Commentary

Mental mismatch begins with Belichick

Pats coaching staff has big decisions to come, but so far, so good for the most part

Updated: August 23, 2011, 3:20 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

When the Patriots visit the Lions on Saturday in the third preseason game for both teams, what would you do if you were Bill Belichick?

Last season, on Thanksgiving, quarterback Tom Brady took a first-quarter pounding from Ndamukong Suh and the Lions' penetrating defensive line. With that in mind, would you alter your playing-time approach in the game?

Although things look promising for the Patriots, an injury like the one that Brady (ribs) suffered in the third preseason game of the 2009 season -- when he was hit by Albert Haynesworth in Washington -- would alter the picture significantly.

That's where this week's mailbag starts.

There are plenty of other topics as well, such as:

1. Chad Ochocinco's adjustment to the offense

2. Mike Wright and his future with the team

3. Danny Woodhead on punt coverage in the fourth quarter

4. A closer look at the Patriots' defensive staff

Let's get right to the questions …

Q. Hi Mike, I think we all like most of what we've seen so far this preseason, and I think the Pats are a better team than they were last year -- possibly by a lot, given the improvements on defense and the fact that we have a happy Logan Mankins for the whole season. One weakness I thought was exposed against the Bucs was pass protection on the right side (Dan Connolly's pretty solid, but he had a couple of turnstile plays). Given that the Pats are playing the Lions Saturday, and that all it takes is one big hit from a guy like Ndamukong Suh, do you think it's likely that Brady will play less, to reduce the risk? It's the pass protection that needs to be tested (more than Brady). Suh has been a monster so far, and it's only preseason. I think I'd be OK if Brady played less than half the game. -- Keith (Colombo, Sri Lanka)

[+] EnlargeBrady/Suh
AP PhotoWill the memory of this Ndamukong Suh hit on Tom Brady give Bill Belichick pause when deciding on Brady's playing time in Detroit on Saturday night?

A. Keith, I pondered the thought before reading your submission, and it makes you think. I agree with some of the thoughts on a few struggles at right guard. My approach would be to go in with the intention of having the starters play into the third quarter -- to get a feel for coming out of the locker room after halftime -- but be ready to cut it short it if looks like a mismatch could cost you a top asset. I just don't think you can play scared like that. I wouldn't want to let one player dictate a team's overall approach.

Q. Hi Mike, some receivers seem to click with new teams pretty quickly (Randy Moss had instant chemistry with Tom Brady in New England, and possibly Plaxico Burress on the Jets). Do you think we should read anything more into the fact Ochocinco seems to be having a tougher time? -- Scrapster (Pioneer Valley, Mass.)

A. I think it's fair to ask the question, and I've wondered that myself, but I've seen enough on the practice field to think it can work. Also, my expectations are a little different. I don't think the Patriots need Ochocinco to be Moss. They just need him to be a spoke in the wheel. Do I think Ochocinco can do that? Absolutely.

Q. Mike, classic chicken or the egg question. Which came first, Albert Haynesworth or the decision to move to a 4-3? -- Mike (Brighton, Mass.)

A. Mike, I think Bill Belichick was heading more in that direction before getting Haynesworth, but the acquisition probably accelerated it that much more.

Q. Does Mike Wright have a home on this team anymore? If the team goes predominantly 4-3, where does he play? -- The Davi (San Francisco)

A. Davi, I think Wright would be a solid fit as a defensive tackle in that type of scheme. He is a solid interior rusher with good short-area quickness. The one question is how much he can be relied upon. It's more of an instinct with me, but something doesn't seem right there when it comes to Wright.

Q. Mike, why the BLEEP was Danny Woodhead on the punt coverage unit late in the fourth quarter of a preseason game in which the outcome was already well decided? It's not like he was struggling in the first half and needed to show the coaching staff something in the second half, he played great already in the first half. That "playing the entire 60 minutes" drivel Belichick was spewing is just irresponsible to me; use that fourth quarter to try and evaluate your "bubble" players and see if they can make the team, don't take unnecessary risks with your starters. -- Rob (Boston)

[+] EnlargeWoodhead
AP Photo/Michael DwyerShould Danny Woodhead have been on the sideline instead of on the field for a fourth-quarter special teams play that resulted in a jarring hit to the head?

A. Rob, I think the coaches made a mistake. Woodhead is the second-string "personal protector" on the punt team, and that explains why he'd be in the mix on a play like that. But at that point in the game, I think the situation dictated the coaches going deeper into the roster to replace him. It's the same reasoning for not playing Brady in the preseason opener -- you have to protect your assets in certain situations. I believe that's one that Belichick and special-teams coach Scott O'Brien would like to have back.

