After weeks of optimism based on the strong start to the preseason, there is a different tone this week after the Patriots were pounded 34-10 by the Lions on Saturday night.
There are three main topics in this week's Patriots mailbag: (1) how much stock to put into the third preseason game; (2) Chad Ochocinco's early struggles with the offense; (3) safety James Sanders' release and a possible trickle-down effect.
The mailbag isn't restricted to those topics, but those were the dominant points of discussion, which reflect the majority of emails to the 'bag.
Let's get right to it.
Q: Mike, like most fans, I was a wreck while watching the Patriots get destroyed by the Lions. Then I remembered that the Pats managed to win 14 games last year despite getting lit up for 36 points by Sam Bradford and the Rams in game 3 of the 2010 preseason. Is it okay to feel better now or is the sky actually falling? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A: Gregg, I think your perspective is right on the money. I'll even go as far as to say that I probably got a bit ahead of myself in the first two weeks of the preseason, reading too much into the lopsided winning results. I still think the Patriots are going to be a good team. The concern I'd have is if they are built to win in the playoffs. A team with the ability to disrupt the rhythm of the passing game by winning the battle up front gives them trouble (e.g., Giants in Super Bowl; Ravens and Jets in the playoffs), and they need to come up with a counter when that happens. In other words, I echo what Tedy Bruschi wrote when he noted that the team needs to find a way to win when quarterback Tom Brady isn't on his game.
Q: Mike, did the Patriots play more 3-4 defense against the Lions? I felt like it was 2010 all over again, with the Patriots defensive line failing to apply pressure. Was there a scheme change that happened? -- Justin R (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A: Justin, the Patriots played mostly a nickel defense (five defensive backs), treating Lions tight end Tony Scheffler like a receiver. The main thing that stands out to me is that quarterback Matthew Stafford was getting rid of the ball quickly, negating the impact of the rush.
Q: Hi Mike, I think that Bill Belichick sensed an incorrect attitude on the team in the face of their first two blowout wins. On Saturday, they played a lot of nickel coverage and did not give Matthew Stafford many disguised looks. I think that it was "on purpose" so that Bill could avoid the perfect preseason and remind the players during the regular season that they are not as good as their press clippings. -- Mark (Tulsa, Okla.)
A: Mark, while I could buy the idea that Belichick will use this as a teaching tool and good evidence to reinforce what he preaches, I don't subscribe to the theory that he set the team up for this. If he didn't like the attitude of the team, I don't think he would have had them at the movies to see "The Fighter" on Wednesday, which he explained was a reward of sorts because of how hard they've worked. To me, the game was about execution, not scheme. It was about fighting back, not just taking a punch.
Q: Let's face it, Tom Brady is not good when being rushed. That being said, is there a way to scheme our way out of that trouble? Teams know what it takes to beat the Patriots (both playoff losses and this one all had the same attacking defense that made Tom fold). How does the offense adjust for the next team that plays us like that? -- Fletch (N.H.)
A: Fletch, I'd say most quarterbacks fall into that category -- rush them and knock them down early and often, and they're probably going to struggle. The simple answer, in my view, is to get out of the shotgun and spread formations, tighten up and try to ground and pound a bit. That's part of developing a multifaceted identity on offense.
Q: Hi Mike, what's going on with Ochocinco? We all know he's a good player, but he's had some chances to make some plays now and hasn't really come up with much. Is it a case of a player not fitting in with a team/system, or is it still too early to think like that? -- Mark (UK)
A: Mark, I spoke with a scout who thinks the Patriots have some significant concerns at receiver. The scout doesn't see separation from Ochocinco, views Branch as an easy cover, and Welker as the toughest matchup and one target who will draw the most attention. I think it's a little early to think along those lines, but I do think it's fair to have some mild concerns about Ochocinco's early turbulence in entering the system. It just doesn't look natural right now, but I still think it can get there. It has to get there, because I don't see the Patriots cutting him after giving him a $4.5 million signing bonus. The topic came up when I asked a scout if he saw any resemblance between the 2011 Patriots offense and the old Colts offenses of Peyton Manning's early years. The response: "Not really, because the Colts had elite receivers. The Patriots do not."
Q: Hi Mike, I'm sure it's important for Brady to spend a lot of time getting Ochocinco up to speed on the offense. But, at least from what you see on the sidelines during the preseason games, it seems like he's focused on Chad to the exclusion of the young guys. Price & Tate could be real difference-makers if they can really "get it." Shouldn't Brady play a big role in helping them get in sync as well? -- Danny (Brookline, Mass.)
