Mailbag: Questioning the win

This week's mailbag has a different feeling to it than last week's.

Following the Patriots' overtime win over the Ravens last week, e-mailers were generally enthusiastic about the direction in which the team was headed. Yet the way the Patriots beat the Chargers on Sunday hasn't produced those same feelings with many e-mailers.

Elsewhere, there were quite a few questions on specific players and their evolving roles with the team. The heaviest volume of e-mails looked closer at some of the team's offensive struggles and third-and-long struggles on defense.

With plenty of ground to cover, let's get right to it.

Q: Hi Mike, over the years you have mentioned consistently how it doesn't matter how teams win in the beginning of the season. Teams need to compile some wins and set themselves up for the late playoff push. While I am thrilled (and shocked) with the Patriots' 5-1 record, at what point should we worry about the Patriots winning ugly? They don't seem to be able to play consistently for 60 minutes on both sides of the ball. Also, how much longer can we view this as an elite offense? They were shut down in the Miami win. While they moved the ball late against Baltimore, they were stifled for most of that game. -- Dean (Lowell, Mass.)

A: Dean, I feel strongly about this one, especially at this time of year. If the Patriots are trending downward in early to mid-December, I might say there is cause of concern. I think it is important to look around the NFL and ask the question, "Which team is winning convincingly each week?" There isn't one. That's why I think it's all about positioning at this point and developing that mental toughness of being able to pull through in close ballgames. The Patriots, with a young roster, have received some great experience in this area through the first six games. As for the offense, I don't think there is any question it has hit a rough patch here. Part of that could be that it is shifting a bit on the fly, and I do think some credit needs to go to some tough defenses, too. I don't see them being held down like this for an extended stretch. I still see flashes of dominance at times, such as the 17-play third-quarter scoring drive.

Q: I liked the decision to go for it on 4th and less than one at the 2-minute warning, but question the play. Was it designed to go outside or did BJGE (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) just make a bad decision. I would have gone with a QB sneak with the two RB's in the backfield coming up to push the pile or a run over RG Stephen Neal who always seems to get leverage. -- Otis (Boston)

A: Otis, I didn't fully realize it until after re-watching the game, but the fourth-and-1 play looked extremely similar to two other plays the offense ran in the third quarter with success -- Green-Ellis'1-yard run on fourth-and-1 and Green-Ellis' 1-yard touchdown run. I'm not sure where the breakdown came on the fourth-quarter fourth-and-1 run, but to me the play call was fine, based on the success earlier in the game.

Q: It is great that the Pats got away with one, even though I personally thought they hardly deserved it. I would hate to think what might have happened if Philip Rivers had some decent receivers to work with. My main worry, however, is that Tom Brady throughout this season (and last for that matter) has looked like a mediocre quarterback. Weather it's hesitation in running 1-2 yards for a first down, crumbling too quickly under pressure, or being slightly off with most of his throws. I just don't feel like this is an elite quarterback. Thoughts? -- James (Pennsylvania)

A: James, I thought Brady was off Sunday against the Chargers, although I attributed a lot of that to the pressure that San Diego was bringing. When I assessed Brady this season, I thought the second half of the Jets game was his low point. Otherwise, I think he's played well. When looking around the NFL and some of the bad quarterback play, I still put Brady in the upper class.

Q: Mike, is it time for the Patriots to move Sebastian Vollmer over to Matt Light's side? His athleticism is well documented and Light's constant holding penalties and missed blocks are huge momentum killers, costing the team vital yardage at the worst possible times. -- Al (Peterborough, N.H.)

A: Al, if we were to go on the Chargers game alone, I'd say yes. Light struggled. But in times like this, I think it's important to step back and look at the big picture. Outside of the final play against the Dolphins and what we saw Sunday against the Chargers, I think Light has been solid this year. I'd still have him at left tackle Sunday against the Vikings.

Q: Hey Mike, last year Sebastian Vollmer looked great as a rookie. This season it looks like he has struggled. Do you see what I see or is it simply a result of more playing time against top competition? -- Nate (Walpole, Mass.)

A: Nate, I think Vollmer has been OK this season. He has had some struggles at times (e.g. holding penalty on Sunday), but overall I see a consistent player who is still growing on the job. Part of it is probably that he's playing more, creating more opportunity for error, so it shows up a little more. I still like him on the right side at this point.

