Montee Ball, James White reunite in New England

Montee Ball, James White reunite in New England

Former Badger running back Montee Ball is getting a second chance in the NFL with the New England Patriots, where he will be reunited with his former running mate James White.

Ball, who was cut by the Denver Broncos back in August, said he was staying in shape and watching his phone constantly.

When the Patriots called, Ball came running.

“I’m not in the position anymore to where I can say what I want to do and where I want to be,” said Ball. “It’s wherever they want to put me. Whenever my number’s called I’m going to do what I can.”

Ball said it was helpful to come to a situation where his old running mate, James White, was on the team.

“Extremely helpful, man. We were roommates in college. We go way back. He knows everything about me, I know everything about him. He’s been everything I’ve needed for this transition,” said Ball.

Ball said he’s going to do whatever it takes to get a full-time gig.

Tom Brady could use the help. the QB has dealt with plenty of injuries this season. From his offensive line to his pass catchers, the New England quarterback has had a variety of moving parts around him.

Now, the streak of injuries is taking a toll on the quarterback’s stable of running backs.

Brady was already working through the loss of dynamic passing back Dion Lewis to injured reserve Nov. 9 due to a torn ACL.

This week, lead back LeGarrette Blount is joining Lewis on injured reserve because of a hip injury suffered in the first half of last Sunday night’s win in Houston.

While the Patriots were a pass-first team for more than a decade and use a committee approach in the backfield, it’s less than ideal to lose your leading rusher in mid-December.

Through 13 games, Blount paced the Patriots with a respectable 703 yards on 165 carries for a 4.3-yard average with six touchdowns.

Despite playing in only seven games, Lewis remains second on the team with 49 carries for 234 yards.

The only remaining healthy backs on the roster are fourth-year career backup Brandon Bolden and key special teamer and little-used second-year receiving back James White.

White essentially redshirted a year ago as a rookie but has seen his role grow incrementally in recent weeks. He had 10 receptions for 115 yards in a failed comeback two weeks ago against the Eagles.

Last Sunday in Houston he scored a two-yard touchdown on his only carry.

White added four catches for 38 yards but actually had his biggest potential play of the night wiped out by replay when he was ruled to have landed out of bounds on a tough sideline try.

Still, the play showed Brady’s growing confidence in White — due to both increased reps together and pure necessity.

“I think he’s earned everybody’s trust,” Brady said. “Not just mine, he’s done a great job for our team when he’s been in there. He’s very dependable, consistent.

“He made a great play the other night on that catch, to give him a chance to go up over the top of a safety. He runs it good. He’s smart. He’s been available. Whenever he’s been called upon he’s answer the bell.”

Bolden saw his role increase last Sunday night after Blount limped off. The veteran matched a career high with 16 rushing attempts for 51 yards in Houston.

Bolden has always been a trusted favorite of the coaching staff and Brady, although his talents could be tested by a potential increased workload in a time of need in the New England backfield.

“He definitely did that in college, so I’d say he’s done that,” Bill Belichick said of the possibility of Bolden taking over the lead back role. “Look, he’s been a four-down player for us.”

There is also the possibility that a player not currently on the roster could be added to the mix and given a role down the stretch for a team looking to lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture.

New England signed former Bronco Montee Ball to the practice squad this week and reportedly was working out former Rams and Falcons runner Steven Jackson.

Jackson has not played this season after running for 707 yards on 190 carries (3.7 average) with six touchdowns last season in Atlanta.

Regardless of who is totting the rock and catching the passes, Brady will be the one who has to get comfortable with his new backfield mates with the games becoming more critical by the week.

“You just get out there and you work with those guys and you see what they can do and what they’re capable of and how Josh [McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator] always finds a way to incorporate them into the offense,” Brady explained.

As long as Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman are healthy come playoff time, it may not matter who lines up in the backfield in New England.

That’s probably a good thing, because right now it’s anyone’s guess who will be lining up in the backfield in new England.

SERIES HISTORY: 39th regular season meeting. New England leads the series, 22-15-1. The Patriots have had the upper hand historically over the Titans/Oilers over the years, including an 11-3 mark, including postseason, dating back to 1981. The last road victory for the now-Tennessee franchise came when Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers won 28-14 at Foxboro Stadium in 1993. Bill Belichick’s team has won five straight, including a 17-14 victory in the bitter cold at Gillette Stadium in the divisional playoff after the 2003 season on the way to Super Bowl success. That streak also includes a 59-0 blowout of the Titans in the early season snow at Gillette in October 2009.

GAME PLAN: Although the Titans defense is statistically better against the pass than the run, New England’s lack of depth and talent at the running back position mean the Tom Brady will be expected to shoulder the offense against Tennessee. Getting Rob Gronkowksi back in the mix last Sunday makes that job easier, as does the evolving role for second-year passing back James White. Look for plenty of personnel packages, especially with White and Brandon Bolden splitting time for a backfield that’s without depth or obvious roles. The most important aspect of the game plan, which will remain focused on quick throws to a banged up Danny Amendola and Brandon LaFell, is that the offensive line improve the pass protection.

Brady has been sacked three or more times in four of the last five games and hit far too often. The front needs to win more one-on-one battles and have more consistent communication against a Titans front led by Brian Orakpo (seven sacks) that has 35 sacks as a unit. If that happens, Brady should find plenty he likes against a team that has allowed opponents a combined 102 passer rating on the season and has given up 30-plus points in consecutive weeks.

Defensively, the Patriots should be able to keep the Titans Antonio Andrews-led ground game in check. From there it will be about dealing with rookie Marcus Mariota as a runner and passer. That means Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard must have controlled pass rush and keep contain on the edges.

In the back end it’s likely to be about a lot of zone coverages to try to confuse the rookie passer and keep a varied passing attack in check. Delanie Walker is the most productive option with 74 catches from the tight end spot, but the Titans have a lot of weapons who have chipped in with touchdowns and big plays. That means Duron Harmon and the safety position, which could be without banged up Pro Bowler Devin McCourty, will need to communicate and tackle well to avoid giving the downtrodden Titans life through the air.


–Patriots LB Jamie Collins vs. Titans TE Delanie Walker.

Collins is easily the Patriots’ most versatile defensive player and a guy who can cover opposing tight ends in the passing game. Walker is a player Bill Belichick described as “a tough guy to match up on.” This should be a battle between a uniquely skilled linebacker and a versatile tight end who far at away leads the Titans with a career-high 74 catches for 871 yards with four touchdowns.

–Patriots RDE Chandler Jones vs. Titans QB Marcus Mariota.

OK, Mariota won’t really be blocking Chandler, but he must account for him. Mariota is a dynamic athlete having a very impressive season with both his arm and his legs. But the rookie has been sacked 35 times, so his mobility can make plays and get him in trouble at times. Jones is New England’s leading pass rusher with 10.5 sacks on the season, although he’s not had a sack in the last four games. Jones has been a victim of getting suck too far inside in his rush over the years against mobile quarterbacks and allowed such opponents to hit big plays around him on the edge. Jones needs to put some pressure on Mariota without allowing the rookie to get out in space where he’s capable of making big plays on the ground.