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NFL Notes: Patriots defense must play better in clutch situations

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NFL Notes: Patriots defense must play better in clutch situations

Wanted: A big-play defense.

For the longest time, the Patriots were the poster boys for having a defense that made big stops at the most critical times in games.

It was the calling card of their bend-but-don’t break unit.

In recent times, the clutch element has been missing in action, even going back to Tom Brady’s final year.

With all the money spent in free agency to land reinforcements, with top guns like Matt Judon brought in to make plays, the expectation was for that game-changing defense to return to Foxboro.

One game into the 2021 season, however, and the big stops are so far MIA for the Patriots.

Allowing 17 points against Miami might seem like a good effort, but that game was a microcosm of the issue currently plaguing Bill Belichick’s defense.

Key third-down stops weren’t there. The Patriots defense didn’t deliver in those got-to-have-it moments.

The Dolphins marched down the field on their very first possession. They engineered a 10-play scoring drive with little resistance from the Patriots. That gave the Fins a 7-0 lead right out of the gate. They also scored right before the half, moving the ball into field goal range to tie the score at intermission. Then they doubled down, using a familiar Patriots tactic, scoring on the first series after halftime, using nine plays to get into the end zone and regain the lead.

But then the true dagger was delivered: the Dolphins ran out the clock, killing the final 3:24, moving the chains for two more first downs. And that was after a penalty had them starting 1st-and-14 from their own 5-yard-line.

“Honestly, that’s kind of what the league is. I mean it’s the situations that you have to play your best ball in,” Patriots defensive coach Jerod Mayo said during a video conference Tuesday. “It’s not the long stretches. It’s those critical situations that can really tilt the game one way or another, and we just didn’t play well in those situations on Sunday.’’

In that light, the Patriots defense flopped Week 1. Situationally, they didn’t deliver.

The good news is it’s only one game, and an incredibly small sample size. The Patriots 2021 defense might still right the ship, regain its clutchness, and get to the point where they specialize in making timely stops.

But given what transpired last Sunday, it’s also something to monitor.

“We practice those situations all the time. We talk about those situations all the time,” said Mayo, “but at the end of the day, you have to go out there, and perform, and get it done.’’

If this is going to be a great defense, one that rises in the big moments, we’ll know soon enough which way it’s headed with the Saints and Bucs on tap.

Sunday’s game with the Jets will also provide a few more clues.

As the saying goes, there’s no time like the present to start establishing that kind of reputation and dominance during the pivotal points in games. The Jets could provide opportunities for the defense to make big plays that can swing a game.

Mayo maintains that it’s a process. He said the goal is for the Patriots to have constant improvement over the next few months and be clicking on all cylinders down the stretch.

If Stephon Gilmore comes off the PUP list and returns Week 7 in October, his addition will help with those key situations and push the ceiling for the defense even higher.

“I would definitely say the team’s going to look a lot different in October and November than we do in September,” said Mayo. “We’re definitely still trying to find our way, still trying to figure out what we are as a defense, who fits where best. We’re still in that process now, and like I said, we’ll look a lot different in November than we do now.”

While it’s true, Belichick typically uses September as an extension of training camp to see what he has, figuring out roles and where everyone fits best. He might not have the luxury of a slow build this time around.

The defense might have to get better quicker, or else the hole might be too big for them to crawl out of.

Bottom line: The Patriots are going to need a defense that rises up during crucial situations in order to truly contend. It needs to be a collective difference-maker.

That’s always been part of their success.

Super Bowl XLIX against Seattle, with Malcolm Butler’s pick in the end zone, and Dont’a Hightower stopping Marshawn Lynch just short of the goal line with a one-armed grab, is a prime example. So were all the defensive plays made in Super Bowl LI  to come back from 28-3 against Atlanta, with Hightower’s strip-sack of Matt Ryan chief among them.

Patriots Hall of Famer Rodney Harrison, an analyst with NBC sports, thought the front seven looked slow, and not very energetic against the Dolphins. He didn’t see guys flying around and making plays.

But he’s not ready to bury them after one game. Speaking with Harrison Friday, he agreed with Mayo’s assessment, and thinks it might take a bit of time for all the new pieces to gel, and feel comfortable.

“I just think as they become more comfortable in the defense, as they continue to get to know one another, they’re going to trust each other. They’re going to trust that whoever’s holding the edge, is going to hold the edge,” said Harrison. “Right now, you just don’t see a lot of great chemistry on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s what I was looking at.”

He saw a team that lacked the type of aggressiveness needed to make big plays, or just plays in general.

If guys are worried about being in the right place, and doing the right thing, they lose some of that aggressiveness. And that seemed to be the case Sunday against the Dolphins.

“You can do your job, but you still have to have that reckless abandon out there,” said Harrison. “That’s when you see the excitement of defenders doing their job, celebrating, making plays, celebrating their teammates making plays … that’s what you want to see on a consistent basis.”

