Two nights, two great spread attacks.
Sunday night's dismantling of the Bills was extremely impressive and once again showed that the Patriots' offense is operating at levels seldom seen in the history of the NFL. It was the most impressive spread formation of the week, although not far behind was Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, which rocked in the TD Banknorth Garden on Sunday and Monday.
Sweet music all the way around, but unlike Springsteen, the take-it-to-the-air Patriots don't seem "Born to Run."
And that's where the questions start this week in the Patriots mailbag.
E-mailers want to know what's up with Laurence Maroney. In Sunday's game against the Bills, Maroney was on stage for a good part of the show (13 snaps, the first four series of the game), but didn't come back out for the encore. So fans are looking for a "Reason to Believe" that Maroney's career isn't heading in the wrong direction.
Elsewhere, e-mailers noted "The Rising" of the Patriots' defense Sunday in Buffalo, and are curious if that means we'll see more of Adalius Thomas at outside linebacker. We also have e-mailers "Livin' in the Future" and curious about the team's chances to run the table, while others are focusing on the next game against the Eagles and wondering what type of "Magic" the defense might create to shut down the dangerous Brian Westbrook. It should be a challenge, although perhaps more important is how the Eagles plan to defend The Boss of the Patriots' receiving corps, Randy Moss, who continues to dazzle.
What can else be said?
In this "American Land", the Patriots are taking over. So as the team continues its "No Surrender" approach to the season, let's get to the questions.
Any idea what is going on with Laurence Maroney? He is not getting many touches at all and when he does it seems like he's getting hit in the backfield. I couldn't help but think that the 5-6 yard gains that Eckel was picking up, would have been 10-12 for Maroney.
David Fiorito, New York, N.Y.
A: As the second half opened, the Patriots announced that Maroney had a foot injury and his return was probable. It seemed slightly mysterious, as Maroney didn't appear to be hobbled. I had him on the field for 13 snaps, the last of which came on the second-to-last play of the fourth series, in which Tom Brady scrambled for five yards. Conspiracy theorists might look at the play and wonder if Maroney did something wrong because it seemed awkward - he stayed in to protect, blocked inside on a double-team with Logan Mankins while leaving left tackle Matt Light and tight end Kyle Brady in dangerous one-on-one matchups on the outside before releasing a bit late down field as the play progressed. It's possible that he was a check-down option for Tom Brady and didn't make himself available, which would be a no-no. It's also possible he does indeed have a foot injury. Wish I had more information on this one, but the more I think about it, why would the Patriots announce an injury to protect a player who maybe did not perform up to standards. So my hunch is that Maroney is slightly hobbled despite his public comments after the game. As for those gains by Eckel, I think it's important to point out he had the benefit of running against a defense that had been on the field for quite some time up to that point. Not to take anything away from Eckel or Heath Evans - who both ran hard in the second half - but I looked at that as the equivalent of running the anchor leg of a 4x400 relay and getting the baton with a considerable lead when the opposition is essentially out of gas.
What's the deal with Maroney? I've been behind him since they drafted him and have always said to people who want to write him off that his time will come. Well, after the Bills game, I have started to wonder. He looked great early, especially on his TD run, then it seemed he was back to his indecision hitting the hole and dancing around. By the time he left the game, it was like he never even played. I think the guy has worlds of talent, but he needs to run with more authority. Your thoughts?
Craig F., San Diego, Calif.
A: I feel as if your thoughts reflect mine. I have deflected criticism of Maroney to this point, noting that his health has been a factor in his performance at times and that rookies sometimes take longer to develop, but it is getting harder and harder to go that route with him. I said last week he has been "slightly disappointing" to this point, and I'm leaning more and more toward taking the word "slightly" out of that sentence. He isn't as decisive in his cuts and running, and while sometimes there might be nothing there due to the blocking, it seems as if Maroney could make more out of some of those situations. I'm also curious if he's checking out well in pass protection, because I have questions about the last snap in which he was on the field - that first-and-10 play from the Buffalo 11 in which he blocked inside when there were two rushers coming from the outside - leaving only Matt Light and Kyle Brady to block them. I still think Maroney has the talent to be a star - last year's Bengals game comes to mind - but it just hasn't happened consistently enough to this point.
