New England Patriots: Chandler Jones
Complete Patriots season preview.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
The Patriots’ leading receiver on Wednesday posted an interview segment from a fictional YouTube talk show he calls “Burgertyme” -- think Letterman, only filmed in someone’s basement. In the 5-minute clip, he, as the host, talks with teammate Chandler Jones.
We won’t give away the laughs, it’s worth checking out yourself (and note the cameo from punter Ryan Allen). We rarely see the lighter side of Patriots players, so it’s refreshing when we get a glimpse every once in a while.
And if you like that, check out his “Smoothietyme” from last week, or this one, in which he films himself catching punts using Google Glass.
Last week, Edelman and teammate Rob Gronkowski went back and forth in a meta T-shirt battle. Looks like Edelman got the last laugh there:
At least that's the way former scout and current NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks sees it.
"Irvin flashed pass-rush skills during his rookie season, but Jones is a superior player on the edge," Brooks writes. "More important, he is a natural defensive end capable of staying on the field in every situation."
Brooks also sees the Patriots doing the same thing with the 25th overall pick and selecting linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
"Hightower has been a great fit in Bill Belichick's defense -- a big-bodied, versatile second-level defender with rush skills," Brooks writes.
The Patriots seem to be happy with both Jones and Hightower. It's also interesting to consider how Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith (29th overall, Vikings) might have fit here in New England.
In other "re-do's", Brooks gives the Patriots running back Matt Forte over linebacker Jerod Mayo in 2008 (Mayo goes three picks later at No. 13), while running back Brandon Jacobs gets the nod in 2005 at No. 32 because guard Logan Mankins went earlier at No. 23 to Oakland.
When a team hits on two first-round picks in the same year, it can be a franchise-altering turn of events. The New England Patriots have had multiple first-round selections twice in Bill Belichick's tenure, with the combination of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end Benjamin Watson in 2004, and the duo of defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower in 2012.
But it was a different Patriots "double dip" that registered on Tanier's top 10 list -- the 1977 duo of cornerback Raymond Clayborn and receiver Stanley Morgan.
"Morgan and Clayborn helped the Patriots shake the perennial doormat status they held from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s and were veteran leaders on the 1985 AFC Championship team," Tanier writes in ranking them sixth. "Not bad for a pair of converted running backs."
Clayborn's candidacy for the Patriots Hall of Fame was a hot topic last week when the nomination committee met to narrow down this year's finalists, so Tanier's timing is impeccable with a fun read that also includes another Patriots twist.
The No. 8 all-time double dip -- the 49ers' tandem of linebacker Patrick Willis and left tackle Joe Staley -- came as a result of the Patriots trading their late first-rounder to San Francisco.
1. Jones draws notice: NFL Media analyst Elliot Harrison puts together his all-under 25 team and there is one Patriot making the cut -- defensive end Chandler Jones. "When you think of young studs, this guy does not immediately come to mind. He should," Harrison writes. "How is this for a second season in the league: 11.5 sacks, 79 tackles and 34 combined knockdowns/hurries?"
2. Bruschi talks Michael Sam: ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi shares stories from the Patriots locker room and insight on Missouri defensive end Michael Sam in an interview on "The Herd." We particularly liked the story he told about players yelling "CIA!" in the locker room, which was code for "coach in area" and to button things up.
3. Dobson pacing himself in offseason: In a piece with his hometown Charleston Daily Mail, Patriots receiver Aaron Dobson explained that he's been taking time to rest his legs before starting his offseason workouts in the next couple of weeks. "I feel like I am in a great place and a great organization," Dobson says. "I feel like I couldn't be in a better place just the situation I am in, playing with one of the greatest quarterbacks that ever played the game."
Ryan Allen -- Rookie punter played through a shoulder injury and delivered a couple of booming punts in the first half.
Austin Collie -- Veteran receiver turned out to be one of quarterback Tom Brady's most reliable options.
Chandler Jones -- Defensive end caught the eye with strong play against the run and a good rush that contributed to a red zone stop.
Danny Amendola -- Receiver was hardly a factor and had a drop in the third quarter.
