- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Patriots running back Shane Vereen's 83-yard catch-and-run touchdown Thursday against the Jets was another reminder of how much more big-play ability the team has at the position this year. Yes, it also helped that the Jets badly blew the coverage, but consider these stats: Patriots running backs have combined for 12 plays of 20 yards or more in the team's 8-3 start. That almost doubles the total (7) for the entire 2011 regular season. So while former lead back BenJarvus Green-Ellis did great things for the Patriots, and his reliability was appreciated by many, the Patriots are much more dynamic at the position this year with the combination of Stevan Ridley, Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden.
2. Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones' ankle injury, which limited him to 11 snaps vs. the Colts and kept him out of Thursday's game against the Jets -- coupled with some minor slippage Nov. 11 vs. the Bills from his previous high level of play -- opens things up in the race for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, for one, is now in prime position to make a charge.
3. When the Patriots host the Texans on Dec. 10, it would be a surprise if dangerous pass-rushing threat Brooks Reed is playing. Reed injured his groin in the team's Thanksgiving Day win over the Lions and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Texans have shown the ability to overcome injuries like this before, which is an admirable trait that the Patriots have as well, but this is a significant hit to them.
4. Lions coach Jim Schwartz made a critical mistake Thursday by throwing his challenge flag too quickly, which negated the chance for officials to review a play that should have never been a touchdown (all scoring plays are reviewed anyway and the rule is in place so coaches can't buy more time in the review process). Schwartz deserves the criticism, but it seems most are in agreement that the rule needs to change (and will in 2013). Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, for one, shared that opinion on the 98.5 The Sports Hub pregame show. Why can't Schwartz be penalized and the play is still reviewed?
5. And maybe that's one of the reasons Bill Belichick keeps his challenge flag in his sock. It takes some effort to reach down and pull the flag out, and thus the chance for an impulsive mistake is limited. Belichick also previously explained he likes the sock because it eliminates the possibility it falls out of his pocket by mistake and charges the team a challenge it doesn't want. Who knew coaches treat the "storage" of their challenge flag with such detail?
6. I might be in the minority, but I'd give head coach Rex Ryan another shot with the Jets in 2013. The heat in New York is being turned up after Thursday's dreadful performance -- I haven't heard such venomous talk radio in some time -- but the team was playing hard for him as recently as last Sunday in St. Louis. Even though it's clear Ryan has some struggles when it comes to being a steadying force to lead a team, the personnel appears to be the bigger issue, which points more to general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
7. The Patriots had to be disappointed that the Eagles claimed receiver Greg Salas on Friday, as they likely hoped to bring Salas back on the practice squad. Just a guess from here, but concern over the health of starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (scratched Thursday and listed on the injury report with back and knee injuries) was likely the main reason that rookie offensive tackle Markus Zusevics was activated and Salas was waived. Those can be tough back-end-of-the-roster management decisions -- and it's unfortunate for them to lose a young player with some promise (and lose a seventh-round pick traded to acquire him in the process) -- but with several veteran receivers available (Deion Branch for one) that's an area that can be addressed in a pinch. Offensive tackle would be a much tougher void to address if Vollmer's health becomes a greater concern.
8. If I had to choose an unsung hero award for the Patriots through 11 games, fifth-year offensive guard Donald Thomas would be the choice. At times in training camp, there was reason to wonder if he'd be on the roster, but all he's done is start six games (with significant reps as a fill-in guard in others) and log 61.6 percent of the overall offensive snaps. He's played well as guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have missed time. And here's a behind-the-scenes story that Patriots followers can appreciate about Thomas: After Thursday's 49-19 win over the Jets, the first thing he said to a reporter was how he was disappointed with the way he started the game (giving up a pressure). Talk about holding yourself accountable, even after a resounding win.
9. Between the Bills, Dolphins and Jets, which AFC East team is closest to contending with the Patriots? They all seem quite far away right now, but I'd pick the Dolphins, mainly because of the potential for greater things than the others at the quarterback position.
10. The Lions took some flak for selecting receiver Ryan Broyles in the second round of the 2012 draft, as Broyles was coming off a torn ACL and the team had greater needs at cornerback. But the Lions didn't see great value at corner at that point (like others, perhaps they regret not viewing Casey Hayward differently as he's making his mark in Green Bay) so they focused on building depth at receiver. Broyles looked like a keeper in Thursday's game, and it looks like the Lions did OK with the pick, after all.
11. The Patriots had hoped that defensive lineman Myron Pryor would be ready to practice after opening the year on the physically unable to perform list, and things had been heading in that direction before Pryor had a setback. That adds context to another lost year for the 2009 sixth-round draft choice, and also leaves the Patriots thinner than desired at defensive tackle behind stud Vince Wilfork, where Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace fill out the depth chart. That's a spot the Patriots, who also hoped free-agent signee Jonathan Fanene would help, figure to address in the offseason.
12. Congratulations to former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien for a successful first season at Penn State. We sometimes hear about how former Patriots assistants don't do well once leaving, but no one is saying that about O'Brien after how he led Penn State through a challenging time.
13. Former Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi is hosting the fifth-annual "New England Celebrities Tackle Cancer Gala and Symposium" at Gillette Stadium on Monday, Dec. 3. Andruzzi does great work in this area, and those interested in attending can purchase tickets by visiting the Joe Andruzzi Foundation website.
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