Is there anything to report on Faulk's injury?
A: Faulk left the game in the second quarter with a head injury - presumably a concussion - and that could put his availability in doubt this week. At this time, there is no more news to pass on regarding Faulk's condition.
This will be a popular question, but the only thing that could stop the Pats now is injuries, so where do we stand? Bruschi was hurt but came back, however, Maroney and Faulk did not and Jarvis Green was noticeably limping off the field at the end of the game.
Marc Chretien, Brookfield, Wis.
A: Nice catch on Green, who on the last play of the game got tangled up on an inside pass rush and gingerly walked off the field. I saw Green at his locker after the game - he had just come out of the X-Ray room - and asked how he was doing. He said he was OK but also laughed and said something to the extent of, "You know, even if I wasn't OK, I would say that because we don't talk about injuries here." So I'm taking a wait-and-see approach on that one. I've had players tell me they are fine and then wind up on season-ending injured reserve the next day. I think Maroney and Faulk are more short-term situations than long-term situations, and as you pointed out with Bruschi, he came back into the game and is fine.
What is the status of Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk? I know it's been asked before a million times, but any chance Corey Dillon would come back? How about someone like Kevan Barlow? He seems like a decent back and I think he is currently available. What about a crazy scenario where Antoine Smith comes back?
Peter Graceffa, Quincy
A: My thinking is that unless Maroney and Faulk are long-term situations - and I don't think they are - a personnel addition like Dillon or Barlow is unlikely. If the Patriots needed to get by for one game, I think they would go in with Evans and Eckel, and look to their own roster/practice squad for a player to be used in an emergency should Evans and Eckel be injured during that game (candidates such as Willie Andrews, Ellis Hobbs, Troy Brown, Chad Jackson, Bam Childress). I do think they might add a young runner to the practice squad to protect themselves. If Maroney or Faulk are going to be out for a longer stretch of time, I would fully expect the Patriots to bring in another runner. As we've discussed in the past, the running back depth chart goes Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel, and if a running back comes in, he would probably replace Eckel. Considering that Eckel has become a strong contributor on special teams - his performance against the Colts was exemplary - it's hard to imagine a free-agent running back being a better option at that spot right now. So I think the only factor that would alter the equation is a longer-term injury to Maroney or Faulk.
Do you think the pats will go undefeated?
Nathan Welper, Nashua, N.H.
A: I do think the Patriots will win their remaining six games and post the NFL's first undefeated regular season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. While injuries could always change the picture, this is a machine playing at the highest level right now.
Given that Adalius Thomas had a great game, do you think Patriots would rethink their strategy of using him solely as an inside linebacker? Or, at least consider young blood for inside linebacker with high first-round pick (especially as Rosie could get expensive)? Personally, I was hoping we would land Patrick Willis in last year's draft. He is turning out to be a real stud.
Balaji Krishnamurthy, Houston, Texas
A: Having Thomas play more outside linebacker on Sunday night - which marked the first time he had been asked to carry out those responsibilities in game situations - adds to the versatility that the Patriots generally like in their defense. I don't think we'll see him move there permanently, but we know the Patriots are a "game-plan" team which tailors its attack each week based on the specific strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. So Thomas now gives them another chip. Also, if you move Thomas to the outside, that means either Mike Vrabel is moving inside or Roosevelt Colvin is coming off the field with a Tedy Bruschi/Junior Seau combination manning the middle. I don't think that's the best approach for the Patriots. As for the young blood at linebacker, I do think the Patriots will look to draft an inside linebacker this year.
I like what I saw Sunday night with the Pats running a 4-3 defense, and Adalius playing OLB. I think the Pats should keep this, especially when playing big passing QB's (Romo, Manning, etc.). It puts a lot of pressure on the QB, something we have not see a lot of this year. Can we please see more of the 4-3?
A: The 4-3 was extremely effective, and I do think we'll see more of it. Still, the Patriots aren't likely to lock in with one defense, as they will be multiple - switching from scheme to scheme. The defense has had enough continuity this year, and has enough smart, versatile, talented players to pull that off. It's part of what makes the unit unique.
