Colts expose major Pats weakness
Boston Globe Patriots writer Mike Reiss checks in every Tuesday with his take on the Pats. Ask your question now, and come back next week to see if it was answered.
While the defensive play by most Patriots has been subpar, something has to be said about defensive schemes. How has every opposing receiver been so wide open this season and we have made stars out of backups like Atlanta's Matt Schaub when we once were proud of confusing the best of quarterbacks. The Colts' receivers were never challenged and were open for even the off-balance throws from Peyton Manning.
Nayab Zafar, Columbia, Mo.
A: Hard to dispute this point. The Colts' hurry-up offense put pressure on the defense and there was never a solid counterpunch. I think it is fair to say there should be further inspection of the defensive schemes. From a stat perspective, the Patriots are ranked 31st in yards allowed per game (370.9), 27th in rushing yards allowed per game (128.9), 27th in passing yards allowed per game (242), 30th in first downs allowed per game (21.25), 28th in third down efficiency (46-of-107, 43 percent), and 30th in points allowed per game (27.5). The numbers speak for themselves.
I cannot stand to watch Duane Starks get burned anymore. If he gets alone with an opponent's receiver he can't get it done. On a more positive note, I think Rosevelt Colvin is coming on as a factor on defense. Mike Vrabel's move to middle linebacker may have caused this but it is nice to see Rosie getting his game back. My question is when can we expect to see Starks join Tyrone Poole on any team other than the Pats?
Chris W., Portland, Maine
A: Starks was benched for the second half of Monday night's game so his role on the team right now is in some question. In the locker room after the game, Starks said: "When things aren't going right, I understand people are going to point fingers. If they want to point the finger at me, that's fine." Colvin has logged the bulk of plays at outside linebacker the last two weeks. He was credited with nine tackles against the Colts, and six tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one pass defended against the Bills last week. He has been more of a factor on defense.
I'm losing a lot of respect for Corey Dillon. Fine, he's hurt, but to keep making comments about his age and then go out and perform like he did is disappointing. Last year, when a defender was in front of him, Corey plowed right through. This year, and particularly against the Colts, he turns around and backs into them. He seems afraid to initiate direct contact. Do you think there's a mental aspect to why he's struggling this year?
Jason Rubin, Melrose
A: I don't think Dillon's performance is due to any mental aspect, but wouldn't be surprised to learn his ankle is bothering him more than we know. The bottom line is usually results, and here they are: In seven games he has 441 yards on 126 carries (3.5 avg.), seven touchdowns and one lost fumble. In his first seven games last year, Dillon had 749 yards on 154 carries (4.8 avg.), four touchdowns and one lost fumble. So he had 308 more yards at this point last year.
How should the Patriots handle the rest of the season? They'll squeeze into the playoffs because the AFC East division is so weak, but it's hard to imagine them going very far -- not due to lack of effort, but because, despite Tom Brady's being upset, Marty Schottenheimer's point seems indisputable: too many key players -- above all Rodney Harrison -- have been injured. Not anyone's fault, simply reality. So how can the rest of the season be maximized to set things up for next year?
David Caploe, San Francisco
A: First and foremost, I think the team needs to correct the problems that have led to its inconsistency -- win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. While it is hard to imagine them going far in the playoffs, a lot can change between Week 10 and the end of the season. Not saying the same thing will happen, but the Patriots were 5-5 through 10 games of their 2001 Super Bowl season. So I think by giving their full attention to their current problems -- and not thinking about how they can position themselves for next year -- is the best approach right now.
Do you see the Pats making any moves to pick up any secondary personnel? Since we have a wealth of receivers, do you see Troy Brown helping out on defense again? Also, last night's game is not as important as next week's. Let's concentrate on winning the division and a chance to make up for the loss in the playoffs.
Ben Benoit, Douglassville, Pa.
A: The Patriots currently have slightly less than $500,000 in salary cap space, so they don't have a lot of flexibility. Even then, it's hard to find All-Pros, or even starting-quality players, at this time of year. Usually there is a good reason that player isn't on a team. In terms of Brown on defense, my feeling is that the team, and Brown himself, would like to avoid that this year. My guess is that would only happen in an emergency.
