Pleased with 7-0 start, fans still have questions on run defense, backup QB, and the Colts
FOXBOROUGH There is a noticeable theme in this weeks mailbag. While fans seem to be pleased with the Patriots 7-0 start, this weeks bag is filled with concerns about run defense, questions about how the Patriots match up with the Colts, and the backup quarterback situation.
Not one question on Sundays opponent, the Washington Redskins, who will look to play the role of spoiler at Gillette Stadium (4:15 p.m. kickoff). I personally think the Redskins are going to play the Patriots tougher than any opponent to this point this season.
On to the questions...
Hi Mike. Enjoy reading your pieces. I am getting worried about the Pats defense - especially run defense. Do you think they started easing up because of the unassailable lead in the second half or are they just playing bad? Do you see it the same way or do you see no cause for concern?
Nagen Murti, Framingham
A: I dont think the Patriots eased up their effort, although they did substitute more liberally in the second half, so we saw more of reserves like outside linebacker Pierre Woods and defensive linemen Le Kevin Smith and Santonio Thomas. The performance was poor for the second straight week, specifically the tackling, as the last two opponents averaged 6 yards per carry against the Patriots. It looked to me like the Patriots were out of position at times, and other times they simply missed tackles. This is one of the top concerns for the coaching staff, because run defense has been the foundation of Bill Belichick-coached teams and the Patriots arent getting it done in recent weeks.
The Pats may have won huge over Miami but I think the defense stunk! The only reason why opponents haven't scored more is that the offense is on the field keeping the other team off the field where they can do no harm. Reminds me of the Colts and KC teams of a few years ago, lose even when scoring 30 points. What is your read? And am I crazy or is Wilfork back to taking himself out of plays again rather than occupying the middle and taking up two blockers?
A: My read is that the Patriots defense has played poorly the last two weeks, and one of the main parts of that has been bad tackling. Ive said this before when the Patriots have fallen into similar ruts this team is too well coached and too talented to have that continue on a long-term basis. I think theyll get it turned around, but my question would be can they get it turned around in time for the Colts game, because if the defense plays like that, the Patriots probably lose that game. As for Wilfork, Sunday might have been his worst game this season, but overall, Ive seen him playing at a Pro Bowl level.
I saw Vrabel stopping runs on the right side of the defense (offensive left side). Did him and Colvin get switched to help them out with their run defense on that side? Is Jarvis Green really that suspect against the run? I ask because I'm worried about our run defense later on in the season and the playoffs, when teams start to pound the ball on us more, especially if Seymour ends up not coming back. I'm also wondering what happened to Stephen Neal. Why did Hochstein come in for him? I know he's off the injury list, but is he still hurting? If so, do you know if it's bad?
A: Vrabel did switch sides in Sundays game. He has regularly been lining up on the defensive left (offensive right side), but I think the Patriots shifted him because they felt the Dolphins would run more behind left tackle Vernon Carey, so why not put your best outside linebacker on that side? I saw the move more as a reflection on Vrabels excellence than someone elses lack of execution. It should also be noted that Vrabel bull-rushed tight end David Martin from his regular spot on the defensive left early in the first quarter, pushing him into Cleo Lemon and contributing to his lost fumble. On the Hochstein for Neal swap, I think that was strictly to get Hochstein some playing time, not performance or injury based. We also saw Ryan OCallaghan and Billy Yates, two other reserve offensive linemen, get some playing time in the second half.
I looked at the Dolphins game stats and noticed that the Pats D was on the field for 35 minutes and 70 plays (vs. 51 for Miami). Those are numbers I usually associate with a loss. Are the Pats, then, a victim of their own incredible offensive success? The offense takes the field, averages 12.4 yards a pass and 8.7 yards a play, moves down field slam bam in a couple of minutes, scores a TD and then puts the D back on the field without a blow. It's a nice problem to have, but it might start to wear the D down. Any thoughts?
John Keller, New York, NY
A: I had a similar discussion Monday, reflecting on the old Bills K-Gun offense with quarterback Jim Kelly. They were so effective in the late '80s and early '90s that it often put their own defense in a tough spot, forced to spend too much time on the field. For the Patriots, this was an isolated incident when looking at the entire seven-game slate to this point. The team averages a time of possession of 35:08, which ranks second in the NFL behind Pittsburgh.
