Friday, September 30, 2011

Jackson coming up big in 2nd half for Bills

Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson has rushed for 5.4 yards a carry in the first half of games this year, which is really good.

His second-half numbers are even better.

Jackson gains ground at 7.7 yards a clip in the second half and has scored all three of his touchdowns after the break – one in the third quarter and two in the fourth. The 30-year-old, fifth-year tailback has also picked up eight first downs in the second half to five in the first.

The Bills have had to overcome deficits of 18 and 21 points, respectively, over the last two games, but Buffalo is still confident in sticking with the run to gain momentum, even when its facing an uphill battle.

“Really the run is sometimes that’s what has gotten us going, just in terms of Fred (Jackson) having one of those big runs,” Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “That’s been important to us. Not giving up on it, staying with it, getting some of those plus-10, plus-15 yard runs that have really sparked our offense.”

Though two of Jackson’s three scores were in the fourth quarter, he makes his biggest gains coming out of halftime. His longest run of 43 yards was in the third quarter, and he’s gained 151 yards on 13 third-quarter rushing attempts, which is good for an 11.6 yards-per-carry average.

Jackson’s production has been consistent with Fitzpatrick, as both players’ numbers shoot up after the mid-game break.

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Mangold a 'legitimate gametime' decision

New York Jets center Nick Mangold is still recovering from a high ankle sprain that has sidelined him since the beginning of the Jets’ Week 2 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jets coach Rex Ryan said Mangold did partake in some reps during Friday’s practice, but he was limited and is listed as questionable heading into New York’s Week 4 bout with the Baltimore Ravens (2-1).

“I think if today was the game, I would say no,” Ryan said during his Friday presser about the odds Mangold suits up this weekend. “But, the fact it’s a Sunday night game may help the process. … He’s a legitimate gametime (decision). Not one of those you-really-know-what’s-going-to-happen-and-say-he’s-gametime. He literally is gametime.”

The Jets (2-1) could really use the All-Pro lineman’s services Sunday with a premier defensive tackle in Haloti Ngata lining up at Baltimore’s defensive front. If Mangold can’t go, Colin Baxter will get his second straight start snapping to quarterback Mark Sanchez.

"I think, for Mangold, he wants to compete against the best, obviously, and Haloti is the best," Ryan said. "He’s trying to do what he can to get ready. He’s been doing that. I think as competitive as Nick is, he’d like that opportunity. … We’ll make the best decision for the team, obviously.”

If Ryan were in Mangold’s position, he would just assume sit this one out, as Ryan knows what kind of disruptive force Ngata is from Ryan’s tenure as defensive coach with the Ravens.

“If it was me, I’d be like, ‘No, my hamstring is killing me.’" Ryan joked. "‘Well, I thought it was your ankle?’ ‘No, it’s my hamstring, ankle, shoulder, everything.’”

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Taylor on Phins' woes: It's been the big plays

Jason Taylor can sum up the Miami Dolphins’ struggles on defense in two words: “Big plays…”

“If I had to pick one thing that’s really hurting, and kind of been our Achilles heel so to speak, has been the big plays,” The veteran linebacker told reporters Thursday.

The Dolphins have given up 14 passing plays for 20 yards or more and three 40-plus-yard plays through the air, ranking them fourth-worst and tied for second-worst, respectively.

Miami surrendered the longest offensive play of the season so far, as well, in Wes Welker’s 99-yard touchdown reception from Tom Brady. Miami’s eight passing touchdowns given up ties the Dolphins for the most this year.

“You can look at the penalties a little bit, the turnovers and things like that, and those things are going to happen over the course of the game,” Taylor said. “Some are aggressive penalties that you can live with; some are obviously non-aggressive, pre-snap penalties. Things like that can hurt you. But the big plays; you can’t give up big plays in this league. And you have to create more as a team.”

The Dolphins have created some of their own on offense, though, as the team’s 16 20-plus-yard passing plays ties them for third-most in the league.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pats prepping for AFC East killer McFadden

Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden has ripped through two AFC East defenses so far this season – and he hasn’t even gotten to the division’s worst yet.

The Raiders will be up against their third AFC East opponent in as many weeks when they host the New England Patriots, who are last in the NFL in total defense, Sunday.

McFadden gained 143 total yards and two touchdowns two weeks ago against the Buffalo Bills and picked up 171 yards and two touchdowns on the ground alone last week against the New York Jets.

Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said New England has made tackling a focus during practice this week, as McFadden has the ability to shed multiple takedowns, and once he gets going, he’s incredibly difficult to stop.

“McFadden is a great guy with the ball in hands,” Mayo told the media Thursday. “Tackling him will be an issue.

“He’s a big guy and he's fast. [He] has a great stiff arm and he can catch the ball out of the backfield -- very explosive player. I have a little bit of a history with him. Good player and it will be a challenge for us. “

Through three games, McFadden has five rushes for 20 yards or more and two carries for 40 yards or more. His longest was a 70-yard touchdown last week against the Jets.

"He can go the distance from anywhere," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told the media Wednesday. "You just can't ever relax on him."

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Bengals give Bills chance to find pass rush

Sunday will be a huge opportunity for the unbeaten Buffalo Bills to improve on their league-worst two sacks, as they travel to Cincinnati to face a 1-2 Bengals team with a rookie in Andy Dalton calling signals.

Nose tackle Kyle Williams said the key to getting to Dalton, who has been hit 13 times and sacked seven, will be to give him different pre-snap looks.

“Maybe get him confused a little bit not knowing what he’s seeing,” Williams told the media Wednesday. “Maybe he holds the ball a half second longer. … it’s holding the ball a half second longer where hits turn into the sacks, non-pressure turns into pressure.”

Buffalo was unable to record a sack against the New England Patriots last weekend, which isn’t out off the ordinary with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s ability to get the ball of quickly and his receivers’ knacks for getting in space.

The Bills will also look to get pressure via solid coverage from their secondary.

“They've got a lot of athletic guys,” Dalton told the media Wednesday. “They play with a lot of DBs on the field a lot of the time. We're just going to have to find the matchups that we want and try to take advantage of it.”

Williams expects the Bengals to try and establish their ground game to prevent the Bills from getting too multi-dimensional. Buffalo’s defense has given up 4.7 yards a carry.

“… with them they are going to hang their hat on running the football,” Williams said. “And if we can’t stop the run, we aren’t going to be able to give him different looks and get after him throwing the ball.”

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Jets losing rushing identity of last 2 years

When Rex Ryan said his New York Jets were going to pass the ball more this year, he wasn’t kidding.

Not only are the Jets throwing more than 60 percent of the time, but their running game is no longer a threat – or at least it hasn’t been through three games. New York is averaging 3.4 yards a carry, which ranks 22nd in the NFL. Starting tailback Shonn Greene hasn't been the effective yard-churning tailback the Jets thought they were getting when the season kicked off.

“You have to give credit to the opponents that you’re playing,” Ryan, the Jets head coach, said during his Wednesday presser. “Sometimes they have things dialed in that are good against runs and all that stuff. I’ll tell you this, we will not give up in the running game, I’ll promise you that.”

The Jets have thrown the ball 112 times to 73 rushing attempts, though quarterback Mark Sanchez said the passing total is probably inflated due to New York playing from behind in two of their three games. He has a point, though the Jets have had to go to the passing game regardless when they couldn’t pound out first downs on the ground like they’ve been able to do, practically at will, the last two seasons.

“Sure, our rushing attack has been great these past couple of years, and we’re still trying to find our way,” Sanchez told the media Wednesday. “We have a couple of guys banged up and a couple new schemes that we’re trying to implement. We don’t want to take all of our playmakers off the field in the pass game. We’ll see how we keep coming along, but whatever it takes to win. If it puts more pressure on the passing offense, then we need to play better.”

The Jets were ranked first in the league in rushing in 2009 and fourth in 2010. They’re currently ranked 25th this season.

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A look at the AFC East pass-protection units

The Miami Dolphins’ and New England Patriots’ offensive lines are what we thought they were. The New York Jets’ and Buffalo Bills’ offensive lines aren’t.

