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Ask Shalise: Any help for the secondary?

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff  November 3, 2011 03:45 PM

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After a three-day span that saw the Patriots release a cornerback they thought highly of just 18 months earlier, place their promising rookie corner on season-ending injured reserve, and then have several of the remaining players look confused as they were carved up by Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, there have been questions about the state of the team, questions that haven't been uttered with such frequency since before Bill Belichick arrived in 2000.

On sports radio and message boards, fans are looking for answers - answers that aren't coming from the organization - and their frustration is palpable. Some of those questions got sent here, and here's an attempt to answer them.

Keep the questions coming for future mailbags.

Does the Patriots’ secondary have to get more help or are they just playing softball?
Josh, Roswell, NM

Really? Both. First and foremost, after jettisoning James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather and Leigh Bodden and placing Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve, the Patriots just don’t have enough talented players on the back end of the defense. Compound that with the fact that they haven’t been able to get consistent pressure up front and you have a recipe for the 32d-ranked pass defense in the NFL.

The problem is, there isn’t a lot of help out there. Obviously, though we have zero answer as to why they released him in the first place, the Pats won’t be bringing back Bodden. It’s after the league trade deadline, so they can’t acquire anyone that way. The only option now is getting guys off the street, and that route is what led to Phillip Adams being the third/fourth cornerback. Signing street free agents has helped New England get through rough patches in the past (Artrell Hawkins comes to mind), but again, you can get by with guys when you have a pass rush. If you aren’t getting a pass rush, the players on the back end have to cover far too long, and the less talented those players are, the worse it is when that happens.

I know some fans have been asking about Darren Sharper – we know he was in for a workout with the Pats earlier in the season, but for whatever reason they didn’t see fit to sign him. So for better or worse, it would appear the Pats will be standing pat for now. Though I always have to add the caveat that trying to predict Bill Belichick’s moves is about as easy as predicting winning Powerball numbers.

Is it just me, or have the Patriots been benching guys more than ever this season? It seems that not a game goes by that somebody on the defense doesn't get "sat" for poor performance. And is Bill Belichick always the one making this decision to sit guys down, or does that decision get made by position coaches?
Wayne, Portland, Ore.

There are certainly players being benched on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary; on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Patriots started the game with James Ihedigbo at safety and Antwaun Molden as the third cornerback, but by the end of the day, Ihedigbo was benched and Sergio Brown was at safety, and Phillip Adams was on for Molden. The simple fact is these players are being benched because they aren’t getting the job done – and really, should we expect that they would? Of the seven players New England is currently playing in the secondary, five were undrafted, though ironically, one of those five – Kyle Arrington – might be playing the best of anyone in the unit right now.

As to who makes the decision, I believe Belichick would, though on defense Matt Patricia, who is the de facto coordinator, could make that decision as well.

Apart from Nate Solder's contributions on the offensive line and Stevan Ridley's success despite limited action, the one rookie we've heard virtually nothing about to date is Shane Vereen. Is he hurt? Is he a bust? What exactly is he? Please enlighten.
Ronnie, Reston, Va.

Since according to the weekly injury reports he isn’t hurt, it’s believed Vereen is a victim of numbers right now. Only 46 players can be active on game days, so inevitably some guys have to sit. The Patriots have BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead; Kevin Faulk’s return against Pittsburgh meant that Ridley dressed for the game but never took a snap, even on special teams. So there just aren’t enough spots for everyone, and someone has to sit out.

I don’t like to call rookies busts during their first season – there’s so much that’s thrown at them, so much to adjust to, on and off the field. And this year’s rookies didn’t have the benefit of taking part in the offseason program and mini-camps, things that give them a foundation upon which to start building the lessons they’ll learn in the months and seasons to come. Let’s hold off on the bust talk for Vereen – or any rookie – until we’re at least midway through his second season.