Hi Mike, the Eagles seem to live and die with Westbrook. How do you think Belichick will take him out of the game because I am guessing without him, the Eagles are in deep trouble.
Tyler McCauley, Barrington, R.I.
A: The Patriots generally do a nice job taking away what a team does best, and Westbrook figures to be the target this week, as you pointed out. I think they'll jam him every play at the line, within the legal 5-yard zone, using linebackers and safeties to accomplish the task. Similar to the Marshall Faulk game-plan from Super Bowl XXXVI.
Is it time for Randall Gay to get the spot at cornerback in place of Hobbs? Gay filled in for Ty Law admirably when he went down for almost a full season. What areas do you think Hobbs is better than Gay?
Chris Bruno, Danbury, Conn.
A: Hobbs got beaten on the long touchdown pass to Roscoe Parrish, and he was the closest man in coverage on the Bills' opening play (16-yard pass to Lee Evans), and it seems like teams are going in his direction more and more - with some success. So I see where you are coming from on this question, Chris, and wouldn't be surprised if the team considers this switch. But I wouldn't do it, as I think Hobbs is still the better option, factoring in two elements - talent and continuity. I think Hobbs is faster and moves better laterally than Gay, and is also a strong communicator, which is key in the secondary. Gay has many of the same traits but I don't think it would necessarily be an upgrade by making that switch.
The national media had a love-fest with the Pats yesterday. Madden and Michaels compared the Pats to the Harlem Globetrotters last night and said Brady is better then Montana. Cris Collinsworth said he can't see them losing again ever. While I can't say that I disagree with their assessments, I know BB would. And after the game Brady and Moss were laughing about how BB would find some humble pie to serve them this week. Other than a few dropped passing at the beginning of the game, I don't remember a whole lot of mistakes, so just what is BB going to get on them about? Also knowing how the Pats respond to negative comments, what possessed McNabb to open his mouth and ask for HIS RING? Can you explain how any coach or player would think that the Pats won't jump right on those comments?
Cynthia Pleach, Canton
A: Tight end Kyle Brady was talking in the post-game locker room about how he missed some blocks in the running game. Mike Wright failed to wrap up on a sack. Ditto for Richard Seymour. Looked like Laurence Maroney had some struggles with timing in the running game. Ellis Hobbs got beaten for the long touchdown pass. Chris Hanson cranked a punt through the end zone when he was looking to pin it inside-the-10, perhaps because he was so excited to actually punt (note: he doesn't even qualify for the league leaders because he hasn't punted enough). You can always find something that wasn't done well in a football game, although the Patriots are making the search a little more challenging these days. On the other topic, I do expect the Patriots to jump on the Eagles' comments.
Mike, As the seasons change and we get into the colder and sometimes stormier weather how do you see the Pats offensive play calling for the remainder of the year? Do you feel we can be just as explosive with less emphasis on throwing the ball down field and more of the running game, or do you feel our best chances remains through the air?
Greg Cormier, Latham, N.Y.
A: I think they'll need to run it a bit more than they have, but I don't see it as a major issue. This passing offense is executing at such a high level that I'm not even sure some weather will affect it that much. The efficiency has been just remarkable.
How many games has Eugene Wilson missed this year? What about previous years including playoffs? He seems to be injured a lot. Getting injured and not being able to finish two Super Bowls is a career lowlight.
A: After missing Sunday night's game in Buffalo, Wilson has been sidelined for the last three contests. He started the first five games of the season before playing as a reserve for the next two. In the first three years of his career, Wilson had been durable, missing just one game. You might be thinking of how he was injured in both Super Bowl victories, in 2003 and 2004. Last season, he played in just four of a possible 18 games (including postseason), so he has hit a rough spot in his career.
With the emergence of James Sanders, the presence of Brandon Merriweather, and the continued absence (due to injury) of Eugene Wilson, do you see the Pats letting Wilson go and using some of that money to sweeten the deal for Asante? The Pats have overwhelming evidence that they can play without Wilson but I don't feel as confident that they can play as well without Asante. Your thoughts?
