Patriots turn to flag football to fine-tune tackling skills

Stephon Gilmore, shown breaking up a pass, says the Pats have benefited from using flags in practice. AP Photo/Matt Slocum

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

1. To stress the importance of tackling, and in hopes of improving on-field results, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has turned to an unconventional approach this season. He’s introduced flag football at some practices.

“It helps you focusing staying on the hip, and correct angles in tackling,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore explained.

Fellow cornerback Jason McCourty said working with the flags also can help with leverage, balance and stressing the importance of defenders looking at a runner’s hips.

“It’s just making sure you’re in the position to make the tackle, because obviously on Sunday, there won’t be any flags,” he noted, adding that the team spends considerable time talking about open-field tackling and different drills to prepare players to execute.

"Just to close the space and not dive," safety Patrick Chung added.

Players say the flags haven't been an everyday occurrence, instead appearing at random times as a twist to regular fundamental drills. When the flags come out, it’s been a throwback experience for some players.

"It brought back some memories from flag football practice, concentrating on the hips and stuff like that," third-year cornerback Jonathan Jones said.

"Haven’t done it since pee wee league, running around with friends,” Gilmore added with a smile.

2. The story of the week for the Patriots is how they respond to the devastating ending in Miami, and along those lines, it was notable to me that Belichick didn’t hold a practice in full pads this past week, which was a break from the norm. Teams get only so many opportunities to practice in full pads, and that’s usually the best opportunity to drill fundamentals and get the best work in the running game. But sometimes lightening the physical load can be beneficial, and that’s what Belichick decided this week.

3. The Patriots haven’t been forced into a roster move due to injury since placing backup offensive lineman Brian Schwenke on injured reserve on Nov. 6, and since the regular season began, they’ve placed just four players on IR. Meanwhile, entering Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they had just one player, linebacker Elandon Roberts, on their final injury report of the week. Things can always change in an instant, and players are always managing bumps and bruises, but this is about as healthy as the Patriots could hope to be for Week 15 of the season. That’s a credit to the players, of course, but not to be overlooked is the work of strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera and the athletic training staff led by Jim Whalen. They aren’t often mentioned, but they’re a big part of things behind the scenes.

4a. History says the Patriots need to win Sunday in Pittsburgh to reach their ultimate goal. They enter with a 3-4 road mark on the season, and the only time the team has had a losing regular-season road record in the Belichick/Tom Brady era is 2009, when they were 2-6 away from home. Only one team has won the Super Bowl with a losing regular-season road record: the 2010 Packers.

4b. One other road nugget: The Patriots have allowed 25 points per game on the road this season, which is their most since the 1992 season (26.6).

4c. Did You Know: Under Belichick, the Patriots are 3-3 and haven’t advanced to the Super Bowl when they don’t have a first-round playoff bye. If they win their final three games -- at the Steelers and at home against the Bills and Jets -- they would clinch a first-round bye this postseason.

5. Patriots receiver/kickoff returner/running back Cordarrelle Patterson has appealed his $13,369 fine for unsportsmanlike conduct against Jets defensive lineman Henry Anderson, a penalty that was a result of his fist making contact with Anderson’s groin area as he pushed Anderson off him to get up off the field. The appeal hearing was Tuesday. Patterson’s best case to win the appeal would be Anderson’s own remarks, as Anderson said, "He barely touched me, but I was trying to draw a flag.”

6. Patriots players filled out their Pro Bowl ballots Monday -- one day after the loss in Miami -- which was one reminder of how it truly was a business-as-usual approach. Veteran defensive end Adrian Clayborn said one thing he likes to do is shine a light on up-and-coming players, and that’s why he put Broncos rookie outside linebacker Bradley Chubb on his ballot. Of course, Chubb’s 12 sacks don’t hurt the cause, either.

7. One popular question following the Patriots’ stunning last-play loss against the Dolphins was why Miami wasn’t required to attempt an extra point following a 69-yard pass-and-lateral that culminated in Kenyan Drake crossing the goal line with no time remaining in the Dolphins' 34-33 victory. With no extra point, it eliminated the Patriots’ chance to block the kick and return it for two points to possibly win the game. That is a result of a rule change passed this past offseason, sparked by the wild Minnesota-New Orleans ending in last season’s playoffs.

8. The list of Patriots players who fell out of favor under Belichick and then went on to greater things with another team isn’t very long, but there is a notable recent addition: Seahawks cornerback Justin Coleman. He showed up on the radar in Monday’s victory over the Vikings with a fumble return for a touchdown. In September 2017, the Patriots traded Coleman for a seventh-round pick, a move that fell into the category of acquiring an asset for a player who might not have even made the team. But Coleman has emerged in Seattle (albeit with a few hiccups as a tackler), which might be a case of the Seahawks' scheme being a better fit for him.

9. Let’s see if the Dolphins can buck one obvious theme from the 2018 season: the Patriots’ hangover effect. All three previous teams that beat the Patriots this season -- the Jaguars, Lions and Titans -- fell flat the following week in losses, and now Miami visits Minnesota on Sunday. The takeaway is obvious: Teams invest so much to beat the Patriots that they struggle to get up the following week and match that same type of level.

10. With 41-year-old Brady holding to his plans to play until he's 45, it highlights the time frame for arguably the Patriots' most important personnel priority: developing a quarterback of the future. Danny Etling, the seventh-round draft pick from LSU who has spent this season on the practice squad, hopes to make himself a strong candidate, and having a full year behind the scenes to learn the team's complex offense should provide him a foundation from which to build. Another benefit of a season behind the scenes for him has been the ability to focus on his mechanics, which were affected by a back procedure he had prior to his senior season at LSU. Etling showed some solid athleticism in the preseason -- running for an 86-yard touchdown in the finale was the decisive highlight -- and hasn't missed a practice this season. The 2019 offseason and preseason will provide more clarity on how much of a factor he will be in the Patriots' future plans.