BALTIMORE - The Patriots survived a scare Monday night in Baltimore, before putting together a wild, clutch drive in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
We'll lead off with some thoughts and then on to the questions:
On to the questions ...
Is this team built to win in January? I've been concerned about this for several weeks now. It seems like they have a lot of quick strike drives and have not shown the type of running game to control the ball as is needed to win in January. Equally important, they have not shown the ability to stop the ball consistently. How concerned should we be about these two aspects of the team which are generally considered the hallmarks of good playoff football teams?
Jeffrey Strom, Charlestown
A: I thought the running game showed life against a very tough defense. When you're scoring on running plays at the goal-line, and converting fourth-and-1 plays on the ground, that's a sign to me of positive momentum in that aspect of the game. I thought Laurence Maroney, in particular, had his best game of the season. But I think the run defense is a significant concern right now. That would be the bigger question from this end: Can this run defense tighten up? I believe it can, but that was poor football played by the front seven Monday night in Baltimore. On some plays, they were pushed around. But on others, and this is inexcusable from a coaching perspective, they simply were undisciplined (e.g. Willie McGahee's 15-yard, up-the-middle run in the second quarter) and didn't hold their gaps. On the positive side of that, it's probably a better problem to be undisciplined than simply steamrolled each snap, because it is easier to fix. I don't expect the Patriots to remain undisciplined for long.
Has Adalius Thomas really made much of a difference with the defense? The last two weeks the Pats can't seem to buy a sack or get enough pressure on less than stellar quarterbacks. What do the Pats have to do to pressure Ben Roethlisberger next week?
A: Not particularly. He was victimized on a few cut-back runs Monday night and couldn't shed blocks on others (e.g. Willis McGahee's 17-yard touchdown run in the third quarter). Seems to me like he's a better fit inside on early downs, and then best rushing the passer on third down as an end/outside linebacker. That's why I think Pierre Woods, a second-year player, should be worked into the early-downs mix at outside linebacker because his presence might strengthen the overall linebacking corps by moving Thomas back inside. As for how to pressure Roethlisberger, I would start by correcting the run defense. The Patriots will get eaten alive by the Steelers and Willie Parker if they play like they did Monday night in Baltimore, because I don't think the Steelers will self destruct at the end like the Ravens did. So by getting stronger against the run, the team will put the Steelers in more long-distance third-down plays, which should help the pass rush.
Mike, In the Ravens game I noticed that the Ravens ran a lot of runs off-tackle and to the same side as Adalius Thomas. Was it me or did he have some difficulty with his run defense? I found it surprising, since most of his 8 years in the NFL he has played outside LB, that he was turned around several times trying to make a play on the runner and looked totally out of position. Did you see the same thing?
A: I saw the same thing. Some were power off-tackle runs to Thomas's side (defensive right). Other times they were cut-back runs. I felt Thomas did not play very well against the run on the edge.
It seems to me that Ravens players were talking an awful lot about the officiating after the game Monday night. Do you think any of them have watched the pats games for the last two years? Something tells me that the league won't be issuing an official apology like they did to the Pats after the AFC championship game last year. Those guys need to accept that they played a good game, and a better team stepped it up and beat them. Your thoughts?
Rob, Warwick, R.I.
A: The talk about officiating is weak in my opinion. I suppose I can understand the Ravens' frustration. It seemed to be like the game was called one way for 50-55 minutes and a different way for the final 5-10 minutes. In the end, the Ravens were flagged for 13 accepted penalties, the Patriots for four.
My feeling during the Ravens game is that Maroney might be a liability. He seemed to run the ball fairly well, but his presence concerns me at times. Specifically, and this is something you've referred to, that Faulk is the better pass-blocker. Does having Maroney in a one-back set hamper the Pats' ability to call, say, a slowly developing pass play? Are the Patriots limited in their play-calling possibilities when Maroney is in there as opposed to Faulk?
A: I thought Maroney was one of the unsung performers of the game. I felt he stepped up and ran hard against the NFL's No. 1 ranked run defense in terms of fewest yards allowed per carry. While I noticed he didn't appear to hold a first-quarter block as long as he hoped, I thought his pass protection checked out as well. Faulk is more polished in that aspect of the game, but I can't fault Maroney for his effort. I gave him an "up", especially when adding in his two catches for 79 yards. As for the Patriots being limited, I don't think they are. But I would suggest that Tom Brady's comfort level is probably higher when he knows Faulk is protecting him.
Hey Mike, maybe not so much a question as a reality check: the quest for a "perfect" season must be a curse. I watched the Ravens game with five buddies and you would have thought the world was coming to an end based on our reactions. Are we suddenly so drunk on championships in this town that we can't appreciate what we have? In August, if anyone had predicted a 14-2 record with losses to the Eagles and Ravens, who would have griped? They are finding ways to win and (should be) focused on one thing: the Super Bowl.
