'Backerhood on the front burner
How will the Patriots fill the void at linebacker?
This week's mailbag is about the 'Backerhood.
That's the nickname of the Patriots' linebacker corps, which lost an integral resident when Adalius Thomas broke his forearm Sunday against the Bills. Thomas, who filled more roles than any other player on defense, is expected to be out for the season.
So the question now is what the Patriots do to fill his void.
Do they sign another player? Promote from within? Rely on veteran players like Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi to do more?
That's where it starts this week.
Hi Mike, what do you think the team will do next with AD likely to be out of the season? I believe Vince Redd is on the practice squad. Will he be promoted to the active roster? Since Gary Guyton is extremely athletic, will he move outside? Will Eric Alexander be back on the roster?
A: Nikko, I'm not anticipating any roster additions from outside the team prior to Thursday's game against the Jets. I think it's asking too much for a player to come in and be ready to go on such short notice. Redd is a candidate to be promoted from the practice squad, but I don't think it's necessarily a slam dunk. My feeling is that we'd see the team switch from the 3-4 to a 4-3 if they lost either outside linebacker Mike Vrabel or Pierre Woods to injury, lessening the urgency to add an outside linebacker. I could see Guyton or even Alexander as an emergency option at outside linebacker, but they are not the prototypes for the position.
Hey Reiss, any chance the Pats will bring back Rosie Colvin now that Thomas is out?
A: Andrew, nothing was scheduled with Colvin as of Monday, but he was one of the first names that popped into my head if the Patriots were considering adding a player from outside the organization. I know Colvin, who knows what it takes to play outside linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4 alignment, left on good terms. From a pure football perspective, I'm not sure how much he has left in the tank at this point but I'd think the Patriots will at least take a look based on their need.
With Adalius Thomas possible out for the season, have you heard anything about bringing back Junior Seau?
Paul B., N.J.
A: Paul, I haven't heard anything on Seau, and I'm not sure if he would fill the void from Thomas's injury. The Patriots have developed a nice three-headed approach at inside linebacker with Tedy Bruschi/Jerod Mayo/Gary Guyton, and that's where Seau would play. It's the outside linebacker position where there is a need, and I can't envision Mayo or Guyton -- or Seau for that matter -- moving outside in the 3-4 alignment on a full-time basis. Those outside linebackers need to be a bit bigger and sturdier, almost defensive end types.
Mike, excluding a free agent linebacker signing, how do you see the linebacker groupings in the 3-4, 4-3, nickel and dime?
A: Tim, the Patriots have done a nice job this year mixing their defensive packages. Many times, it depends on the specific matchup and they have different nickel packages (3-3-5, 4-2-5 etc.), but I'll take a crack at it this week:
3-4: Mike Vrabel/Pierre Woods and Jerod Mayo/Tedy Bruschi
4-3: Mike Vrabel/Tedy Bruschi/Jerod Mayo
Nickel (4-2-5): Jerod Mayo/Mike Vrabel
Dime: Gary Guyton/Mike Vrabel/Pierre Woods
Before the season, there was a lot of speculation that if the Patriots could move up, they would have taken Vernon Gholston. Since Jerod Mayo seems to be working out so well, I was wondering about your thoughts on how Gholston is progressing with the Jets.
A: Scott, I've only seen Gholston play once live (Week 2), and watched him on TV against the Cardinals in Week 4. At this point, based on the limited action I've seen and focusing as much on special teams as defense itself, I'd question if he is a fit to be an outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment. Based on the way he moves, he looks more like a 4-3 end to me. It's early, but I think the Jets might have made a mistake on that one. I don't think the Patriots would have selected Gholston.
The Patriots missed out on DeAngelo Hall, and now they lose out on Ty Law as well. Did they even make offers? Are they more confident in what they have than I am?
Nick C., Rochester
A: Nick, I don't know if they made offers, but I can confirm that they were involved in discussions. In the case of Hall, I think it was a case where he was enticed by playing with the Redskins and that trumped most everything else. It's closer to his family. With Law, I assume it was a case of finances and that the sides weren't close enough.
How much info do you have on Green-Ellis, other than the stats that are always talked about? Like, how did he perform at the combine? Also, do you think his success has much to do with our offensive line and style of play? I ask because he never looks all that dynamic compared to other back with similar stats. When Maroney was on, he looked blazing fast and could make people miss and be gone in a hurry. Then you have guys like Sammy Morris who just run you over. Green-Ellis hasn't looked much like either guy, but he keeps scoring, and rarely is caught behind the line of scrimmage. Do you think he has enough upside that he could be a feature back in the future, or is he simply getting big holes and lowering the shoulder?