Didn't it seem like Bethel Johnson was putting in a half-hearted effort on kickoff returns in the second half? Granted, the whole team was overmatched against the Colts, but Johnson's seeming lack of effort was inexcusable. I'd rather have Ellis Hobbs or Tim Dwight back there who'll at least hit the hole hard each time.
A. Paradis, Lexington
A: Johnson finished with seven returns for 118 yards (16.9 avg.), which is low production from that spot. It is hard to judge effort, but the production certainly wasn't there. For perspective, Tampa Bay ranks last in the NFL in kickoff return yardage, averaging 19 yards per return.
Monday's game against the Colts was excruciating to watch. The Patriots' defense was awful. The secondary did absolutely nothing throughout the whole evening, except let the Colts catch almost every pass thrown to them. This brings back nightmares of the Patriots of old and I have not had that feeling in a long time. What can be done? I understand we have injuries, but I do not want to watch this happen again, when we go to Indianapolis in the playoffs. Is it time to move Troy Brown back to defense? I think it is time for Starks to get benched. Also with the Colts up 19 points did they really have to go for two points?
Ben Peasley, Lakewood, Colo.
A: 1) As for what can be done, the area to start with -- as you mentioned -- is the defense. Clearly something isn't right, whether it's personnel, schemes, lack of pressure up front, coverage in the secondary or something else. 2) While Troy Brown performed admirably on defense in 2004, my feeling is that his presence alone won't help the current defense. 3) Starks was benched for the second half of last night's game. 4) Didn't have a problem with Indianapolis going for 2, as they were hoping to make it a three-score game. Stranger things have happened and Indianapolis was involved in a 2003 game where it scored three touchdowns in the final four minutes to beat the Buccaneers 38-35. So perhaps they had some recent history in mind and didn't want to be on the other end of that occurrence.
I know this question isn't new, but what's up with the injuries? Every team deals with them, but to this extent? I would be interested to see some team injury info and see how the Pats look compared to other teams. Are we just more aware of our team's situation or what?
Jim D., Sarasota, Fla.
A: Let's use this past week as an example. The Patriots listed 17 players on their most recent report (2 out, 14 questionable, 1 probable). Using NFL.com as a resource, that figure was the most in the NFL, followed by Pittsburgh (16) and Oakland (13). The team with the fewest players listed on an injury report was Carolina (2). The average number of players listed on injury reports this week was 7.8 per team. As for how genuine/accurate this injury information is, I'd say it's "questionable" at best.
I want to put a pressure question on you. You are the GM/Director of Pro-Personnel. What would you do with this team? Seems like this is the 2002 season all over again.
Kyle Mcfarland, South Glens Falls, NY
A: Try to infuse some talent on the defensive side of the ball, specifically in the secondary with either a hard-hitting safety or a physical corner who is strong in run support. There are other areas, too, but that's where I would start.
I realize the NFL uses a formula to determine who plays who -- and who is at home and away each year. However, in the last 25 years, it seems the Pats go to Denver way more than the Broncos visiting the Pats. And we rarely see the other three teams from the AFC West. What are the numbers vs. those four teams: home vs. away the last 25 years?
John Bernardo, Yorktown, Va.
A: Counting playoffs, here is the breakdown since 1981: The Patriots have played the Broncos 17 times, the Chiefs 10 times, the Raiders nine times, and the Chargers seven times. Of the 17 games against the Broncos, 12 have been on the road. Of the 10 games against the Chiefs, five have been on the road. Of the nine games against the Raiders, four have been on the road. Of the seven games against the Chargers, three have been on the road.
Mike -- even when we get Richard Seymour and (possibly) Rodney Harrison back, it is obvious the Patriot needs a major rebuilding effort on their defense. Rodney and Willie are getting up there in years. The younger players like Eugene Wilson, Ty Warren, and Vince Wilfork are not going to the Pro Bowl anytime soon. Do we need to clean house on defense? Who are the keepers on this defense?
Bill Hughes, Bainbridge Island, Wash.