James Tweed, Quincy
A: The bar has been raised high. Fair point here James. I think the Patriots have spoiled some of the people who follow them, sometimes making it look easy when it's easy to forget that 12-0 is a tremendous accomplishment. That being said, the last two outings have led to some cause for concern. The team has not played well the last two weeks, which is somewhat unusual for them at this time of year.
If Gaffney's TD catch would have been overturned, what effect would Bart Scott's two personal fouls had on the play? Would the Patriots have gotten an automatic first down and the ball placed half the distance to the goal?
Shane Behrle, Beacon Falls, Conn.
A: The ball was at the 8-yard line on the play that Gaffney caught the touchdown pass. Had the touchdown not counted, they would have gone half the distance to the goal, moving the ball to the 4, on the first penalty. Then they would have gone another half distance to the goal, to the 2, on the second penalty.
I have a question on the Patriots final kickoff, from the Baltimore 35 due to the Ravens penalties. Where would the ball have been spotted had the kickoff gone out of bounds? I believe the typical rule is 30 yards from the spot of kick unless there is a part of the rule that is less known. Could the Pats have pinned them back to the 5 with no return risk?
A: This is a very interesting question and one the league was looking over after the unusual situation from Monday night. I don't believe the league has ever been faced with a similar situation under the current rules. So there is no clear answer right now. The rule says you would get the ball 30 yards from the spot of the kick (in this case, the 5 because the kickoff was from the 35), but I believe the Ravens might have been given the option to take the ball at the spot it went out, or to have the Patriots re-kick. Another option would have been spotting the ball half the distance to the goal. I will stay on top of this one and pass along the information when it becomes available, because right now, there is no clear-cut answer.
Hi Mike, What happened after the game? Was there some kind of scuffle or something? It was mentioned on a postgame show that Mike Vrabel was yelling at the refs. Do you have any info on what happened on the field after the game?
A: There was no on-field scuffle. If anything, it was in the tunnel after the game, with Vrabel voicing his displeasure with the officials.
In the past the Patriots have relied on the screen pass offense in the wake of heavy blitzing teams. This is the second consecutive game in which they have elected to not run screens. I understand the potency of our passing offense, but it just seems in these situations you would see more screen plays. Any thoughts on this?
Marc Ricard, Taunton
A: I saw a few screens in the game. One that comes to mind came in the fourth quarter, which was a failed screen that actually resulted in right tackle Nick Kaczur being illegally downfield - and you might recall Tom Brady just throwing the ball to the ground along the right sideline, near the Patriots bench. Screens are probably the biggest hit or miss play in the playbook - you are usually trying to hit the defense in a certain rush/blitz -- and I think that's why you don't see them that frequently.
I'm puzzled by the recent play calling/offensive scheme. Against the Eagles and again last night against the Ravens, it appears that the running game is an option of last resort, rather than a well-integrated part of the game plan. Monday night's weather conditions made it particularly tough for either QB to pass, yet it seemed that was the first option for the Pats well into the 4th quarter, and in my view contributed to the Pats inability to move the ball very well. Plus, appearing that the run option is effectively off the table, both the Philly and Baltimore defenses were designed to put maximum pressure on Brady, and the O line has given up more sacks, pressures and hurries in these last 2 games than in the first 10 combined. The Pats have three very good RBs in Maroney, Faulk and Evans, but they've barely broken a sweat lately. So, what gives with the lack of running game?
Bob Kinney, Doylestown, Pa.
A: I saw this game a bit differently, and felt it was some of the best running the team has done all season. The Ravens are one of the toughest defenses to run against - similar to this week's opponent, the Steelers - and to total 90 yards on 24 carries was exceptional in my opinion. I thought the runs were nicely mixed into the attack. Of note is that of 24 runs, only one went for negative yardage (Heath Evans, minus-2 on the goal-line). Keep in mind that the Ravens entered the game as the NFL's best rush defense in terms of average yards allowed per carry. That is why I feel the work of Maroney and Faulk, and the offensive front, was exceptional Monday night.
Hi Mike. Can you give us a sense of what the wind conditions were really like on the field in Baltimore? I saw the pre-game weather reports, but the goal post flags did not seem to be fluttering any more than usual. The kickers didn't seem to have much of a problem; was there a significant impact on the passing game?
Matt Wertz, Scituate
A: >Bill Belichick said after the game that it wasn't as much of a factor as he thought it would be in the kicking game. Tom Brady said the wind "had its moments" in terms of affecting the game. It was the windiest conditions I've seen since starting to cover professional football in 1997 but I'll take the word of Belichick and Brady because they were down on the field during the action.
