FOXBOROUGH -- A little bit of a surprise this week, as I was expecting a heavy dose of Jets questions in the Patriots mailbag.
But instead, the majority of questions were specific to the Patriots and some of the issues surrounding the team. While the Spygate episode is sure to draw plenty of attention this week, it was interesting to me that it didn't seem to be a prevalent thought on the mind of e-mailers.
The main issue that seemed to pop up was the Patriots' offensive approach. E-mailers are concerned that the running game isn't being utilized enough and wonder if it could come back to haunt the team, in the event of inclement weather. The current long-term forecast indicates that inclement weather could be part of the mix for Sunday's game against the Jets, so this could be the week to find out.
There are still some Jets questions, as well as inquiries on the receiver spot and if Jabar Gaffney has passed Donte' Stallworth on the depth chart. Also, is the Patriots' defense vulnerable?
We'll get right to the questions.
Hi Mike, I am big fan of the Pats. I used to watch them play when I was in the USA, now I get to see highlights on NFL.com. My question is related to the running game. Now as winter is approaching, it will be difficult to pass, so we need a good running game & run-stopping defense. But no signs of either are present. What are your thoughts on this?
Rajesh Sharma, India
A: I'm not sure the old adage applies that as winter is approaching it will be difficult to pass. It was a cool 34 degrees at kickoff Sunday against the Steelers and the Patriots threw the ball all around the yard. Certainly, there could be elements that challenge the Patriots going forward, as the playoffs figure to come through Gillette Stadium, but I tend to think this line of thinking is overblown. In Baltimore, the winds were swirling at around 20 miles per hour and the Patriots still threw it. All in all, I think the feeling is that when you have as proficient of a passing game as the Patriots do, why not use it? The numbers are a bit skewed because some of their quick receiver screens (I counted 4 of them Sunday) are essentially running plays, but don't show up that way on the stat sheet. I've also seen them run it when they need to, and be successful in recent weeks, so my feeling is that the running game is more successful than the numbers indicate.
Mike, I don't recall a team ever just not bothering to try to establish the run but that is what New England is doing. I like to believe that the Patriots running game is playing possum while keeping Laurence Maroney fresh. Although I am not a big Maroney fan I think he could make a difference for the playoffs. Your thoughts?
Chris W., Swanzey, NH
A: I thought Logan Mankins put it best after Sunday's win when he said: "Right now we're a throwing offense -- pass, then run when we need to. When you have great receivers and a great quarterback, you have to take advantage of what you have." I don't suddenly see the Patriots turning into a grind-it-out team overnight. They like to throw. They can arguably throw it as well as any passing offense in the history of the game. With that in mind, they'll continue to let it fly.
Mike, I know people like to get down on Maroney's style of running but more blame needs to be placed on the offensive line. They are very good in pass protection but rarely open up running lanes. In my opinion the most overrated position in football is running back because it is so dependent on the guys up front. Just look at Shaun Alexander after he lost his guard to Minnesota or Edgerrin James' lack of production in Arizona. Also, for the first time since before the Indy game I thought the refs did a great job. Your thoughts?
A: The Patriots finished with nine carries for 22 yards in Sunday's win. On the surface, it doesn't look like a productive running game, but I see things a bit differently. To me, a good running game is being able to get the yards when you truly need them, and I thought the Patriots passed that test against the Steelers. The biggest rush was in the first quarter, facing a third-and-1, the offense calling on its three-tight end power package. Maroney converted with a 2-yard rush over left guard. Power football. That play right there, plus the barreling 10-yard run by Maroney three plays earlier, set up play-action for the rest of the game. So while this wasn't a running game, I actually thought the Patriots established the run. As for the offensive line, I would agree they are not a smash-mouth run-blocking unit. But I still think they are effective enough.
Has there been any commentary from the coaching staff about the complete shutdown of the running game? Is Maroney still having performance issues?
A: I think the Patriots are fine with the performance of the running game. Maroney and Faulk received game balls against the Ravens two weeks ago.
Mike, I have never understood why Eric Mangini was not implicated in past CameraGate activities when he was here. The assumption by most everyone is that the Patriots have been taping for years, leading to questions of past victories. If that was the case, Mangini must have been aware it was going on. If he did not approve, I would think he must have registered that with Belichick at some point, even if only behind closed doors. If he did not say anything, that would seem to be a pretty weak response by someone who is supposedly strong enough to be a head coach. To my knowledge, no one has asked Mangini at all about the history and what he knew. Why does he get to skate on this?