Why can't the Pats admit they made a mistake signing Chad Ochocino? If the Pats are going to go anywhere they need a receiver who can stretch the field. Ocho is not that man. Bringing Randy Moss back would be an upgrade over this has-been receiver.
Kevin, Nokomis, Fla.

Clearly the Ochocinco era is looking more like an error at this point, I certainly agree with you on that. But admitting the Pats made a mistake at this point would be costly – the Patriots are already on the hook for $6 million for this season for Ochocinco, and they have to give Cincinnati the draft picks regardless. So it doesn’t look good if they cut him loose now (though it doesn’t look good that he’s gone without a reception in two straight games and Nick Caserio is calling the Pats’ most expensive receiver one of their best practice players), and there’s an element of saving face involved.

As for Moss, would he really be better? He’s 34, and couldn’t stick in Tennessee last year, which needed the help. In his day, Moss was arguably the greatest downfield threat the NFL has ever seen, but outside of knowing the offense, I don’t know that Moss really is the answer. If he can’t beat cornerbacks downfield, what’s he going to do? We know he isn’t a fan of going across the middle.

Right now, the best hope is that offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien meant it earlier this week when he said he wanted to get Taylor Price more involved. Getting Price more snaps is the first step, but making sure he has Tom Brady’s trust is the second, and more important, step. If those two things happen, Price could be the field-stretcher so many have been asking for.

It seems as though the Kraft family is wasting Tom Brady's time here by not putting the best defense money can buy on the field with this extraordinary quarterback who won't last forever. With the team worth $1.3 billion, should we find fault with the Krafts for this? I do!
Scott, Dover, NH

I’m not sure what the value of the Patriots has to do with things, but I do think this has become – or, always has been – a complicated situation. Really, the fact that the Patriots’ defensive personnel is what it is right now is the fault of the team’s general manager. Bill Belichick is essentially the general manager. But the Krafts have allowed Belichick to have that power. At this point, however, I don’t think you can take the power from Bill Belichick the GM without losing Bill Belichick altogether.

As Tom Curran of CSNNE.com wrote this week, after a dozen years at the helm in New England, is Belichick really going to listen to someone brought in from outside when it comes to personnel matters? Sure, he brought in Floyd Reese a couple of years ago, but Reese is purely a money guy, getting contracts worked out. To the best of my knowledge, he has little input on which players end up here, he just helps finalize the deal.

So we may not see much change, if any, in how things are done until Belichick decides he’s wants to step away.

With the Pats’ linebackers playing as bad as they have, why haven't they looked at Lofa Tatupu? He can't be any worse than what they have. And did Jermaine Cunningham even play Sunday?
Bud, Laconia, NH

Tatupu hasn’t gotten any interest since he was released by the Seahawks, so there obviously is something that’s keeping teams away from him. Word is that both of his knees are basically shot – he did undergo surgery on both in late January.

As for Cunningham, he was a healthy scratch against the Steelers. Not a promising sign for the second-year player … and that situation is only made worse when you consider that his Florida teammate, Carlos Dunlap, chosen one spot after Cunningham in the 2010 draft by the Bengals, is one of the premier young pass-rushers in the league.

Can you explain how the Pats pick their uniforms for game days? Sometimes they wear blue at home and sometimes white? I know there is no "home whites" like baseball, so I can't figure it out. Side note, I would like "Pat Patriot" back, but on the blue or white!
Bill, Haverhill

In the majority of cases, the Pats wear blue at home and white on the road (unless they’re in their throwback red jerseys; thankfully, I don’t remember seeing those silver ones recently). However, against the Cowboys last month, they wore white at home to force Dallas to wear blue. Legend has it Dallas doesn’t play well in its blue jersey – and on the Cowboys' last two trips to New England, that’s proven to be true. Both last month and in 2003, the Pats forced the Cowboys to wear their blue jerseys, and both times the Pats won. Belichick claimed to know nothing of the Cowboys’ problems in blue, but the evidence would suggest otherwise.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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