A: I don't see the Patriots and Wilson coming to an agreement in which Wilson gets starter-type money, so I would expect him to depart in free agency. But I don't think that situation will factor into the team's decision-making with Samuel, who I believe is determined to test the open market. Once Samuel hits the open market, I don't see the Patriots winning a bidding war, and I believe Samuel is in a position where he will accept the richest offer. He would be extremely hard to replace, for sure.
Mike, assuming that the Patriots do not have any injuries at the WR position, what do you think they will do with Troy Brown. Assuming that the 21-day clock expires and they need to make a decision, I would consider placing Brown on the 53-man roster and dropping Jabar Gaffney. Troy Brown is much more versatile and battle-tested and we may need that versatility in the post season. What are your thoughts?
A: Assuming there are no injuries, I believe it will come down to Brown vs. Gaffney and I think Brown will wind up on season-ending injured reserve. While I agree that Brown is more versatile in terms of being able to play defense in a pinch and back up as a punt returner, I think Gaffney is more versatile in terms of playing the different receiver positions within the offense, as Sunday night's game reflected. So if a player like Randy Moss or Donte' Stallworth were to be injured, Gaffney would fill that void better than Brown. While Brown might be better suited for the slot than Gaffney - in the event of an injury to Wes Welker - the Patriots also have Kelley Washington as a slot presence. Washington has been a solid performer on special teams coverage and return units and thus I feel he is too valuable to cut.
Any further thoughts on why Adalius Thomas did not play more in the Colts game?
A: Considering that Thomas essentially went wire to wire against the Bills Sunday night (I had him for 39 of 50 snaps, which includes the play in which he was called for a penalty), I feel as if the reason he didn't play much against the Colts (19 of 65 snaps; 3 of 10 series) was indeed a result of a change in defensive tactics. The Patriots went away from their base 3-4 alignment and played a 4-2-5 nickel. The middle linebacker in that scheme needed to move more laterally than downhill, so it wasn't the best fit for him. That's why when he did play, it was as a defensive end. If he played more as a defensive end, I think the run defense would have been compromised by taking Jarvis Green off the field. Some have asked if Thomas was deliberately underutilized in the game, and I don't buy into that line of thinking.
On the injury report I've noted the term "team decision". I don't remember ever seeing this before this year. Can the use of this term still relate to a specific injury and the Pats just don't want to reveal what it is or is it something unrelated to injury or what?
A: Your question was forwarded to league headquarters and here was the response from an NFL spokesman: "Team decision is a designation for practice participation. If a player is limited in practice or does not practice by reason of something other than an injury, that limited practice participation must be designated as team or player decision. For example, many teams rest veteran players during practice, especially later in the season."
I must have missed the deal that brought the 49ers first round draft pick to the Patriots. Would you fill in the details for me?
Frank Rigg, Carlisle
A: On the first day of this year's NFL Draft, the Patriots traded their 2007 first-round pick - the 28th overall selection - to the San Francisco 49ers for a 2008 first-round selection and a 2007 fourth-round selection. The 49ers selected offensive tackle Joe Staley with the pick, while the Patriots used the fourth-rounder in a straight-up trade to acquire receiver Randy Moss. The 2008 first-rounder looks like it will be a top 10 pick, which means this might end up being one of the best deals in franchise history.
I know it's a bit early for this, but if the draft were today where would the first-round pick place? What position do you think they will draft there? With Rodney Harrison moving to basically a linebacker position in the Colts' game, could the Patriots be looking at a linebacker of the future? Do you think Oscar Lua is the answer? I know, every year we look at this position and it doesn't happen. Who are the top LB's going in the draft this year? Why do they continue to keep three active and one on the practice squad? Could Troy Brown take the 3rd QB spot away on the active roster?
Roger Seal, Dandridge, Tenn.
