Rob Gronkowski could take a sizable leap in playing time this week. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
1. For the first time this season, tight end Rob Gronkowski played more than half the snaps. Last week against the Raiders, he was on the field for 42 of 73 snaps. That represents a bump from the first two weeks, where he was 38-of-86 in Week 1 and 28-of-67 in Week 2. In all, he’s played 48.5 percent of the snaps, and has 11 catches (on 23 targets) for 116 yards and two touchdowns. But if there’s a point in the schedule you want to start ramping him back up to what we’ll call Full-On Gronkowski Status, it’s these next two weeks against the Chiefs and Bengals. The Patriots offense can certainly use a jumpstart, and the idea of Gronkowski being unleashed could certainly give New England the spark it needs through what will be a difficult stretch. (Not just as a pass catcher, but also as a blocker.) For his part, Gronkowski was deferential to the coaching and training staff when asked about the possibility of more reps this week, but he certainly sounds like he ready for more action. “I’m a few games deep now — three games — so basically [I'm] progressing every week,” Gronkowski said this week. “It’s getting to the point now where we can start rolling more and more.” In his weekly conference call with reporters, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels hinted that more could be in store for Gronkowski, saying he’s “happy with the things that he has done so far, and we will continue to add more as we go through the year.” It is worth mentioning that one of Gronkowski’s finest games came against the Chiefs back in 2011, when he had four catches (two of which went for touchdowns, one of which produced this memorable GIF) for 96 yards in a win over Kansas City in Foxboro.
2. Looking around the league, it’s hard not to draw at least a few parallels between the Patriots and the Packers at this point in the season as two established teams who have high hopes for the 2014 season, but have had some offensive issues in the early going. Green Bay has started the season 1-2, and a sizable portion for the slow start can be traced to a sluggish offense with a former MVP at the controls. The Green Bay offense is 28th in total yards, while the Packers have averaged just 18 points per game, 27th in the league. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has come in for some criticism, as his 62.7 completion rate would be the lowest of his career, and he’s failed to throw for at least 200 yards in two of the three games already this season. He badly missed on a few throws over the course of the first three games of the season, including a bad connection with usually trusted target Jordy Nelson on a key fourth-down play late in last Sunday’s loss to the Lions. On his show on ESPN Milwaukee on Tuesday, Rodgers had a brief message for panicking fans: “Five letters here. just for everybody out there in Packerland: R-E-L-A-X,” he said. “Relax. We’re going to be OK.” Rodgers has good reason to be confident, as Green Bay has started 1-2 the last two seasons, but on both occasions, ultimately made the playoffs.
3. From this viewpoint, we’ve never been shy about proclaiming our respect for veteran Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith, and that’s why we’re very excited about this weekend’s game between the Ravens and Panthers. (The planets have aligned to make sure they’re playing when New England’s on a Monday night, which makes it perfect.) In the offseason, Smith departed Carolina as a free agent and took shots at the Panthers on his way out of town. “Put your goggles on, ’cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere,” he said if his new team faced Carolina in 2014. The Panthers had some fun with it this week when Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams met the media wearing goggles, but Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco cautioned reporters earlier in the week against the idea of Baltimore leaning too heavily on Smith as it relates to the revenge factor. “If I pay much attention to that maniac on Sunday, who knows how I’m going to play?” Flacco asked. “He’s going to want the ball — probably every single down — and if I don’t get it to him, and I pay attention to how he reacts to that, then I’m going to be in trouble, and I’m going to feel bad, and then we’re not going to play the way we should.” Regardless of where you stand on Smith, it promises to be compelling theater.