The Pats have lost an excellent linebacker to injury in Rosevelt Colvin and it seems as if no one is all that worried. Do you think we're a little too spoiled in that such an event would, most likely, ruin a solid team's chances this late in the season? Should we be more worried than we're letting on that this may prove to be a huge impact on our prospects this season?
All City Skip
A: I wouldn't diminish the loss of Colvin, who started and played a high percentage of snaps as a factor on both early downs and third down. As we saw Monday night in Baltimore, the change affected the Patriots significantly. Not saying that had Colvin been there the team would have been assured to play better - that's a cop out -- but the front seven got pushed around quite a bit and was often out of position. This was the worst run defense the team has played this season.
What is the "real" injury to Rosie Colvin?
A: The real injury is his foot, although I am not sure the exact details. I think there was some confusion because the medical staff was seen looking at his arm after the play, but I believe they were actually holding the arm to help him keep his balance.
On Jaworski's diatribe about Randy Moss, I believe that is was an obvious attempt by the national media to bait Moss into a verbal exchange and to distract him from his laser focus. While Randy's career performance on the field this year has drawn accolades, his character development has been overlooked somewhat. Immediately after the questionable pass interference call in the end zone last week, Randy never reacted negatively. He simply handed off the ball to the official and jogged back to the huddle. In my estimation, he is not only playing with physical grace, unselfishness and phenomenal athleticism, he is playing with character and aplomb. Do you agree and what other evidence have you witnessed in regards to his character?
Kevin W. Lawless, Newburyport
A: Jaworski is one of the best in the business at breaking down film, and he also played quarterback at a high level and is widely respected for his work. While I believe his comments needed more context - Moss has been an ironman for the Patriots this season and every receiver paces himself on certain plays while playing as many snaps as Moss has - I also respect his opinion. I don't think he was trying to bait Moss at all; I think he was just calling it as he sees it, with no agenda. I can not speak to Moss' character. The next time he talks to me will be the first - I don't count press conferences -- so I don't feel comfortable judging his character.
Hey Mike. Question re: The NFL injured reserve policy. Why is it that a player who's injured for the regular season is then ineligible for the playoffs? Surely there are guys who recover over a period of months and are healthy enough to play by then correct? Personally,I'd like to see the NFL adopt an MLB type policy, whereby an injured player has a roster spot reserved for him if the team feels he'll be healthy by then. Curious for your take on this.
A: I had similar questions a few years back when asking about the NFL's injured reserve policy. I was curious why the league did not have a disabled list, similar to baseball. The reason I was told was that teams were stashing players on injured reserve. To avoid that, it became an all or nothing situation - if you're on IR, you're out for the year. That made teams use the list a bit more "honestly".
In your blog, you keep mentioning that it's the first time the Patriots have had a particular crew of officials for the season. In past years, the NFL has made it a rule that no team gets a crew twice during the season. Has this changed?
A: The NFL schedules its officials so no crew gets the same team more than twice. There is no way, based on the number of crews (17), that each team could have a different referee each week.
Love the great work you do, Mike. My question is about one of your Sunday articles (12/2/07) in the Boston Globe. Fred Gaudelli, the Sunday Night Football producer, talked about miking quarterbacks during games, and mentioned that Brady and Peyton Manning are the only 2 quarterbacks they consistently get good audio from. He mentioned how the crowd doesn't cheer in Indy when Peyton is on the field, but he gave a much different reason for why Brady was picked up so well: "...at the risk of alienating Patriots fans, they are not the loudest fans in the league." Two paragraphs later, he noted that A.J. Feeley could not be clearly heard in the same game, presumably because of crowd noise. Pretty much every home crowd in the NFL knows enough to stay quiet when the home team is on offense, no? Why do people in the broadcasting industry continually heap praise on the Indy crowd for doing something that is common behavior even at big high school games?
Mike, West Roxbury
A: Here are a few of my thoughts, Mike. First, a big part of this is the no-huddle offense that both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning run so well. That can lead to good sound because there is more verbiage to capture. Furthermore, Gaudelli never said that Feeley could not be clearly heard, but in the story, I myself noted that the sound wasn't as crisp of Feeley. It's my opinion that it was because the Eagles weren't in the no-huddle and there was less verbiage to capture. As for what Gaudelli meant by the home crowd being quiet, I am not sure. While I believe he is correct that the home crowd is quiet - both on offense and defense - it doesn't tie in to the great sound they had of Brady. As you pointed out, the home crowd is supposed to be quiet. I believe he was making a point that was accurate - of the venues I've attended, I'd put Gillette Stadium in the lower third of stadiums in terms of crowd noise - but in retrospect it doesn't relate to getting the great sound of Brady. Indianapolis, on the other hand, would be in the top category in terms of crowd noise. So perhaps the contrast of how quiet it is in Indianapolis when Manning is on offense, paired with how loud it gets when the Colts are on defense, is what people praise when talking about the Colts' crowd.