Jim Slate, Danvers
A: I don't think Mangini has skated on this at all, as he'll surely find out Sunday at Gillette Stadium. His reputation has taken a hit as a tattle-tale. The feeling I get in league circles is that every team, and every coach, does things that push the envelope in certain areas. Mangini included. So he hasn't earned much support league-wide for blowing the whistle on the Patriots. As for Mangini's role in the process while he was with New England, I am not sure if he even knew what was going on, or how much he might have benefited from the actions, assuming they were taking place. My personal feeling is that I think it is unfair to expect Mangini, while serving as an assistant with the Patriots, to confront the head coach regarding videotaping procedures. I look at that as a case of knowing your role and when it is appropriate to voice opinions, and I don't think that situation qualifies.
Predictions on the postgame handshake?
Karl Kaufmann, Falls Church, Va.
A: Quick and icy.
Hi Mike: I've read different accounts of how the camera was confiscated during the Week 1 game. Most stories reference the Jets directly, saying someone turned the Patriots into the league office. A few accounts say that the league office itself was already looking into possible taping by the Pats, and Week 1 just happened to be in NY. Do you know of the Jets' direct involvement in pointing the finger at the Patriots? How much direct intent was there, and from whom in the Jets organization did it originate/was it approved? Thanks.
Chris, Sicily, Italy
A: As I understand it, the Jets initiated the confiscation of the camera. At the same time, Jets officials regularly say it's a league issue, which is technically correct. I can see the confusion between how the situation went down, but if not for the Jets pushing things, I don't believe the Spygate episode would have happened.
At this point, the Giants don't worry me at all. After all the Pats have been through, does anyone think Eli Manning is going to get it done? What I'm worried about is that there's so much emotional stuff going on with the Jets that the Pats will get too fancy, try to do too much to embarrass them, that they'll be lax in getting business done right. I don't think the Pats will lose, but I do worry they'll try too hard to send a statement, rather than just give a typical butt-whooping. Not really a question I know, but I do have one: why do the Pats practice indoors when it's cold outside? Isn't there a value in practicing in inclement conditions, especially if we'll be hosting games in January?
Jason Rubin, Melrose
A: Interesting thought on the Patriots-Jets, and one that crossed my mind as well. But one factor that might make the point moot is the weather; the long-range forecast indicates that wind, rain and/or snow could be a factor Sunday, which could make a blowout difficult to accomplish. As for practicing indoors, my feeling is that it's mainly wind-related. When the offense is working on the passing game, it doesn't make sense to battle the elements when the purpose is fine-tuning the passing routes and timing of the entire operation. All that said, the Patriots have been holding their fair share of practices outside at this time of year.
I am very concerned with the defense at this point. I can chalk up the shortcomings for Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison to losing a step at their old age, but Richard Seymour looks like a shell of his former self and hasn't gotten off a block since returning to the lineup. Furthermore, Adalius Thomas is just plain soft and has not adapted to our style of defense. I still think we can get by and go 19-0, but what are your thoughts on the defensive ineptitude?
A: I would agree that there are some troubling areas on defense, but I'd also point out that no defense is across-the-board excellent. The Steelers came in as the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense and we saw their weakness in the secondary exposed. I would agree with your thoughts on Seymour, but would disagree that Adalius Thomas is soft. I think he plays physical and is a tough player. The concern I would have is the inside linebackers flowing to the ball and playing the run on plays that come outside the tackles.
Hi Mike, the Pats had difficulty stopping the run against the Ravens and the Steelers. Can the problem be fixed before the playoffs or will they need to score 35-40 points a game to get to the big game? Do they need to move Adalius Thomas back inside and find someone who can set the edge on the outside?
Jim Curley, Seminole, Fla.
A: I thought the run defense was better against the Steelers, but still had too many holes. Of the Steelers' 181 rushing yards, 55 came on the final two drives when the defense was in its dime package (six defensive backs). I think the loss of Rosevelt Colvin has weakened the Patriots in two areas -- inside and outside linebacker. Thomas isn't as solid as Colvin on the outside, and Seau isn't as solid on the inside (technically, Bruschi has slid over to Thomas' spot, with Seau filling Bruschi's old role). If I was making the call, I'd move Thomas back inside, but then the problem is who plays outside? Second-year man Pierre Woods would have to be the choice. Is he ready? The coaching staff obviously doesn't think so, which is why they've taken this approach.
