Dont'a Hightower grows into the job

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
PHOENIX -- New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower wasn't quite sure what to think about the team's first two days at Super Bowl XLIX.

 "I’ve been seeing more of y’all [reporters] and less of coaches, so I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing," he cracked.

That is about to change. The final media availability for players comes Thursday morning (10 a.m. ET), and then all that is left at that point is a Friday morning news conference with Bill Belichick, followed by the annual "state of the NFL" address by commissioner Roger Goodell.

As one would expect based on his role as the leader of the defensive huddle, Hightower has drawn quite a bit of media attention the last few days as he's a key cog in the defensive plan against the Seattle Seahawks.

"[Media day] was probably supposed to be the worst, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be," he said. "[I'm] just enjoying it and taking it all in. This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So, you definitely try to take it in, but at the same time letting it be a business trip. I’m pretty sure things are going to start picking up as we start to get towards the end of this week.”

As for football X's and O's, one of the things that has stood out with Hightower this season is how much smoother his transition has been in leading the defensive huddle. In 2013, when replacing injured signal-caller Jerod Mayo, he admitted to some growing pains because he was trying to do too much.

"It was a lot different last year," he said. "We didn’t have as much experience up front, but [going through that] helped a lot of guys. It helped Chris Jones. It helped me. It helped Jamie [Collins]. This year was a lot easier. I had Sealver [Siliga], I had V [Vince Wilfork], I had [Alan] Branch, I had Chandler [Jones]; I had a lot of older guys up front to help me. Then there was the secondary. Devin [McCourty] does a tremendous job with communcation and makes sure all the guys in the secondary are lined up right. Then there’s [Darrelle] Revis and [Brandon] Browner, who are such smart guys. Then you throw in Logan Ryan, and there’s a lot of guys who can get the gameplan and understand it, which makes my job a lot easier, as far as getting checks and stuff.”

With more comfort in the job, it has allowed Hightower to do different things on defense, including rushing the passer a bit more than he has his first two seasons. He was credited with 92 tackles by coaches (second on the team) and had six sacks and 12 quarterback hits during the regular season.

"This year I definitely feel that role coming into play a little bit more, with playing that 'joker' position and doing everything," he said. "I think like this year it’s finally starting to click.”

Blount's production comes at a low cost

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29

Matt Slocum/AP PhotoIn two playoff games against the Colts, LeGarrette Blount has seven rushing touchdowns.
A key component of managing a roster is finding value in how resources are allocated, both in draft-pick management and navigating free agency. It’s hard to argue that the New England Patriots have done that with LeGarrette Blount - not once, but twice. His production has been inconsistent (matching his career path), but given the minimal investment in Blount’s services, the Patriots have found good value.

It took two games against the Indianapolis Colts for Blount to become the Patriots’ all-time leader in playoff rushing touchdowns (seven). Between those performances were two playoff games in which Blount had a combined eight rushes for seven yards.

The Patriots signed Blount for the veteran minimum before Week 12, and he had 12 rushes for 78 yards in his first game back in Foxborough, a 34-9 win against the Lions. Blount stepped up his production down the stretch with the Patriots, ranking 13th in the league in rushing yards since Week 12 (including playoffs). Only DeMarco Murray and C.J. Anderson (eight) had more rushing touchdowns since Week 12 than Blount (six), a solid return given his 2014 salary cap hit ranks 155th among running backs.

Low-cost acquisition
In 2013, New England traded the rights to running back/return specialist Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick (which turned out to be defensive tackle Everett Dawkins, who is out of the league) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Blount, an undrafted free agent signed by the Tennessee Titans and claimed off waivers by the Buccaneers before the 2010 season.

Blount’s 944 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns led the Patriots in 2013 (including playoffs), with a 5.2 yards per rush average that trailed only Andre Ellington (5.5) among qualified running backs.

Blount capped his successful year with a 24-rush, 166-yard performance against the Colts in New England’s 2013 divisional playoff win before the Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos in last year’s AFC Championship Game. Blount signed a two-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers for almost $4 million, but he was released after 11 games.

Tough to tackle
The numbers support Blount as a key contributor in New England’s Super Bowl game plan. No back in the league has been harder to bring down than Blount: He averaged an NFL-best 2.6 yards after contact per rush in the regular season.

One common theme for the teams that beat the Seahawks this season has been a successful ground game. Each of the four teams to beat Seattle rushed at least 27 times and for more than 100 yards.

A bettor at the Westgate Super Book in Las Vegas is staring at a $50,000 payday. All they need is the Seattle Seahawks to score exactly four points Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX against the New England Patriots.

"This is a sign that people will bet anything," Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations at the SuperBook, said with a laugh. "We've got one ticket on Seattle scoring exactly four points at 9,999-to-1."