Patriots succeeding despite injuries, Jets struggling

The Jets and the Patriots entered the season with two of the best offensive trench units in the league. New England’s line has produced accordingly, allowing only three sacks and 11 hits on quarterback Tom Brady thus far. Brady is hit only 8 percent of the time he drops back into the pocket. The Patriots' ability to protect Brady has been impressive given injuries and shuffling on the line, including the addition of Brian Waters the week before the season and Dan Connolly making the shift to center.

The Jets, however, have allowed nine sacks in their first three games, and quarterback Mark Sanchez is hit on 11.7 percent of dropbacks, though New York has seen some changes in their front five with center Nick Mangold's injury and Wayne Hunter’s taking over the full-time right tackle spot. The Jets finished the 2010 season eighth in fewest sacks allowed and third in fewest QB hits.

Bills seeing dramatic improvement in OL play

The Bills’ line has improved leaps and bounds from last year and, despite preseason concerns, has proven its effectiveness. Buffalo’s line allowed quarterbacks to be hit 17 percent of the time they dropped back last year and were fifth-worst in the league in QB hits. Their line has cut that percentage nearly in half, as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been hit less than 10 percent of the time. Buffalo has given up only two sacks so far this year.

“They’ve done a tremendous job,” Fitzpatrick told the media after their come-from-behind victory over the Patriots. “I can’t say enough about those guys. They’re putting in so much work during the week, just working together. All five of them have to be on the same page working together and I think that’s probably the biggest thing is they’re doing a great job together."

Dolphins so-so in protection, again

Miami, on the other hand, after finishing last year in the middle of the pack in terms of offensive line production, has had some major issues up front so far this season. The Dolphins have allowed the fifth-most sacks and QB hits through three games, giving up hits on quarterback Chad Henne nearly 19 percent of the time he drops back.

“We’ve been getting him hit too much and (forcing him) to scramble,” left tackle Jake Long told the media recently. “We’ve got to keep working on holding our blocks longer and not collapsing the pocket. When we give Chad time and let our receivers get open, we can do damage."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dolphins' D struggling to force turnovers

The Miami Dolphins’ defense has given up the third-most yards in the NFL this season, largely due to its inability to stall its opponents’ drives with turnovers.

Miami is the only team besides the Arizona Cardinals with no forced fumbles, and the Dolphins are tied for 20th in the league with two interceptions.

Getting opponents to lose the ball on the ground is something the Dolphins struggled with last year, as well, as Miami recovered only eight fumbles on defense in 2008, tied for 24th in the league. To give some perspective, the New York Giants recovered a league-leading 23 fumbles on defense in 2010.

The Dolphins were also tied for 28th in interceptions last season, so Miami is working to avoid a repeat performance this year.

Miami will have a chance to turn things around this week, as the San Diego Chargers have a turnover-differential of minus-six with six interceptions and two lost fumbles.

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Slot, TEs providing most success for Brady

It’s not much of a surprise that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is off to another great start to the season, as he's already amassed 1,327 passing yards through the first three games -- an NFL record.

The twist with Brady, though, is where he's found the most success as of late.

When the season began, we expected wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to have a Randy Moss-like season (circa 2007, of course). He’s been more like Javon Walker in 2007. Many of us also expected Deion Branch, the Super Bowl XXXIX Most Valuable Player, to be the secondary, yet still game-changing, receiver that he’s been in the past.

But lately, it’s been the basics that have worked best for the Pats’ offense – tight ends and the slot. Despite making some big moves over past several seasons (releasing, then reacquiring Branch; releasing countless running backs; acquiring, then releasing Moss; adding Ochocinco), New England’s most successful game plans remain based on its nuts and bolts.

Wes Welker, the undrafted wideout who spent stints in Miami and San Diego, has had some memorable seasons since being added as an essential weapon for Brady. While Welker is the kind of guy who can easily slip into a supporting role, he’s the sketchiest threat on the offensive side of the ball. His beauty isn’t the deep ball, so he’s easy to overlook, but his productivity is not debatable. It was on display last week in his two-touchdown, 200-plus-yard receiving showing in New England's last-second loss to the Buffalo Bills (3-0).

“Wes is a really smart player and understands our schemes and their schemes as far as defensively and what he’s seeing,” Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien told the media Tuesday. “He has played a lot of football.”

Second-year tight end Rob Gronkowski is also having a gem season for New England (2-1). After making a splash last year with 10 touchdown receptions, Gronk is causing a tsunami in 2011. He’s already caught five touchdown passes, and we can certainly expect more out of him, especially with fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez sidelined for a couple more weeks due to injury.

The Patriots have always thrived off of using their tight ends as key receivers, and with their stacked TE corps, it’s obvious that’s not changing anytime soon. Coming off back-to-back two-touchdown games, look for more defenses to key on Gronkowski, and expect them to continue to struggle with the 265-pound beast.

Guys like Welker and Gronkowski are clearly New England’s backbone. Brady will keep moving the ball around to a variety of players, but O'Brien and Brady will continue to take the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach.

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Patriots OC downplays Ochocinco's woes

Chad Ochocinco hasn’t been underwhelming this season.

He’s been awful.

Through three games, the New England Patriots' wideout has five receptions for 87 yards. But more importantly, he’s barely ever targeted by quarterback Tom Brady. And apparently with good reason.

Ochocinco dropped a sure touchdown pass Sunday in the Patriots’ loss to the Buffalo Bills, and he is partially responsible for one of Brady’s four interceptions because of a poor route.

“Chad, just like everybody else in that game -- me included -- would probably wished to have a couple of plays back,” Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien told the media Tuesday. “And at the same time, here is a guy and a bunch of guys -- coaches included again -- that are working hard to correct those mistakes and really focusing on Oakland and trying to get better at the things we all need to get better at, because every week is a challenge.”

Ochocinco was acquired to bolster an already-potent passing game, but it seems like he's more of a decoy than anything. He's sixth on the team in receptions behind two tight ends, two wide receivers and a running back.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Starting off slow is Fitzpatrick's only negative

If Ryan Fitzpatrick can learn to start like he finishes, the Buffalo Bills' offense will really be in business.

The Bills' signal-caller gets better as the game progresses. His first-quarter quarterback rating is a 75.3 and improves to 82.3 in the second quarter. Fitz’s rating jumps to 120.7 in the third quarter, and his fourth-quarter rating is 131.1. His completion percentage is 12 percent higher in the fourth quarter than in the first.

Fitzpatrick completes passes at a 60-percent rate on his first 10 attempts in a given game, tossing two touchdowns to three interceptions in that span for a 67.1 quarterback rating. However, he has seven touchdowns and no picks on passing attempts 11-and-up.

Buffalo has made comebacks of 18 and 21 points, respectively, in its last two games, as a higher level of defensive success and Fitzpatrick’s settling into the game by halftime has allowed the Bills to overcome early holes. Obviously, Fred Jackson and the running game have been huge for Buffalo, as well.

With that said, Fitzpatrick has been outstanding overall, and his early-game struggles are minor in the grand scheme of things. However, he would probably be the first one to say that getting off to a better start will be crucial if the Bills want to keep up this pace.

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Despite coach's label, Bush isn't the No. 1 RB

Tony Sparano said Monday that Reggie Bush is the Miami Dolphins’ No. 1 running back, though he went on to explain that the situation with Bush and rookie tailback Daniel Thomas is an “A and a B” deal.

“There’s things that Reggie does different than Daniel (Thomas), that’s why we wanted an A and a B,” the head coach told the media Monday.” I don’t know if that makes sense. Maybe it makes sense now, it didn’t make sense then I’m sure to you guys. But there is an A and a B back.”

So assuming Sparano means 1A and 1B, Bush really isn’t the true No. 1. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s another indication that Bush just isn’t ever going to be the every-down back he says he’s capable of being.

Then, there are the numbers. In Miami's 17-16 loss Sunday to the Browns, Thomas gained 95 yards rushing on 23 carries and scored a touchdown on one of his three receptions. Bush had 10 rushing attempts for 13 yards and one catch for 12 yards. Bush also had two fumbles.

“The things that Reggie does well for us from a matchup standpoint help us get the ball to the Brandon Marshalls or to the (Brian) Hartlines or those people too,” Sparano said. “Putting Daniel (Thomas) out there in that kind of space doesn’t really help us in that way sometimes but Daniel in between the tackles, obviously you’ve seen why we thought what we thought of this guy in the draft right now. I mean, he really ran the ball hard yesterday and he ran the ball efficiently and that’s the way we’re going to use those guys right now because I need both those guys to be on the field.”

