The Dolphins are familiar with Jones, as they drafted him in the seventh round last year and spent 2013 and all of the 2014 offseason and preseason with them before being claimed by New England on waivers.
Jones appeared in nine games for the Patriots this season, teaming with Matthew Slater to form one of the NFL's best 1-2 coverage tandems. Coaches credited him with eight special-teams tackles, which ranked behind only Slater (10) and linebacker Chris White (9).
Jones' release by the Patriots on Thursday was viewed as a surprise, given his production.
"We did what we thought was best for the football team," coach Bill Belichick said Friday. "He has had production, but in the end, we're going to do what's best for the team."
The Patriots will host the Dolphins on Dec. 14.
Between the release of Jones and White sustaining an ankle injury Thursday that kept him out of practice Friday, the Patriots' special teams have taken a bit of a hit entering Sunday's game at Green Bay.
Both almost certainly will get the chance on Sunday against the New England Patriots.
But there's nothing on film to suggest that either of those Green Bay Packers' defensive players will be able to shut down – or even slow down – tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Whether it's a linebacker such as Matthews or a slot cover guy like Hyde – or even a safety or a cornerback – it does not seem to matter. Oh, the Packers will surely try some of all of those combinations, but ...
"You've got to have a plan to try to get the second and third guy there. He obviously gives them a matchup issue. And then Tom Brady's always aware of who's matched up on him."
After a slow start during which he was working his way back into form following ACL surgery, no tight end in the league has been more productive than Gronkowski. Since Week 5, he has 45 catches for 665 yards and six touchdowns. That's nine more catches and 200 more yards than any other tight end during that span, which encompasses the Patriots' current seven-game winning streak.
None of the Packers' three position coaches – Winston Moss (linebackers), Darren Perry (safeties) and Joe Whitt (cornerbacks) – whose players could conceivably be used in coverage against the Patriots' 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end -- could identify one type of player who has had the most success defending Gronkowski this season.
Said Moss: "It requires a mindset to where the entire defense has to be ready to handle their assignments."
Said Perry: "No, this guy just makes plays. It seems to not even matter who's covering him. He's going to find a way to make plays and we've just got to hopefully slow him down a little bit. He's a great player."
Said Whitt: "He's very hard on little guys because little guys can't bring him down. He's very hard on big guys because he can separate from them. So he's a dynamic player, and he plays with a great play speed and effort."
That sounds like what defenders used to say about former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.
"I think you could say that," Whitt said. "He's a matchup issue; he really is."
So who will it be on Gronkowski?
"There could potentially be some opportunities in the game where I'm matched up against him," Matthews said this week. "Yeah, we'll see. Obviously, I enjoy those opportunities to kind of showcase my talents, especially at something that is not my normal pass rushing."
"I didn't go to the coach and say, 'I want him,' but at the same time I think it will be fun," Hyde said. "Whoever is lined up against him, I have confidence in any one of our guys that lines up against him, and it's going to be a good opportunity."
And don't forget about outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who has dropped into coverage more this year than in perhaps his first 12 NFL seasons combined. He has a pair of interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, to show for it.
"I've had a little success with it this year," Peppers said. "It's something that I wanted to do, and I've been able to do it since I've been here."
This reflects the progress made by defensive end Chandler Jones, who has been out since injuring his hip Oct. 16 against the Jets.
Jones isn't expected to play Sunday in Green Bay, as he has just returned to practice this week and has been limited.
In addition, the Patriots announced the release of practice squad tight end Xavier Grimble, who was signed Tuesday.
This leaves the Patriots with two open spots on the practice squad. Here are the eight current practice squad players for the Patriots:
WR Jonathan Krause
LB Darius Fleming
OL Chris Barker
OL Caylin Hauptmann
DL Joe Vellano
WR Josh Boyce
DE Jake Bequette
DL Casey Walker
That means the Patriots now have 21 days to decide whether to place Siliga on the 53-man roster or season-ending injured reserve.
Meanwhile, linebacker Chris White was the lone player not spotted at Friday's practice. The core special teams player popped up on the injury report Thursday (ankle) as a limited participant in practice.
White's injury could have been tied to the Thursday release of safety Don Jones, as the Patriots shuffle depth on their special teams units to potentially account for White's void.
Linebacker Darius Fleming is an in-house option on the practice squad, or perhaps the Patriots consider bringing back linebacker Ja'Gared Davis from the Chiefs' practice squad.
