FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts/notes with the New England Patriots and around the NFL:
1. With all the talk about Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and his league-high six offensive-pass-interference penalties (including declined/offsetting infractions) this season, I spent some film-study time over the past week reviewing how many penalties he’s drawn for either illegal contact, defensive holding or defensive pass interference this season. The answer: three. He was mauled in the end zone against Jacksonville on Sept. 27, picked up a borderline illegal-contact penalty against Washington linebacker Keenan Robinson on Nov. 8, and had his jersey clearly tugged downfield by Bills safety Corey Graham on Nov. 23. For those who believe Gronkowski has been unfairly targeted by officials, that total provides some added context, as he has been called for twice as many OPI penalties as he’s drawn.
2. In his first four seasons in the NFL, with the Browns from 2011-2014, first-year Patriots defensive end Jabaal Sheard was part of teams that had a 2-17 regular-season record once the calendar turned to December. We talked about that briefly Friday in the Patriots' locker room, and how playing meaningful games in December (and, he hopes, beyond) is part of the reason he signed a two-year, $11 million deal in New England in March. In his first three years in the league, Sheard’s Browns teams were essentially out of playoff contention at this time on the calendar. Last year, they were 7-4 through Week 12 and proceeded to lose their final five games.
3. Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins says he’s ready to return to action after missing the past four games, and that would be good timing for the team if it is going to be without linebacker Dont'a Hightower against the Eagles on Sunday with a reported sprained MCL. One of the things I learned last weekend is that when Hightower left the loss to the Broncos in the second quarter, there were more plays than the norm when the defense wasn’t in the correct call based on what the Denver offense showed, and that would have primarily been Hightower’s responsibility. So Collins could help in that area, or perhaps the coaches give Jerod Mayo -- whose physical skills aren’t what they once were but whose knowledge of the scheme remains strong -- more responsibility in that area. As computed by Kevin Duffy of MassLive.com, the Broncos had 15 carries for 43 yards when Hightower was in the game, and 17 carries for 136 yards and three touchdowns when Hightower was out.
4. Did You Know: When New England placed rookie defensive end Trey Flowers on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday, it was the Patriots 14th player to land on IR this year. That tied the Steelers for second-most in the NFL, behind only the Ravens (17), according to ESPN's Stats & Information.
5. Patriots starting safety Patrick Chung kept a low profile ahead of Sunday's game against the Eagles, as I don’t recall seeing him in the locker room during the media-access period from Tuesday to Friday. That’s probably not a coincidence, as Chung would have been a popular subject based on his career progression -- spending the first four years of his career in New England (2009-2012) and ending as a little-used role player, signing a three-year deal in Philadelphia in 2013 but being cut after one season for poor performance, then returning to the Patriots and looking like a different player over the past two seasons. Chung, who is also battling a knee injury (he’s questionable Sunday), doesn’t like to reflect much on his Eagles days. As for why things are different in Chung's second stint in New England, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has talked expansively on the subject and it basically comes down to this: The Patriots, like many teams in the NFL, are playing more with a single high safety, which has allowed Chung to play closer to the line of scrimmage, where his assets are better utilized.
6. One question that comes up regularly on Twitter is why the Patriots haven’t worn their throwback uniforms since the 2012 season, which has been a disappointment for those who like to see the “Pat Patriot” logo and old-school uniforms. The answer is that teams have been advised not to change helmets during the season for safety reasons, so while a team can wear throwback uniforms, the helmet needs to stay the same. That makes it logistically difficult for the Patriots to turn the current silver helmet into the old white “Pat Patriot” helmet. It’s a similar issue that Denver has with its throwbacks from 1968-1996, as I read about last week in Denver.
7. One of the things that stood out to me from Monday’s Browns-Ravens game was that I hardly saw cornerback Kyle Arrington, who signed a three-year deal with Baltimore after being released by the Patriots in March. Arrington played only five defensive snaps in the game, as he’s slipped to No. 4 on the depth chart behind Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb and Shareece Wright. Over the Ravens’ past three games, Arrington has played eight of a possible 204 defensive snaps. Doesn’t seem like that situation turned out the way the Ravens or Arrington thought it would.
8. Did You Know: Boston College alum Matt Ryan will start his 122nd game at quarterback Sunday for the Falcons at Tampa Bay, which will break a tie with Steve Bartkowski for most by a quarterback in franchise history. Ryan has proved to be a solid choice, No. 3 overall in 2008, but he’s currently feeling some heat as Atlanta has lost five of its past six games (he has four red-zone turnovers this season). The Falcons have scored 16.3 points per game during that span after averaging 32.4 during the first five weeks of the season.
9. Even if rookie receiver Chris Harper didn’t muff a punt return last Sunday against Denver, he might have still been waived to make room for free-agent receiver Damaris Johnson. That was one of the behind-the-scenes details I learned about that situation, as Johnson was already traveling to New England before the Patriots’ game Sunday night. Also, the Patriots insisted on a two-year deal with Johnson, figuring that if things click, he’ll add another layer of depth into 2016.
10. Some perspective on what we’ve witnessed in New England from a quarterback standpoint over the past 17 seasons: When the Browns host the Bengals today, Austin Davis will start at quarterback and is the team’s 24th different starting QB since 1999, the most of any team over that span (according to Elias Sports Bureau). The Patriots have started three different quarterbacks since 1999, the fewest in the league from 1999 to 2015.
BOOK SIGNINGS: The next local signing of “Patriot Pride” with Troy Brown is scheduled for Dec. 19, at Barnes & Noble in Saugus, Massachusetts (2-4 p.m.). For those in West Virginia, Troy will be signing at his alma mater -- the Marshall University Bookstore -- on Thursday from 12-2 p.m., and also at Books-a-Million in Barboursville on Friday at 7 p.m.