4. Rookie running back James White has been a healthy scratch for the first three games of the season, which has sparked some questions about his spot on the roster and his future with the team. At this point, unless there’s a major injury to one of the running backs, White seems ticketed for a redshirt year as he sits and learns about life in the NFL. Taking a redshirt year isn’t necessarily a slap in the face — it’s something the Patriots have utilized frequently with young players as a developmental decision, keeping them on the team without trying to get them through to the practice squad (and expose them to the rest of the league via waivers). While he struggled with injury as a rookie, Shane Vereen is one player who ended up taking a redshirt year as a rookie in 2011. That move paid off, as the Cal product has emerged as one of the best multidimensional options on the roster. Considering the full house at running back, White knows he’s the low man on the totem pole, and while he would desperately love to play, he understands the reality of the situation. One of the youngest players on the team (he’s currently one of four 22-year-olds on the roster), he knows he’ll get his chance sooner rather than later — he could ultimately step into a major role in 2015, particularly because Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden are all in the final years of their current contracts.
5. Three games into the season and four Patriots players are still possibilities to go wire-to-wire this year. On offense, quarterback Tom Brady and left tackle Nate Solder have played every snap through three games. Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the football, linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower have not missed a single defensive play through the first four games of the season. Last year after three games, the Patriots had four players who hadn’t taken a single snap off: Brady, Devin McCourty, Ryan Wendell, and Logan Mankins. (In the end, Wendell was the only player on either offense or defense who played every snap last season.)
6. Darrelle Revis has made it a habit to meet with the media every Thursday afternoon after practice. He’s always been very accommodating, but this past Thursday was particularly insightful, as he talked for more than 10 minutes about the difference between the defensive styles favored by Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan, the art of defending the deep ball and the challenge of this week’s opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs. Most of that was either covered here or here, but we also wanted to include the rest of his thoughts, particularly on his teammates. Here are a few things we couldn’t find room for earlier in the week:
a) On Jerod Mayo and his leadership skills: “He’s the captain. He’s the guy. He’s the voice on that defense. He’s been doing it for so long. The guy is a Pro Bowl linebacker. You look for him sometimes to lift us up, and he does sometimes in the huddle. He’s the voice. He’s the anchor. He sets the defense and gets everybody lined up. I’m excited to be playing with him and excited to have another quarterback on the defensive side, that type of leadership he brings to the table.”
b) Does Mayo compare to any other linebacker you played with when it comes to leadership skills? “Yeah, man. David Harris when I was in New York. Pro Bowls, Ray Lewis. One of those guys show as always vocal. As a linebacker, having a player like Jerod, you want that leadership from the linebacking corps. They set the front. They make the calls. They make the adjustments. It’s nice to have that leadership at the linebacker area.”
c) On Chandler Jones and his size and wingspan: “He’s great. The guy is 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6. I don’t know what his wingspan is, but it’s very long. He creates havoc for us in pass rushing. he gets to the quarterback and puts pressure on the quarterback all the time. We need that every week with him and he’s been consistent with that. He’s a ball hawk, man. He goes after the ball he tries to get strip[ sacks. We’re excited about him as well — just trying to go out there and put some pressure on the quarterback and help us out in the secondary.”
7. Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman was one of 11 players born in Massachusetts who was on an NFL roster at the start of the season, and he’s been part of a recent mini-renaissance around the league at the fullback position. Used predominantly as a run blocker for the likes of Jamaal Charles, Sherman has two carries and one catch this season for the Chiefs. While the 5-foot-10, 242-pound UConn product isn’t technically from Cape Cod, Chiefs coach Andy Reid praised his Southeastern Massachusetts attitude this week. “He’s got some of that Cape Cod toughness, so he brings it every play,” Reid said of the North Attleboro native. “He”s a tough guy. And you know what? he’s very versatile, which I don’t think people realize. He’s got tremendous hands, too. You can do a lot of things with him and move him around. He could equally fit in the tight end role if you need him in there and do the blocking and the receiving part of that.” (For what it’s worth, Sherman isn’t the only member of the Chiefs with connections to Southeastern Massachusetts — defensive lineman Mike DeVito attended Nauset Regional High in Eastham and still lives in Wellfleet.)