At this point, it looks like Thomas is the workhorse and Bush is more of a decoy.

Seniority is the only thing giving Bush that No. 1 label.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Jets getting grounded and pounded in 2011

The New York Jets are getting little production in the run game both offensively and defensively.

New York’s supposed stout run defense gave up 234 net rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground to the Oakland Raiders Sunday, the most in a single game since Rex Ryan took over as head coach in 2009.

The Jets picked up only 100 yards on the ground, and their two rushing scores came on Mark Sanchez runs. Sanchez threw the ball 43 times for 369 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

Ryan’s backfield, which led the NFL in yards two years ago, ranks 25th this season with an 82-yards-per-game average, and his defense is ranked 31st in the league, giving up 136.7 yards a game.

Offensive line play and Shonn Greene’s overall ineffectiveness has been the culprit. Through three games, Greene has averaged 5.0 yards a carry in the first half and 1.3 in the second. Meanwhile, LaDainian Tomlinson is picking up 2.2 yards a clip in the first half and 5.2 in the second.

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Bills upset Pats, pull into lone lead of division

It's probably premature to say, but the Buffalo Bills may be the best team in the NFL right now.

Why not? They're certainly the hottest. In rallying back from a 21-point deficit in the first half for a 34-31 win, Buffalo (3-0) beat a team that is touted as one of the best year after year -- and usually has the preseason Super Bowl odds to prove it -- in the New England Patriots (2-1).

By capitalizing on any and every slip-up by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the Bills were able to steal the momentum, make big plays the other way and move into first place in the AFC East all by themselves, as the New York Jets (2-1) lost to the Raiders Sunday in Oakland.

Good and bad defenses alike have been guilty of letting Brady have some fun with the football this year, and he still threw for close to 400 yards and four touchdowns Sunday. The Bills just happen to intercept him four times, including a pick-six by Drayton Florence.

“We played a good football team,” Brady told the media after the game. “We made too many mistakes. It’s tough to overcome as many mistakes as we did. (Buffalo) made a lot of plays and they’ve got a good team.”

Brady threw as many interceptions Sunday as he did all season last year, but that stat comparison didn't seem to bother him too much. He chuckled at reporters when asked about it.

It’s not the first time the Patriot defense, namely it’s secondary, got eaten up by an opponent’s offense, either. But it was the first time this season a team successfully matched the multiple dimensions of Patriot football and cashed in last before time expired, thanks to a 28-yard field goal by Rian Lindell. And the Bills made an enormous statement in doing so.

Buffalo defeated New England for the first time in 16 tries. And when it started to look like just another tally to the head-to-head losing streak, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and his new-age stable of Orchard Park underdogs answered.

“It’s never easy,” Brady said. “(Buffalo) came back last week. We were expecting a four-quarter game and we had our opportunities. We didn't really take advantage of them like I wish we would have. We had too many turnovers, too many penalties and allowed (Buffalo) to get some easy plays there. They took advantage when they needed to.”

Buffalo’s Fred Jackson worked hard on the ground to keep the Bills’ options open and effective and, at times, it appeared as if the Bills were simply fighting fire with fire, which is the formula for beating the Patriots. Jackson picked up 161 total yards, Donald Jones had five receptions for 101 yards, and Steve Johnson picked up 94 yards and a score on eight catches.

Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowksi each had big days to compliment Brady’s aerial assault. Welker has 217 yards and two touchdown on 16 catches and Gronkowski added two scores while breaking 100 yards.

Chad Ochocinco made a couple of catches for 28 yards, but his big story was the fact that he dropped a touchdown, continuing the talk that he isn’t living up to his value.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Jets/Raiders: Rushing, man-coverage galore

Recent history says the New York Jets should win in Oakland Sunday. The Jets are 4-1 in the teams’ last five meetings, the Raiders have lost five of their last six home openers, and the last time Oakland was shut out was in a 38-0 loss to the Jets in 2009.

Does all that matter? Not really.

New York (2-0) looks to start off a three-game road trip the right way when it plays visitor to Oakland (1-1) Sunday. The Raiders lost last weekend in the final minute of a shootout at Buffalo, and the Jets are coming off a 32-3 rout of the Jacksonville Jaguars at MetLife Stadium.

Back to ground and pound?

This season, New York’s top two backs in Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson are combining for a 2.7 yards-per-carry average. That’s an unacceptable number considering the Jets were the No. 1 rushing team two seasons ago and pride themselves on offensive line play.

If the Jets are going to get things moving on the ground, now is the time. Despite what looks like a stout defensive front on paper led by defensive lineman Richard Seymour, the Raiders are ranked 27th against the run, giving up an average of 127.5 yards a game on the ground.

Reserve offensive lineman Colin Baxter will be filling in at center for standout Nick Mangold, who will not make the trip to Oakland due to a high ankle sprain.

Opposite ground and pound

The other side of ground and pound is stopping the run. The Jets’ defensive front has a tough task ahead of it in running back Darren McFadden, who is second in the league in rushing through two weeks.

McFadden is a tough runner and does well when getting the ball on dump-offs and short passes, so the Jets will need to spy him and make contact before he gets a head of steam.

“He's got size, speed and vision,” Jets coach Rex Ryan told the media Thursday. “He's an unusual talent, that's for sure. He can do the wildcat. He did it all in college. He can throw the ball. He can do a bunch of things. He's a very talented young man.”

Man-coverage exhibition

Both the Jets and Raiders love playing man coverage, but Sunday’s matchups on both sides of the ball favor the Jets.

“It’s about winning our one-on-one matchups and getting rid of the football quickly because they’re pass rush is great,” Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez told reporters Thursday. “It’ll be a good test for our wideouts and for our precision in the passing game hopefully.”

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Looking at Dolphins entering Browns game

The Cleveland Browns look to go 2-1 for the first time since 2002, and the Miami Dolphins just want a win.

After going 0-2 at home to start the regular season, Miami travels to Cleveland Sunday for a 1 p.m. kickoff. The Dolphins lost to the Houston Texans last week, 23-13, while Cleveland is coming off a 27-19 victory over the Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts.

The Dolphins rank in the top 10 in the league in offensive yards-per-game average, as they're eighth in rushing (125.5) and ninth in passing (271.5). On the flip side, Miami is last in the league in total defense, giving up 483.5 yards a game.

Daboll faces old team

Miami offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was Cleveland’s last offensive coordinator but was cut loose when Pat Shurmur took over for Eric Mangini as head coach.

Daboll took the brunt of Cleveland’s shortcomings on offense, though players who worked under him at Cleveland seem to have nothing but good things to say about their old play-caller. Miami is happy to have him around, as its offense seems to be off to a pretty good start.

Whether or not the Browns’ familiarity with Daboll is more of a benefit to Cleveland than Daboll’s knowledge of the Browns’ personnel is to Miami is up for debate.

“I would have to think that it’s probably a little bit of both,” Dolphins coach Tony Sparano told the media Wednesday. “I think they think they probably know Brian pretty good and I feel pretty happy that Brian’s here. It’s the way it is. I would think that no different than I have three of their guys here that can tell me about some of the ins and outs. I’m sure they feel like they have some information on Brian.”

Dolphins seek improvement in red zone

Miami has 10 red zone trips but not much to show for them. The Dolphins are averaging 18.5 points per game, which ranks in the bottom fourth of the league. Two missed field goals last week by kicker Dan Carpenter didn’t help, either, but Sparano would still prefer Miami gets touchdowns.

Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne thinks better discipline will solve the team’s red zone woes.

“That’s where the focus has to come in. I mean we used to have…with Bill (Parcells), we had a rule all the time down there about no penalties, no exotic snap counts, no sacks, no turnovers,” Henne said. “Those were our red zone rules. Well, we keep those rules all the time and the quarterback can recite those rules and everybody can recite those rules. It’s one thing about talking about them and another thing about doing them and we have to do a better job in that area when it comes to that.”

Notes: Weather will be in low-70s and partly cloudy; the Browns have won the last three meetings between the teams; Browns running back Peyton Hillis had strep throat earlier in weekend but is expected to play.

