Patriots keep winning despite shaky defense

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Patriots keep winning despite shaky defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The New England Patriots keep winning despite a defense that keeps struggling.

They're missing tackles, giving receivers plenty of space and allowing long gains. Coach Bill Belichick, admired for his defensive brilliance, hasn't figured out how to get his players to correct all that so they won't need to make game-saving plays late in the fourth quarter.

``There are a lot of things that we can do a lot better,'' linebacker Jerod Mayo said Monday, ``just starting with the fundamentals. Tackling, going out there executing the plays that the coaches call and going out there and getting off of the field on third down are things that we have to improve on.''

It took an interception in the end zone by Devin McCourty with 23 seconds left to secure a 37-31 win over the struggling Bills on Sunday. That was less of an outstanding play by McCourty, who caught a ball thrown right to him, than it was a poor one by Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and intended receiver T.J. Graham, who took the blame for it.

Just three week earlier, the Patriots got another turnover on their opponent's last offensive play and escaped with a 29-26 overtime win against the New York Jets. That time, Mark Sanchez fumbled when he was sacked and Rob Ninkovich recovered, ending the game.

But in the third game of the season, the defense couldn't stop the Baltimore Ravens when they got the ball at their 21-yard line with 1:55 left. They made it all the way to the Patriots 9 before Justin Tucker kicked a 27-yard field goal on the final play to give the Ravens a 31-30 win.

``We're lucky that (Sunday) we were not really at our best but still able to win and make enough plays to win. We've also been in a couple games kind of like that that we didn't win,'' Belichick said. ``You hate to leave it to come down to one play like that, have a little more control of the game than that. That's the National Football League, too. There are an awful lot of games that come down to that one possession, one play.''

The defense has been saved by its knack for forcing turnovers at critical times. It leads the AFC with 23 takeaways and is first in the NFL with 13 fumble recoveries. One of the Patriots' two recoveries against Buffalo came at their 1-yard line with the score 34-24 and 9:35 left in the game.

Still, they allowed one of the weakest teams in the NFL to run up big numbers.

The Bills set a club record with 35 first downs. They also gained a season-high 481 yards. Their previous best? Also against the Patriots, 438 yards in a 52-28 loss in the fourth game of the season.

The Patriots have allowed the eighth-most yards in the league, 382.1 per game. They may not think about that when they're just trying to make a play, but McCourty is concerned.

``We worry about that,'' he said.

Thanks largely to their prolific offense - they lead the NFL with 430.3 yards and 33.2 points per game - the Patriots are 6-3, the only winning record in the AFC East.

``We can always get better and do things a little differently,'' defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. ``There are some scheme and fundamental things we'd like to clean up, but we got away with a `W' to be 6-3. You've got to be proud of that.''

Their performances against some of the NFL's weaker quarterbacks are nothing to rave above.

Fitzpatrick, Sanchez and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks threw for their highest yardage totals this season against the Patriots. Joe Flacco, a better passer for one of the top teams, did that with the Ravens.

The Patriots also have been vulnerable to the big play. They've allowed 44 completions of more than 20 yards, nearly five a game. Fitzpatrick had five of those on Sunday.

New England expects cornerback Aqib Talib, obtained from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to improve the defense when he plays his first game with the Patriots next Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. While the Patriots were playing the Bills, he completed his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

He'll practice with the Patriots for the first time on Wednesday.

``It will be a big week for us, a big game versus the Colts,'' McCourty said. ``Just to get another guy out there that you know is a good player, it will be exciting.''

The defense certainly can use the help after Sunday's struggles.

``We had two or three sacks in the game. Guys were out there playing physical,'' Mayo said. ``Those are some of the things that you can take away and build on. But, at the same time, it's hard to look at those things when you give up 30-something points in a game.''

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Secretary of Defense gives thumbs-up for Reynolds to pursue NFL

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Secretary of Defense gives thumbs-up for Reynolds to pursue NFL

Ravens wide receiver Keenan Reynolds can officially defer his military service to play in the NFL, secretary of defense Ashton Carter said Friday. Carter made the announcement during his graduation speech at the Naval Academy.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, strongly recommended that Reynolds be allowed to pursue his NFL career. Now Reynolds has the official go-ahead.

“It is a blessing to hear the news from Defense Secretary Carter,” Reynolds said in a statement released by the Ravens. “I am truly excited to proudly serve my country while having the ability to fulfill my dream of playing for the best organization in the NFL.

“I would like to thank the Navy for allowing me to represent them while taking advantage of this unique opportunity. I would also like to thank (Ravens owner) Mr. (Steve) Bisciotti and the Ravens organization for believing in me and giving me this chance.”

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement, “This is good news, and congratulations on to Keenan on his graduation today.”

The Ravens selected Reynolds in the sixth round of the draft, and are intrigued by his potential as a returner and receiver after a stellar career at Navy as a quarterback. Reynolds finished his Navy career as the FBS all-time leader in touchdowns (88).

Reynolds has sought advice on making the transition from quarterback to receiver-returner from CSN’s Brian Mitchell, who was a Pro Bowl returner with the Redskins, and from Hines Ward, a Pro Bowl receiver with the Steelers. The next challenge for Reynolds is to win a spot on the Ravens’ 53-man roster, and many people will be rooting for him.