A: Rick, I looked back at some notes on Green-Ellis and he ran in the 4.6s at the NFL Combine. That basically explains why he wasn't drafted, because the top backs are usually in the 4.4s or better. In terms of Green-Ellis's style, I think he's more of a physical runner, sort of Corey Dillon-esque. It's no-frills but powerful. I think some of his runs are a result of his patience and vision, while others are aided by the line/tight ends/fullbacks opening nice creases. I do think he's a viable option to be a big part of a rotation at running back in the future. A feature back seems a bit strong at this point.
Mike, I come to praise Ellis Hobbs, which I know is dangerous territory for many Pats fans. Granted, he gives up his share of plays but he also makes a bunch, not only defensively but also on returns. He is also a guy who constantly plays hurt but never uses it as a crutch. No question here, just a shout out to an oft-criticized guy. Your thoughts?
A: Jim, I'll also tip the cap to Hobbs for battling through those injuries, and it's timely because Sunday marked the first contest this season in which he played every snap. On the season, he's been on the field for 85 percent of the snaps, which is more than every defender but James Sanders and Adalius Thomas. One other thing that I appreciate as someone covering the team is that Hobbs is accessible in the locker room. Because of that, as a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, I'd like to nominate him for the organization's Good Guy Award which goes to the NFL player who regularly cooperates with the media. I know fans probably don't care about that stuff, but it's something I felt compelled to share because I feel Hobbs has helped provide fans more insight as to what has taken place on the field.
Mike, what is the Patriots' red-zone success? They've got to be in the lower third of the league. I'm convinced they could have a TD for every FG they have this year. We need smarter, basic, high percentage plays in the red zone.
Dan O., Bradenton, Fla.
A: Dan, not including Monday night's game between the 49ers and Cardinals, the Patriots ranked 22nd out of 32 teams in red-zone offense (based on TD percentage). The offense has 16 touchdowns in 34 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. From what I saw the last two games, the running plays have been generally solid, but they've lagged a bit in the passing game.
Mike, a few quick questions. Does it seem like the Pats get real conservative with the play calling down in the red zone? If so, is that a lack of trust with Cassel? Is Moss's foot injury affecting his hands? He seems to drop a lot of balls he used to catch. I'm glad Cassel is not hurting the offense as much as he used to, I guess that is growth, but if they are to make noise in the playoffs, they are going to have to get Cassel and Moss on the same page and start throwing more inside the 20. The Pats really should have won both games the last two weeks by multiple TDs. They played well enough to do that, so why didn't they?
Jeff P., Port Charlotte, Fla.
A: Jeff, let's go through the last game against the Bills and break down the numbers. Overall I've been impressed with the team's running game in the red zone, it's the passing game that has seemed to struggle:
First drive: 2 rushes, 17 yards, TD
Second drive: 1 rush, 1 yard; 0-of-2 passing
Third drive: 1 rush, 0 yard
Fourth drive: 5 rushes, 10 yards, TD; 1-of-1 passing, 10 yards
I did not count two of Matt Cassel's quarterback sneaks on the fourth drive because they were not called to gain yardage, but instead burn the clock. So overall, there were 12 red-zone plays and nine runs (one of which was a pass play that Cassel turned into a run). While some might view that as conservative, I don't because I feel as if the running game has produced the best results in the red zone.
I am concerned at the under-utilization of Randy Moss. Is there some problem there that you know about? How is Moss taking it?
A: I don't see him being under-utilized, Chris, as he hardly leaves the field. More than anything, I think his timing and chemistry with Matt Cassel is still a work in progress. We saw a long pass overthrown against the Bills, and then another one in the end zone thrown late. Overall, I think Moss is taking it fine.
Mike, how would you assess Randy Moss's performance this season? Obviously, it suffers from not having Brady throw deep balls to him. But it seems like every week this season, there is at least one long pass to Moss that he gets his hands on but can't quite catch or the defender(s) knock it away at the last minute. I don't remember that many of these near-catches last season (although they could have been overlooked among the record number of TD catches) so was wondering if you have any insight.
A: Tom, I think Moss has had a solid season. He has 43 receptions for 589 yards and four touchdowns and is part of almost every personnel package (he's played 89 percent of the snaps). I know what you're saying on some of those contested ball, and the thought that maybe Moss can fight for some of those balls more than he has. There are some plays like that which caught my eye. But also, the way he tracks the ball and keeps his hands steady so as not to tip off defensive backs can make it seem as if he's not giving maximum effort when I believe he is.
