NFL Nation: Alge Crumpler

Final Word: AFC South

October, 28, 2011
10/28/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8:

Full effort: The Jaguars have struggled in the second half this season. To win at Reliant Stadium that means they’ll have to change the trend or jump ahead early. Jacksonville’s not had its bye yet but still has the fewest second-half points in the league (29). They are 30th in point-differential (minus-46) and 31st in yards per game (132.4). The defense and running game need to carry over what they did against Baltimore in the Monday night upset, while Blaine Gabbert has to do a lot more in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeArian Foster
Jim Brown/US PresswireArian Foster has stepped up for Houston in the passing game with 287 receiving yards over the past three games.
Foster and more Foster: Arian Foster was fantastic last week, topping 100 yards rushing and receiving and scoring three touchdowns. ESPN Stats & Information says he’s averaging 4.0 yards a carry over the last two seasons against defenses with eight men in the box. The Texans would be wise to continue their patient approach with ailing star receiver Andre Johnson (hamstring) and continue to rely heavily on Foster. With Johnson out, Foster’s been targeted 20 times, the most of any Houston player. Only Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, Jimmy Graham and Steve Smith of Carolina have more than Foster’s 287 receiving yards over the past three weeks.

Another run-game factor: Chris Johnson’s struggles running the ball for the Titans have been a giant story. We’ve talked extensively about his shortcomings and the potential for changes on the line. But tight ends have been big for him when things have gone well, too. Craig Stevens took over for Alge Crumpler as the team’s primary blocking tight end last year. But Stevens is dealing with a rib injury and there is only so much he can do given the level of pain he has to deal with. It’s hard to heal when you’re constantly getting hit in the area in question. Watch him and see if he’s able to take people on and if he’s less effective later in the game.

Scoring defense woes: The Colts have allowed at least 23 points in all seven of their games this season. If they give up 23 to the Titans, they will become the second team in the last 30 seasons to allow at least 23 points in their first eight games of a season, joining the 2010 Texans. How to slow the bleeding? Well, they’re giving up touchdowns 63.3 percent of the time opponents get inside their 20-yard line. There seems to be little to lose by playing more aggressively with tighter coverage close to their goal line. It can’t be much worse.

Double division action: With two head-to-head division matchups, the standings will tell us a lot come Sunday night. Houston can pull away, or allow the Jaguars to be right in the mix. The Titans can rebound and stay close to the top, or be part of Indianapolis’ first win and come out of things in third place. Labeling contenders and pretenders will be easier after we see how these two play out.
Check here for a complete list of the New England Patriots‘ roster moves.

Surprise move: There was plenty of speculation about safety Brandon Meriweather's future after he played into the fourth quarter with the second unit in Thursday’s exhibition finale against the New York Giants, but it was still a surprise when the Patriots outright released the former first-round pick (24th overall in the 2007 draft) on Saturday. After releasing veteran James Sanders as part of the previous cutdowns, the Patriots further turned over that position, waving goodbye to a player who’s been to the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons.

The team also raised some eyebrows by releasing defensive end Eric Moore, a starter at season’s end last year, but the additions of veterans such as Mark Anderson and Shaun Ellis on the defensive line made him expendable. Wide receiver Brandon Tate, who was the team’s primary kick returner and No. 3 receiver last year, got edged by more versatile bodies, and veteran running back Sammy Morris was a victim of an influx of young talent at running back.

No-brainers: First-year players like offensive lineman Thomas Austin, running back Eric Kettani, and defensive back Ross Ventrone, as well as rookies linebacker Markell Carter, defensive lineman Aaron Lavarias, defensive end Alex Silvestro, tight end Lee Smith and tight end Will Yeatman were longer shots to make the roster. The release of two young tight ends (Smith and Yeatman) is a bit surprising given New England’s love of three tight-end sets and no pure fullback. (Could veteran Alge Crumpler be on the radar?)

What’s next: The Patriots are certainly in the market for safety help, and with backup guard Rich Ohrnberger placed on season-ending injured reserve, the team is thin on the interior line. Remember that this team rarely sits idle after cutdowns. Expect the Patriots to tweak their roster further based on what becomes available from cutdowns across the league.

Camp Confidential: New England Patriots

August, 18, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Now in his 37th season, Bill Belichick owns the distinction of having the most NFL experience among current head coaches. That gives him a unique perspective on the evolution of the NFL.

“It’s changed through the years, a lot of things are different from when I started coaching, on a lot of levels -- players, technology, the equipment we use," he said. "That’s the way it is for all of us. Bob Dylan talked about that 50 years ago."

For Belichick and his fellow coaches, Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a perfect theme song for the 2011 season.

Coaches must adjust to new rules as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, which means there are no more two-a-day practices, fewer full-pad practices and expanded training-camp rosters. And when it comes to Belichick’s New England Patriots club, which he leads for a 12th season, another year has brought unexpected change.

Few saw the acquisitions of controversial defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and high-profile wide receiver Chad Ochocinco coming. Their arrivals made the start of 2011 training camp different from the norm in New England.

Usually the focus would be squarely on quarterback Tom Brady as camp opened, but in this unusual year, the NFL’s 2010 Most Valuable Player was on the back burner as he returned from January surgery on his right foot.