A: Danny, I think this is a fair point. Any time you bring in a veteran like Ochocinco and put him on the first unit, the trickle-down effect is that players like Price and Tate don't get as many reps with Brady. That carries over into the games. This is part of the decision-making process any team goes through when making a move like Ochocinco because it could stunt the growth of younger players. It's my belief that if the Patriots felt Price and Tate were closer to breaking through, they wouldn't have made the trade.
Q: On Brady's interception, was it an option route or read that Ochocinco didn't cut off as expected? Or did Brady at that point in the game have the jitters and didn't follow through on the throw like he should have? I swear he had time and the ball had a decent spiral. -- Nick C. (Rochester, Mass.)
A: Nick, I heard Brady talk about that Monday on sports radio WEEI and he said he thought the Lions were blitzing and misread it. He tipped his cap to the Lions for fooling him on that one. I believe Brady on that one. Just a bad read and throw by Brady on that.
Q: Mike, the Ochocinco situation is starting to remind me of Joey Galloway two years ago. Everyone assumed that Brady and the veteran receiver would just mesh but it never worked. I see the same kind of chemistry between Brady and Chad as Brady and Galloway. I think the Pats may have to cut their losses with him. -- Imala (Brisbane)
A: Imala, it could wind up at that point, but they didn't cut the cord on Galloway until a few weeks into the season. I think Ochocinco deserves more time to see if it clicks.
Q: With roster trimdowns finalized today, is there any chance we could find room for former Cowboy center Andre Gurode? I heard money was an issue in Dallas, but his resume is impressive and our O-line could use some help. -- James (Washington, DC)
A: James, I like the thought. The Patriots could use an experienced veteran on the interior and Gurode fits the bill. If not Gurode, some other possibilities are Leonard Davis (Pats have not inquired), Vincent Manuwai and Shaun O'Hara, among others.
Q: Mike, with Sanders gone (similar to the Lawyer Malloy cut), why no Darren Sharper? He has a solid track record and at this point in his career a one-year deal should not be an issue. He is a lot steadier than Meriweather. The overall safety depth doesn't look too good. -- Paul O (Kenosha, Wis.)
A: Paul, I think the main thing you look at in a situation like that is health and the likelihood of a player making it through the season. Sharper is 35 and played just eight games last year (one start). It's easy to remember the great plays he's made over the years, but you ask the question, "How close is he to that player right now?" I think he has some positional value in the deep part of the field, but you can't expect anything on fourth down, so if you bring him on you need him to be a top guy for your team. That's no guarantee. Meriweather, on the flip side, has been durable and is entering prime years. I'm not saying it won't happen with Sharper if all the stars align, but that would be the reasoning behind standing pat.
Q: Mike, I'm looking at the James Sanders release and thinking that this could be the way that they squeeze Matthew Slater onto the roster while keeping Brandon Tate. With 5 CBs, they could always have Darius Butler and Ras-I Dowling for spot duty as a 4th safety if needed. -- Dan (Dover, N.H.)
A: Dan, I think it's astute to look at the roster and find creative solutions like that (although I don't think Butler is a fit at safety). My thought is that Slater doesn't need to squeeze on. He's in after having a solid camp. Tate looks very much like a question mark to me as I don't see him improving.
Q: Mike, with the James Sanders release and Brandon Meriweather playing to the beat of a different drummer at times, does this mean that Ras-I Dowling might get a shot at safety this year? At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he appears to be big enough. He could be moved back to corner next year. -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)
A: Jim, this reminds me of Eugene Wilson in his 2003 rookie season; he was drafted as a corner out of Illinois but moved to safety and thrived there. Dowling played safety in high school, so he does have a background at the position. It's certainly a consideration. The only issue I might have is that the third and fourth corners right now -- Kyle Arrington and Darius Butler -- have looked a little shaky at times.
Q: Mike, on the James Sanders release, should the Patriots have traded him instead? Sanders said the team released him to give him the chance to hook on elsewhere. From a coach and team that just focuses on what's best for the team, is this nonsense to sugarcoat the cut? For a team that accumulates trading chips, why waste the opportunity to acquire more? -- Mark (Dublin)
A: Mark, I think Bill Belichick probably knew no team would inherit Sanders' $2.8 million salary, so he could get away with saying that to Sanders. In the end, it is my belief that Belichick has always liked Sanders as a player, but that he felt he was too generous on the contract extension he signed in 2009 after competition drove up the price. I think this move was mostly about economics.
