AFC East: Steve Gregory

Thoughts on Steve Gregory release

February, 28, 2014
Sharing some thoughts on the New England Patriots releasing safety Steve Gregory:

Finances play a big role: Gregory was a lightning rod among fans based on his play and some missed tackles, but I don't think this move can be boiled down solely to his performance. It's more about the play relative to salary, as Gregory was scheduled to earn $2.25 million in base salary in 2013 and the Patriots will save $2.85 million on their cap by releasing him. Gregory played 72.7 percent of the defensive snaps last season and was touted by teammates as being one of the smartest players they've been around. Gregory will almost certainly play somewhere in 2014, it just won't be at those numbers.

Why not take a pay cut? With that in mind, the question comes to the forefront: Why wouldn't the Patriots approach Gregory about taking a pay cut? My understanding is that the team didn't and I'd file it into the category of them not wanting to disrespect a veteran player like Gregory (8 seasons) because any reduction would likely be closer to the veteran minimum. If Gregory doesn't get more than that elsewhere, I would say the door is still open on his return depending on what other pieces fall into place. It's easier for a player to accept that type of cut when there is the realization the other 31 teams assign him a similar value.

Gregory's take: I caught up with Gregory briefly on Friday afternoon and his remarks were complimentary of the Patriots. "I had a great time in New England and respect the organization a lot," he said. "It was time well-spent and I learned a lot. Obviously, you never want to get released from a team. There will be other opportunities and it's on good terms. ...The fans were great. The whole atmosphere out there was unbelievable. It was a great time of my life that I'll always remember.”

Harmon is next man up: Duron Harmon, the Patriots' 2013 third-round pick out of Rutgers, is the next man on the depth chart. The 6-foot-0, 205-pound Harmon played 36.9 percent of the defensive snaps last season, starting three games when Gregory was sidelined with a broken thumb. The Patriots could still add to the position in free agency or the draft, with free agency the deeper and more expensive option. At this point, Harmon would seem to have the inside track on a top role. Third-year player Tavon Wilson, who slid down the depth chart in 2013, is also at the position. Veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who spent last year on injured reserve and seemed to be in jeopardy of not making the club at the end of preseason, is also currently on the roster.

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 22, 2013
BALTIMORE -- Sharing some halftime thoughts of the New England Patriots' game against the Ravens (New England leads 17-0):

One of Patriots' best halves of the season: This has been, across the board, some of the best football the Patriots have played this season. All three phases are getting it done. On offense, a commitment to the ground game has stood out. On defense, the turnovers are back. And the special teams coverage has been outstanding, sparked by captain Matthew Slater. For the Ravens, quarterback Joe Flacco doesn't look completely comfortable.

Replay review critical for Patriots: Danny Amendola's late second-quarter fumble was overturned on replay, which was crucial for the Patriots because it could have been a momentum-swinging turn of events -- the Ravens getting the ball on a short field and then at the start of the third quarter. Turnovers are such a big part of the action, as we saw in the first quarter for the Patriots (Logan Ryan interception sets up the second touchdown).

Red-zone struggles corrected: One of the big storylines entering the game was the Patriots' red-zone performance (1 of 4 vs. Miami). They are 2 of 2 today, with a power running game (LeGarrette Blount) and then a well-designed pass play (Shane Vereen) the successful formula.

A lot of penalties: Ron Winter's crew has been busy tonight. It's always difficult to tell while watching live if all the calls are warranted, but our general preference are games with fewer flags. It seemed like a long half because of it, with little flow. This reminds us of the 2009 Patriots-Ravens regular-season game, in Foxborough, in which Winter was also the referee.

Injuries to monitor: Vereen left in the second quarter with a groin injury and has not returned. Brandon Bolden has assumed his role as the top "passing back." ... Safety Steve Gregory left in the second quarter with what looked like a right knee/leg injury. It looked signficant, and rookie Duron Harmon took his place. ... Linebacker Dont'a Hightower left the game briefly in the second quarter, but returned.

Ravens get the ball: The Patriots had called heads at the opening toss and it came up tails, with the Ravens deferring the choice to the second half. So the Ravens get the ball to open the second half.

Ups and downs for the Patriots

December, 15, 2013
MIAMI -- At an initial glance, a look at which players were "up" in the Patriots' game against the Dolphins and those at the opposite end of the spectrum:


Julian Edelman: On the field where he broke his foot last year, receiver delivers with another big game.

