Commentary

Patriots still legit contenders

Despite New England's obvious flaws, no AFC team stands out above the rest

Updated: December 17, 2013, 12:38 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi | ESPNBoston.com

Join my weekly chat every Monday to have your question considered for the weekly Bruschi on Tap Q&A.

Q. Hey Tedy, I hate going this route because it seems like the tape always gives the same answer -- execution -- but do you think the play calling in the red zone could have been a bit more creative? In the championship days when passing was harder, the Pats got it done without All-Pro tight ends and wide receivers. Christian Fauria, Jermaine Wiggins (TEs) and David Givens, David Patten (WRs) were great red-zone targets, but were they that much better than the guys the Patriots have now or was the play-calling just better at utilizing their skill set? Or is it just execution and Danny Amendola should have caught that ball. -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)

A. I had no problem with the play calling. The problem I had was that the players running the plays seemed out of position. You had small receivers running big receiver routes. You had smaller receivers, like Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, who have to make plays over a defender that you'd usually be asking your bigger receivers to make. I don't want Amendola going up for a jump ball. It's tougher for Julian Edelman to catch a ball in traffic, in the air, over the middle. Shane Vereen couldn't be let out because of protection. The lack of size with the team's receivers was evident in this game.

Last week, I talked about how the smaller receivers needed to become more of a focal point of the offense with Rob Gronkowski injured, but the vision was that they would do so on shorter routes in which they could create yards after the catch. What we saw Sunday, based on the circumstances, was that they had to run more vertical routes and that's where the lack of size showed up.

[+] EnlargeJulian Edelman
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsOne problem for the Pats on Sunday: Their small receivers were running big-receiver routes.

Q. After the out-of-bounds kickoff the Patriots put Miami into a third-and-17. On third-down play, Miami gained 12 yards to make it fourth-and-5. Miami decided to go for it and converted. It seems like every long-yardage critical down the Patriots need to stop results in failure. Did the Patriots think the Dolphins would automatically punt if they failed on a third conversion or did the Dolphins plan on getting the ball as close as possible to the first-down marker because they were going for it no matter what and we were not prepared for that plan. -- Bob (Shrewsbury, Mass.)

A. In that situation, Bob, coaches usually make the decision on third down if they'll go for it on fourth down. You hope your coaching staff is thinking one down ahead. If you're Joe Philbin, part of the decision-making is who is on the other sideline. Do you really want to give the ball back to Tom Brady? I thought the Patriots had the fourth-and-5 play defended well, it's just that they couldn't make the tackle.

Q. Hi Tedy, my question concerns Steve Gregory. It seemed to me he had a couple of key mistakes yesterday, first taking a bad angle on Mike Wallace in the TD at the end of the half (it looked like he had over-the-top coverage and completely missed him), and later at the end when the Dolphins had fourth-and-5, he had a shot at stopping Charles Clay short of the first down and missed again. Your thoughts? -- Joe (Belmont, Mass.)

A. Joe, one of the main attributes a safety must have is to take good angles and be a sure tackler.

Q. Tedy, could you explain to the pedestrian why the Patriots went away from the run in the red zone. LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley seemed like they were both having their way in the first few drives. Then it seemed like once they got down into Dolphin territory they went small ball. Why go away when your back is getting over five yards a play and really overpowering their defense? It seemed like Ridley and Blount could have both gone for 100 yards in that game. I know you want the ball in Brady's hands, but it just did not make sense to me. -- Will (Austin, Texas)

A. There are a lot of questions focusing on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and why the Patriots don't run the ball and why they don't stick with the run. Let's all remember the situation they are in -- they have RBs who haven't been reliable in the ball-security department. The more you give the ball to Stevan Ridley, the more he has a chance to get worn down and fumble the ball. That will be in the coaching staff's mind the rest of the year. So it's basically pick your poison. You can be efficient with how many carries these guys get, and minimize the chance of a turnover by letting Brady throw the ball. That has to be part of their thought process.