Indeed, things have changed.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeAlbert Haynesworth
Stew Milne/US PresswireWith a low price tag and modest salary, aquiring Albert Haynesworth was a low-risk move for the Patriots.
1. How does Haynesworth fit in? All eyes were on Haynesworth when he took the field for the first time July 31, and he didn’t disappoint.

The crowd cheered his arrival, which he acknowledged with a wave (almost like a baseball pitcher tipping his cap). Then he dominated a running drill. On the first play, he exploded through the line to blow up the play, which led to an eruption from the crowd. Haynesworth had a few other disruptive plays.

“It's going to be awesome. It's a refresher, and it kind of revived me, playing football again,” said Haynesworth, who was acquired for a fifth-round draft choice after two tumultuous seasons with the Redskins.

Haynesworth’s arrival could change the way the Patriots, who used a 3-4 alignment about 40 percent of the time last season, play defense. There have been more traditional four-man lines used in training camp, with linemen attacking more rather than controlling two gaps. Haynesworth would line up at tackle next to Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork in that type of plan.

The Patriots have managed Haynesworth’s health closely in camp, keeping him out of practice since Aug. 3. Although the reason Haynesworth is not practicing is not clear -- speculation is it’s simply maintenance of his troublesome knee -- Belichick doesn’t sound concerned.

"I think Albert has been great since he's been here,” he told WEEI sports radio Aug. 15. “He's worked hard. He's done more than really what we've asked him to do. He's put in a lot of extra time and a lot of extra effort to get back on the field, to study, to catch up on things from a playbook standpoint that's he a little behind on."

As for Haynesworth’s off-field issues, owner Robert Kraft explained how the organization developed a comfort level in acquiring him.

“I met with him, and I like the guy,” Kraft said. “He didn't come here for the money. He came here to be part of a team and win [and] I think in some ways to improve his reputation. So it's like a lot of meetings I have with these guys, I found him to be genuine and sincere. Now I hope he gets out on the field and does his thing.”

Haynesworth agreed to restructure his contract to consummate the trade. His new deal calls for him to earn a base salary of $1.5 million this season (he can earn more in incentives) before the salary spikes to $6.7 million in 2012. There was no signing bonus as part of the pact, making it a low-risk acquisition for the Patriots.

2. Will Ochocinco conform to the Patriot Way? On his first day on the practice field, Ochocinco tweeted, “It’s 1 thing to jump and be able to land on 2 feet but I had no idea I was landing in Heaven.”
He has quickly integrated himself into the mix, lining up in two-receiver packages with Wes Welker. Veteran Deion Branch joined the mix in three-wide looks.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Chad Ochocinco
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesChad Ochocinco is clearly still working on mastering the Patriots' offense.
Although there has been a higher-than-expected total of dropped passes, things have otherwise been smooth as Ochocinco has made the transition from Cincinnati to New England. The biggest challenges have been adjusting to offensive terminology that isn’t numbers-based (like the Bengals) and on-field communication with Brady through various signals.

“Once we’re on the field, there is no talking. I just look in his eyes and that’s it and that’s how we communicate,” said Ochocinco, who restructured his contract and received a $4.5 million signing bonus and base salaries of $1 million in 2011, $3 million in 2012 and $3 million in 2013. “That’s what I like about it here. [It’s] really, really cool.”

Patriots coaches and players have cited Ochocinco’s work ethic and passion for football on a daily basis, with some players laughing at the fun he has had off the field, which included attending a Red Sox/Yankees game and sitting in the front row along the third-base line, requesting a group hug from reporters and announcing that he would be living with a fan who had an Internet connection and Xbox for the first few weeks of the season.

In a classy move, second-year tight end Aaron Hernandez gave up his No. 85 for Ochocinco when the trade was consummated, the Patriots giving up fifth- and sixth-round draft choices in the move. Hernandez didn’t receive anything in return for the jersey swap, which set a positive tone.

3. Can Patriots get over playoff hump? Few would argue the Patriots aren’t top contenders for the Super Bowl. But those who don’t put them atop the list can make a strong case by pointing to their last three playoff games.

  • Feb. 3, 2008: Giants 17, Patriots 14. With the chance to close out their perfect season, the Patriots fall just short.
  • Jan. 10, 2010: Ravens 33, Patriots 14. A stunning home blowout in the wild-card round of the playoffs in which the Ravens stomped all over the Pats.
  • Jan. 16, 2011: Jets 28, Patriots 21. Having earned the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, the Patriots had a chance to bury the Jets early, but two first-quarter miscues halted the momentum. The Jets built confidence and stunned the Pats in the divisional round.

Simply put, the Patriots won’t be able to answer one of their biggest questions for at least five months.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Saying goodbye to veteran tight end Alge Crumpler. The Patriots were so pleased with the addition of Crumpler last season, and the role he played in mentoring 2010 draft picks Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez, they named him a captain a few weeks into the season.

Crumpler’s steadying presence in the locker room was considered key in righting one of the team’s trouble areas from 2009 -- a fractured locker room.

So it was surprising when the team released him a few days into training camp, turning the position over to Gronkowski (10 TDs in 2010), Hernandez and either rookie Lee Smith (fifth-round pick out of Marshall) or Will Yeatman (rookie free agent out of Maryland).