Michael Hoomanawanui: Tight end's 13-yard, one-handed touchdown grab late in the second quarter is one for the highlight reel.

Aqib Talib: Cornerback who often aligns on the inside part of the field, likely with the idea of taking away the Dolphins' middle-of-the-field passing game, isn't heard from often.


Josh Boyce: Rookie receiver can't come up with two catches against tight coverage, one of which came in the end zone.

Marquice Cole/Steve Gregory: Defensive backs are in coverage on Mike Wallace's 39-yard catch-and-run touchdown at the end of the second quarter.

Dane Fletcher: Linebacker is flagged for a critical pass-interference penalty on third down late in the third quarter.

Stephen Gostkowski: After the Patriots go ahead 20-17, sends his kickoff out of bounds, giving the Dolphins the ball at the 40.

Patriots don't have time to lick wounds

November, 19, 2013

Call it a case of football déjà vu.

Four weeks ago, the New England Patriots found themselves with more questions than answers relating to a controversial penalty call in an overtime loss to the New York Jets, with a matchup against a divisional rival ahead of them.

Today, questions remain over a controversial non-call that proved costly for the Patriots in their 24-20 Monday night defeat at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, and a high-powered passing attack now waits in the wings.

There’s nothing that can be done to atone for what looked like an obvious officiating error (the league stands by the call), and there’s no time for disappointment within the walls of Gillette Stadium.

That’s because the Patriots will welcome the Denver Broncos and their 39.8 points per game to Gillette this Sunday for one of the most highly anticipated games of the regular season.

As if the challenge of facing the Broncos on its own were not enough, the Patriots have a short week to do so, as they’re already a day behind after playing on Monday night. The players received their customary day off on Tuesday, meaning they’ll likely spend little -- if any -- time reviewing Monday night’s defeat, focusing instead on what lies ahead with Denver.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas is one of three Broncos with at least nine touchdown receptions.
The Broncos, riding high at 9-1 and fresh off of a win over the Kansas City Chiefs, own the AFC’s best record (by virtue of a tiebreaker over the Chiefs) with an eye toward a top-two seed in the conference for a first-round playoff bye.

It won’t be hard for Bill Belichick and his staff to size up the challenge ahead, as the Broncos are on pace to score nearly 50 more points than the Patriots did during their record-setting 2007 regular season.

Peyton Manning is on pace to break Tom Brady’s record for touchdown passes in a season, and the Broncos have three players who already have at least nine touchdown receptions this season (there are just five such players in total).

Manning is the orchestrator of the offense that has endured the loss of its best lineman, left tackle Ryan Clady, and still has surpassed 40 points in five games this season. His cast of receivers is unrivaled, with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker dominating the perimeter, while old Patriot Wes Welker and upstart tight end Julius Thomas present a nightmarish duo in the middle of the field. Welker's status for Sunday's game is uncertain, however, as he suffered a concussion in the win over the Chiefs.

This offense would be a challenge for the Patriots to contain even if they were at full strength, but the defense is dealing with injuries to each of its top three cornerbacks. Aqib Talib (hip) was forced out late in Monday night’s game, Alfonzo Dennard (knee) sat it out entirely and Kyle Arrington (groin) had to leave the game temporarily for stretch and recuperation. Their status for Sunday is unknown, but it’s fair to assume the secondary won’t be at 100 percent. Add in the potential absence of starting safety Steve Gregory (thumb), and the Patriots will have their hands full while possibly leaning on reserve-level players.

It’s nothing new for the Patriots, as they’ve weathered a litany of injuries already in 2013, led by season-enders to nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo. Those have led to the ascension of little-known players such as Joe Vellano and Chris Jones in addition to the acquisition of veteran defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga.

The Broncos aren’t an imbalanced foe, however. The defense doesn’t draw the same attention as the offense, but for the second consecutive week the Patriots will have their hands full with a pair of talented edge rushers, Von Miller and Shaun Phillips. And though the numbers are slightly skewed because they are so often playing with a sizable lead, the Broncos also boast one of the stingier run defenses, surrendering just 92.7 yards per contest.

Simply put, getting things going against this defense is no small feat.

Following their last controversial finish, the Patriots started slowly against the Miami Dolphins, falling behind 14-0 early. The Patriots flexed their resolve in scoring 27 of the game’s final 30 points, catapulting them past their AFC East rival and putting to bed any lingering disappointment from the Jets game.

Falling behind against the Broncos is a recipe for trouble, something the Patriots are well aware of.