Hi Mike, I am always wondering why the Pats don't run a two-back set? I mean when they run the ball it always seems the last defensive player available, like a safety makes the tackle. Doesn't putting Evans in there to take on the safety make sense?
A: Including goal-line situations, the Patriots have run 106 of their 862 offensive snaps this season with a lead fullback. The Patriots had a lead fullback in for seven of their 57 offensive snaps Sunday against the Steelers. So it's not as if they have not used the two-back set this season, although I would agree it hasn't been a main part of their arsenal. To me, the answer comes down to the fact that the Patriots are a passing offense right now. They're running more three-wide and four-wide packages because they want their receivers on the field more than multiple tight ends or an extra fullback.
Mike, I have a question about Richard Seymour. Every year he's been in the league, sportswriters and commentators and fellow players and coaches have always repeated that he does so much that doesn't appear on the stats page such as draw double-teams and disrupt plays. Is he still doing those things this year? Because from where I'm sitting he's doing very little.
Adam Kosberg, Los Angeles
A: Not very well, Adam, and part of the reason is that he's not 100 percent. But the Patriots, according to one ESPN.com story last week, are not happy with Seymour's performance this year. On one of the Steelers' long runs Sunday, Seymour could not shed a one-on-one block and Willie Parker raced by him. Usually, Seymour eats up those one-on-one blocks, but the fact he didn't on that play seems to be reflective of a drop in his play. He was on the field for 39 of 68 snaps, so he's not even playing full time right now.
Was Ty Warren injured or shaken up Sunday? I noticed that Jarvis Green was at his spot for some plays vs. Pittsburgh.
A: Warren was not shaken up in the game. The Patriots liberally rotated their top five linemen in the first half, with Warren, Green, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour and Mike Wright. In the second, the team went to a four-man rotation, with Wright staying on the bench. I had Warren on the field for 42 of 68 defensive snaps, with Green on for 40.
Has Jabar Gaffney moved ahead of Donte Stallworth on the depth chart? I found that very interesting that he had quite a few more snaps than Stallworth. Should we read anything into this?
Mike McWherter, Dallas
A: This was one of the more popular questions of the week. I wouldn't go that far. Last Monday in Baltimore, Stallworth played 56 of 69 snaps, while Gaffney was in for eight of 69. So I think it's a reminder that the Patriots go week to week in how they utilize their personnel.
Hello Mike. What kind of role can we expect to see Chad Jackson play in the remaining weeks? He sure seemed to recover well from his injuries, without losing any of his blazing speed. Will we see him getting any offensive snaps outside of garbage time, or is the receiver corps just too deep for him to break into?
A: I view Jackson as the backup to Randy Moss, and as we've seen Moss isn't coming off the field. He played all but four snaps in Sunday's win over the Steelers. So I would imagine that once the Patriots clinch home field, they might slightly reduce Moss's load and that should open more opportunity for Jackson.
Mike, it seems like Randy Moss, as well as the other receivers, have dropped a few more balls lately than they did earlier in the year. Would you say the cold weather has something to do about that? Could Brady help the situation by not firing the ball at 200 mph when a receiver is wide open?
Jeff Phillips, New Ipswich, NH
A: My feeling is that the majority of drops have been more about concentration than cold weather. Also, Brady acknowledged on his weekly radio interview on WEEI this week that he threw his would-be touchdown pass to Randy Moss, which was dropped, too hard. So yes, he could take a little mustard off the ball.
Any idea on when Troy Brown will play in a game?
Mary, Amherst, NH
A: I don't know the answer to this one, but it wouldn't surprise if he goes the rest of the season and is not active for any game, as it would be rare for the team to have seven receivers on the game-day roster.
Mike, I have 2 questions. In the offensive participation list on your blog, I did not see Troy Brown's name. Did he play at all in the Steelers' game? Also, I've noted the outstanding decline this year of Brady interceptions (5) and turnovers in general (plus-18 turnover differential after Steelers game). What are the Pats' records for fewest interceptions and plus score on turnovers? Thanks.
A: Troy Brown was inactive for Sunday's game, and has yet to play in a game this season. As for the interceptions, the Patriots had a franchise low 12 last season (not including the strike-shortened 1982 season). The previous low had been 13, which was set in 1962 and 1986. As for the turnover differential, the franchise record is plus-17, which was set in 2003.
Hi Mike, I was just wondering, is it just me, or is Kyle Brady not been seen much lately? I noticed him on the field a few times against the Steelers, but in the two previous games, both close and both had Tom Brady getting a lot more pressure on him, I don't think I heard his name mentioned once. He has been outstanding all season long as a blocking tight end, then he suddenly goes missing. Was he even playing?
