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Don’t call ’em trick plays

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tell a non-quarterback he’s part of the game plan to throw a pass, or that he’ll be catching a pass from someone other than the QB, and the fun is just getting started.

“For us, it’s a backyard play,” veteran New England Patriots receiver Nelson Agholor said. “It brings us back to our grass roots — just throwing it around. We enjoy it.”

Such fun is happening more across the NFL over the past several seasons, with Agholor and his Patriots calling them as much as anyone else.

Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers is 2-of-2 for 45 yards this season, and fellow receiver Kendrick Bourne has thrown a 25-yard TD pass — to Agholor.

Meyers, of course, tossed two touchdown passes in the 2020 season, and former Patriots receiver Julian Edelman retired with a most impressive passing stat line: 7-of-8 for 179 yards, two TDs and a 158.3 rating.

But the trend goes beyond the Patriots.

Through Week 12 of the NFL season, non-quarterbacks have attempted 26 passes this season, completing 13, and are on pace to attempt 37 passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

In 2020, non-QBs attempted 44 passes. But the year before that they attempted 33 passes, and the year before that it was 31.

Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson is 2-for-3 for 35 yards this season.

“I really get excited. I try not to show it too much [but] I love every time that I throw the ball,” he said. “I just like to be in the mix, especially with a tricky play. I definitely remember the Little League days of me playing quarterback, running around, throwing it on the run, so it definitely brings me back to that.”

Dallas Cowboys receiver Cedrick Wilson leads all non-QBs in passing yardage this season, going 2-for-2 for 57 yards. He credits offensive coordinator Kellen Moore for his success.

“I feel like when Kellen draws up the plays he, I think, knows it’s going to be open. He doesn’t really give me too hard of a decision,” Wilson said. As for the decision to call those type of plays, it includes multiple considerations.

Practice makes perfect

In New England, the first thing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels points out is that they aren’t trick plays.

“They may be a little bit different in terms of the scheme, but I usually tell the guys that we’re going to rep them in practice long enough — sometimes for weeks — to the point where none of us feel like it’s a trick,” he said.

“That’s the biggest thing for me; if I don’t feel confident in the scheme or the execution of the scheme in practice, [and] if the players don’t feel confident in what they’re being asked to do, then I don’t think it’s really a safe thing to use.”

In Minnesota, under offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, Jefferson describes a similar approach.

“Me and [receiver] Adam [Thielen] throw the football every single day. It’s all about practicing it, seeing it, making sure everybody is on the same page,” he said. “And [then] when it comes to the game, I’m confident enough to make the play, make the throw.”

Kubiak couldn’t remember the first time he considered having Jefferson throw a pass in a game, but said: “I know Justin played some high school quarterback, and just seeing him before practice tossing it around, it looked pretty natural.”

In New England, when experimenting with different possibilities, McDaniels added that he also gauges the reactions from players when things don’t go well in practice, which factors into decision-making on who they might have execute those plays.

Once those hurdles are cleared, it comes down to where it fits in the game plan, and coach Bill Belichick said McDaniels seems to have a knack for when to strike.

“Josh does a great job of mixing plays in to take advantage of the defense’s overaggressiveness, whether it’s pursuit or run force, or whatever it happens to be,” Belichick said. “Sometimes some of those plays are designed to really get everybody up [near the line of scrimmage], and then get behind them.”

McDaniels shared further insight into his thought process.



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Baltimore Ravens fire defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale, source says

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The Baltimore Ravens have fired defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale with one year remaining on his contract, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Friday.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh issued a statement Friday saying he and Martindale “agreed to move forward in separate directions.”

“We have had a great run on defense, and I am very proud of what has been accomplished and the work he has done,” Harbaugh said in his statement. “Don has been a major contributor to the success of our defense since 2012, and especially since he became defensive coordinator four years ago. He has done a great job. Now it is time to pursue other opportunities.

“Sometimes the moment comes, and it’s the right time. I am personally grateful for our friendship and for everything he has done in Baltimore.”

The Ravens (8-9) this season became the first team in the past 19 seasons to go from being the No. 1 seed in the conference to failing to make the playoffs six weeks later, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Ravens fell to 25th in the league in points and yards allowed this season, after they led the league in points (18.2) and yards allowed (307.8) in Martindale’s first three seasons as defensive coordinator (2018 to ’20).