Q: Mike, you mentioned that subbing out left guard Dan Connolly helped out the pass protection, so now does this make getting Logan Mankins in all the more important? I admit I was one of the "we can find a guard at the mall" types, but now seeing Tom Brady get constantly pressured makes me nervous. -- Mike (New Jersey)

A: Mike, it looked like Connolly struggled in the first half when I re-watched the game. It was probably his worst half of football this season. Up to this point, he's been solid, so I don't think it's fair to put too much stock in it. But I do think it's something to watch this week to see how he responds.

Q: Mike, great win on the road. They aren't perfect but are doing what they need to do to win. That said, do you think the Patriots are aggressive enough on defense? Should they blitz more? They were rushing three players halfway through the third quarter, and the Chargers started moving the ball. Does BB [Bill Belichick] trust the D? -- Mark Jackson (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

A: Mark, I would have liked to have seen a blitz on the third-and-9 play on the Chargers' final scoring drive and maybe another one on the third-and-15 on the drive the Chargers closed the deficit to 23-13. But otherwise, I thought it was a good mix of pressure and coverage in this game. I think there is a tendency to think that because the team dials a blitz that it will result in pressure. There were a few times Sunday in San Diego in which the Patriots brought extra rushers and the Chargers still made plays -- like Patrick Crayton's clutch 5-yard catch on third-and-4 late in the third quarter. Meanwhile, rookie defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick's third-quarter sack came on a standard four-man rush, as did Mike Wright's fourth-quarter sack. So it's a balance. Maybe the best example was how the Patriots played defense at the end of the Ravens game. That was much more of a coverage-based approach and it proved effective. Overall, I think Belichick likes where his defense is at this point.

Q: Mike, I know that the defense was on the field for much of the afternoon and must have been tired at the end, but the fourth quarter just reminded me of a classic New England defensive breakdown on the road. We escaped with this one, but we did everything we could to lose this game in the fourth quarter, especially considering how horrible we seemed to be when we were in coverage. And what do you think was wrong with the offense? After four first half turnovers, we should have been able to capitalize on them and basically step on the Charger's throats. -- Fabrice (New York)

A: I can't argue, Fabrice. The Patriots did a great job to build a 20-3 lead. On the flip side, that final quarter was so bad, they almost gave it away. So like there usually is, there is a mix between good and bad here. As for the offense, I think it came down to pressure. The Chargers set the tempo early, disrupting the rhythm of the passing game, and Brady was seldom comfortable over the course of the game.

Q: Hi Mike, I don't know if there was anything positive about the Chargers game, save for the final outcome, but I think the most alarming thing I saw was the propensity to commit silly penalties at key moments. I'd love to blame the refs here, but all their calls seemed legit to me. These kinds of mental gaffes are not the hallmark of a championship caliber team. I would say that, with the possible exception of third-down defense, this may be the team's biggest weakness. Your thoughts? -- Brian (Ft. Riley, Kan.)

A: Brian, I thought the penalties on special teams in particular were poor Sunday, but entering the game the Patriots ranked 13th in the NFL for fewest accepted penalties per game. So I don't think it's a major issue. As for the idea about nothing positive outside of the final outcome, I can think of a lot of things from this view, so here's a touchdown's worth. 1) The young defense once again growing on the job. 2) Solid tackling overall. 3) Big contributions from unsung players like Dane Fletcher, Danny Woodhead and Sergio Brown. 4) Aaron Hernandez bouncing back from his overtime drops last week. 5) Red-zone offense. 6) Turnover differential. 7) Stephen Gostkowski.

Q: Mike, I am more upset about the Patriots' failure to recover the onside kick than about the failed fourth-and-1 conversion. You mentioned in your blog that the regular kick return team was on the field. Do you think Belichick and [Bill] O'Brien at least warned them that an onside kick was possible? It seemed pretty obvious that the Chargers would consider one in that situation. This was a serious lapse by the special teams. -- Tony (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

A: Tony, it was a serious lapse. Here is what Belichick said about it on Monday: "We've got to be more alert in that situation, maybe change something that we're doing schematically, and also just be more prepared for that play. It's come up twice this year. I don't think we've handled it the way we need to handle it either time. That was a great kick by [Kris] Brown. They were right there. We were ready for it, but we didn't play it very well."

Q: What has been going on with our long snapper Jake Ingram? This week was especially inconsistent, with an almost blocked punt in the second half. I have to believe this was also a factor in the 4th and 1 situation. Better to go for the 1 yard than possibly get a blocked punt returned for a TD. -- Kevin (Washington)

A: Kevin, this has to be a concern right now for the Patriots. Ingram looked shaky, bouncing snaps to punter Zoltan Mesko. I think the Patriots coaching staff will look at his overall body of work instead of this one-game sample -- the overall body of work is good -- and give himself a chance to work through it. For what it's worth, Belichick said Ingram's struggles were not a factor in the fourth-quarter fourth-and-1 decision.

