More Mile High musings ...
DENVER -- The Patriots face the Broncos tonight in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, and there are several questions from fans on the matchup.
The Patriots' mailbag usually publishes on Tuesday here on Boston.com, but we have a special Bonus 'Bag for today.
As for what is on the mind of some Patriots fans leading up to kickoff, there were a few topics that stood out. Mainly, there were questions about the Patriots-Broncos matchup and what might be some areas the Patriots could exploit, or areas in which the Patriots could be vulnerable. There were also several questions about defensive coordinator Eric Mangini interviewing for the Jets' head coaching job, with some feeling this could be a distraction. There were also a few questions on the team's tight end position, with some wondering why Daniel Graham hasn't been playing much.
Before getting to the questions, a few notes:
We'll be back with our next mailbag on Tuesday. Now, onto the Bonus 'Bag ...
What are the Broncos' weaknesses as far as penalties go? Maybe this could be exploited in the contest. I know that the players do not like a lot of press on the topic and maybe it is not something widely used in game preparation, but it could spell a Pats advantage.
A: The Broncos were the fourth-least penalized team this season, committing 97. Only the Colts, Panthers and Seahawks had fewer. The Patriots had 110.
It seems like we fare better when Kevin Faulk handles the ball rather than Dillon. Dillon seems like he is tired or just hurt. Why don't we see Faulk more? He has a lot more speed than Dillon. What's your take on this? Also, if Mangini goes to the Jets, who do you think will come in for the defensive coordinator position?
Kamran Syed, Tampa
A: My feeling is that the Patriots feel Faulk is most effective when he rushes 10 or fewer times and is involved in the passing game. At 5-foot-8, 202 pounds, he is not built for a full-time load. Linebackers coach Dean Pees or defensive line coach Pepper Johnson would be my choices as the top two candidates to potentially succeed Eric Mangini, should Mangini wind up with the Jets.
Do you think that Eric Mangini will really consider taking the Jets job? He's clearly an up-and-comer and has done phenomenal things with the secondary and defense over the last few years. But, the Jets are not the organization the Pats are, starting with the owner. Kraft runs a great show, and his synergy with Belichick's approach has made this run possible. While the Jets have some great players on defense, it does not appear, organizationally, they are set up to succeed right now, no matter who the coach is. Maybe I'm just hoping he doesn't leave. What's your take on this; will Mangini trade in a great situation for the head job in a volatile one? Also, a comment, a reader asked if they thought Belichick would leave soon. My feeling is no. For one, he likes living in New England. Two, he and Kraft see eye to eye on how to run the club; and Belichick and Kraft both know how rare and fundamentally important that is. So, tough luck for the other teams in the league, I think he's a keeper.
Saul, Brooklyn, NY
A: My instinct tells me Mangini won't take the job, using similar logic to when he turned down the Raiders' defensive coordinator job two years ago to return as Patriots defensive backs coach. There was, however, a published report in New York today that said otherwise. I do know one thing: many assistant coaches have concern that if they pass up an opportunity, they never know when the next one might come.
On Eric Mangini interviewing for the Jets head coaching job, my understanding is that he has a long history and loyalty with Belichick. Plus, this is just his first year in his new "gig" as Pats' defensive coordinator. It annoys me a bit that Mangini is pursuing this, especially after losing Crennel and Weis not long ago. What, in your opinion, is the likelihood of Mangini "jumping ship" to the Jets? The head coach can't be happy either.
Paul Spina, Bridgewater
A: I don't think the history and loyalty to Belichick would keep Mangini from taking the job. The main reason would be because he either didn't feel he was ready, or didn't feel he would be put in a position to succeed. As for Mangini interviewing for the job, I think Bill Belichick understands these opportunities don't come around often, and that any coach owes it to himself to interview. At the same time, I'm sure Belichick hopes Mangini doesn't take the job, because as he pointed out with Dolphins coach Nick Saban, it's different when it comes within the division. Then you are competing against someone 365 days a year.
Am I missing something? The Patriots are playing Denver on Saturday night, and their defensive coordinator is preparing for an interview with the Jets on Sunday. Shouldn't all his time and efforts be directed toward helping the Patriots win?