With White as the lone absence, that meant defensive end Chandler Jones (hip), defensive tackle Dominique Easley (knee), offensive tackle Cameron Fleming (left ankle), left guard Dan Connolly (ankle), and receiver Brandon LaFell (shoulder) were all present at practice, with the expectation that they would be limited.
The Patriots practiced outside in light shoulder pads.
I do think the Patriots are a tougher test than they’ve seen, however, and two keys stand out:
- The Patriots’ proven success running the ball because the Packers’ defense is vulnerable in that area (30th in rushing yards allowed per game, 136.7; and 28th in average yards allowed per carry at 4.5);
- The ability to match up defensively with cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and safety Devin McCourty the three top coverage players.
Prediction: Patriots 34, Packers 27.
ACCOUNTABILITY CHECK (what we said last week): It’s a matchup of strength vs. strength when it comes to the NFL’s second-ranked scoring team (Patriots, 32.2) against the NFL’s top-rated defense (Lions, 15.6). Though the Lions’ defense warrants respect, I think the way the Patriots’ offense is playing right now, it’s the best unit that Detroit will have faced this season (the Packers, in Week 3, were still piecing things together). The Patriots have it rolling and the Lions are in a bit of a tough spot -- having traveled to NFC-leading Arizona last Sunday and then looking at a quick turnaround for their annual Thanksgiving home game next week. Prediction: Patriots 23, Lions 17. (Season record on predictions: 9-2)
Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Sunday's road game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET):
Mike: There are a lot of places to start, Tedy. This was a game many of us circled when the schedule first came out as one that could be special because of the teams involved and the venue itself, Lambeau Field.
Tedy: I remember going there to play in 2006 when we beat them 35-0. It feels special when you're in there -- if you appreciate the game, you know where you are. I always appreciated the game as a player and you knew what other past players and coaches had roamed their sideline and played on that field. You could feel that as a player, especially in the pregame when you just look up in the stands. That's when I really took a breath, took a moment to soak it all in. Once the game starts, it's totally different.
Mike: Quarterback Tom Brady mentioned that Bill Belichick spent some time this week talking to players about the history of the Packers, and the environment they're entering. Brady said: "I think he is always trying to educate us on different things. He's done that for a while. He just kind of gives some young players who are maybe new to the league [insight]. Coach is really a historian, too. He's been involved in NFL football for a long time. I think he really relishes these opportunities."
Jones was officially released on Thursday, with the team officially announcing the transaction on Friday.
Here is the Q&A from the news conference:
You often keep us guessing with personnel moves. Don Jones seemed productive for you with eight special-teams tackles. What were the factors that led to the decision to release him?
Belichick: "We did what we thought was best for the football team. I don't disagree with anything you said; he has had production. But in the end, we're going to do what's best for the team."
Not sure if you'll go there, but is there anything football-wise he wasn't doing that you need from someone else that led to the decision?
Belichick: "I mean, I just told you what the decision is based on. Every player has value. Some players have more than others. We have to decide which ones we feel like have the most value to the team at that particular point in time, or at that point in the season. So that's what we'll do. I think the player definitely has value. I think there are a lot of players on our team that do have value. They can't all be on the team. We have to pick the ones that we think are the ones that have the most value for the team at that point in time. It changes over the course of the year, just like it does for every other team."
You've said in the past that when releasing a player from the 53-man roster who has practice-squad eligibility, you'd sometimes like to bring him back [on the practice squad]. Is that something you'd like to do with Jones if you're able to?
Belichick: "He's practice-squad eligible; he's one of the exception players, so that would be a possibility. Again, there are other players that are in consideration based on our team, what other players are available -- we've made a couple practice squad transactions [this week]; we've made them throughout the course of the year. Again, we'll try to manage it the best that we can and there are a lot of things that go into that. Part of it is what we have, part of it is guys who are available. It's probably going to be constantly in some type of transition throughout the course of the year, like it usually is."
In the quarterback world, they don't come much better than Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. And because Brady's New England Patriots and Rodgers' Green Bay Packers play in different conferences, they don't often cross paths on the field.
That makes Sunday's matchup at Lambeau Field one of the most highly anticipated games of the season.
The quarterback matchup is so intriguing that ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky devoted a separate, double coverage-style preview just to them earlier this week.
However, there's still much to discuss about the Patriots (9-2) and the Packers (8-3).
Reiss: We touched on the quarterbacks earlier in the week, so let's go deeper. The Packers' offense has looked unstoppable at home. Where is the deficiency on offense, if there is any?
