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It became official on Monday what many in New England had feared following Sunday’s game: Patriots running back Dion Lewis will be out for the season with a  torn ACL. Lewis, who had been a major contributor out of the backfield for the Patriots, will undergo surgery with the goal of being ready for the start of next season.

Throughout the Bill Belichick/ Tom Brady run in New England, the Patriots have always had a shifty pass catching running back who can make key plays in the passing game. First it was Kevin Faulk and then Shane Vereen. With Vereen’s departure this past offseason, the team looked to fill that hole and had Lewis competing with James White for reps. Lewis won the competition and quickly established himself as an important component of New England’s offense. His ability to break tackles and maneuver through crowded areas made him very difficult to match-up with. On several occasions, Brady would target Lewis over Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman based on favorable match-ups.

This is not to say that losing Lewis is on the same level as losing Gronkowksi or Edelman, but he proved to be much more than just a safety valve out of the backfield and he will be missed. James White and Brandon Bolden will need to step up in order to shoulder the load left by Lewis. Bolden filled in admirably against Washington, but he does not have the speed or shiftiness of Lewis and White has had trouble cracking the lineup in recent weeks.

With Lewis out, the Patriots will need to hope either Bolden or White can fill his role. It can’t be expected for either one of them to play at Lewis’ level, but they will need to produce. If they cannot, the Patriots offense will have more difficulty moving the ball.

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stork IR

The Patriots on activated Bryan Stork of the short term injured reserve on Saturday. Stork was recovering from a concussion. By rule, the center’s placement on short term IR meant that he had to miss the team’s first eight games. In a corresponding move, the team placed offensive lineman Ryan Wendell on season ending injured reserve.

Both moves highlight the health issues the Patriots have had along the offensive line season. Wendell and Stork were both starters on last season’s Super Bowl XLIX champion team. New England will also be without starting left tackle and Super Bowl XLIX winner Nate Solder the rest of the season due to injury. With only a limited number of healthy linemen, the Patriots may choose to get creative in their approach.

Undrafted rookie David Andrews has filled in well in Stork’s absence, but Stork is the better player and would play center if everyone else was healthy. This could still end up being the case, but with the injuries up front the Patriots could choose to play both at the same time with Stork kicking out to guard or even tackle.

Stork, in his second season, began starting in week four last season and remained the starter through New England’s Super Bowl victory. As well as starting experience last year, he also has experience playing with rookie guard Tre Jackson, both were on the Florida State team that won a National Championship in 2014.

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There was plenty of action on the field during the Patriots impressive 30-23 win over the New York Jets on October 25. It turns out that there was also plenty of action going on inside the walls of Gillette Stadium, as two Patriots employees fell under suspicion of Jets and NFL officials.

Prior to the game, NFL officials swept the Jets locker room for listening devices. Although the NFL has said it was part of their usual random checks, reports have leaked out that the Jets requested such a sweep to take place. It was mentioned in two separate news stories in September that several teams suspected the Patriots of bugging locker rooms, but there is no proof and the Patriots have never officially been accused of such activity. Most evidence points to this being a random check, but conspiracy theories are sure to develop.

While the game was taking place, a Jets security official became suspicious of three Patriots employees that were wearing headsets. Both employees were questioned during the game. One of them required a phone call to the league office because the questioner did not believe his story of being responsible for the referees batteries. After questioning, it was determined that no employee did anything wrong and they were allowed to continue working.

Had the Jets security personnel had a better understanding of who is in charge of referee equipment, at least the second part of the second incident could have been avoided. The first part could likely have been a case of Patriots paranoia. It is understandable that a Jets team employee would want to make sure that everything was on the level during his team’s game and in most cases this would not have made many headlines. But in New England, everything is a big deal.

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GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 1: during Super Bowl XLIX at the University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Rob Tringali) *** Local Caption ***

The Patriots have suffered through their share of injuries so far this season. From Center Bryan Stork to Tackle Nate Solder and Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, New England has seen several key players miss time. This week, however, they will likely be getting a key player back, as Brandon LaFell could start practicing again.

LaFell, who was signed during the 2014 offseason from Carolina, was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list prior to the start of the season. Placement on the PUP list meant that LaFell was forced to miss the first six weeks of the season.

