Tag Archives: Sebastian Vollmer

New England Patriots: The Deepest Roster In Years

The New England Patriots have had a long run of exceptional success. The Bill Belichick-Tom Brady link has a lot to do with the dominance they have over the rest of the NFL. This year, despite losing Brady for the 1st four games (no comment necessary), they have what could be the deepest, if not most skilled, roster in years. Despite missing some key players early due to injury, fans will be rockin’ as the 2016 Patriots evolve.

Are there still areas of concern? Definitely… but all positions are filled with strong, talented young players chomping at the bit to replace seasoned vets. Think about it. The lack of training camp transactions and difficulty in selecting who will be among New England’s 53 man roster opening day this deep into camp is a strong indication that the back-end will have skills needed to survive the long season.

COMPETITION IS GOOD FOR EVERYONE 

After two pre-season games, the competition for playing time is fierce. And, let’s face it, that’s good for everyone. Shoot, even Tom Brady, arguable the best QB in NFL history, can’t find playing time when he wants to. OK, I know, he was playing with scissors and cut himself, keeping him out of game #2, which he was scheduled to start. But the point is, someone has stepped in and done the job. You may not be a fan of Jimmy Garoppolo as the “long-term” answer when TB retires, but he has shown the ability to hold things together while Brady is out. Let’s take a quick look at what we could see on offense opening night, September 11, in Arizona.

Jimmy Garoppolo looked good against the Bears . (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Jimmy Garoppolo looked good against the Bears (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

QB: (2) This one’s a no brainer,( so I qualify), and my prediction -ta dah- unequivocally: the two slots are owned by Goroppolo and rookie Jacoby Brissett. How’s that for stepping out on a limb. It is doubtful the Patriots will sign a veteran back-up QB for the 1st four games unless one of those two get injured. Brady does not take up a roster spot until game 5.

WR: (6) Who needs a real deep threat when you have a roster full of good hands, elusive players battling it out for a limited number of positions. The days of Randy Moss are long gone, so, as they say in certain circles, “forgeddabout-it.”

  • Veterans include Danny Amendola, Jules Edelman, Nate Washington, Chris Hogan, Keshawn Martin, Aaron (yep, he’s still here) Dobson and old faithful Matthew Slater.
  • Young and looking to step in players are Chris Harper, Malcolm Mitchell, DeAndre Carter and Devin Lucien.

Injuries will factor in the final six. The availability of Amendola and Mitchell are the two question marks. If healthy they are locks, along with Edelman, Slater, Hogan and Harper. That leaves Washington, Martin, Dobson, Carter & Lucien on the outside looking in. If either Amendola or Mitchell can’t go, look for Martin to fill their slot.

TE: (3) Like QB, the first two are easy – Rob Gronkowski & Martellus Bennett. After that is a big question. Do you want a blocking, athletic or flexible player filling that role? Based on his performance to-date, I’m going with AJ Derby (FB James Develin is capable of filling the blocking TE role). As of 8/21 veteran Clay Harbor is listed ahead of Derby on the Patriot’s unofficial depth chart.

8-18 AJ Derby (Photo courtesy patspulpit.com)Rookie TE AJ Derby (Photo courtesy patspulpit.com)

RB: (5) BULLETIN – CSNNE is reporting Dion Lewis needs more surgery. James White has looked good in that role, but lacks Lewis’ elusiveness. LeGarrette Blount has impressed in pre-season, but is vulnerable with the emergence of Tyler Gaffney. Branden Bolden’s value on special teams will be the determining factor for him, leaving Joey Iosofa and D.J. Foster with little chance. As mentioned under TEs, James Devlin’s flexibility as both a blocking back and TE make him seem a certainty.

Final five – Gaffney, White,  Devlin, Bolden Blount. Would not be shocked if either Blount or Bolden were cut. It seems like every year Belichick makes a surprise cut, so either Blount or Bolden could be this year’s shocker.