A: Not so sure this defense needs a major rebuilding effort. Sometimes just one or two players can make a world of difference. At the same time, the point is a good one when you look at the age of players like Willie McGinest (33 next month); he is entering the final years of his career. On the flip side, some of the younger players have a lot of football ahead of them and they could develop into Pro Bowlers down the line. I think there are several keepers here, but the key will be finding a few additions to complement them.
I feel the Patriots offense moves the ball the best when it's involving the tight ends in the passing game. I realize our youth on the offensive line, and the need for them to help block, but Ben Watson and Daniel Graham are too athletic not to be utilized. What are your thoughts?
Josh Blais, South Burlington, Vt.
A: Agreed. Graham has 14 catches for 198 yards and three touchdowns, while Watson has 10 catches for 170 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers are less than what I would have anticipated at this point of the year. That said, I think the offense moves the ball the best when running back Corey Dillon is barreling over defenders, which we haven't seen as much in 2005 as last year. If presented the choice of the tight ends being more involved or Dillon's production spiking, I'd choose Dillon.
How about an update on Matt Cassell? How is he coming along?
JJ Redington, Burlington, Vt.
A: Here is Cassel's assessment on how things are going for him: "For me, it's a growth period, a time for me to get better in all different areas. Learning the offense, by this point in the season I feel like I have a great grasp. I'm learning things every day from Tommy [Brady]. Every week, it's a new game-plan, so you learn something new, whether it be about defenses, whether it be about schemes, everything like that. What we're trying to accomplish on the offensive side of the ball, you learn something new every week. For me, it's a period in which I'm trying to focus on learning as much as I can about the offense in its entirety. When you first come in, you're just trying to learn the concepts of what you're trying to do. Now you're looking beyond that, and more in depth, and saying 'Why are we calling this play? What are we trying to accomplish with it?' Then just trying to be around Tommy and these guys as much as I can on game-day to see what they do to prepare, so come next year I can step in and be more prepared, be ready, and have a better feel for the offense. I'll know defenses better and be all-around hopefully a better player."
I noticed on the video of Tedy Bruschi practicing that some of the players had what appeared to be orange tape around their helmets. What is the significance of this? There were also players with yellow jerseys on. I know the red jersey means "no contact". What does the yellow jerseys mean?
Shane Behrle, Burlington, NJ
A: The orange cap that is worn on helmets is often used for special teams drills. At practice, offensive players wear white shirts and defensive players wear blue shirts. Since both offensive and defensive players are on special teams, the orange cap helps distinguish the two sides on special teams drills. The yellow jerseys are worn by those on the scout team.
I am a big Eugene Wilson fan. However, I fear his impact on defense has diminished since the loss of Rodney Harrison. With the secondary in shambles, and Wilson's being forced to step into Harrison's role as leader of the group, do you think his play has suffered, or are there just too many holes for only one player to fill?
Sam Shaw, Boston
A: Wilson hasn't been as effective this season as his first two seasons. In 2003, he finished with four interceptions and 66 tackles. Last season, he totaled four interceptions and 67 tackles. This year, he has no interceptions and 39 tackles. Tackles and interceptions aren't the only measure of a defensive back's effectiveness, but that's one barometer to measure. I also remember Bill Belichick once speaking about how effective safety play is hard to measure because a safety may do everything right and never have the ball thrown his way. In this case, the measurement seems a bit easier to make.
Mike, with all the injuries with the Patriots, has there been any talk of their conditioning program possibly not being up to the rigors of an NFL season?
B. Reynolds, Portsmouth, NH
A: There seems to be at least one question on this subject per week that arrives in the mailbag. Haven't had the chance to ask anyone on the Patriots' staff about it, though. The team's strength and conditioning coach, Mike Woicik, has six Super Bowl rings and several players swear by him. Also, some of the major injuries have been football specific, such as Richard Seymour (knee), Randall Gay (ankle) and Rodney Harrison (knee). Those players could have been in tip-top condition and still suffered the same injuries. So my guess is that it doesn't have much to do with it.
Why are the Patriots unable to correct their defensive back situation? It seems to be the one place where the Patriots consistently get burned in every game. Can't they shop around the free agent market or trade for someone?
