Mailbag: Reviewing the opener

Thanks to those who submitted questions for the first Patriots mailbag on ESPNBoston.com. The topics were wide-ranging:

1. Spinning it forward in preparation for Sunday's road game versus the Jets.

2. Tight end Benjamin Watson coming up big versus the Bills.

3. Is this offensive line good enough?

4. Concerns on defense at linebacker.

5. The possibility of contract extensions for the likes of Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green.

Others asked about the possibility of signing a veteran like defensive end Kevin Carter, and I think that's something the Patriots would be interested in if Carter wants to play. Carter has been considering retirement.

Others were curious about RSS feeds for the Patriots blog, which is something I'll keep on the radar as things smooth out with the transition to the new job.

The plan will be to post a Patriots mailbag every Tuesday, and we're also planning a weekly Patriots chat that would be toward the end of the week.

Click here to submit a question for next week's mailbag. Let's get to this week's questions:

Q: Wow, the Jets looked great on Sunday. They reminded me of the Pats in 2001 -- great defense and a young quarterback with potential. Even before the season started, I thought that they were going to be better than people were expecting. How much information do you think the Jets will have extracted from Kevin O'Connell? Will their defense know the signals coming from coaches and the audibles called by Brady? -- Ben (Colchester, Vt.)

A: I agree, Ben. I thought the Jets' performance was one of the biggest stories of Week 1, going into Houston and shutting down an offense with some explosive weapons. They brought pressure from all over, all angles, from a lot of different players -- linemen, linebackers, defensive backs. In terms of O'Connell providing information to them, I think there is some value to that, but it is limited. A good example recently came with the Giants and Redskins, who met in the season opener. In early September, the Giants cut quarterback Andre Woodson and the Redskins signed him to their practice squad. Giants coach Tom Coughlin talked about how the Giants would need to change audibles.

Q: This question is being sent prior to the Pats/Bills game. We saw the Jets blitz heavy vs. Houston. If they take that same blitzing approach this Sunday vs. New England, what do you expect the Pats to do to counter it. -- Nick (Montreal)

A: Nick, I think you hit on the main area of focus this week for the Patriots: how to combat the Jets' pressure. I watched a bit of that Jets-Texans game, and what stood out to me was how the Jets were attacking. Sometimes you'd see defensive linemen stand up, take a few steps back from the line of scrimmage and then just plow ahead at the snap. Other times it was a lineman dropping back and a linebacker surging through from the other side. They looked ferocious. The Patriots will probably spend time on the screen game this week, as that can be an effective way to slow down a pressure-based defense. The Patriots have traditionally been one of the better screen teams in the NFL, although we saw one botched screen against the Bills (Aaron Schobel interception return for a score). They could also run more two-back sets, or keep their tight ends in protection more so the linemen have help. The give/take with that approach is that there will be fewer options down the field to make plays. We've also seen the Patriots spread the field against attacking defenses -- with the idea that playing in space can slow them down -- but I wouldn't take that approach given where Brady is in his recovery.

Q: Got to feel good for Ben Watson. Barely made the roster, had a key drop early, then scores the two touchdowns, the final one a game-winner. Good for him. What a game for your first at ESPN. Your thoughts? -- Brian (Mansfield, Mass.)

A: After the game, Tom Brady told Benjamin Watson that his game winner was the best catch he's had in New England. The other one Brady mentioned was a touchdown catch against the Bills in 2007. Watson is one of the true nice guys in the locker room, and this might be his shining moment with the team. Behind the scenes, we were planning our stories for ESPNBoston.com when the Bills went up 24-13 with 5:25 remaining in regulation. I was ready to write on the Patriots' offensive line and Aaron Schobel's impact on the game, ready to ask the question: Is this line going to be good enough? I ended up switching to Watson.

Q: My question regards the offense. At the end of the historic '07 season, a glaring hole in the offense was revealed that pretty much cost the team a shot at history -- the offensive line. I assumed last year that in true Belichick fashion, that would be the one area in which the Patriots would be strong in '08, but that wasn't the case. Now with the departure of the versatile Russ Hochstein, do you have any worries about the depth of the OL? I'm sure it won't be an issue with the weaker teams, but come playoff time, teams like the Steelers and possibly eventually the Giants could give us a lot of trouble. -- John (Washington, D.C.)