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Quick look at key matchups for Patriots/Bills

Prior to this year's NFL season, few — or zero — league analysts expected one of the season's most anticipated matchups through three weeks would be a showdown between the Buffalo Bills (2-0) and New England Patriots (2-0).

The Bills have been one of this year's pleasant surprises, posting 79 points over their first two games — the most in the league so far — and they've been quite fun to watch in the process, led by rising quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and one of the NFL’s hardest-running tailbacks in Fred Jackson.

Tack on one of the hungriest receiving corps in the league, a better-than-advertised offensive line that pushes open room for Jackson and C.J. Spiller and a defense that can get after it, and Buffalo's ceiling is much higher than many (including us) thought it was.

And the Patriots are, well, the Patriots. We all know about Tom Brady's record-breaking performances, the team’s typical a-new-guy-making-it-happen-each-week mentality and a defensive line that could wipe out a McDonald's in one sitting. Here’s a quick look at a few key matchups for Sunday:

Fitzpatrick vs. the Patriots’ secondary

Riddled by injuries and inexperience, New England’s defensive backfield was exposed in both Week 1 (giving up 416 passing yards to Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne) and Week 2 (378 passing yards, San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers), and you can expect more of that on Sunday as Fitzpatrick and his boys try to make a statement.

Fitzpatrick is completing passes at a 63.4 percent clip and has found the end zone seven times in two games. Nothing would boost Fitzpatrick's confidence and level of play more than if he were to maintain that pace in helping Buffalo break its 15-game losing streak to the Patriots.

Patriots’ offensive line vs. Bills’ defensive line

Despite injury, the Patriots’ offensive linemen have given Brady more time than imaginable, and that's the primary key to his success.

Defensive end Spencer Johnson is Buffalo’s only defensive lineman with a sack in 2011. Rookie defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, who has six tackles, is still looking for his first quarterback takedown.

The Bills’ defensive line has what it takes to break through and disrupt Brady, but if it's not a frequent threat, it won't be effective. Early and often is always the key with Brady, and if you shake him, you shake the whole patriot offense.

Bills’ backfield vs. Patriots’ defensive front

New England’s Albert Haynesworth missed practice all week and is questionable with a back injury, but the Patriots shouldn’t be affected much by his absence. He helps, but he doesn't carry them. The other big man — nose tackle Vince Wilfork — is the key cog among that unit.

The Bills' backfield picked up where it left off last year, with Jackson quickly emerging as one of the league's best backs and Spiller proving to be a very worthy backup. New England always seems to struggle with the Buffalo backfield, so we'll see if Buffalo will lean on the run game to keep the ball out of Brady's hands.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Jets' first-down defense sets the tone

The New York Jets’ defense thrives on putting its opponent in a hole early and following up with creativity, and the Oakland Raiders have taken notice.

“I know that the Jets, after two games in the NFL are the number one team in the league in first-down production on defense, and I think the opponents are averaging about 3.84 yards per play on first down,” Raiders offensive coordinator Al Saunders told the Oakland media Friday.

“When you do that, and you follow it up with maybe not an effective second down, you get yourself in third-down-and-long situations, and against any football team, offensively you would say you want to be in a normal manageable third down situation.”

Being in favorable second- and third-down situations allows the Jets to play on their toes rather than their heels. They can force the opposing offense’s hand, putting them in a passing situation. It’s at that point Jets’ coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine like to dial up the pressure, trusting their elite cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie to do their thing in man-to-man coverage.

“The longer the distance goes on third down the more freedom they have in substituting personnel groups and doing creative things on defense,” Saunders said. “That probably gives you more problems than normal down and distances do, so it’s really important for us to play well on first down.”

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What to watch for Sunday: Buffalo Bills

There’s nothing like having a gut-check game in the third week of the season.

The Buffalo Bills will chase their first 3-0 regular-season start since 2008 when they host the New England Patriots (2-0) Sunday.

While the Bills are trying to break a 15-game losing streak against their division rivals, the Patriots are firing on all cylinders coming into Buffalo, leading the league in total offense and passing behind Tom Brady, who has had two thrown for nearly 1,000 yards in two games.

Coming off an impressive come-from-behind victory last week against Oakland, Buffalo has proven its offensive potency, especially on the ground, with Fred Jackson leading the league in rushing. Against the Patriots, though, as head coach Chan Gailey noted this week, Buffalo will have to be near perfect.

“They’re very good at what they do,” Gailey told the media Wednesday. “They’re very solid in every phase of the game; special teams, defense, offense. If you expect to beat them you’ve got to go play well on all three phases.”

When the Bills have the ball

Jackson's production on the ground has no doubt made things easier for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, as Jackson has put up more than 100 yards rushing in both games thus far. Jackson gained 81 yards rushing in the Bills' December loss to the Patriots at home.

“We’ll definitely have to make some plays, including myself have to make some big runs,” Jackson told reporters Wednesday. “... The offensive line is looking forward to the challenge of blocking (New England’s defensive line).”

Buffalo’s passing game has also been clicking. Fitzpatrick is sixth in the league in passer rating and has only thrown one pick to his seven TDs. The Pats, like the Bills, haven't been shy about giving up points in their two wins, sitting last in the league in points allowed.

“Every week is different,” Fitzpatrick told the media Wednesday. “Both those teams (Miami and San Diego) are coming from behind, throwing a lot of yards when the score was stretched out a little bit. I don’t know if that’s a true indication of the talent they have back there. They do have some very good corners.”

Steve Johnson practiced toward the end of the week, which is a good sign for the Bills, who can't afford to lose any more receivers. Buffalo moved Naaman Roosevelt to the active roster this week after putting Roscoe Parrish on injured reserve, the second Bills receiver this year to see that fate.

When the Patriots have the ball

Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is listed as doubtful going into Sunday's matchup, having sprained his MCL last week against the Chargers. That takes away one potent threat, though expect to see fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski get his fair share of touches.

“You know they’re going to make their yards,” Gailey said Wednesday. “You’re trying to make sure you don’t give up the big play. You’re trying to make sure you’re playing great red zone defense. You have to try to make sure you limit the run game and make sure you don’t give up the big plays. You just make them earn it all the way down the field.”

The Bills will look to improve a bit on their run defense, which has come leaps and bounds from dead-last in the league last year. Buffalo's front has proved its worth so far, showing success against two solid rushing teams in Kansas City and Oakland. The secondary has been effective as well but has not seen a passing attack like New England's yet this year. Gailey's message to them this week was simple: Be aggressive.

“Go out and expect to be great in the game," he said. "We’ve got to go compete for the ball when the ball’s in the air. We’ve got to study what they do. We have to be good tacklers. All those little things that make a secondary good, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

Notes: The Pats averaged 36 points in their two victories against the Bills last year; Linebacker Kirk Morrison and cornerback Terrence McGee will sit out Sunday's game for the Bills with hamstring injuries; Weather in Buffalo will be optimal at game time, mid-70s and sunny.

Dolphins seek better red zone, 3rd down play

The Miami Dolphins have been able to move the ball so far this season, just not when it matters most.

Miami is tied for third in the league in 20-plus-yard passing plays with 13 and near the top in red zone trips with 10. But the Dolphins rank tied for 25th in points scored (18.5 per game) and third-to-last in third-down percentage (23).

“They’re getting the ball down into that area, we’re just not finishing down in that area,” Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said during his Thursday press conference. “Obviously we missed a couple field goals down there and those type of things, but we want to turn those into touchdowns. So those are the areas we need to improve on.”

Whether Sparano admits it or not, much of Miami’s scoring ineptitude has to do with its failure to get the ball in the hands of tight end Anthony Fasano. Fasano has five catches for 82 yards and no touchdowns. Every other starting tight end in the AFC East has at least two touchdown receptions.

Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler has three scores on seven catches, New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller has two touchdowns on 11 receptions, and New England Patriots tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have a combined five touchdowns on 24 catches.

Fasano has expressed his desire to get more footballs thrown his way, something Sparano insists he could care less about.

“No, I don’t listen to any particular player when they’re hooting and hollering about wanting the ball one way or the other,” Sparano said. “I mean we go in there, see what we see on film, we formulate our game plan, quarterback goes through his progressions and if the ball ends up in their hands, it ends up in their hands. Now there might be a play or two that you can formulate or try to game plan to get the ball to somebody particular but the coverage dictates that.

