Any linebackers out there? Defensive linemen?
The Patriots have been hit by a string of injuries on defense, which improbably had linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau signed on Wednesday and Friday, respectively -- playing 49 percent of the teams defensive snaps in Sundays 24-21 win over the Seahawks.
I thought this quote from Colvin summed it up best:
In the middle of the third quarter, I said Junior, what were you doing a week ago? He said he was in Fiji, and I was in Missouri City. Now were out here playing professional football again. Its crazy.
It is crazy. So is the NFLs playoff picture, which in addition to injuries is the other hot topic on the mind of e-mailers.
Lets get right to the questions.
Could you take a minute and enumerate all the Patriots injuries this year? I'm trying to figure out if we are on the fourth- and fifth-string members of the defense. It seems that teams are typically judged, injury-wise, by games missed. Any idea where the Patriots rank in this regard? I'd love to see how the depth chart has evolved as the season has gone on (especially on defense).
A: Brian, I dont have the exact statistics, but on a quick scan of rosters around the NFL I have the Patriots ranked in the top 5 when it comes to teams hit by the most injuries. Id also point out that losing a starting quarterback (not to mention the reigning NFL MVP) on the 15th offensive play of a season would cripple many teams. Thats why I think what the Patriots have accomplished at this point is impressive and reflective of a solid football program that has good players, coaches and personnel men from top to bottom. Football is a consummate team sport, and the Patriots are proving that once again this year from a playing, coaching and scouting perspective. In terms of what layer of the depth chart the Patriots are on, there are some arbitrary calls to be made depending on the position (e.g. would Vince Redd really play over Rosevelt Colvin if healthy?). To use Colvin as an example, I put him fifth on the depth chart at that that particular outside linebacker spot, behind Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable and Gary Guyton.
Hi Mike, with all the injuries on defense -- Harrison, Thomas, Bruschi, Warren, Wilfolk, Sanders can this team stay in the hunt for three more weeks? Do they have enough healthy bodies for this coming week? Who might or might not be ready for Oakland?
Jim, Seminole, Fla.
A: Its the question of the week, Jim, and Im not going to be the skeptic who picks against the Patriots. I felt the teams 24-21 victory over the Seahawks showed football character from a bunch of players and coaches who know how to fight. I agree with Bill Belichick that there are a lot of tough players on the team physically and mentally. I think they will have enough healthy bodies, although I dont think Tedy Bruschi will be one of them. Hes back in Boston for further tests on his injured left knee. Im not sure at this point on Vince Wilfork (shoulder) or James Sanders (ribs).
Now we are in a three-way tie. I checked out the schedule and it seems we have to win out and have the Jets/Dolphins each lose one game to be in the playoffs because both of them will beat us through tiebreakers if either one of them wins out. Should I start praying for that or the Ravens go 0-3?
A: Why not both, Alex? I personally think the first option -- the Jets and Dolphins losing one apiece -- is more likely than the Ravens finishing 0-3 (although the Ravens only have to finish 1-2 for the Patriots, assuming they win out, to qualify). The Ravens, under first-year coach John Harbaugh, are one of the NFLs surprise stories this year. Here is a look at the opponents remaining for the three teams mentioned:
Dolphins: 49ers (home), Chiefs (away), Jets (away)
Jets: Buffalo (home), Seahawks (away), Dolphins (home)
Ravens: Pittsburgh (home), Dallas (away), Jacksonville (home)
How do the tiebreakers look going into this weekend?
Aroon, Orlando, Fla.
A: The tiebreakers are extremely detailed, and the entire mailbag this week could be filled with all the possibilities. Instead of doing that, I thought Id provide an NFL.com link to the tiebreaking procedures, which provides the key info but allows us to cover other topics in the mailbag as well. Meanwhile, colleague Christopher L. Gasper who has once again raced away from the field in the Boston Globe weekly NFL picks contest -- pens his usual fine piece on the playoff picture in Tuesdays Globe.
Hi Mike, nice come-from-behind-victory on Sunday. My question relates to our defense. What is the fundamental difference between our defense and that of the Steelers? Why are they having so much success in the 3-4, and why are we struggling? And why the trouble in generating a consistent pass rush? Looking at the front seven, our teams seem pretty even to me (we have slightly better linemen, they have somewhat better LBs). Admittedly this year our DBs are weaker, but we had trouble last year with Asante, Randall and Rodney. So what gives? Is it the scheme? The coaching? Player types? What is the missing ingredient that we need to become a top defensive unit again, particularly against the pass?