A 4-2 win by the Seahawks would be especially painful for the SuperBook, not to mention offensive-minded fans. As of Wednesday, the SuperBook had taken five bets on the Patriots scoring exactly two points, the biggest a $10 wager at 5,000-1.

Kornegay and the SuperBook can likely rest easy. No team in the modern era has scored exactly four points in a game. Eight teams, since 1970, have finished a game with only two points, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Most recently, the Jacksonville Jaguars accomplished the feat in a 28-2 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2013 season.

Picking the exact score is just one of hundreds of prop bets available at the SuperBook and other sports books across Vegas and online.

The most popular prop bet at William Hill's Nevada sports book is on something that's occurred in the last three Super Bowls -- a safety. The Denver Broncos

(Read full post)

Brandon Browner's perspective on coaches

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
PHOENIX -- New England Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner has a unique viewpoint when it comes to the two head coaches in Super Bowl XLIX because he's played for both of them.

Browner is indebted to Seattle's Pete Carroll for giving him his NFL chance (2011-2013). He's also appreciative of Bill Belichick for signing him as a free agent and giving him a chance to win another Super Bowl ring.

"They are so different," Browner began, "but at the same time they’re the same."

Say what?

“The difference is they’re two coaches on two different sides of the spectrum," he explained. "One is old school, hard-nosed and Pete Carroll is a great guy [but] he keeps it looser. On our way to walking into meeting rooms in Seattle you could hear music blasting, pumping, but none of that is going on in New England. It’s all business orientated.

"But I love playing for both coaches. [Pete is] the ultimate player’s coach. I’ve never met any coach like him as far as the way he approaches the game. He keeps it loose around there which keeps guys loose and you’re not walking on egg shells. ... [With Bill], I grew up with hard-nosed coaches from Pop Warner to high school; that’s what I’m used to and it brought back a little structure to my game.”

Browner then shared a story that he thinks links the two.

"Besides what you see from TV, I think they are the exact same. Their football IQ is the exact same," he said. "Belichick this week broke down some of the philosophies that Pete Carroll likes and sitting back I felt like I was listening to Pete talk to me. Over in Seattle, [Pete] talks about the ball and that was one of the things Belichick said to us, and he said it in the exact three words in order, 'It's about the ball!' Just the same way Pete Carroll says it.”

Wake-up call: Patriots at Super Bowl, Day 4

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
PHOENIX -- A look at what's ahead for the New England Patriots on Thursday at Super Bowl XLIX:

10 a.m. ET -- Bill Belichick news conference
10:15 a.m. ET -- Tom Brady news conference
10:30 a.m. ET -- Player and coach interviews

As part of the player and coach interviews at the team's hotel, the following players will have special podiums set up:
Meanwhile, the Patriots are scheduled to hold their second practice at the Arizona Cardinals' facility in the afternoon. A pool report from the practice, submitted by Jarrett Bell of USA Today Sports, will be shared with all reporters after the session.

ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss sat down with defensive tackle Alan Branch to talk about facing his former teammates and about how he prepared for Super Bowl XLIX. Reiss also makes a prediction and answers your Twitter questions.

Bed check: Patriots at Super Bowl, Day 3

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
PHOENIX -- A recap of some of the notable stories surrounding the New England Patriots at Super Bowl XLIX on Wednesday:

Brady turning to garlic and rest to fight cold. Tom Brady has been under the weather but he said he expects to be 100 percent on Sunday. He participated fully in practice.

Stork making progress at practice. Starting center Bryan Stork, who injured his right knee in the divisional-round win over the Ravens, continues to make progress. He "practiced without any apparent setback", according to pool reporter Jarrett Bell. Wednesday marked the Patriots' first practice since arriving in Arizona on Monday.

Catching up with an old friend. With the Patriots practicing at the Arizona Cardinals' home facility, it was a chance to once again work with Matt Caracciolo. New England's director of football operations from 2006-2011, Caracciolo is now the Cardinals' football operations coordinator. "[We have] a good working relationship with him," coach Bill Belichick said.

McDaniels on ineligible receivers. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels touched on the team's usage of ineligible receivers and how it wasn't used with a fast tempo, so defenses had a chance to match it. That runs counter to the opinion of others, such as Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

Wilfork sees a softer side of Belichick. Veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said one thing that has changed with coach Bill Belichick is that he shows a softer side a bit more these days.

Some media fatigue setting in. After meeting with reporters once again on Wednesday morning, and the session running for 45 minutes, linebacker Dont'a Hightower said, "I’ve been seeing more of y’all (reporters) and less of coaches, so I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” The media blitz will continue on Thursday.

Families set to arrive. Many of the players' and coaches' families are scheduled to arrive on Thursday, which adds a layer of excitement to the trip.