Tom Brady -- The missed deep pass to receiver Julian Edelman in the first quarter will probably stick with the quarterback for a while. He also missed one to Collie late in the second quarter.
Alfonzo Dennard/Logan Ryan -- Young cornerbacks struggle in coverage and tackling.
1. The biggest part of the quarter for the Patriots was coming up with two stops on fourth down, which are essentially turnovers. On the first (12:23 remaining), with cornerback Logan Ryan batting down a pass, quarterback Joe Flacco seemed to miss a better option underneath in Dennis Pitta. On the second (3:03 remaining), the Patriots won at the line of scrimmage with linebacker Brandon Spikes and defensive tackle Sealver Siliga driving blockers back after shifting/moving right before the snap, and Rob Ninkovich using a swim move on right tackle Michael Oher to crash down the line and wrap up Ray Rice short of the sticks for no gain. The Patriots were the more physical team during the game, and that play was one example.
2. The Patriots stalled a bit offensively in the quarter, as their execution faltered and they also seemed be willing to play a bit closer to the vest given their double-digit lead. Quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t taking many chances, knowing that one mistake could help the Ravens get back in the game. While Julian Edelman was a star performer on the day, he did have a drop early in the quarter on a short pass that was essentially a glorified running play. Not the Patriots' best quarter offensively.
3. Chandler Jones’ 11.5 sacks leads the Patriots and is the most-often cited statistic when referencing his solid season, but there is more to his game than just sacks. A good example came on the third-and-3 play with 12:30 remaining, when Jones initially took himself out of his rush to chip Pitta and make it harder for him to get into his route. He did so, before going from zero-to-high-gear in an instant to surge up the middle and pressure Flacco into an incomplete pass. Jones doesn’t get credit for a sack on the play, but in many ways his ability to carry out the dual responsibilities effectively is more impressive than just a single sack.
4. In the last game that rookie safety Duron Harmon played extended snaps, Dec. 1 in Houston, his tackling wasn’t up to his personal standard. That is brought up here because on the second play that Harmon was on the field, replacing injured Devin McCourty, he had a sound wrap-up tackle on Pitta to limit him to a 4-yard gain on second-and-7 (13:00 remaining). Those are small things, but to a player like Harmon who's had limited reps of late, it's extremely important. It also ultimately contributed to the Patriots getting the Ravens to turn the ball over on downs two plays later.
5. Rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones’ hustle stands out, and it caught the eye on a three-play sequence. After locating the ball and shedding to make a tackle of Rice on a 1-yard gain (7:09 remaining), he then drew a hands-to-the-face penalty (6:43 remaining), before chasing down a screen play downfield (6:19 remaining). It is sometimes said that a player has a motor that never stops, and we’d put Jones in that category, with those three straight plays a good example of it.
6. One pregame storyline was if the Patriots might put cornerback Aqib Talib on receiver Torrey Smith. The Patriots didn’t match him up that way, playing Talib mostly on the defensive left side and letting him cover whichever Ravens receiver lined up across from him (most often seemed to be Jacoby Jones).
7. One head-scratcher: When the Ravens faced a third-and-1 from the Patriots’ 4 (3:10 remaining), they went with an empty set and Flacco in the shotgun. This against a Patriots run defense that entered the day ranked 31st in the NFL. So while the Patriots’ defense deserves credit for coming up with the stop in the critical situations, the feeling here is that the Ravens also made it easier for them with some questionable decision-making.
1. Offensive lineman Logan Mankins talked after the game about the Patriots having success with zone runs, which displaced the Ravens' sturdy defensive front, as defenders were often over-pursuing. This was evident on LeGarrette Blount’s 11-yard run (1:50 remaining) as the Patriots created a strong side to the left with tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan and ran in that direction, with Blount hitting the cut perfectly as the left side sealed things off and right guard Dan Connolly got enough of nose tackle Terrence Cody to create enough of a crease. That was the type of run play in which the Patriots had great success throughout the day, and the key seemed to be getting the big Ravens defenders moving east-west at the snap.