OL: (9) As in all but a few predictions, health is the determining factor. Sebastian Vollmer is out & Tre’ Jackson is hurt. A decision on Jackson needs to come shortly. (A player must open training camp on PUP in order to be eligible to be placed on the reserve/PUP list to open the regular season).  His leadership will be missed, but the offensive line is gradually revolving into a young aggressive group, with rookie Joe Thune at left guard and Shaq Mason (broken hand) looking at more playing time. Center Dave Andrews beats out Bryan Stork at center,  leaving veterans Nate Solder, Cameron Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle & Josh Kline joined by youngsters Ted Karras & Tre’ Jackson. If Jackson isn’t available (heaven forbid). add Marcus Cannon (ugh) to the list. No sense at all about Jonathon Cooper, who has been suffering with foot problems since the 1st padded practice. Probable IR candidate.

DEFENSE COMING MONDAY 8/22)

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New England Patriots: Looking Forward

One of the great things about being a fan of the New England Patriots is, when one season ends you always know that next season will be exciting, with  another legitimate chance for the Lombardi Trophy. It’s really a thrill to look forward to what will happen next and have confidence that it all will work out fine.

Just think about it. How many fans of other teams in the NFL can legitimately make that statement? The answer is – zero!

  • The current Super Bowl Champion Bronco’s? Who is the QB again?
  • The runner-up Carolina Panthers? Hell, their fans are thrilled to just make the play-offs. Although they are the favorites going into the year (the Patriots are #2), they have to show they can perform year in and year out.
  • The Green Bay Packers? Close, but no cigar. Last year the were vulnerable all season and are rapidly deteriorating.
  • How about the Pittsburgh Steelers? The fans and former players are still griping about how they were
    Steeler fans are stunned by NE distruction of the Patriots in the 2004 AFC Championship Game - photo sixteensundayscom
    Steeler fans leave the game stunned after Patriots 41-27 blow-out win in 2014 AFC Championship Game (Photo: sixteensundays.com)

    cheated out of a Super Bowl by….the Patriots…in the AFC Championship Game (No, not the Super Bowl)! That was 12 years ago, the Steelers lost 41-27 at home, and they are still crying about it. No looking forward there!

  • Seattle? With Pete Carroll making the final call 2 years ago the fans of the Seahawks were deflated (sorry, had to get that in). Carroll vs Belichick = a no brainer!

There are plenty of other teams that could be part of the conversation, Arizona, KC to name just a couple, but year-after-year, they haven’t proven good enough to carry the banner.

Another Year With The Two B’s

As we look ahead to the 2016 season we are, once again,

New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady celebr
Tom Brady celebrates with Bill Belichick (Photo:  JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)

concerned that the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady combination may not be available to start the season thanks to the continued obsession of the NFL and Commissioner Roger “Integrity of the game” Goodell, to punish Brady for a “crime” they haven’t proven ever occurred. I refuse to get into that again other than to say “so what.”

Belichick will be there to start things and Brady will, at some point early in the season, return. With a growing, young defense the team should be just fine and maybe Tom will be better off starting the season a little later (I know that’s heresy), so by the play-offs he won’t be so banged up.

Facts:

  • The offensive line will be better. Hell, it couldn’t be any worse. With the return of Dante Scarnecchia you know they’ll be better prepared. Rookies Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason will be in their second year and know their roll and the speed of the NFL better. Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder should be healthy. The addition of former 1st round pick Jonathan Cooper adds depth they lacked in 2015 when injuries destroyed any chance for consistency.
  • The two TE offense is back! Martellus Bennett is not Scott Chandler in any way, so please stop the comparisons. Provided he doesn’t tick off Belichick with his mouth, Bennett and Rob Gronkowski will ease the pressure on Brady (or Jimmy Garoppolo) and the red-zone offense with those two, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola (maybe), Nate Washington and Chris Hogan will be almost unstoppable.
  • Donta’ Hightower and Jamie Collins (both 26) are just coming into their prime years and are the key cogs in a defense that should be strong despite the loss of Chandler Jones.

2016 Schedule

HOME: BUF, MIA., NYJ, BAL, CIN, LA, SEA, HOU
AWAY: BUF, MIA., NYJ, CLE, PIT, ARI, SF, DEN

Although game dates have not yet been released, there is no reason to believe the Pats won’t have another run at the ring in 2016.. Along with in-conference games against teams that did not make the play-offs last year (J-E-T-S, Dolphins & Bills) they  play the clueless Browns, befuddled 49ers, sliding Ravens and homeless (???) Rams. That leaves Seattle, Houston, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Super Bowl Champion, but QB challenged, Denver as threats to a chance for ring #5 for Tom Brady, the oldest active non-kicker in the NFL.