Crumpler played 53 percent of the offensive snaps last season, contributing mostly in the running game. Only three other offensive skill-position players were on the field more.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

[+] EnlargeRon Brace
AP Photo/Michael DwyerRon Brace hasn't been healthy enough in camp to seize a spot in the starting lineup.
It’s a tie between third-year defensive lineman Ron Brace and fifth-year safety Brandon Meriweather.

Brace is a 2009 second-round draft choice out of Boston College who is close to hitting a fork in the road of his NFL career.

For the second year in a row, he has opened camp on a reserve list, not ready to practice. With the team releasing longtime starter Ty Warren, the opportunity was there for Brace (6-foot-3, 330 pounds) to rise up the depth chart, but he hasn’t been able to seize the opportunity.

Meanwhile, the coaching staff seems to be sending a message to Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowl safety. Meriweather played the entire first half of the preseason opener, even though the club’s other Pro Bowl players -- cornerback Devin McCourty, linebacker Jerod Mayo and Wilfork -- did not suit up for the game.

The team also offered free-agent safety Dashon Goldson a contract before Goldson re-signed with the 49ers, while Meriweather’s practice reps of late have been split with second-year player Sergio Brown.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Great competition at backup quarterback between third-year man Brian Hoyer and rookie Ryan Mallett (third round, 74th overall). Hoyer has been the No. 2 the last two seasons after making the club as a rookie free agent out of Michigan State, and he has solid command of the complex offense. Meanwhile, Mallett’s arm strength and work ethic are notable. He often stays late after practice, working with offensive assistant George Godsey on the finer points of the position (e.g., footwork).
  • It has been a common occurrence to see Mallett carrying the shoulder pads of Tom Brady and Hoyer off the field after practice. Some humble pie for the highly touted signal-caller from Arkansas.
  • Belichick gets involved in a drill in which the goal is for quarterbacks to maintain their concentration and perfect their footwork while under duress, and Belichick creates that duress by firing a blocking pad at them. Belichick has cranked Hoyer and Mallett in the head. No 15-yard penalties for that in practice.
  • A lot of defensive linemen in camp. Counting hybrids, the Patriots have 20 in camp entering their second preseason game, and Belichick acknowledged to Sirius XM NFL radio that the team will probably keep more defensive linemen than linebackers this year.
  • Second-round draft choices Ras-I Dowling (cornerback, 33rd overall) and Shane Vereen (running back, 56th overall) pulled up with hamstrings issues after just one practice, and they haven’t practiced since. Both signed contracts late -- this could be filed under the “lockout effect.” When Vereen was on the field, his speed stood out.
  • Second-year receiver Taylor Price, whose chance to break through for a top spot at receiver was made more challenging by the acquisition of Ochocinco, is stating his case. He has had a solid camp and was the star of the preseason opener (5 catches, 105 yards and a TD). He said his next step is developing the trust of Brady that he’ll always be in the right spot. Right now, he looks like a solid No. 4 option.
  • The Patriots struggled to generate a pass rush off the edge in 2010. Veteran defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter have been solid in that area to this point, providing what looks to be an upgrade over Tully Banta-Cain, who was released.
  • First-round draft choice Nate Solder, the team’s left tackle of the future, has responded well to his crash course since joining the team a week into camp. He’s big (6-foot-8, 319 pounds) and sometimes struggles with an inside move, but the potential is easy to see.
  • Veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden has turned in a solid camp as he returns after missing the entire 2010 season with a torn rotator cuff. A starter at right cornerback opposite McCourty, Bodden has worked in the slot in sub packages, a role he last played in 2007 with the Browns. Bodden’s size (6-foot-1, 193) is a good fit there from a run-support and jamming-receivers perspective.
  • Don’t expect All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins to get too comfortable now that he has signed a six-year, $51 million contract extension. He looks like his typical nasty self on the field, and his early-camp battles with Haynesworth were a highlight.
  • The Patriots had a minor scare when Gronkowski was helped off the field Aug. 8. But he returned a few days later and looks primed to build off his impressive rookie campaign.
  • Sixth-year kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed the last half of the 2010 season with a torn right quadriceps muscle, but his recovery is on track. The right-footed kicker is not yet taking kickoffs -- UMass product Chris Koepplin is in camp to handle those duties -- but he looks strong on field goals. Gostkowski has hit from a long of 53 yards in practice and was good from 43 and 46 yards in the preseason opener.

Ranking the AFC East's tight ends

March, 29, 2011
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To play off ESPN.com's positional Power Rankings, I've broken down the AFC East's best tight ends.

Here’s how I slot them:
  1. Dustin Keller, New York Jets
  2. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
  3. Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots
  4. Anthony Fasano, Miami Dolphins
  5. Alge Crumpler, New England Patriots
  6. Jeff Cumberland, New York Jets
  7. David Martin, Buffalo Bills
  8. Jonathan Stupar, Buffalo Bills
  9. Mickey Shuler, Miami Dolphins

The first five are obvious. Keller is the most dangerous tight end in the division. I ranked him sixth in the NFL on my ballot.

But if Gronkowski and Hernandez didn't have to share touches, then one of them might surpass Keller. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 87 catches, 1,109 yards and 16 touchdowns.

ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer thought Gronkowski was snubbed from the overall top 10 list and called him "a dominant blocker in-line ... almost like another tackle" and said "he will be the premier tight end in the NFL in the next few years."