Demovsky: There's probably two of them, Mike, but they both might be minor. One is at tight end, where the Packers still haven't found anyone who can do what Jermichael Finley used to do, and that's stretch the field and draw multiple defenders down the seam. Andrew Quarless and rookie Richard Rodgers have made some plays in short areas, but that's about it. The other might be the depth behind Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. The Packers have been fortunate that both have stayed healthy this season, but it might serve them well to develop some other weapons. A team like the Patriots, with two shutdown corners, could expose that.
A lot of teams have one cornerback who can shut down a receiver, but it looks like the Patriots are one of those rare teams with a pair. How do you think they'll use them against Rodgers' primary targets, Cobb and Nelson?
Reiss: They played a lot of man coverage last Sunday against the Lions and had Darrelle Revis on Golden Tate and Brandon Browner on Calvin Johnson, often with safety Devin McCourty helping over the top. The week before in Indianapolis, they put Revis on Reggie Wayne and had Browner on tight end Coby Fleener, with cornerback Kyle Arrington on T.Y. Hilton (and often with safety help over the top). They can do a lot of different things and it's been fun to watch the plan unfold each week. My educated guess early in the week would be Revis on Cobb and then Browner on Nelson, with the safety help from McCourty over the top. They'll obviously mix up their looks between man and zone, as is the norm.
The Patriots have struggled to draft and develop receivers in Bill Belichick's tenure, with 2013 second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson the latest example. This seems to be a strength of the Packers. Any sense of why they've been so successful in that area?
Demovsky: You're right; the Packers rarely miss on a receiver drafted in the first few rounds, and the latest one – rookie second-round pick Davante Adams – looks like he has a chance to be the next in line following the likes of Cobb, Nelson, James Jones and Greg Jennings. General manager Ted Thompson and his staff have done well identifying receivers who fit their system. Jennings and now Cobb were tailor-made for the inside routes in coach Mike McCarthy's version of the West Coast offense, while Jones and Nelson had the size to play on the outside.
From the outside, the Patriots' offense looked rather ordinary until Rob Gronkowski got going in that blowout of the Bengals. What happened to spark him and why does he make this offense so much better?
Reiss: It was strictly health-related as he was coming off his torn right ACL from Dec. 8. Gronkowski hadn't played in the preseason despite practicing from Day 1 of training camp, so there was a process of easing him back into the game-day mix and him getting comfortable – both physically and mentally. Gronkowski averaged 35 snaps per game through the first four weeks, and he's been averaging 63 per game in the seven games since. So the first four games were really his preseason in a sense. As for why he makes the offense better, he’s 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, has a large catch radius, runs well and can throw people out of the club in the blocking game. He's a complete tight end who is extremely difficult to match up with – safeties get overpowered and linebackers often can’t run with him -- and draws significant attention in the red zone to often open things up for others. Based on the aforementioned factors, I believe he has a strong candidacy for MVP consideration. I know it almost always goes to quarterbacks, and one can't go wrong with Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, but my vote right now would go to Gronkowski, based on what I've seen.
Where do you see potential weaknesses on defense?
Demovsky: It's the run defense, hands down. There should be real concern this week if the Patriots come out the way they did against the Colts, when they were intent on running the ball. It could be a real problem for the Packers. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week that he believes he has enough bulk up front to handle that, but there's no denying the Packers' smaller defensive front (that got even smaller than expected after B.J. Raji was lost for the season in training camp) has struggled against the run all season. When the Packers have been decent against the run, they've gotten great tackling games from their linebackers and defensive backs. They're going to need that again.
The run defense has been a little better of late, but it's still the biggest question mark on this team. Whom should they expect to see the bulk of the carries this week and how committed are the Patriots to the run game?
Reiss: The Patriots are as committed to the run as they want to be, depending on the week and if they believe it gives them the best chance to win. Two weeks ago in Indianapolis, for example, they ran it 44 times (against 30 pass attempts) and had a sixth offensive lineman in the game on 37 of those snaps. So they basically declared their intentions before the snap and still powered through the Colts. But then this past week against the Lions, who entered as the NFL's No. 1-ranked run defense, they ran it only 20 times and threw it 53. So this is the essence of what they refer to as the "game-plan offense" – an attack that morphs into something new every week based on what they perceive the opponent's weakness to be. I'd expect to see plenty of power backs LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray against the Packers, in addition to smaller back Shane Vereen. They're going to want to run the ball, at the least to set up play-action possibilities, but also because the matchup looks favorable.
