AFC East: BenJarvus Green-Ellis

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- What was the biggest lesson New England Patriots tailback Stevan Ridley learned in his rookie year?

"The ball can't be on the ground," Ridley said bluntly Wednesday. "That's no secret. Fumbles will have you on the bench."

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
AP Photo/Michael DwyerBall security is something running back Stevan Ridley is working on during training camp.
Ridley admits last season's playoff run still stings. A solid rookie year was otherwise overshadowed by fumbling twice in his last two games, including a fumble in a crucial playoff win against the Denver Broncos. That was enough for New England coach Bill Belichick to put Ridley on ice for the remainder of the team's Super Bowl run. Ridley was inactive in both the AFC title game and the Super Bowl.

Ridley is using that cruel ending to his rookie season as motivation to come back a better player in Year 2. As a result, Ridley is running well in training camp and has taken the lead as New England's projected No. 1 tailback. The Patriots have not released a firm depth chart, but Ridley is expected to start in Thursday's preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints. It will be Ridley's first game action since his postseason fumble against Denver.

"I'm a little bit more comfortable out there," Ridley said of his second season. "Am I perfect? Not by any means. I still have a lot of work to do. Over time, my carries and my reps on the field have increased, but it’s still a long way to go and there’s still a lot of work to be done."

Ridley is outshining his training camp roommate, Shane Vereen, so far in camp. Both were high draft picks in 2011. Their potential is the reason New England was comfortable not re-signing BenJarvus Green-Ellis and cut fellow veteran Joseph Addai in the summer.

Ridley's game experience last year is showing through in his running. He’s hitting the holes well and showing good vision in New England’s pass-first system. Ridley rushed for 441 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season. That kind of average will make New England’s offense extremely dangerous. Ridley just needs to continue to gain the trust of the coaching staff by holding onto the football.

"This year I'm going to go and do the best that I can to keep the ball high and tight," Ridley said. "I know that if I can keep the ball in my hands, I'm going to be on the field. So my work is cut out for me."

Ridley knows he must grow up fast in his second season. The Patriots, favorites in the AFC, will be relying on a young running back this year, whether it's Ridley or Vereen. So far Ridley's performance in camp gives him the inside track.
It's not enough to be physically talented for the New England Patriots' offense. Just ask former receiver Chad Ochocinco.

To get playing time in New England, the coaching staff must build trust and confidence that their players will always know their assignments. At its best, New England's offense is machine-like and doesn't tolerate many mistakes.

That brings us to second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Physically, both 2011 draft picks are capable of being New England's starting tailback this season. But it's the nuances of the game that Ridley and Vereen must have down before the start of the regular season.

Ridley and Vereen could be dynamic together. They have young legs and bring an explosive element to New England's running game. Ridley is strong between the tackles and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season. Vereen battled through injuries as a rookie but is one of New England's better athletes.

However, both combined for just two career starts, and New England isn't sure how they'll perform under pressure. For example, last year Ridley fumbled once in the regular-season finale and once in the playoffs against the Denver Broncos. The rookie never saw the football again in the AFC Championship Game or Super Bowl XLVI.

There is a reason the Patriots were not afraid to lean on less-gifted athletes like Troy Brown, Deion Branch, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk on offense. Despite some physical limitations, these players always knew their roles and rarely made mental mistakes.

Ridley and Vereen need to work diligently this summer to begin earning that same level of trust from the Patriots' coaching staff. Pure athleticism works for some teams, but that's certainly not the case in New England.
Tom Brady, Joseph AddaiAP Photo/Charles KrupaWill Joseph Addai, the most experienced running back on the Patriots roster, step up to take some presure off Tom Brady and the offense?

Not even the great Tom Brady can throw 70 times per game. At some point, the New England Patriots must rely on their running game this season to complement their future Hall of Fame quarterback and high-powered passing attack.

But who is ready to carry to load for the Patriots? That is a question the defending AFC champions are not ready to answer.

Consider New England's ground attack a journey into the unknown. Its running back roster reads like a waiver wire scrap heap in fantasy football: Joseph Addai, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. These four combine for nine career starts in New England. Addai, a free-agent signing, has 60 starts, but all were with the Indianapolis Colts.

None of them stand out on their own. However, the Patriots are hoping for strength by committee.