A: This is a great question, Antti, one that interests me quite a bit. I think it is a great topic to explore more in the offseason when I believe the Patriots will be revamping their defense. My off-the-cuff answer at this point would be this: One of the first things that caught my eye from a few weeks back is that the presence of Troy Polamalu at safety gives that Steelers some flexibility to be a bit more rush-oriented because he basically covers the ground of two players in the deep third of the field. I also think the Steelers might be more willing to sacrifice a big play here or there for the possible reward of creating a big play, and I view the Patriots as a bit more conservative in that area. I think the Patriots could benefit from being a bit more attack-oriented.
How about a shout out for the defensive adjustments the Patriots made Sunday? The Seahawks had 339 offensive yards, and nearly half of those were on the first two plays of the drive. The Seahawks did nothing in the second or fourth quarters, and really only had that big play in the third to give them some momentum. I haven't found myself complimenting the D much this year, but I have to give it to them this time. Think Pees move from the box to the field had any effect on this?
A: David, I dont think it had anything to do with if coordinator Dean Pees was in the box or on the sideline (Pees was back on the sideline after two games in the box). If I had to boil it down, I thought it was mostly a matter of third-down defense. The Patriots stopped the Seahawks on four consecutive third downs forcing punts from the second quarter into the third. That area has been a weakness this season for the Patriots, but the defense came through in the critical moments against the Seahawks despite surrendering 7 of 12 overall third-down conversions in the game. Naturally, the question is what helped them get off the field on those successful third downs? I thought the Patriots generated some good pressure by blitzing out of their dime package (six defensive backs).
Great win. It's a real shame about Bruschi and Wilfork, though it was also nice to see Junior and Rosie out there. It's hard to believe how much was expected from them. From your view, how did they look? I think it's amazing that they could come off the street and contribute to the extent they did. Would this have been possible if they hadn't played for the Pats in recent years? Could anyone?
A: Jim, I had both Seau and Colvin on for 28 of a possible 57 snaps (includes 2 offensive holding penalties). They didnt show up much on the stat sheet and Seau was beaten on a few plays but I thought their performance was solid simply by their presence. I dont think someone who wasnt in the system could have done what they did. It was impressive.
Mike, I know this makes me sound like a whiner, but when the Patriots play the Raiders Sunday, it will be the third straight week they will play an opponent coming off a Thursday night game, which means extra time for them. I know Coach Belichick will give his standard "it is what it is" statement, but away from the cameras and tape recorders, how do you think the coaching staff really feels and shouldn't the NFL considered this a scheduling quirk and fixed it? Your thoughts?
Rick, Louisville, Ky.
A: Rick, I do think its an advantage to the opposition, as clubs are 10-4 this season the week after playing on Thursday night, seemingly benefiting from the extra rest. A few other e-mailers have mentioned this scheduling quirk, suggesting that perhaps the NFL has it in for the Patriots, but I personally dont think it has anything to do with the NFL trying to stick it to the Patriots. I actually feel the Patriots are fortunate that the league granted their offseason request to play road games on the West Coast back-to-back, if at all possible. Those back-to-back games allowed them to avoid not having to make four different trips to the West Coast, like the Jets have had to do this season (theyre 0-3 in those games). So I think it balances off when you consider the situations other teams are in as well.
Hi Mike, any ideas on what's going on with Jarvis Green? In years past, he was a playmaker in pass rush situations. This year, he seems to have disappeared entirely.
Hiram, New York, NY
A: Good point, Hiram, as Green is still searching for his first sack of the season. When I saw Mike Wright and Le Kevin Smith play more than Green against the Seahawks, I can only come to this conclusion: Green is hampered by something physically. Green hasnt been on the teams injury report, but every player is fighting some aches and pains and not everyone can be listed. Its not to make excuses for him, but my hunch is that Green is hobbled more than people realize.
With the weakness at linebacker and inability to stop the run the last two weeks, why haven't they tried four down lineman?
A: They have in short-yardage situations, Mike, and at times it looks to me like theyve had Mike Vrabel play more of an end-type role to create a 4-3 type of look. But in the last game, at Seattle, I think personnel was the main issue. When Vince Wilfork left the game with a shoulder injury on the Seahawks first drive, it left the Patriots with just four pure linemen Richard Seymour, Mike Wright, Jarvis Green, and Le Kevin Smith. If Wilfork and Ty Warren (groin) cant play in the coming weeks, theyll likely need to add another body there, perhaps practice squad tackle Titus Adams.
Mike, it seems to me that opposing teams have watched their game tapes, and know that you can beat cornerback Ellis Hobbs on the fade route when they get in the red zone. It's automatic, even with smaller receivers. If I am the Pats, don't I coach Hobbs to maybe give a little bit more of a cushion in the red zone, and force teams to try something else, like throwing short and forcing Hobbs to come up and make a tackle? It just seems like we see the exact same strategy by every opposing QB in the red zone -- fade to Hobbs's side.