Q: Mike, can players placed on the reserve/PUP or reserve/NFI list still practice with the team? Or are they required to wait until they're on the active roster? -- Joseph King (Andover, Mass.)
A: Joseph, players on the reserve lists cannot practice with the team. If they could, I think we'd see more "stashing" of players on those lists.
Q: Hi, Mike. I'm curious about the economics of the PUP/NFI players once the regular season starts. Is there a limit to how long they can stay there? Do they get paid? Do they count against the cap? -- Neal (Ashby, Mass.)
A: Neal, a decision on when to start the three-week clock on those players must be made by the end of Week 9. Those players get paid and also count against the salary cap.
Q: Mike, what are the odds that Marcus Cannon can fill the right guard position moving forward? I've heard numerous takes on where he'll eventually line up, but from my perspective if he's as strong as he's rumored to be it'd be great to see him powering d-linemen like Suh back into the hole. I like Dan Connolly, but he is not the road grader that Mankins is. A heavy dose of pure power on that right interior line would be a nice change of pace when we run into a defensive line like Detroit's. Is Cannon going to play this year? -- West (Stamford, Conn.)
A: West, this is a topic I'll attempt to follow up on Tuesday at Gillette Stadium. Last I checked, Cannon still didn't have full clearance from doctors in his recovery from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. So that would be the first step. I had assumed he would start the year on the reserve/non-football injury list, which would put him out of the mix until at least Week 7, but I will try to come up with something more definitive than that.
Q: I thought the whole team had a bad game against the Lions, but Darius Butler really did not look good. In fairness, Arrington and McCourty did not look too good either. Do you think Bill will give Butler one more long look in the last preseason game and then decide whether to cut him or trade him? It's too bad he has never lived up to his second-round draft pick status. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Ashley, I actually thought Butler played as well as any Patriots cornerback in that game. I know that isn't saying much based on the way it unfolded, but as of now, I think he has a spot on this team as a backup cornerback/special teamer.
Q: Mike, I heard a lot of how good Leigh Bodden looked at the beginning of training camp and haven't heard much of him since. What do you think about him and where does he fit in? -- Harry (Bloomington, Ind.)
A: Harry, I think Bodden is the starter on the right side when healthy. He showed up several times in camp with strong coverage and making plays on the ball, but he sustained an undisclosed injury in the second preseason game in Tampa when he played just seven snaps. He hasn't practiced since, but I don't think it's anything too serious.
Q: What is your take on Kyle Arrington? Why does he always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? By this I mean he is always getting beat. Does he have bad technique? Is he not tall enough? He gets beat on the fade route every time. See last year's games and Jets playoff game. He looked horrible in the Lions game. Thoughts? -- Kyle McFarland (South Glens Falls, N.Y.)
A: Kyle, Arrington started 14 regular-season games in 2010 when the Patriots finished 14-2. So while Arrington has struggled at times this preseason, I think he's proved he can be a significant contributor. Arrington is a physical cornerback who tackles well. He's hit a bit of a rough stretch here, but I don't think that's necessarily reflective of what type of player he is.
Q: Mike, what is going on with Brandon Spikes? He has not practiced since the first week of training camp, and from every report I have read, he has not sustained an injury. -- Jim (New Jersey)
A: Jim, some guesswork with Spikes, but my sense is that he's dealing with either a hamstring or ankle injury. I don't think it's anything more than that.
Q: I was just looking at ESPN's depth chart and they have Eric Moore as a starter in a possible 4-3 base is that accurate? (We almost never hear his name mentioned in any blogs or articles). -- Jonathan Hart (Montreal)
A: Jonathan, Moore looks like a possible starter at left defensive end in a four-man line. That's where he's lined up most in training camp/preseason, often with the top unit.
Q: Hey Mike, everyone keeps saying that Garrett Mills is practice squad eligible how is that possible? What are the requirements to being able to hop on the PS? I thought it would be only for rookie and sophomore players. Thanks for the help! -- Michael Sherman (Wis.)
A: Michael, practice-squad rules can sometimes be confusing, but the main part of it is that Mills has never appeared in more than nine games in a season and hasn't exhausted his eligibility. Mills was released Monday. I still think it's possible he's back on the practice squad when all is said and done.
Q: Did no one see the right cross Suh threw at Mankins in the second quarter of Saturday's game? How was there no penalty or review from the league? It is ridiculous the stuff he gets away with. -- Evan (Boston)
A: Evan, I thought there should have been a penalty on that. I won't be surprised if there is a fine.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.