Fred Gaudelli of NBC claims there was "no harm-no foul" in the way they broadcast (i.e. accentuated) Tom Brady's calls at the line last Sunday night. Do you agree, or do you think they revealed things that other teams could use against us?
Al Struthers, Peterborough, N.H.
A: I think teams would be smart to study Brady's calls at the line of scrimmage, and could benefit from that information provided on the NBC broadcast. At the same time, I don't blame NBC; they were playing within the rules. I watched this Sunday night's game between the Steelers and Bengals, and heard similar sound from Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. I think teams would be smart to study that as well.
With Randy Moss being a free agent at the end of the season, what are the chances that the Patriots will re-sign him for next year? And the pats have a pick from the 49ers. What position will they pick? A running back?
Dan MacQuarrie, Vestal, N.Y.
A: I think the chances are strong that Moss will return. I believe Moss is extremely happy in New England, and has privately wondered what his career would have been like if he had played with a quarterback like Tom Brady, and a strong offensive line, over the prime years of his career. As for the draft, I don't see running back being the choice. I'd lean toward a defensive lineman or offensive lineman.
Is there any reason the Patriots have not spoken to Randy Moss regarding a contract extension? Is there a reason? I think their best move would be to do it before free agency because there will be a ton of money out there for him now that he has proved he is still the best WR in the league.
Jamie Volpicelli, Trumbull, Conn.
A: Because Moss renegotiated his contract to consummate his trade to the Patriots, he can not sign another extension within the same NFL calendar year that results in an increase in his base salary/salary cap number. Because any extension would fall into that category, that has restricted talks from taking place. I think both sides are comfortable with where things are at this point, and have agreed to revisit at the end of the season.
I know it's early, but I'm concerned that the Pats won't be able to keep either or both Moss and Samuel and I'm even more concerned with Meriweather apparently not making much progress. What is the team cap next year and how much is it going up from this year? Who are and what is the cap hit for the top 5 players for 2008 and where do you think the Pats would slot Samuel and Moss? Who else is a Free Agent in 2008?
A: I wouldn't worry as much about Moss as I would Samuel. I think Moss wants to stay and the sides will work it out. On the other hand, my sense is that Samuel is shooting for a top-dollar deal and wants to explore the market. I've generally felt that once a player explores the market (e.g. Daniel Graham), the chances are greater that he is not coming back. I don't have the cap projection for next year, but I also think before anything is discussed - whether it's Moss, Samuel, Vince Wilfork - the first question should always be: "Do we need to do anything with Tom Brady?" He's signed through 2010 but could be in line for a richer extension, which would affect any cap projection.
Hi Mike. Do you see Ellis Hobbs showing any progress? Do you think that's what the Pats are hoping for and that's why they keep him in there? Is Merriweather's attitude keeping him on the bench, he's got to be better than Hobbs? He was an awesome physical player at Miami. Why can the Colts start so many rookies and the Pats can't? I think the weak link we have in Hobbs and the fact that our secondary is one of the least physical in the NFL could cost us against Indy. Indy used to be scared of our secondary, didn't they?
A: I do think Hobbs has shown progress each season, although what clouds the picture a bit this year is that I feel teams are throwing his way more often because of the presence of Asante Samuel on the opposite side - and have had some success. I still think you can win with Hobbs as a No. 2 corner. As for Meriweather, I buy the reasoning that it takes some time to learn the intricacies of the pro passing game, and that has been the main reason he's been held back. I expect him to challenge for a starting role next year, and would point to James Sanders as an example of a player who was brought along slowly. The last point I'd make is that a secondary is most often only as good as the pass rush in front of it, and that should be factored into the equation as well.
If you had to chose between one or the other would you take Joseph Addai or Reggie Bush? And why?
A: I'd take Bush. I think he attacks you equally as much in the passing game as he does in the running game, which creates a bit more of a problem for the defense. I also view him as more of a playmaker.
Can you tell us how the NFL rotating schedule works?
A: The short and sweet answer is that when the league went to eight divisions in 2002, it adopted a rotating schedule formula that ensured every team would play the other 31 clubs within a certain time frame. So next year, for example, the Patriots already know they have road trips in Seattle and San Francisco, two venues they haven't visited in quite some time.