A: Dave, I see what you are saying, as Deion Branch made a super one-handed catch on a one-on-one matchup against Hobbs in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown. There have been other plays as well (Plaxico Burress in the Super Bowl, most notably) and I think thats an area where the lack of height can work against Hobbs (5-9, 195). I do think Hobbs generally plays bigger than his actual size, but sometimes it does come down to the pure physical measureables. The problem, as I see it, is that the options are limited in that area of the field. Because the space is so compact and tight on the goal-line and inside the 5-yard line, there really isnt much of a cushion option. My suggestion to the coaching staff would be to substitute in that area of the field with Lewis Sanders, who at 6-1, 210 pounds is the teams tallest, sturdiest cornerback.
What is with the penalty for "using the ball as a prop?" How is what Watson did with the ball more obnoxious that Deion Branch bowing, or even Welker faking a spike on the two-point conversion? Seems like a pointless rule, especially if the infraction is not particularly spiteful. Also, on your blog, I question putting Meriwether in the up column. Sure, he had a lot of tackles, but some of those came after being beaten for big yardage. One big play at the end doesn't mean he had a big game. And Deion Branch sure gave a clinic to remind Pats fans that we were more than happy with him when he was here. Not that we didn't upgrade after he left, but it's not like Brady was throwing to the JV all those years. Your thoughts?
A: Jason, the NFL has been pretty clear on the rule about using the ball as a prop. Players are briefed and showed film of those rules back in training camp, and thats one of them. While we could debate the merits of the rule or other rules -- Im going to focus on the fact that its the responsibility of the players and coaches to know them regardless of whether they agree with them. I personally have no problem with the rule; my preferred TD celebration is the simple spike or a handoff to the referee/linesman as if the player has been there before. As for Meriweather, the point Id make is that sometimes one play can define an overall performance good or bad. In Meriweathers case, his final strip sack was a huge play. On the flip side, last week against the Steelers, I had left tackle Matt Light as a down after giving up two strip sacks to linebacker James Harrison. But Light was actually pretty good on the other 65 plays. So my thought on those ups and downs is that its always a balance between weighing the impact of one of two game-changing plays vs. the overall performance and often times, you can go either way. On the final part of the question, I was wrong on Deion Branch. At the time of his trade, I questioned his value to the offense and believed the team could simply plug in the next player. As it turned out, the Patriots had a blown second-round draft pick (Chad Jackson) and it took them a full year to fill the void. Privately, I believe the teams decision-makers now realize they could have opened up the vault a bit more for Branch and kept that special partnership he had with Tom Brady intact. Im not saying they would have paid Branch the six-year, $39 million deal he received in Seattle, but they could have started their negotiating at a bit higher level than they did, perhaps setting a different tone for what was to come.
Mike, I don't want to take away from their win, but the Patriots continue to do things that baffle me. Ben Watson getting flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct on his TD, and Matt Cassel running up to the ref yelling at him that Seattle had too many men on the field, were just the latest examples of stupidity. These guys are both starters and they don't know the rules? There is no justifiable defense for allowing these things to happen.
A: Ray, I gave Cassel a mulligan on that one. The game moves so fast and there is so much information to process (especially on the road, in a noisy atmosphere), so I can see why he didnt snap the ball to draw the 12-men-on-the-field penalty and instead turned to the ref wondering why there was no call (a defense can have 12 players on the field until the ball is snapped) . No one is perfect. Overall, I think this is where it would help all of us to put on the football cleats and understand how difficult it can be to play that position in those situations. On Watson, I agree that that it was a boneheaded play. Yet while I think Watson should be held accountable for not knowing the rules, I also loosen the slack a bit because it was hardly malicious. Overall, it was the teams only penalty of the game, which I think speaks to a team that is generally pretty disciplined.
Why do you think Matt Cassel is really good? He can't throw downfield. His best pass Sunday was a 1-yard pass to Welker that Welker then ran 25 yards to the 7. Its the story of Matt's passing ability Mr. Dump-Off. He will get Welker killed by the end of the season.
A: Bob, I do think yards-after-catch have helped Cassel, as the Patriots have the highest percentage of their passing yards coming after the catch of any team in the NFL. Welker is especially good in that category. Still, I think Cassel can throw down the field, and what impressed me most about his performance Sunday was the way he rallied the team in the critical moments of the fourth quarter. His overall ability to run the offense such as not taking a delay of game penalty in a raucous environment while being in the shotgun for much of the afternoon was reflective to me of a quarterback in command of the system he was running.