Q. I'm really stretching for a silver lining here, but could all the injuries and close games be the kind of thing that galvanizes a team like the Patriots to do big things in the postseason? When you were a player, would adversity really fire you and the team up or is it all about game planning and execution? -- Brian (Boston)

A. Brian, this is how the AFC is this year. There isn't one team I think the Patriots couldn't beat in the AFC playoffs. Is anyone scared of Denver? Is anyone scared of the Bengals? They just got beaten down by the Steelers. The Colts? You never know what you're going to get there. The Chiefs look good but they are beatable too. When this gets to the playoffs, and I am assuming the Patriots will win one of their next two and be in the playoffs, this team has just as good of a chance as any in the AFC to make it to the Super Bowl.

Q. Hi Tedy, a lot has been made of the lack of turnovers produced by the defense in the last two games. Any thoughts on what's driving that? Is it a less aggressive defensive scheme? Less risk-taking on tackles/pass defense? Luck? -- Chris (New York)

A. There are two factors that come into play for that, Chris. The past five games have been very close and when that is the case, the opposing offense will take fewer chances. When a team has a lead, a defense can play more aggressively through defensive play calling and the chances you take on the field. The second thing is the Patriots' struggles to stop the run. So what you're getting is second-and-short and third-and-short situations, and the plays the opponents are running are higher-percentage plays.

Q. Hi Tedy. With five starters and four Pro Bowlers on IR, I hope for the best but think this isn't our year. If you were GM, where would you focus resources in draft and free agency, thinking about maximizing the teams chances during the rest of the Brady era? D line? TE? What's the biggest need? -- DJ (Ann Arbor, Mich.)

A. DJ, I wouldn't give up the season. I would never give up on any season in Week 16 when a team has 10 victories. There are so many variables in football, variables that you or I couldn't even begin to predict on any given Sunday. This is as objective of a statement as I could say: The Patriots still have as good of a chance as any team to make the Super Bowl. Looking at the AFC as a whole, every team has a shot. There is no dominant team in the AFC. Let's save the offseason questions for the offseason.

Q. Tedy, am I crazy to think Dannell Ellerbe was the difference in yesterday's game? It looked to me that he was fast enough to take away Vereen on pass plays, which hurt us on third down and in the red zone. When teams can match up against Vereen like that, who should now be the IT guy when we need six instead of three? -- Avi (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A. Ellerbe made some plays and contained Vereen at times, but I wouldn't say he was the difference. What I recognized was a vastly improved Ryan Tannehill, completing 67 percent of his passes, three touchdowns, zero interceptions. This Dolphins team is going to be one that will contest the Patriots for the division as long as Tannehill continues to get better.

Q. What do you think is going to happen with Julian Edelman for next year? Do you think he will be back? Even though they have Amendola on a five-year deal (Could they cut him?) and the three rookie wideouts and a huge question TE. Will they be able to bring back Edelman, and on what terms? -- Michael (South Florida)

A. Let's consider the mindset of a professional athlete like Julian Edelman. He was a seventh-round draft choice in 2009 who has been on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of earnings in his first five seasons in the NFL. He is 27 years old and this is probably his last shot to cash in for his future. I see Edelman testing the market. He has every right to do so and I think he should. Judging by what I've seen from him this year, the Patriots probably won't be able to match what he receives on the open market.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Thigpen
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsDont'a Hightower got beat badly by Marcus Thigpen here in the fourth quarter, but it wasn't totally his fault.

Q. Hi Tedy, this time of the year there is really not much help to be had. So the Patriots will need to play with who they have. Given that reality, do you think it is a matter of playing better? Or is this all we have without so many key starters gone for the year or are otherwise gimpy. Proud of what the Pats have been able to do with so many injuries, but not sure what they have left in coach B's bag of tricks. -- ltwong (Boston)

A. You're exactly right, there is no one they can sign anymore. They are what they are when you watch them. They are a team that will fight any team for all four quarters. They are well coached in situational football. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Every game, from here on out, will probably go down to the wire. It will all be based on their performance in the fourth quarter. Can they lose the next two games? Absolutely. Can they win them? They can do that too. But as you've seen the past few weeks, it's coming down to a two-minute situation. That's how it's going to be -- and either the Patriots make the plays to win, or the other team does.