"We're not really focused on who's going to be the guy or anything like that; we're just trying to help each other out and learn together," Ridley said during last week's minicamp. "If we can all [learn] that playbook, then they can put us anywhere on the field and we can go out there and be successful. That's when we do better as a unit.

"One person is not going to get it done all the way through the season and we know that, so we have to be able to depend on everybody."

After the offseason departure of former starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots' coaching staff was left trying to figure out who they can trust most with the football in 2012. Green-Ellis was not an elite back, but he was good for New England's pass-heavy system. He was tough, dependable and never lost a fumble in four seasons.

While Brady and New England's dynamic receivers and tight ends put up points and made big plays, Green-Ellis did most of the dirty work between the tackles. The Cincinnati Bengals signed Green-Ellis to a three-year, $9 million contract this offseason. Add the loss of trusted veteran Kevin Faulk, 36, to the mix and New England is virtually starting over at the position.

"We have a bunch of young kids that have a lot more to learn," running backs coach Ivan Fears said. "I had a lot of guys [last year] who experienced the game and knew what to expect in the pro game. These guys are young."

The Patriots spent last week's minicamp in the exploratory phase. New England's running backs shifted in and out with different personnel groupings, and it's too early to tell if there's a clear-cut player ahead in the race to be the starter.

This is a group that very much needs coaching, experience and attention to detail. It will be up to the coaching staff to determine which running back is best suited for certain in-game situations.

Each tailback brings certain strengths to the table. Ridley and Vereen, for example, are 2011 draft picks and have fresh, young legs. Addai has the most experience. Woodhead is quick and has value as a third-down back.

"Everybody is different, and everybody has a style that made them what they are," Fears said. "A lot of guys have been successful doing it in various ways."

Heading into training camp, Ridley and Vereen most likely have the inside track on the starting job. Ridley had two starts and showed flashes last year. He gained 441 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Vereen battled injuries and recorded just 15 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown in 2011.

They joined the team together and have created a healthy bond. They're neighbors and spend time studying the playbook together. Ridley and Vereen also plan to make a significant jump in their second season together, which would help the Patriots tremendously.

"I definitely think so because we're going through the same struggles on the field and off the field at the same time," Vereen said. "Both of our heads were spinning 100 miles an hour last year. It’s a very good bond between me and Stevan."

New England's passing game should take pressure off its running backs. Defenses cannot stack the line of scrimmage against Brady and New England's spread formations. The Patriots also added fullbacks Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta to the roster. One fullback will probably make the team, and the position could be used more this season.

Ridley described New England's tailback situation as "wide open." He is exactly right. The Patriots' offense should be a juggernaut again in 2012, as long as at least one player from this unproven group of running backs steps forward.
The New England Patriots will hold a mandatory three-day minicamp this week. The AFC East blog will be at Gillette Stadium to catch some of the action.

Here are three things we are keeping an eye on:

No. 1: Defensive improvements

There is only one big question I have about the reigning AFC champs: Can the defense make improvements following a horrible 2011 season? The Patriots know their 31st-ranked defense is a problem. They drafted all defensive players this year until the seventh round. Rookies such as defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Tavon Wilson are expected to make immediate contributions. Will the pass rush improve? Can the Patriots get better play from their corners and safeties? New England's offense will be a juggernaut again this year. But the defense must carry its weight.

No. 2: Who takes over at running back?

The Patriots have mostly unproven players at running back. But the coaching staff was confident enough in this group to let sure-handed tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk in free agency. Second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are expected to make up for the production lost when Green-Ellis left. Ridley and Vereen have just 102 career carries between them. Free-agent pickup Joseph Addai and backup Danny Woodhead also will be in the mix. The Patriots like to have a committee of running backs at their disposal and often go with the hot hand. We will keep an eye on which tailbacks are separating from the pack early.

No. 3: Wide receivers

The Patriots have so much depth at receiver that they didn't flinch to cut six-time Pro Bowler Chad Ochocinco last week. That provides some clarity to the position, but there is still work to be done. Free-agent additions such as Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney are virtual locks, along with Pro Bowler Wes Welker. But other players such as Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Donte' Stallworth, Matthew Slater and rookie Jeremy Ebert will compete for roster spots. It will be a competitive summer for this group, and minicamp is part of that evaluation.
The New England Patriots lost their leading rusher for the past two years -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- to the Cincinnati Bengals. Green-Ellis agreed to a three-year contract with Cincinnati on Wednesday.

