December 9, 2016

Inside Gillette: Balancing Act

price logoby Christopher Price
[email protected]

The preseason is a necessary evil — players need the on-field reps to get game-ready ready for the regular season. But, at the same time, it can be a dangerous animal — do you go all out, pushing it to the limit? Or do you go half-speed, hoping to preserve the body in hopes of not sustaining an injury … in what really amounts to a glorified exhibition?

Finding that balance can mean everything to a football player. Just ask Ronnie Lippett, Andre Tippett and Garin Veris, three dependable, durable Patriots … who suffered season-ending injuries in a 1989 preseason contest. As a football player, it’s in your DNA to want to go all out, all the time. But the desire to save leave something in the tank in a meaningless game — and stay healthy for when the real bullets start to fly — is also human nature.

Laurence Maroney is about to walk that line. The second-year running back, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery, has worn a red non-contact jersey all summer in hopes of protecting his shoulder. He traded his non-contact jersey for a regular practice one for the first time Monday morning at Gillette Stadium, and will likely get his first on-field test Friday in Carolina against the Panthers.

Finding that balance between wanting to stay healthy and trying to avoid injury — especially with a running back — can be tricky in the preseason, according to Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. You don’t want to overexpose a player to injury in games that really don’t count. But at the same time, the player needs that level contact to truly prepare for the regular season.

“I think an individual player’s situation varies from player to player, but I think in general, players need to practice and play to get ready to play,” Belichick said of finding that balance needed to help get a running back ready for the grind of a 16-game season.

“I think if we just want to save everybody, we would just be sitting around here for six weeks and not do anything,” he added. “I don’t think we’d have a very good football team, but I think everybody would be safe. I don’t think that’s the answer.”

When it comes to running backs, veteran Sammy Morris says coaches have to remember that many starting backs will take more hits than Google during the regular season, so there’s no need to add to than number unnecessarily in the preseason.

“Obviously, it’s a physical game and there are a lot of collisions out there, so it’s kind of hard to come away completely unscathed as a running back,” said Morris, in his first preseason with the Patriots. “But you need to find a balance. ‘How many reps does this guy need? How many reps does that guy need? How much rest does this guy need?’ Coaches and players need to do that without second-guessing themselves in the end.”

Second-guessing can lead to trouble at any position. So can “sugar-footin’ or half-steppin’” — Ellis Hobbs’ favorite description of going half-speed in the preseason in hopes of not getting hurt. The third-year cornerback has seen plenty of guys take a play or two off in the preseason.

“Yeah, I’ve seen guys on film do that. I’m not calling anybody out on this team, but I’ve seen it on other teams around the league,” Hobbs said. “I think it’s human nature: in your mind, it’s the preseason, we can take our time, especially if you’re a high draft pick who knows he’ll be here.

“I think it’s harder for some players and it comes easier for others. The main thing I try to do individually – and I can only speak for myself on this – is to go out there and play as if it is a real game. Play as if it counts.”

In the end, it has to be a combination of player and coach working together in hopes of finding commonality.

“There has to be some middle ground between working and getting the team to be able to execute to a certain level — and at the same time you don’t want them worn down by the time you get to the season,” Belichick said. “But you have to be able to go out there and play competitively against pretty good competition in this league. We’re just trying to find that balance.”

5 THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK

1. Matt Cassel. The two remaining preseason games are key ones for the third-year quarterback. Backup quarterbacks under Bill Belichick are traditionally given three years to succeed. If it’s not happening for them at the end of the third preseason, it’s not gonna happen — just ask Rohan Davey. If Cassel does not continue to progress over these next two preseason games, the Patriots could end up going out next April and using a second-day pick on a quarterback, or going and acquiring a veteran backup like Damon Huard.

2. The reaction to the first real hit Carolina lays on running back Laurence Maroney. Assuming he plays — and there’s every reason to expect he will for the reasons we detailed above — Maroney will start against a physical Carolina defense that should get him used to game action very quickly.

3. Danny Baugher. The rookie punter hasn’t clinched the job quite yet, but can do so Friday against the Panthers with another solid performance.

4. The Patriots’ offensive line. The Panthers were a lot better than the Titans at sustaining a pass rush last season (Carolina had a 41-26 edge in sacks), and could cause major problems for the New England offensive line and Tom Brady if the Patriots’ offensive line submits the same sort of performance they did against Tennessee.

5. Rodney Harrison. The veteran safety was vicious against the Titans, taking another step back to his 2004 levels with a savage sack of Vince Young. He’ll look to take another step against the Panthers and Jake Delhomme — someone he shared plenty of trash talk with in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

STAT OF THE WEEK

One of the points of emphasis during the week for the New England defense was to not allow Vince Young to beat them with his legs. (The Titans were sixth in the league last year in total percentage of running plays called.) Mission accomplished: the Titans had 36 passing attempts, compared to 31 rushing attempts.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“You see your quarterback on the ground, you look up and you say ‘Guys, it’s time to put their guy on the ground.’”
–Rodney Harrison, explaining the not-so-coincidental timing of his second quarter sack of Vince Young — which came shortly after the Titans’ dumped Tom Brady on his backside.

Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released in October by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at [email protected]

Comments

  1. David Clemeno says:

    “You see your quarterback on the ground, you look up and you say ‘Guys, it’s time to put their guy on the ground.’”

    God, I love this quote. Doesn’t it seem like Harrison has played his whole career here? I wish there was some way we could make him 25 yrs old again. It’s just amazing to see the tone he sets for the entire defense — what a leader.

  2. Rodney's inner sense of rage says:

    I must have replayed that Harrison hit on Young a dozen times

    Christopher, any thoughts on how much (if any) the O-line using more of a zone blocking scheme is contributing to their woes?

  3. “taking another step back”
    I don’t think that’s what you meant to say in the Harrison item.

    Nice column, though. I’ll be looking forward to it in the weeks ahead.

  4. Huard’s duking it out with Brodie Croyle to start in KC, why would he be available?

  5. Christopher Price says:

    TC–an excellent point. Taking another step back … to his 2004 levels might have been a better choice of words.

    Rodney–I was wondering about this as well. If they continue to struggle, the switch from zone to man blocking could very well be a reason. Something that bears watching.

    And Midd–just using Huard as an example of a veteran who was available in the past. Not saying–at least based on “Hard Knocks”–he’d be available in a week or two.

  6. Misanthrope says:

    Because it’s Brody freakin Croyle. The fact that there is actually a competition there doesn’t say much for Huard’s bona fides as an NFL starter.

  7. He does a pisser Peyton Manning impression though.

  8. Considering that the line was having problems in pass protection, not run blocking, last Friday, we shouldn’t be blaming the switch to a zone scheme.

    Our pass protection schemes haven’t changed at all — in a sense, all pass protection is technically “zone” in that o-linemen are responsible for blockers in a certain area of the pocket, and not for specific defenders.

  9. Christopher Price says:

    Thanks Bruce!

  10. jamesgarnerisgod says:

    Huard is solid, but he wasn’t the starter (just the fill-in starter) last year, so it makes sense he’d have to compete for the job. But speaking of QBs — why has everyone seemingly written off Matt Gutierrez. His numbers in preseason (I know that’s not everything) are superior to Cassel’s, he’s a character guy, and, with Vinny back in the fold, it seems the Pats could afford to take a chance on him. Nothing against Cassel — he seems to work hard and isn’t terrible — but he hasn’t exactly shone in his opportunities, IMHO.

    Re: Rodney, the quote reminds me of something Lawyer Milloy said when the good guys were on their way to their first Super Bowl win. It was before the “Snow Bowl,” and Milloy was talking about how the Jets the previous week against Oakland hadn’t laid a hand on Jerry Rice. He said, and this may not be exact: “Those guys treated him like a Hall-of-Famer; but if anyone comes into my area, he’s going to get hit.”

    Man, I would have LOVED to see Milloy and Harrison in the same secondary. I’m psyched that Harrison’s back, Sanders is coming on and, as I’ve posted before, keeping my fingers crossed that Artrell Hawkins makes his way back onto the squad as the season wears on.

  11. jamesgarnerisgod says:

    Forgive me for the nostalgia, but I found the quote, from SI in 2002, FWIW:

    “When I watched the game last week, it looked like the Jets treated them like Hall of Fame players,” Milloy said Wednesday. “Nobody really hit them at the line of scrimmage. They were running free and, believe me, I’m not going to see numbers. I’m not going to see credentials. Whoever gets the ball is going to get hit if they’re in my vicinity.”

    The late, great Lawyer Milloy. Sure, he’d lost a step, but let’s not forget the guys who got us Bowl No. 1 — the sires of the dynasty!

  12. David Clemeno says:

    Hey JGIG,

    Milloy and Harrison would have been special. Lawyer got his ring and then wanted the pay day. Nothing wrong with that — I just wish he wasn’t such a cry baby on the way out. I still like him though.

    Who’s the next Rodney on this team? As great as he is, he isn’t really one of a kind. It shouldn’t be like finding a unicorn to get another Rodney-type safety; there always seems to be dominating safeties coming along. Seems like we fans have been waiting for the next one in succession for a couple of years now; I’m hoping Sanders can take that next step.

  13. Dweeb Ewbank says:

    Milloy and Harrison in the same backfield would have meant lots of banged up running backs, but no one fast enough to play free safety.

  14. Seems to me that Sanders is the heir apparent. He gets better each year, and has earned the respect of both teammates and the staff.

    As for Huard, I think he’s going to look to start after he leaves KC. He had a solid season last year, and could probably start for a few teams.

  15. jamesgarnerisgod says:

    Dave C. — It’s probably no secret that I think hard-hitting James Sanders is the next Rodney. (Maybe the fact that I cannot type his name without putting hard-hitting in front of it gave it away).

    Dweeb E. — I’m with it vis-a-vis Milloy and Harrison’s relative lack of speed, but as the Greatest Show on Turf found out in SB XXXVI, you get hit hard enough, suddenly running routes and diving downhill through the middle quickly lose their appeal.

    Man, I really hope the Patriots have become punishers again — it sure looked like it in last Friday’s exhibition against the Titans. That goal-line stand got me more fired up than my beautiful three-legged pit bull Holly when we’ve foolishly left a pack of English muffins on the counter.

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