New England Patriots

Nick Chubb has rushed for 100-plus yards in four of five games. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

  • Adam Archuleta totaled as many as 116 tackles in an NFL season, almost all of them solo stops for the St. Louis Rams in 2002. He was deemed talented enough at his position that Washington made him the highest-paid safety in football in 2006.

    So as he sits in the television booth in Cleveland and sees the Chargers’ Derwin James move into position, square to the oncoming Nick Chubb, pads lowered, head up, poised to stop a two or three yard gain just inside the 40-yard line, Archuleta has been there and done that.

    Which is no doubt why he sounds so incredulous analyzing what he’s seeing for a second time. His look unfolds in slow motion, from an end zone angle behind the Los Angeles defense. Already, Chubb was evaded a diving Drue Tranquill, who penetrated the line of scrimmage, despite the three tight ends and receiver blocking on on that side of the field.

    Tranquill missed his shot at a tackle for loss. But surely James, one of today’s top safeties, will clean up.

    “There is no space right here,” Archuleta declares to his CBS audience. “There is no chance of James missing this tackle.”

    Only there is. This is Nick Chubb, after all.

    Somehow Chubb slips by, contorting his body from downhill to sideways for less than a split second. James crumbles to the ground, behind a pile of white, gold, powder blue, brown and orange bodies. They are left in Chubb’s wake, as he veers to the right sideline, straight ahead.

    Until he swerves left, trailed by Chargers toward the middle of the field. Khalil Mack has one last shot at him, just inside the number “10>.” Chubb gives him ‘the Heisman,’ with a left stiff arm to the chest. Mack stumbles forward onto his face in the end zone.

    Chubb has scored the first of two Week 5 touchdowns; one of a league-leading seven rushing overall. The whiffs by Tranquill, James and Mack are now among the 42 missed tackles he’s forced this year; more than any other back, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Archuleta is left to address partner Greg Gumbel, before the ensuing kickoff.

    “He breaks so many tackles, Greg, but he never takes shots,” Archuleta summarizes. “It’s not like he’s running over people, but it’s those subtle movements.”

    Adrian Phillips is well aware. He’s seen Chubb elude defenders like his ex-Chargers teammate James often enough to understand his Patriots’ undertaking this Sunday as Cleveland’s next opponent.

    “The main thing for us is everybody has to be gap sound and when you get an opportunity to make those plays you have to make them,” Phillips said. “With Chubb, it has to be 11 people to the ball. It has to be 11 people, because he can literally take it anywhere and take it to the crib from any part of the field. He’s that good.”

    Last fall, Phillips was spared the challenge of tackling Chubb, who tested positive for COVID-19 before the Pats’ rout of the visiting Browns. In 2019, Chubb rushed 20 times for 131 yards in Foxborough, but also fumbled twice.

    Chubb has yet to fumble in his 104 touches this year. Coming off three straight 1,000-yard seasons, he’s carried the rock 98 times for a league-high 593 yards. They’re the most by a Cleveland running back through five games since Jim Brown’s 787 rushing yards in 1963.

    Entering the weekend, Chubb reeled off three straight 100-yard performances and ran for at least one score in four consecutive games. Overall, a remarkable 70 percent (415) of his rushing yards, per PFF, were gained after initial contact.

    For reasons obvious on the stat sheet and video screen, the 5-11, 227-pound Chubb has earned Phillips’ respect. On Sunday, as always, whether taking on 300-pound guards or bowling-ball running backs, Phillips will look to make the respect mutual.

    “It’s really a mentality, just knowing that you’re basically, in your mind, the baddest dude on the field,” says Phillips, a 210-pound safety often required to play bigger in the box. “I’ve always had that type of mentality on the field. It doesn’t matter how big someone else (is) or how strong they (are). You’re still going to have to deal with me.

    “When you’re out there on the field, you’ve got to earn their respect. When they see you, they’re already licking their chops because they think, ‘Oh, this is a smaller dude. He can’t hang in the box, we’re gonna run right at him.’ So you have to develop that mentality that you don’t want to let your brothers down. You’re in that position for a reason. You’re in there because you can make plays and you’re in there because you can make game-changing plays.”

    And, if face-to-face with Chubb, prevent game-changing plays.