Fasano is next in the AFC East with 39 receptions for 528 yards and four touchdowns, but the stats plummet after that. Crumpler is next because of his blocking skills and knowledge he can make the play if the Patriots depended on it.

From there, I sorted them based on speculation.

Cumberland, an undrafted rookie, was deactivated for 15 games. But I saw enough of the physical specimen in training camp and the preseason to imagine him contributing more to the Bills than Martin (seven receptions, one touchdown) or Stupar (12 receptions, no TDs).

Making millions in the AFC East

March, 4, 2011
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Mark SanchezRichard A. Brightly/Icon SMIMark Sanchez is set to earn $14.75 million in base salary next season, the most in the AFC East.
Sports labor squabbles often are described as billionaires arguing with millionaires over money.

While that's a catchy rhyme that sums up fan frustration, the phrase is not entirely true.

Inspired by a blog entry from the minister of all things AFC South, Paul Kuharsky, I looked at NFL Players Association files to count up the number of AFC East players scheduled for $1 million base salaries in 2011.

Granted, up-front bonuses and incentives can make base salaries misleading. But base salaries are the only figures that create a common ground, player for player.

You'll see a vast majority of NFL players make much less than $1 million a year. Although many will make seven figures before they walk away from the game, careers are short and treacherous. They'll never see that kind of cash again for the rest of their lives.

That's why they're fighting for every dollar now.

Of the 226 players under contract in the AFC East, only 62 of them (27.4 percent) will make base salaries of $1 million or more.

The NFLPA hasn't acknowledged any franchise tags that have been signed. Those players are marked with an asterisk and not factored into the totals.

Buffalo Bills
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 19

Players under contract: 54

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 35.2

Miami Dolphins
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 15

Players under contract: 55

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 27.3

New England Patriots
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 60

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 23.3

New York Jets
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 57

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 24.6

A look at AFC East union player reps

March, 3, 2011
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With the NFL's collective bargaining agreement hours from expiring, I thought it would be a good time to provide a rundown of the NFL Players Association representatives for each AFC East team.

These players essentially are the shop stewards, the 32 liaisons who are in closest contact with union executives and the ones responsible for keeping their teammates abreast on all developments.

Three of the four AFC East representatives are free agents, but that's not uncommon. In these cases, union responsibilities often are maintained until players have new teams or retire. Teams cannot sign or trade players until a new CBA is negotiated.

Buffalo Bills

Representative: Safety George Wilson. He's the only AFC East rep under contract, having re-signed Tuesday. Wilson is known as one of the hardest-working and classiest players in the game. The two-time captain entered the NFL in 2004 as a receiver and switched positions to stick around.

Alternates: Outside linebacker Chris Kelsay, punter Brian Moorman.

Miami Dolphins

Representative: Running back Ricky Williams. A running joke in the Dolphins' locker room is that Williams is a good choice because nobody has met with the commissioner more often than he has. Williams just completed his 10th season and is a free agent.

Alternates: Quarterback Chad Pennington, receiver Brandon Marshall, long-snapper John Denney.

New England Patriots

Representative: Left tackle Matt Light. He's one of the Patriots' most charitable and entertaining players. Light just finished his 10th NFL season and was chosen for his third Pro Bowl. He also is a free agent.

Alternates: Quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Alge Crumpler.

New York Jets

Representative: Fullback Tony Richardson. He has played 16 NFL seasons and also sits on the NFLPA's 11-man executive committee. He recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Huffington Post about the looming lockout.

Alternates: Right guard Brandon Moore, safety Jim Leonhard.

DBs made up a quarter of Jets roster

January, 17, 2011
1/17/11
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum pointed out in Peter King's always enlightening "Monday Morning Quarterback" column that of their 45 active players Sunday, 11 of them were defensive backs.

Subtract three specialists and more than a quarter of Rex Ryan's roster was specifically dedicated to disrupting the New England Patriots' passing game. MVP favorite Tom Brady struggled to find a rhythm in a stunning 28-21 home loss.

Early in the game, you could sense how much the Patriots were playing left-handed, a term coaches use to describe being forced to do what they're not comfortable with.

The Patriots passed with their run personnel (blocking tight end Alge Crumpler had five targets, bruising back BenJarvus Green-Ellis had three) and ran with their passing personnel (Danny Woodhead had more carries than Green-Ellis and equal targets in the first half).

Crumpler had six catches all season. Green-Ellis had 12.

Green Ellis averaged 14.3 carries per game in the regular season compared to 6.9 attempts for Woodhead.

At halftime, Brady had a 50.9 passer rating. Wes Welker had one reception. Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez each had zero.

The Jets sacked Brady five times, with coverage a major reason why. ESPN Stats & Information charted every play from Sunday's upset. All five of Brady's sacks and his rare interception (linebacker David Harris caught it) came against four or fewer pass-rushers.

Brady improved his stat line on his final drive, completing five of seven attempts for 59 yards and a touchdown against the Jets' prevent defense. Before that, he was averaging 3.2 yards less per attempt than he did in the regular-season and had a 78.8 passer rating.

The box score showed the Jets' throng of defensive backs combined for 33 defensive tackles (five more on special teams), two tackles for losses and a sack.

"It was an unbelievable game plan," Jets defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said in Michael Silver's column on Yahoo! Sports. "It was out of sight. We did some stuff I've never seen a football team do. We flooded coverages, had man schemes that looked like zone and zone that looked like man.