Why is no one giving the Patriots offensive line credit at all for giving Brady time to connect with Moss? Everyone gets credit except the offensive line, which is really why everyone else is doing so well.
Orris Whitley, Hanford, Calif.
A: I think this is a great point, and after watching the game again, I have to note the play of left guard Logan Mankins. He is extremely impressive in both pass protection and in the running game (one first-quarter play he pulled and opened a hole on Laurence Maroneys 8-yard gain). Former Oklahoma University and Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer agrees with you, as speaking on XM Radio on Monday he said: New England protects their quarterback and they have the best in the league, that's the explanation of why they are so good, if you protect the quarterback he's going to find someone to throw to, because it's just like in practice. If you watch any pro quarterback in practice he doesn't take any hits and he gets to stand back there and they have fun throwing and catching the ball. Brady gets an opportunity to stand there really protected well and he can deliver the ball to anybody.
Another great victory against the Dolphins but the one and only fear I have about my Pats was shown today for the whole world to see -- if Tom goes down our season is over. What was a more stunning event was not Matt Cassel's interception, but the fact that Bill didn't allow him to come back after Tom was finished for the day for the second time! If you don't have the confidence in your backup, what is the point of keeping him on the roster? I do hope that Matt Cassel is gone after this season because I have no confidence in him either.
Patrick Flanagan, Milton, Vt.
A: I wouldnt go that far, Patrick. Naturally, there is going to be a drop off from Tom Brady to any backup quarterback, because Brady is that good. And I agree that Cassel did not look good, committing the one mistake you just cant make, throwing the pick-six. That being said, I cant take that one play and say that Cassels future is doomed. It was one play. I think any player deserves to be judged on a larger sample. What about his impressive preseason performance? That has to count for something. Id also mention that I can think of other teams in the same situation namely the Colts who would be in a tougher spot if they have to turn to their backup quarterback.
Based on his Miami performance, do you think Matt Cassel will remain No. 2 on the QB depth chart?
Tom Williams, Vernon, Conn.
A: I do think Cassel will remain No. 2 on the depth chart, although the gap between him and third-stringer Matt Gutierrez could be closing. I know it was a short six-play drive that included five handoffs, but I remain impressed with the poise of Gutierrez and the way he leads a huddle. He just has a presence of having been there, and I dont always get that same feeling from Cassel. That being said, I would reiterate my thoughts that one three-play series should not determine Cassels future. Thats not fair to him, because its a small sample of his overall body of work over two and a half years. The Patriots like his smarts, work ethic and leadership qualities.
Sunday's game against Miami again demonstrated how valuable Tom Brady is to the Patriots overall success. With the passing game so successful, and dependable, why not keep a running back in the backfield to add another layer of protection for Tom Brady and our season?
John Ryan, Worcester
A: Any decision to keep an extra player in for protection means youre giving something else up down the field. In Sundays game, the Patriots ran 44 of their 52 snaps in either three-wide or four-wide formations, a reflection of how the team was not keeping extra backs in to protect so they had more options to attack down the field. The offensive line remains one of the unsung units on the team. Brady was sacked once a credit to the line, tight ends and backs and it was a play in which I felt he probably should have thrown the ball away.
You had QB Matt Gutierrez listed as inactive before the game with the Dolphins, but he did play. Was there a late change to the inactive list or is there a loophole in allowing a declared 'inactive' player to still play?
A: Gutierrez was the third quarterback, which meant he counted as one of the teams eight inactive players. But as the third quarterback, he is still eligible to enter a game. In 1991, the third quarterback rule was instituted to enable teams to have an emergency quarterback available who was not on the 45-man game-day active roster since many teams, for strategic purposes, only carried two quarterbacks on their game-day roster. The rule states that if a third quarterback is inserted before the fourth quarter, a team's first two quarterbacks cannot be used in the game at any position. It is a coach's decision as to whether a third quarterback will be used. The active quarterbacks do not have to be injured for a team to use its third quarterback.
Just posted a moment ago about "running it up." Specifically, I'm annoyed about how supposed NFL experts are accusing the Patriots of running it up. As mentioned before, how many times do we have to see comebacks. Look at today, Houston comes back from 32-7 at the end of the third quarter to take the lead 36-35 with less than a minute left. Yeah, the Titans eventually won but it should never have been that close.
