A mixed 'bag
Pats fans are energized after a big win in Big D
Sunday's win over the Cowboys has energized e-mailers to the Patriots mailbag. This was a busy week, with a wide variety of questions -- some game-related, some injury-related, some big-picture related.
This is the week of the NFL season in which players on the physically unable to perform list are eligible to be activated to practice with their teams. I found it interesting that there are 18 players in the NFL on PUP lists, and four are on the Patriots (DL Richard Seymour, WR Troy Brown, WR Chad Jackson, CB Eddie Jackson). We'll get to some PUP stuff later in the mailbag.
Another area that stood out to me this week was the number of questions specific to the Patriots' game against the Cowboys. I have noticed that there haven't been as many game-specific questions this year -- which might be a result of the ease in which the Patriots are winning -- so it was nice to get back to some of those.
But of all the questions, what seemed to be of primary concern is the status of injured running back Sammy Morris (chest) and tight end Benjamin Watson (left ankle).
On to the questions.
With the win over Dallas now in place, I come away with a couple of questions after the game. First, how serious is the Benjamin Watson injury, and if it is bad, could an old friend -- say, Jermaine Wiggins -- be a possible pick up as a receiving tight end? And second, with the Pats already thin at RB (Maroney always seems to be hurt), if the Morris injury is bad, who do we turn to? The fact that Tampa can't find a reliable veteran can't be real good news if the Pats need another back.
Pete Pasco, Hudson, N.Y.
A: Watson injured his left ankle and my sense is that he is going to be out for at least the next two games. I also think Morris, who was reported to have injured his chest (it looked like ribs), is probably going to be out longer than that. As for what the Patriots do to fill the void, if they feel the need to sign a tight end -- and want to make the space on the 53-man roster -- I'd say Brian Jones would be the likely choice as he was in training camp with the club. But ultimately, I think the most likely solutions are already on the roster. Naturally, Kyle Brady and Marcellus Rivers will have to play more, but I think this is where someone like physical receiver Kelley Washington could be utilized -- less as an in-line blocker, and more as a pass-catcher in a tight-end type role. I don't see them making any additions at running back, as Laurence Maroney seems primed to return. With Morris' expected absence, and the idea that Maroney will probably be eased back into the mix, that will mean some more work for Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans, and Kyle Eckel on early downs.
If Morris and Maroney can't return soon, is there a chance Corey Dillon would come back?
Bevan Manson, Santa Monica, Calif.
A: In August, Dillon shared his mindset on football, telling The Boston Globe he was retiring. In that story, Dillon said: "The only way I would ponder getting on a flight is if the Patriots were in the Super Bowl, it was fourth and 1 on the goal line, and they needed me to pound it in. That's the only thing that would get me to put the pads on." I'm not sure if his mindset has changed, but the Buccaneers recently called Dillon to gauge his interest in helping fill their current void at running back and they were quickly rebuffed. So my thought right now is that Dillon isn't interested unless it's the Super Bowl, and I'm not even sure the Patriots would be that interested anyway.
I looked at the Cowboy game as a barometer for the Colts and I am a little concerned. I think the brilliance of Brady and the offense could be masking some issues with the defense. I know the defense ranks high statistically, but they gave up 27 points and almost 6.5 yards a carry. If Romo and Co., can do that, what will Manning and Co., do? To me, Owens/Crayton/Witten are definitely inferior to Harrison/Wayne/Clark. I think the Pats could be in trouble if they end up in a shoot-out.
Steve Meaver, Lincoln, R.I.
A: The defense had some noticeable breakdowns against the Cowboys, particularly at the end of the second quarter and start of the third quarter. But overall, I can only truly pin 17 of the 27 points on them. Seven other points were a result of a strip sack returned for a touchdown, and the other three came after a 72-yard kickoff return. The tackling was poor at times, but the defense also held the Cowboys to four three-and-out drives, one four-play drive, and intercepted one fourth-quarter pass. So it wasn't awful. When the Patriots have had tackling problems in the past, I've noted that it wouldn't take long for it to be corrected because the coaching is too good and the players too talented. I feel the same way today. As for the Colts, I agree that they possess the most lethal offense the Patriots will face this season. I don't think a performance like the defense had Sunday will be good enough. At the same time, I don't think what we saw Sunday will be the norm.