James R. Lertora, South Hadley
A: No, you've got the whole story, James. This is the system for hiring NFL coaches and the league implemented rules so coaches on teams that are still in the playoffs won't get bypassed for jobs simply because they aren't available to interview. The interview will take place in the Foxborough area, lessening the time Mangini will be away from Gillette Stadium. Bottom line, in my opinion, is that these coaches work extremely long hours in a very time-demanding profession, and when one of the 32 NFL teams considers you for a head coaching job, you owe it to yourself (and family) to at least listen.
Unless the Jets are just toying with Mangini and trying to "distract" a divisional foe still in the playoffs, the possibility of losing a second defensive coordinator in two years is really scary. The New York press makes it sound like Mangini is a done deal, even though the team has not even met with him yet. With all due respect to Bill (and he is a football genius), losing Mangini to a divisional rival would be huge. And you'd have to think Mangini would bring a couple of junior coaches with him to institute the Pats type of system in NY, further depleting Bill's staff. Question: If Mangini leaves, who could really step up internally at that spot? Does Bill hire a big name defensive coordinator from outside his "system" or does he have to have a like-minded coordinator? I feel that winning it all one more time this season now takes on even more importance.
Mark Hanslin, Ridgewod, NJ
A: This is the price of success, which the Green Bay Packers experienced in the 1990s when coaches on Mike Holmgren's staff were plucked for head coaching jobs. But I do think the Patriots have solid coaches in place should Mangini leave, with Pepper Johnson (defensive line) and Dean Pees (linebackers) the likely candidates to move up.
When was the last time Denver played at Foxborough? Seems like every matchup has been in Denver.
Jay Sisson, N. Falmouth
A: The last time the Broncos played in Foxborough was Oct. 27, 2002, a 24-16 Broncos win. Before that, it was Oct. 24, 1999.
Isn't it worth writing about the fact that after Rodney Harrison goes down: Eugene Wilson virtually disappears from sight on the field, then, with Harrison on the sideline watching last week's game ... Wilson awakens and after 6-to-7 games of 'soft slumber' and finally sticks someone the way he did when playing with Rodney. Coincidence? I don't think so. I would like to say, 'Thanks for coming back to watch the game last week, Rodney'. If I could give out game balls, Harrison would have one.
A: Turns out the Patriots gave game balls to the entire defense for that game, according to cornerback Asante Samuel.
Hi, Mike. Would like your take on my analysis. A team that can control the clock on offense and shut down Denver's mighty running game is the one that can beat the Broncos. The Pats can do that. If Denver can't run the ball down your throat you have a chance to win the game. Also, Denver usually has a huge turnover advantage, so you have to take care of the ball, and try to take it from them. When I look at the second half of Denver's season, after their bye-week, none of the 8 teams Denver played ended up in the playoffs. They went 1-1 against two very good teams, Kansas City and San Diego, that didn't make the playoffs. Now, in five recent games since their mid-season bye week Denver totally dominated running the ball and controlling the clock, big time. Taking that away from them is the key. In the other 3 games, they lost to KC, and barely beat Dallas (3 points) and Baltimore (2 points), all good defensive teams, and in those games Denver did not control the clock and they did not run the ball as many times and/or got fewer yards per carry in those three games than they did in the other games. Meanwhile, the Patriots have been on a roll for the past six weeks, including blowing out two playoff teams with great defenses, 28-3 over Jags last week and 28-0 over Tampa a few weeks before. In both of those games there is almost an identical number of rushes and passes by the Pats. Both the Jaguars and Tampa Bay brought highly-touted running games, but could not run whatsoever on the Pats front 7. Remember that the loss to Miami in the last game of the season is not a good gauge because most starters only played one quarter for the Pats, in other words the Pats' backups almost beat a good Miami team. So the last real loss was 7 weeks ago at KC. Just my 2-cents.
