- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. The Patriots have scored five touchdowns in six trips inside the red zone since tight end Rob Gronkowski returned to the lineup on Oct. 20 against the New York Jets. Before Gronkowski’s return, they had scored just nine touchdowns in 22 trips. Coincidence? Not in the least. While Gronkowski is still working his way toward a full load of snaps played, one thing that has stood out from watching all the team's red zone snaps over the past two weeks is how Gronkowski is drawing considerable attention from the opponent, opening opportunities for others.
2. As recently as one week ago, I don’t think the Patriots or veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly were thinking season-ending injured reserve would be the end result from his Oct. 6 right knee injury. Kelly said after that game that he didn’t think it was anything too serious, although the knee flared up soon after. Then when we saw Kelly in the locker room late last week, he told reporters respectfully that he’d look forward to talking to them once he returned. It wasn’t a question of if at that point. Kelly returned to practice on a limited basis this past Wednesday and Thursday, and it appears he had a setback at that time.
3. The NFL flexed the Week 11 game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos in Denver to Sunday night, and the change was especially notable from this perspective because the Broncos travel to New England in Week 12. So they’ll be coming off a hyped Sunday night home prime-time game against one of the best teams in the league, while the Patriots will be on a short week after a Monday night game at Carolina. When the NFL schedule was released in April, the games preceding the highly anticipated Patriots-Broncos game seemed to favor the Broncos (Who had the Chiefs at 8-0?), mainly because the Patriots would have a shorter week of preparation. The picture looks a bit different now after the Chiefs' hot start.
4. If I’m Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, I’m asking some hard questions to my football people on how money is being spent after nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth-round draft choice were traded to the Patriots for a fifth-round draft choice. In March, the Eagles had signed Sopoaga to a three-year, $11 million contract that included a $2.75 signing bonus and a $1 million base salary in 2013. So the Eagles ultimately paid Sopoaga $3.25 million for eight games. We often talk about value, and this is, in many ways, the antithesis of it. Then there was the three-year, $10 million deal for former Patriots safety Patrick Chung, which included $4.25 million in bonuses and guarantees. Another head-scratcher.
5. As for the Patriots and Sopoaga, Bill Belichick explained on "Patriots All-Access" that he felt the team didn’t have a true nose tackle on the roster after Vince Wilfork’s season-ending injury Sept. 29, and that’s what Sopoaga has played over his career. Something will have to give next year at the position, as Wilfork is due $7.5 million in the final year of his contract and Sopoaga is scheduled to earn $3.75 million. It’s hard to imagine both of them on the roster at those salaries. Also, the Patriots haven’t selected a nose tackle since tabbing Ron Brace in the second round of the 2009 draft (he didn't pan out), so it is an area they figure to explore aggressively in 2014.
6. Some media observers in Philadelphia have opined that Sopoaga might not have much gas left in the tank, and Patriots followers can only hope that they are as wrong as some of the top media-based opinion shapers in Boston when it came to the 2013 Red Sox. Regardless, ESPN Stats & Information points out that one thing teams with Sopoaga have been able to count on is an improved run defense, which the Patriots need after allowing 130 rushing yards in all four games since losing Wilfork on Sept. 29. When Sopoaga was on the field for the 49ers and Eagles from 2008 to 2013, opponents averaged 3.4 yards per carry, which was the lowest mark in the NFL over that span. When Sopoaga wasn’t on the field over that span, the number increased to 4.1.
7. After watching the Miami Dolphins twice in a span of five days -- first in a 27-17 loss to the Patriots, then in a 22-20 home win over the Bengals -- it makes one wonder what general manager Jeff Ireland was thinking in trading up to select defensive end Dion Jordan with the No. 3 overall pick. It’s not so much about Jordan as much as it was overlooking a more important (and needed) position. Picture offensive tackle Lane Johnson on that offensive line, and maybe quarterback Ryan Tannehill isn’t running for his life as much as he has this season. (He was sacked a league-high 32 times entering Week 9.) From afar, it looks like Ireland badly underestimated the need along the line.
8a. Did you Know, Part I: Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard has played more defensive snaps this season (543 by our count, including penalties) than any other seventh-round draft choice from 2010 to 2013. On top of that, since we’ve seen them all, we’d feel confident saying that not only has Dennard played the most snaps of any seventh-rounder, they’ve been the most quality snaps, too.
8b. Did you Know, Part II: The combined winning percentage of teams that the 8-0 Chiefs have faced this season is .328, the lowest mark in the NFL. But things are about to get tougher, it seems. Their remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of .593.
8c. Did you Know, Part III: The Chargers, who visit the Redskins on Sunday, have won seven straight games against NFC East teams.
8d. Did you Know, Part IV: The Patriots (152-48) and Pittsburgh Steelers (128-70) have the first- and third-best records in the NFL from 2001-present. They are also first and second in playoff wins over that span, with 17 and 12, respectively.
8e. Did you Know, Part V: Patriots rookie receivers have run 487 pass routes this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, easily a league high (Cowboys next at 320). In 2011 and 2012, the Patriots had rookie receivers run a combined 84 pass routes.
9. Two Patriots leftovers from the week: I’m not sure what veteran defensive end Andre Carter will give the Patriots on the field this season (19 snaps in his debut last week), but if there was one part of the must-see "Patriots All-Access" program that stood out to me this week, it was that Carter was leading pregame huddles and was firing up his teammates on the sideline. That presence is needed for a unit that has now lost veterans Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Kelly to season-ending injuries. ... Practice-squad safety Kanorris Davis spent a good part of the week of practice playing the role of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. Receiver Danny Amendola said that Polamalu’s instinctiveness and unpredictability make him one of the hardest players in the NFL to prepare for.
10. One of the things that stood out most from the Patriots’ defensive performance last Sunday against the Dolphins was how they broke out of character and turned to the blitz. According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, the Patriots had sent five or more rushers on 59 snaps through the first seven games of the season, which was an average of 12 percent of their overall snaps. That ranked them 29th in the NFL in terms of blitzing. But against the Dolphins, the Patriots sent five or more rushers 29 times. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar total Sunday against the Steelers, because similar to the Dolphins, their offensive line has struggled at times this season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 26 times this season, the fourth-highest total in the NFL.