Jabar Gaffney is clearly struggling this season, and it's hard to see him sticking around since his role could easily be replaced. Sam Aiken has been solid as well, but there are serious questions about our depth that are not being discussed. Along those lines, could you see the Pats using a higher draft pick (perhaps a 1st if Crabtree is available or one of their 2nd rounders) to get a WR and put him as a 3rd receiver behind Moss and Welker? It would be a great place for a young WR to develop and eventually take over for Moss or Welker, and it appears to be a pretty good class of WR's.
Zach, Indianapolis, Ind.
A: I agree on the depth issue, Zach, but I tend to believe the Patriots will avoid a receiver unless it's a special circumstance. I think they're a bit gun-shy to go with someone at that position after missing out on Bethel Johnson (2003) and Chad Jackson (2006) in the second round, as college receivers can be difficult projections into the NFL.
Hi Mike, while at the Bills game on Sunday, I began to wonder why Sam Aiken was lining up as a receiver (15 times according to your offensive participation stats) rather than Kelly Washington. Washington has career-wise 3 times as many catches as Aiken in fewer games. Has Washington fallen further down on the receivers depth chart?
A: I believe Washington, who opened the season as the fourth receiver, has fallen behind Aiken at this time. Part of that might be tied to the extended time he missed with his ankle injury. Aiken also gives Moss a breather at times, while Washington is more suited to be in the slot.
What does the Patriots practice schedule look like these next two weeks? Will the extra time off before the game with the Dolphins be enough to get back either Sammy Morris or LaMont Jordan? What is the latest on Tom Brady's knee?
Peter G., Rochester, N.Y.
A: Peter, if the Patriots beat the Jets, my guess is that the players will get Friday, Saturday and Sunday off. I sense that Sammy Morris is getting closer to a return, as he came through the locker room Monday while reporters were present. I'm not as sure on Jordan. As for Tom Brady's knee, Boston Globe colleague Shira Springer filed a report in Tuesday's editions detailing the situation.
Hi Mike, what do you think the odds are that the New York Jets starting QB for next season will be playing against them Thursday night. Matt Cassel is a free agent and the Jets need a QB next year. Who better to play against the Pats than someone who plays against them every week in practice? Hmmmm.
A: JT, it is an intriguing scenario, and one that is easy to envision unfolding. I'm going to keep this one in the back pocket and we'll see what happens come next March - if Brett Favre comes back for another year, if Cassel keeps improving etc. Until then, I'm most anxious to see what happens Thursday night. I think Patriots-Jets is going to be the best game of the season to this point, decided by less than three points, with the team which turns the ball over less winning.
I remember you mentioned about our big 3 d-linemen (Seymour, Wilfork, and Warren) will have their contracts expired soon. Have there been any talk about a new deal for them? And who else on the team will have their contracts expired after the season?
Jeffrey, Hong Kong
A: Warren is actually signed through 2013, while Seymour and Wilfork have deals that expire after the 2009 season. I think the team would like to extend Wilfork, and there have been exploratory discussions, but nothing newsworthy has resulted from those. Some players whose contracts expire after this season: Rodney Harrison, Mike Wright, Jabar Gaffney, James Sanders, Heath Evans and LaMont Jordan.
Hey Mike, I see a disturbing trend since Mr. Goodell decided to become the behavior police. There are way more fines this year than in the past (or so it seems), and even players (Troy Polamalu) are starting to say the game can't be played this way. To me it seems Roger Goodell is taking away a team's or player's aggressiveness, which in turn gives the offense another upper hand. Will you please comment on this situation? Do you think there should be a panel of players to determine what is and what is not finable? There has to be a better way to monitor this without making the NFL into a tag football league. What are your thoughts?
Bagoon, Los Osos, Calif.
A: I do think the fines have been over the top this year, and I judge my opinion solely based on what I've seen from David Thomas and the Patriots. Thomas was fined $7,500 against the Jets in Week 2 for a clip and another $7,500 for a late hit against the Colts. I just don't think Thomas should have been fined $15,000 for those plays. They weren't malicious and Thomas is not that type of player. I expect the NFL Players Association to strengthen their resistance to what seems like the growing number of fines this year.
Will we be able to see the game on Thursday if I don't have the NFL network?
A: Those in the Boston region can watch on WCVB Channel 5. I know that does not cover every reader, so for those who don't get WCVB, the only option as I understand it is NFL Network.