Sub defense stats spike for Patriots

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
9:30
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When asked about the depth chart at cornerback, and deciding which players are active each week, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick cited depth.

"It’s a deep group, it’s a competitive group," Belichick said Wednesday. "At times there have been circumstances that have kind of declared it based on availability for a combination of reasons. Then there has been a game plan or a weekly element to it based on the factors that are in our control. We always try to do what’s best for the football team, but those guys all work hard. They compete hard. They know that their opportunities are based on their performance, just like everybody else."

The depth was on display in Sunday's win over the Bears as the Patriots spent most of the game in either their nickel or dime groupings (including penalties):

Sub: 63-of-70
Base: 7-of-70

This was a result, in part, of the Patriots viewing tight end Martellus Bennett as more of a big receiver.

The sub numbers, shown below for the season, should spike further after Sunday's game against the Broncos because they trend toward the pass.

Sub: 347-of-548 (63.3 percent)
Base: 196-of-548 (35.7 percent)
Heavy: 5-of-548 (1.0 percent)

Patriots keep calling on 2-TE package

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
8:30
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In charting positional groupings for the New England Patriots this season, the team's usage of multiple-tight end packages stands out. The Patriots are 6-0 this season when running more than one-third of plays out of formations with at least two tight ends.

That trend continued last Sunday against the Bears (including penalties):

2-WR/2-TE/1-RB: 30-of-74 (19 at half)
2-WR/1-TE/1-FB/1-RB: 20-of-74 (11 at half)
3-WR/1-TE/1-RB: 17-of-74 (11 at half)
3-TE/1-FB/1-RB: 3-of-74 (3 at half)
3-WR/1-FB/1-RB: 3-of-74 (1 at half)
1-WR/2-TE/1-FB/1-RB: 1-of-74 (1 at half)

The 20 snaps in the 2-WR/1-TE/1-FB/1-RB package was a season-high as the Patriots had fullback James Develin on the field for a season-high 28 offensive plays.

With fewer three-receiver or more packages being called upon this season, the Patriots will likely continue to dress just four receivers on game day, with the final spot coming down to Brian Tyms or Aaron Dobson.

Patriots-Broncos through stats-based lens

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
5:00
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A look at the New England Patriots-Denver Broncos matchup through a stats-based lens (via ESPN's Stats & Information):

1. Brady and Manning make history. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning face off for the 16th time (including playoffs, Brady owns a 10-5 edge overall). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this marks the first matchup in NFL history among opposing starting quarterbacks who had at least 150 career regular-season wins entering their game. Elias also reports the 890 combined career passing touchdowns for Manning (513) and Brady (377) are the most combined career passing touchdowns for opposing starting quarterbacks in NFL history. The previous record was 818, held by Manning and Brady last season

2. Patriots-Broncos combines with Cardinals-Cowboys to make a mark. The contest between the 6-1 Broncos and 6-2 Patriots isn’t the only marquee matchup of the week. The 6-2 Cowboys play host to the 6-1 Cardinals as well. It will be the first time since 1986 in which there are two games featuring teams that have at least six wins this early into the season.

3. Brady and Manning have been on fire in October. Both Brady and Manning are leading teams on a current four-game win streak, tied for the longest active streaks in the NFL. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, October 2014 was the first time in NFL history there were multiple quarterbacks with at least 14 touchdown passes in a single calendar month (breakdown of other October stats below):

Completion percentage
Brady: 69.4
Manning: 70.9

Completions
Brady: 100
Manning: 100

Passing yards per game
Brady: 317
Manning: 333

Yards per attempt
Brady: 8.8
Manning: 9.4

Total QBR
Brady: 91.1
Manning: 92.6

4. Talib's disruptive play. Former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib co-leads the Broncos along with Chris Harris with six pass breakups this season.

5. Brady's 200th career regular-season start. Brady is making his 200th career NFL start in this game (154-45, .774 win percentage).

Most starts by a quarterback in NFL history
Brett Favre -- 298
Peyton Manning -- 247
Dan Marino -- 240
Fran Tarkenton -- 239
John Elway -- 231
Vinny Testaverde -- 214
Warren Moon -- 203
Tom Brady -- 200

6. Brady and the Broncos. Brady is 4-5 in his regular-season career against the Broncos, the only team he has a losing record as a starter against.