Dan Antocicco, Webster, NY
A: My thoughts exactly, Dan. I had a fellow writer from a newspaper from another city text message me during the game, and his thought was that the Patriots were classless and running it up. He thought the fake spike play at the end of the second quarter was disingenuous. His feeling is that this is the Bill Belichick Vengeance Tour. As for me, I dont buy into the running it up stuff. Ive seen instances where teams come back from deficits like that, so I have no problem with the approach at all. I was surprised on the flight home from Miami to hear the topic being debated on ESPN, because I just think it is trying to make something out of nothing. I particularly enjoyed seeing Bill Belichicks passionate response after the game when asked about going to the no-huddle offense at the end of the first half while leading 35-7. After hearing Belichick say a lot of the same things after games we did some good things, some things not so good it was refreshing to see him go off the script a bit.
As much deserved credit as the Patriots have received so far this season, are the Colts using this as quiet motivation since they're the champs and haven't lost yet this season (at least as of Sunday)? It's almost a reverse of what we're used to as Pats fans.
Jim, Bryan, Ohio
I saw the Colts three weeks ago, and I can tell you that they are keeping a long-distance eye on the Patriots, just as the Patriots have kept a long-distance eye on the Colts. I do think the Colts are flying under the radar a bit, because much of the national attention has been focused on the Patriots and their dominating style of wins. In the end, I dont think either team will need motivation for that matchup. Best two teams in the league. Rematch of the AFC championship game. The most anticipated matchup of the season. Personnel in upper management that dont necessarily see eye to eye. Different styles of play. Should be a great game.
It seems to me that the role has been reversed this year, with the Pats offense really hitting on all cylinders and the Colts under the radar. It seems we forget that these Colts are the defending champs. Do you see the game as a shootout or do you think our defense can contain this Colts unit? The D hasn't look all that scary lately.
Seth Beecher, Enfield, Conn.
A: I see the game as more of a shootout, with two offenses operating at an extremely high level. In the end, I think the team that wins will play the best complementary football, between offense, defense and special teams. Right now, I think the Patriots would be favored going into the game.
If you are Tony Dungy, what is your game plan against New England?
Chris Watson, Swanzey, NH
A: The game plan is to run our lethal offense and force the Patriots to stop what you do, with tight end Dallas Clark a key piece. I want to see how the Patriots defend Clark, who can line up in all different spots. Defensively, well rush four and hope to get pressure while dropping seven into coverage and playing our trademark fast style. Well also play conservative on coverage units, where the Patriots have a decided edge.
I'm a native Bostonian trying to keep up from Denver. I've been trying to get an update on Richard Seymour, what is his status. At the beginning of the year I thought I read that he was out for the first six games?
Dave Doherty, Denver, Colo.
A: Seymour opened the year on the physically unable to perform list due to his knee, which meant the first time he was eligible to return was after the sixth game of the season. But Seymour is not yet ready to return due to the health of his knee. Perhaps this week hell begin to practice, but assuming he remains on a positive course, I wouldnt expect him on the field until Nov. 4 against the Colts at the earliest.
When can we expect to see Troy Brown?
A: Dont know on this one. Brown had serious knee surgery in the offseason, and at the time of the procedure, there was some question as to whether he would be able to play again. Im not sure how hes progressing getting that injury information is a challenge so Browns potential return remains an unknown. On Monday, Bill Belichick said both Brown and Seymour were making progress, although the comments were in the context of every player making positive strides.
With the Pats already stacked at WR and two PUP'ers in the queue, how do you see this playing out down the stretch? It doesn't seem like any of the existing five would be expendable at this point since you constantly point out Washington's presence on special teams. With that being said, do Troy and Jackson have a place on this team?
A: I think Jackson will find a way onto the roster. Brown, I am not as certain. I could envision Jacksons return coinciding with Watsons return to health, and thus Marcellus Rivers could be expendable to make room for Jackson.
Do you have any idea what Randy Moss's touchdown celebration symbolizes? I started to notice this in the San Diego game and he has been doing it all season. Also, has Donte' Stallworth's recently improved performance been more a result of defenses rolling coverage to Moss or an improved understanding of the offense/improved health with his hamstring?