8. Kirk Cousins’ performance in Thursday’s game against the Giants aside, it’s been a good start to the season for quarterbacks. After three weeks, the league-wide interception percentage is 2.15 percent, the lowest ever at this point in a season and on pace to be the best mark in NFL history for a full year. In that same stretch, the league-wide passer rating is 90.6, on pace to be the highest of any season in NFL history. (The mark is also the highest of any NFL season through three weeks.) NFL quarterbacks have been particularly effective at avoiding interceptions in 2014, which has helped fuel the record passer rating — through Week 3, the league-wide interception percentage is 2.15 percent, the lowest ever at this point in a season and on pace to be the best mark in NFL history for a full year. Locally, that can be seen in the performance of Tom Brady. He’s the only quarterback to this point in the season with more than 100 pass attempts without an interception. In fact, dating back to the end of the 2013 regular season (and not including the preseason), Brady has now completed 104 in a row without an interception. In addition, going into the weekend, since 2002, the Patriots have had the most games in the league without an interception at 101. (The Patriots are 90-11 in games where Brady doesn’t throw an interception.) Remarkably, Jacksonville is second at 93, with Philadelphia third at 89.
9. The season-long “Thursday Night Football” experience is four weeks in, and as far as the on-field product is concerned, it’s a bust. In the wake of Thursday’s 45-14 win for the Giants over the Redskins, the average margin of victory over the course of the first four Thursday night games is 28.3 points per game, as there have been wins of 20, 20, 42 and 31 points. If the league is serious about its’ commitment to keeping Thursday as part of the NFL schedule going forward, it needs to take a hard look at what it can do to improve the on-field product. Of course, we say this, but at the same time it’s important to note that the Thursday night package has been an unparalleled ratings success for CBS, so the league can’t hear all the complaints over the sound of all the money its making: According to the network, the game averaged 16.3 million viewers, a ridiculous 96 percent increase from last year’s 8.3 million viewers on NFL Network and over-the-air stations within the two team markets. Through three games of the CBS/NFL Network schedule, the Thursday night games are averaging 16.1 million viewers, a 59 percent increase compared to last year’s 10.1 million.
10. A quick look around the AFC East:
a) Dolphins: After an impressive win in the regular-season opener against the Patriots, Miami (1-2) sits at a crossroads. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin refused to name a starting quarterback this week, letting Ryan Tannehill twist in the wind before Tannehill came out and let the media know that he was starting. Philbin then issued a startling mea culpa, saying he was sorry that his hemming and hawing was a distraction to the team. (Tannehill said late this week that he and Philbin are on the same page.) Is this the first (public) sign of dysfunction, and perhaps emblematic of a far greater issue in Miami? Or simply a speed bump for the Dolphins, who have shown plenty of good on both sides of the ball, at least before last week’s surprising home loss to the Chiefs? It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, as Miami and Oakland will face off this weekend in London — after the bye, they’ll open a seven-game slate against the Packers, Bears, Chargers and Broncos. Needless to say, we’ll have a good idea of just what sort of team the Dolphins are by that point in the season.
b) Jets: There’s a quarterback controversy brewing in North Jersey, as the struggles of Geno Smith over the first few weeks have caused some to say Michael Vick should be the new starter. (Also, what do you think Smith was thinking in this photo, taken in the immediate aftermath of last week’s loss to the Bears?) While the front seven remains pretty stout, the Jets (1-2) offense has struggled to this point in the season, as Smith has had issues moving the ball. New York needs to get things figured out quickly, as it hosts the Lions this week, but then moves on to a three-game stretch with the Chargers, Broncos and Patriots.
c) Bills: We wrote that they were feeling good last week, and even though Buffalo suffered a loss at home to the Chargers last week (a rare case of a West Coast team coming East and winning a one o’clock game), the Bills are still feeling pretty good about where they sit, as of this point. Buffalo (2-1) travels to face the Texans (2-1) this week in Houston in a game that could ultimately prove to be a statement contest for whoever ends up winning. If the Bills win, their 3-1 start would be one of the best of the last decade, and their best since they started 5-2 to open the 2011 season. Meanwhile Houston could continue to put some distance between itself and the rest of the AFC South with a win.