A: I have been supportive of the offensive line, pointing out that because the Patriots like to spread the field (they were in 3- or 4-receiver sets 62 percent of the time in 2008) they don't receive the same type of help that other lines do. On Monday night, the Patriots ran more two-tight-end and two-back sets to provide more help at the line of scrimmage, and the results were mixed. I didn't think it was the line's best night, and part of that is because the Bills played well. Aaron Schobel is an impressive pass-rusher. I still believe you can win big with this line, but my feelings aren't as strong as they once were.

Q: Mike, everyone is raving about the Green Bay D that Dom Capers has installed. No one raved about the D he ran last year in New England (putting it mildly). Is it a personnel issue? Was it injuries? Traditionally, they say, "defenses win Super Bowls", and that's my main concern going into this season (outside of the obvious - a Brady injury, that is). -- David (Stamford, Conn.)

A: David, Capers was the Patriots' secondary coach in 2008 and it is my belief that he did not have a major influence on the team's defensive scheme. Also, the 3-4 alignment he is now running in Green Bay is quite different than what the Patriots have traditionally run, with more slanting and stunting, so it's not an apples-to-apples comparison personnel-wise. In terms of the current Patriots' defense, I can see why it would be a concern, especially if Jerod Mayo (right knee) is seriously hurt. I looked up Monday night and saw players like Rob Ninkovich and Tully Banta-Cain getting significant playing time -- and Gary Guyton leading the huddle -- and I asked myself, "Does this group have the horses for the long haul?"

Q: When it comes to the Patriots defense, especially if they make more of a transition to the 4-3, I am not too confident in the pass coverage of the linebackers. I feel like every time I watch the defense I see Woods, Guyton and Alexander trying to catch up to the receivers? Your thoughts? Any chance we still go out and get more LB help? -- Brian (Redding, Conn.)

A: I had a similar observation, Brian. In this case, I think the issue is that there probably aren't any surefire solutions available. I wouldn't be surprised if the team brought Paris Lenon back, as he has a working knowledge of the team's system from having been with the club in training camp. Lenon, who was released on cut-down day, was in St. Louis on Tuesday, working out for the Rams.

Q: After watching Guyton get burned trying to man the middle in the second half of the Bills game what other solutions do the Pats have? I don't want to see AD move inside, but what other choices do we have? This is what I get for laughing at the Bears after I heard [Brian] Urlacher was out for the season. -- Jeremy (Brattleboro, Vt.)

A: Jeremy, I haven't had the chance to re-watch the game yet and would need to do so to have a better gauge of Guyton's performance. I'd also be curious to hear colleague Tedy Bruschi's analysis on this, as he played the position. If Mayo is out for an extended period of time, putting Thomas back in the middle makes the most sense to me. He actually plays off the line in certain packages anyway, so in a sense, it wouldn't be such a drastic change. I don't see many other choices for the team, as the depth is thin.

Q: I know that you review the game broadcast looking for certain things, and I would love to hear your thoughts on what you saw that led the Pats to think that going with six lineman and pounding the ball on the ground in some odd spots (like 3rd and 4) was the right idea. It certainly seems like the offense improved after they dropped that approach. -- C.C. (Little Rock, Ark.)

A: I counted eight times that the Patriots had a third offensive tackle (Sebastian Vollmer) on the field. The results:

  • No gain on fourth-and-1.

  • 8-yard run.

  • Tripping penalty on Matt Light.

  • No gain.

  • Completion to Randy Moss for 16 yards.

  • 1-yard run.

  • 1-yard TD run.

  • Minus-3-yard run.

My general sense is that the Patriots took that approach to try to wear down high-motor defensive end Aaron Schobel, but I'll be interested to hear Bill Belichick answer that one on his 5:45 p.m. media conference call Tuesday.

Q: I noticed that the Pats linemen were mostly selling the pass to set up the run. Is this lack of forward momentum run-blocking what's holding the run offense back? They showed flashes of a power running game out of the I-formation and the double tight-end sets (which, due to personnel decisions, are one in the same now). Also, do you think at least part of the offense's inability to finish in the red zone was caused by quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien adjusting to conducting the play-calling? -- Nick (Rochester, Mass.)