Pool report from Patriots practice

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The following is the pool report from New England Patriots practice on Wednesday, as filed by Jarrett Bell of USA Today:

The New England Patriots conducted their first practice since arriving in Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX, a two-hour session on Wednesday that coach Bill Belichick saw as significant for getting his team back on a regular schedule following two days without practices.

“This Wednesday is kind of like a regular Wednesday, tomorrow will be kind of like a Thursday, Friday will be like a Friday,” Belichick said. “So we’re trying to get back on schedule.”

A regular Wednesday practice includes a heavy dose of situational reps, and the Patriots did exactly that while using one of the two grass fields at the Arizona Cardinals training facility on a mild, partly cloudy afternoon with temperatures around 75 degrees.

After extensive individual drills, the work included third downs, red zone snaps and various down-and-distance challenges.

“There’s always things to work on, but we’re grinding away,” Belichick said.

The Patriots installed the bulk of their game plan for Sunday’s game last week while practicing at Gillette Stadium.

“There’s a little bit of refining, but it’s also practicing closer to the game,” Belichick said. “Practicing it two weeks ago and practicing it now, four days before the game, it’s more of our normal timeframe.”

As expected, the Patriots were at full strength in practice from an attendance standpoint. Center Bryan Stork, who didn’t practice when drills began last week while nursing a knee injury, practiced without any apparent setback.

Tom Brady acknowledged early on Wednesday that he’s battling a cold, but looked sharp. Belichick isn’t worried about his condition.

Said Belichick, “He took all the snaps.”

Belichick called the field conditions “great,” yet did tweak the environment as music – rap, rock, hip-hop – blared for an extended portion of the team drills. Belichick typically pipes in noise to help with concentration and communication, but ease up now.

“In this game, you know, it’s kind of a neutral field, so you’ve got to be ready for it,” Belichick said.

The NBC broadcast crew -- including play-by-play man Al Michaels, analyst Cris Collinsworth and sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya – attended the practice.

ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson discusses the schedule of events for the beginning of Aaron Hernandez's murder trial in in Fall River, Massachusetts. Hernandez is charged with killing semiprofessional football player Odin Lloyd.
CHANDLER, Ariz. -- When the New England Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XLIX, one of the most meaningful conversations that special teams captain Matthew Slater had was with his father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater. The father-son bond has remained strong and football is a big part of it.

In many ways, Slater would like to win a Super Bowl because he knows what it would mean to his father.

"I know my dad, when he looks back on his career, one of his biggest regrets is not winning the big game," Slater said Wednesday. "He played for 20 years and played in just one Super Bowl and then lost. For me to be here, it feels like he’s here again. It means a lot to our family."

Jackie Slater, a dominating offensive tackle, was part of the Los Angeles Rams team that lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-19, in Super Bowl XIV. The Rams had led 19-17 going into the fourth quarter.

“I’ve watched that tape with my dad a dozen times before I was the age of 10 and we’ve talked about them leading in the fourth quarter with 11 minutes to go," Matthew said. " We’ve talked about what went on in that game. He doesn’t need to tell me because I can see it and hear it when he talks about it."

Now in his seventh season with the Patriots, Slater is a perennial Pro Bowler who often is given the responsibility of "breaking the team down" in the locker room after victories. That was a role held by Tedy Bruschi for many years and is only given to the team's most highly-respected players.

Slater, much like his father, is uniquely qualified.

"This game of football has been great to the Slater family. We’re so blessed to be a part of this special game," he said. "It's exciting for both of us that I'm here now."

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando delivers stats to help you make a pick for New England vs. Seattle.

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando talks about how the Seahawks have adapted to the NFL's rules on defensive holding and pass interference.
PHOENIX -- New England Patriots starting center Bryan Stork, who injured his right knee in the AFC divisional round playoff victory over the Ravens and missed the AFC Championship Game, remains a limited participant in practice leading up to Super Bowl XLIX.

Stork said this week, "I'm working with the trainers every day, working hard, doing my best and getting better."

Stork started 12 games for the Patriots this season (11 in the regular season, one in the playoffs) as his inclusion into the lineup helped solidify some early struggles for the offensive line. In his absence in the AFC title game, the Patriots shifted veteran Ryan Wendell from right guard to center, and inserted second-year player Josh Kline at right guard.

In addition to Stork, linebacker Dont'a Hightower (shoulder), defensive tackle Chris Jones (left elbow) and defensive tackle Sealver Siliga (foot) were the only other players limited.

Quarterback Tom Brady (ankle) was listed as a full participant.

Jeffri Chadiha talks about why LeGarrette Blount has found success in New England after being let go in Pittsburgh.

John Clayton discusses the possible fine Marshawn Lynch could receive, the health of Seattle's offensive line, and Tom Brady showing signs of a cold.