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Reporters' Notebook

Patriots' Air Force visit, Tyrod Taylor's struggles, Giants' O-line

With Week 11 of the 2017 season upon us,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- How Tyrod Taylor was foiled by the Saints.

-- The Chiefs' weakness stopping the run.

-- What Ben McAdoo admires about another team's O-line.

But first, James Palmer explains how New England's stay at the Air Force Academy goes beyond travel logistics ...

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- After the Patriots finished practice Wednesday afternoon, they all looked up into the bright, blue Colorado sky. Surrounded by the Rocky Mountains on the campus of the United States Air Force Academy, they watched roughly half a dozen cadets parachute out of a military plane and land directly in front of them on the field.

The Pats, in the midst of a 10-day stretch away from home that will conclude after Sunday's game against the Raiders in Mexico City, pride themselves on being "road warriors," according to linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Coming off a 41-16 victory in Denver, New England has won 12 straight road games dating back to last season, the second-longest road winning streak in NFL history (tied with the 2006-08 Patriots).

During the week, though, Air Force football coach Troy Calhoun painted a picture of what it really feels like to rough it, telling the Patriots players about the survival camp that sophomores at the Air Force Academy go through.

"He told us the story of them having to go out in the mountains and live for like two to three weeks," Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. "Go through training. You got to kill stuff and eat it. I don't know if I could do that. You got to really respect what they got to do, and do for people like us."

Before the season, New England considered a few different travel options for the week between the Patriots' game in Denver and the third international game in franchise history (and first ever trip to Mexico City). In the end, the organization believed staying at the Air Force Academy just north of Colorado Springs, an hour south of Denver, for their week of practices would be the most beneficial for several reasons.

The first was the ability to take a short bus ride to a hotel after a Sunday night game, as opposed to traveling back to New England and landing in the early morning. Because of this decision, the Patriots believe they were able to have a productive Monday that included meetings and lifting sessions.

Also, the Patriots will have practiced this week at an elevation of 7,258 feet above sea level. On Saturday, they will fly from Colorado to Mexico City, where they will play at Estadio Azteca, which sits at an elevation of 7,200 feet. Practicing for a week at an altitude that is similar to what they'll see in the game could also be considered a benefit.

"We definitely can feel it," running back James White told me after the Patriots' first practice of the week on Wednesday afternoon. "You can feel it, from the first sprint out there, you can definitely feel the difference in everything. I think it will be good training for us. I mean, Mexico is a little bit worse than this, but this will be good preparation for us."

Tight end Rob Gronkowski, standing in the north end zone of the Air Force Academy football stadium on Wednesday, said his skin "feels a lot drier. A lot of people are getting their nose super dry, mouth super dry. So, just glad to be here and to be able to prepare to what Mexico City will be at the same altitude. I mean, it's good training. I'm glad we're doing it."

But the biggest potential advantage of practicing at the Air Force Academy might not be realized until later in the season. It's the benefit these players and coaches gain by spending a week bonding and training together in an environment that fosters an incredibly high commitment to excellence. Consider that, as you walk down the tunnel into Falcon Stadium, where the cadets play their football games, you can see above, in large block letters, "Home of the world's finest leaders."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick grew up around the Naval Academy, where his father coached and worked as a scout. Belichick has an undeniable admiration for the service academies -- further reinforced by the coach's claim that, when he spoke to Navy's football team before the Midshipmen's game against SMU last week, it was the most nervous he'd ever been speaking in front of a group -- and has often referenced them in meetings and speeches to his past teams. Being with him here and listening to him speak, you feel the respect he has for the individuals who attend and teach at these prestigious institutions.

"What they do and how hard it is to, No. 1, get into a service academy, No. 2, meet the demands that the service academy puts on you physically, mentally, learning -- I mean, look, the kids that come out of here operate the highest technological and most sophisticated equipment in the world at a high level, at a high price, too," Belichick said with a tone that left no doubt he meant every word. "So, there's a lot at stake. Yeah, what they do and how they do it and how they're trained to do it is -- very proud to be here and very proud of what they do. The leadership training, the teamwork, the communication skills and so forth that they have to have is remarkable."

When Belichick asked Calhoun, who also played quarterback at the Air Force Academy, to address his team this week at their hotel, Calhoun spoke to them about what it takes to be a student-athlete there, that only certain types of people have what it takes to cut it.

Practicing, training and living for a week surrounded by such people could do a lot for a team's mentality and focus throughout a season. In his time with the Bills previously, Gilmore spent roughly a week living on the road and bonding with teammates in London, where multiple teams play every season. But he doesn't think that trip compares to this week in the slightest, telling me that "this whole week, I've never had this type of situation before. It's good for the team. Before, it wasn't this type of situation."