At the 59-second mark of the second quarter there was a penalty (false start by center Andre Gurode) called on the Cowboys. The referee announced that the penalty also called for a "10-second runoff" of the clock because the infraction occurred with less than one minute remaining. This runoff was never applied. Did you see this? Any comment as to what happened?
Matt Wladyka, Somerville
A: A few e-mailers had questions about this, Matt. The Cowboys had the option to use a timeout after the penalty, which by rule negated the 10-second runoff. Referee Mike Carey announced this to the crowd, but I assume the TV broadcast was in a commercial break.
As one of the elder statesmen of the Patriots, Kevin Faulk's accomplishments and contributions to this team are often overlooked. He is a very valuable third down back, great at blitz pickup and just about everything else they ask him to do. What is Kevin's contract situation?
Paul Boudreau, Greenfield
A: Faulk was one of the unsung contributors in Sunday's win. I'd put him in that category along with tight end Kyle Brady and the offensive line (in the second half). When Sammy Morris left the game on the second play of the third quarter, Faulk played in 32 of the final 39 snaps. It was a role reversal from the week before, when Faulk left the Browns' game with a right leg injury in the second quarter and Morris ended up playing 32 straight snaps at one point, and 39 of the final 46. As for Faulk's contract status, he is signed through 2009. Faulk's base salary in 2008 is $2.4 million and his salary cap charge is $3.5 million. His base salary in 2009 is $2.9 million and his salary cap charge is $4 million. Those are some pretty high numbers, and as we know, NFL contracts aren't guaranteed. I don't know if the Patriots will deem Faulk too rich for that money, and see if he might be willing to restructure. Or perhaps they will consider it good value considering that Faulk is such an integral part of the passing offense.
Could you comment on the play of Kyle Brady? He looks like a great fit for our 2 TE formations and seems to have really softened what could've been a big blow by losing Daniel Graham to Denver. Good for him to catch that TD against the Cowboys; I have seen him as a more unsung aspect to the success of the passing game via his protection skills.
Andrew Smith, Quincy
A: Excellent observation, Andrew. I've been charting the offensive participation of skill-position players this year and to my surprise, Brady has played the second most snaps among receivers and tight ends, lining up for 295 of a possible 407 snaps (kneel-downs not included; some penalties that weren't official plays but resulted in yardage included). Only Randy Moss, who has played a whopping 338 snaps, has been in for more. A lot of that has been protection based, as Brady (3 catches, 28 yards) often stays in as sort of a sixth offensive lineman. Still, I think he should be a leading candidate for the 12th player award, given to the player who exceeds expectations. Brady is now in his 13th NFL season, and I think some might have even been surprised that he landed a $2 million signing bonus as well as a $1.2 million base salary in 2007 and a $1.9 million base salary in 2008 at the start of free agency. But he's turned out to be a real value to this point.
We all know that Belichick will somehow find something negative in this game. One play that sticks out to me is the 69-yard TD pass to Stallworth. It was a great play on his part to stiff arm the last defender and get into the end zone. However, before he got there, he seemed to be taunting around the 10-yard line, not realizing that a Cowboy defender was going all out to pursue him. I would imagine that Belichick will have something to say to his team about this and maybe even show him Ben Watson's hustle play in the playoff game at Denver a couple of years ago, as well as Don Beebe's play in the Super Bowl.
A: You are correct, Ray. I am sure that play will go into the same file as Junior Seau's interception return the week before. While Seau's seemed to be more of a natural reaction (I really don't believe he knew what he was doing) than a taunt, they are both plays where ball security was poor. Belichick is the first to say that there is nothing more important than the ball, and Stallworth didn't take care of it well enough on that play.
So what is the story behind that last touchdown run (goal-line with under a minute to go)? Was Belichick sticking it to Wade Phillips for his comments about Spygate? Trying to get Eckel a chance at a touchdown? Seems like BB would usually take a knee and not look to run up the score in that situation.
Ron Biggs, Boston
A: Belichick explained his decision-making process on his regularly scheduled appearance on WEEI on Monday, and noted that even with a 14-point lead he didn't feel comfortable taking a knee and giving the ball back to the Cowboys at their own 5-yard line with 23 seconds remaining. That seems slightly curious to me. I suppose that if the Cowboys didn't use their final timeout with 1:48 left, the Patriots might have taken a knee and run out the clock and perhaps that timeout changed the Patriots' thinking. By calling the timeout, the Cowboys were indicating that they weren't conceding. My initial thought at the game was that Belichick viewed it as an opportunity to work on the goal-line package with Kyle Eckel, who will probably see more time with Sammy Morris likely to be out. If Belichick had said that on the radio, I would have bought it. But based on his explanation, I am obviously changing my tune a bit.