Q: Hey Mike, after a game in which the defense played very well aside from a stretch in which they could not get off the field (though helped by some serious mental errors by the Chargers), I thought Devin McCourty had his best game. He got past the pass interference penalties that hurt him earlier, playing tight coverage and coming away with that beautiful pick. Did he really step his game up or was this a result of the Patriots being thin at defensive back and the Chargers thinking they had better opportunities elsewhere? -- Oliver (Belmont, Mass.)

A: Oliver, I saw the same thing. McCourty was one of my three "ups" after this game. That interception was textbook coverage and technique from my view.

Q: Mike, why does Vince Wilfork seem to come out of the game on every third down play. Can't he rush the passer? -- Derek (Acton, Mass.)

A: Derek, I think it's mostly a matter of conservation when it comes to Wilfork. I think he can be effective as a third-down-rusher, but that's putting a lot on a player with his physical makeup. I believe that part of the thinking is keeping Wilfork fresh for when his biggest impact comes -- on early downs.

Q: In your interactions with Vince Wilfork, do you get the feeling he is upset at all by being moved to DE instead of NT? I know a lot of players grow very attached to their positions and don't always liked to be moved. Do you get the sense from Wilfork that he'd rather be playing the nose than playing end? -- Michelle (Oshawa, Ontario)

A: Michelle, I don't get that sense from Wilfork at all. In fact, I think he enjoys the challenge. He's always said that he doesn't consider himself a nose tackle but instead a defensive lineman.

Q: What happened to Tully Banta-Cain? -- Katherine (Hull, Mass.)

A: Katherine, the last three games we've seen Banta-Cain playing solely in sub packages as a pass-rusher. He has been replaced as a starter at outside linebacker in the base 3-4 alignment by rookie Jermaine Cunningham, so his playing time has decreased.

Q: Hey Mike. Dane Fletcher has been playing like a seasoned vet -- instinctive, aggressive, and collected. Do you foresee Fletcher taking some of Gary Guyton's playing time or does he lack his speed? -- Derek (Dallas)

A: Derek, I think this is a great observation. I have been impressed with Fletcher. He followed up his strong "spy" performance against Ravens running back Ray Rice by forcing a fumble on his first play against the Chargers. He is fast. I could see him threatening Guyton for playing time if he keeps it up.

Q: Hi Mike, I feel like a lot of people are overlooking Rob Ninkovich and what he brings. It seems to me he improves weekly and I am curious if you see a comparison to Mike Vrabel and the growth he made in New England. -- Chris (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Chris, like you I see a player who is growing into the job. The last two weeks, I've noticed that Ninkovich is setting a much harder edge in the running game. As for the comparisons to Vrabel, outside of them wearing the same number I wouldn't go that far just yet.

Q: Hey Mike, I haven't heard much about Jonathan Wilhite this season. Is that a good thing meaning that he's playing pretty solid overall? -- Mike (Boston)

A: Mike, Wilhite has a specialized role as a slot corner and to sometimes cover punts as a gunner. He hasn't been on the field much of late, with the team favoring a three-safety nickel package, but when he's been on he seems to be competitive. More than anything, I think this is the right role for him. If he's playing at an outside cornerback position, that's not the best fit.

Q: Hi Mike, I'm really concerned about the Logan Mankins situation. I was hoping the situation would be resolved by now. Mankins comes walking back in the door and whether he sits or plays it really seems to throw things out of whack. How does this disgruntled athlete that has said negative things about ownership come back into the locker room with out changing the chemistry? -- Jillian (Quincy, Mass.)

A: Jillian, I can see where you are coming from with this, although I actually think Mankins' arrival will be celebrated by most of the players. He is extremely well liked in the locker room, especially among his fellow linemen. I do think it sets up a possible tough decision for Belichick, in the event all the linemen are healthy and playing at a high level, but sometimes even those things work themselves out, and perhaps we saw a bit of that shift Sunday in San Diego. There might be some awkward moments with ownership, but I don't see that is having a major effect on on-field performance.