Matt Butler, Wilmington, Del.
A: Moss's celebration of putting the back of his hands together and then moving his hands outward is something he created to remind those who questioned him that he can still split defenses. As for Stallworth, I credit his increased production with his familiarity and comfort level with the offense.
Any updates on Watson? With the potential shootout coming up in Indy, I'd hate to have our best tight end out.
Glenn Williams, Brighton
A: We should have a better idea this week if Watson is out on the practice field. I am expecting him to miss the Redskins game this week, with the hope he might be ready for the Colts game.
What is the latest with David Thomas? And can you detail more about the chest injury suffered by Sammy Morris? Are his ribs smashed?
Edie Yoder, Vineyard Haven
A: Thomas is on season-ending injured reserve after breaking his foot. We wont see him until next season. As for Morris, it wasnt his ribs but instead a bone that connects the sternum to the collarbone, which was first reported by the Boston Herald. Its a very painful injury and is expected to keep Morris out through the bye week (Nov. 11) and potentially much longer.
Mike Vrabel and Vince Wilfork have recently been fined for on-field conduct. Are other players around the league also being fined for their conduct or is this just the league picking on the Pats?
Al Struthers, Peterborough, NH
A: Sure, other players around the league are being fined, such as Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher last week, who was hit with a $7,500 fine for unnecessary roughness against Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. That being said, I sense that the Patriots are being watched very, very closely, perhaps more closely than others. The Vrabel fine, for example, was one I felt was not warranted. The Wilfork fine for the late hit against the Cowboys, however, seemed to be fair.
I believe Moss is playing on a one-year contract. This has got to be on the mind of the front office. Are there any plans to get this guy locked in for a few more years?
Rich Maini, Orlando, Fla.
A: Seems like this question pops up each week. Moss is on a one-year contract. Because he restructured his contract to consummate his trade to the Patriots, he cannot restructure again in this NFL calendar year (assuming there is an increase in salary/salary cap hit) per the collective bargaining agreement. So while the Patriots would obviously like to see Moss return, its a bit early to tackle this issue at this time. If I had to place a guess on if Moss returns, I would say yes.
As (1) the Dolphins are doing a general house cleaning, (2) the Patriots will lose one or two of their older linebackers next season and (3) still highly talented and versatile Dolphins DE Jason Taylor has now contradicted his coach about the REAL rebuilding crisis in Miami, is it possible that Taylor could be a Patriots role player LB-DL acquisition for 2008?
Pete Clark, England
A: If the Dolphins were foolish enough to let him go, sure I could see this. But I just cant imagine the Dolphins upper management doing that, especially after seeing how the Wes Welker situation worked out. In my opinion, you dont trade an impact player like Taylor, who I would argue is more than a role player at this point, within your division. Thats why I still think the Dolphins handling of the Welker situation tendering him at only a second-round level as a restricted free agent was one of the worst personnel decisions in the NFL this past offseason.
How did Kyle Brady look as a starter Sunday?
Bill North, Boston
A: Brady was on the field for 32 of the teams 52 offensive snaps, logging the most snaps of the teams tight ends. Brady continues to be one of the teams unsung performers, providing help as an extra blocker and also becoming a moderate presence in the short-area passing game and on the goal-line. Hes another example of how the Patriots find great value on the free-agent market. When he was signed to that two-year contract with a $2 million signing bonus and base salaries of $1.2 million (2007) and $1.7 million* (2008), I think even he might have been surprised that a player at his age (35) and at this point of his career could command that dough. He is not as fast as most tight ends, and doesnt get the same separation in the passing game as some of other more dynamic receiving tight ends, Brady is arguably the top blocking tight end in the NFL along with former Patriot Daniel Graham.
I noticed that Bill Belichick has loosened up and is letting his coordinators speak with the press more than in past years. I'm enjoying the extra insight from Dean Pees and Josh McDaniels. Any thoughts as to what caused this change of heart?
Bob Degon, Bellingham
A: The NFL, in working with the Pro Football Writers Association, has required teams to make assistant coaches available. So from a Patriots perspective, we talk with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels one week, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees the next. I have thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of the job, and getting to know both coaches and how they approach their craft.