So, no matter what, the best Head Coach/QB combo in the NFL and the New England Patriots are once again positioning the team for a run at the Lombardi Trophy and fans are having fun analyzing every move they make.

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New England Patriots: What Needs To Happen Before The Play-Offs

The focus on Julian Edelman’s return to the Patriots line-up has rightfully been the center of attention since the season ended with the New England offense looking more like the Cleveland Browns than the juggernaut that started the season. His week 10 broken foot against the Giants crippled not only the player, but the entire Patriots offense.

Why Edelman’s Return Is So Critical

There are many reasons why his return will help rejuvenate a stagnant Patriot offense.

Julian Edelman broke his foot in this game against the Giants (AP Photo/Gary Hershorn)
Julian Edelman broke his foot in this game against the Giants (AP Photo/Gary Hershorn)
  1. He is, by a wide margin, the man Tom Brady trusts most (my apologies to Rob Gronkowski) to be in the right spot at the right time
  2. He seldom drops a pass and often makes the hard catch look easy
  3. When Edelman is in, defenses have to adjust, giving others – like Gronkowski – more space to make the catch
  4. The weakest part of the New England offense, the offensive line, is exposed less with Edelman playing because Brady has that security blanket available for his quick release. No one else filled that role during his absence. Danny Amendola did his best, but it wasn’t quite good enough.

Don’t underestimate the importance of #4. The bye-week does give time for the big guys up front to rest. However, at it’s best, this season it was mediocre…even when rested.

The return of Sebastian Vollmer helps, but even when he was playing Brady was getting hit hard and often. The most consistent players have been perennial back-up Josh Kline (per Mike Reiss 77.4% of offensive snaps) and rookie David Andrews (68.5%), which shows just how bad things have been.

Other Critical Pieces Of The Puzzle

The return of Edelman alone is not a cure-all. Although it should make a huge difference on offense, the defense needs to get back to the dominant group that intimidated QBs throughout the league. The return to health of some key defensive players should take a lot of pressure off the offense, allowing wins while falling short of scoring 30+ points a game.

Dont'a Hightower sacks Cowboy's QB Weeden
Dont’a Hightower sacks Cowboy’s QB Weeden
  • Dont’a Hightower

Remember three years ago when we were all questioning Hightower’s ability to diagnose offenses and actually make the big play? As we’ve seen over the past two seasons, he has dispelled any doubt…he was a great 1st round draft pick (25th overall) in 2012!

Arguably the most valuable player on the defense, Hightower has played injured for a while now…and it has shown with his hesitancy on the field. Hopefully this bye-week gets him confident that he is OK and he’ll return the All-Pro that he was prior to getting banged up.

One of 12 1/2 sacks by Chandler Jones (photo: Keith Nordstrom NewEnglandPatriots.com)
One of 12 1/2 sacks by Chandler Jones (photo: Keith Nordstrom NewEnglandPatriots.com)
  • Chandler Jones

When Hightower got injured Jones production suffered, despite the help he got from Jamie Collins and Jaball Sheard. At one point it felt like Jones was going to smash all Patriot sack records, but by seasons end he had an injured toe and was struggling to get to the QB. The two weeks off (he sat the last game) should re-energize his motor and the combination of Jones, Hightower, Sheard, Collins, Akiem Hicks, Malcom Brown and, old faithful,  Rob Ninkovich will have opposing teams scratching their head when they have the ball.

…And Let’s Not Forget

  • Danny Amendola

If Edelman hadn’t been out Amendola wouldn’t have played (injury)  at the end. No one can ever question his toughness to me. Here’s hoping fans appreciate how much he has done this year, beside building a car port in an upper class area of Rhode Island. The trio of Gronkowski, Edelman, Amendola along with  James White, Brandon LaFell (yes, as 4th receiver), Steven Jackson and Keshawn Martin should keep defenses on their heels, cutting back on the pressure being put on Brady.