There's a chance that in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, we'll look back on this week as part of the foundation that helped this Patriots team repeat as Super Bowl champions. Belichick wants this experience to have a lasting impact on his players and his coaches. He's also a student of the game who is always looking for another avenue by which to learn and better himself as a coach.

"The discipline and leadership they have here, I hope some of it rubs off on me this week," Belichick said. "That will be a plus."


NFL: Players more likely to self-report concussion symptoms. The concussion protocol has come under renewed scrutiny and criticism in recent weeks, with the league looking into how the Seahawks handled things when Russell Wilson was hit hard in the chin but left for just one play against Arizona, and Jacoby Brissettdeveloping symptoms after a game to which he was allowed to return after he passed the sideline concussion test. The league said that Brissett was appropriately treated, while the investigation into the Seahawks continued.

There is one small bit of hopeful news about the NFL's concussion problem: Players are increasingly self-reporting concussion symptoms. According to Dr. Allen Sills, the league's chief medical officer, the league has conducted 379 concussion evaluations this season. Thirty-seven percent of concussions and evaluations were initiated by a self-report, Sills said in a conference call this week. That is a considerable jump from last season, when the rate of self-reports hovered between 20 percent and 22 percent of evaluations.

"We think that is a very positive development and a sign that we are seeing players that are taking this injury very seriously and they want to get an evaluation done," Sills said.

Sills did not have the most current figures, but he said that up until about two weeks ago, about 40 to 43 percent of evaluations resulted in a diagnosed concussion.

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BUFFALO BILLS: Taylor's shortcomings played into Saints' defensive plan.The benching in Buffalo of Tyrod Taylorwas a shocker, but it reminded me of a comment from Saints coach Sean Payton that came after the Saints smothered the Bills last Sunday, 47-10.

Payton said the plan for the defense was to try to keep Taylor in the pocket, because the Saints felt he was most dangerous when he got out to scramble. It worked. Taylor attempted just 18 passes and only completed nine, despite the Bills trailing for all but the first eight minutes of the game. In the first eight drives Taylor led, Buffalo accumulated just 99 yards and four first downs.

The offense had ground to a halt in the last two games, and it was no coincidence that the losses came in games when the defense did not generate turnovers. The harsh reality is that if Buffalo's defense doesn't give the offense extra opportunities, the Bills will struggle to score.

During the 5-2 start, the Bills' defense forced 17 turnovers. In the two most recent losses: one (total). Only one of the Bills' losses this season -- to Cincinnati -- came in a game where the Bills' defense forced more than one turnover.

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Reid says Mahomes is "fortunate" to watch Smith. Someday, rookies Patrick Mahomes and Davis Webb might square off as the Chiefs' and Giants' starting quarterbacks. But it won't be this Sunday, when their teams play. Mahomes is getting a front-row view of Alex Smith's tremendous season, while Webb has been inactive for every game as he learns from Eli Manning and Geno Smith.

Webb's pregame workout is extensive; he'll be on the MetLife Stadium field hours before kickoff, working with quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti Jr. and some backup receivers. Mahomes, meanwhile, is the Chiefs' backup and has impressed Andy Reid. Of course, with his arm, Mahomes has impressed a lot of people.

"Everybody can see that he's a talented kid and he wants to be good," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "He's very fortunate, I think, to be in a situation where he can see how Alex goes about doing the job. That's priceless. He's competitive, though. Does he want to play? Absolutely. He would love to play, but he also respects Alex."

Trying to clamp down on the ground.Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton must find some answers for a lousy run defense. Kansas City currently ranks 29th in the NFL in that category -- with an average of 131.1 rushing yards allowed per game -- and Sutton believes improved technique and attitude can change things.

"You've got to whip your blocker and go," Sutton said on Thursday. "I think we've improved in that, and as long as we keep working, it's [about] being exact in your fits and all those kinds of things. The most important part to me is if you're going to strike and attack the blockers and reset the line of scrimmage and say, 'OK, look -- this is how it's going to be.' "

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NEW YORK GIANTS: O-line play improving. In his remarks to the media about the Chiefs, Giants coach Ben McAdoo mentioned that all five Kansas City offensive linemen played tackle in college. The significance of that?

"They're athletic and they can pass-protect," McAdoo said. "They have good feet. They're smart players."

Meanwhile, the Giants' embattled offensive line has quietly improved. The lineman under the biggest microscope, third-year left tackle Ereck Flowers, hasn't given up a sack since Week 2, according to Pro Football Focus. Orleans Darkwa, the primary back, has rushed for 5.3 yards per carry on 68 carries over his last five games. Of course, the Giants have won only one of those five games.

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