7. Gronkowski in the red zone. Rob Gronkowski has six catches on red zone plays this season, and all six have turned into touchdowns. His six red-zone touchdowns are one shy of the NFL lead held by Randall Cobb, Julius Thomas and Antonio Gates.

8. Gronkowski moving up Patriots TD ranks. Gronkowski's next touchdown of any kind will move him into sole possession of 2nd in Patriots history.

Most Total touchdowns in Patriots History
Stanley Morgan -- 68
Rob Gronkowski -- 50
Randy Moss -- 50
Ben Coates -- 50
Sam Cunningham -- 50

9. Patriots and Broncos take care of the football. The Patriots have five turnovers this season, one shy of the fewest in the NFL (Broncos have four). The Patriots' plus-11 turnover differential leads the NFL. They've gone four straight games without a turnover, the longest current streak in the league. In the last 10 seasons, the Patriots had the longest streak without a turnover -- 7 games -- from Week 10-16 in 2010.

10. Conference winning streak at home. The Patriots have won 33 straight regular-season home games against AFC opponents, the longest streak against AFC teams since the creation of the conferences for the 1970 season. Their last loss to an AFC team was against the Steelers in Week 13 of the 2008 season.

Tom Brady loosens up on Facebook

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
9:15
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's Facebook page has been active of late, and he explained why there's been such a sudden explosion in a conference call with Denver Broncos reporters Wednesday.

Asked about his Facebook posts, Brady said, "I have a great friend of mine who helps me out with it. He’s done a great job. Social media, I’m kind of an old school. I’ve been very reluctant over the years. I think over the last couple of months, we’ve tried to show the fans that there may be some fun pictures to share and some other things that have been a part of my life. I think it’s fun for the fans. Hopefully they enjoy it. I’ve enjoyed kind of opening up a little bit, relaxing about some things about me that I probably wouldn’t have in the past."
video

ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss previews Sunday's matchup against the Denver Broncos and catches up with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.

Rob Ninkovich: You can't fool Peyton

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
6:15
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In advance of Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich offered an interesting analysis of quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Ninkovich
“They’re like wine, they’re just getting better with age,” Ninkovich said.

The stats would seem to back up that claim. At 37, Brady is on pace for 36 touchdowns this season, a total that would be his highest since 2011. Meanwhile, Manning, who is tied for the league lead with 22 so far this season, is on pace for a remarkable 50 touchdowns at age 38.

“He’s a tremendous football player and he knows so much. He’s seen it all,” Ninkovich said of Manning. “You can’t fool the guy. Again, exciting to play against a guy that’s so good. I’m super excited to play against one of the best ever.”

Having spent six years as a full-time player with the Patriots, Ninkovich has seen his fair share of Manning and isn’t any bit surprised at the high level he’s played at this season. It’s no different than last season, when Manning set multiple records on his way to a Super Bowl appearance.

Of course, to get to the Super Bowl the Broncos had to get through New England in the AFC Championship Game -- a game that Ninkovich has looked back on in preparation for this Sunday’s rematch.

“You definitely watch that game,” Ninkovich said. “You see some things that they were able to do against you. You know that those could be repeated. So you watch the game, you see the things that they were doing well and you try and stop those.”

The task is easier said than done. Both offensively and defensively, the Broncos have shown improvement this year, garnering attention by many as the top team in the league and a Super Bowl favorite. Their 6-1 record, however, proves that they are beatable, something that makes them no different than every other team the Patriots have played.

“Every week is a new challenge,” Ninkovich said. “This week presents another challenge for us. We’ve got to stay mentally tough and understand that this is a great football team coming into our house and we’ve got to go out there and play at a high level.

“It’s not just one area in these games, everyone’s got to play well. It’s a team game. All three phases have to play tough. Again, it’s a very talented team. Everyone has got to go out there and do their job and play hard.”

