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Sun, Dec 1, 2013 at 7:03 AM

Quick-hit thoughts around Patriots & NFL

AP Photo/Gerry BroomeLinebacker Dont'a Hightower has been asked to do more since the New England Patriots lost Jerod Mayo to a season-ending injury.Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1a. Losing linebacker Jerod Mayo to a season-ending torn pectoral muscle on Oct. 13 has forced the Patriots' other linebackers into roles and situations that aren’t always a perfect fit for their skill set. Arguably no one has been affected more than 2012 first-round draft choice Dont'a Hightower, who has been asked to do more and most recently ran into some struggles in pass coverage against the Broncos that contributed (but weren’t the only reason) to him being replaced by Dane Fletcher for the second half and overtime. While some might be wondering if Hightower is regressing, the view from here is different. It’s rare to see a player his size (6-foot-3, 268) asked to cover regularly down the field, but similar to Mike Vrabel when he once moved to inside linebacker because the team had injury issues, Hightower is often carrying out a role for the betterment of the team that doesn’t necessarily tap his best assets (size, physicality). My view is that those are the types of team players Bill Belichick wants to have around.
1b. I specifically asked Hightower about his work in coverage, pointing out some games where it was particularly solid (Steelers) and others where he had acknowledged himself that he could have executed better (third-and-20 versus the Denver Broncos). The context of the discussion was about the uniqueness of a player his size carrying out that role, as he might be utilized as more of a defensive end in some NFL schemes. If there was ever any question, he made it clear that he isn’t overweight. “Right now I’m at 268. Not exactly 270. I’m moving [in coverage] -- I’ve done it in college and I’m doing it here. Bill set my weight at 270. I’m at my weight. So as long as he’s good with it, I’m good with it. If he has any changes in mind, I will drop down.”
2a. When the Patriots promoted second-year nose tackle Sealver Siliga from the practice squad to the 53-man active roster on Wednesday, it was natural to assume it was a result of having some struggles against the run against the Broncos. While that might be part of the thinking, it turns out the Patriots’ hand was forced by another team offering Siliga a chance to join their 53-man active roster. So the Patriots had to make a decision -- lose a player they had been working with since Oct. 23 and saw some promise, or make room for him on their 53-man roster. They chose the latter option, waiving defensive tackle Marcus Forston and ultimately re-signing him to the practice squad.
2b. Which team courted Siliga? He politely declined to answer when asked Friday, so we're left to make an educated guess. Our top choice would be the Broncos, who lost defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson to a season-ending hip injury last Sunday against the Patriots and who had Siliga on their roster in 2012. The Broncos ended up signing free-agent Sione Fua.
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2c. Had the Patriots not promoted Siliga, they could have lost both him and practice-squad defensive tackle A.J. Francis (who was signed to the Miami Dolphins' 53-man roster Tuesday) in a span of two days. That is depth the team might need down the line. For the Dolphins, one added benefit in poaching off the Patriots' practice squad is that they fill a need and also chip away at the depth of a division rival.
3. One leftover from the Patriots-Broncos game: I think Belichick’s decision to take the wind in overtime was interesting but perhaps overblown given the new overtime rules and how strongly the wind was gusting. The main thing, to me, was that he continues to make those types of decisions without fear of the media and public backlash that would follow if it didn’t work out (e.g. fourth-and-2 versus the Indianapolis Colts). Again, nothing necessarily new there, but in a media culture where every decision is scrutinized and debated at levels seemingly never reached before, I’m not sure the league’s other 31 head coaches would have all done the same thing.
4a. Did You Know, Part I: Entering this week, there are 24 teams that are either in a playoff spot or within one game of a playoff spot. The entire AFC East, AFC North and AFC West are all in the mix. Meanwhile, the Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks can all clinch a playoff berth this week.
4b. Did you Know, Part II: If the visiting Arizona Cardinals (7-4) beat the Philadelphia Eagles (6-5) today, it would be their first five-game winning streak since 1977.

4c. Did you Know, Part III: Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy entered this week leading the NFL in rushing (1,009 yards). The last Eagles player to lead the NFL in rushing was Steve Van Buren in 1949.
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--> 4d. Did you Know, Part IV: The Dolphins have played eight games this season that were decided by four points or fewer, the most in the NFL this year.
4e. Did you Know, Part V: According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, the Patriots should be ready to feel the heat today because the Houston Texans blitz more than any team in the NFL other than the Cardinals.
4f. Did you Know, Part VI: If the Patriots win today, it will guarantee their 13th straight winning season. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that is three shy of the most consecutive winning seasons since the NFL merger (1970), with the San Francisco 49ers (1983-1998) and Dallas Cowboys (1970-1985) in the top spot.
5. Patriots defensive end Andre Carter told me this week that if the team extended him a contract for 2014, he would put off retirement and play a 14th season. That’s how strongly he feels about the Patriots organization and how, among other things, they treat veterans toward the end of their career. Speaking with Carter reminded me a little bit of what it was like when veteran linebacker Roman Phifer was in the locker room in the early 2000s. Their lockers are right around the same spot (near the exit to the weight room) and both had their families back in California, which sometimes weighed heavy on their hearts as they focused on their football work. Carter reiterated what he said when he re-signed on Oct. 23 -- he wouldn’t be away from his family to play for any other team.
6. On a similar theme, did anyone else catch this week’s edition of the Patriots All-Access television show to hear part of the exchange between Broncos receiver Wes Welker and Patriots owner Robert Kraft? “You know I love you,” Welker says to Kraft on the field before the game as the two shared an embrace. Kraft then asks Welker about his head after he sustained a concussion the week before. Welker tells Kraft he’s OK before adding, “You knew I wasn’t going to miss this one.”
7. A few New York Jets nuggets with a New England-type twist: Former Boston College tight end Chris Pantale was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man active roster this past week. ... Tight end Zach Sudfeld, who impressed in Patriots camp, has seen his offensive snaps dip after the bye. After playing 49 in a win over the New Orleans Saints, he’s been on the field for just seven offensive snaps in the team’s past two games. ... Former Patriots defensive end/outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham bumps up the depth chart after Troy Davis was placed on season-ending injured reserve this past week. Cunningham could see his first action as a Jet today in backup duty.
8. In watching the Texans’ 13-6 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday in an attempt to get more familiar with Houston’s personnel leading into today’s Patriots-Texans game, one thing stood out to me: While Case Keenum is a nice hometown story, they’ll almost certainly be in the quarterback market with their high first-round draft choice. Shaky quarterback play, first with Matt Schaub and now Keenum, is the top reason they’re 2-9. Also, the Jaguars are really playing hard for coach Gus Bradley and quarterback Chad Henne, entering free agency, would be a solid (but probably not inexpensive) pick-up for a team looking to avoid a Green bay Packers-like situation this year (starter goes down and the offense goes down with it).
9. I think the Texans, if they make a coaching change after the season, could be the 2014 equivalent of the Chiefs. There is a lot of individual talent on the roster.
10. Not including kneel-downs but accounting for penalties, I’ve charted the Patriots with 825 offensive snaps this season. That’s 75 per game, which is a high total, and traces back in part to their adeptness in upping the tempo or using the quick snap unexpectedly during games. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, the Patriots are among the league leaders in fewest seconds of possession per play (25.0). Only the Eagles (23.2) and Buffalo Bills (24.0) are quicker, with the Broncos right behind (25.1).

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