A: The Patriots' first-round pick, courtesy of the deal with the 49ers, would be a top five selection. For the exact spot in the round, check with Scott Benson on Patriotsdaily.com, who has started up a neat entry each week in which he charts where the pick would be if the season ended today. My feeling is that the Patriots will try to trade down and accumulate other picks. The reason is that the salaries are so out of whack early in the draft that the Patriots would be paying their top-5 pick more bonus money than they paid to Adalius Thomas. That just doesn't seem right. That's what makes those picks hard to trade. If they keep it, I'd say defensive line. If you're going to invest big bucks, you might as well do it as that spot, which usually commands the biggest bucks in free agency. Plus, Richard Seymour (2009), Jarvis Green (2009) and Vince Wilfork (2009) have expiring contracts in a few years and this would give them an up-and-comer in case they struggle to retain those players. As for the third quarterback, it's mainly because rookie Matt Gutierrez has showed poise and promise and he's an asset at the most important position on the field. As more and more teams around the league have discovered the hard way this season, you can never have enough quarterbacks.
I really like your analysis of the NFL and the Patriots. However, I have a problem with your theory that the late first-round draft picks are more cost-effective and hence more valuable than the early first round picks. I understand your logic but I think it goes too far. If your theory were true, teams with late first round picks would be trading up only when they get an additional player or pick. Instead, teams trade up giving up their first pick plus additional consideration. Are all these other teams crazy or is there something wrong with your theory?
Jim Clark, Denver
A: Not all teams subscribe to my theory. In fact, most probably don't. But that doesn't change my thinking that the Top 5 picks are often more of a curse than a blessing. Let's say the Patriots have the fourth overall pick; whatever they would pay that player would eclipse what they paid Adalius Thomas. That just doesn't seem right to me. I'd back out of there as quickly as possible because I want to pay known commodities, not unknown commodities at that level of compensation. A lot of times you see teams trade up (i.e. Giants in 2004) because they are targeting a quarterback so a quarterback can definitely alter that picture. And you also see some teams get franchise-altering players (e.g. Richard Seymour). So I'm not saying it's a perfect theory, but it's one I feel strongly about. Make a mistake with a Top 5 pick and it can be crippling.
I understand your logic on preferring to select in the middle of the first round than at the top of the first round, but Mike: A top 5 selection could be traded for two mid first round selections. There is absolutely no question that the higher the draft pick the more value it has.
A: I took some heat on this one, Ryan, but my question would be "when was the last time a top 5 pick was traded for two mid first-round selections?" As the contracts have increased for those top five picks in recent years, those selections have become harder and harder to trade.
The NFL took away the Patriots first round pick in the 2008 draft, but who gets that pick now? Does it go into a lottery?
Ben Swartz, Newburyport
A: That pick no longer exists. There will be 31 selections in the first round.
Is it possible one of the reasons Belichick was keeping his starters in longer than needed, prior to the Colts game, was to get them ready to play closer to 60 minutes, something they didn't do against the Colts last season. Running up the score would seem the byproduct keeping them in so they wouldn't be gassed (as they were in the AFC Championship). It seems logical.
A: Playing 60 minutes is a theme for the Patriots this year and that is the rationale behind some of the decision-making in leaving players in the game when the outcome has, for all intents and purposes, been decided. It's a fine line, as the team must balance the short-term gain of playing 60 minutes against the long-term risk of possibly losing a key player due to injury when the contest is well in hand. While I am more conservative and would pull players like Brady and Moss sooner than the Patriots have, I also have no problem with the whole "running up the score" issue. You're on the field to score points. My issue is the potential long-term ramifications of an injury.
In the pre-season - especially before Assante returned - we kept hearing that Brandon Merriweather was coming along well, that he was going to make real contributions this year. Well, have I missed those. Is he hurt? Did his progress halt? Or has he simply become superfluous?
Charles Paone, Franklin
A: Defensive coordinator Dean Pees was asked about Meriweather's progress last Friday and indicated the team is pleased. I buy into this thinking. "Brandon is still learning," Pees said. "I think the thing about Brandon is that any time you get a rookie; I don't know a lot about the University of Miami's scheme, I just know our scheme, and I know that it's not easy sometimes -- even for a veteran defensive back coming from another professional team to our team -- to always just grasp everything we do on defense. So I think it's even harder sometimes for a college guy to do that. I think he's progressing. He's working hard. That's all we can ask of him. He's learning every day, trying to get better every day. At this point in time, he's getting better all the time and we'll keep playing more as we see fit to do that."
Given his impressive performances in New England, do you believe Junior Seau will enter Canton as a Charger or a Patriot?