So that’s why, as difficult as it may be given the circumstances surrounding Monday night’s defeat, the Patriots have no time to feel bad for themselves.

With Peyton & Co. coming, the Patriots know it’s time to go to work.

Injury report: Gregory the only absence

November, 14, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots safety Steve Gregory was the only player not to practice Thursday as he continues to recover from a thumb injury sustained in Week 9. It is unclear whether Gregory will be able to play on Monday night when the team travels to Carolina.

Cornerback Aqib Talib led the list of six players who practiced on a limited basis, joined by fellow cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who continues to be limited by a hamstring injury to go with his recovery from offseason back and forearm surgeries.

Talib has not played since Week 6, though he sounded upbeat Thursday in talking to reporters for the first time since the injury, declaring himself "day-to-day."

Wide receiver Danny Amendola was a full participant in practice for the first time since suffering a groin injury in Week 1, as was quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder).

The Patriots will take the practice field on Friday for their third of four practices this week.


Quick-hit thoughts after first quarter

October, 27, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After 15 minutes of play, the New England Patriots trail the Miami Dolphins, 7-0. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the first quarter.

1. Brady picked on first throw. On his first throw of the afternoon, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted by Dolphins cornerback Dimitri Patterson. It wasn't the start Brady was looking for, as it gave the Dolphins the ball at the Patriots' 40-yard line. The turnover was particularly costly, as it led to a Miami touchdown just minutes later.

2. Blount the lead back early. Despite scores in each of the past two games, Stevan Ridley was not the starter in the Patriots' backfield, as LeGarrette Blount earned the start. Ridley didn't play a single snap in the first quarter.

3. Offensive struggles persist. Two-plus drives, and just about nothing for the Patriots' offense. The offense looked out of sync early, and although he didn't have many opportunities, it's possible that Brady is working through discomfort on his right hand. Though it was not listed on the injury report, Brady did have two fingers taped together during a photo on Saturday.

4. Gregory wearing green dot. Safety Steve Gregory is wearing the green dot on the back of his helmet, a sign that he is the on-field point of communication for the coaches. He's responsible for making the defensive calls in the huddle, a previous duty for Jerod Mayo. Last week, Dont'a Hightower wore the green dot.

5. Penalty box. No Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots altered their defensive strategy in Sunday’s 23-3 victory over the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers, turning to an outside-the-norm game plan that highlighted the value of a clear-cut No. 1 cornerback coupled with some coaching creativity.

It started early in the week when defensive coordinator Matt Patricia pointed in Aqib Talib’s direction and told him that dangerous Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson was all his.

“That’s what Matty P said -- that was going to be my task this week,” Talib relayed after the game, saying he buried himself in tape of Jackson over the last seven days. “That’s love. That’s what you want to hear. My coach tells me to go get their No. 1 target; I take pride in that kind of stuff.”

It’s been a while since the Patriots had a cornerback capable of handling such a responsibility. With respect to Asante Samuel, who was a top playmaker, but not necessarily a man-to-man stopper, it’s probably been since Ty Law was patrolling the New England secondary (1995-2004) that coaches could employ such a plan with confidence.

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesAqib Talib is proving to be a shutdown corner, as the Buccaneers found out.
So it’s not overstating things to say Talib has been a big-time difference maker for the Patriots since he was acquired from the Buccaneers last November.

“It’s great. Being able to put him on [Jackson] and know he’s going to be able to handle him pretty well is definitely a big thing and a big addition for our defense,” veteran safety Steve Gregory said.

That was the first part of the Patriots’ plan on Sunday, with Jackson totaling three catches for 34 yards before leaving in the second half with injured ribs. The second part, and this is where the creativity came into play, was how the defense matched up against the Buccaneers’ three-receiver package.

Most weeks, the Patriots will be in their nickel defense (five defensive backs) against the three-receiver package, which lightens the box against the run but adds help in the passing game. On Sunday, the Patriots switched things up by subbing out Gregory at safety for a third cornerback (Alfonzo Dennard), while keeping their front seven intact.

That gave them a little more of a coverage element in the secondary without adding an extra defensive back, but kept them sturdy in the box against slippery Doug Martin (20 carries, 88 yards) and the Buccaneers’ running game.

“Those are two premier players in this league and you need to understand where they are on the field and be able to contain them if you want to beat a team like that,” Gregory explained. “It starts with stopping the run. We were able to execute our game plan pretty well today and limit those guys with what they could do.”