  • Tom Brady

    Down goes Brady and it hurts
    Down goes Brady and it hurts

No, he’s not an afterthought. When he limped off the field in Miami, Patriot’s Nation held their collective breath and looked to the sky. Why, oh why, was he even playing? Despite the (high?) ankle sprain sustained on a low hit (no penalty?) by arguably the dirtiest player in the NFL (Ndamukong Suh) you know #12 will be on the field doing anything it takes to win.

…And No More Injuries, Please!

It seems every day something new pops up on the injury front. Whether it was Chandler Jones last week or Nate Ebner Thursday, enough is enough.

In case you forgot, the non-playing Injured Reserve list for the Patriots includes these names we were counting on to help get to Super Bowl 50:

  • Nate Solder & Ryan Wendell from the OL
  • Running backs Dion Lewis (sigh) & LeGarrette Blount plus FB James Develin
  • Oft injured DL Dominique Easley

There are more, but those six were key players.

So, everyone else, please, stay healthy for the 1st real game of the season, January 16 at Foxborough…as the next step to ring #5 commences.

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New England Patriots: Break Out The Lifeboats?

The question is: Did the Patriots stink-up the joint in their last 2 games. The answer is, without a doubt, YES. But it’s not time to jump ship.

Entering the stadium you didn't see the usual fire in Tom Brady's eyes (Photo: AP Lynne Sladky)
Entering the stadium you didn’t see the usual fire in Tom Brady’s eyes (Photo: AP Lynne Sladky)

So, what has been the reaction from fans all over the world? If you read social media after the game Sunday (Facebook or Twitter) a full-blown panic had set in. It was time to get the lifeboats out, because, the number of fans jumping from a “sinking” ship was astounding…and relatively short lived.

How Soon We Forget

It’s hard to believe this is the team that started the season 10-0. Well, maybe not the same team, as injuries have decimated what looked like a sure Super Bowl 50 contender. Key players fell in every game, yet somehow the “genius” of the coaching staff, from Bill Belichick on down, was being lauded, as the “next man up” philosophy seemed to be working beyond belief.

Hell, even ESPN, the propaganda arm of the NFL, caved in and finally acknowledged what the Patriots and Tom Brady were doing was miraculous.  People who always picked against New England were actually debating whether this team could go undefeated.

New England’s fan base increased as the wins continued to pile up despite the off-season slander of deflategate. Commissioner Roger Goodell was noticeably quiet when it was announced Tom Brady jerseys had become the hottest product in the NFL.

Then Was Then…And Now Is Now

Steven Jackson scored his first TD as a Patriot (Photo AP - Lynne Sladky)
Steven Jackson scored his first TD as a Patriot (Photo AP – Lynne Sladky)

So, what happened to suddenly make this team draw these and many other negative comments from fans:

 

 

  • “couldn’t beat my high school team”
  • “I was embarrassed”
  • “The team was 10-0 because of the schedule, not because they were any good”
  • “Injuries aren’t an excuse”

Thank goodness Monday rolled around and the emotions of Sunday’s loss to a terrible Miami team had calmed down. Reality set in. People started to look forward and they had some legitimate concerns.

So, now that a little time has passed since the loss (and 4 of their last 6), let’s look at 10 somewhat hard to take facts:

  1. Bill Belichick had the team playing “safe” once they clinched everything but the #1 seed. They didn’t seem to care about the regular season and started preparing for the play-offs.  Winning would have been nice, but not critical. Was this a good strategy? We’ll know in a few weeks.
  2. The team that lost to the Eagles, J-E-T-S and Dolphins will not
    Linebacker Geneo Grissom (92) sacks Ryan Tannehill (17) (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
    Linebacker Geneo Grissom (92) sacks Ryan Tannehill (17) (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    win many play-off games with those units. Game planning seemed almost non-existent and players were not playing to their strength, but being plugged in to cover for losses. Coaching was a big reason in all three losses, but even then the team had opportunities to win…right up until Miami.