But the reigning AFC champions viewed Green-Ellis as expendable. The Patriots drafted a pair of running backs in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen last year, and both have a lot of potential. New England also has change-of-pace tailback Danny Woodhead who can help on third down and passing situations.

The Patriots should be fine with this trio of rushers. Talent is not a concern, just inexperience. Ridley and Vereen both showed flashes, but Green-Ellis was so sure-handed that he was the tailback head coach Bill Belichick trusted most. New England used Green-Ellis and Woodhead almost exclusively in the playoffs, when the season was on the line.

New England has the option of signing an affordable free agent or adding another rookie to the pile in the draft. But it looks like Ridley, a 2011 third rounder, is the favorite to be the starter next season. Woodhead and Vereen may both play supporting roles for a team that probably will throw 60 percent of the time anyway.

Quarterback Tom Brady, receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be the stars of New England's offense. The young running backs just have to complement the passing game by making the most of their carries and not fumbling.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday morning in the AFC East:
  • New England Patriots Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins recently had surgery to repair a torn ACL in his knee.
Morning take: Mankins unknowingly played in the Super Bowl with a torn ACL, according to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. That shows his toughness, but it also looks like he will be out until at least training camp, if not longer.
Morning take: This would be an interesting development. The Jets know Green-Ellis well from his days with the Patriots, and he doesn't fumble. Could he fit New York's ground-and-pound offense?
  • Can Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow thrive in the Miami Dolphins' new West Coast offense?
Morning take: Nope.
  • Which quarterback has Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams sacked the most?
Morning take: The answer is Peyton Manning. But click the link to find out who's No. 3 on Williams' hit list. Interesting.
It looks more and more like unrestricted free-agent tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis will not return to the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots. According to reports, New England's leading rusher is starting to gather interest and will meet with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Green-Ellis was part of a rotation in New England. The Patriots drafted two running backs last year (Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen) and won’t overpay to bring Green-Ellis back. He can get more money elsewhere.

The Bengals, who made the playoffs last season, are looking for a primary ball carrier to replace unrestricted free agent Cedric Benson. Green-Ellis led the Patriots in rushing last season with 667 yards and 11 touchdowns. But perhaps what’s most impressive is he’s never fumbled in his four-year career.

Here are some additional AFC East notes on Day 2 of free agency:
  • Former Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams remains in Buffalo Wednesday, where he underwent a physical. Good sign for the Bills?
  • In more Patriots news, they agreed to a three-year contract with defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene.
  • The New York Jets have re-signed kicker Nick Folk, the team announced.
  • The Miami Dolphins are hosting former Cleveland Browns guard and offensive tackle Artis Hicks.

Patriots: Five Super Bowl X factors

February, 5, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- It's almost time for kickoff in Super Bowl XLVI. Therefore, the AFC East blog wants to leave some final thoughts on under-the-radar X factors for the New England Patriots who could make an impact in this game.

Hernandez
1. Aaron Hernandez, TE

Analysis: We're going to start with the easiest X factor. With Rob Gronkowski limited by a left ankle injury, Hernandez needs to step up his game in the event "Gronk" struggles. Hernandez is a top-10 tight end in the NFL, although many wouldn't know it because he plays second fiddle in New England. Hernandez also is nifty and has the ability to play some running back when called upon. The Giants will be watching Gronkowski. But they probably should keep their eye even more on Hernandez, who is healthy and has big-play ability.

Spikes
2. Brandon Spikes, LB

Analysis: Spikes described the past two weeks as being "caged." The high-energy linebacker is psyched to get back on the football field and play in his first Super Bowl. Spikes is New England's home-run hitter on defense. In only his second season, Spikes may not be the most consistent Patriots defender, but he makes plenty of big plays, which is needed on the big stage. Spikes led the Patriots with nine tackles and a big fourth-quarter interception in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. He's a big hitter who stays around the football. Spikes will be key in stopping New York's running game, led by the dual threat of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs.

Green-Ellis
3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB

Analysis: It's no secret the Patriots will attack the Giants' secondary with the arm of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. But there will be times in this game when the Patriots have to run the ball to keep New York's pass rush honest. Green-Ellis has been the most consistent Patriots running back this season, and particularly in the playoffs. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry in the AFC Championship Game against a tough Ravens defense. New England needs similar production from Green-Ellis in the Super Bowl. Green-Ellis won't get a ton of opportunities, but he needs to make his carries count.

