Monthly Archives: October 2014

Saints in first place, and they have defense to thank

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The New Orleans Saints finally won a road game Thursday night, wrestling control of the NFC South away from the Carolina Panthers with an emphatic 28-10 victory.

And they did it by literally wrestling the ball away from quarterback Cam Newton with a game-changing sack-fumble in the shadow of his own end zone with the game still scoreless late in the second quarter.

Who would’ve thought? A defense stepped up to turn the tide of a division that had become the NFL’s laughingstock because of poor defensive play during the first half of the season.

No one in the NFC will be laughing if this is a sign of things to come from the Saints (4-4). New Orleans is the last place wild-card teams are going to want to visit come January.

“We definitely didn’t stop believing,” Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis said after the defense went through many struggles during a 2-4 start. “We always had our confidence. But in football sometimes you fall short. The [three] games we lost on the road was [by] a total of six points, which was devastating to us. But we kept our focus, we got great leaders in Drew [Brees] and Curtis Lofton and those guys, Junior Galette. They just told us don’t get down on ourselves and we’ll turn it around, and we did.”

Lewis has quietly had another standout season while the rest of the secondary has undergone growing pains. He spent much of Thursday’s game matched up with rookie standout Kelvin Benjamin and helped hold him to two catches for 18 yards on 10 targets.

“You watch Keenan Lewis. I just finished telling him he was outstanding,” said Saints coach Sean Payton. He also said the entire defense was outstanding.

Lewis was hardly alone on a night when Newton was about as off-target as he’s ever been, completing just 10 of 28 passes for 151 yards.

Cornerback Corey White intercepted a tipped pass in the first half, and Newton was sacked four times.

Most important of all, New Orleans held Carolina scoreless in the first half despite two turnovers by the Saints’ offense. It was a rare moment where the Saints needed their defense to bail them out. And it delivered in a huge way.

“It feels great,” said Galette, who sacked Newton to force that fumble late in the second quarter and finished with two sacks. “A wonderful feeling from what we’ve been through the past few weeks, knowing we lost a lot of close games.”

Galette passed the credit for the forced fumble to defensive end Cameron Jordan.

“He pushed his tackle into the quarterback and before the play said he was gonna power, and I’m gonna get high. And it worked out exactly how we planned it out to be,” Galette said. “We knew that was probably the advantage we had was against their [injury-depleted] offensive line. We knew they had a few guys that were out. And Sean made the emphasis that we had to take advantage up front. And we did that tonight. We came together.”

Of course it must be noted that the Saints’ defense remains a work in progress. And this Carolina offense was pretty punchless.

But the Saints’ defense showed signs of this turnaround against an explosive Green Bay offense last week, and against Detroit and Tampa Bay in the games before that. New Orleans now has 12 sacks over the past 13 quarters.

“We didn’t listen to the white noise,” Galette said of the early-season criticism. “And here we are, first place in the division, and we can’t get complacent. We still won’t listen to the white noise and the good things people will say about us. Because we know how bad it feels when you’re down.

“So we’re just gonna keep our foot on the gas and not look back.”

Chat with Chris Berman: Talking KC Sports, Andy Reid & More

One of the most recognizable figures in sports stopped by the Chiefs offices on Thursday and shared his thoughts on everything from the Royals historic run to Andy Reid and the 1969 Chiefs beating the “big, bad Vikings” in Super Bowl IV.

Chris Berman, whose “back, back, back” and “he….could….go….all….the….way” have become catch phrases for every sports fan, regardless of town or team.

Berman, who spent the early part of the week in Kansas City covering the Royals, dropped by One Arrowhead Drive and caught up with his good friend, Chiefs coach Andy Reid.

After catching up with Reid, a friend of more than 15 years, Berman shared his thoughts on the overall sports atmosphere happening in Kansas City right now.

Berman, a native New Yorker, recalls the feeling he experienced when watching the Chiefs’ Monday Night Football win over the Patriots, followed the next night by an extra-inning Royals victory over the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wildcard game.

“It was the same emotion [from the fans],” Berman said of the two nights. “It was very cool. It was something really, I don’t want to use the word wholesome—that’s not what I’m trying to say. I don’t want to say collegiate either, but it was just pure. I loved it.

“As a sports fan, you love it. Especially [since] it’s been quiet around here lately for certainly baseball and really, except for last year for a little while—football. So I respect when fans get a chance to rise back up. It’s a good thing.”