Just one year ago, Ravens players were shocked that Martindale wasn’t contacted for any NFL head coaching vacancies. A year later, he is out with the Ravens and is expected to be a hot candidate for any assistant coach vacancy around the league.

Baltimore has a number of areas to address on defense this offseason with the team perhaps looking to add four new starters on that side of the ball. The Ravens managed just 34 sacks this season, which ranked 22nd in the league.

Defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams — who combined for 1,012 snaps this season — are entering free agency this offseason, and middle linebacker is also an area of concern after the team moved former first-round pick Patrick Queen out of that spot.

The secondary, meanwhile, needs a playmaking safety and a No. 3 cornerback.

ESPN’s Jamison Hensley contributed to this report.

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San Francisco 49ers DE Nick Bosa clears concussion protocol, will play Saturday vs. Green Bay Packers

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — For most of the week, San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa was seemingly on the right track to be able to play in Saturday’s NFC divisional-round matchup against the Green Bay Packers.

On Friday, the Niners removed all doubt when they announced that Bosa has officially cleared concussion protocol and no longer has an injury designation heading into the showdown with Green Bay.

Put simply: Bosa will play against the Packers, which is no small thing given his importance to San Francisco’s defense. Bosa led the 49ers in sacks this season with 15.5, adding an NFL-high 21 tackles for loss and 52 tackles.

Bosa’s clearance comes after a week during which multiple Niners players and coaches expressed cautious optimism he’d be ready to go.

“He’s come along well going through the NFL protocol,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said Wednesday. “Definitely need him out there.”

On Friday, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said it was “looking good” for Bosa to clear the final steps of the protocol as he did on Friday.

All of that came after the scary collision Bosa had with defensive tackle D.J. Jones in the second quarter of last week’s 23-17 win against the Dallas Cowboys. Jones accidentally hit Bosa in the head with his knee as the pair converged on Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.

Bosa did not return to that game but was able to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday and Thursday, which were the first signs that he was trending in the right direction to return. Bosa was also seen participating in the team’s Friday walkthrough at Bay Port High School in Green Bay.

In addition to announcing that Bosa cleared concussion protocol, the 49ers elevated cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Mark Nzeocha from the practice squad to the active roster on Friday afternoon.

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Green Bay Packers get pass-rushers Za’Darius Smith, Whitney Mercilus back vs. San Francisco 49ers

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Add Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus to the list of players the Green Bay Packers will have back for Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.

The veteran pass-rushers were activated off injured reserve on Friday, clearing them to return from lengthy absences. That came a day after the Packers did the same for receiver Randall Cobb.

Smith has not played since the regular season opener, when he aggravated a back injury that limited him throughout training camp. He played 18 snaps in that game and then underwent surgery. Mercilus tore the bicep in his left arm on Nov. 14 against the Seahawks.

Neither is expected to start and both likely will be on limited snap counts because of their lengthy absences.

Smith was expected to be one of the key players in new defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s system this season. He was coming off back-to-back seasons with double-digit sacks, and his 26-sack total from the last two seasons combined ranked third in the NFL, behind only Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt. But the second-team All-Pro in 2020 missed most of training camp because of back issues, and after playing 18 snaps in the season opener, he underwent surgery and has not played since.

Mercilus, who was signed on Oct. 21 just days after he was released by the Texans, was once thought to be lost for the season in his fourth game with the Packers, but he made a surprising return to practice last week.

Their addition, even in limited roles, means the Packers have four proven veteran pass-rushers, including Rashan Gary and Preston Smith. The Packers released defensive tackle Jack Heflin and cornerback Isaac Yiadom, who both have been the team all season, to make room for Smith and Mercilus.

There are still questions about whether left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Jaire Alexander will be available on Saturday. Both were listed as questionable on the injury report.

Bakhtiari missed more than a year with a torn ACL but returned for the regular-season finale at Detroit. He played the first 27 snaps of that game, and it was believed to be a precursor to him playing full-time when the playoffs started.

But Bakhtiari practiced only one day this week — the second of three practices — and was listed as questionable. Alexander hasn’t played since his Week 4 shoulder injury. Both he and Bakhtiari are already on the 53-man roster, so no additional move needed to be made in order for them to play.

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