Q. Hey Mike, what's up with Brandon Spikes? -- Swatair (Massachusetts)

A. Spikes had a strong start to training camp, making his impact felt early. But he's been out of practice for about three weeks (reported ankle injury), and I don't sense his return is imminent. That's why Dane Fletcher's health (right thumb) becomes more important, as he is a top backup at middle linebacker.

Q. Was I the only one who got the feeling that the Mankins-Nate Solder blocking alignment of today may develop into the John Hannah-Leon Gray combo of 1976? Against Tampa Bay, the Pats seemed to run a lot through their hole. -- PatsFanfrom NJ (Lawrenceville, N.J.)

A. That would be quite a jump. I think there is a lot of promise there, and it sets up nicely for the Patriots to have the left side of their line solidified for at least the next five years, but I'd like to see more from Solder before going there.

Q. Hi Mike, do you think Coach Belichick realizes that the last few years have seen the Patriots rely too heavily on the passing game to the point where defenses began to tee off on them, and so a solid and consistent effort in the running game will be a big part of their success? He drafted the two running backs early. -- John (Cork, Ireland)

A. John, I don't sense that Belichick views it that way. The main reason I think he drafted two running backs high is that it doesn't make sense to select players in the second and third round who might not make your team. He knew he had two openings at running back and wanted to get younger, and the main way to do that is through the draft. I think the goal is to be more consistent on the ground, but in the end, I still feel that the Patriots' offense will make its way through the air.

Q. Shane Vereen's situation is really a bummer. Injured after one practice, he is not eligible for the PUP list, so the team's options in handling his roster position are limited -- give him a roster spot, put him on the IR, or waive him. I wouldn't think the team would waive him, and it seems overkill to place a player on season-ending IR with a hamstring injury, but it also seems unfair to cut a player like Sammy Morris for a player who the team has only been able to evaluate for one day in pads. Am I missing anything? What an unfortunate lockout occurrence! -- Patrick (Kennett Square, Pa.)

A. I don't think you missed anything, Patrick. To me, the decision is an easy one -- Vereen needs to be on the roster. It's too drastic to go the IR route in my view, and while it's unfortunate he hasn't been able to practice, there is a reason he was picked in the second round. He has a lot of talent.

Q. If Ras-I Dowling can get healthy, I think a good move would be to move him to safety because he has the physical stature to play the position and seems like would fit the spot well next to Chung. Thoughts? -- Justin (Chicago)

A. Justin, Dowling played safety in high school, so he has a background at the position. I would work him at corner first and see where that goes. To me, that's the harder position to fill.

Q. Hi Mike, so far I'm very impressed with the depth of the Patriots' roster. With the possible exceptions of the safety and interior OL positions, this is a very talented group of players and it will be demonstrated after the final cut of personnel right before the regular season starts. There will be a lot of players on other teams formerly of this roster. Your thoughts? -- Memo (Tijuana, Mexico)

A. Agree with the thoughts on the depth, Memo. I think we saw it with offensive tackle Mark LeVoir. He was released last week, and now he's already lining up with the first unit in Baltimore.

Q. What is the game plan with Marcus Cannon? With right guard an area of concern as identified by Tedy Bruschi, Cannon's strength/size could presumably be of value against players like McCoy/Suh etc. -- Grant (Ames, Iowa)

A. Grant, the first step with Cannon is with doctors and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Once there is full clearance in that area, the Patriots can start focusing on more of a football-specific plan. My feeling is that Cannon will open the season on the reserve/non-football injury list, and then the plan will be to see where things stand after six weeks of the regular season.

Q. Hi Mike, with all the talk about the different approach on defense, I was wondering if you had noticed anything different about the organization and responsibilities (particularly the coaching). I know there is no defensive coordinator again this year, but do you get the sense that the scheme shift is all Belichick? Do you think that Matt Patricia is the coordinator without the title (like Bill O'Brien and Josh McDaniels before him)? And if it is Patricia, do you get the sense that it has had any impact on Pepper Johnson or his attitude? -- Gus (L.A.)

A. Gus, I think most everything about the scheme shift was Belichick. It's my sense that he runs everything, right down to the salary cap. It's part of what makes him unique; how many different hats he wears and does so effectively. As for Patricia, he wears the headset and communicates with the huddle, so to me, he's as close to the coordinator as one can be. I don't think that arrangement has affected Pepper Johnson's attitude, although if I'm Johnson, I'm probably thinking that if I want to advance to the next step in my coaching career, it might be easier to do it elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeMark Anderson
Fernando Medina/US PresswireFormer Patriot Mark Anderson gives Buffalo another proven pass-rusher on its defensive line.

