Patriots far from one-dimensional

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Patriots far from one-dimensional

SANTA CLARA – When it comes to the New England Patriots’ offense, there’s little question that quarterback Tom Brady is the proverbial head of the snake.

But this season, there’s much more than the 35-year-old San Mateo native and his impressive corps of receivers. The New England running game in amongst the best in the NFL, and brings another dimension to an already explosive group that can put up points in a hurry.

Stevan Ridley, a 23-year-old second year pro out of LSU, leads the way. A third round pick of the Patriots in 2011, Ridley has already accumulated 1,082 yards on the ground, the most for a Patriots running back since Corey Dillon scampered for more than 1600 yards in 2004. In fact, Ridley is just the second New Englander to surpass the thousand-yard plateau in the last nine seasons.

It’s just another weapon that Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s group must prepare for, as it gets set for the Patriots on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.

“Every week in this league is a challenge. This week it’s more of a challenge, obviously because of Brady and their offense and they do a great job, but they do a great job of running the ball, too,” Fangio said. “They are way up there in the running stats.”

He’s right. The Patriots lead the league in total offense (425.7 yards per game, and 36.3 points per game), including the seventh-ranked rushing attack (139.9 yards per game).

They have a league-leading 20 rushing touchdowns, 10 by Ridley. Brady and Shane Vereen have three apiece, while Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden each have a pair.

“I just think their running game as a whole has really complimented their passing game and their overall offensive production,” Fangio said.

Linebacker NaVorro Bowman credits the Pats’ success on the ground to a scheming offense, which at times relies heavily on the no-huddle.

“They do a good job of play-faking off of the same type of run scheme, so we definitely have to have big eyes out there and make you’re seeing everything you need to see to have a good read,” Bowman said.

As for the no-huddle, Bowman said: “It speeds up the pace of the game. You have to really be on it, and be able to think fast out there. Having a good quarterback like Tom Brady, it makes it more difficult. We’ve been gearing up for it, we know that they like to do it, and I think we’ll handle it well.”

The Patriots’ rushers have also done a more-than-admirable job of protecting the football after the handoff. Ridley has lost just one fumble on 243 carries, while wide receiver Julian Edelman also lost one on a rushing attempt. That’s it.

“That’s, to me, one of the amazing things they’re doing well, too,” Fangio said. “They are a high-octane offense yet they haven’t turned the ball over hardly at all this year. When you put those two things together, that’s why they’re a tough assignment.”

Bowman would like to see the 49ers force more turnovers, especially in terms of fumble recoveries. San Francisco has just one of those in its last four games.

In fact, the recently extended linebacker was sporting a new fashion accessory on Thursday, in the form of a wristband. The slogan wrapped around the band had the phrase “To It, See It, Get It.” It, of course, being the football.

According to Bowman, he came up with the phrase with secondary coach Ed Donatell, and the bands will soon be passed out to other members of the defense. They arrived yesterday and are still in a big bag, and only Bowman had one on so far.

“We’ve got to get to it, we’ve got to see it, and we’ve got to get it,” explained Bowman. “We try to pride ourselves on defense with turnovers and going after turnovers, and I think if you do that you give your team a better chance to win the game.”

It won’t be easy, but playing the Patriots rarely is.

Mailbag: Which Sharks player is most likely to be traded?

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AP

Mailbag: Which Sharks player is most likely to be traded?

No one asked, but I’m going to begin this week’s mailbag with my prediction for the Stanley Cup Final – Preds in six. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to a few of your questions…

Most likely to be moved this off-season? (Nik @niknisj25)

If the Sharks do make a move – and I’ve argued here that I think it may be time for a shakeup – they’ll surely be looking for someone up front to boost the offense. In that case, they’d likely have to sacrifice a defenseman or two.

The Sharks defense is the strength of the organization at the moment, as they had one of the best one-through-seven groups in the NHL this season. But it’s also an expensive one. The Sharks have nearly $27 million committed to their top seven defensemen next season, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic is due for a hefty raise beginning in 2018-19.