What type of impact has free-agent signing Julius Peppers made on the defense?
Demovsky: It's been two-fold: It has given the Packers another pass-rushing threat. In the past, it was Clay Matthews, Clay Matthews, Clay Matthews. Peppers leads the team with five sacks, and he's also returned two interceptions for touchdowns, so he has delivered in the big-play area. But perhaps just as important, he has allowed Capers to be more creative with Matthews, who has played inside, outside, on the line of scrimmage and off the line of scrimmage this season. Oh, and here's one other thing: Peppers has captured the locker room much in the way veteran Charles Woodson did when he was here. The younger players seem to respect and look up to him.
There's something we didn't hit on with the quarterbacks earlier in the week, and it’s this: Rodgers has talked many times about the possibility that he'll play his whole career as a starter with one head coach, Mike McCarthy, which makes that coach-QB relationship so important. Brady is in the same boat. How do he and Bill Belichick work together?
Reiss: They meet multiple times per week and both have talked extensively about how they value their partnership. Brady has said how fortunate he's been to play in one offensive system over his entire career and Belichick has talked about Brady as a challenging player to coach because he’s always so prepared, which means coaches always have to try to stay a step ahead. Jackie MacMullan, columnist for ESPNBoston.com, wrote a piece about this subject this past January that is timely to revisit here.
This is the type of game in which special teams could be a big factor. Tell us more about the Packers' special-teams units and some of the key players.
Demovsky: Some people (myself included) think McCarthy is crazy for still using Cobb on punt returns, but at least the Packers are platooning him with safety Micah Hyde, who returned a punt for a touchdown against the Eagles. But that tells you how much value they place on the return game. Special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum calls those the first offensive plays of a series. Their kicking game is solid with punter Tim Masthay and place-kicker Mason Crosby, but they've had issues protecting on punts. The Patriots would be wise to go after Masthay, who has had two punts blocked this season. Slocum needs cornerback Jarrett Bush, who missed last Sunday's game against the Vikings because of a groin injury. He's been the Packers' best special-teams cover man and blocker for nearly a decade.
One more Belichick-related question. Packers fans don't get to see him up close very often, and what they do see is probably just his grumpy, news-conference persona. What's he really like?
Reiss: That's a tough one to answer, Rob, because much like the players we cover, we aren't around him much more than a short period of time each day. Obviously, that adds up over time, so I guess I'd say the main thing about Belichick is that this is what he lives for – the football. That's my impression of him; he's the football coach and teacher through and through and if what you're bringing to the table doesn't have anything to do with that – or doesn't align with his goal of winning the next game – it's probably not going to produce much fruit. That's one of the things I've come to appreciate about covering his teams – there are no bells and whistles and perception is reality. It's all ball with him.
Veteran referee Ed Hochuli has been assigned to work Sunday's game between the Patriots and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. This is the first Patriots game of the season for Hochuli, No. 85 in your officiating program and arguably the league's most recognized referee in part because of his prolific use of the microphone.
Through Week 12 games, Hochuli's crew ranks second among 17 crews in terms of most penalties called. So if that holds true to form, we should expect plenty of flags Sunday.
Hochuli's crew is tied for the NFL lead in facemask and offensive pass interference penalties, and has called more ineligible-man-downfield and roughing-the-kicker penalties than any other crew.
As for the Patriots, they had 11 accepted penalties last Sunday against the Detroit Lions. They now have 95 accepted penalties on the season, which keeps them on pace to smash the previous high for the team under Bill Belichick (111, in 2003).
In contrast, the Packers have been called for 64 accepted penalties this season.
Here is the weekly Patriots breakdown:
OT Nate Solder -- 9
CB Brandon Browner -- 8
WR Brandon LaFell -- 7
CB Logan Ryan -- 7
TE Rob Gronkowski -- 6
S Patrick Chung -- 5
OL Jordan Devey -- 5
C Bryan Stork -- 5
LB Jamie Collins -- 4
CB Darrelle Revis -- 4
Seven tied with 3 apiece
MOST FREQUENT PENALTIES
False start -- 16
Holding (offensive) -- 13
Holding (defensive) -- 12
Pass interference (defense) -- 9
Illegal block above the waist (special teams) -- 7
Holding (special teams) -- 6
Illegal use of hands -- 6
Pass interference (offensive) -- 6
Unnecessary roughness -- 5
Facemask -- 3
Illegal contact -- 3
Offside (special teams) -- 3
Roughing the passer -- 3