“They get paid too on the other side so the coverage will dictate that completely. Not necessarily us… I wish it was that way.”

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Westhoff on Cromartie: I love the attitude

There’s no other way to put it. New York Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff is a hardass.

So the way he talks about cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who in the past has been accused by outsiders as being non-physical, is certainly an attention-grabber.

Cromartie, who was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after a two-interception game Sunday against the Jaguars, is also the Jets’ kick returner. And according to Westhoff, Cromartie would probably play every position on the field if the coaches would let him.

“Cro’s a guy I can’t get him out of anything,” Westhoff said during his Thursday press conference. “He wants to do everything.”

Cromartie’s lanky build combined with his elite speed gives him a very rare stride – one that has can consistently give the Jets good starting field position. He showed it Sunday against Jacksonville, and he’s arguably the main reason New York defeated the Indianpolis Colts on a last-minute drive last year in the divisional round of the playoffs.

The 2006 first-round draft choice acquired via trade for a third-round pick has more than held his own opposite the best cornerback in football in Darrelle Revis. Cro also takes pride in being a do-it-all player who represents what Westhoff said being a good team is all about.

“He got in there and practiced against me today against our punt team,” Westhoff said. “He jumped in and came full speed.

“.. I love the attitude and have nothing but respect for it and how hard he wants to be. If I took him off the kickoff, he’d be going crazy. I can’t get him out of the huddle, so I have no plans of getting him out.

“It’s hard to find a guy like that.”

Westhoff said he doesn’t worry about using Cromartie to the point that it would affect his performance on defense.

“Rex is great with it,” Westhoff said. “He knows… It’s just a play or two… we’re pretty smart with that."

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The Pats' 325-pound star athlete: NT Wilfork

Ask around for just who is the most impressively athletic player on the New England Patriots, and there are a lot of different answers you’ll get in return.

Of course there is back-to-back AFC Offensive Player of the Week Tom Brady, who has three Super Bowl rings and a supermodel wife to go with his rocket arm and daunting NFL records. And Wes Welker, an impossible-to-explain walk-on wideout at Texas Tech after being named the best high school football player in Oklahoma, who owns a variety of franchise and NFL records himself. And we can’t forget newly acquired wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, who looks like he was chiseled out of stone and possesses super speed off the line of scrimmage.

There are plenty of great athletes on both sides of the ball, but you probably never thought defensive lineman Vince Wilfork would be high on that list, did you?

“Vince is a tremendous athlete,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said during his Sunday press conference after the Patriots’ 35-21 win over the Chargers. “People don’t realize how good his hands are, but he can throw it, catch it, catch punts. He wanted to return punts after we put him back there when he was a rookie in training camp. He’s a terrific athlete and he’s got really good hands, obviously.”

Wilfork, a 325-pound nose tackle who has been the anchor of the Patriot defense for several years, put his outstanding athleticism on display against the Chargers when he hauled in a game-changing interception just before halftime and ran it 36 yards back into San Diego territory.

“The pick was fantastic,” fellow defensive lineman Andre Carter told the media. “I know he was trying to high-step, but I think those hips were a little tight. It looked good, though. We were proud of him. Couldn’t have happened to a better person.”

Reading a screen pass from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to running back Mike Tolbert, Wilfork said he acted on instinct when he jumped in the passing lane and snagged the ball out of the air. Once he had a hold of the ball, all he thought about after that was finding paydirt.

“Yes, I did (think I’d score),” Wilfork told the media. “Anytime you get your hands on the ball you always think about scoring as a defensive player, because a lot of the times you don’t get a chance to touch the ball.”

The catch was impressive, but his run after the catch may have been even better. He rumbled up the sideline, focusing on the end zone with each stride and carrying the ball in a way that made even the biggest Patriot haters crack a smile. It looked like a monstrous Alaskan grizzly bear carrying a fresh baby salmon back to his family after a successful hunt in a cold Northern river. He would not let his catch go.

Wilfork ended up being tripped up by fellow teammate Devin McCourty, who was flagged for a block in the back as he was trying to aid Wilfork’s way to a touchdown, but even Wilfork got a laugh out of his first career interception.

Asked if he needed oxygen following the play, Wilfork responded with a laugh: “No. I am a well-conditioned athlete. I didn’t need any oxygen. I was good to go.”

He was just relieved that he made the play. If he didn’t, he said his teammates and coaches would have ripped on him pretty good.

“(Coach) Bill (Belichick) always says if you take a chance you better make it,” Wilfork said. “I guess I made it tonight.”

Wilfork’s interception evoked memories of offensive lineman Dan Connolly’s kickoff return last year against the Green Bay Packers. Connolly rumbled 71 yards before being brought down deep in Packers territory.

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Bush gives honest take on faking injuries

The NFL sent out warnings to teams Wednesday about the consequences of being found guilty of faking injuries – revocation of draft picks, fines and suspensions would be in order.

Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush seemed to know exactly what good ol’ Commish was talking about.

“I’ve seen that before. We actually had that before in New Orleans,” Bush said during his Wednesday press conference. “ It’s just, I don’t know, It’s just one of those things that I guess when you get those hurry-up offensive teams. It’s legal. They haven’t made any rules yet to say it’s not legal.”

Over the past two days, players and coaches all over the league have been hounded with questions about the play-dead desperation method, which was highlighted when Giants safety Deon Grant took a pathetic-looking flop during a hurry-up campaign by the St. Louis Rams Monday night.

Most weren’t quite as candid as Bush when responding. Many, including Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, just played dumb to the question.

Fortunately, we have guys like Bush who are willing to provide a little equilibrium. He even explained the art of having a lay-down guy and whether or not it’s easy thing to spot.

“Well, you can tell when two guys just all of a sudden fall down on the ground at the same time,” Bush said. “But for the most part you’re supposed to have a designated guy for that. It’s not supposed to be just four or five people fall on the ground and at the same time. It obviously looks real bush league.”

Who gets the nod to drop when the going gets tough, Reggie?

“It’s usually not the captain of the team,” Bush said. “It’s usually a guy who I guess is expendable.”

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Bills quick to point out Patriots' 4-3 D front

The New England Patriots’ defensive depth chart has them listed as a 3-4.

Don’t tell that to the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills expect four-man defensive fronts when the Patriots visit Ralph Wilson Stadium Sunday for a divisional bout between two of the three AFC East teams with 2-0 records.

“They’re a four-man front now,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said during his Wednesday press conference. “They line up in 3-4 spacing from time to time, but they’re really a four-man front now.”

New England has two beastly defensive linemen who can play on the interior in nose tackle Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth, who is listed as a defensive end on the Patriots’ depth chart.

Even when Wilfork is lined up at nose and only three linemen, including Haynesworth, are in a down stance, the Patriots will have a fourth defensive-end/linebacker-type up at the line of scrimmage. When that fourth guy is next to Haynesworth, he’s basically a 4-3 defensive end playing outside Wilfork and Haynesworth, who are acting as interior 4-3 linemen. Sometimes he’ll blitz, and sometimes he’ll drop in coverage. But it’s certainly a 4-3 look.

“They’re a 4-3,” Bills running back Fred Jackson told reporters when asked how the Patriots’ defense looks this year. “I think that’s the number one thing. They have been a 3-4 defense. They’ve got the two big guys in the middle and we’re looking forward to it.”

Shaun Ellis is listed as the team’s second left defensive end behind Haynesworth (even though he’s often next to Haynesworth), and Mike Wright is slated as the team’s starting right defensive end.

“They’re big and strong inside,” Gailey said. “They’ve got some good edge pass rush. They’ve made the change and it was an easy change for them to make.

“Many people play open sets now. You had to go more four-man front or nickel situations, so they said, ‘Why not teach that all the time rather than just in nickel situations?’”

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Waters helps keep Patriots offense flowing

There hasn’t been much continuity personnel-wise on the New England Patriots’ offensive line. But with the way the unit has produced so far this season, it’s been hard to tell.

The Patriots brought in guard Brian Waters Sept. 4, just seven days before the team’s season opener in Miami. Waters began rotating at guard with Dan Connolly against the Dolphins but took over the full-time right interior position when Connolly had to move to center to replace an injured Dan Koppen.