While much of the focus will no doubt surround Brady and Manning on Sunday, both teams’ defenses figure to have to play their best in order to knock the other’s quarterback off his game.

After all, even the finest wine has its flaws.
video

ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discusses the Broncos' regular-season trip to New England last season, where they gave up a 24-0 halftime lead, and how they intend to keep their feet on the gas this time around.

Akeem Ayers quickly learning on the job

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
5:50
PM ET
video

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Having just joined the New England Patriots last week, linebacker Akeem Ayers has been the new guy in the locker room.

However, in the matter of 24 hours, Ayers is now a veteran. At least that's how he sees it after the acquisition of Jonathan Casillas on Tuesday and the signing of Alan Branch on Wednesday.

"I feel like I know a little bit more than them," Ayers joked. "I'm ahead a little bit more than them so that makes me feel a bit better."

[+] EnlargeAkeem Ayers
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAfter contending with the Bears' Matt Forte last week, Akeem Ayers will have Peyton Manning in his sights on Sunday.
In the midst of his first full week of preparation with the team, Ayers talked Wednesday about the improvements he's made in familiarizing himself with the Patriots' defensive style. This comes as good news for the team as Ayers had five total tackles and a sack in limited time against the Chicago Bears last Sunday (32 of 70 defensive snaps, including penalties and two-point conversions).

"I wasn't sure how much I was going to play that week," Ayers said. "I was pretty much trying to be prepared as much as I can. Once I had an opportunity to get in there, [I wanted] to make sure that I made the best of the opportunity and took advantage of it. That was the main thing, I just wanted to be prepared as much as I could be possibly in the few days that I was there."

Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos figures to be easier for Ayers when he's on the field. Now that he's more settled personally and away from the practice field, Ayers said he's been able to put in extra time this week in order to be in the best position moving forward.

"Just had to put the extra time," Ayers said. "As far as when I had my own time, just try to study as much as I can about the opponent. But at the same time put time with the coaches to get in the playbook and learn the adjustments and the scheme and the techniques and the things like that. It just took a little time. That's all I really needed."

A more comfortable Ayers could be a valuable weapon for the Patriots, who will need an "all hands on deck" effort defensively going up against Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense. Used mainly as a pass-rusher against the Bears, Ayers should see time in a similar role Sunday, one that is often a difficult role for Manning's opponents due to his pre-snap counts designed to fool defenses into tipping their plays.

"You have to just get a feel for the game and just get a feel for the flow of the game because it's definitely something he uses toward his advantage for us to show our hand and to show where we're bringing pressure or where we're dropping the coverage," Ayers said. "It's going to be on us just to be on track about that and just expect those type of things and just really be disciplined. Just try to do the best we can just to hold our looks."

Asked whether the defense can take time during practice to disguise its plays, Ayers maintained that the team's best bet will be to get a feel for the flow of the game while it is under way.

While daunting, it isn't something that Ayers figures to be intimidated by. That's the sign of a true veteran.

Connolly, Stork, Collins off injury report

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
5:18
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones (hip) remains the lone player to not participate in practice. But the Patriots did release some good news for them on the health front. Starting left guard Dan Connolly and Bryan Stork were no longer listed on the injury report with concussions. Also, linebacker Jamie Collins (thigh), safety Devin McCourty (rib) and running back Shane Vereen (illness) were removed from the injury report.

Rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley, who saw an increased role in place of Jones in Sunday’s win over the Bears, is still limited with a knee injury.

The other limited participants at Wednesday’s practice were core special-teamers Matthew Slater (shoulder) and Nate Ebner (finger), and rookie offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (finger).

Quarterback Tom Brady (ankle), cornerback Brandon Browner (ankle) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee) were also listed on the injury report, but were full participants in practice.

video

Chris Mortensen discusses the wide receivers acquired in the offseason; Brandon LaFell for the Patriots and Emmanuel Sanders for the Patriots.

Gronk ready for reunion with T.J. Ward

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
4:03
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The last time New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski faced Broncos safety T.J. Ward, who was then on the Browns, Ward delivered a crushing hit to Gronkowski’s right knee, tearing Gronkowski’s ACL and ending his 2013 season.