David McCabe, Wolfeboro, NH
A: They can shop around the free-agent market, but the trading deadline (Oct. 18) has passed. One thing to keep in mind is that any player available right now most likely isn't a complete player, for one reason or another. Otherwise, a team would already have that player on its roster. As for why the Patriots haven't been able to correct their defensive back situation, I think the answer ties in two areas -- the pass rush and the coverage. The team isn't getting any pressure up front and even a Pro Bowl corner will struggle at times when that's the case.
I was in the group of people that felt Bill Belichick was a Miracle Man, capable of elevating a Pop Warner group of players into Hall-of-Fame legendary status. Now, however, it looks like Hero Bill is a mere mortal. I fear that we are missing Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis even more than we thought. Are you starting to see that around the locker room as well?
Bob Southard, Concord, NH
A: If Romeo or Charlie were here, I can't say with authority that things would be much different. Sometimes I'm guilty of giving coaches too much credit and not enough to the players. Vice versa, sometimes I give the coaches too much blame and not enough to the players. So it is a balance.
What is going on with the learning curve? It seems as if none of the new guys are learning their roles as fast as others who have had to jump in and learn quickly in the past. For example, (but not picking on one particular person), Nick Kaczur appears to get overpowered time and time again. And as a result, Brady is getting hit or knocked down a lot. Other new guys seem to be having the same problem -- even other players who were around during camp. Is the system/weekly game plan too hard for them to learn?
Laura Badgett, Boston
A: Don't think the system is too hard. Each player is different, but let's take Kaczur as an example. Teams usually like to avoid playing a rookie at left tackle if possible, with maybe the best example coming in Oakland, where the Raiders selected Robert Gallery No. 2 overall in 2004. Gallery, whom Bill Belichick said he would select if he had the top pick that year, has played guard and right tackle. Keep in mind that Kaczur was a third-round pick, the 100th overall player selected. So I don't think it's a matter of the system, but instead, a situation where injuries and lineup shuffling have forced the Patriots to accelerate the learning and development process for some newcomers. Thought Kaczur, while getting help from the tight ends, was a bright spot on Monday night.
When it comes to responsible coaching -- the latest blatant occurrence being the delay-of-game penalty resulting in a missed field goal against the Bills -- are the coaches too preoccupied with planning the next series of on-field calls to be paying attention to what is happening in the immediacy? What are your thoughts on the lack of discipline and attention plaguing this team?
A: That particular play was uncharacteristic of what we've seen from the Patriots under Bill Belichick. He took the blame for that one. Ultimately, Belichick is responsible for managing the game, as he often says, so he's never too busy looking ahead to forget about the immediate moment. My thoughts on the lack of discipline is that the Patriots are 4-4 and if they don't play better than they have to this point, they'll stay right around the .500 mark.
Mike, I have been a Patriots fan since they drafted Jim Plunkett, so I find it difficult to be critical in this "dynasty" era. Lately, however, the lack of discipline in the mental part of the game has surprised me. I am not used to seeing the number of dropped passes, foolish penalties and blown coverages that have become the norm with this year's team. Could it be that the "hunger" to be the best has faded? I know the championship reign can not last forever, but I'm hoping that the return of Tedy Bruschi will help snap these guys out of it.
Chris Salvato, Scotia, NY
A: Agreed that the overall discipline in the mental part of the game hasn't mirrored what we saw in 2003 and 2004. Don't think it's connected to hunger, however. Part of it is simply not performing well consistently enough. Another part of it is that the team has lost so many key players, making it more difficult to excel.
Not sure if it has been such a hot topic since training camp, but who on the staff is calling the shots with regard to offensive play calling?
Bobby Bird, Ashland
A: The actual play-caller hasn't been revealed, but observation leads me to believe that quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels is calling the offensive plays. It appears McDaniels calls multiple plays in to quarterback Tom Brady. In turn, Brady can change to any of the plays at the line of scrimmage based on the defensive formation.