Growing up a Jets fan, Berman has a special appreciation for the Chiefs going back to the days of the American Football League (AFL), founded by the late Lamar Hunt.

“Having Arrowhead and the Chiefs back in the mix goes back to the original AFL,” Berman said. “The fans are cheering because they’re fans, not because they want to be vulgar and think they can out-insult somebody.”

Midway through talking about the state of sports in Kansas City right now, Berman noticed the iconic “huddle” picture of Len Dawson and the 1969 Chiefs team on the wall.

“The reason Super Bowl IV was bigger than just a Chiefs win,” Berman explained as he walked up to the picture and named off everyone from Len Dawson and Otis Taylor, to EJ Holub and Mike Garrett. “This is going back long before your time, but it was the final game of the AFL, and that team kicked the crap out of Minnesota and the big bad Vikings.

“It was the final game of our league. Whatever happened in that 60 minutes, our league was done either way. That was a big. If you were a Jet fan and I was then, with Namath, we didn’t like the Raiders, so therefore the Chiefs were the western team we could root for, so it was a double thing.”

His appreciation for the history of the Chiefs could be rivaled by his respect for coach Andy Reid.

Berman, who has worked for ESPN for more than 35 years covering football, baseball and other various sporting events, explained why he believes Reid is such a respected coach among his players, both current and former.

“I just think that with Andy [Reid], there is a respect factor both ways and he trusts his players,” Berman said. “He isn’t the only coach that does it but from the background that he came from, which would be Mike Holmgren, which would be from Bill Walsh. That was way ahead of its time to have a players’ committee.

“That seems small to the average public ‘Well of course the players have a voice.’ Well, that goes back a couple football generations if you will. The way Andy has been taught and he wouldn’t have it any other way, so he really leans on his players’ committee to both not only carry his message but to hear what’s up with them and he is as in tune with his players’ group as any coach I’ve ever known. I think that’s really critical.”

Reid explained more about the players’ committee after practice on Friday.

“It’s just one guy from each position,” Reid explained. “Normally, they’re the leader of that position. If there are any problems or situations that arise, the players have a communicator to talk to. They can bring it and put it on the table with me. The committee can also meet before it gets to me and figure it out.

“It’s just open communication. That’s the main thing. Just like anything in life, open communication is important.”

Most people only see one side of coach Reid, and Berman discussed what he thinks people might be surprised to know about Reid.

“The easy answer for me: most people only see him on the sidelines,” Berman said. “Well no one is going to be Jackie Gleason on the sidelines. I understand that, to date myself. But the press conferences—he’s pretty boring, isn’t he? But he really has a great sense of humor. He laughs a lot. He’s very funny in a chuckling sense of humor sort of way.

“He’s through the years been kind enough to spend some time with me on the phone—and I’m understating it, but we laugh half the time.”

Chiefs vs. Chargers: By the Numbers

The Kansas City Chiefs outdueled Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers in several key offensive categories on Sunday besides just in the total number of points scored.

The Chiefs offense had more total first downs (22 to 19), both by rushing (7 to 5) and passing (12 to 11).

On third down, the Chiefs converted 7 of 14, while the Chargers, who came into this game ranked third in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage at 53.8 percent, finished just 3 of 10 on the day.

The Chiefs had 365 total yards of offense compared to just 251 for the Chargers.

Much of this offensive success had to do with the time of possession, which the Chiefs dominated (39:00 to 21:00).

But even with the excess number of plays and yards, the Chiefs offense still had a higher yards-per-play average than the Chargers (5.2 to 5.1).

The Chiefs most popular personnel group of the day included three wide receivers, one running back and one tight end (11 personnel), which they ran 22 times in the game.

Seven of those plays were rushes that totaled 37 yards (5.2 ypc), and Alex Smith completed 8 of 14 passes for 105 yards (7.5 ypa) in that grouping.

Coming into this game, the Chiefs had used the 21 personnel grouping (two running backs, one tight end and two receivers) just an average of 10.6 times per game through the first five games. On Sunday, they used it 20 times and it was the second-most popular grouping on the day.

The Chiefs ran it 15 times for 52 yards out of 21 personnel and went 4 of 4 for 38 yards through the air with one sack allowed.

Overall, in any of the three personnel groups that involved two running backs on the field together, the Chiefs offense completed 8 of 8 passes for 81 yards.

The Chiefs ran 29 total plays with two running backs on the field together with any different number of players together.