A: Nick, I don't think Bill O'Brien's adjustment had a major factor in the offense's sputtering at times Monday night. As I played the game over in my head, the Patriots moved the ball well, but didn't win the critical situations (e.g., two failed fourth-down conversions) and the running game was a big part of that. I think part of the credit needs to go to the Bills, who played high-energy football on defense and flowed quickly to the ball. At other times, the Patriots missed their assignments, creating more opportunity for the Bills to make plays.

Q: Mike, in reading Peter King's MMQB this morning, I noted his comment that Tom Brady could eventually be traded in a similar fashion as Richard Seymour. Basically, he was suggesting that no player is too sacred. Do you see something like that as a possibility, or would Belichick/Kraft draw the line due to all the negative publicity a trade of Brady would garner? -- Neil (South Boston)

A: I understand the general point, because it seems to happen to everyone at some point or another. But in terms of Brady, I feel certain that he's not going anywhere, and I expect him to be signed to a contract extension once the rules are more clear (e.g., is there a salary cap?) for the 2010 season. I think Belichick/Kraft realize that while they are considered at the top of their professions, a quarterback like Brady is a gift that doesn't come around often, if at all. You have to keep that asset and make sure he's happy.

Q: The Seymour saga got me thinking about the relocation issues for all pro athletes, especially ones married with kids. I know how hard uprooting a family is, even when it's known ahead of time and both parents are available to help. Do you have any sense if most have at least tentative emergency plans for that situation? Would the players, maybe provided by their agents, have something like a personal assistant available to help out the wife left behind with all the relocation problems? -- Johnny (Rutland, Vt.)

A: Johnny, I think the best agents would usually be right there by the player's side in situations like those. I know if I was a player, I wouldn't hire an agent who didn't react that way, because I'd want the agent to care about me as a person, not just the percentage he was taking out of my paycheck.

Q: With the departure of Seymour, what do you believe the percent chance of extending Wilfork, and is that the best use of the money. I have to assume that even when the new agreement is finally reached, the salary cap will go nowhere but up. -- Dick (Chelmsford, Mass.)

A: I don't see an extension for Wilfork in the near future, Dick. The more I think about it, I believe owner Robert Kraft is balancing the NFL's interests against making the strategic long-term decisions that are best for the Patriots. It's a fine line. As one of the NFL's most influential owners, he probably thinks that if he's shelling out big bucks on a contract extension to Wilfork, it could put the NFL in a compromising position in labor talks. That's why I think any Wilfork extension -- unless there is a significant shift in the stance of both sides -- isn't likely until the labor situation is more clear.

Q: Can you let me/readers know what's going to be different here than in your Reiss's Pieces blog? Are you going to be able to criticize ESPN's coverage of the Patriots if it's warranted? Will you be able to continue your solid, workmanlike coverage or will you be under pressure to demonstrate some ESPN "attitude"? -- Lance (Brookline, Mass.)

A: Lance, I want to keep a lot of the same elements that I have blogged about in the past -- personnel breakdowns, snap counts, on-site reporting, etc. I also want to take those elements one step further. For example, one area that intrigues me is how often the team is in its base defense versus a sub package. I think at this new job, and with ESPN's resources, I'll be able to have a better feel for the answer to that question. In terms of my general approach, I don't want to be in a position where I am criticizing anyone's coverage -- whether it's ESPN's or another outlet's -- because that has never been part of the job description. The job is to focus on the Patriots and what they are doing. I don't feel like I'm under any pressure to be someone I'm not, so I don't think you'll notice any change there.

Q: Do you anticipate a deeper level of access to the team by virtue of being a reporter with ESPN, or is the job essentially the same? Who do you anticipate getting a contract extension first -- Jarvis Green or Vince Wilfork? -- Erich (Nottingham, NH)

A: I don't anticipate anything changing in terms of access with the team, Erich. One thing that does excite me is access to some of ESPN's resources to help me better understand the game, and then hopefully pass that on to readers. For example, I sat in a television production meeting Monday morning with Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden, and felt like I picked up knowledge that helped me do my job. I later talked to Matt Millen, and it was the same thing. On the second part of the question, I'd say flip a coin. If I had to pick one, I'd fall back on the thought that I don't think the Patriots are going to sign any big-money extensions until the labor situation is resolved, so that makes Green more likely to me. I think Wilfork is pricier.

Q: My question is due to your change from the Boston Globe to ESPNBoston.com. What, if any changes, in the format of your column will change due to the switch? Also, do you see Myron Pryor replacing Jarvis Green as defensive end? -- Jordan (Needham, Mass.)