A: In his heart, I think Seau is a Charger.
I've noticed that all the other teams besides the Patriots indicate their captains with a "C" on the front left of the jersey. Do the Patriots have a different type of jersey, or is this a team decision?
Mike Whealan, Louisville, Ky.
A: I don't believe every team other than the Patriots have the "C" designation on the jerseys of their captains, but the majority of clubs do. The NFL, through a suggestion made by a newly-formed players advisory committee, is emphasizing captains more this season. The Patriots elected against the "C" because they feel as if they've always emphasized the captaincy of their players.
In your penalty breakdown on the blog, there was an illegal block above the waist on special teams? What is that? I can't remember ever hearing that penalty called, let alone twice against the Pats. Is that a common penalty with an unusual name - like a chop block - or am I missing something?
A: Brandon Meriweather and Le Kevin Smith have both been flagged for an illegal block above the waist - Meriweather against the Browns, Smith against the Cowboys. While the official wording is illegal block above the waist, it also could be announced by the official as an illegal block in the back.
Hi Mike. Do you think the Patriots will rest their starters if they go 15-0 going into the Giants game?
A: No, I really think the Patriots will play the starters in that scenario. One of the themes of the season has been to play 60 minutes, and that would apply with this situation.
Hi Mike, it is funny how no one is complaining about not signing Deion Branch to a multi-year contract extension now. The Pats effectively traded Deion Branch for Randy Moss and a potential future Top 10 pick (depending on SF's record this year). Gotta hand it to the Pats on that unpopular decision at the time. Not to mention that once again Deion Branch can't seem to stay on the field.
A: Things have worked out for the Patriots, but I also think it's important to point out that the Patriots were a weaker team in 2006 because of the deal. While it worked out in the long-term, I feel that the fact they fell short in 2006 needs to be factored into the equation.
Honestly, what's the deal with all this Pro Bowl love? Does Chris Hanson deserve the most votes as punter? Full Tilt (a.k.a. Tedy Bruschi) hasn't shined this season but he's the leading vote getter at ILB. What's up with that?
A: Pro Bowl voting is split up, with one-third of the vote from fans, one-third from players, and one-third from coaches. The recent numbers that came out are after just four weeks and those often tend to be an inaccurate reflection of how the final vote turns out.
Just wondering, when the Patriots go away from home, how do they travel? Going to the Bills, for example, would they take the bus on Saturday and stay all night? Just a woman's question!
A: We gladly take all kinds of questions here, Dot, not just the Xs and Os variety. The Patriots generally charter a plane and leave on early Saturday afternoon and this is what the team heading to Buffalo. NFL rules require visiting teams to arrive no later than the day before the game. Other teams handle things differently if games are closer in proximity. The Colts, for example, have traditionally bussed to games against the Bengals, because the driving distance between Indianapolis and Cincinnati is about two hours.
I'm a longtime Patriots fan now living in Virginia. I believe the Patriots will be on national TV the next three weeks. Is there any chance any of their last four games will be on national TV?
Dick Richardson, Onancock, Va.
A: The final game of the season, against the Giants, is nationally televised on NFL Network. The Dec. 9 game against the Steelers has moved to 4:15 p.m., which means it will be seen in more homes nationally. The Dec. 16 game against the Jets and Dec. 23 game against the Dolphins are currently at 1 p.m. but could be moved to 4:15 p.m. While the move to 4:15 p.m. isn't technically national television, because there are fewer games at that time the game would appear in more homes.
Hey Mike, I'm sure you notice there are Patriots fans all over the country. I'm wondering if the final game of the season, against the Giants, will be blacked out on NFL Network provided through DirecTV in other markets.
Wayne Graves, St Croix
A: Questions regarding the final game of the season - and the television arrangements surrounding it - have been flowing into the mailbag in recent weeks. I am told that if you have DirecTV or Dish Network, you would get the game. For local readers, Channel 5 in Boston (WCVB) will also be airing the game, which is similar to the setup in the preseason. For Patriots fans in New England that don't get WCVB in Boston - such as those in Maine, Vermont and parts of New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts - alternative arrangements will need to be made to see the game.