Q: Mike, I've heard lots of talk about Mark Ingram as a potential Pats' pick in the upcoming draft, especially considering the flexibility they'll have pick-wise to get what they want. I have another option that I think would be better: DeAngelo Williams. Isn't Williams a free agent at the end of this year? He's in his fifth year but he's a low-mileage back (only having one year of more than 250 carries). And his motivation to produce would be huge. With all due respect to Danny Woodhead, I would think teaming Williams with Green-Ellis would provide great balance for each -- lessen the threat of injury for Williams while ensuring BJGE can still run with the kind of authority he needs to at the end of the season. -- Josh (Chicago)

A: Josh, if Williams makes it to free agency, I think he will be a hot commodity. Everything you wrote makes complete sense to me, although I think factoring in the economics is important. Any signing of Williams will come at what is likely to be a high price. I think the question is whether it is smart business to allocate that money to Williams instead of another player, while potentially having the ability to fill that running back void in the draft.

Q: Hey Mike, I read somewhere that Danny Woodhead was only signed to a one-year deal and was wondering if you had any insight into why they wouldn't of tied him up for a three-year minimum deal initially given that NFL contracts are not guaranteed? I guess the downside would be potential injury? -- Jim Troiano (Austin, Texas)

A: Jim, I think this one is straight forward. Woodhead is in his third NFL season, so he won't be an unrestricted free agent next year. He will either be an exclusive rights free agent or a restricted free agent. So from the outside looking in, I think the Patriots realized that if things went well they will be working with Woodhead for more than one year regardless. By both sides agreeing to a one-year deal, it was basically an acknowledgement that this would be a trial run to see how it goes. It's been an impressive trial run.

Q: With Fred Taylor out of the line up and Danny Woodhead running great, do you think if his performance keeps up he will be starting by the end of the year. -- Ben Sasani (Terryville, Conn.)

A: Ben, I see Woodhead in a similar role as Kevin Faulk, but maybe with a few more runs on early downs. So Woodhead could end up leading the team in snaps by the end of the year, which is what Faulk did from 2007-2009, but I don't think we'll see him as a standard "starter" as an early-down runner.

Q: Hi Mike. I really like the podcasts and basically anything that involves Tedy [Bruschi]. With the Pats facing the Chargers this week, it reminds me of how much I have hated the Chargers, almost as much as I hate the Jets (it pains me to say it but I respect the Colts). I have always found the Chargers to be one of those teams that does a lot squawking about other teams, but if another team talks back, they play the disrespect card. With LaDainian Tomlinson gone, Shawne Merriman on his way out and Vincent Jackson a no-show, do you think that the rivalry is or has cooled off? -- Thomas (Boston)

A: Thanks for the kind words, Thomas. Like you, I'm a big fan of anything that involves Tedy. I agree with you on the Patriots-Chargers rivalry. Seems like it's in a cooling-off period right now. I think a big part of it is that there hasn't been any big games between the teams of late.

Q: Mike, do you think that Tom Brady gets a little more leeway from Bill Belichick about what he can say to the media? I can't imagine any other player being allowed to say "I hate the Jets," or "Baltimore talks a lot for a team that has beat us once in nine years." As a fan, I think it's great when Brady drops these little gems. It's reminiscent of 2007-Brady talking trash at the line of scrimmage and reminds us of how fiery of a competitor he is. Do you think he catches any flak for it, or does he get away with it knowing that he's not some rookie who might say something that is too outlandish? -- Drew (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

A: Drew, I think Brady gets more leeway because he's in his 11th year. I also like when Brady delivers those zingers. He's one of the greatest competitors to ever play for this organization and remarks like those -- coupled with how he backs them up on the field and through the week with his approach -- reflect that. He often is so polished you wonder what he is thinking. In those instances, he leaves no doubt.

Q: Hi Mike, it's hard to get a read of the reaction from the West Coast about what they think about Deion Branch since the trade. My feeling is that, initially, they were very pleased to be able to secure a fourth-round draft pick for a receiver with very little playing time. What has the reaction in Seattle been? Perhaps you could use some of your journalistic connections to get a read of their thoughts? -- Gary (Cambridge, Mass.)

A: Gary, the Seahawks were pleased to get a fourth-round draft choice for a player who didn't fit in their long-term plans and had a high salary. So they win on two fronts from their view -- they get something for Branch and don't have to pay his salary. On the flip side, I view Branch as a "custom blind" for the Patriots. He fits in their house like no other team. There might not have been another team in the NFL that would have paid a fourth-round pick for him, but I don't think that makes it a bad deal for New England. Branch fits here. I said last week that the Patriots gave up a lot to get him. After two games, I'm already acknowledging that I was wrong. It's all about the fit.