Mike, depending on the severity of James Sanders injury at safety, do you think that the Pats would give John Lynch another call, or would they try converting cornerbacks to be safeties?
A: Mike, if Sanders injury is something that would keep him out, I think the Patriots would turn to veteran cornerback Lewis Sanders at that safety spot. I dont see the Patriots bringing Lynch back. The Patriots would also have to fill James Sanders spot on the punt coverage team.
Mike, it seems like some players are emerging (Meriweather, Mayo), while others are regressing (Benjamin Watson, David Thomas). What happened to the deep tight end threat down the middle?
A: Steve, I think the Patriots simply dont have a tight end who consistently threatens that part of the field, and Im thinking that will be an area the team will look to address in the offseason. One of the personnel decisions that interested me most from the Patriots 24-21 win over the Seahawks was at tight end, where rookie Tyson DeVree was active over third-year man David Thomas. Coach Bill Belichick explained that DeVree earned the opportunity based on his practice performance. I was surprised that Thomass performance in practice both on offense and special teams -- wouldnt have been better than DeVrees.
Hey Mike, one thing about the Patriots that I find confusing is their abandonment of things that are working. In particular, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was very good filling in for the injured running backs in previous games, yet when they returned he disappeared back to special teams. I view him as the Kevin Faulk of the next 10 years and I would like to see him used in critical situations to determine if he can be that third-down back they need. Do you have any insight as to why his playing time has disappeared?
A: Ken, I think the Patriots have taken pride in being a game-plan offense, meaning they alter their attack each week based on a combination of what they do well and the oppositions strengths and weaknesses. The last few weeks, the Patriots have been spreading the field with three-receiver and four-receiver packages, and those are the pass-based formations in which Kevin Faulk usually takes the bulk of the work due to his receiver-like skills. If the Patriots were in more compact, run-oriented groupings with multiple tight ends similar to the Broncos game -- I think thats where Green-Ellis might get more time. Overall, I dont view Green-Ellis as a third-down type of back, but more of a first- and second-down hard-charging runner.
Mike, have you heard if Mike Pereira, head of officiating, has explained the play where Deion Branch did not step out of bounds (when it looked to the rest of the civilized world that his heel was out of bounds)? Are my glasses that old that I need new ones? Thank you.
A: Dan, I have not heard Pereiras take on that, but I personally didnt think the replay was that conclusive. If I was referee Carl Cheffers in that game, and I was going under the hood to get a closer look, I personally wouldnt have overturned the call based on what I saw on the TV-produced replays. What I found interesting is that Bill Belichick was right there and he remains convinced especially after later watching coaching tape that had a crystal clear shot of the sideline -- that Branch was out of bounds. It brings up an issue Belichick has talked about in the past: Why not have permanent cameras on the goal-line and sidelines for instant replay, so coaches know theyre going to have that shot on challenges? Under the current system, coaches can only hope in some cases that the TV-produced replay will have the right angle.
Hi Mike, do you have any word on Welker's condition after the Ryan Clark hit? Surely the guy suffered a massive concussion. I'd hate to see him end up like John Hannah or any other NFL player with post-concussive trauma.
A: This is obviously a very serious issue for all players, Pike, and one that should not be dismissed. Media members, including myself, talked with Welker on Wednesday of last week, which was almost three full days from when he absorbed the hit. While Welker didnt get specific and keeping in mind I also do not have the specifics -- I didnt get the sense that he was pushing through something that he shouldnt be.
Please settle a bet regarding the big hit that knocked Welker out of the Steelers game. When the network showed the play during the Seattle game, I made the comment the league should have fined the Pittsburgh player for hitting a defenseless receiver after the play was clearly over. One son said the league reviewed the play and found that the refs were wrong and no penalty, never mind a fine, should be assessed. The other son said that the call was for leaving his feet to hit Welker. What was the call and what was the review by the league?
A: Otis, son No. 1 would be correct in this instance. The league reviewed the play and determined that safety Ryan Clark did not lead with his helmet or forearm into the area of Welkers head/neck. Players can also leave their feet, so the hit itself was legal. There was some question as to whether it was late the ball was tipped, which is another aspect to consider and the NFL determined it wasnt. Another e-mailer asked my opinion on the hit, and I personally feel it was a late hit and that Clark based on the leagues precedent this season should have been hit with a fine. My problem is with the inconsistency when I see David Thomas getting fined $7,500 for a harmless late shove in a Colts game, and then not seeing Clark get fined anything for a much more brutal hit. If I was a player, Id be frustrated by that.