Several members of the defense also didn’t seem too concerned they wouldn’t be able to get on course, and become the type of defense everyone forecast at the outset.

Hightower said last month he thought the Patriots had the “right pieces” in place and makings for a special defense. But he also acknowledged it would take time to develop a comfort level and camaraderie given all the new players.

We’ll know more after the Jets game, the first road tilt this season.

“I feel like we learn about ourselves every game, home or away, win or loss,” defensive end Deatrich Wise said Thursday. “Everything that we face or encounter, we definitely learn about our character, how we handle every situation,” said Wise. “This is just another opportunity to learn who we are, with a road game, in a hostile environment.”

One that got away

Belichick has a pretty good record when it comes to letting players go he believes would no longer be of use in New England.

Darrelle Revis, Butler, Dion Lewis, Logan Mankins all fall into that category, just to name a few.

But, there have been some misreads along the way as well.

Brady is the most glaring one, of course. But there have been others.

Arizona defensive end Chandler Jones certainly fits in the category. He’s enjoyed a very good career after leaving New England.

Jones has been a sack machine for the Cardinals, as he leads the NFL in sacks (102) since entering the league in 2012. Since leaving the Patriots, he’s had four straight years with double-digit sacks. He didn’t achieve that pinnacle last year as he suffered a season-ending biceps injury in Week 5.

Against Tennessee last week, Jones added 5 more sacks to his resume en route to earning the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Interestingly, Jones, who is set to earn $15.5 million this season, had requested a trade from the Cardinals earlier in the year, and did not attend any offseason work.

Jones told reporters that he has turned his full attention to football while letting any negotiations on a new deal go on without his direct involvement behind the scenes.

“I think I play best when I don’t go in thinking about the deal … I’m just playing football, honestly,” Jones said, via the team’s website. “I’m letting my agent take care of all of that. It is the last year of my contract and I let that take care of itself.”

Jimmy G’s conundrum

How does Jimmy Garoppolo feel about rookie Trey Lance taking snaps away from him during the team’s Week 1 win?

Outwardly, he’s saying all the right things, but he can’t be happy with that development.

Jimmy G was removed on one first-quarter drive against the Lions, and Lance immediately threw a touchdown pass.

During the game, which was televised by FOX, commentator Mark Sanchez suggested it wasn’t easy for Garoppolo to go over and embrace Lance on the sideline.

“He’s not wrong,” Garoppolo said of Sanchez’s comment, via Jake Montero of KNBR. “Nah, it is what it is type of situation. It’s one of those we had a good drive, marched down there. Kyle (Shanahan) called the package and he’s the head coach. Whatever he calls, goes. Just one of those things that you can only control what you can control. And I’m out there with my boys, making the best of it, having a good time. At the end of the day we’re playing football, trying to get a win. Whatever it takes. It is what it is, you know?”

Faulk dealing with tragedy

Sending heartfelt condolences to former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk and his family.

Faulk’s 19-year-old daughter Kevione passed away early last week. That kind of news is devastating for any parent.

Kevione was a student at LSU where she was also a student worker with the football team, working closely with her father.

The Patriots Hall of Famer, a member of three Super Bowl winning teams, is currently LSU’s running backs coach. He had played at LSU in the mid-1990s, becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher.

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Virginia Beach’s Bruce Smith scared NFL quarterbacks to death. He has the tombstones to prove it.

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50 Colo. Time dealers, Wells are auto fame inductees

Bruce Smith was known for striking fear into opposing quarterbacks during his playing days in the NFL.

Now, as Halloween approaches, Smith’s neighbors can see just how many QBs he terrorized during his hall of fame career.

Inspired by a Twitter post from Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Myles Garrett, Smith’s friends — Paul Holley and Mike Hillier — got the idea to come up with a similar Halloween attraction.

Holley and Hillier arranged a slate of gravestones painted with the name and number of the NFL quarterbacks Smith sacked during his 15 seasons with the Buffalo Bills and four with Washington. Smith is the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 200, and 76 different quarterbacks — some many times — were his victims.

“We were playing golf with Bruce and we saw where someone had tweeted a picture of his graveyard with seven or eight tombstones of quarterbacks he had sacked,” Holley said, referring to Garrett. “I showed Bruce and asked him how many had he sacked. And he said, ‘76.’ So we said, ‘Let’s show him what a real graveyard looks like.’”

It only took a few minutes to convince Smith.

“Myles Garrett actually gave us the idea, and they thought it would be pretty cool for Halloween, for football fans, for kids to come by and take pictures and maybe get a football card or some candy,” said Smith, who played at Norfolk’s Booker T. Washington High and Virginia Tech and now lives in Virginia Beach. “You think of the number 200 sacks. And that’s just in the regular season. But then when you see the number of tombstones that have been amassed, and some of these guys I got to multiple times, then you kind of get a better picture and understanding of the career and of the accomplishments. And just an appreciation for the longevity that took place. “

Smith’s planted a who’s who of NFL quarterbacks, including Joe Montana, Steve Young, Warren Moon, John Elway and Troy Aikman.