Q: Hi Mike, I have a question related to your defensive snaps by player. Is this a stat you compile on your own or is it available anywhere online? I'd like to analyze defensive snaps taken by player through Week 6 and then look at the age of each player against their snap count. In general, I feel that on any given defensive play 65-75% of the Pats D, if not more, has three years or less of NFL experience. Is there anyway you could help me prove this or point me to where I could do the work on my own? -- JonnyNYC (Gotham)

A: JonnyNYC, I track those stats individually from the press box and think the solution is an easy one. Later this week, I will forward you the snap counts of all the defenders, and you can dissect it. If you're up for it, I'll post the information in our Patriots blog. Another option is the website ProFootballFocus.com, which I believe tracks that information through TV analysis.

Q: Mike, my question is in regards to the completion percentages of each receiver. Could you tell us how many drops each receiver has rather than the number of balls missed? Tom Brady has been at fault in some instances, so the stats are misleading. Any ball that a receiver gets his hands on should be caught at the NFL level, so that is my criteria for a dropped pass. -- Bryan (Memphis, Tenn.)

A: Excellent point, Bryan, as that would make the weekly blog entry focusing on "target percentages" more complete. ESPN Stats & Information tracks drops each week and that should be something that can be added, either in that blog update or a separate one. Thanks for the suggestion.

Q: Remember the days when Mike Vrabel would line up as tight end in goal-line situations? He was a great asset there. With this in mind, do you think Bill Belichick would employ Rob Ninkovich there in the same capacity? -- Alexander Kennedy (Tampa, Fla.)

A: Alexander, I think part of the reason Belichick did that was he was looking for a third tight end because there were only two on the roster. So when the space got tight down on the goal-line and there was a need for a third tight end, he tapped Vrabel. With the Patriots now having three tight ends on the roster, I see it as less likely that Belichick would call on Ninkovich or another player in that role.

Q: Hi Mike, someone mentioned during your chat that the locker room has improved with the addition of Deion Branch and Alge Crumpler and removal of Randy Moss, Laurence Maroney, Adalius Thomas, and Derrick Burgess. I could possibly see Maroney, but was Burgess really a locker room issue? He may not have been a leader but he didn't strike me as someone remotely negative. Since you're in the locker room often, what is your take? -- Gary (Cambridge, Mass.)

A: Gary, I don't think Maroney was an issue in that regard. If anything, he was a bit young and still growing up, but he was never a problem in my view. He seemed to want to do the right thing. As for Burgess, I never got the sense he was a bad locker room guy. It didn't work out football-wise as I think the team hoped it would, but he was a hard worker by most accounts.

Q: Could you please let me know if it is actually true that the Pats will be traveling to Denver in 2011? -- Anne Stone (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

A: Anne, that is correct. Here is the home and away opponents for the Patriots' 2011 season:

Home: Chiefs, Chargers, Cowboys, Giants, Bills, Dolphins, Jets, AFC South team finishing in same spot in standings
Away: Broncos, Raiders, Eagles, Redskins, Bills, Dolphins, Jets, AFC North team finishing in same spot in standings

Q: Before this season, there was some thought that if there was no salary cap for this season, they would never be able to get a salary cap back. But now I don't hear any talk of the NFL staying with no salary cap in the future. Do you have any thoughts on this? -- Johnny (Rutland, Vt.)

A: Johnny, I think the fear that some had is that if there was no salary cap it would create a baseball-like situation in which some teams could simply outspend others and create a competitive imbalance. But teams have shown that they can police themselves accordingly, and it hasn't been an issue. I still think we'll see a salary cap, but I no longer think it is the major issue I once envisioned it would be.

Q: Did you see live or is there any tape that you have seen of the Ray Lewis hit that concussed Julian Edelman? I'd be interested in seeing such tape and/or hearing your description of the event. -- Andrew Wolf (Richmond, Va.)

A: Andrew, I think that play is a good example of how the league is going to have a hard time enforcing their policy on blows to the head. When it happened live, it looked to me like Edelman might have ducked his head at the same time Lewis was charging in to make the tackle. I didn't think it was malicious when watching it live.

Q: Mike, many times the practice squad players mimic the formations/plays of the upcoming opposing team. Often times they are mentioned or honored (with the black jerseys) for their role in helping the team. My question is, does this keep them from understanding their own offensive/defensive schemes, respectively? If Darnell Jenkins was playing the role of Anquan Boldin last week, wouldn't that be time that he's not learning his own offense? -- Marc (Boston)

A: Good one, Marc. I think those players have to work extra hard. Coaches are always going to give the bulk of the repetitions to the players who will be playing in the game that week. That's why I think what Matt Cassel did in that 2008 season-opener was one of the more impressive things in recent years. When you don't get the reps, you have to be sharp from a "mental rep" perspective. That holds true for scout-team players.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.