The Patriots’ defensive work included three stops on fourth down (two of which turned into touchdowns and one into a field goal), a Talib interception that set up an end-of-the-first-half 53-yard field goal, and two stops inside the 20-yard line. So while the Buccaneers chewed up yards at times, the Patriots won the critical situations. Some ineptitude by the Buccaneers also helped the cause.

The performance capped a strong three-game stretch for the Patriots’ defense, which has had to carry more of the slack than usual as the offense has struggled to shift into the high gear that New England fans have grown accustomed to seeing. At the same time, even players themselves seemed to realize that it’s one thing to do it against the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Buccaneers, and another to do so against what is ahead.

Next up: The Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night.

“If we hold Atlanta to three points, we will have played a hell of a game,” admitted veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. “We’re just going to try to keep those boys out of the end zone -- Julio Jones, Roddy White, they’re a lot to handle.

“If you can’t get up to play against Atlanta -- hey, they’re going to throw the ball, you’re going to get a chance to hit the quarterback, as a D-lineman your eyes have to light up. I’m looking forward to it.”

Maybe then Kelly will be more willing to declare this Patriots defense as one developing an attitude similar to the units that were big parts of three Super Bowl championships in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

For now, it’s being viewed as a promising start, with Sunday showing the combination of a clear-cut No. 1 cornerback and some coaching creativity can be a winning formula when the team’s own offense is still searching for its identity.

Ups and downs for the Patriots

September, 13, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- An initial look at New England Patriots players whose performance was in the "up" category and those at the opposite end of the spectrum following a 13-10 victory over the New York Jets:


Steve Gregory: Safety has been a solid tackler, and shows up with solid support against the run.

Julian Edelman: With Danny Amendola sidelined, Edelman steps up and is Tom Brady's most reliable and consistent target.

Aqib Talib: Cornerback intercepts two passes and forces a fumble that sets up a field goal.


Aaron Dobson: Rookie receiver scores a touchdown on his first career play, but also has a dropped ball on a long pass and can't get on the same page with Brady.

Jerod Mayo: Linebacker looks like he's a step behind in coverage.

Brandon Spikes: Linebacker struggles in coverage and isn't a big factor against the run.

Quick-hit thoughts after first quarter

September, 12, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – After 15 minutes of play, the New England Patriots lead the New York Jets 10-3. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the first quarter:

1. Offense starts fast. No Amendola, Gronk and Vereen? No problem, at least to start, as Tom Brady found rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson for a 39-yard touchdown on the team's opening drive. Dobson was untouched and uncovered on the play, taking his first career catch for a score. The offense started with two backs and two receivers on the field, with fullback James Develin getting some early offensive run.

2. Talib forces Hill fumble. The Jets looked to have a big play on their hands when quarterback Geno Smith hooked up with Stephen Hill up the seam, but New England cornerback Aqib Talib saved his defense by forcing a fumble that was scooped up by Devin McCourty and returned deep into Jets territory. The end result: a chip-shot field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to put the Patriots up 10-0.

3. Jets claw back. The Jets, briefly, cut the lead to 10-6, though a touchdown throw from Smith to Clyde Gates was called an incompletion after a video review. Smith deserves credit for putting together an impressive drive, standing tall in the pocket and delivering a couple of solid throws.

4. Connolly, Gregory each banged up. Both eventually returned to the game, but right guard Dan Connolly and safety Steve Gregory had to receive medical attention during the first quarter. Hard to tell specifically what they were dealing with, but it looked like a left-hand issue for Connolly. Marcus Cannon stepped in for Connolly, while rookie Duron Harmon took Gregory's place.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter: offensive tackle Nate Solder (holding; declined) and defensive end Chandler Jones (roughing the passer).
After reviewing the first quarter of the Patriots’ 40-9 loss to the Lions, some picked-up pieces and observations:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Patriots' compact formations gave the Lions a numbers advantage in the box.
1. The Patriots' offense opened the game with a focus on compact formations. On their first play, a Stevan Ridley run for no gain, tight end Zach Sudfeld initially lined up in a lead-blocking fullback position before motioning to the left side of the line as a wing (a step behind the line of scrimmage and standing up). Tight end Jake Ballard was aligned in a similar position to the right side, although he crouched before the snap, almost as if he was on the field-goal protection unit. Receivers Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins aligned closer to the line of scrimmage, giving a true run-based look. The compact alignment brought safety Louis Delmas into the box before Tom Brady snapped the ball, giving Detroit a numbers advantage in the box -- 8 on 7. It’s hard for an offense to win in those situations, especially against a powerful defensive front like the Lions.