Obviously, these numbers can be skewed in instances like goal-line and short-yardage situations, but it’s interesting to note that Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis were never on the field together against the Chargers.

In the first half, the Chiefs ran 12 plays on first down, averaging 2.5 yards per play. But in the second half, the Chiefs ran 17 plays on first down and averaged 6.4 yards on first down.

Of the 12 plays in the first half on first down, 10 of them were rushes and just two were passing attempts, with one of the passing plays resulting in a sack.

In the second half, the Chiefs ran the ball eight times on first down and threw it nine, although four of those nine pass attempts came on the final two-minute drive.

But running the ball 10 of the 12 first-down plays in the first half would seem to set up the play-action pass in the second half, which is exactly why on the Chiefs third play of the second half, they completed an 18-yard pass to receiver AJ Jenkins, which is diagrammed below.

The fake to running back Jamaal Charles, combined with right guard Zach Fulton’s movement (all shown in red box), resulted in the Chargers linebacker’s (black box) movement, which in turn opened a passing lane from Smith to Jenkins.

This is just a small example of the way in which play calling throughout the game affects what a defense is doing and how they’re attacking certain situations.

The Chiefs had 13 offensive plays that went for at least 10 yards, and they came in five different personnel groups: twice in “12” personnel, three times in “21” personnel, three times in “20” personnel, five times in “11” personnel and once in “13” personnel.

The Chiefs found success picking up chunks of yards with any combination of different guys on the field together, which is just another example of how the offense was executing as a group and not just relying on one particular player.

It’s much easier for defenses to stop one player, but when you bring in so many different combinations of players and those guys are put in situations to be successful, which is something Chiefs coach Andy Reid is known for, there’s going to be success on the offensive side of the ball.

Player Development Helping Young Chiefs to Thrive

There’s been a lot of talk on the job that Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey and his staff have done in bringing in players to help contribute on a roster filled with injuries.

This is undoubtedly true, as Dorsey and his staff have done a phenomenal job bringing in talent, but that’s only part of the equation. Once those players arrived in Kansas City, the coaching staff, led by Andy Reid, has had the task of developing those players into contributors whenever their name may be called.

“The coaches have done a nice job in that case,” Reid said of the staff’s ability to develop. “They have had a few guys in spots they’ve had to coach up. But Dorsey’s given them talent to work with and they put their expertise and work them like crazy.”

For many players this year, the call may have been sooner than anyone expected.

Three guys brought in last year have stepped up after just one year in this system and have thrived on the defensive side of the ball. The first is defensive end Jaye Howard, who moved into a starting role after Mike DeVito went down with an injury. Then you have linebacker James-Michael Johnson, who has stepped in for the injured Derrick Johnson. Finally, safety Ron Parker has made the switch from cornerback over to safety and played well over the past few games.

All three of these guys have improved since they arrived in Kansas City and began working with their respective coordinators and positional coaches. Also, all three of these players were picked up on waivers last year by general manager John Dorsey.

Other second-year guys on the offensive side of the ball have also stepped up for the Chiefs. Tight end Travis Kelce, running back Knile Davis and left tackle Eric Fisher, all have developed within the last year after being drafted in the same 2013 class.

It’s the coach’s ability to work and develop these players that have the Chiefs competing with some of the best teams in the NFL over the past three games.

“Good teachers,” Reid explained. “That’s what you’re looking for. So that’s what we have there and Dorsey takes care of the rest with the expertise in his area—evaluation. And his guys, they get out there and they kind of scour the country. A lot of hours go into that.”

Most recently, we saw rookie cornerback Phillip Gaines play his best football of the season when the Chiefs needed him the most.

“I thought (Phillip) Gaines did a nice job,” Reid said after the win over the Chargers. “The defense battled and against a really good offense. It’s a tribute to Dorsey and his guys, and it’s a tribute to those kids.”

Recently, Dorsey praised the coaching staff and players for what they’ve been able to do this season.

“It’s comforting that we’re moving in a proper direction,” General Manager John Dorsey said. “It’s a comfort knowing that you’re deeper than you were last year. Whenever you have a coaching staff, like we have assembled here, you know they’re going to get quality coaching and teaching. That’s all you can ask for.

“The intestinal fortitude that this bunch has, it speaks volumes of where we’re headed.”