But there is one legendary signal-caller who stood out to Smith.

“I don’t care too much for quarterbacks,” Smith said with a smile. “But for me, it was always Dan Marino. He was in the AFC East. He was the least sacked quarterback in that era because of his quick release. So it always gave me a great deal of satisfaction to get through some of those blockers and be able to get to him.”

Smith said his yard attraction couldn’t have been possible without the amazing work of artist Sam Clayman.

A lifelong Washington Football Team fan, Clayman was honored when Holley reached out to him about designing the styrofoam tombstones two weeks ago.

“I had other commitments and responsibilities throughout the week, so I had the weekends to do it,” he said. “I would wake up at 6:30 in the morning and work until I didn’t have any light left. Two very full weekends. But it was fun, though. And it was a challenge.”

Clayman said he’s used to doing paintings and clay sculptures, but this was a different challenge.

“But this was fun because it was something different outside of what I ordinarily do,” said Clayman, who also had help from Paul Ceballo. “It’s humbling. I’ve done a lot of work for some pretty high-profile talent from the area. It’s just icing on the cake when they happen to be a legend in their career.”

Larry Rubama, 757-446-2273, [email protected] Follow @LHRubama on Twitter.

©2021 The Virginian-Pilot. Visit pilotonline.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Broncos podcast: Denver, riding four-game losing skid, hosts Washington in must-win Week 8

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Broncos podcast: Denver, riding four-game losing skid, hosts Washington in must-win Week 8


Ryan O’Halloran

| Broncos reporter

Ryan O’Halloran has been covering the Broncos for The Post since 2018 and has covered the NFL since 2004. A native of North Dakota and graduate of Kansas State, O’Halloran previously covered the Washington Redskins for eight years, primarily at The Washington Times, and the Jacksonville Jaguars for six years at The Florida Times-Union. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors seven times for his work. He was named Colorado Sportswriter of the Year in 2019.

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Logan O’Connor steps into top-six role for Avalanche

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Logan O’Connor steps into top-six role for Avalanche

Relentless puck hound Logan O’Connor will further his NHL career by becoming a top-six forward for the Avalanche in Thursday’s game against the Blues in St. Louis. O’Connor, the former University of Denver standout who gave up his senior year in 2018 to sign with the Avs as an undrafted free agent, will be the right winger on Colorado’s second line.

“O.C.” will play with center Nazem Kadri and left wing Gabe Landeskog as the Avs — who rank 22nd in NHL offense through six games — try to improve on their 2.50 goals-per-game clip. Colorado (2-4) has lost three of its last four games but O’Connor has been a bright spot.

“He has been a consistent worker — forecheck, retrieving pucks, keeping pucks alive, hard in the battles to help us come up with pucks and be able to play in the offensive zone (and) discipline with the puck in the neutral zone,” Avs coach Jared Bednar after Wednesday’s practice. “So he’s the guy, for me, that he’s doing all the right things and playing the right way, and that second line — some of our lines — are missing that element. So it’s a good spot for him there. That’s why I have Landy with him there, too.”

J.T. Compher has been dropped to the third line and the struggling Andre Burakovsky was brought up to the first line, trading spots with Landeskog, in an effort to get him going with center Nathan MacKinnon and right winger Mikko Rantanen.

Burakovsky has just a goal and two points in six games, with a minus-5 rating.

“It’s not good enough,” Bednar said of his play.

O’Connor, 25, was a fabulous forechecker and penalty killer at DU, and he has brought those traits to the Avs. He has developed an excellent wrist shot and has shown significant offensive potential.

“I feel as though last year and years past, I’ve had good opportunities but I haven’t exactly capitalized on those chances,” said O’Connor, who is beginning his fourth full pro season. “And I think with my speed I can put myself in good situations. You just have to bear down offensively because goaltending is so good in this league. You’ve got to be deceptive with your shot, change the angle of your shot, and that’s what separates the good goal scores from guys that don’t score as many. So I’m just constantly trying to dial that into my game.”

Apologetic, sort of. Avs defenseman Jack Johnson on Wednesday spoke about his big hit on Vegas’ Keegan Kolesar in the second period of Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the visiting Golden Knights. Johnson was assessed an interference major and game misconduct for the hit, plus a major for fighting after Vegas forward Nicholas Roy attacked him in response to the hit.

Johnson, who got the better of Roy in the fight, appeared to deliver the big hit on Kolesar before the forward could catch a pass up the boards near the Knights’ bench. The Avs said it could have been an interference minor but the hit itself was clean.

“I thought it was a suicide pass,” Johnson said. “I tried to time it as best as I could and just finish the play at the blueline. Other than that, that’s all I can offer you for obvious reasons.”

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