3. The first offensive play foreshadowed what was to come the rest of the day in terms of the Patriots’ approach. Out of their 2 WR/2 TE/1 RB package, the Patriots aligned tight ends to both sides (in more of a pass set) and brought receivers Aaron Dobson and Julian Edelman in tight to the formation to constrict the defense. The Ravens countered with an eight-man box and Connolly pulled to deliver one of several solid blocks on Blount’s 5-yard run over the left side. An opening play can sometimes be described as an “attitude” play, and that’s how we’d view this one.
4. Marquice Cole, playing the role of gunner on the punt team, drew the penalty on Jimmy Smith that led to the Ravens starting their initial drive at their own 7.
5. When the Patriots’ running game is discussed, much credit goes to the offensive line, tight ends and backs. But receivers shouldn’t be overlooked. Patriots receivers are willing blockers, and they were involved in run-blocking Sunday, as evidenced on Blount’s 14-yard run (12:18 remaining). Dobson half-motioned into the line of scrimmage and blocked down on Suggs before getting up on linebacker Jameel McClain. Good effort, and you also see Edelman doing his part, knocking safety Matt Elam on his backside in front of the play.
6. More physical play – fullback James Develin plowing through the hole and pancaking linebacker Josh Bynes on Blount’s 1-yard touchdown run.
7. Develin was also a factor on the Patriots’ second red-zone touchdown, his vertical route helping create traffic so McClain had to go around him to cover running back Shane Vereen. Great design and execution, which came after CBS analyst Phil Simms said, “Of course they didn’t give us any details last night, but I think the Patriots have a lot of stuff up their sleeve [in the red zone], ways to get guys singled up so they can make plays a little easier. No Gronkowski for the jump ball. No big, tall receiver on the outside to throw the fade to in the corners. Gotta find a different way.” Simms’ timing, like the Patriots’ execution, was perfect.
8. For such a flag-happy game, one detail stood out on the play in which Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan intercepted Joe Flacco: Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe isn’t on the line of scrimmage, as it’s noticeable that the left side of the Ravens’ line is fanned out in a way that gives them an unfair advantage in pass protection. That should have been an illegal-formation penalty from our view.
9. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork once again accompanied the team on the trip and was seen jotting down notes after Ryan’s interception. Looks like the Patriots have an addition to their staff: Coach Wilfork.
10. Cornerback Kyle Arrington can be a lightning rod of sorts among Patriots followers because of his occasional struggles on the outside, but one aspect that coaches have to appreciate about him is his toughness when playing in the slot. On Bernard Pierce’s 5-yard run (3:41 remaining), Arrington set the edge against tight tackle Michael Oher, forcing Pierce to cut the run back. Tale of the tape – Arrington (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) vs. Oher (6-4, 315). Those are little effort things that showed up throughout review of the game -- the Patriots getting more of those type of plays. The run wasn’t defended particularly well on the backside, but Arrington more than did his part.
11. One change for the Patriots in their rush front was keeping Chandler Jones outside, with Andre Carter instead rushing from an interior position. Probably just a case of the Patriots attempting to dictate specific blocking matchups, but it was a switch from the norm.
12. Edelman’s first quarter: 34-yard pass-interference penalty drawn, 5-yard illegal-contact penalty drawn, one incomplete pass, a 17-yard reception and an 11-yard punt return. It’s the type of production we regularly saw from Wes Welker in 2007-2012. No doubt, this is as well as Edelman has played in the NFL. He's their go-to guy right now in the passing game.
13. Vereen came out of the game after pulling up on a second-and-13 incomplete pass in his direction (44 seconds remaining) as he was running down the left sideline with McClain in coverage. Vereen left for the locker room but later came back to the sideline (although he never re-entered the game). As of late Sunday night, it wasn’t considered anything serious with Vereen; it was more of a precaution. There was a penalty on the play for an illegal shift on receiver Danny Amendola.
For Jones, that means the opportunity to play against his older brother, Art, a fourth-year defensive lineman for the Ravens who is enjoying his best season as a pro.
"I haven't spoke to him actually," he said of any communication this week. "That's not abnormal that we haven't [spoken]. We usually don't have time to catch up a lot."