Q. Hey Mike, after two preseason games I'm starting to be less concerned with drafting pass rushers in 2011. Some forget that there was the possibility of a shortened or no season in 2011. Instead, the Patriots signed veterans Mark Anderson, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis and traded for Albert Haynesworth to contribute immediately. They may not be long-term solutions, but they were great pick-ups given the circumstances and economics. It's only August, but it actually looks like they can provide consistent pressure with just four even without Ellis or Haynesworth. You have to wonder how the offense will fare if the defense forces 3 and outs and/or turnovers. Can you think of anything else the defense can do to win at least one playoff game this year? -- Alvin (Deerfield, Mass.)

A. Alvin, I think the Patriots have done a solid job addressing this area from a short-term perspective. The concern would be the long-term, but there will be more opportunities to address that. Young pass-rushers are hard to find, and I thought the top of the second round was a good opportunity to address that with Jabaal Sheard (Browns) or Brooks Reed (Texans). Instead, the pick was cornerback Ras-I Dowling. If Dowling turns out to be a good player, it's going to be hard to argue with them.

Q. Hi Mike, I know there has been a lot of buzz around Mark Anderson. As a Bears fan I've seen him up close for a few seasons and just thought I'd pass along this quick scouting report on him and something to look for. When he had his big season with the '06 Bears, he was getting incredible jumps off the snap of the ball. That was with a solid interior line and Tommie Harris playing lights out that season. The following years he never got those jumps as Harris faltered. Eventually it was a numbers game and his diminishing numbers are why Chicago let him go. With the Pats interior line vastly improved, you could see big things from Anderson, especially on third down blitz packages. -- Doug (Chicago)

A. Thanks for the scouting report, Doug, and good to be in touch with a fellow UMass alumnus. Anderson looks like this year's Tully Banta-Cain, and I think he can be a better rusher for the Patriots on third down. The Patriots are going to keep it simple for him from what I've seen -- put the hand in the dirt and go.

Q. Hey Mike, How has Darius Butler looked so far? I feel people were calling him Terrence Wheatley too soon. Any chance he makes a real push for playing time this season? -- Smokedog (Natick, Mass.)

A. I look at Butler as a bubble player on this year's roster. I'd keep him because of the value of the position; cornerbacks are tough to find. I think we'll see Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden as the top cornerbacks, assuming good health for Bodden. Then Butler will compete with Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling and Jonathan Wilhite for playing time. I think it will be tough for him to break through if everyone is healthy.

Q. Mike, I think we need to cut Brandon Tate. Given the prowess of our TEs and RBs in the passing game I don't think we need 5 receivers let alone 6 or 7. Tate is the weakest receiver in my opinion and his ability in the return game is going to be completely negated this year. I know they have to think about the future, but I would hate to keep him at the expense of DL depth. Your thoughts? -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)

A. Kyle, I've kept the high total of seven receivers in recent projections. I'm not ready to move off that yet, but you bring up a very good point. Those big defensive linemen are tough to find, too.

Q. Mike, why is no one even considering the possibility that Brian Hoyer could be cut? Belichick has shown a willingness to go into the season with only two quarterbacks in the past. He has even shown a willingness to go into the season with an undrafted rookie as the backup, as he did with Hoyer in 2009. With all the talk about the overcrowded RB and WR positions, I find it somewhat surprising that the media has treated the QB situation as if it's 100 percent set. It's not like Hoyer has been dynamite in the preseason thus far, or even in his career as a Patriot. Sure he has exceeded expectations as an undrafted rookie, but I find the talk of him being a potential starter in this league as a bit of a reach. -- Matt (Andover, Mass.)

A. Matt, I view Hoyer as an asset and would be surprised if he's cut. Developing quarterbacks is good business, and while the talk of Hoyer as a potential starter can be debated, I still see value in him on the roster as a backup. Bill Belichick previously noted that the team was rolling the dice a bit with just two quarterbacks, so I think the three quarterbacks sounds right.

Q. Mike, at the beginning of camp, it seemed like Lee Smith might be better than advertised, as people were surprised at his catching ability. Now he seems to have been leapfrogged by Will Yeatman, the undrafted former lacrosse player. Who do you think makes the roster? -- Teddy (Milford, Mass.)

A. Teddy, right now I'm going with Yeatman. Smith has been out with injury the last few days, and I'm not sure the severity of it. One possibility is that Smith could land on injured reserve, potentially creating a way for the team to keep both.

Q. Hi Mike, can the NFL discipline Vince Wilfork because of the Miami scandal? -- Conan (Boston)

A. Conan, technically the NFL can do anything it wants when it comes to discipline, but I don't think this is something to worry about. I feel confident saying that Wilfork won't be disciplined by the NFL for something that happened around 10 years ago.

Q. Mike, what is with all these free agents the Pats are working out? Is there anything to this? Are we going to sign guys like T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Clinton Portis? -- Charlie (Iowa)

A. Charlie, those workouts are to keep emergency lists fresh. In the event of injury, the team likes to have the most updated information on possible replacements.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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