Commentary

How long can they keep this up?

Patriots have been saved by in-game adjustments, but can't afford that luxury anymore

Updated: January 2, 2012, 3:26 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi | ESPNBoston.com

Happy New Year, everyone. The regular season is over, so let's talk playoffs.

Now, it gets real.

Join my weekly chat every Monday at 11 a.m. ET to have your question considered for the weekly Bruschi on Tap Q&A. Here we go ...

Q. For all the adjustments they made Sunday, this Patriots secondary still scares the heck out of me. It just seems like if the Pats aren't pressuring the quarterback, there's no way the secondary can contain decent receivers. Thoughts? -- Barry (Hartford, Conn.)

Tedy: I agree. I'm still wrapping my head around Devin McCourty playing safety. Right now, I'm not sure on the logic of that move. I know they are beat up, and I know he's their most reliable defensive back this year (with Patrick Chung hurt), but when you have so much inconsistency in the lineup, you're going to give up those yards every week.

In terms of adjustments, I thought the defensive staff did a great job of adjusting from man coverage schemes and rushing four or five against the empty sets, then switching it up to three-man rushes and dropping eight, and playing zone. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was carving them up vs. man coverage with the safety over the top. Once they switched to that three-man rush, Buffalo had no answer. Clearly, Buffalo's plan was to attack with the empty formations, probably due to the lack of depth in that secondary. Taking away a rusher and adding another zone defender was vintage Bill Belichick.

What I thought Buffalo would do, seeing the three-man rush and soft zone coverages, was maybe start to run the ball a little more against it. I expected a little more from Chan Gailey and his staff.

Q. Hey Tedy, what do you think of the Patriots using McCourty some at safety and the Pats switching things up a bit and manning up in coverage. Seemed to do the trick against the Bills in the second half. Are the Pats better off in man or zone coverage going forward, and what's the best role for McCourty? -- Scott (Providence)

[+] EnlargeMcCourty
David Butler II/US PresswireDevin McCourty played some safety on Sunday, a move that had Tedy Bruschi scratching his head.

Tedy: It's puzzling to me seeing McCourty at safety. He looked uncomfortable at times. To me, he doesn't look the part of a safety. He is a cornerback, a Pro Bowl cornerback. But McCourty is the type of player who is unselfish. He is going to do what's best for the team and you have to respect that. The Patriots started the game in man and that's how they were getting carved up -- Dane Fletcher was on C.J. Spiller, Kyle Arrington was on Stevie Johnson. With McCourty at safety, he was out of position on a couple of those routes.

Going forward, you do what works. Man coverage wasn't working in the beginning, so they switched to more zone concepts with just a three-man rush. If they were to have started the game with that concept and it was struggling, then you switch to man. It's all about in-game adjustments, and they did it better than Buffalo did.

Q. Tedy, how do you explain a player like McCourty struggling so badly in year two, after making the Pro Bowl as a rookie? I guess the real question is why do the Patriots seem NOT to hit on defensive backs? -- Bob (Alexandria, Va.)

Tedy: They hit with McCourty. He had a great rookie season. I just can't think of another player who had such a drop-off from a Pro Bowl season to the next. The best thing about this is that McCourty is young -- very young -- and he knows what type of play it takes to succeed, and what type of play equals failure. I still think he's a top-notch player. I'm going to hold off until next year's performance, or his playoff performance this year, to see where he is.

Q. How do the Pats fix their defense or is there no fix? -- Jason (Seattle)

Tedy: There is no quick fix right now. What you see is what you get. What this defense needs on a regular basis is to cause turnovers. They continue to do this. If they do, this team can go far. They finished third in the NFL in turnover differential this year (plus-17), and that's so much more valuable than yards. I know the Packers have bigger names on defense, but what's the difference between the Packers and the Patriots right now?

Q. The Patriots have made a habit of falling behind opponents by multiple scores this season but always come back. Will that work against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and eventually Green Bay or New Orleans? -- Q (Arizona)

Tedy: No. It's that simple.

Q. Hi Tedy, read you here every week in Ireland. What's the reason for the terrible starts recently? Disrespecting the opponent or going out with the wrong game plan in the first place? -- Conor (Ireland)

Tedy: The slow start against Buffalo was all about them getting sliced in man coverage.

Q. These slow starts aren't going to cut the mustard in the playoffs. I'm sure everyone in that locker room understands that. Considering you were one of the leaders in that same locker room, what are some things you'd say to this team when preparing for game 1? -- Jesse (Boston)

Tedy: "Let's start fast." [Laughs.] Right now, there are no magic words. If anything, this team can have confidence that if they do start slow, they can come back.

Q. What did you see from Patrick Chung yesterday and how much of a boost does his return give this defense? -- Harvey (Natick)

Tedy: The most positive aspect of Patrick Chung returning was that he wasn't tentative. He looked aggressive from the start. After an injury, and having not played for a while, you wonder how a player will react. Chung should only get better going into the playoffs -- perfect timing for this secondary.

Q. With the slow starts that New England has, why don't they start with a no huddle? They play sooo much better. -- Genie (Wilmington, N.C.)

Tedy: If you get stopped in that no-huddle, then your defense has less time to rest after giving up a long drive. The Patriots like to pick their spots when using the no-huddle. Those spots are when they have a favorable matchup against a defensive personnel grouping, or when they feel they can put a team on the ropes with a quick score. Sometimes they'll game plan during the week that they will start the first drive of the second quarter in the hurry-up. I remember a playoff game against the Jets that I played in, and the game plan was to start in hurry-up. It all depends.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
David Butler II/US PresswireIn the past, Bill Belichick and his staff have used the bye week both for making adjustments internally and preparing for possible opponents.