Art and Chandler are just two of three athletic Jones brothers, as Jonny, the middle of the three, is the current light heavyweight champion in UFC.
Jonny will be in attendance this Sunday with his fiancee, as will the Jones parents and Art's fiancee, too.
This will mark the third time that Chandler Jones has played in front of his parents this season, as they've previously attended one home and one road game.
But despite the extra attention from his family, Jones' focus remains on his job, which includes finding a way to generate pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
In order to do so, he'll need to find his way around Eugene Monroe, acquired via trade earlier this season to replace Bryant McKinnie, who Jones has played against multiple times during his career.
"They're both good players, they move their body well for their size," Jones said in comparing Monroe and McKinnie. "They're very mobile. My job is just to work 'em, keep working 'em."
The second-year pro is hopeful to continue his strong season (he's fourth in the NFL with 11.5 sacks), and do something to Flacco that the Patriots were unable to do at all in last year's AFC championship -- bring him down via a sack.
The door should be open for Jones, as the Ravens' offensive line has endured struggles this season, surrendering 42 sacks of Flacco, the third most among NFL quarterbacks.
The moves didn't come as a major surprise, as the Patriots had two open spots on the practice squad to fill, and each player provides depth and insurance in the event of an injury to an active roster player.
Below is a snapshot of the team's practice squad:
OL Braxton Cave
LB Ja'Gared Davis
S Kanorris Davis
OT Jordan Devey
OT Patrick Ford
DL Marcus Forston
DB Justin Green
RB Cierre Wood
Now, for some "cleaning out the notebook" thoughts.
On Wednesday's episode of NFL Insiders, the Patriots were a team of interest in a couple of segments that I wanted to pass along, highlighted below.
Jones' rise: In discussing players that are receiving less attention than their play merits, one personnel man expressed that Chandler Jones fit the bill. As he put it, it's not that Jones isn't receiving notice at all -- 10.5 sacks through 11 games is tough to ignore -- but more that he deserves to be in the conversation among the best young pass-rushers in all of football. As highlighted by Mike Reiss on Wednesday, Jones has gotten the job done from a number of alignments. He's clearly a cornerstone of this defense.
Thankful for coaching staff: When asked the question of what the Patriots are thankful for this season, my answer was simple: Bill Belichick and his coaching staff. Belichick has long been regarded as a top coach in this league, and has the hardware to show for it, but one could make the case that his work this season rivals almost any other in his career. Given the slow start on offense and decimated defense, the fact that the Patriots are 8-3 speaks volumes about his work. That extends to his coaching staff, which has done superb work in developing young players and keeping this team competitive in every game this season. A runner-up pick would be wide receiver Julian Edelman, who has been the most consistent receiving option for the team this season. His efforts do not deserve to go overlooked.
And finally, some thoughts as it relates to the Steelers-Ravens game tonight: Both are on the outside looking in on the playoff chase in the AFC, but each is within striking distance of the sixth-place Titans (all three teams have a 5-6 record). The Patriots have the inside track on the AFC East and could potentially face Pittsburgh or Baltimore in the playoffs at some point, so this game is both an enjoyable and informative way to digest turkey and stuffing later tonight. The Patriots are also scheduled to travel to Baltimore in Week 16 for a Sunday night showdown, but the NFL could opt to flex that game based on the teams' records. Should Baltimore fall out of the playoff chase, it could be that the NFL would shift the time slot in favor of one of the other potentially intriguing matchups (Indianapolis-Kansas City, Chicago-Philadelphia, New Orleans-Carolina, etc...)
That's usually the way it works for players at Jones' defensive end position. Sacks sell.
Mainly, it's because he's playing three different positions at a high level, which is a significnat expansion from the more simplified role he filled as a rookie in 2012.
Put him in a three-point stance as the team's right defensive end in the 4-3 scheme and he's effective.
Stand him up in a two-point stance as a right outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment, and ask him to drop into coverage at times, and he can be competitive in that role too.
And in long-yardage situations, when looking for a little more inside push, reduce him inside over the guard and watch him go to work, his 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame an unusual matchup for many guards that proves problematic.