With the signing of fullback Heath Evans, I was reminded of how impressive Kyle Eckel was in training camp. The last I heard was that the Dolphins had claimed him, the Navy wouldn't allow him to play for Miami so he was put on the reserve/military list. Is there any way the Patriots can pry him away from the Dolphins or is he gone for the year?
Speros Zakas, Salem
A: Eckel is property of the Dolphins and the only way he could wind up in New England is if Miami released him.
Why are the Pats keeping Duane Starks? He gives me the impression his heart is not with the Patriots.
R.L. Pichi, Belmont, Calif.
A: In Starks, the Patriots invested a third-round pick and $2 million in salary cap space. The team also has few other options at cornerback due to injuries. Those two factors -- the investment and the alternatives -- are probably why the team is sticking with Starks. He was benched for the second half of Monday night's game, so his status on the team is in question.
What is the best estimate for the return of Matt Light?
James Williamson, New York, NY
A: Light has a broken fibula, which occurred against the Steelers on Sept. 25, and underwent surgery to fix it. The severity of the break, and how he responds to rehab, would appear to be primary factors as to how quickly he might return. When Falcons quarterback Michael Vick fractured his fibula in 2003, he was projected to be out six weeks. Since Vick didn't require surgery, I would assume Light needs more time, so I'll make a guess and say 12 weeks, or the Dec. 26 game at the Jets. Light has been walking around the locker room in recent weeks without crutches, which is a positive sign.
I just wanted to start off by saying I am the biggest Patriots fan in Canada, and haven't missed a game in five of my 19 years alive. I am also a believer that the league is trying to get Peyton [Manning] a championship by giving them the only thing that can help them: homefield advantage. Way too easy of a schedule for them. And how come Seymour stays hurt for long periods of time while Tedy comes back after a stroke?
Marcus McCullough, Edmonton
A: The Colts benefit from playing in the AFC South, which has two of the league's least talented teams (Houston, Tennessee) this year. But all NFL opponents are predetermined years in advance anyway. As for the placement of the Patriots-Colts game, coming after the Colts' bye, that is a nice break for Indianapolis. As for Seymour, he said his injury is "very similar" to what he had last year, which was a six-week rehab. The six-week mark would make him likely to return against the Dolphins on Sunday (Nov. 13).
Mike, Belichick and Co. must really like Kaczur given they've shown patience with him at left tackle. They have options with Tom Ashworth/Russ Hochstein and Brandon Gorin to work things differently. It was stated he has a future in the league at tackle. Do they think he can be a real good one given time?
Jim Kelleher, Northford, Conn.
A: Absolutely. On the whole, Kaczur has performed admirably given the tough circumstances. Unless I missed one while searching NFL.com, I believe only two rookies are starting at left tackle at this time -- Kaczur and Kalif Barnes in Jacksonville. As long as he stays mentally tough, Kaczur will be even better after his trial by fire this year.
I'm not going to be to critical of the Pats; we've won three championships in four years. What more can you ask? That being said I'm very surprised at the sloppy tackling that I have seen week in and week out by our defense. Is this something that the coaches have addressed. Also, in my humble opinion, without Seymour on the d-line for pass rush and disruption for the opposition it makes our backfield very vulnerable. Your thoughts please.
Dana C. Morin, St. Petersburg, Fla.
A: The team's tackling hasn't been as sound as we've seen in the past. I believe the coaches have addressed it but the results have been spotty. Good point on Seymour. When he's not on the field, the team's pass rush loses its biggest difference maker. No doubt about it.
With all of the Pats' signings, cuts, and re-signings this year, are there signing bonuses paid each time? If so, are they large enough to impact the club's cap space in the future?
Patrick Stevens, Guelph, Ontario
A: Each contract is different, but most of the in-season signings don't include much of a signing bonus, if any at all. At that point, the team has most of the leverage and the player is usually looking for work.
I cannot recall a week (ever!) when Tom Brady was NOT included on the injury list. He always plays of course. But I'm curious, has he been fully healthy even once since that first start at Indianapolis?
Jay Manning, Auburn
A: According to the team's media relations staff, Brady wasn't on the injury report for any of the team's postseason games in 2004, or the Super Bowl.