2. Edelman is one of the Patriots’ better blocking receivers, and in opening the game in some compact alignments, it seemed as if the Patriots were hoping to play to Edelman’s strengths in this area. But on a Ridley run for minus-1 yard on the Patriots’ third snap, Edelman looked to be responsible for picking up safety Louis Delmas, who again came down into the box and nicely timed the snap before surging through the defensive right side. Edelman couldn’t get over quick enough, in part because his path was altered as Ballard was engaged with Lions rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah and had been pushed back by a strong initial punch from Ansah. Unblocked, Delmas easily made the tackle. From Ridley’s perspective, this was a good example of how there was often simply nowhere to run.

3. The local broadcast crew on WBZ-TV had a nice isolation shot of Thompkins on his first catch, a 37-yarder down the left sideline in the first quarter. It showed Thompkins’ terrific footwork at the start of his route to get off the line of scrimmage and gain initial separation on Lions cornerback Darius Slay (second-round pick, Mississippi State). When it comes to receivers, plenty of focus is placed on 40 times and leaping ability, but the subtleties of route-running can sometimes be overlooked. Thompkins has struck us as a tactician in training camp, and this was a perfect example of that. It helped that Brady made a pre-snap adjustment after reading the defense, knowing he had Thompkins against man-coverage in a spot where the safety had a long way to go to help. Looked like a sharp pre-snap call by Brady, followed by an excellent throw. But it all started with Thompkins’ ability to get off the line cleanly.

4. On the play in which Sudfeld lost a fumble to end what had been a promising opening drive, the Patriots aligned both Sudfeld and Ballard to the right side of the line in a run-based look (YY wing). Receivers Aaron Dobson and Edelman were split wide to the left side. The Lions again had eight defenders in the box and when Brady executed a play-action to Stevan Ridley, the Lions’ linebackers had committed to the point that it opened a wide space between the linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field, which is what Sudfeld, up the seam, exploited. Everything about the play appeared to be perfectly executed ... except for the fumble. Some credit goes to Lions safety Glover Quin for jarring the ball free, but it still seemed as if Sudfeld could have tucked the ball away tighter.

5. One follow-up on Sudfeld: We’ve talked a lot about his pass-catching abilities, which look like they are at competitive NFL levels, but haven’t focused as much on his blocking and how that is probably the one area that calls for the most development. On the play in which Thompkins dropped a pass to end the Patriots’ second drive, Sudfeld, initially lined as a wingback on the left side was called upon to block fourth-year end Willie Young one-on-one. Young got him off balance and closed in quickly on Brady, speeding up Brady's clock to get rid of the football. For Sudfeld to be viewed as more of a pure tight end, as opposed to a receiver playing tight end, this is the area to focus on. On Brandon Bolden's 6-yard run with four minutes left in the quarter, Sudfeld had a nice seal block on end Jason Jones, showing he’s willing to mix it up.

6. Lions running back Reggie Bush is dangerous in space, as the Patriots experienced on his 67-yard catch-and run on third-and-10 with 9:18 left in the first quarter. The Patriots were in a dime package (6 defensive backs), with linebacker Jerod Mayo entering for his first play of the game along with Adrian Wilson, the safety who aligned to the left of Mayo in a linebacker-type role. Those were the two defenders who had the best chance to limit Bush’s yards after the catch, but both over-pursued toward the sideline, leaving Bush the inside part of the field to shake free. Safety Steve Gregory had blitzed as a fifth rusher off the defensive right side, forcing a quick release from quarterback Matthew Stafford, so between the blitz and the over-pursuit by Mayo and Wilson, it led to the big play. It looked like a good play-call by the Lions against the blitz, but still one that shouldn't have gone for 67.

7. End Rob Ninkovich looked like one of the team’s best defensive players, and a three-play series on the Lions’ second drive highlighted his versatility. On first down, he was unblocked off the left side as Stafford handed off to Bush, and Ninkovich brought down Bush -- who could have had an open cutback lane if Ninkovich hadn’t maintained his edge -- for a loss of minus-4 yards. On the next play, Ninkovich was dropping back into coverage (incomplete pass). Then on third down, he initially rushed, but when the ball was out quickly, he chased down Bush from behind and was credited with a tackle that forced a punt. Ninkovich wears Mike Vrabel’s old No. 50 jersey and the more you watch him, you can see some similarities. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be catching passes as a goal-line tight end next week.

8. Veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is a powerful presence at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, and plays with what Bill Belichick described as “long levers.” On a “sudden change” situation, in which the Patriots’ defense had to stem the momentum after Bolden lost a fumble at the New England 19 with 3:21 remaining, Kelly simply powered his way through rookie right guard Larry Warford. Too powerful -- the veteran schooling the youngster on how it’s done. With Kelly on the interior, the Patriots have the potential to get more interior penetration in 2013. He looks like a decisive upgrade over last year’s co-starters Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love.

Defensive snaps: Gregory & McCourty

August, 23, 2013
DETROIT -- A look at the snaps played by Patriots defenders in the first half, when most of the top players were in the game, and analyzing what it might mean (includes penalties):

CB Kyle Arrington -- 36 of 36
S Steve Gregory -- 36 of 36
DE Chandler Jones -- 36 of 36
DE Rob Ninkovich -- 36 of 36
CB Aqib Talib -- 36 of 36
DT Tommy Kelly -- 26 of 36
LB Dont'a Hightower -- 23 of 36
LB Brandon Spikes -- 23 of 36
DT Joe Vellano -- 23 of 36
CB Logan Ryan -- 19 of 36
S Duron Harmon -- 18 of 36
S Devin McCourty -- 16 of 36
S Adrian Wilson -- 15 of 36
DE Marcus Benard -- 13 of 36
LB Jerod Mayo -- 13 of 36
LB Jamie Collins -- 11 of 36
DT Marcus Forston -- 10 of 36
LB Dane Fletcher -- 6 of 36

QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: The biggest personnel notes on defense were with starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork being held out of the game, which gave the coaching staff an extended look at rookie free-agent Joe Vellano. Also, starting linebacker Jerod Mayo only played in the dime package, so rookie Jamie Collins started alongside Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower and Dane Fletcher also came on for two series in the base defense. ... Against a strong vertical passing offense, it's probably not a coincidence that Steve Gregory got the start next to Devin McCourty at safety as they are considered the team's best cover safeties. It will be interesting to see if that changes against teams who aren't as threatening in that area of the game, which could open the door for a bigger safety (e.g. Adrian Wilson) to step in to that role. Wilson played solely in the dime package in the first half, in a linebacker-type role. That bumped Tavon Wilson out of that spot. ... Rookie Logan Ryan served as the fifth defensive back in the nickel. ... McCourty's playing time was limited as it was his first action this preseason as he's been managed closely after offseason shoulder surgery. ... Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, as expected, are the top ends and they won't come off the field often. ... Tommy Kelly looks like a difference-maker at defensive tackle and the type of player who would never leave the field, but the Patriots probably want to find some time to give him a breather at times, which is what we saw Thursday night. ... Marcus Benard came on in sub situations as an interior rusher, which was the niche that Jermaine Cunningham (currently injured) had carved out for himself early in 2012.
Mark SanchezWilliam Perlman/US PresswireMark Sanchez hopes to put a miserable 2012 season behind him this coming fall.
New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez's lowest moment happened on Thanksgiving night last season against the rival New England Patriots.

In a nationally televised game, Sanchez attempted to hand off the ball to a running back who wasn't there and panicked. Instead of sliding or taking a knee, Sanchez made it worse by deciding to become the running back. He ran directly into the large backside of starting guard Brandon Moore and fumbled the football, which was returned for a touchdown by Patriots safety Steve Gregory.

The play is infamously known as the "butt fumble." But it also serves as a watershed mark in Sanchez's NFL career.

This is the play that will define Sanchez if he's unable to revive his career, which many believe is already over. But he has a guaranteed salary of $8.25 million, so Sanchez is getting one final chance to silence the critics and start for the Jets in 2013.

"As far as the emotional side, my heart and soul is into this, and I was just excited to see a bunch of guys on the team again and get ready to get going," Sanchez said on a conference call this week to kick off New York’s offseason program. "That’s really where my head is at. I’m fired up about this year, and I hope it’s a good one."

Few quarterbacks have received more opportunities the past few years than Sanchez. His NFL career has been a roller-coaster ride.