"Our first reaction was, 'How are we gonna do this? How is this gonna work?' I mean, 14 years in the NFL, and I'd never seen anything like it. Rex came up with some Madden [expletive], like it was a video game. He said 'Hey, let's try this.' And it worked! They couldn’t figure it out."

Rapid Reaction: Jets 28, Patriots 21

January, 16, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New York Jets avenged their Week 13 annihilation at Gillette Stadium by stunning the top-seeded New England Patriots 28-21 in Sunday's playoff showdown.

What it means: For the second straight year under Rex Ryan, the Jets won two road games and advanced to the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots lost their third straight postseason game.

Hero: Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez outplayed MVP favorite Tom Brady and won for the first time in Gillette Stadium. Sanchez completed 16 of his 25 throws for 194 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He was cool in a pressure-packed environment.

Unsung hero: Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis had a big game as a pass-rusher and against the run. He sacked Brady twice on the Patriots' second possession.

Goat: Brady, who once posed with goats for a GQ photo spread, didn't perform when it mattered. He threw an interception, had trouble locating open receivers and wasn't on target very often. He completed 29 of 45 throws for 299 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Pivotal play: Two plays after Brady found Alge Crumpler for a touchdown and Sammy Morris ran in the two-point conversion to cut the Jets' lead to three points, Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery made a 58-yard catch and run to the Patriots' 13-yard line, setting up an eventual 7-yard touchdown strike to Santonio Holmes.

Jets received variety of contributions: No Jets player gained over 100 yards. Nobody had more than five catches. Their four touchdowns came from different players: LaDainian Tomlinson, Braylon Edwards, Holmes, and Shonn Greene.

Feeling the pressure: The Jets sacked Brady five times and hit him a lot while he was throwing. Calvin Pace recorded a strip sack in the third quarter.

What's next: The Jets will play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, where they won 22-17 in Week 15. The Patriots will clean out their lockers and go on a longer vacation than they wanted.

Video: Time for talk over for Jets, Patriots

January, 16, 2011
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ESPN reporters Sal Paolantonio and Suzy Kolber provide Sunday morning updates from Gillette Stadium.

DanJarvus Green-Woodhead propels Pats

November, 21, 2010
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Danny WoodheadStew Milne/US PresswireUnheralded running back Danny Woodhead has helped bring balance to New England's offense.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are such iconic quarterbacks, their teams often are depicted as ancillary.

It was Brady and everybody else on the New England Patriots versus Manning and everybody else on the Indianapolis Colts.

On Sunday, everybody else on the Patriots was superior to everybody else on the Colts. The Patriots held on for a thrilling 31-28 victory in Gillette Stadium.

The latest installment of the Brady versus Manning rivalry didn't disappoint, but while Manning threw for a garish amount of yards and touchdowns, Brady didn't drive New England's offense.

The Patriots controlled the game with running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, overachievers who were neither drafted nor claimed whenever they were placed on waivers.

Patriots play-caller Bill O'Brien was masterful at mixing in the bruising Green-Ellis and the elusive Woodhead, sometimes alternating them play for play. The DanJarvus Green-Woodhead combo rushed for all but 3 of the Patriots' 168 net rushing yards.

They have added a dimension to the Patriots' run game first-round draft choice Laurence Maroney wasn't willing or capable to bring. Maroney was criticized for being too indecisive and not hitting the hole.

That's not a problem with New England's current combo.

"It's just too hard to run away from these guys," Patriots tight end Alge Crumpler said of defenders. "They're too fast, too light on their feet. You have to go through them. It's hand the ball off and run downhill. Sometimes it works that way, and it was fun it be a part of it."

A quality run game is critical for New England's offense, especially since they traded Randy Moss. Defenses are crowding the box more than before.

And with the always-reliable Kevin Faulk out for the season after two games and the disappointing Maroney traded in September, a couple of unproven backs had to step up.

Green-Ellis ran 21 times for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Colts. He helped the Patriots grind down the clock with seven carries for 40 yards in the fourth quarter.

Woodhead had seven attempts for 69 yards. He produced a dazzling, 36-yard touchdown weave in the third quarter. He then made a stupendous tackle on the ensuing kickoff. Woodhead also caught four passes for 21 yards.

They gave the Colts fits, whatever the situation.

"With Woodhead in the game, we look at it as an empty backfield," Colts safety Antoine Bethea said. "He's another receiver. He has the ability to get out and, if a linebacker or safety is on him, it's a tough matchup.

"When Green-Ellis is in the game, we know they're running downhill, and they're going to get the hard yards."

[+] EnlargeNew England Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaBenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed 21 times for 96 yards and a touchdown against the Colts.
The Colts were going to win or lose with whatever Manning did. He passed for 396 yards and four touchdowns to give the Patriots a scare. But he failed to tie the game or win it when, with 31 seconds left on the clock and the Colts within field-goal range, he threw his third interception.

With Green-Ellis and Woodhead, the Patriots' offense was diversified.

Brady played a tidy game and certainly exuded his usual championship presence throughout the game. He completed 19 of 25 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns for a 123.1 passer rating.

Still, Green-Ellis and Woodhead were highly prominent. Of their 60 offensive snaps, the Patriots ran 34 times.