  • Tavai’s uptick

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 09: Jahlani Tavai #48 of the New England Patriots tackles Craig Reynolds #46 of the Detroit Lions during the second half at Gillette Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)

    Jahlani Tavai (48) made his first start for the Pats opposite his former team, Detroit. (Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)

    The past two weeks, linebacker Jahlani Tavai experienced a significant uptick in playing time. After appearing for just 56 total defensive snaps in 2021 and 20 or fewer each of this season’s first three weeks, Tavai logged 55 and 52, respectively, opposite Green Bay and Detroit.

    Tavai was drafted by the Lions with the 43rd overall pick in 2019, Matt Patricia’s first year as Detroit’s head coach. They reunited early last season, following Tavai’s release.

    Last Sunday, starting for the first time as a Patriot against his ex-team, he made five tackles. A week earlier, Tavai was in on eight stops at Green Bay.

    “The biggest thing for me is my teammates, showing them that they can trust me whether I’m on the line of scrimmage or off the ball,” he said. “It’s just a good feeling for me to show them I can be part of this.”

    His older brother J.R. has played in both the NFL (Tennessee) and CFL. As natives of Inglewood, Calif., while J.R. stayed home for college, attending USC, Jahlani wasn’t afforded that opportunity. He wound up in Honolulu.  

    “Hawaii was my only offer,” he said. “I appreciate (coach) Norm Chow for that, because it was literally not too far away from signing day when I finally got the phone call. It was just an immediate signing for me.”

    Tavai’s expanded role in New England was anything but immediate. Initially on the practice squad, his role once on the roster was relegated primarily to the so-called ‘kicking game.’

    Overall in 2022, he’s played 77 percent of special teams snaps, demonstrating a comfortability in the open field that correlates to his background as a rugby standout. The sport is part of who he is and where he’s from, as a descendant of Samoa.

    His uncle John Schuster, brother to mother Nua, starred for New Zealand’s renown All Blacks. Cousin Peter Schuster has also enjoyed a pro rugby career.  

    “It was literally our first sport out of the womb,” says Tavai, one of seven siblings, including six brothers. “I still have family that are playing in Australia, whether the Aussie 7s or other pro teams out there.

    “I played for the national team out of high school. Once I got to college, I was playing on the men’s team out there at Hawaii. Now I’m on strict duties to play football.”

    Tavai chuckles. 

    Maybe someday he’ll return to his first love, the way ex-Patriot Nate Ebner, whom Tavai met recently, did in becoming a rugby Olympian.

    But for the foreseeable future, which means Sunday’s kickoff in Cleveland, strict duties require a narrow focus.

    Football teammates are counting on him.

  • Grass is greener

    PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - SEPTEMBER 18: Rhamondre Stevenson #38 of the New England Patriots runs the ball during the second half in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium on September 18, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

    For the fifth time since preseason, Rhamondre Stevenson and his teammates play a road game on grass. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

    Baseball’s Tug McGraw pitched long enough in the major leagues to go from experiencing light of afternoon World Series games to the dark ages of multi-sport, cookie-cutter stadiums.

    The Vet in Philly. Three Rivers in Pittsburgh. Riverfront in Cincy. Naturally, Busch in St. Louis. Just to name more than a few.

    And, of course, the so-called ‘Eighth Wonder’ in Houston, the Astrodome, which necessitated the dreaded laying of thin green carpet over concrete known as AstroTurf.

    It was McGraw’s Phillies teammate Dick Allen who spoke for a generation of athletes forced to play on artificial turf.

    “If a horse can’t eat it,” Allen declared, “I don’t want to play on it.”

    And it was McGraw, the screw-ball throwing left-hander, who when asked if he liked the old carpet spoke for a generation, period; as a kid who grew up in the sixties.

    “I don’t know,” McGraw said, “I’ve never smoked the stuff.”

    Thankfully, most baseball games today are played in angular ballparks with unique quirks, on real grass and dirt diamond cutouts. 

    And for a sport like football technology and rubber pellets have at least led to softer surfaces than the old fraying ‘fields’ prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. That said, there’s still nothing like good old green earth.

    On Sunday the Patriots will play their fifth straight road game on grass, including the preseason finale at Las Vegas. That’s four more than all of the 2021 season, when their lone natural-surface contest was staged at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.

    Someone who figures to get a lot of work on it against the Browns, running back Rhamondre Stevenson succinctly — and less colorfully than the late Allen and McGraw — stated his preference for the record.

    “My preference is grass, for sure,” Stevenson said on Thursday. “I can’t really tell you why, I just like playing on grass.”

    Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.