  3. Young fans under 30 have never seen this team look so inept and not seem to care. It was the first time this had occurred during the Belichick-Brady years.
  4. There is legitimate reason for concern (not panic).  The belief that all will be well when Julian Edelman, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Sebastion Vollmer and the rest of the walking (or limping) wounded return is optimistic at best.
  5. Let’s face it, the offensive line scares the bejesus out of every Patriot fan… on every play.  Brady threw just 5 passes in the 1st half Sunday and still got crushed when he dropped back. The OL could well be the Achilles Heel that ultimately brings this team down.
  6. The 10-0 start was a little deceptive considering the weak schedule, but, that said, it is still difficult to go 10-0 if you are not very good. The Patriots that started the season had outstanding weapons to confuse defenses along with a young, solid defense of its own. Dion Lewis was far better than Shane Vereen, who he replaced. Brady, Edelman and Gronkowski had established a trust that takes years to develop. The defense was young and aggressive, despite the loss of Darrelle Revis.
  7. Injuries are part of the game. They are not an excuse, they are a fact. It’s a game of attrition and, eventually, if you lose enough quality players you just aren’t as good.
  8. The Patriots aren’t built for trick plays, yet they continuously outsmarted themselves and it cost them. C’mon guys, a drop kick on a kick-off!
  9. Even Tom Brady looked disinterested toward the end. The fire in his eyes wasn’t there when he came on the field the last few weeks. The number of hits he took this year had an impact as the season wore down. We like to call him “Super Tom,” but must be real…it hurts to keep getting hit.
  10. The special teams were below Patriot standards. Yes, the loss of
    Stephen Gostkowski (3) gestures after missing just his 3rd field goal of the season in the 20-10 loss (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
    Stephen Gostkowski (3) gestures after missing just his 3rd field goal of the season in the 20-10 loss (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

    Edelman (the most effective punt returner in the NFL) hurt, but it was more than that. Players took bad routes and missed tackles resulting in teams getting better field position. The kicking game remained strong, but other areas seemed to suffer.

 

What’s-Up, Doc?

An almost two-week lay-off between games is a Godsend. It may not be a cure-all, but no one can deny it is desperately needed. The early bye-week was a long time ago and many players are playing tired.

New England’s next game will be Saturday, January at 4:35PM (CBS)at Gillette Stadium. There are 3 teams they could face: Cincinnati, Houston or Kansas City.

Quotes after Sunday’s loss:

  • Bill Belichick: “Right now we have one game that we have to win. The next game, we don’t even know who it’s against yet. All our attention, focus and energy will be on that…”
  • Tom Brady on his leg: “pretty sore, but I’ll be alright”
  • Steven Jackson on his TD run: “Inside zone, I bounced the play outside and had a [defensive back] there, so I just had to lower my pads to get in the end zone.”
  • Devin McCourty: “hit the reset button”
  • Tom Brady again: “…Nothing over the last six weeks is going to matter. Nothing over the last 16 weeks is going to matter. What’s going to matter is how well we play in two weeks.”

And that Brady comment, my friends, says it all.

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New England Patriots: Belichick Lost Faith In Brady!

You can disagree all you want, but if, as Bill Belichick claims, he meant to kick-off starting O/T against the New York Jets Sunday there can only be one reason. He lost confidence in Tom Brady’s ability to pull off another miracle comeback, and that’s sad. Brady has made a career out of pulling the team out of the fire, often with limited resources.

The officials meet New York Jets' Darrelle Revis (24), teammate Calvin Pryor (25) and New England Patriots' Matthew Slater (18) and teammate Rob Ninkovich (50) for the coin toss before the overtime period resulting in highly questionable Patriots decision (AP hoto/Peter Morgan)
The officials meet New York Jets’ Darrelle Revis (24), teammate Calvin Pryor (25) and New England Patriots’ Matthew Slater (18) and teammate Rob Ninkovich (50) for the coin toss before the overtime period resulting in highly questionable Patriots decision (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

Those making the claim that he was playing it smart because the defense was playing well (428 yards) and the offense looked stagnant are missing the point. You probably are right in his reasoning, but how many times does Brady have to carry the team on his back to victory for the Head Coach to trust him to do it again?

Instead, by electing to kick, Brady never had a chance to touch the ball. No one can predict what would have happened if the Pats had elected to receive. They may very well have still lost…but at least you gave it your best shot by putting the ball in the hands of the greatest QB in NFL history.