John Galley, Hamilton, Ontario
A: Brady was on the field for just 18 of the team's 58 snaps, which was his second lowest total of the season (17, vs. Eagles). He has seen a reduction in playing time in recent weeks, which is partially based on the return to health of Benjamin Watson, as well as the team favoring more four-receiver packages.
I have to wonder about the Steelers not trying to punch a score in on the series where Hines Ward was stopped on the end around? The Colts have been successful up the middle against Vince Wilfork a few times recently for some big scores. The team looks good, but what about the kicking game? Punting, field position, and field goals are going to be important against a good playoff opponent. How do you see this weak area holding up?
A: Based on the result, I would agree that the Steelers should have attempted to punch it up the gut. That being said, Wilfork was a beast Sunday. I counted the Steelers rushing 11 times up the middle, totaling just 32 yards (2.9 avg.). Wilfork was a main reason why, as when he was on the field, he was clogging up the middle. As for the kicking game, it does seem inconsistent to me. In a close game, it does make you wonder if that area could potentially hurt the team.
Hey Mike, I think this might be Rodney Harrison's best year as a Patriot. The guy is a great leader on the field, seems like whenever he blitzes, it's a good thing for the defense. He tackles well and covers as good as any safety in the league. I kept asking myself after the Colts game if Dallas Clark was even playing. Would you agree this might be his best year as a Patriot and when does his contract run out? Do you think there's any chance he'd retire after this year or next?
Rick, Louisville, Ky.
A: I do think this is Harrison's best year with the Patriots, which says something because he was excellent in 2003 and 2004 as well. To me, this is one of the top individual stories of the Patriots' season, how the 34-year-old Harrison has come back from injury and played inspired football, especially after his four-game suspension. His contract extends through the 2008 season. He is due to make $3 million next season and would count $3.7 million against the salary cap, and my feeling is that those prices are more than reasonable. I have heard nothing about Harrison potentially retiring after the season.
Is there really an actual bulletin board in the Patriots locker room with "material" on it?
A: There is no actual bulletin board in the Patriots' locker room. In one corner, there is a board that includes various items regarding player safety and other league-based information.
How does Eugene Wilson get a No. 4 in voting ahead of Rodney Harrison for the Pro Bowl?
A: Harrison is not eligible for the Pro Bowl due to his suspension for violating the NFL's banned substances policy earlier this year. I would say that Wilson is benefiting from the Patriots' winning season because he has not performed as if he is the AFC's fourth best safety.
It appears as though, ever since Eugene Wilson came back from this season's injury, that he's seen a significant reduction in his playing time. Yet, he hasn't been on the injury report for weeks. I was expecting a huge year for him this year, as I felt he'd be in great health. Do you know of any reason for his reduced playing time?
A: I see two factors: scheme and then health. I first noticed Wilson getting reduced time when the team introduced its three-safety package around Week 6 against Dallas. That was when James Sanders seemed to overtake him, and I think that was strictly scheme-based as the Patriots felt Sanders was better against the run and in coverage against tight ends than Wilson. Yet Wilson also ran into his injury problems around that time, and sort of fell off the radar. He was playing in the dime package Sunday as he works his way back into form.
Have the Pats seen enough of Brandon Meriweather to know he's a bust? I did not see him in the game. Did any LBs play except Mike Vrabel, Seau, Bruschi and Thomas? I did not see any and thought that the Pats gave Bruschi/Seau a break using a nickel or dime package.
A: Absolutely not. I look at this as a red-shirt year for Meriweather and I expect him to compete for a starting spot next year. The depth at safety has allowed the Patriots to take that approach. That being said, I had been very high on University of Miami linebacker Jon Beason during the draft and in retrospect feel as if he could have helped the Patriots more. That's easy to say now based on the injury situation, but I envisioned Beason stepping right in as a nickel/dime linebacker, and potentially evolving into more. As for the linebackers, Pierre Woods was in on two snaps late in the game and Larry Izzo played two snaps on the goal-line, but otherwise it was all about Bruschi, Seau, Thomas and Vrabel.
Has the NFL given a definitive answer to the penalty scenario if the Patriots had kicked the ball out of bounds on the last kickoff against the Ravens? Bill Belichick said he thought the ball would be on the 17.5-yard line, and some take the literal interpretation of the rule to be 30 yards from the spot of the kick, which would have been the Ravens five yard line, or spotting the ball where it went out of bounds. Given that the Patriots needed every yard on the Ravens last drive, might it have been a better play to try to angle the ball out of bounds deep inside Ravens territory? Or did the wind and the threat of any return override trying to push the Ravens back an extra 5-15 yards?