How about some kudos being thrown at the o-line? They are a huge part of Brady's success.
David LeDuc, Niceville, Fla.
A: The Patriots needed to make some adjustments in pass protection in the second half, because the Cowboys called some schemes that surprised them. Tom Brady had been sacked three times through the first 31 minutes of the game, at which point the Patriots were about to fall behind 24-21. From that point on, the line buckled down, didn't allow another sack, and the Patriots scored 27 points. It is no coincidence that as the pass protection improved, so did the Patriots' overall performance. They outscored the Cowboys 27-3 from that point on.
Rodney Harrison seemed to be a step behind all day in pass coverage. Did you see it that way and are you concerned?
Paul Lynn, Missoua, Mont.
A: At the time of this writing, I have not had the chance to watch the game again, so I don't feel 100 percent comfortable with answering this one. Harrison obviously was targeted at the end of the second quarter, when Cowboys tight end Jason Witten caught three straight passes on a scoring drive. But other than that, I didn't notice it as much, and felt Harrison's ability to effectively jam Witten at the line of scrimmage -- playing a linebacker-like role -- was instrumental in the game-plan. Witten was held to just three catches in the game, all on that drive, so I have to believe Harrison was a big part of that. He also had a nice play on a first-quarter sack of Tony Romo, and I distinctly recall him blowing up the line of scrimmage on Marion Barber's 2-yard run, forcing him back into the end zone. While he missed a tackle later on that play, it was still an impressive effort in my opinion. As for Harrison in coverage in other areas, I'll need more time to answer that one.
The last two weeks it looks as though the offense was sluggish at times (what was Brady, 11 for 21 at one point passing?). Still, the machine keeps racking up points in staggering numbers. Are we just getting spoiled or is this offense capable of more than what we've seen so far?
Brian Hall, Nashua
A: I don't know how it can get much better, Brian. Yes, they stumbled a bit in the third quarter against the Browns and were 2 of 12 on third down that day. And yes, the running game wasn't particularly effective against the Cowboys this past Sunday, but I think that was more reflective of the game-plan and play-calling (they wanted to throw it). Overall, no offense goes through a game, or season, clicking in every area. But I think what we're seeing is that the Patriots are so explosive that even in games when some things break down or aren't a point of emphasis, they have enough weaponry in other areas to get the job done.
I had a question on what the rule is for illegal hands to the face/stiff-arms. What is the difference between what a RB does (like Marion Barber) vs. a DB or OL getting penalized for touching the face mask? I've seen a lot of defensive players needing to adjust their helmets afterwards?
Steve S., Marlborough
A: The only restriction for a running back is that he can't grab and twist the face mask. Otherwise, he can use his hand any way want to push a defender off, and we saw that from Barber, who delivered some powerful blows to the helmet of would-be tacklers. What a powerful runner. Defensively, any contact with the face mask results in a 5-yard penalty. If the officials rule that a defender twisted and turned the face mask, it is a 15-yard penalty.
I was curious if you could shed some light on our running strategy vs. the Cowboys. We kept trying to run it right up the middle with little or no success in the first half. Then we came back in the second half and did the same exact thing, again with little or no success. I guess I'm wondering why, for a coach who is lauded as being one of the best at making halftime adjustments, Belichick chose to come back with the same strategy.
Jesse Cyr, Wilmington, Del.
A: I don't think the running game was a big part of the Patriots' plan. They felt the Cowboys' weakness was in the secondary, so this was about the passing game, as evidenced by the split between passes (46) and runs (29, and 11 coming on the final 2 drives). The Cowboys have a big, physical front seven, and I think part of the Patriots' strategy was similar -- but not to the same extreme -- to what they did against Minnesota last year. They figured the way to win was through the air, and the run was utilized more to keep the Cowboys honest.
I had nightmares Sunday after seeing what I thought was a return of the crappy "Big Nickel" scheme with 3 safeties at the end of the 2nd & beginning of the 3rd quarters. From your vantage point in the press box, how were they lined up in that package? On TV, the front sort of looked like the nickel look they showed vs. Cincy with a LOLB and the 3 regular down guys, but with the ROLB spot vacant. Please shed some light on this so I can stop having hot flashes of Victor Green in 2002.