Waters has handled the fast start extremely well, as the Patriots offense has yet to miss a beat through two games.

Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, who has amassed close to 1,000 yards passing in just two games, said he was impressed with his new guard’s level of professionalism, but added that it’s no surprise coming from an 11-year veteran. Waters joined the team with no training camp and had to learn enough of New England’s system to be ready to play in a week.

“He's teaching other guys the plays now. He's just that kind of guy,” Brady said during his Wednesday press conference. “… Every time you walk by his locker he's looking at his playbook trying to understand his role in the play, and that's what you get from a guy who has been to a bunch of Pro Bowls - a veteran player who takes his job very seriously and really wants to go out there and win games.”

New England hasn’t been stopped behind the line on any rushes up the middle and has just two negative run plays on the right side. The Patriots have rushed for four first downs between the middle and right side of the offensive line. Brady has been sacked just three times so far and hit seven.

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Another year, same WR carousel for Sanchez

The wide receiver carousel continues in New York, and Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is obligated to take the ride – again.

Sanchez is trying to get acquainted with a new stable of receivers this season – but really, the third-year quarterback doesn’t know anything different. Let's take a look.

At the start of the season, Sanchez’s top receiver was Jerricho Cotchery, his No. 2 was Chansi Stuckey, and his No. 3 was Brad Smith.

By Week 5, the Jets acquired Braylon Edwards from the Cleveland Browns, pitting Edwards as the immediate No. 1 and sending Stuckey to Cleveland. The lineup had Edwards at No. 1 and Cotchery at No. 2 for the remainder of the season.

In 2009, Sanchez’ quarterback rating was 87.7 in September. It was a dismal 38.2 in October, which is when Edwards came around. Sanchez did throw three picks in the game before the Jets acquired Edwards, and he had a solid outing with his new wideout in their first game together, but the shuffling of players had a longer-term impact. Sanchez threw five interceptions in Edwards’ second game with the Jets, and his quarterback rating remained in the mid-60s until the playoffs.

The Jets picked up Santonio Holmes from the Pittsburgh Steelers in the offseason via trade, but Holmes had to sit out the first four games due to suspension. So Edwards was at No. 1 and Cotchery at No. 2 for the time being.

When Holmes returned, he played opposite Edwards, and Cotchery became the No. 3. That lineup settled through the season.

Sanchez started off hot with a 104.9 quarterback rating in September. But when Holmes came along, it took some getting used to. Sanchez’s rating dropped to 63.5 through October.

New York lost Edwards in free agency and released Cotchery, who’d had enough with being demoted, while picking up recently-imprisoned Plaxico Burress and 37-year-old Derrick Mason. 

Burress was supposed to be the Edwards-type guy, but the two are in fact pretty different in style. Edwards is a deep speed threat with a battle-for-the-ball mentality, and Plaxico is a slower, more up-for-grabs receiver who uses his tall, lanky frame to his advantage. Sanchez is familiar with Holmes, though he actually hasn’t had a full regular season with the guy.

Sanchez has thrown four touchdowns to three interceptions so far this season. He's spread the ball around, with Burress getting a touchdown grab in the fourth quarter of the first game (after being nonexistent for the first three quarters), Holmes catching a score early last Sunday and tight end Dustin Keller getting a touchdown reception in both games. But Mason has pretty much been a non-factor through two weeks.

In his first two seasons, Sanchez turned it on in the playoffs. He tossed four touchdowns to two interceptions in the 2009 postseason, and he had five scores through the air to one pick in the 2010 playoffs. His playoff quarterback rating is 94.3.

There's no question Sanchez has proven himself as a big-stage quarterback. After all, he plays his best football when it matters most. But how much of his postseason success has to do with him simply finally being totally comfortable with his receiving corps?

It's something to consider.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rookie Thomas a positive despite Dolphins' bad start, Sparano says RB has work to do

In the midst of the Miami Dolphins’ second loss in two tries, there was a 100-plus-yard rushing performance by rookie Daniel Thomas.

Thomas gained 107 yards on 18 carries in the team’s 23-13 loss to the Houston Texans Sunday. He also caught one ball for 10 yards.

The first-year tailback’s day wasn’t perfect – he fumbled the ball in a critical spot and made a few errors in the backfield – but his non-hesitant style of running and ability to consistently churn out yardage was an obvious point of optimism for Miami.

“A lot of positives. Daniel ran the ball extremely well, really did. I thought ran the ball hard in between the tackles,” Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said during his Monday press conference. “But there is a lot of things off of Daniel’s performance that you guys wouldn’t see that we see that Daniel needs to get better at.”

Ball security is one of those things, and he later said the backfield was partially responsible for quarterback Chad Henne’s frequency in getting hit.

“Obviously we put the ball on the ground once,” Sparano said. “You need to take care of it. It’s a 13-yard run in a critical situation of the game. The ball ends up on the ground, the kid makes a good run, kid puts his facemask right on the ball and just…it happens.

“But Daniel is going to tell you he needs to take care of that. And then there is a couple other things there that he needs to do a little better. All that being said where this guy was a week ago; he didn’t play in the game. I saw a pretty good runner out there at times last night.”

Thomas currently ranks second in career rushing yards at Kansas State, where he picked up 2,850 yards in just two years of play. He signed a four-year contract with Miami after being drafted 62nd overall in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft.

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Signs point to Baxter at center Sunday, MRI shows high ankle sprain for Jets' Mangold

It appears Colin Baxter will be the New York Jets’ temporary Nick Mangold.

At least Baxter sort of looks the part.

Jets coach Rex Ryan didn’t seem too optimistic Monday about getting back his elite center this week for the team’s road game against the Oakland Raiders Sunday. Mangold acquired a high ankle sprain last Sunday in the Jets’ 32-3 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“I don’t think it looks very good as far as playing this week,” Ryan said during his Monday press conference. “But with that being said, he thinks he can go. ... He’s a tough guy, but the trainers will always do what’s in the best interest of the player and we’ll never put a guy out there that shouldn’t be out there. With that said, I think it’s iffy whether he plays or not, with all due respect to Nick. There’s where we are on that.”

Baxter, a rookie, was undrafted but picked up by the San Diego Chargers before the season. The Jets scooped him up when San Diego released him on Sept. 3. In college, Baxter was a four-year starter for Arizona.

He took Mangold’s place Sunday and was serviceable, though quarterback Mark Sanchez was running for his life on a handful of snaps, which was proven in the stats by his 29 yards rushing and four quarterback hits. The Jets' offensive line has struggled through two games, Baxter or no Baxter.

“I think Baxter did a great job in that game, considering he got thrown in there, I’m sure he was a little nervous,” Ryan said. “You kind of get thrown to the wolves there, but he played three-quarters of the game, had a couple mental mistakes, snapped the ball early that one time, but I was proud of the way he jumped in there. And we’ll always say, whether it’s Nick or Baxter or whoever, we go on and there’s no excuses.”

The Jets will be up against a tough defensive-line interior of the Raiders led by Richard Seymour, though New York is probably more concerned with having Mangold back by Week 5, where he’ll be matched up against the New England Patriots’ big boys in Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Parrish injury more long-term than short

The short list of healthy receivers on the Buffalo Bills' roster just keeps getting shorter.

Buffalo's latest loss is seven-year veteran Roscoe Parrish, who was carted off the sideline in the second quarter of Sunday's shootout victory with a left ankle injury. He was hurt while blocking during a 19-yard Steve Johnson pass reception.

This is the third injury to the receiving corps and could mean a second long-term absence in the squad. Head coach Chan Gailey didn't say much about the injury Monday but was less than optimistic about Parrish's return any time soon.

“It's more long term than short term unfortunately,” Gailey told reporters. “Let's see how the reports go. He's supposed to see some more people later this week and I hope that's an outside chance. But you can never say never.”

Other than Parrish, rookie Marcus Easley was placed on injured reserve last week for a heart ailment, and although he did play Sunday, Johnson is battling groin issues.

“He's a big part of what we do and what we wanted to do,” quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said of Parrish. “It's going to be hard for us, not sure how long he's going to be out. … The next guy's got to step up and get in there and get open and win.”