Q. For the last month or so, our LBs look lost in space. Scheme, talent or coaching? -- Jen (Tucson, Ariz.)

A. This is one of the problems I saw yesterday, especially when the defense was in man coverage. The longer a down goes, the less chance a defender has to cover the receiver, running back or tight end. If you're in man coverage, your defensive line must know it has to get to the passer. You just can't ask linebackers like Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes or Dane Fletcher to cover for more than four seconds -- or even one of the best cover LBs in the league -- or you'll get exposed. The Patriots' pass rush hasn't been able to get there, especially on the interior. Chandler Jones is producing, yes. But the best edge rushers usually work in conjunction with someone who can get some push in the pocket.

Q. Hey Tedy, Hightower seemed like he played a good game yesterday. He lost the RB on that last route. What do you see from him in coverage? Poor technique, athleticism, things that can be improved upon? -- Dominic (Broomfield, Colo.)

A. I think he did everything he could on that particular down. It's clear the emphasis on that down was to get Charles Clay, with Hightower helping Devin McCourty on the play by trying to get a jam on him. With that, after the jam, he has to focus his attention on Marcus Thigpen. This is a very difficult thing to do. This is the one thing I would have changed. I would have taken Chandler Jones out of the rush, and given him a "butch" call -- having him hit Thigpen on his way to Tannehill. The threat of the combination of routes that Thigpen and Clay could run trumped any pass-rush game the Patriots may have called.

Q. Hey Tedy, thanks for the chat. Is it time for Belichick to commit more to the run to keep the opposing teams' offense on the sideline? Our running backs seem capable -- ala Ryan Matthews vs the Broncos. Thoughts? -- James (East Tennessee)

A. So, James, can you guarantee me that the more you give Stevan Ridley the ball, he won't fumble? If that's the case, I agree with you.

Q. I was at yesterday's game. Have to say it was pretty cool to hear, though to no avail, the large contingent of Pats fans in attendance shout loud encouragement to the defense. What is left of the defense seems to be playing about as well as can be expected. It will take some good fortune for it to be enough. -- munchkin (Glenwood Springs, Colo.)

A. New England fans aren't stupid. To travel down to South Beach for a December game? I'd want to do that too. Playing in these games, I always knew it was the home crowd for Miami, but I knew New England would be well represented because Patriots fans travel very well. I loved seeing all the navy blue jerseys in that stadium.

I agree on the defense. They are playing hard. They still need to force some more turnovers.

Q. During the broadcast yesterday, when Michael Hoomanawanui was battling with the Miami defender in the end zone there was no pass interference called when it appeared the defender turned his head back toward the ball when it was about past him. Phil Simms stated it was probably PI but should not be called. In the Dane Fletcher PI, it appeared he made good contact on the ball with his right hand and his left hand was on the back of the receiver and two flags came flying. What is your take on these two plays and what is the defender's right to do in each case. -- Michael (Michigan)

A. Those two examples are where the human element of football comes in. These officials, you'll get to know these crews the more you spend time in the league. When I found out what the officiating crew was, sometimes you'd know you'd have a lot of defensive holding and pass interference calls and you had to play accordingly. What I always tried to do, with my off hand, was try to grab the back hip of the receiver and then quickly let go. As you grab the back hip, it can boost your momentum and slow the receiver down, but it's all a matter of how sly you can be. You don't want to grab him where he turns, but you want to do it enough to slow his momentum. These are tricks of the trade, and that's why I always tried to be nice to the officials -- ask them about their families, where they are from.

There was one play where referee Walt Anderson was trailing a Ty Law interception return and we were forming a convoy and he got plowed over. I remember helping him up and then tapping him on his cheek and asking him how many fingers I was holding up. He said, "Two, Tedy, I'm doing just fine." And I said, "Good, Walt, we're going to need you today."

That's funny because I have a picture of Walt, with me, in my basement from that play.

Another round of great questions, everybody. I look forward to it every week.

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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