Q. What do the Pats concentrate on this week, not knowing who their next opponent is? Pittsburgh is an obvious favorite to visit the friendly confines of the Razor. Does Coach B concentrate on the fundamentals, situational football, or maybe start game planning for the perceived favorite to come to Foxborough? -- Mike (Marshfield, Mass.)

Tedy: This is a good question. It reminds me of times we had byes before the playoffs and you had the chance of meeting multiple teams. What happened before was two teams were selected -- the two teams the coaching staff thought we had the best chance to meet -- and we'd spend half a day on one, and half a day on the other. The other half of those days, you'd spend working on fixing your own problems. So if they feel like Cincinnati is going to beat Houston, you watch a little Bengals film one day. The next day, you might watch the Steelers. It's not an entire week where you're not preparing at all.

One thing I did, even when you have the bye, is to watch the games. Even if it's against a team you won't play, like the teams in the NFC. What you will see during these games is what type of play wins playoff games and what type of play loses playoff games. Learn from other teams' mistakes so you don't make them.

Q. I can see the Pats making it to the Super Bowl based upon the weakness of the AFC. But there is no way, none, zero chance this team can beat either the Saints or the Packers in the Super Bowl. While neither of those teams has a great defense, both are superior to the Pats product. This is the worst Pats defense in 30 years. Thoughts? -- John (Walpole, Mass.)

Tedy: Bro, wait a second. I think Green Bay finished with the worst defense, in terms of yards allowed, this year. I do agree with you -- the table is set for the Patriots to make it to the Super Bowl. It's up to them, and how they play, in the divisional around and AFC championship. Going back to the draft, I felt like this season would be defined by the playoffs, no matter what records were broken. This season will be judged by what they do Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. ET. This team is one opening playoff loss from some serious questions -- involving coaches and players.

Q. Which possible divisional round matchup favors the Patriots the most? -- Mitch the Pats Fan (Wilkesville, Ohio)

Tedy: If Houston beats Cincinnati, and Denver beats Pittsburgh, Denver would come to New England. I think that's the most favorable matchup, but I don't think that's happening.

Q. Why is the AFC so down this year? -- Bruce (Ohio)

Tedy: First of all, there is no Peyton Manning with the Colts. That takes out a major contender. You have New England and Baltimore there. Pittsburgh, too. If Matt Schaub didn't get hurt, Houston might be a solid contender. A combination of some injuries at critical positions like quarterback, and you get a couple of teams that aren't as strong contenders.

Q. If Houston's quarterback was healthy would the Texans be the biggest threat to the Pats? -- Rich (Lynn, Mass.)

Tedy: They would be a threat, but I wouldn't see them as the biggest. From the beginning of the season, I thought the Ravens would be there in the end, a team they would have to contend with. It looks like that might be the case. If you look at the AFC right now, the top two threats for me -- for the Patriots -- are Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Cincinnati can cause some problems, but with a rookie at QB and the second-best offensive player being a rookie in WR A.J. Green, I just don't think they're ready.

Q. I love Wes Welker, but I'd argue that Rob Gronkowski is the second most important offensive player on the Patriots right now. Dude is just a beast. Thoughts? PS, you called that one right prior to the 2010 draft. -- Franky (Vermont)

Tedy: Gronk has been great. But over the course of the past couple of years, Welker has been Brady's No. 1 guy. What's great, though, is that on certain days when it's not Welker it can be Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez. Those are clearly the top three on this team.

Q. Tedy, do you think the Jets draft a quarterback this year if only to let Mark Sanchez know his time is running short? Physical limitations aside, I don't think you can teach good instincts. Frankly as a Pats fan I hope he stays. -- Seth (Medford, Mass.)

Tedy: I think he stays. I think Mark Brunell's time there as the No. 2 may be over. I think you're right, they need someone in the No. 2 role who is a threat if something goes wrong. Sanchez is there to stay. The Jets are truly a complementary football team. If the defense isn't playing well, special teams aren't making plays, and they can't run the ball, there is going to be a problem. If Sanchez is counted on to throw it 40 times a game (or 59), they'll be out of the playoffs every year. That's not who they are. I will say this -- I think Sanchez is good enough to take them to the Super Bowl. He almost did it twice already.

Q. Did you notice a change in the schemes or effectiveness of the defense with the return of Brandon Spikes? -- David (Portland, Maine)

Tedy: I think we'll see the effectiveness more against running teams. The Buffalo game wasn't one tailored to Spikes' strengths.

Q. What do you think about Tom Brady not really having a chance at MVP after the season he's had? The yards, touchdowns and leading a team with one of the worst defenses ever (yards-wise) to get the No. 1 seed. -- Danny (Penn State)

Tedy: Brady has had a great season, but it's all about timing to get that MVP. There have been MVPs in the past who probably didn't have as good a season as Tom this year. But unfortunately for Tom, there were two other quarterbacks this year who had as good of a season, if not better.

Q. Hi Tedy, I've been staying in shape. Do you think Bill should call me to make explosive plays and help win a Super Bowl? I like how everyone has already forgot I'm the most explosive receiver of all time. -- Randy Moss (West Virginia)

Tedy: Yes, Randy, you were explosive. If you were lined up at the No. 1 receiver, you'd probably have a cornerback on you and a safety over the top. You probably wouldn't have to run a full 9 route, and that would help. But I think the Patriots are set with what they have.

Q. If you were Colts owner Jim Irsay, what is the first thing you do? -- Diane (Indy)

Tedy: Diane, very rarely do you have a chance to solidify the short-term and long-term of your franchise. If Peyton Manning is healthy, he is the short-term -- the next three to four years. You draft Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick and he secures your long-term future. Would Manning be happy about that? Probably not. But who runs the organization -- management or Manning?

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

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