The loss leaves the Bills with four healthy receivers, not counting Brad Smith, an all-purpose ace who spent time as a receiver with the New York Jets. The latest addition to that group is Ruvell Martin, who was re-signed to the team Sept. 13 after the Bills announced Easley's move to IR. Gailey was tight-lipped about any potential moves the Bills might make to beef up the roster, but he didn't deny that the team was looking into possibilities.

“There are some good guys we know that are available and if we think we have to make a move, if it looks like it's more long term than short term with Roscoe, then we may have to make a move,” Gailey said. “If it's not as long term as we think then we may not. We may just wait and see.”

The timing of the loss isn’t ideal, as the team has put together two great wins and is preparing for a divisional bout with the New England Patriots. Expect to see Martin get some time against the Patriots as well as David Nelson, who has had solid numbers in the first two games.

“That's what you are going to see in this offense,” Fitzpatrick said. “We had some injuries, we had some stuff happen in the game and guys are cramping a little bit. Ruvell's (Martin) in. He's only been here for a couple weeks. If you're open, if you're the guy that's supposed to get the ball, I'm not going to hesitate to get you the ball.”

Pats stuff Gates, D still seeks improvement

The last time the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers met prior to Sunday night, Antonio Gates had four catches and a touchdown in the teams’ 2010 meeting.

New England made sure Gates wasn’t a factor this time around.

The Patriots defense held Gates, arguably the best receiving tight end in the NFL, to no catches Sunday.

“They would put a corner and a safety on me, or two safeties,” Gates told reporters after the game. “… they did a lot of different things to take me out of the game. I kept working at it, kept trying. The end result was I couldn't get the ball to come my way.”

Following a dismal performance by New England’s pass defense against an average Miami Dolphins squad, the Patriots had a solid gameplan for the Chargers’ usual stout air attack.

Taking Gates out of the game was a big part of it.

“They gave us different looks, a combination of things, making it difficult for me to release off the ball,” Gates said. “With the defensive end, linebacker and the safety dropping down to help once I released. They made a lot of funky looks, but I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the guys around me to make plays. We just didn't make enough plays today.”

Bill Belichick’s defensive unit showed a plethora of looks, doubling a receiver on one play and playing a soft single coverage on them the next. They gave up 348 passing yards to San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers, but four turnovers — including two interceptions — overshadowed the big yardage.

Belichick still recognizes there’s still a lot of work to do in the pass defense department.

“I'd say the big problem we had yesterday was we had our chances to get off the field and we just didn't do a good job of it,” Belichick said Monday. “We had several plays we could have made on third down that I think were pretty makeable plays and we just didn't make them.

“So we have to do a better job with our pass rush, with our coverage, with our overall execution of the defense against the passing game than we did yesterday or than, really, we have in the last two weeks. I don't think it's any one specific thing or one particular player or position or anything. We just collectively need to do it better.”

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Patriots handle Chargers in home opener

What started as a typical back-and-forth battle between the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers turned into another field day for Tom Brady, another impressive gameplan by Bill Belichick and his assistants and a 10th straight home-opener win for the Patriots.

Just six days after throwing for a career-high 517 yards in the Monday night season opener in Miami against the Dolphins, Brady threw for 423 more Sunday, tossing three touchdowns to his trusty pair of second-year tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, at Gillette Stadium.

Only one NFL player has ever thrown for more yardage in two consecutive games than Brady’s first two performances this season: Phil Simms, who threw for 945. Brady amassed 940.

The true turning point of the game for the Patriots (2-0), though, came from a part of the team that was questioned the most: the defense. With New England leading, 10-7, the Chargers (1-1) found themselves with a first and goal on the Patriots’ 5-yard line, but the Patriot defense walled up. It refused to let San Diego score, stuffing four straight running plays on the goal line and forcing a turnover on downs.

“It was huge,” Belichick told reporters after the game about the goalline stand.

Brady and Co. then took over at their own 1-yard line with no qualms, running the length of the field before Brady found Gronkowski for the tight end’s first touchdown of the day and a helping the Pats take a commanding 17-7 lead.

And, if the big defensive goalline stand didn’t fire you up, New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork’s huge interception in the first half’s final minute certainly did. It was the 325-pound big man’s first career interception, and, boy, was it worth the wait. He managed to run for 36 yards after the catch and, with just 9 seconds left in the half, the Patriots were able to squeeze another three points out before halftime.

The defense came up big in the second half, too, forcing two lost fumbles by the Chargers (RB Mike Tolbert and QB Philip Rivers) and turning, at least the first one, into points. The later lost fumble by Rivers was with just over a minute remaining in the game and the Patriots kneeled the ball to close out the game.

“I'm really proud of our football team today,” Belichick said. “I'll tell you, we had a lot of guys battle through stuff -- coming off a short week, getting ready for this football team. The Chargers are a good football team, but ultimately the turnovers and getting the ball in the end zone was big for us.”

Rivers threw for 378 yards and two touchdowns, but he was picked off twice and, clearly, the Patriot defense took control when it mattered most.

Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson reeled in 10 catches for 172 yards and two scores. The Rivers-Jackson connections, at times, seemed unstoppable – Jackson was never wide open yet Rivers got the ball in his vicinity and Jackson just kept making the catches. The only way the Patriots secondary may have been able to stop Jackson was to make illegal contact to prevent the catch … and that’s not going to keep the team out of the end zone.

The win sets up a big Week 3 matchup between the divisional rival Patriots and Buffalo Bills, both of whom are undefeated and make up two of the league’s three top-scoring squads. The Bills lead the NFL with 79 points scored over the first two weeks and New England is ranked third with 73. (The Detroit Lions have scored 75.)

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Jets D gets four picks in rout of Jaguars

Things can get ugly when an elite defense faces a quarterback with his career start total in the single-digits.

Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars got the memo.

The New York Jets (2-0) intercepted Jaguars quarterback Luke McCown four times and recorded a safety in their 32-3 rout of Jacksonville (1-1). Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie grabbed two takeaways, and rookie defensive lineman Mo Wilkerson got the endzone-takedown in the first quarter.

“The defense, we did a great job of recognizing plays and going out and just playing solid,” Cromartie told reporters after the game. “A lot of stuff we clicked on was play recognition and just going out and attacking.”

New York’s offense was efficient as well, as quarterback Mark Sanchez threw for two touchdowns, and tailback Shonn Greene added another on the ground. Sanchez did get intercepted twice, but the Jets’ defense held up when it needed to and gave the offense enough opportunities to make things right.

Sanchez went 17-for-24 for 183 yards. He also picked up 29 yards on three carries.

Santonio Holmes caught the game’s first score, but tight end Dustin Keller had the big game running routes, leading the team in receiving with 101 yards and a touchdown on six catches.

“They pretty much gave us the middle of the field and they were playing a lot of zone,” Keller said. “They just left the middle of the field wide open so that left a lot of things wide open for me.”

Kicker Nick Folk went 3-for-3, with two goal-post splitters coming in the second quarter. His second make was 45 yards.

The Jets got a huge scare when standout center Nick Mangold went down with a sprained ankle in the first quarter. Undrafted rookie Colin Baxter, who had never taken a snap from Sanchez before Sunday, was serviceable filling in for Mangold, and New York got some positive news when Mangold’s X-rays came back negative.

“I hope he’s back this week, but I’m really not sure,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “Baxter stepped in and did a nice job. It’s a similar system. We got him from San Diego so the terminology’s similar with [offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer] Schotty coming from San Diego... The young man stepped in and did a nice job.”

Josh Mauga and Eric Smith snatched McCown's other two picks.

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Late-game comeback drive sparks Bills

The final seconds for the Oakland Raiders at Orchard Park Sunday were anything but celebratory. Unfortunately for them, it’s all too familiar.

After going into halftime down 21-3, the Buffalo Bills converted touchdowns on all of their second-half possessions, the final one coming with 14 seconds left, capping off a roller-coaster come-from-behind victory in their home opener.

The 38-35 win puts the Bills at 2-0 for the first time since 2008, and the second-half effort put forth showed skeptics that Buffalo is capable of big comebacks.

“I can't recall one quite like that,” Bills coach Chan Gailey told reporters after the game. “It was an amazing gut-check by our football team. What they did coming out of halftime was really amazing.”

The last time the Raiders were in Buffalo, the Bills came back in similar fashion, erasing a nine-point deficit and sealing the win on a last-second field goal.