After the game Belichick stuck by his call and said he wouldn’t have changed his decision. “We just didn’t play good enough defense.”

No one takes Rob Gronkowski (87) down one on one ( New York Jets' Antonio Cromartie (31) (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)
No one takes Rob Gronkowski (87) down one on one ( New York Jets’ Antonio Cromartie (31) (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

Always outspoken Rob Gronkowski had this to say “You always want a shot to score,”  “It is what it is.”

And finally, the always politically correct Tom Brady said “Whatever coach decides, that’s what the team does,”

Jet’s receiver Brandon Marshall was shocked by the call. “After the game Josh McDaniels came up to me, my old ball coach in Denver, and I asked ‘What were you guys thinking?’ Marshall said, via CSN New England. He explained to me the situation a little bit but I didn’t believe him.”

As the Head Coach said “I clearly thought that was our best opportunity, so that’s why we did it. I didn’t like the way it worked out, but to me that was the right decision for our team at that time.”

History Repeats Itself

It reminded many Patriot long timers of a call Belichick made on November 11, 2009. New England was ahead of Indianapolis 34-28 with 4th and 2 at their own 28. With just over 2 minutes remaining common sense said punt, but instead the Head Coach went for it… and failed on a controversial call. The  Colts took over and scored an easy TD to win 35-34.

Later Belichick said “I thought it was our best chance to win (sounds familiar). I thought we needed to make that one play and then we could basically run out the clock. We weren’t able to make it.”

A few other factors came into play in that game:

  1. They were facing Payton Manning in his prime and didn’t want to give him the ball with an opportunity to win
  2. The New England defense was struggling after the offense built a 17 point lead (In other words he didn’t trust it to hold the lead)

Former Patriots disagreed vehemently with the call – Rodney Harrison called it “the worst coaching decision I’ve ever seen Bill Belichick make.”

Tedy Bruschi said, “The decision to go for it would be enough to make my blood boil for weeks. … I would look at this decision as a lack of confidence in our ability as a defensive unit to come up with a big play to win the game.”

Sorry fans, but it was a bad call in 2009 and just as bad Sunday!

On To Miami

The good news is, the loss really didn’t cost the Patriots their chance to host all their post-season games up to the Super Bowl. A win Sunday in Miami and the season has been a complete success no matter what happens between the Broncos and Bengals. Achieving 100% of their goals for the regular season is astounding considering the injuries they have overcome.

Game Notes:

  • The Patriots sat their walking wounded with the exception of Dant’a Hightower. It cost them, but was worth it to give Devon McCourty, Patrick Chung, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman another day of rest.
  • The loss of McCourty & Chung was noticeable throughout the game and particularly in O/T when confusion in the secondary resulted in a 48-yard completion to Jets receiver Quincy Enunwa on the second play of overtime
  • Not a bad game by Brady, but also not one of his best. 22 for 31, 231 yards, 1 TD & 1 bad interception when he and Gronkowski seemed to be on a different page.
  • Steven Jackson made his 1st appearance in a Patriot uniform. As expected he looked a little rusty, carrying the pigskin 7 times for 15 yards
  • Brandon LaFell was the forgotten man with just 1 reception for 9 yards
  • James White had the only TD by the offense (leading to Belichick’s O/T thought process?)
  • A strip sack fumble caused by Jabaal Sheard resulted in 7 by the
    Jabaal Sheard (93) strips the ball from New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    Jabaal Sheard (93) strips the ball from New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    defense when Jamie Collins recovered the ball and ran it 14 yards for New England’s 1st TD

  • The Patriots were 1 for 10 on 3rd down, leading to their demise (hurry back Edelman & Amendola)
  • The defense gave up 428 net yards while the offense could muster just 284

So, now it’s time to move ahead. It will be interesting to see who suits up against the Dolphins. With Sebastian Vollmer going down the offensive line is once again in shambles, so it is anyone’s guess as to who (whom???) plays where.

Sebastian Vollmer (76) is carted off the field during the first half (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Sebastian Vollmer (76) is carted off the field during the first half (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

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