A: The Patriots' use of their "big nickel" -- with Rodney Harrison, James Sanders, and Eugene Wilson -- seemed to be specifically designed to limit the effectiveness of the Cowboys' top offensive weapon, tight end Jason Witten. In that sense, other than a drive at the end of the second quarter in which Witten caught three passes (his only 3 of the game), the Patriots accomplished their goal of not letting Witten beat them. That forced the Cowboys to beat them in other areas, which at times they did (running game), and at other times, they didn't. As for how the safeties were lined up, I thought Harrison was mostly at the line of scrimmage, jamming Witten. But I haven't had a chance to watch the game again at the time of this writing, so I don't feel 100 percent confident answering the question.
Any update as to why Mike Wright started over Jarvis Green this week? Is Green hurt, or was this a scheme change? Jim Nantz and Phil Simms mentioned that the Pats were playing a lot with 1 lineman, lining up linebackers in place of DL's, but why Wright over Green to start?
Brian Yavanian, Durham, N.C.
A: In his radio appearance Monday on WEEI, Bill Belichick mentioned that it was part of the defensive packages the Patriots had for the game. By utilizing a 1-4-6 dime package, with Green as the lone lineman, perhaps they wanted to keep Green fresh for when they used that look. But I also wouldn't be surprised if another part of it is that Green did not have his best game the week before against the Browns. Cleveland ran at his side of the field on the majority of its running plays that day, and stuff like that shows up on tape for other teams to see, especially when it's the Patriots' former defensive coordinator (Romeo Crennel) making the decision.
Who was the guy at Tom Brady's post-game press conference Sunday who blurted out, "Champ! Champ! Talk about the long touchdown pass to Donte Stallworth. It looked like you two were doing the Jitterbug, and the Dallas secondary was doing the Charleston"? He asked a similar question to Belichick.
Mike, Charlotte, N.C.
A: That was someone who works for a Dallas sports radio station, and apparently he has a shtick of being a 1920s reporter. I was told he asks questions like that from time to time.
Do you think the Patriots or Colts have a chance at going 16-0? Do the Patriots at least have a shot at 14-2?
Michael Liber, Encinitas, Calif.
A: Yes and yes. Right now, it looks to me like the NFL power structure is the Patriots, Colts, and then everybody else. I see both teams in a strong position to be 14-2. As for 16-0, you have to figure both teams will have at least one off day and that it won't happen. But it's hard not to consider the possibility based on the excellence both teams have displayed this season.
I've been impressed with the contributions of Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and Heath Evans this season, but I must admit I'm a tiny bit concerned about Maroney. I know most teams are going to a two-back system, where one guy doesn't take 20 to 25 carries per game. I'm hoping that's the long-term plan because I don't know if Maroney is ready from an endurance perspective to be a feature back. I remember watching him split carries with Barber, Russell, and Tapeh at Minnesota and I'm not sure if he's ever had to carry the load by himself. Maybe it doesn't matter as a two- or three-back system will work great with our offense, but I have my doubts that a team that values the draft as much as the Pats would spend the 21st pick for a 10-to-15 carry a game back. I would think they had more in mind for him when they selected him. They must be a little concerned about his durability in Foxborough, especially since he hasn't been able to carry the load yet in college or the pros. However, if that's one a few issues to be concerned with, life is pretty good for the Pats right now.
Kevin Forbes, Natick
A: Fair point, Kevin. My only thought is that Maroney projects to be more than a 10- to 15-carry back. I would put him in the 18- to 22-carry range. I'm not sure if that would change your opinion on the idea that he is a featured back vs. sharing the load. I don't think he'll ever be a bellcow like Corey Dillon was for the Patriots in 2004, when Dillon rushed it 345 times and the next highest total on the team was Kevin Faulk's 54, but I still see an 18- to 22-carry back as a lead back in today's NFL. I think the way the Patriots viewed Maroney in the draft was that he is an explosive talent who has game-breaking ability any time he touches the ball. You need playmakers like that, someone who can make those touches count and win games for you (like the Bengals game in 2006; or his kickoff returns). One final point: You are not alone in expressing concern regarding Maroney. Several other e-mailers have made the same point. I think it's a fair topic for discussion, but would caution anyone from writing Maroney off at this point.