Vollmer
4. Sebastian Vollmer, OT

Analysis: Vollmer hasn't played a game since Nov. 27 due to back and foot injuries. But the Super Bowl against the Giants is the perfect time for Vollmer to return. New York will bring a giant pass rush. Vollmer is listed as questionable, but he is expected to play. He will pair with rookie Nate Solder as a solid one-two punch at right tackle. Sometimes the pair could play together on the right side to provide max-protection for Brady.

Gostkowski
5. Stephen Gostkowski, K

Analysis: Remember Adam Vinatieri? Patriots fans had the utmost confidence in the playoffs when it was time for Vinatieri to make a clutch kick. The confidence was for good reason. Vinatieri was money during New England's three Super Bowl wins. But how do Patriots fans feel about Gostkowski? It's tough to say. There's no way of knowing how Gostkowski will respond until he's in these pressure situations. He's been good so far, but Gostkowski has never kicked in the Super Bowl. We saw in the conference title games how important field goal kicking is. Gostkowski needs to be ready if his number is called.

Poll: Patriots player of the game

January, 23, 2012
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It was a wild and crazy AFC Championship Game. There were lead changes, twists and an unexpected ending when Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff shanked a chip-shot field goal at the end.

But who was the player of the game for the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots? What we do know is it wasn't Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

Should defensive lineman Vince Wilfork get the nod? Wilfork was hard to block. He was a big reason the Patriots controlled the line of scrimmage and stuffed Baltimore Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice. Wilfork had six tackles and one quarterback sack.

What about Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes? New England's defense has been much improved when Spikes is healthy. He had nine tackles and a big fourth-quarter interception against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski led the team in receiving. He caught five passes for 87 yards. Patriots tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis (68 rushing yards, one touchdown) and tight end Aaron Hernandez (seven catches, 66 yards) also had solid games.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on the best player for the Patriots in the AFC title game. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Fourth-year veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis leads the New England Patriots in rushing with 667 yards. Rookie tailback Stevan Ridley has the hot hand and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry in his past three games. Danny Woodhead also is waiting for his chance to produce.

So which running back will step up in the playoffs?

A lot of attention this week is on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He will throw the ball a lot and is the biggest key for New England's success.

But Brady still needs some type of running game in the postseason. That is where New England's trio of Green-Ellis, Ridley and Woodhead come in. Each tailback has been successful at different times this season.

New England doesn't need any of these players to rush for 100 yards. But it's ball security and yards per carry that are most important to keeping Denver's defense honest. The Broncos are at their best defensively when they can pressure the quarterback with outside linebackers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.

"The defense is solid. They've been doing good things for them and that's what they really don't talk about that much," Ridley told reporters. "It's a lot about [quarterback Tim] Tebow, but not so much about their defense. But they're playing sound football all the way around and all three phases."

Ridley may have the best chance to shine in the playoffs. The 2011 third-round pick has fresh legs and is coming on strong late in the season. Ridley led the Patriots in rushing the past three games, which includes 65 yards on 11 carries (5.9-yard average) against Denver in Week 15.

But despite Ridley's production, can the Patriots fully trust a rookie running back in the playoffs? Ridley said the key will be keeping his composure in his postseason debut.

"It's going to be a playoff atmosphere," Ridley said. "It's going to be a big-time game and we're going to go out there and just play football and stay calm and go out there and try to play a sound game."

Bye-week questions for Patriots

January, 5, 2012
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The New England Patriots will be idle for the first round of the playoffs. This will give New England a chance to rest and improve before its playoff debut Jan. 14.

In the meantime, here are some questions for the Patriots during the bye week:

1. Will the Patriots learn to start fast?

New England started a disturbing trend the past two weeks. The Patriots have fallen asleep in the first half before making a pair of furious comebacks. They overcame deficits of 17 and 21 points the past two weeks against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTom Brady and the Patriots will face a stout defense no matter whom they draw in the playoffs.
Perhaps the Patriots were dealing with complacency during their eight-game winning streak. But New England must start fast in the playoffs. The Patriots won't face the Dolphins and Bills in the playoffs. New England needs to put together four good quarters or the team can be one-and-done. The Patriots learned that hard lesson their last two postseason appearances.