A: I don't anticipate significant changes, Jordan, other than the fact I'd like to do more and dig deeper in terms of understanding this game and communicating it. I think the fundamentals of the job are still the same, so my hope is to create more meaningful content here. On Green and Pryor, most of what I've seen from Pryor has been at an inside tackle position, so that's a tough projection to make right now.

Q: Hi Mike. Can you explain exactly what your new job is? I mean I love your blog, but in the past you had to get a newspaper out. But now it's just a blog or are we going to be seeing you elsewhere? Secondly, what's Joey Galloway doing on the team? He's shown nothing so far. Any idea why Greg Lewis/Terrence Nunn were released and Galloway is still collecting a paycheck? 3. If Mayo is out for any period of time, do the Pats look for 4-3 type linebackers (i.e. Derrick Brooks) to fill in, or try to talk old friends like Colvin/Seau who are more suited to a 3-4 defense? -- Earl (Waltham, Mass.)

A: Earl, I think I'll have more time to blog, so my hope is that you see more content there -- and that you feel it's quality content that adds value to your understanding of the team. I will also be part of ESPN's other platforms at times (e.g., radio, TV). On Galloway, it hasn't been the smoothest entry into the offense. This is a complex scheme and the team has invested a lot of time in him, so I think the feeling now is "Let's give this some more time." I think Galloway was the choice over Lewis/Nunn because he's faster and more experienced. On Mayo, I think the answer would be more 4-3 type linebackers because the strength of this defense, in my view, is the defensive line. I'd want more of those linemen on the field rather than fewer of them.

Q: So what's the deal? Are we going with a rookie QB and testing the football gods, are do you see Bill picking someone up? -- Lisa (Sharon, Mass.)

A: Lisa, I'd be surprised if the Patriots stick with two quarterbacks over the course of the entire season. Two options have signed on with new clubs, however: A.J. Feeley with the Panthers and Jeff Garcia with the Eagles. Part of the analysis will be tied to the progress that practice squad quarterback Isaiah Stanback makes on the practice squad.

Q: Hi, Mike. Congrats on new home. So far, have you seen any changes in kickoff strategy induced by no-wedge rule? -- Mark

A: Mark, I thought the opening kickoff against the Bills was a good play to illustrate the changes. The Patriots had tight end Chris Baker, offensive lineman Ryan Wendell and linebacker/defensive end Tully Banta-Cain lined up in the area where the wedge would normally be formed. As Laurence Maroney caught the kickoff, Baker and Wendell came together and it looked like they would be forming a two-man wedge, but it appeared to me that they ended up being in a single-blocking situation instead. Maroney made a decisive cut and nice read, surging up the left side for a 52-yard gain. If last year's rules applied, I think we would have seen Baker, Wendell and Banta-Cain in a three-man wedge. As for Maroney, the way he finished that kickoff return -- lowering his shoulder instead of going out of bounds -- deserves acknowledgement given some of the criticism he's heard about not being a tough back.

Q: In the Broncos game, Brandon Stokley was smart enough to run along the goal line to burn time before scoring the winning touchdown. Is there any limit to how long a player could stand there? I've always wondered why players that run back a pick-six don't do this more. -- Bruce (Cambridge, Mass.)

A: I don't have the answer to this one, Bruce, but you've piqued my curiosity. I'm jotting it on my notebook and hope to have the answer for you next week.

Q: This has been driving me nuts for years: If a team is paying 53 players, why can't all 53 be active on game day? Why do eight players have to be designated as inactive? -- Derek (Manchester, NH)

A: Derek, the main idea is to create as even a playing field as possible with injuries in mind. The feeling is that a team that is fully healthy would have a major advantage over a banged-up team if all 53 players were dressed. I wrote about this topic a little back in March and the link is included here.

Q: If there is no cap next year, and then there is a cap in 2011, will the teams that are way over have to make big cuts? And how would some big spending teams do this, like the Redskins? -- Barry (Conway, S.C.)

A: It's hard to project, Barry, but my sense is that there would be some type of adjustment from an uncapped year to a capped year that wouldn't put teams in a position where they had to cut players. Players have said that once the cap goes away, they aren't going back to it. Perhaps it is rhetoric, but it's something to keep in mind when considering this scenario.