"I think Chandler has played much more consistently this year than last year. Although I thought he did a lot of good things last year too, his game has come up and we've asked him to do more. He's taken on more responsibilities, played in different positions but I think he's having a solid season," coach Bill Belichick said.
Wednesday, in some ways, turned out to be a "Chandler Jones Media Day" at Gillette Stadium because he became the first Patriot since defensive back Eugene Wilson in 2004 to earn AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors.
In the team's locker room, Jones' locker is the first one located by the exit to the team's weight room and at one point a media scrum blocked the path of anyone looking to pass through.
"It's a great accolade. But if it's up to me, I would like to be AFC defense of the month," he said, turning discussion of the award from an individual focus to a team-wide scope. "I couldn't do it without those guys, the 10 guys that are out there on the field with me. Our secondary, our linebackers, they do a great job of freeing me up [and] holding guys up. I'm getting a lot of coverage sacks."
That might be true, but there have been other times when Jones has created pressure off the edge to force a quick throw and incompletion and received no credit for a sack. He's played 98.2 percent of the defensive snaps as well, so his durability has matched his impressive production.
While a player like Jones will almost always be measured first by sack total, opposing coaches are taking note of other things he's doing as well.
"He can rush the passer, we all know that, but the thing that has impressed me is that he is playing the run extremely well," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak, whose team is preparing to face the Patriots on Sunday.
That might be the compliment that Jones appreciates most after saying in the offseason that one of his goals was to improve his strength, particularly in his upper body. He's now a stronger player, which has been evidenced by the way he has effectively disengaged at times after his first move was thwarted, or simply with how he sets a better edge in the running game.
Add it all up and he's a player on the rise. Wednesday's Player of the Month honor was a decisive reminder of that.
1. Some of the Patriots’ struggles defending the run were evident from the first play -- a 12-yard Knowshon Moreno run up the middle. Rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano was double teamed by right tackle Orlando Franklin and right guard Louis Vasquez, while fellow rookie Chris Jones was handled by center Manny Ramirez, with a little help from left guard Zane Beadles. It didn’t help that linebacker Dont'a Hightower didn’t seem to fill his gap decisively. The Broncos won these battles consistently. Vellano and Jones play with great effort and are giving the Patriots everything they have. They were just outplayed at times, which created big running lanes for Moreno.
3. One of the topics that has come up in weekly mailbags and chats is if left guard Logan Mankins might be slipping. The Patriots’ first running play (Stevan Ridley for 7 yards) is a good example of why the answer is no. While Mankins leads the Patriots with seven penalties and has had some protection breakdowns, he still showcases the athleticism to pull, combined with impressive power that was evidenced as he drove linebacker Danny Trevathan on to his back.
4. Bill Belichick talked about the difference between fumbles that are good football plays and those that could be avoided with better discipline. We'd put Ridley's in the latter category. As he attempts to spin, he is upright and opens himself up while exposing the football to contact. Some credit obviously goes to Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard for creating the fumble, and it appeared right guard Dan Connolly might have been late coming off his initial block in a failed attempt to deter Woodyard, but with better fundamentals Ridley should be able to hold on to that ball.
5. On LeGarrette Blount's fumble, we'd put it closer to the "football plays" category as Blount seemed initially dazed by safety Duke Ihenacho’s helmet making contact with his helmet (not a penalty because he isn't a defenseless player). Blount was also attempting to protect the ball as Ihenacho arrived, which from our view, showed more awareness than Ridley's miscue.
6. Explosive rush by Broncos defensive end Von Miller to get around left tackle Nate Solder to the outside to create the Tom Brady strip sack with 9:30 remaining in the first quarter. Miller does that to a lot of left tackles. We'd imagine offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia would also point to Solder’s technique breakdown on the play, as the third-year pro didn’t get his hands on Miller early enough in the rush, which allowed Miller to dictate as Solder found himself in a compromising position.