Last season, LaFell had 74 catches for 953 yards and seven touchdowns. He was also a major factor in the playoffs, scoring the winning touchdown in the Divisional Round against Baltimore and adding another touchdown in the Super Bowl.

LaFell will instantly become a large part of the Patriots offense when he returns, taking some of the pressure of Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots offense has played well without him, but having LaFell back will be a boost.

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brady sack

Usually when a team scores 30 points en route to a road win, there is not much that goes wrong for them. For the Patriots on Sunday against Dallas, they did many things right in all three phases of the game en route to an impressive road win. One area that is a concern from Sunday, however, is pass blocking.

Tom Brady was sacked five times in the first half, including two drive killers on their first two possessions. New England was moving the ball well on each possession, but managed a total of three points from the two of them. The pressure was especially difficult around the edges, as Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer got beat several times.

Solder was playing against Greg Hardy, an elite pass rusher, so him having some difficulty is not completely surprising. What is surprising is how much difficulty he had and that it took until after halftime for the Patriots line to finally slow down the Cowboys pass rush. If the Cowboys had Tony Romo and Dez Bryant playing yesterday, the game could have looked a lot different especially early on.

The Patriots offensive line is still in a much better place now than it was last season even with starting center Bryan Stork unavailable. Things will not get easier for the Patriots line with games against the the Jets and Dolphins following this weekends trip to Indianapolis to face Robert Mathis and the Colts. New England is by no means in bad shape, but other teams will see first hand on film that if they want to slow the Patriots down, they need to get to Brady as fast as Dallas did. Not every team has the level of pass rushers the Cowboys do, but now every team will be attacking Solder and Vollmer.

It is up to the two tackles to prove those teams wrong for the Patriots offense to continue at its record pace.

Heading into this weekend’s game in Dallas, much of the focus will be on who is not playing. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant will be unavailable for the Cowboys due to injuries and Lance Dunbar has been lost for the year with a knee injury. One unit that is healthy and menacing is the Cowboys offensive line.

If Dallas is to beat New England, they will have to run the ball well. Brandon Weeden cannot win a game on his own and the Cowboys will also want to keep Tom Brady on the field. They have spent high draft picks on the offensive line, with Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, and Travis Frederick all being first round picks since 2011. These three players form a nucleus that has dominated opposing defenses over the last two years. Their play helped propel Demarco Murray to the league rushing title in 2014 and they have opened up 2015 playing well.

The Patriots have had one major weak spot on defense thus far and that has been stopping the run. Although part of this has been because they have jumped out to big leads therefore leading teams to throw more. This then forces the Patriots to use passing personnel, which means it is easier to run when the offenses choose to. Despite this qualifier, the team’s run defense should still be better. New England is giving up 4.9 yards per carry, tied for worst in the NFL. They are also giving up 117 yards rushing per game, which ranks 23rd.

Dallas no longer has Murray, but can still be formidable when blocking in the run game. The wild card for the Patriots defense is Weeden. With Romo and Bryant out, the Patriots can play more slanted to the run game and play seven or eight players in the box. However, if Weeden begins the game playing well, New England will have to play more sub packages and put more pressure on their defensive line.

The Patriots trip to Dallas is a very winnable game, as long as they don’t allow the Cowboys to push them around at the point of attack. This offensive line is the best the Patriots will face all season. Their front seven has played well against the pass and played better in the run game against Jacksonville, but it is still not a sure thing. The bye week may have come at a good time for the unit, as they got time to improve and practice more together.

The proof will be in the pudding on Sunday. Either the Patriots run defense will continue to improve or New England will get pushed around.

 

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Last night in a game against Dallas, Saints quarterback Drew Brees tossed the 400th touchdown pass of his career, joining legendary company. Seven days earlier, Tom Brady also threw his 400th touchdown pass in New England’s win over Jacksonville.

The two quarterbacks are still playing well late into their hall of fame careers with Brady opening the season on an MVP pace and Brees still leading the charge on a Saints team that has struggled out of the gates. Last night, the Patriots took to twitter to congratulate both Brady and Brees on their milestones.

Neither player appears to be slowing down and both are likely to pursue membership in the “500 Club” before their careers are over.

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