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

DENVER — A few thoughts from the Denver Broncos’ 42-17 win against the San Francisco 49ers in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

What it means: When all was said and done, history was made and a football is headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning set a new NFL record for career touchdown passes with his 509th, an 8-yard scoring toss to Demaryius Thomas with 3 minutes, 9 seconds left in the first half. Manning went on to throw his 510th as well, finishing with four scoring passes to power the Broncos to a rout on the way to a 5-1 record.

Stock watch: Manning, on a historic night in what is a historic career, was the headline, but the Broncos again flaunted an offense that features impact at every skill position. The guy to keep an eye on in the weeks ahead is running back Ronnie Hillman. Hillman, who has battled maturity issues at times in his first two years in the league, has finally shown his vast potential in this, his third season. Since Montee Ball’s groin injury against the Arizona Cardinals, Hillman has been explosive and given the Broncos’ run game a boost. He had his first career 100-yard game last week against the New York Jets and a career-long run of 37 yards for a touchdown Sunday night. He wanted to make the Broncos’ decision a difficult one when Ball returned and he has already done that.

Blue crush: Decked out in their all-navy blue uniforms Sunday, the Broncos’ defense kept 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick under wraps, especially in the run game. Kaepernick came into the game averaging 5.3 yards per carry as the 49ers’ second-leading rusher, but the Broncos continually loaded the formation with speed, often with five, six and, on a smattering of snaps, seven defensive backs. Kaepernick found room to work hard to come by. He extended some plays to create some quality work in the passing game at times, but through three quarters he had just one rushing attempt for 7 yards and the 49ers’ offense suffered because of it.

Game ball: Linebacker Von Miller deserved one, defensive end DeMarcus Ware deserved one, as did cornerback Chris Harris Jr., WR Demaryius Thomas and even perhaps a guy such as Paul Cornick, who made his first NFL start at right tackle. But history trumps all, as does a four-touchdown night with 318 yards passing. So Manning gets the nod. It was his 88th career 300-yard passing game and his 33rd game with at least four touchdown passes.

What’s next: From one prime-time spot to another with a key AFC West matchup now on the docket — the San Diego Chargers (5-2) are set to play at Denver on Thursday night. The Chargers handed the Broncos their only home loss of 2013, also on a Thursday night.

John Idzik placates Rex Ryan with new toy, but it’s too late

The Percy Harvin trade is a $7 million Hallmark card to Rex Ryan, courtesy of New York Jets general manager John Idzik.

After a four-day span in which Ryan bemoaned the sight of Darrelle Revis in a New England Patriots uniform, turned crazy mad after a crushing loss to those Patriots and told reporters the season is “a big failure,” Idzik decided to give his depressed coach a pick-me-up.

An electric player who can run, catch and return kickoffs, adding speed to an offense that lacked it — due, in part, to Idzik’s personnel mistakes in the offseason.

The blockbuster trade, stunning on so many levels, is a brilliant public relations move by a general manager who, until now, acted like he didn’t give a hoot what the public thought of him. But the criticism of his handiwork has intensified in recent weeks, with grumbling at One Jets Drive that Ryan and his coaches are frustrated by the glaring holes in the roster.

So this was Idzik’s response: Here you go, Rex — a weapon for the offense. Don’t ever say I don’t get you players.

Chances are, Harvin won’t save Ryan’s job, but it gives the coach a new toy and lifts his spirits, doing the same for a fan base disgusted by the team’s 1-6 start. Make no mistake, Ryan inherits all the risk. If Harvin doesn’t produce, fails to find a niche in the offense and whines about it — one factor that prompted the Seattle Seahawks to send him packing — the blame will fall on Ryan.

For Idzik, the long-term risk is minimal. If it doesn’t work out — if Harvin acts out and poisons Ryan’s locker room — he can jettison both at the end of the season. The Jets pick up Harvin’s contract, which has four-plus years and $48.6 million remaining, but they’re on the hook for only $7.1 million, the remainder of his $11 million base salary this season — fully guaranteed.

Sure, they’d lose the conditional pick, which reportedly can be no lower than a fourth-round choice, but it wouldn’t break their 2015 draft. Because, as you know, Idzik is all about building through the draft. How many times have we heard that? If, by chance, Harvin clicks with the Jets, maybe he stays and Ryan still goes.

So it’s a no-lose for Idzik, who knows exactly what he’s getting in Harvin. You have to assume his former boss, Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider, with whom he negotiated the trade, didn’t pull any fast ones. That means Idzik knows all about Harvin’s problem-child routine. He makes Santonio Holmes seem like a choir boy. It’s funny: Idzik passed on DeSean Jackson in the offseason because of off-the-field concerns, but now he makes the play for Harvin.

