciated on defense. Through all that, they allowed 15.6 points per game, the best mark in the NFL in the last three years.

The Pats traded marquee pieces Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins and dealt with other bouts of adversity along the way. From Week 11 on, they ranked first in points allowed (12.4), fifth in takeaways and sixth in sacks (18).

Here is how the defense transformed and improved, particularly during their current seven-game winning streak:

Linebacker rotation

The Patriots were scrambling to find Dont’a Hightower’s running mate after trading Collins, and prematurely vaulted Elandon Roberts into a prominent role. The undrafted rookie played well in spurts earlier in the season, but was exposed in Weeks 8-11, which led to the combination of Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy.

McClellin is ever-steady, and makes the occasionally loud play, most recently by returning a back-breaking fumble 69 yards against the Miami. He also has a couple of blocked kicks and rarely finds himself out of position. Van Noy still struggles in coverage, notably by allowing Miami’s Kenny Stills’ free release on a 25-yard touchdown Sunday, but he has a sack, four pressures, a forced fumble, drawn holding penalty and two run stuffs since cracking the lineup in Week 11.

Hightower, a first-time Pro Bowler, settled back into his role as the field general without needing to be as concerned with the guy next to him.

Corner adjustments

Coach Bill Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia rotated their cornerbacks the first two months of the season because they wanted to see who would emerge behind Malcolm Butler, who took a major step forward this season.

Finally, in Week 11, they settled on Eric Rowe as the right corner and Logan Ryan in the slot. Ryan has been the greatest beneficiary because he thrives when given a consistent role. Since then, quarterbacks targeting Ryan went 14-of-34 (41.2 percent) for 129 yards (18.4 per game), no touchdowns and two interceptions, and he had a team-high five pass breakups. Rowe has surrendered 11 completions on 28 attempts (39.3 percent) for 129 yards (21.5 per game), no touchdowns and one pick, and he added three breakups.

Butler has been terrific, allowing two or fewer catches in nine games, including Sunday. He allowed fewer catches (48), a lower completion percentage (52.7 percent), fewer touchdowns (four), committed fewer coverage penalties (three) and increased his interceptions (four) and matched his pass breakups (14) in 2016. And since a rough day against the Jets in Week 12, Butler has surrendered eight catches on 17 targets (47.1 completion percentage) for 141 yards (28.2 per game) with three interceptions and three pass breakups.

Elevating Flowers

The Patriots featured Trey Flowers along the defensive line during the second half. The second-year defensive end led the team with seven sacks, all since Week 8, and six originated from an interior rushing position. He had two quarterback hits from the inside against the Dolphins, too.

By thrusting Flowers into the starting role, the Patriots got the luxury of reducing snaps for Rob Ninkovich and Chris Long, who don’t play like they’re on the wrong side of 30 because of those additional resting points.

Just look at the results since Ninkovich and Long appeared to dip midway through October. Since Week 8, Long has three sacks, three quarterback hits, 11 pressures, one forced fumble and a batted pass, and he forced two holding penalties. Ninkovich has four sacks, two quarterback hits, 10 pressures, a forced fumble and a batted pass.

Jabaal Sheard’s re-emergence has also been crucial, particularly since his benching two weeks after the Collins trade raised many an eyebrow. Since, he has 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits, five pressures, a forced intentional grounding and a drawn hold.

Flying McCourty

Devin McCourty has been more of a playmaker since Week 13, though it doesn’t appear to be the result of a schematic change. The three-time Pro Bowler is simply around the ball with greater frequency. The safety had an interception, three pass breakups, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a run stuff during that span. Prior, he only had two breakups and one run stuff.

McCourty essentially has clinched a pair of victories in the last three weeks, delivering a jarring hit to Demaryius Thomas to break up a fourth-down pass against the Broncos and then forcing Damien Williams’ fumble in the fourth quarter against Miami.

Masters of disguise

The Patriots have noticeably increased their zone looks on the back end, and those assignments have really tightened up since the loss to the Seahawks. It’s confused quarterbacks, and Ryan showed the benefit of their increased comfort Sunday by peeling back and picking off Matt Moore.

It’s been a key up front, too. There are plenty of occasions in every game when edge defenders such as Ninkovich, Long, Flowers, Sheard, McClellin and Van Noy have various coverage assignments.

By stacking their front with versatile, interchangeable players, the Patriots can be a nightmare when they disguise their coverage and blitz assignments.

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