Mark Pereira, Minneapolis
A: I think there are some great points here, such as stopping the run being the key -- Denver ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (158.7). Also, turnovers, as Denver was a plus-20 in turnover differential on the season, the second-best mark in the NFL. Also, Denver led the league in time of possession, holding the ball 32:37 per game. They have been three keys to the Broncos' 13-3 season and if the Patriots can neutralize these areas, they'll have a chance to win. I don't totally agree with the analysis on Kansas City and San Diego being very good teams; they were inconsistent over the course of the year and faltered down the stretch in crucial games (KC vs. the Giants; San Diego vs. Miami at home). Also, the running games of the Jaguars and Buccaneers weren't in the top 10 in the league coming into Foxborough, so while they were formidable, they weren't exactly highly touted. The Broncos are on another level.
Is Tom Brady good or is it the system that makes the players? Would Brady be as good as he is right now had he been in a different system and a different set of coaches? Vrabel, Gorin, Russ, Neal ... we can have a long list. I think we should give the credit to Bill and the system he has created here.
Kalidas, Nashua, NH
A: Brady is good, and would be good in any system. But the question echoes something running back Kevin Faulk said earlier this week, that the NFL is all about finding the right fit for players, and he felt he's found the fit with the Patriots. The same is true for Brady. I remember talking with 2004 backup Jim Miller and he said it's so important for a quarterback to get into the right system, work with the same coaches, and develop some continuity. Miller said Brady realizes how fortunate he's been in this regard. I am a big believer in the power of the system and I think tonight's game features two teams with excellent systems. At the same time, the system means nothing if you don't have talented players, and the Patriots are stocked with them.
What's with Daniel Graham? He has been out for quite a while. Is there any chance that he will be involved in this year's Super Bowl drive?
George Burgoyne, Bangor, Maine
A: Graham has been bothered by a nagging shoulder injury, which has limited his playing time and effectiveness. He did suit up against the Jaguars, but didn't play much because the Patriots were in a three-wide, one tight end package. In that package, the tight end is most often Benjamin Watson's. I'm expecting Graham to play a larger role in tonight's game.
Has there been a change-of-the-guard at tight end? I know Danny Graham had been hurt, but I thought he had regained his health, yet he seemed to only be on the field during garbage time against the Jaguars. Has Ben Watson taken over as the No. 1? Or was Graham just getting more rest? Thanks.
Kurt Furbush, Jacksonville, Fla.
A: The usage of tight ends has been more specific to the game plans the Patriots have employed. When the team goes with a passing offense and its four-wide set, that's Watson's time. When the team goes to more power sets, that's when Graham is usually on the field. So in terms of there being a clear-cut No. 1, it's hard to tell. It really depends on what the team feels is the best approach to attack the opposition.
During the Patriots' Super Bowl runs, Christian Fauria was a key player with good hands and several touchdowns. Do you know why they are not giving him many receptions this year?
Nick Scarpa, Tewksbury
A: Fauria finished the year with eight catches for 57 yards and two touchdowns, the lowest totals of his 11-year career. His limited production was a result of the team using more of Benjamin Watson (29 catches, 441 yards, 4 TD) and Daniel Graham (16 catches, 235 yards, 3 TD).
Do you think that our kickoff coverage is a little shaky? Were it not for a couple of "just-barely" tackles, Saturday's game might have followed a different script. And why do defensive players always feel the need to lateral the ball off after an interception? Aren't they coached that the turnover is too critical to screw around flipping the ball all over? They should be reminded that they have Tom Brady for that. And finally what do you think of the positioning of Asante Samuel? Until his terrific interception, hadn't he been playing pretty soft in man-to-man? Here's my final -- Patsies 24-13.
Paul Lynn, Missoula, Mont.
A: The kickoff coverage team finished the year ranked 17th, allowing 21.9 yards per runback. The Jaguars averaged 21.6 yards on five runbacks on Saturday, with a long of 28 yards. So I'd say the unit of Eugene Wilson, Andre' Davis, Chad Brown, Tully Banta-Cain, James Sanders, Larry Izzo, Matt Chatham, Don Davis, Patrick Pass and Michael Stone held their ground. As for why defensive players lateral the ball, I'm not sure the answer of that one. I've felt that Asante Samuel has played better in the latter part of the season and part of that is likely a result of a better rush up front. One thing that stands out to me this year is that even the best secondary will struggle without a pass rush from the front seven.