Sanchez struggled as a rookie in 2009 and threw more interceptions (20) than touchdowns (12). But the Jets stuck with Sanchez, and he got better during the playoffs, leading the Jets to his first AFC title game. Sanchez maintained that momentum in 2010 and led New York to another AFC title game. But Sanchez hit rock bottom in 2012 when he recorded the league's lowest Total Quarterback Rating (23.4) and was eventually benched for third-string backup Greg McElroy.

As a result, this is the first summer since Sanchez’s rookie year when he will not be handed the starting job. Sanchez must earn it by beating out veteran free agent David Garrard.

Sanchez will be playing for his third offensive coordinator in three years. He’s struggled under former offensive coordinators Brian Schottenheimer and Tony Sparano. Now, it’s the job of new Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to get Sanchez’s career headed in the right direction.

“I’m not sure that [Sanchez] needs to be ‘fixed,’” Mornhinweg recently said to reporters. “Mark has a lot of strengths, and he’s played at a high level. It’s our job to get him to play at a high level on a consistent basis. We would certainly like competition at all spots and certainly [the quarterback] spot, the competition just makes everybody better.”

One of Sanchez’s biggest strengths is his boundless optimism. Even when much has gone wrong around him, Sanchez has always accepted blame and seen the best in every situation.

Sanchez, who is the favorite, is approaching this summer’s quarterback battle with Garrard the same way.

“I know Mr. [John] Idzik and Rex [Ryan] are big on competition, and that was really the theme heading into this year. I completely understand that,” Sanchez said. “I think it will bring out the best in everybody on the team, and everybody has to compete for their spot, so I totally respect that. I’m just concerned with preparing to play well for this team and doing everything that I possibly can, everything in my control to be the best quarterback on the roster and go play well.”

New York went 6-10 in 2012 and cut many veterans to get under the salary cap. The Jets made a few bargain-basement signings in free agency and aim to get younger in the draft with first-year general manager John Idzik calling the shots. But this is a rebuilding team that looks at least a year or two away from contending for the playoffs again.

But you can't tell that to Sanchez. This fifth season with the Jets is the most important of his career. Sanchez will prove, once and for all, whether he's a capable NFL starter or a career backup who never could match the hype of being a top-five pick.

This year Sanchez is not looking back on all his mistakes, such as the "butt fumble." He is only looking forward.

“Once you watch all that film, there’s nothing else to do except try and improve and trying to understand how you got in that position and what led to that, how to avoid some of those pitfalls if possible,” Sanchez said. “Go back and really get after the fundamentals like you do every offseason. ... It’s a whole new year and I’m excited to see the kind of team that we have when it’s all said and done and we line up on opening day.”


The New England Patriots finally landed the playmaking safety they were looking for to help fix their 29th-ranked pass defense. The Patriots reached an agreement with five-time Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson, his agent confirmed on Twitter on Friday evening.

Wilson brings a much-needed intimidating force to the back end of the Patriots' defense. He has 27 career interceptions. Wilson also is one of the top safeties at playing in the box, as evident by his 25.5 career sacks.

Age could be an issue for Wilson, who is 33 and entering his 13th season. However, Wilson has been durable, missing only two games the past five seasons. He will be a Week 1 starter for the Patriots’ secondary, which also has safeties Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson on the roster.

Wilson still has quality football left in him. He made four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2008 to 2011. New England hopes Wilson can quickly get back to his form of two years ago.
The AFC East blog concludes its series this week on ranking team needs.

We finally take a look at the reigning division champion New England Patriots, who play in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

No. 1 need: Safety

Analysis: The Patriots were 29th against the pass this season and 31st against the pass in 2011. New England needs better safeties to prevent big passing plays over the top. Players like Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung are not the long-term solutions. That has forced Devin McCourty, a converted corner, to become a full-time safety. New England's pass defense has made some strides. But a legit, playmaking safety would go a long way in New England. There is speculation that pending free agent Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens could be an offseason possibility. Patriots second-round pick Tavon Wilson also has shown flashes but still have a lot to prove.

No. 2 need: Cornerback

Analysis: It also takes corners to play good pass defense, and New England struggled at times in that area as well. A lot depends on what happens with No. 1 corner Aqib Talib, who is a pending free agent. The Patriots made a midseason trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that is paying dividends. Talib has been the athletic, cover corner New England expected. But Talib's had off-the-field concerns in the past, and the Patriots will consider that when thinking about a long-term extension. Without Talib, New England has a thin group of corners. Rookie seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard has been a nice find, but he's inexperienced. Kyle Arrington is too up and down. The Patriots will have to explore this position in the draft or free agency.