The Bills tallied 481 yards of total offense Sunday, 217 of those on the ground. Fred Jackson broke the century mark for the second game in a row, amassing 117 yards and two touchdowns.

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had another solid game, finishing with 264 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

After losing the lead with less than four minutes to go, Fitzpatrick brought the Bills downfield on a 14-play, 80-yard drive, converting two fourth downs and connecting with a wide open David Nelson on a 6-yard touchdown pass.

“I don't know what happened, but I think they misaligned to be honest,” Fitzpatrick said of the game-winning play. “I was lucky enough to see it.”

Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell went toe-to-toe with Fitzpatrick the whole game, throwing for 323 yards and two touchdowns. Raiders running back Darren McFadden was held to less than 100 yards on the ground, but amassed 143 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.

“Good job by them, bad job by us,” Raiders coach Hue Jackson told reporters. “When it's all said and done, we did not finish the game.”

The Bills will have a tough test in Week 3 as they face the New England Patriots, who are also 2-0 and have won the last 15 meetings against Buffalo.

Other Notes: For the first time since 2004, Buffalo had back-to-back 30-point games; The Bills set a franchise record with their 34 first downs; The 35 points by the Bills were the most allowed by the Raiders in a second half.

Miami falls two games behind division

If anything can be said about the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium, it’s that they’re consistent.

Miami entered Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans with one victory in its last 11 home games. Sunday, they made it one in 12.

Houston improved to 2-0 and dropped Miami to 0-2 in a 23-13 win. The Dolphins are still the only team in the AFC East with a loss, as the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills all won Sunday to move to 2-0.

“We’re trying to get things going in our stadium and our community, and you have to win at home to do that,” Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall said after the game, according to the Associated Press. “It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing.”

Texans quarterback Matt Schaub connected on 21 of 29 passes for 230 yards, receiver Andre Johnson finished with seven receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown, and running Ben Tate eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground for the second straight game.

Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne followed up last week’s 400-plus-yard performance with a less-than-stellar showing, going 12-for-30 with 170 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

One bright spot, however, was rookie running back Daniel Thomas, who picked up 107 yards on 18 carries. Marshall grabbed six catches for 79 yards and a touchdown.

“We established the running game early, which was good,” Henne said. “The passing game was kind of up and down there for a while.”

Miami was down 16-3 at the half before Marshall caught a 12-yard score from Henne. Dan Carpenter then made a 34-yard field goal to bring the game within three, but Schaub and Johnson put the game away when they connected on a 23-yard touchdown strike.

Schaub also threw a touchdown to tight end Owen Daniels, and Johnathan Joseph had Houston’s only pick.

Miami’s Cameron Wake, Reshad Jones and Jason Taylor had a sack apiece.

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Jets/Jaguars Sunday Storylines: MJD factor, McCown vs. Jets D, ground and pound

The New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars enter Week 2 coming off of home-opener victories. The Jets ousted the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night, 27-24, thanks to 17 fourth-quarter points, while Jacksonville defeated the Tennessee Titans, 16-14, fighting off a second-half Titans surge.

The MJD factor

Maurice Jones-Drew gained 123 yards rushing against the Jets’ top run defense of 2009, scoring a touchdown and picking up five first downs as he led the Jags to a 24-22 victory over the Jets in East Rutherford, NJ.

“You better have a bunch of guys on him,” Jets coach Rex Ryan told reporters Friday. “The thing is, too, he hits. You have to wrap him, because he’s a spinner, too. He’s got great body control and power and balance and speed. It’s a great combination.”

Back to ground and pound?

The Jets gained only 45 yards on the ground against Dallas, averaging 2.8 yards a clip. Shonn Greene entered the season as the featured back, but Greene and the Jets’ offensive line didn’t do much to get fans excited about it. When times got tough, veteran LaDainian Tomlinson was called upon as a third-down outlet, and he delivered on short routes out of the backfield.

Jacksonville limited the Titans to 43 yards on 13 carries, though Tennessee was playing catch-up and didn’t have much use for the run game. Look for the Jets to try and establish themselves at the line of scrimmage in the first half of this one.

"We'll see," Ryan said Thursday regarding the Jets' running game. "We know it's going to be tough sledding this week."

Bringing down McCown

Quarterback Luke McCown will be making his ninth career start in the NFL, and the Jets’ defense has to be licking its chops. The Jets are trying to do a better job at getting to the passer this season, and New York hit Tony Romo six times and sacked him on four occasions last weekend.

With cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie on lockdown at the perimeter, the Jets should be able to throw the house at McCown. At least he’ll have Jones-Drew back there, who can get very physical in the blocking game.

"You turn on the film and they're giving every quarterback fits in this league," McCown said Friday, according to The Florida Times-Union. "It's well documented, they're a vaunted defense. It's going to take a lot to decode it."

Other notes

Weather looks good, upper 60s and partly cloudy; Jaguars will field ex-Jet secondary guys in Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman; Jets wideout Santonio Holmes is listed as questionable with knee/quad issues; Jets linebacker David Harris should be good to go.

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Pats/Chargers Sunday Storylines: Brady factor, Charger RBs vs. Pats D, special teams

With so many possibilities heading into the New England Patriots’ (1-0) home opener on Sunday versus the San Diego Chargers (1-0), Patriots quarterback Tom Brady offered fans a bit of advice before the game earlier this week.

“Start drinking early,” Brady said when asked if he had any advice for fans. “It’s a 4:15 game. They have a lot of time to get lubed up, come out here and cheer for the home team.”

Brady, who was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his milestone performance against the divisional rival Miami Dolphins on Monday night (4 TDs, 1 INT, 517 yards), will hope to keep his big numbers growing this week against a familiar opponent in the Chargers.

Can the Charger defense stop Brady?

It’s tough to think a team could give up another 500-plus-yard performance for a second straight week, but we’ve seen stranger stuff happen in the NFL. Plus, with the consistency in which the Patriots play the Chargers — oftentimes winning — it’d be a safe gamble to take Brady in this matchup. (But that’s also most matchups.) Even as 6.5-point favorites, I’d go with the home team.

The Charger defense is certainly better than that of the Dolphins — it has been in recent previous seasons, and it showed in Week 1 this year. Sure, against different offenses, different defenses play … differently. But the Patriots and Chargers are familiar enough with one another that these games always have a bit of bite.

This isn’t just about the secondary, either. San Diego’s linebackers and defensive front need to overpower the neutral zone and put Brady under repeated pressure. (See: Brady with at least five seconds in the pocket last week vs. Miami.)

Chargers backfield needs to produce against Pats’ D-line

Relinquishing both running backs who defined Norv Turner’s running game in San Diego (New York Jets’ LaDainian Tomlinson and New Orleans Saints’ Darren Sproles), and oftentimes gave the Patriots a bit of a headache, the Chargers now have two young backs emerging — or at least trying to.

Ryan Matthews and Mike Tolbert, second- and fourth-year players, respectively, have had high expectations but need to do more for the Chargers’ offense to take control. Matthews battled minor injuries last year and was able to rush for 678 yards in 12 games. He also had a habit of coughing up the ball (five fumbles last year). The Patriots’ front knows that and will try to expose it.

With a healthy, fresh rotation of defensive linemen constantly coming in and out of the game, it’s important for all personnel to be up to speed with the opposing offense. Led by monsters Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth — the latter of whom is expected to have a heightened role in the defensive scheme this weekend — this Patriots defense should have plenty of opportunities to force — then capitalize on — against this often turnover-prone Charger offense.

The special teams battle

The Chargers have come off looking like a team that doesn’t take special teams seriously enough — last year especially — and again in Week 1 of this year, right from the game’s opening kickoff against the Minnesota Vikings (Percy Harvin, 103-yard return).

The Patriots’ special teams corps will block, they will make holes and the returners will find the holes.

A look back

People like to look back on last year’s performance to help get an idea of what Sunday’s game between the Patriots and Chargers could be like.

During their Week 7 showdown in San Diego, New England nearly gave up a 20-point lead in the final quarter before winning by a field goal. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers actually threw for more than twice as many yards as Brady (both tossed a TD apiece), both Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and San Diego’s Tolbert reached paydirt once on the ground and the game came down to missed field goal in the final minute by San Diego.

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