Gronkowski made a catch and planted his right foot onto the field when Ward came in low with a hit he would later be criticized for as he slammed his shoulder into Gronkowski’s right knee. Gronkowski’s knee bent back in a way knees are not supposed to bend.

Gronkowski
Gronkowski
Ward
After the hit, Ward went down on one knee and then approached Gronokwski to shake his hand as the tight end was carted off the field.

A season later, as the two prepare to face each other again Sunday, the hit by Ward on Gronkowski emerges again. So Gronkowski was asked if Ward ever reached out to him to apologize.

“No,” Gronkowski said.

While it has yet to be determined who will be covering Gronkowski, it is likely Ward will be involved in plays with Gronkowski. Another player who could see time on Gronkowski is former teammate Aqib Talib, who was with the Patriots in 2012 and 2013.

“Whatever the situation is, you have to prepare for everyone,” Gronkowski said. “You never know what they are going to pull until you play the game, so you have to be prepared for any situation. If it’s Aqib covering me, then it’s Aqib covering me.”

Gronkowski is ready for the challenge of playing against an improved and tough Broncos defense.

“They have very good pass rushers, a very good secondary, and they have good linebackers, so just overall they have a very solid defense,” Gronkowski said. “They are playing very well together and they are a very good team.”

Gronkowski didn’t stop there in giving praise to the Broncos.

“I feel like Denver is the best team in the NFL right now,” Gronkowski said. “They have a solid offense and a very, very solid defense, great rushers. A very good team. So we have to be ready. We have to be prepared. We have to bring all that we have to compete out there.

“The atmosphere is going to be unbelievable, especially playing at home in front of the home crowd. It’s going to be a great game. The Denver Broncos are a very, very, very good team.”

With all eyes on Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in this matchup between the Patriots and Broncos, Gronkowski acknowledged the magnitude of playing on the same field with two of the all-time greats at quarterback.

“It’s an honor to be out there with both of them,” Gronkowski said. “Brady versus Manning can’t get any better. [They are] two great quarterbacks and two legendary quarterbacks. It’s an honor to be a part of it.”

Setting aside all the talk of facing Ward again and the Brady-Manning rivalry, Gronkowski is focused on one thing.

“I definitely want to be on the winning side.”

Weather forecast seems to be in Pats' favor

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
3:35
PM ET
While it looks like early predictions of snow for Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots and Broncos at Gillette Stadium might not come to fruition (there’s only a 20-30 percent chance of precipitation), you can count on it being cold and windy.

Forecasts call for a high temperature in the low 40s and a low of around 30 degrees. With kickoff at 4:25 p.m., you can count on it being plenty chilly as the game winds down in the early evening. In addition to the cold, winds are expected to blow as high as 24 miles per hour.

Assuming the forecast holds, that’s good news for the Patriots.

Peyton Manning has an 8-11 record with nearly as many interceptions as touchdown passes when the temperature at kickoff is under 40 degrees, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Tom Brady, on the other hand, is 42-6 with close to a 3-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (see table) in such games.

Even taking into account that Manning played most of those games on the road while Brady was at home the majority of the time, that difference is striking.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The 100-yard interception return against the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional round game following the 2005 season is a play Champ Bailey said people still ask him about.

Bailey
The Patriots were the defending Super Bowl champs, Bailey was coming off a eight-interception regular season and the touchdown that followed the interception one play later essentially closed the deal for the Broncos as they moved on to the AFC Championship Game.

“So, I can see why people talk about it with me," Bailey said this week.

Wednesday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick recalled Bailey’s career. Bailey formally announced his retirement from the NFL on Tuesday.

“Champ was great and unique in the fact he could match up with pretty much anybody -– fast guys, quick guys, big guys, physical receivers," Belichick said. “He had the skill set, anticipation and awareness to play inside in the slot and could play outside on the perimeter. Really a complete player that matched up well against pretty much whoever he covered."

Bailey had two career interceptions – one in the regular season to go with the one in the playoffs – against Belichick-coached teams.

Fantasy Now: Jonas Gray

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
12:58
PM ET


video

After a strong Week 8, is Jonas Gray worth a start this week?

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