Ask yourself this: Why would the Seahawks, who traded three draft choices (including a first-rounder) and paid Harvin $18 million, unload him after a little more than one season? Dumb teams don’t win Super Bowls. Granted, Harvin came up huge in the Super Bowl, scoring on an 87-yard kickoff return, but the sudden fire sale speaks volumes. Statistically, Russell Wilson was a better quarterback when Harvin was on the sideline. Almost always injured, Harvin has only 150 receiving yards since the start of last season.

Harvin is a gifted athlete, and he’ll scare the dickens out of a defense when he gets the ball in his hands. But offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will have to be creative with his play calling. Get ready for the “Percy Package.”

An AFC personnel director, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said of Harvin: “He’s a multipurpose type, meaning you have to manufacture some ways to get him the ball. When the ball is in his hand, he has a chance to make a play with it. The play isn’t over and his speed is an element after the catch. If you’re a defense, you need to be cognizant of his speed. You can use him with bubble screens, reverses, speed sweeps and vertical shots. He adds north/south speed with the ball in his hands.”

If everything breaks right, Harvin can help the Jets and, most of all, quarterback Geno Smith. But know this: The Seahawks came to the conclusion Harvin wasn’t worth the aggravation, so why does anybody think it will be different with the Jets?

If nothing else, Idzik placated his head coach and an angry fan base.

The Point After, Jets-Patriots analysis: New England escaped with a win

Observations about New England’s Week 7 game against New York from the press box at Gillette Stadium.
FOXBOROUGH – “Throw out the records when these two teams meet” may be a hackneyed sports expression, but it was certainly apropos for Thursday night’s 27-25 nail-biter that came down to a blocked field goal as time expired.

It was hard to imagine the 1-win Jets would just crash land in Foxborough. This is, after all, one of the most intense rivalries in the NFL.

“It might have been a little bit ugly and not the way we expected it to go,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich conceded, “but a win’s a win. Typical Jets-Patriots game. You know, hard-fought. They came in, had a great game plan. You’ve got to give them credit for some of the things they were able to do offensively, and Geno Smith – he’s a guy that can get out of the pocket.”

The Jets game plan, it seemed, was to run the ball, and they did that very well: 218 yards total on the ground, half of which came from Chris Ivory. That definitely helped, but it was Smith, their QB, and his legs that kept the Jets within a heartbeat of pulling out an upset on the road. Smith’s scrambling allowed him to keep broken plays alive.

“They attacked us a lot in the run game, picked and chose their moments when they wanted to throw, but they did really well attacking us in the run game,” cornerback Darrelle Revis admitted.

Up 27-19 with less than eight minutes to play, New England seemed like it finally took control of the game. That is, until Smith led a five-minute touchdown drive that nearly knotted the game, but for a failed two-point conversion attempt that Smith overthrew to an open tight end Jace Amaro. Then when wide receiver Danny Amendola, on the Patriots’ hands team, recovered the ensuing onside kick near midfield with 2:30 to play, it looked like victory had all but been assured for New England.

But offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called three straight running plays that netted just one yard, forcing the Patriots to punt. The offense was essentially trusting the defense to do what it couldn’t do for the previous three-plus quarters: stop the Jets offense from moving the ball into field goal range.

In fact, when New York kicker Nick Folk lined up for a 58-yard field goal with five second remaining, Gillette Stadium got very quiet.

D-lineman Chris Jones – victimized last year at New York for a penalty on a Jets field goal attempt that wound up costing New England the game – was the hero this time when he blocked Folk’s kick. It was Folk’s only miss on the night.

“You’ve got to hold on, and we did,” Revis added. “We couldn’t get off [the field] at certain times, but guys fought. We knew this game was probably going to be close. It’s not how we wanted it to be, with penalties here and there, not getting off on third down, but at the same time… I’ll tell you what about this team: we’ve got a lot of heart. We really do. We stick in these tough games and we fight to the end. It just shows the chemistry we’ve got and how in synch we are as a whole. We bond well, and we don’t point the finger at anybody. We lift each other up and go play the next play.”

“New York is a good team, that’s why it was close,” running back Shane Vereen remarked. “We had to battle to the finish. We knew we were going to have to play 60 minutes and luckily, we did. You take a win anytime you can.”

The fact that this game was played on a Thursday night may have contributed to the tight nature of the outcome as well.