2. Can the defense step up?

The AFC is filled with tough defenses. Four of the NFL’s top seven defenses are in the AFC playoff bracket. New England will face one of those great defenses as early as next week. Can the Patriots’ leaky unit match the intensity?

The defenses of the Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 1), Houston Texans (No. 2), Baltimore Ravens (No. 3) and Cincinnati Bengals (No. 7) are all capable of giving Tom Brady and New England’s offense some issues. If Brady only puts up 23 points in a playoff game, for example, can New England’s defense hold an opponent to 20 points?

That may be the big scenario that could determine if the Patriots make it to Indianapolis. Their defense needs to step up.

3. Who stars in the running game?

New England's running game has been on and off this season. There were stretches when it has been really good and stretches when it has disappeared from the offense.

This time of year is when playoff teams need to be able to run the ball. The Patriots obviously are a passing team. But they need enough balance to prevent opponents from dropping everyone back in coverage.

Patriots running backs Stevan Ridley, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead have all had their moments this year. But neither player has fully taken over the reigns at the No. 1 tailback.

Lately Ridley’s had the hot hand. He may be the answer going into the playoffs. But Ridley is a rookie and the Patriots need to make sure during this bye that he’s ready to perform and not make rookie mistakes in the high-stakes playoffs.

4. Who would New England rather face?

The AFC East blog did a poll earlier this week asking Patriots fans which team would they rather see at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 14. The overwhelming consensus was Tim Tebow and Denver.

I understand why New England fans would want Tebow. The Patriots pounded the Broncos earlier this season and Tebow is struggling down the stretch. But I think the safer scenario is for the Bengals to win and travel to Gillette Stadium. The chances of Denver beating the Steelers aren’t great. The Bengals winning wouldn’t leave anything to chance.

But I think everyone agrees the team the Patriots don’t want to face is the reigning AFC champion Steelers, who beat New England earlier this year. Yes, running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) is out for the year and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a bum wheel. But the Steelers remain a tough out for anyone.

It also would mean New England has to beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore in back-to-back weeks to get to the Super Bowl. That’s the toughest road possible for the Patriots.

AFC East Stock Watch

October, 11, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. New York Jets: There are reports of unhappiness and internal strife in the Jets' locker room. Three consecutive losses can do that to a team. New York's poor product on the field is driving Jets fans crazy. The offense is ranked 28th and the defense, although still talented, isn't what it used to be. There are no easy answers for the Jets. They can't seem to figure out their identity and put it all together. If New York can't get it right in time for its "Monday Night Football" game against the winless Miami Dolphins, it may be too late.

2. Buffalo Bills' defense: Watching Buffalo's defense can be exciting and maddening at the same time. The Bills fly to the football and often make heady interceptions and force fumbles. But Buffalo's defense also gives up way too many yards. The Bills have allowed 450 yards or more in four straight games. It's amazing that they are 3-1 in those contests. Buffalo constantly walks the edge and usually comes out on top. But if the defense doesn't improve, being in close games every week may eventually catch up to the Bills.

3. Jets' third-down offense: New York is 7 for 26 (21 percent) on third downs the past two games. That is a sure way to wear out your defense and lose games. The execution just hasn't been there most of the season.

RISING

[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
Elsa/Getty ImagesBenJarvus Green-Ellis has rushed for 24 touchdowns over the last two seasons for the Patriots.
1. New England Patriots running game: Few people know this, but the Patriots' offense is sixth in the NFL in rushing. Quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots' high-powered passing attack get most of the credit for their 4-1 start. But New England also is running the ball very efficiently. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead have all contributed at different times. Balance on offense also has helped keep New England's struggling defense off the field in recent weeks.

2. Bills safety George Wilson: The sixth-year safety is having the best season of his career. Wilson probably had the best game of his career Sunday in a win over the Philadelphia Eagles. He recorded 11 tackles, three passes defended and an interception. Wilson's steady leadership is one of the reasons Buffalo is tied for the best record in the AFC.

3. Bills running back Fred Jackson: What more can we say about Jackson, who has been a regular in the "Rising" category of Stock Watch? Jackson had another great game, accounting for 196 total yards and one touchdown against Philadelphia. Jackson is having a career year and setting himself up well for a contract extension. He's rushed for 480 yards and five touchdowns in five games. Jackson is averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Poll: AFC East Player of the Week

October, 10, 2011
10/10/11
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The AFC East went 2-1 in Week 5. The Miami Dolphins (0-4) had a bye.

