<
>

No team is starting games as fast as Patriots, and it's not even close

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and the NFL:

1. One of the most impressive aspects of the Patriots’ 3-0 start has been the way the team has started games. No team in the NFL has been better in the first quarter, and it isn’t even close. The Patriots have outscored opponents 34-0 in the opening quarter, which has built them margin for error and allowed them to play games on their terms.

Here are the impressive stats of their first 180 minutes of football:

Leading: 149:32

Tied: 24:26

Trailing: 6:02

The only time the Patriots have trailed was in the fourth quarter of the season opener at Arizona, when they were down 21-20 after a 1-yard highlight-reel touchdown catch by Larry Fitzgerald.

1b. Entering Sunday, the Cowboys (13-0 in the first quarter), Lions (16-0) and Eagles (10-0) were the only other teams to not allow opponents to score in the first quarter through the first two games. That’s something to keep an eye on in Sunday’s action as it relates to the Patriots’ early-game success.

2. When coach Bill Belichick began his postgame news conference late Thursday night by crediting his assistant coaches, he mentioned four people specifically by name -- his three coordinators (Josh McDaniels: offense; Matt Patricia: defense; Joe Judge: special teams) and assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski. That Schuplinski was publicly recognized by Belichick highlighted his exemplary behind-the-scenes work in getting rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett ready for his first career start, and as was later seen in video on Patriots.com, Belichick also singled out Schuplinski in front of the entire team as part of the locker room celebration. What a great team moment for Schuplinski, a hard-working, understated, up-and-coming assistant from John Carroll University who toiled anonymously for three years as a low-level assistant before being promoted this offseason.

3. Belichick often says that he won’t truly know what type of team he has until mid-October, but a case could be made that this year is the exception. Watching him on the sideline late in the fourth quarter this past Thursday night, when the outcome wasn’t in doubt, he had the look of a proud parent as the defense didn’t let up and swarmed all over quarterback Brock Osweiler. Belichick, who always preaches playing the full 60 minutes, clapped his hands together vigorously in approval. From a learning-about-the-team perspective, two main areas Belichick assesses annually with his teams are their physical and mental toughness, which ties to their ability to overcome adversity, and then how they rise up in clutch/pressure situations. Through three games, two of which were in prime time with a No. 2 and then a No. 3 quarterback starting, he has received some early decisive answers in those areas.

4. Two Patriots-based soundbites of note from ESPN Radio interviews late last week:

Tedy Bruschi (on Russillo & Kannell): “I was on the team in ’08 when we lost [Tom] Brady against the Kansas City Chiefs. That was a very satisfying year, not only for me but our entire team. We all just really sucked it up and ended up 11-5. To be able to win one, two, three, four games without your best player, the morale in the locker room is like, ‘Yeah, we can do this. We’re good players, too.’ If they go 4-0 [this year], how they’ll feel about themselves when Tom comes back, they’ll almost feel indestructible.”

Bill Parcells (on Mike & Mike): “The idea, fellas, has always been and will continue to be, is to get control of the game somehow. New England outplayed the Texans on special teams and on defense, and then they controlled the game with the running game, particularly in the third quarter. That’s the idea in football -- no matter how you do it, even if it’s not aesthetically pleasing, it still wins. That’s the thing -- get control of the game somehow. And that’s probably the greatest asset that Bill Belichick has as a coach. He knows how to do that in a given situation under the circumstances that exist for him currently, that night.”

4b. With Parcells' comments in mind, Belichick essentially called his shot before Thursday's game, saying during his pregame interview: "I would expect special teams will have a big impact on this game."

5. A few updates on former Patriots with new teams: With Titans starting right guard Chance Warmack undergoing hand surgery and being placed on injured reserve, it could thrust Josh Kline into a starting role. It’s between Kline and Brian Schwenke. … Reserve Rams defensive tackle Dominique Easley played 22 snaps and totaled three tackles in a Week 2 win over the Seahawks. … Cornerbacks Cre’Von LeBlanc (Bears) and Darryl Roberts (Jets) were inactive for the second week in a row, while linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (Eagles) played exclusively on special teams (12 snaps).

6. Brissett’s 4.94 time in the 40-yard dash at the 2016 NFL combine, and Jimmy Garoppolo’s 4.97 time at the 2014 combine rank them in the lower third of players at the position in terms of timed speed. But as both have shown early this season, they can move well and create plays with their feet, which was a topic I brought up to Belichick this past Friday with Brissett’s 27-yard touchdown run in mind. For those interested in viewing the game through a scouting perspective, I thought Belichick’s answer, which was picked up by ProFootballTalk.com, was insightful when it comes to timed speed versus competitive speed.

7. For what it’s worth: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told Sirius XM NFL Radio last week that he got too involved in the team’s defensive game plan for the season opener against the Patriots, and that led to Arizona playing more zone coverage than it normally would. He said it was a poor decision by him, and that the team’s turnaround in a blowout Week 2 win over Tampa Bay was getting back to playing its normal style of “cutting it loose” and “flying around” defense.

8. As one of just three NFL teams with only four receivers on their active roster, the Patriots viewed practice squad player Devin Street as their next layer of depth in the event of injury, which is why it hurt them to see him signed to the Colts’ active roster late last week. As they often do in those situations, the Patriots made a strong sales pitch in the hopes of enticing Street to stay (e.g. increasing his salary to a level as if he was on the roster), but the guarantee of being on a team’s active roster ultimately was the trump card in what was a tough decision for Street. The Patriots, with other roster considerations, simply didn’t feel they could promote Street to their roster at this time.

9. Both Brady and defensive end Rob Ninkovich will be able to return to the Patriots’ facility on Oct. 3, and when I asked a league spokesman if there was an official time they could walk through the doors, it wasn’t specified. So my understanding at this time is that they technically can be at Gillette Stadium, if they so desire, when the clock strikes midnight Sunday. Meanwhile, the Patriots will ultimately have to clear two roster spots to account for Brady and Ninkovich, which is another reason why promoting a practice squad player like Street to the active roster is a tough thing to do.

10. Three of the more important plays of the Patriots’ season have come on kickoffs, with Stephen Gostkowski combining hang time and placement to entice/force opponents into returns that either created advantageous field position for New England (e.g. against Arizona in making the Cardinals drive a long field to set up their final field goal attempt) or turnovers which were later turned into touchdowns (e.g. two forced fumbles vs. Houston). How much of this is a result of the new touchback rule that puts the ball at the 25? It will be easier to assess with more data, but here’s an initial comparison: Gostkowski had 18 touchbacks in 24 attempts through three games in 2015, and he has 12 touchbacks in 18 attempts through three games in 2016.