Can Ravens WR Michael Campanaro stay healthy enough to secure roster spot?

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Can Ravens WR Michael Campanaro stay healthy enough to secure roster spot?

OWINGS MILLS – Third-year wide receiver Michael Campanaro will have a difficult time making the Ravens in 2016 if he does not stay healthy. He is not off to a good start. A calf injury forced Campanaro to miss the first week of OTA’s, and his return date remained uncertain.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh expressed empathy for Campanaro following Thursday’s practice.

“He tweaked his calf a couple of weeks ago and he’s working hard,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve just never seen a guy work as hard as this guy has worked in the last year and a half. There will be a time he will get past this stuff. This stuff will stop happening and hopefully it’s training camp, and that’s what we’re hoping for him. The guy works tremendously hard and he was in phenomenal shape, and we’re still expecting really good things from him.”

Campanaro’s season ended last year after just four games due to a herniated disc. As a rookie in 2014, Campanaro was plagued by hamstring injuries that did not clear up until late in the season.

When Campanaro has been healthy, he has produced as a slot receiver. During the Ravens’ 35-31 playoff loss to the Patriots that ended his rookie season, Campanaro had four catches for 39 yards, and looked unfazed by postseason pressure.

However, Campanaro’s injuries have kept him from building momentum as a player. Meanwhile, the Ravens have added Mike Wallace and rookies Chris Moore and Keenan Reynolds to a wide receiver group that also includes Steve Smith Sr., Kamar Aiken, Breshad Perriman, Jeremy Butler, Kaelin Clay, and Chris Matthews.

Campanaro could help the Ravens as a returner, but so can Reynolds and Clay. The Ravens have been waiting for Campanaro to show he can remain healthy. If that does not happen during training camp, it might be too late.

Five observations from Ravens OTAs

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Five observations from Ravens OTAs

The Ravens are wrapping up their first of three -- oops, make that two -- weeks of OTA workouts this week, and Thursday's session was the first open to the media. Here are five observations after catching the first partial glimpse of the 2016 Ravens (partial because more than a dozen players, including many starters, sat out the voluntary workouts either by choice or because of injury.)

This wide receiver group appears impressive

Steve Smith Sr. wasn't even there, but Breshad Perriman, Mike Wallace and rookie Chris Moore all look like they will be nice options for Joe Flacco (who, incidentally, watched the OTAs in a T-shirt as he continues his knee rehab.). Heck, the fact that Perriman was on the field is already a big improvement over last year. Kamar Aiken reverts to being a very solid No. 3 or No. 4 option if this group stays healthy. Speaking of health, Michael Camapanaro (calf) missed the workout, and with this group of receivers, including Navy's Keenan Reynolds, Campanaro is one more nagging injury from not making this roster. 

Dennis Pitta could leave the Ravens in a very tough spot

Good for Dennis Pitta to work back from his second major hip injury and get back on the field, even if for noncontact OTAs. He ran, cut and caught well, and he said after the workout that he felt great physically. "My level of expectation is extremely high going into this year," he said. "Like I said, I feel confident in how I can run, how I can move, how I can play." But if Pitta, who turns 31 next month, is indeed healthy, then what? The Ravens brought in Ben Watson this year, and already have two promising young tight ends in Crockett Gillmore and second-year, second-round pick Maxx Williams. None of them are going anywhere. Would the Ravens cut Pitta, one of the most likable players on the team and a close friend of Joe Flacco's, after his grueling rehab? Would they keep four tight ends? That would be highly unusual, but not out of the question with Marc Trestman's offense. Incidentally, tight end Todd Heap was 31 when the Ravens let him go.

Interesting look at inside linebacker

With Daryl Smith gone and C.J. Mosley sitting out, rookie second-round pick Kamalei Correa, billed as an edge rusher, spent a lot of time at inside linebacker. Coach John Harbaugh said afterward that Correa "has inside linebacker traits." The Ravens also appear to be looking at safety Anthony Levine as a linebacker option. He did some individual work with the inside linebackers and spent some time as an inside linebacker in 7-on-7 drills. Coverage was a big issue for Ravens linebackers last year, so if Levine and Correa show they can cover well over the middle, that versatility could be a big plus.

Lardarius Webb seems at home at safety

The move from corner to safety should agree with Lardarius Webb. He drifted over well in deep coverage, but it wasn't encouraging to see a potential interception bounce off his hands. This team had a franchise-record-low six interceptions last year. Webb said moving to safety has been "a great transition. I’m loving it. I have more control of the defense."

Losing a week of OTAs isn't the end of the world

The Ravens have been docked next week's OTA workouts as a penalty for reportedly having players in pads for a brief portion of their rookie minicamp in violation of the current collective bargaining agreement. It certainly isn't a good look, but it shouldn't have much bearing on whether the Ravens can beat the Steelers on Christmas night. Many veterans weren't on the field this week anyway. It might be a speed bump in development for Ravens rookies and other newcomers, but there's a lot of training camp for that. Three days off in June might do some bodies good. If anyone is hurt by this it might be Keenan Reynolds -- the former Navy quarterback is trying to quickly learn the wide receiver position, and he missed the OTAs this week because of his graduation in Annapolis.