"They're getting a lot of opportunities because we're running the ball," Brady said. "It's not just drop back and throw it every time. That's certainly important, especially in a game like this, to be able to run the ball. We found ways to do it."

Green-Ellis and Woodhead became more integral to the game plan as the game wore on.

The Patriots scored the first two touchdowns and held a pair of 14-point margins in the second quarter and took another late in the third. With 10:23 left in the game, a Shayne Graham field goal gave the Patriots a 31-14 lead.

Some teams would just pound away with their feature back. The Patriots kept mixing Green-Ellis and Woodhead with wonderful success. All but one of Woodhead's rushing attempts came in the second half.

ESPN Stats & Information charted New England for 114 rushing yards up the middle, its highest total of the year. Indianapolis' defense went into the game yielding an average of 4.6 yards a carry up the middle. With linebackers Gary Brackett and Clint Session scratched because of injuries, Green-Ellis and Woodhead feasted.

For the season, Green-Ellis has 568 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, the first Patriots running back to run for seven touchdowns through 10 games since Corey Dillon in 2006.

Woodhead has 529 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns, certainly disgusting stats for anyone who wears New York Jets apparel. The Jets waived him this year because they didn't have a roster spot for him.

Woodhead and Green-Ellis are sharing the load and making the Patriots a better team.

"Football is a team sport," Woodhead said. "We've got to work together. We're on team. We're doing this thing together."

Patriots' O moved away from Randy Moss

October, 6, 2010
10/06/10
1:02
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The New England Patriots' offense evolved to the point Randy Moss was marginalized through the first quarter of the season.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaThe Patriots have relied on mutiple tight end sets featuring players such as Aaron Hernandez, making Randy Moss expendable.
Patriots overlord Bill Belichick certainly had that in mind when he opted to trade the first-ballot Hall of Famer to the Minnesota Vikings, reportedly for a third-round draft choice.

Moss averaged 2.3 receptions per game and didn't have any catches Monday night, but the Patriots still managed to go 3-1 before their bye week. He had nine catches for 139 yards. Moss scored three touchdowns, tying him with Wes Welker for the team lead.

But the Patriots also have gotten two touchdowns apiece out of former practice-squad running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski and street free agent Danny Woodhead.

New England's playbook isn't what it used to be.

The Patriots don't rely on that spread-style offense of their past three seasons. They don't operate exclusively out of the shotgun anymore with three-receiver sets.

ESPN Stats & Information logs every NFL play and finds no other team operates with multiple tight ends more than the Patriots this season.

The presence of rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski and veteran Alge Crumpler have allowed the Patriots to use at least two of them on a league-high 146 plays so far, according to ESPN Stats & Information's research.

For comparison's sake, the New York Jets have gone with two tight ends on 88 plays, the Miami Dolphins on 48 plays and the Buffalo Bills on a league-low six plays.

ESPN Stats & Information indicates the Patriots are on pace to run 584 multiple tight end plays this year. They ran 360 last year.

You might be surprised to discover 19 teams have used at least three wide receivers more frequently than the Patriots this year. The Patriots are on pace to run only 356 plays with at least three wide receivers.

In last year's research, Stats & Information didn't break down formations of more than three receivers, but the most common set for the Patriots were three wides, one tight end and one running back. They operated with that grouping 534 times. The Patriots ran 300 plays out of a trips formation alone (three receivers on one side of the field).

With multiple tight ends, Tom Brady has completed 72.2 percent of his passes for 367 yards and five touchdowns.

Overall, Brady has completed 69.7 percent of his attempts for 911 yards and nine touchdowns.

Multiple tight ends haven't impacted the Patriots' running game, though. They are on pace to rush for 1,956 yards this year. They rushed for 1,921 yards last year.

I know that's a lot of formation data to digest.

But examining the Patriots' offense from this perspective helps to explain how Belichick and play-caller Bill O'Brien can justify unloading Moss four games into the season and still think they can get to the playoffs.

The big question, however, is how much Moss' mere presence on the field impacted the rest of the Patriots' offense. Moss kept defenses on red alert for the deep ball every time he was on the field. Defenders had to cheat his way, opening the offense for other targets.

Second-year receiver Brandon Tate has been sensational as a kick returner, but his next NFL receiving touchdown will be his first. Can he fill the void and stretch the field?

Given the direction of their offense, the Patriots felt comfortable enough to gamble and said goodbye to a proven force.video

Belichick's talk primed Patriots to win

October, 5, 2010
10/05/10
12:20
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Bill Belichick had his players wired for action when they exited the Sun Life Stadium visitors' locker room for Monday night's game against the Miami Dolphins.

Belichick, the master manipulator/motivator, delivered a stirring pregame speech before the New England Patriots excoriated the Dolphins 41-14.

Belichick
Boston Herald reporter Ian R. Rapoport, speaking with several Patriots after the game, was able to give an account of what Belichick said before that steel door swung open.

Rapoport summarized the talk this way:
No one wants you. You couldn’t play for any other team. You are losers.

You are the underdogs, according to every media outlet, and you should be.

Rapoport reported Belichick went around the locker room and, to each man, delivered a reason why nobody thought that player was good enough.

No wonder outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich had the greatest game of his life with two interceptions and a sack against the team that waived him twice.

No wonder undrafted running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the Patriots with 76 rushing yards and a touchdown.

No wonder undrafted running back Danny Woodhead, released by the New York Jets, scored a touchdown in his second straight game.