One name that could be intriguing to other teams is Justin Braun. The 30-year-old has been a part of the Sharks’ top shut down pair with Vlasic for several seasons now, and is signed for the next three years at a reasonable $3.8 million cap hit. The Sharks could potentially move him for offensive help, and slot in a guy like David Schlemko alongside Vlasic, while finally giving Dylan DeMelo a chance to play on a nightly basis on the third pair. A Vlasic-Schlemko pair could be more offensive than Vlasic-Braun, too, because as adept as they were at keeping the puck out of their own net, the Sharks didn’t get many goals from their defenders outside of Burns.

Of course, the upcoming expansion draft all but assures that nothing will happen until Las Vegas selects its team on June 21. If the Sharks lose a defenseman to the Golden Knights, they’ll be more reluctant to move another one. Still, with guys like Joakim Ryan, Tim Heed, Julius Bergman, Mirco Mueller and now Radim Simek in the pipeline, the club might be able to handle a couple departures.

How do we fix the power play next season? Bring in a coach that could help us? Change up the lines, or style of play? (adam smith @kickback408)

One thing that won’t be happening is a new coach, as Doug Wilson recently confirmed that Steve Spott would be back alongside Pete DeBoer. Bob Boughner could move on if he gets hired as a head coach elsewhere, but Boughner’s focus is the team’s defense and penalty kill.

Obviously, the future of the power play depends on who is on the roster, beginning with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Both saw their power play production dip this season.

Thornton went from 29 power play points in 2015-16 to 19 this season (he had eight power play goals in 2015-16, and just one this season). Marleau saw a decline from 25 power play points in 2015-16 to 16 last season. Even if both return, it may be time to try other bodies on the top unit.

Do you see Meier, Labanc and/or Sorensen having a breakout season next year? Or anyone else on the Barracuda? (Colin Dunn @ColinDunnACA)

Someone better had, because this team needs to start getting younger, and soon. One of the bigger disappointments of the 2016-17 season is that none of them apparently showed the coaching staff that they were prepared to play on a nightly basis at the NHL level.

Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, I would surmise, are at the top of the depth chart as far as forwards go. Their line in the playoffs with center Chris Tierney was the Sharks’ best through the early part of the series with Edmonton. As for Kevin Labanc, I think he’s fallen a bit since he had a brief run of success for the Sharks in December.

While the Sharks did a good job stockpiling some young players through the 2013-15 drafts, they’ve traded away a number of picks in recent years. In last year’s draft they didn’t have a first or third round pick; this year they don’t have any picks in the second, third or fourth rounds; and in 2018 they are already without their second and third round picks. 

It’s great to accumulate young players, but at some point they have to break through. Now is the time.

Sharks, Robinson parting ways after five seasons

Sharks, Robinson parting ways after five seasons

After five seasons with the Sharks, Larry Robinson is leaving the organization.

Robinson, 65, spent the last three seasons as the club's director of player development. He served as an associate coach from 2012-14.

TSN in Montreal and the Montreal Gazette originally reported the news.

The Sharks confirmed that Robinson's contract would be expiring, and general manager Doug Wilson told NBC Sports California that the divorce was amicable, and "because of geography." Robinson lives in Florida.

According to the Montreal Gazette

Robinson’s contract with the Sharks expires on July 1, but agent Donnie Cape said Thursday that San Jose general manager Doug Wilson has given him permission to speak with other teams. Robinson lives in Bradenton, Fla., and the long travel distance to San Jose is one of big the reasons he’s looking for a new team to work for.

Robinson seemed to ponder retirement in 2014, but signed a three-year extension to remain in the Sharks' front office. He worked mostly from his home in Florida the past two seasons, making occasional trips to San Jose, including during training camp.

In the summer of 2015, Robinson underwent surgery for skin cancer.

Recognized as one of the best defensemen in NHL history, Robinson won six Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens as a player, and holds the NHL record for playing 20 straight seasons in the playoffs. A 10-time All-Star and two-time Norris Trophy winner, Robinson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.

Robinson was the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings from 1995-99, and the New Jersey Devils from 1999-2002 and again in 2005-06. He led the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 2000. Robinson has nine Stanley Cup rings as a player and coach.

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The Sharks did not renew the contract of pro scout Jason Rowe, who had been with the organization for the past nine seasons. Rowe focused on eastern NHL and AHL teams.