“I think with a short week, putting in some things we didn’t have a chance to go over or run a lot, get the reps like we do in a normal week, that gave us a little problem where we couldn’t get the communication,” defensive tackle/co-captain Vince Wilfork explained. “At the same time, you can’t be disappointed with a win in the division. You cannot. I’m pretty sure the Jets are feeling worse than we are.”

“It’s the Jets. It’s always good to beat them,” acknowledged tight end Rob Gronkowski. “It was great to come out with a victory, no matter what it takes.”

New England now has a mini-bye week of sorts before preparing for a brutal stretch of games against some of the best teams in the NFL. They’ll need the rest this weekend, and again in a couple of weeks when their actual bye week comes along. The next time the Patriots face a division foe, it will be mid-December when Miami comes to town.

In the meantime, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, Detroit, Green Bay, and San Diego loom large.

Julius Thomas believes he still has room to grow

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — He is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound testament to patience, a matchup crushing tight end who shows a question mark can be forced into an exclamation point with a little good fortune and plenty of work.

Because for two football seasons Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas’ career stat line was this: One catch. Five yards.

It’s been a long journey for the player who injured his ankle on his first career catch to the player who currently leads the NFL in touchdown receptions after nabbing nine in five games.

“I wouldn’t say that I imagined that far,” Thomas said Wednesday. “I was confident that I’d be able to come in and make plays and do things to help out my team. I was focused on working towards being one of the better players at my position. To come out and have the hot start I’ve had this year, it’s something that kind of just happens. You prepare for it. You train for it. Everybody in the offseason thought they would have two touchdowns a game, but it just doesn’t always work out like that. I’m thankful, blessed.”

In a contract year Thomas has gone from breakout season in 2013 (65 catches, 12 touchdowns) to the league’s top shelf at his position. His touchdown total is just ahead of Antonio Gates (six) and more than New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (three) and New England’s Rob Gronkowski (four) combined.

He has already had more games with at least two touchdown receptions — three — than he did all of last season.

“I wasn’t going to rest on what I did last year,” Thomas said. “I was really determined to come in and keep working and try to find every way I could to get better. Fortunately for me, it’s been able to show in production. I’m still going to continue to keep working. Everything I’ve done now inspires me to work harder, so I’ll stay after it.”

“He asks the right questions, does it the right way,” said Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme. ” … And even in the spotlight a little bit right now, he’s still is a humble guy going about his business.”

And Sunday night’s game against the San Francisco 49ers should offer Thomas not only another prime-time stage, but perhaps the best defense the Broncos have faced thus far when it comes to how it handles opposing tight ends.

Even with the injuries and suspensions, the 49ers have allowed just one opposing tight end more than 43 yards receiving in a game this season — the Rams’ Jared Cook, with 74 this past Monday night — and opposing tight ends have three touchdown receptions combined in the 49ers’ six games (one each for Martellus Bennett, Travis Kelce and Lance Kendricks).

“What’s been amazing to me is how well they’ve adjusted to injuries,” Manning said. “You lose some of these guys and think they couldn’t be doing this as well, they couldn’t be stopping the run as well and you see it statistically and you see it on film. They’ve got guys stepping up, answering the bell. … There’s nothing where you can say, ‘we can attack this’.”

It’s all fairly heady stuff for Thomas, whose original rookie contract will expire following the season and puts him high on the team’s list of priorities. Thomas has lined up down in a three-point stance as a traditional tight end, he’s lined up in the slot and lined up wide.

He’s overpowered cornerbacks to the ball as well as run by safeties and linebackers. And Manning said he could see it coming when the quarterback and Broncos pass catchers gathered at Duke University for some workouts this past offseason.

“I know he really wanted to improve his route running, both at the tight end position and outside,” Manning said. “And so I know that Jimmy Graham ruling has already been ruled on but he’s doing pretty good out wide at receiver. He’s got nine touchdowns. He’s worked on that aspect of his game and he spends time talking to Demaryius. He comes down and does one-on-one with the receivers and we watch one-on-one together … have to admit, when I saw him at Duke this year in early April for the first time he looked faster to me than he did from last year. It just kind of jumped out at me.”

“Every week I get a cutup of a lot of the big plays that tight ends across the league have made,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t matter if they were a Pro Bowler before. I get a whole clip, and I watch it every week. That’s one of the first things I do with my week — just see what other guys are doing, how they did it — and I think it really helps me a lot. It’s kind of a competitive thing. I turn on the tape and I see some good things that guys across the league have done and I want to be able to do those things for my team.”