No wonder undrafted defensive back Kyle Arrington pounced on a blocked field goal and returned it for a touchdown.

Patriots tight end Alge Crumpler called it "the greatest team effort I’ve been part of in my 10-year career."
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 18

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Since 2002, Jeff Fisher’s Tennessee Titans have had a losing record in the first month five times. Last season, it wasn’t just a bad start, it was a miserable 0-6.

Fisher and his staff have often been masterful at guiding a team’s climb out of a hole, but starting off on more level ground is a necessity if the young 2010 Titans are to re-emerge as a playoff team.

“Camp’s different than it was last year, we have four preseason games rather than five, we had injuries to deal with,” Fisher said. “We’re going to work on a couple opponents [earlier], prepare for them a little differently.

“We need to get off to a good start this year.”

A lot of recognizable names are gone, and that’s fine if a youth movement is as stocked as they believe it is. But it’s the sort of roster that could need time to settle in, which could mean early struggles again.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Will there be sufficient leadership?

[+] EnlargeAhmard Hall
Tom Hauck/Getty ImagesAhmard Hall is a likely candidate to help fill the leadership void in Nashville.
Even if Kyle Vanden Bosch, Keith Bulluck, Alge Crumpler and Kevin Mawae were all starting to tail off and even if the Titans feel they have an upgrade over each, that is still as big a loss of collective leadership in one offseason as I can recall. The people in place to lead now -- guys like safety Chris Hope and fullback Ahmard Hall -- have to maintain, or increase, their level of production to attain and maintain the credibility that batch had.

Linebacker Will Witherspoon was the biggest veteran addition, and he looks to be a top candidate to take on a leadership mantle. But as a newcomer he’s got to figure out how to fit himself smoothly into the mix.

“With me it’s more about deciphering how to approach individuals,” Witherspoon said. “…Those are the kind of things you have to figure out. You look at the stages of leadership and different types of leadership. I’m not the guy who’s a loudmouth, getting down a guy’s throat.

“But I will, if I feel like I need to, take a guy aside and say look, ‘Here’s what I see, here’s what going on and here’s how people feel about it. Here’s what I can tell you is going to change it or you’re just going to end up with a real problem.’”

Vince Young needs to play a solid 16 games.

He’s got the league’s most explosive back behind him, an excellent offensive line protecting him and the franchise’s best crop of wide receivers in some time. Things are set up for Young to succeed as the team’s starting quarterback.

The Titans need to know they can count on him to bounce back from play-to-play, series-to-series, day-to-day and week-to-week. They need improved accountability, accuracy and consistency. They need for him not to provide reasons for fans to debate whether Rusty Smith is actually the team’s quarterback of the future.

There are more questions on defense, and the Titans need to do some scoring to allow for the sort of mistakes some of the young defenders are bound to make, especially early on.

Can the pass rush and secondary improve?

[+] EnlargeChris Hope
AP Photo/Stephen MortonChris Hope and the Titans' secondary will have to defend better against the play-action pass.
The pass rush was insufficient and the secondary failed to hold up when it needed to last. Fisher said the back end needs to be better on play-action but that the regular rush against drop back passes should be improved with a deep crop of defensive linemen.

“If we can get back to where we were with the guys rushing up front in the rotation, they’ll be fine,” Fisher said. “The play-action pass, that’s got to get done by the secondary. You don’t get as quick pressure on the quarterback in the play-action pass. We gave up too many plays in the play-action passing game last year. That’s going to require better play from the linebackers and the secondary.

“On drop backs we should really be able to do some more things.”

They don’t have clear-cut guys as the primary rushers or for the No. 2 corner spot. But they have the next best thing in what appear to be a deep pool of young options.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Harris and Stevens: Offensive lineman Leroy Harris and tight end Craig Stevens might prove more effective than Mawae and Crumpler, the two guys they are replacing. Harris is actually at left guard, with Eugene Amano sliding inside to center. Stevens doesn’t have Crumpler’s girth but can fend off a would-be tackler and/or slip out into a route so long as concussion issues don’t surface again.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Morgan out: First-round pick Derrick Morgan has been sidelined for camp with a calf injury. The defensive end has missed so much installation and work it will be tough for him to contribute. The Titans have to hope some combination of William Hayes (once he’s healthy), Jacob Ford, Jason Babin, Dave Ball and Raheem Brock can effectively rush off the edge from the start.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeLavelle Hawkins
    Don McPeak/US PresswireLavelle Hawkins has been impressive during the preseason, but can the fourth-year receiver rise on the team's depth chart?
    Offensive line coach Mike Munchak consistently develops talent, but the Titans have virtually no experience behind their starting offensive line. Mike Otto could be sufficient as the backup swing tackle, but they could look for a veteran interior swing guy after cuts.
  • Lavelle Hawkins has gotten great reviews and is more of a traditional slot receiver than Justin Gage. It’ll be great for the team if Hawkins provides an option inside, but I’ll wait until he’s deployed in a meaningful game before buying the hype.
  • Babin is a new reclamation project for defensive line coach Jim Washburn. He’s suited for the team’s go-get-the-quarterback mentality and in practice, and in the first preseason game, appeared to be getting off the ball with excellent speed.
  • Jared Cook is only now starting to flash and create the buzz he generated at this time a year ago. The second-year tight end is a physical specimen and an attractive target, but word is he’s not as reliable as he should be. One thing that can hurt his cause: Stevens, while nowhere near Cook as an explosive threat, has been catching the ball well.
  • Dowell Loggains was promoted to quarterbacks coach when Fisher shuffled his staff a bit with the late departure of running back coach Kennedy Pola. Loggains has used some creative new methods to keep things fresh for his guys. It seems small but can make a big difference.
  • Ryan Mouton is not on par with the more consistent Jason McCourty or the more instinctive rookie Alterraun Verner among the cornerbacks vying for the No. 2 spot. I expect McCourty to start opposite Cortland Finnegan with Verner backing up the effective, but oft-injured, Vincent Fuller at nickelback. Verner’s ability to find a pick almost every day is one of the big stories of camp.
  • Sen’Derrick Marks is significantly stronger than he was as a rookie and could be an influential player for a defensive line that’s expected to be much more productive.
  • The Titans saw young defensive coordinators Gregg Williams and Jim Schwartz reach new comfort levels in their second seasons. Chuck Cecil expects to follow a similar course. Cecil knows that if he doesn’t, he’ll face another season of uncomfortable questions.