No. 3 need: Wide receiver

Analysis: Much of this depends on what happens with Pro Bowl receiver and pending free agent Wes Welker. But the Patriots need to add some youth and depth at wide receiver. The Patriots don't have much behind starters Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Julian Eldelman showed flashes but suffered a season-ending foot injury. The Patriots will have to pay Welker a heavy price tag to keep him long-term. If Welker walks, that leaves a big hole in the offense. It won't be easy to replace Welker's immense production.
VereenAP Photo/Elise AmendolaTom Brady threw for 344 yards and three scores as New England beat Houston in the divisional round.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Joe Flacco. … Matt Ryan. … Colin Kaepernick.

Tom Brady.

If you're looking for a clear-cut favorite among the NFL's final four teams, look no further than the quarterbacks. The disparity between Brady and his counterparts makes the New England Patriots the hands-down favorite to win Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

Brady was once again masterful in the Patriots' 41-28 divisional playoff victory Sunday over the Houston Texans. Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and had a 115.0 passer rating.

Brady has a way of consistently making good defenses look ordinary. Houston's seventh-ranked group allowed 83 points in two games against Brady this season.

Sorry, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers, but there is only one elite quarterback left in the NFL playoffs -- and he resides in New England. No one is going to stop a focused and determined Brady from capturing his fourth Super Bowl title, which would tie an NFL record with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.

The Ravens are up first for the Patriots in the conference title game, and Brady vividly remembers the controversial loss earlier this season.

Let’s just say Brady doesn't plan on going the Peyton Manning route next week.

“I think the two best teams are in the finals," Brady said. “Baltimore certainly deserves to be here, and so do we. It’s very fitting. We played them earlier in the year and they got us. We blew a pretty good lead there at the end, and we’re going to have to play our best game this week.”

Baltimore, Atlanta and San Francisco all deserve to be in the conference finals. But are Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick ready for this big stage? That is the bigger question.

Brady is one game away from his sixth Super Bowl appearance and fourth championship. Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick have zero combined Super Bowl appearances and zero combined championships. In a one-game scenario, you have to like Brady's chances. Brady’s 17 career playoff wins are nearly double the nine combined postseason wins for Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick.

Brady was winning Super Bowls when Flacco and Ryan were high school teenagers. Kaepernick was 14 when Brady won his first title in February 2002. Brady is the ultimate gatekeeper among these three green quarterbacks still trying to get over the hump and make a name for themselves. It's not going to happen on Brady's watch this year.

New England safety Steve Gregory has been on both sides of the Brady ledger. Gregory played against Brady several times as a member of the San Diego Chargers and became Brady’s teammate for the first time this season after signing as a free agent. Gregory learned quickly that it’s better to be with Brady than against him.

“His ability to get to the line, recognize defenses and get the offense in the right play is pretty amazing,” Gregory explained. “I love having him on my side now.”

The Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season after he broke his forearm for a second time, but it doesn’t matter. The Patriots proved they are adaptable. New England was 4-1 this year without Gronkowski and didn't miss a beat Sunday against Houston when Gronkowski missed more than three quarters. The high-scoring Patriots have more than enough offensive weapons at their disposal.

The only irreplaceable Patriot is Brady.

"He's our leader and we all follow him," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We all respect him and he led the team today. … There's no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady."

Brady began his day at Gillette Stadium when he came out the tunnel for pregame warm-ups. He jogged to one corner of the end zone and pumped up the home crowd. Brady was intense the entire game and stayed on his teammates, even as the Patriots led by as many as 25 points in the second half.

By the time Brady carved up the Texans and went to his postgame news conference, he was subdued. Brady, 35, gave the Patriots all he had. He is playing as though there is no tomorrow.

“I’m tired, man. All the emotional energy spent,” said Brady, who is the third player in NFL history with at least 40 postseason touchdowns. “The big buildup to the week with four days of practice. You’re up and you’re down, you’re up and you’re down. I’m tired and ready to go home.”

When Brady left the news conference, he ran into Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Brady embraced Kraft by putting one arm around New England's owner, and the two chatted on the way out the stadium.

Kraft had a smile on his face during his talk with Brady. Kraft knows he has the one player who separates the Patriots from the rest of the Super Bowl field.

Brady won his first title in New Orleans versus the St. Louis Rams 11 years ago to begin his storybook career. Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick simply aren’t good enough to stop Brady from winning his fourth championship in the same place where it all started.