Patriots move on from Ridley, Mayo; Oct. 14 notes

As of late Tuesday, there was still no official word from the Patriots on the long-term futures of linebacker/co-captain Jerod Mayo and running back Stevan Ridley, both of whom suffered right knee injuries against Buffalo this past Sunday. All indications, however, are that the injuries were serious and potentially season-ending.

For Mayo, the play-caller on defense, this marks the second straight year he’s been seriously injured in a Week 6 game. Last season, it was a pectoral muscle against New Orleans that ended his season. Sunday at Orchard Park, he was carted off the field.

“Unfortunately, we had that last year. It hurts to lose a guy who’s given so much to this team for so long,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower remarked. “I mean, next man up. That’s the motto we had last year. It’s going to be a big void to fill. Definitely not one man can fill those shoes.”

In all likelihood, Hightower will be asked to assume the play-calling duties (signified by a green dot on the back of a player’s helmet) in Mayo’s absence, as he did a year ago. But Hightower himself has been dealing with a left knee injury that has kept him out of the past two games. And this week being a quick turnaround, with a Thursday night game at Gillette Stadium versus the New York Jets, it’s even more urgent for Hightower to get back on the field.

“I’m just doing what I can,” he continued. “Everything’s holding up pretty well. I’m still doing treatment and rehab. The next question is, do I think I’m going to be able to play Thursday? That’s day to day. I’m holding up. All I can do is what they ask me to do, and I’ve been doing it. Hopefully I’ll be out there.

“Definitely sucks, these last couple of games, seeing those guys out there having fun and playing the way they were playing and not being a part of it. The most I could do was help give those guys checks and alerts and say what I was seeing on the sideline, just doing my part. Hopefully, that was the last game of the season I have to do this.”

“We’re going to miss him,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said of Mayo. “We really are, but at the same time, we still have to move on and continue to play great football.”

On the other side of the ball, New England has options to fill Ridley’s role in the backfield. Veteran Brandon Bolden may see more carries, as could rookie James White.

“It’s difficult to lose anybody, but [Ridley]’s a great leader,” said Bolden. “They haven’t told me anything. I just came in this week expecting to do whatever they ask me to do.”

“I’m just going to do whatever the coaches tell me,” echoed White. “The harder you work, the easier it is to perform. You have to be confident. Continue to work hard during practice, get good reps, make the most of those reps. If I get a chance [in Thursday’s game], I’ll make the most of those reps.”

Then there’s practice squad vet Jonas Gray waiting to be promoted to the active roster, though he said as of Tuesday he’d been given “no real indication” one way or the other.

“I’m just kind of preparing the same as I have been. Time will tell,” he maintained. “The staff does a great job of making sure we prepare the same way every week. The guys that aren’t playing are getting extra film study, extra work. For me, it’s the same mindset. Just waiting for my number to get called. It’s all a plan. Bill [Belichick] knows exactly what he’s doing. All I can do is continue to work.”

Cornerback Brandon Browner is another Patriot hoping to make his regular season debut for New England on Thursday night. He was eligible to come back two games ago, but the team elected to wait another week. However, Browner came down with an ankle injury last week and missed the Bills game.

“It’s a lot better. I feel like I’m good to go,” the veteran insisted Tuesday. He was present at the team’s walkthrough practice on the Gillette game field earlier in the day.

“I’m excited to be back out there. I’m trying to get ready to play this Thursday. I’m ready to go. I’m itching, just like anybody else that’s been held out or hurt. I’m itching to get out there, but I’m taking it a day at a time. Sometimes it gets tough, but this is our job. When you love what you do, you get up looking forward to go to work.”

The Tuesday walkthrough was one of two the Patriots will have this week to prepare for New York’s visit. That limited practice time and curtailed activity makes it even more challenging to get ready for a Thursday game.

“Both teams have to deal with it,” tight end Rob Gronkowski pointed out, “so, just got to get your rest, get the treatment, keep the body in the weight room. It’s a quick turnaround. Just got to be prepared, so when Thursday night comes, you’re good to go.”

“This is for everybody, man. The whole league has to go through the situation where you play a Sunday game and then have to turn around and play a Thursday night game,” added Revis. “Some guys may not like it because it’s too short, but we can’t do anything about it. The schedule is the schedule.”