Big Question: Top AFC East move?

July, 6, 2010
7/06/10
1:00
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What was the top offseason move in the AFC East?

We've hit a rare dead period in the NFL, when all the teams have sent their players home to enjoy the summer for a few weeks. Offseason programs are complete. Training camps will begin at the end of the month.

[+] EnlargeMarshall
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireBrandon Marshall's trade to Miami was one of the biggest offseason moves in the AFC East.
Perfect time to review all of the offseason moves. With activity slowed to a crawl, we can safely evaluate the ones that should have the most impact on the upcoming season.

I've taken five decisions from each AFC East club and ranked them based on how important they'll prove to be in 2010.

But this list merely is to provide a reminder of what has happened the past few months. I'd like to see your list in the comments section below. Nominate your favorite move, give me your top five or rank them all.

NOTE: I was remiss in leaving out one of the bigger moves, but thanks to some friendly reminders in the comments section, I have corrected the list by inserting the Dolphins' switch at defensive coordinator at No. 4.

1. Dolphins trade two second-round draft picks for receiver Brandon Marshall.

2. Jets trade a third-round pick for cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

3. Patriots use franchise tag to ensure nose tackle Vince Wilfork's return.

4. Dolphins fire defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and hire Mike Nolan.

5. Dolphins sign inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.

6. Bills name Buddy Nix general manager and hire head coach Chan Gailey.

7. Jets trade a fifth-round pick for receiver Santonio Holmes.

8. Bills switch to 3-4 defense.

9. Jets pass on re-signing kicker Jay Feely and sign pass-rusher Jason Taylor.

10. Bills draft Clemson running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall.

11. Patriots clean house at tight end, sign Alge Crumpler, draft Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

12. Dolphins move Randy Starks from defensive end to nose tackle.

13. Patriots sign defensive end Gerard Warren.

14. Jets sign safety Brodney Pool, trade Kerry Rhodes.

15. Patriots release outside linebacker Adalius Thomas.

16. Dolphins release outside linebacker Joey Porter.

17. Bills sign defensive end Dwan Edwards.

18. Jets replace running back Thomas Jones with LaDainian Tomlinson.

19. Bills sign inside linebacker Andra Davis.

20. Patriots sign receiver Torry Holt.

Dilfer: Patriots' offense 'exposed' last year

May, 27, 2010
5/27/10
4:18
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The New England Patriots offense has been discovered and is in need of an overhaul.

That's ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer's belief based on what he saw last year and he projects the Patriots will transform into an offense not so reliant on the spread.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Elsa/Getty ImagesTom Brady and the Patriots' offense struggled down the stretch last season.
"I think they've been exposed system-wise," Dilfer said.

The Patriots finished third in total offense at 397.3 yards a game, third in passing offense at 277.2 yards a game and sixth in scoring with 26.7 points a game. But Dilfer didn't like what he saw late in the season. The Patriots scored 21 points or fewer in four of their last six regular-season games and were bombed out of the playoffs without injured slot receiver Wes Welker.

"I don't know if they can be better than they were at the end of last year," Dilfer said. "I don't know if they can be what they once were."

What signaled a change to Dilfer was the Patriots' push to improve at tight end. They signed free agent Alge Crumpler and drafted Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round.

"Bill Belichick has forgotten more football in the last 20 minutes we've talked than I'll probably ever know," Dilfer told me over the phone. "I trust the fact he can fix it. That's why they went after tight ends [in the offseason].

"They might be the model of why the spread can't work in the NFL. When you're around great coaches in the NFL long enough, you learn why tight end is such a valuable position because it allows you to [use multiple sets] offensively. You can protect your quarterback with quick throws, with maximizing protection, with the run game.

"If they can incorporate those tight ends soon enough and change their system, they can be highly effective again offensively. But if they go back and try the shotgun with three-receiver sets -- I think the numbers were up to 70 percent of the time -- I think they're going to struggle."

Dilfer called Hernandez his "favorite player in the whole draft" because he can threaten the deep middle of the field.

"People say he can't play in-line tight end," Dilfer said. "I think that's crazy. Shannon Sharpe was a lesser blocker than Hernandez, and he played in-line tight end."

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