Can you clarify something about the Pat's red zone defense? Where do they rank in terms of opponents' red zone possessions? With 12 possessions in six games, their defense seems to be doing a remarkable job of keeping opponents out of the red zone. This last-in-the-red-zone defense ranking needs some context.
Bob Smietana, Wildwood, Ill.
A: The Patriots have surrendered nine touchdowns on those 12 red-zone trips by opponents. That ranks as the third fewest in the NFL, behind the defenses of Pittsburgh (7) and Minnesota (11). But considering that Pittsburgh and Minnesota have had their off weeks, the numbers are a bit skewed and reflect more favorably on the Patriots. Each Friday, I post a "stat check" on Boston.com, and will now include this context into the red-zone defense stat.
Do you know what kinds of incentives are in Randy Moss' contract? If defenses continue to double him and his numbers continue to fall off from the gaudy levels of the first three games, is there a chance he might miss some incentives, which could make him unhappy? And if so, would the Patriots forgive the incentives and pay them anyway to ensure they can re-sign him?
Jason Rubin, Melrose
A: Moss has $2 million of incentives that are tied to receptions. I am not sure what number he needs to hit, but I don't think we're heading toward a situation where Moss will be unhappy. If he keeps playing like he has been -- and I'm talking about being on the field for an enormous number of snaps -- he'll get what's coming to him.
Have you heard anything about Richard Seymour? Is he ever going to play this year?
Bright C. Ukandu, Chicopee
A: I think Seymour will play this year. I believe he has improved since the start of the year. ESPN.com recently reported that he is expected back by early November if he continues to make positive progress.
With Chad Jackson available to come off the PUP, do you think they will activate him anytime soon. It's hard to see Kelly Washington having a future with the Patriots and he isn't contributing much this season (offensive-wise) so why not get Jackson on the squad and maybe get him a few reps. A lot of people are calling him a bust, but it seems to me he has a huge upside but has had some tough injury breaks so far and needs the playing time to realize his potential. Any possibility of trading Washington?
John Tchorz, Carlsbad, Calif.
A: Over the last few weeks, I've been writing that I think Jackson is more of a projection for 2008 than this season. I am now thinking differently. I think Jackson is at least healthy enough to be an option this year. The trade deadline is today (Oct. 16) and if the Patriots could receive value for one of their back-end receivers such as Kelley Washington, I could see them making a move. But that is unlikely. So then the question is if the Patriots activate Jackson, what happens to the other receivers on the roster? So right now, the Patriots have a surplus and it's hard to see how it will shake out. The Patriots also have defensive lineman Richard Seymour, receiver Troy Brown, and cornerback Eddie Jackson on the PUP, now eligible to be activated.
I read Brady and Warren were fined $5,000 and $10,000 for not buckling their chinstraps. Is this true? I guess the players union is fighting the fines. The NFL seems to want total control of the players. Some of this I like; some I think is taking the fun out of the game.
Susan Wheeler, El Cajon, Calif.
A: The New Bedford (Mass.) Standard Times reported the fines for the chinstraps last week. The NFL does not confirm "uniform-related" fines, and I have not been able to confirm if the players were fined. But I can see it being true, because the NFL is focusing on that area this year. A league spokesman said last week that the league's studies into concussions has them focusing more on the chinstraps this year, and players are initially warned if those chinstraps are unbuckled. If they continue to leave the chinstrap unbuckled after warnings, that is when they are subject to fines.
Two-part question: What happens when another team signs a player from our practice squad; is there any compensation? Also what is the status of Oscar Lua? He seemed to be coming into his own in that last preseason game and then the injury. He looked like a young Tedy Bruschi. Any updates?
Philip Berardinelli, Braintree
A: There is no compensation when a team signs a player away from another club's practice squad. As for Lua, he is on injured reserve, and thus is out for the season after injuring his knee in the preseason.
What are your thoughts on the rest of the division? It almost seems unfair for the Pats to be in a division where the rest of the teams are a combined 2-15. Should they just sit the starters now and wait till the post season?
Justin Herget, Meriden, Conn.
A: The AFC East has fallen on some hard times. I think it's the worst division in football right now, with the AFC West and NFC North right behind.
Is Patrick Pass still in the NFL?
Lee Nash, Cranston, R.I.
A: Pass currently is not with a team, although he recently has worked out for a few clubs (the Lions last week). If the Patriots are in a pinch, perhaps they'll look at Pass.