Weather forecasts are calling for potentially heavy rains in the Foxborough area on game night – an eventuality for which the Patriots made contingency plans. Tuesday’s walkthrough featured wet footballs to help players mimic the conditions they could see against the Jets.

“You have to prepare for what’s going to happen out there in the game, whether it’s a rainy game, a snowy game, we don’t know. It might be a hurricane,” Revis chuckled. “Just got to prepare the best way you can.”

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer learning the power of his words

Mike Zimmer

MINNEAPOLIS — When the Minnesota Vikings were in the process of searching for a new coach last winter, general manager Rick Spielman asked veteran players what traits they most wanted to see in a new leader. A major one that led the team to Mike Zimmer — indeed, a major reason why many give Zimmer the “players’ coach” label even though he doesn’t meet many of its cliches — was this: Zimmer would let players know where they stood with him, often in rather blunt fashion.

“If you can get an idea of where you stand, it gives you a chance to know what you need to work on,” fullback Jerome Felton said after Zimmer was hired in January. “You can just focus on football, rather than wondering, ‘What’s going on? Why is this the situation happening?’ When everybody asks what you want from a coach, I always talk about being an authentic person.”

The Vikings heard where they stood with Zimmer on Sunday, all right. Well, maybe they got a better idea on Monday.

On Monday, Zimmer candidly and pointedly detailed what he likes about his team, and what causes him to lose sleep over it, after a 2-4 start. He made it clear he would not tolerate repeated mistakes or rash conduct, like the 15-yard penalty Adam Thielen received for talking to officials during the Vikings’ 42-10 loss to Green Bay in Week 5, and he laid out something of a manifesto for why he’s so demanding.

“I want them to understand that it’s not OK to lose,” Zimmer said. “That’s what I want them to understand. I want them to understand that it’s not OK to lose, that we have to change the mentality and the mindset of this. I can remember telling the defense the same thing in Cincinnati a long, long time ago that we have to develop this mindset that it’s not OK to lose, it’s not business as usual. I’m not very accepting of these kinds of things.”

It was an effective way to send a message to players, from a coach who’s already proved capable of getting his players’ attention through his public comments. It would have been even more effective, though, if Zimmer had said it on Sunday, instead of using part of his news conference on Monday to backtrack from the headline-grabbing remarks he made about increasing fines for players who are late to meetings.

Those comments, Zimmer said Monday, came after he “kind of flew off the handle a little bit yesterday,” and were motivated in part by a pair of practice squad players being late to a weightlifting session on Saturday. They caused at least a bit of puzzlement from veteran players — safety Harrison Smith said he hadn’t noticed players arriving late, while receiver Greg Jennings said the Vikings certainly weren’t the only team to have that issue. “If Coach feels like we have an undisciplined team, it’s not for me to express my opinion,” Jennings said.

Zimmer is right to set high standards for his team and hold players accountable for meeting those standards. He’s working with one of the league’s youngest rosters, and can point to all sorts of markers of sloppiness — 18 penalties the last two weeks, 13 dropped passes this season and a minus-5 turnover margin. But he’s learning, too, about the process of talking to an entire team, of managing a much larger media pulpit, and as he grows, he’ll develop a better appreciation for the power of remarks like Sunday’s — both to whip a team into form and to rankle veterans who might tire of them over time, particularly if they’re brought on by trivial things.

The coach delivered another manifesto of sorts on Monday, one that showed he’s becoming aware of just how many people are listening to what he says. “I’m always going to be pretty honest, I think,” Zimmer said. “That’s my creed as best I can be and I’ll continue always to try and be honest with you and maybe do a better job of trying not to let some things bother me as much. I am learning, trying to be a good head coach. I’m trying to do a better job every day, every single game. I’m not perfect just like the players aren’t. I’ll just keep trying to do better and trying to get my team to be better.”

As a young team is learning how to read its new coach, the coach is learning exactly what kinds of signs to give them. From what Zimmer said on Monday, it seemed he’d sent a message to himself, too.

” I know one of the hot topics is this fine thing, and that was probably ‘Zimmer being Zimmer,’” he said. “I kind of was not in the best frame of mind at that time. This team has not had an issue, a continual issue, of being late. Every time a guy has been late, when I’ve been anywhere, I’ve fined him so it has not been an issue. I had two practice squad guys miss lifting on Saturday so that was kind of sticking in my mind. I’m looking for everything that I can look at, everything that I can control and try to continue to get this team better each and every time.”