Despite just three division teams in action, there were some great individual performances.

The candidates this week are New England Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and teammate Wes Welker, New York Jets running back Shonn Greene, and tailback Fred Jackson and safety George Wilson of the Buffalo Bills. All five players had significant production.

But which player had the best Week 5? You decide.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on which player had the best game in Week 5. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Morning take: Patriots' underrated RBs

September, 16, 2011
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Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC East: Morning take: This is the quiet but efficient part of New England's offensive juggernaut. Quarterback Tom Brady always gets most of the credit. But tailbacks Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis also combine to make a solid tandem.
  • The Buffalo Bills' offensive line is on a mission, writes Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Morning take: Anytime an offense scores 41 points, the hogs up front did their jobs. Buffalo has a no-name group that played well against Kansas City. Can the offensive line maintain consistency?
  • Jeff Darlington of the Miami Herald explains why guarding tight ends is so difficult for the Dolphins and other teams.
Morning take: Many tight ends now are just as athletic as receivers -- but bigger. Many teams have at least one dynamic tight end to stretch the field. Some have two like New England's pair of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
  • Brian Lewis of the New York Post was impressed by the Jets' rookie class, led by first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson.
Morning take: Wilkerson won the job as starting defensive end this summer. That is impressive on a veteran team. He recorded just one tackle last week against Dallas but held his ground against the run.
TAMPA -- Rapid reaction after the Patriots throttled the Buccaneers, 31-14, in both teams' second preseason game:

Domination from top units. The Patriots looked sharp on both sides of the ball, opening a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. It was 28-0 at the half. Quarterback Tom Brady was on his game; outside of failing to execute in a two-minute situation at the end of the first half, he directed an offense that played at a regular-season type pace. Meanwhile, the defense had a nice mix of tight coverage and pressure, forcing two three-and-outs to open the game. It was 14-0 by that point as the Patriots' first-stringers smoked the Buccaneers' top players. The Patriots' top units look loaded.

Ochocinco takes big hit, responds. The first Tom Brady-to-Chad Ochocinco connection got off to a tough start, with Brady's first pass to No. 85 over the middle resulting in Ochocinco taking a big hit from linebacker Mason Foster that drew a personal-foul penalty. After another incompletion along the sideline, Ochocinco gathered in an 8-yard touchdown from Brady on a play-action fake out of a three-tight end set. Ochocinco left the football in the end zone, hardly celebrating. In all, Ochocinco was charted on the field for 24 snaps (including penalties). His stat line: 2 catches, 14 yards, 1 TD.

Starters play throughout first half. Playing time is often a big question in preseason games and Bill Belichick kept his top players in the game throughout the first half. Rookie left tackle Nate Solder, who started, played two series into the second half. The Patriots were short-handed in the secondary, so they had some top players still on the field in the second half.

Attacking defense, led by Carter and Mayo, shines. After a 2010 season in which the Patriots struggled to generate pressure on a consistent basis out of their base alignment, tonight they looked like a different unit. They were swarming, led by linebacker Jerod Mayo (two sacks) and defensive end Andre Carter, who was bringing it off the right edge. Impressive.

Running game gets it going. The offensive line/tight ends and running backs Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis get deserved praise, as the Patriots steamrolled the Buccaneers. First-half totals on the ground: 117 yards on 17 carries (6.9 avg.) and two touchdowns.

Health questions with Fletcher, Lockett and Woodhead. Areas to monitor on the health front in the days to come are with linebacker Dane Fletcher (thumb), safety Bret Lockett (thigh/groin) and Woodhead (shaken up on fourth-quarter punt coverage). Woodhead was smiling on the bench at the end of the game.

Mallett throws a pick-six. After an impressive performance in the preseason opener, rookie quarterback Ryan Mallett struggled, throwing a pick-six on his first drive which opened the second half. It was returned 69 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Elbert Mack, with Mallett getting crunched on the return. No. 2 quarterback Brian Hoyer, who played sparingly as he was inserted into the game mid-drive twice as a way to keep him sharp, also almost threw a pick-six. Not a great night for the backups after a strong showing in the preseason opener. Overall, the second half was sloppy for the Patriots' reserves.

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