7. Right defensive end Chandler Jones, who now has 10.5 sacks, was one of the Patriots' top defenders. He continues to evolve, mostly playing forward but also showing athleticism to drop into coverage at times. He plays out of both a 3- and 2-point stance and his sack on second-and-goal was a big play that ultimately contributed to a red-zone hold. We don’t want to undersell the strong 1-on-1 rush against left tackle Chris Clark, but there was also an important coverage element to the play as Kyle Arrington played outside leverage and took away Wes Welker, who appeared to be Peyton Manning's first read as the middle receiver in a three-wide alignment to the left. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard also had solid man coverage on that side. Specific to Arrington, his work in the slot against Welker warrants mention as similar to Mankins, he’s been subject to criticism in some mailbags and chats this year. The feeling here is that Arrington is a solid slot corner. When asked to do more, that's when some struggles arise.
8. On the second sack of Brady, the Broncos came with a six-man blitz and it looked like a case of the Broncos having the perfect call for the play. Connolly was pulling on the play as part of creating some play-action, but the issue was that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson was too quick to shoot the gap vacated by Connolly before center Ryan Wendell could get over to him. Easy sack. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth quickly pointed out that it was a similar protection that resulted in a sack in last Monday's game against the Panthers and wondered the Patriots might remove the protection from the playbook. That could be the case. At the same time, we wondered if it was just a result of the Broncos matching a perfect call against it.
We saw it with Stevan Ridley in 2012, as he became the Patriots' workhorse back and one of the NFL's top rushers.
With the regular season more than halfway over and the bye week upon us, below is a look at how the Patriots' second-year players have performed.
Defensive end Chandler Jones: When Belichick talked about the development of second-year players, it was likely exactly with what we've seen from Jones in mind. The team's top pick in 2012 has built off his six-sack rookie season to become one of the best pass-rushers in the AFC, totaling 8.5 already. He's firmly entrenched himself as a cornerstone of the defense.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower: Another first-round pick in 2012, Hightower is also a key defender for the Patriots. He's taken on a bigger leadership role this season from an on-field communication standpoint, particularly with Jerod Mayo out for the season. Hightower is an able run defender, though his speed limitation has shown up in pass coverage.
Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard: Dennard made the leap into the starting lineup toward the end of his rookie season and has not looked back since. He's developed into a dependable perimeter corner that has shined through the season's first half. He projects as a long-term starter if he stays on his current arc of progression.
Running back Brandon Bolden: Bolden has figured significantly into the Patriots' running back rotation, often serving as the back within the up-tempo offense. He's played a less prominent role on special teams this season than he did last year, and it will be interesting to see how his offensive role changes when Shane Vereen returns.
Safety Tavon Wilson: The second-round pick out of Illinois in 2012 started off his NFL career as a regular part of the Patriots' defense. He has since become largely a special-teams player. He missed time earlier this season due to a hamstring issue, but he's become among the team's top core special teamers.
Safety Nate Ebner: Ebner was drafted with the idea in mind of him becoming an impactful special teams player, and he's steadily contributed on coverage units. He has not had a defensive role this season.
Defensive tackle Marcus Forston: After starting the year on the practice squad, Forston was promoted to the active roster amidst injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. He's yet to play much, however, as the team has leaned more on rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones.
Defensive end Jake Bequette: There was hope that a full offseason would propel Bequette onto the radar this season, but that has not yet been the case. The Patriots turned to rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan as their third rusher earlier in the year before more recently signing veteran Andre Carter. Bequette is effectively the fifth defensive end on the roster.
Stephen Gostkowski -- Kicker hits from 44 yards with 16 seconds remaining to tie the game at 27.
Chandler Jones -- Right defensive end creates pressure while working against D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
Devin McCourty -- Safety breaks up a pass in the end zone and draws an offensive pass interference penalty in the end zone.
Kyle Arrington -- Cornerback struggles early against receiver Jeremy Kerley and is replaced by Marquice Cole.
Tom Brady -- Quarterback throws a pick-six early in the third quarter that helps the Jets, trailing 21-10 at the time, get back into the game.
Dont'a Hightower -- Linebacker appears to struggle in coverage.
Nate Solder/offensive line -- Breakdowns in protection, highlighted at left tackle, contribute to the Jets taking control of the game in the third quarter.