South Shore Pats Fan
A: Here is what I believe took place: The referee told Belichick if they kicked it out of bounds, it would be at the 17.5. When the league went back to review the situation, which was rare, they determined that it would be the 5-yard line. I think that is where the confusion came in last week when Belichick was asked about it. Now, referees don't have to say anything during a game, so ultimately the accountability falls to the coach to know all the rules. This one was rare and I would imagine the team starts practicing it as part of its situational work in case it comes up again.
Mike, one follow-up question on the Ravens' game. On Brady's 12-yard run on fourth down in the fourth quarter, there was also a 5-yard illegal contact penalty, which gives an automatic first down. So obviously, either way, we get a first down. In that case, though, you decline the penalty as the play got more yards. But they tacked on the five yards on top of the play. Why? I thought only a 5-yard facemask penalty gets added on to the end of the play as the only time on offense you get both the play and the penalty yards.
Brett Dreiss, Salem
A: Thank you for asking this question, as I had to check the rule myself. An illegal contact penalty gets tacked on when the play is a running play. In this case, Brady dropped back to pass and tucked the ball in to scramble, and thus the penalty yardage was tacked on.
Hi Mike, this is from one of your UK readers. One of the things that makes the Patriots run this year so impressive is the strength of schedule they were handed this year (.535) being the 3rd toughest in the league. Obviously it's too soon to start looking to next season yet, but with the schedule for '08 having both the NFC West and AFC West in the rotation, next year's strength of schedule currently works out to .399, which is incredibly low. Any thoughts on whether this will have any relevance next year?
Martin Whitaker, London, England
A: I am not a firm believer in the strength of schedule statistic, as my feeling is that so much changes in the NFL from year to week, and week to week. I just don't think it's an accurate reflection of a true strength of schedule. For example, this year's Ravens game was a tough matchup for the Patriots, even though Baltimore entered the game at 4-7. The big thing to me is not who you play, but when and where you play them. The Patriots already know they will have road games at Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego. They're going to get their frequent flyer miles. It's going to be a grind.
Mike, can you provide any insight to the relationship between Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels? How does it compare to BB and Eric Mangini before Mangini split? Is he being groomed to take over control at some point (as I expect Mangini was)?
Ron Biggs, Boston
A: Here is my perception of the relationship between Belichick and McDaniels: I think McDaniels is appreciative of having the opportunity to learn the game from arguably one of the greatest tactical coaches of all-time. He realizes that puts him in a position to be a head coach in the future, and he's not in a rush to see that happen because he has confidence in his own abilities that when the time is right, it will happen. For now, he's content in his role and realizes this experience will only benefit him in the future. As for the idea that McDaniels is being groomed to one day take over, I don't think the Patriots view it that way. So much changes from year to year, you just never know.
A couple of questions popped into my head after reading last week's mailbag. You said that the next time Randy Moss talks to you will be the first. How much contact do you have with players? How do you cover the game on game day? On the field or in the press box? How much tape do you watch and when do you watch it?
Curtis Monroe, Atlanta
A: We have access to the locker room 4-5 times per week, for 45 minutes per session. So there is time to get to know the players and ask them the important questions, assuming they are available and in the room (not always the case). In terms of Moss, when I've asked him for a few minutes, he's declined every time. No hard feelings, but I think he prefers to avoid interviews, and when he does them, it's usually in a press conference-like setting. On game day, we watch the game from the press box. Usually the day after the game, I re-watch the television copy of the action.
Mike, in last week's mailbag you said you felt the Patriots would target an OL or DL with their first pick in the 2008 draft. Really? Why do you feel that way? With Seymour, Wilfork, Warren and Jarvis Green they seem to be set on the DL, I would think they would go after a LB or DB or if they stay put maybe the Arkansas running back.
A: My feeling is that based on the over-the-top bonus money that goes to a top five pick, if you're going to pay those premium prices, you do it at the premium positions -- left tackle or defensive line. Seymour, Wilfork, and Green have contracts that expire after the 2009 season and it's never too early to start thinking about the future, especially when it takes time to develop linemen. Ditto for the left tackle spot. There are only so many 320-pound, athletic guys out there, whereas you have a better chance of finding a corner -- another premium spot -- later in the draft.