McCourty struggles in return

The Patriots are 9-3 and in the race for the AFC's top seed in the playoffs with four games remaining. All is good with many emailers to the Patriots' mailbag.

Some of the main topics that came into the inbox this week included:

1. How things are shaping up over the final four games of the regular season.

2. Concern with the performance of cornerback Devin McCourty.

3. Thoughts on the Patriots' struggles to identify and develop young receivers.

4. Leftovers from Sunday's win over the Colts.

Q: Mike, there has been a lot of talk about the weak schedule the Patriots play in the second half. The winning percentage of their opponents is not good. But I think the four remaining games do pose a good challenge and a good warm up for the playoffs. Miami is playing very good football and seems to be winning with a lockdown defense. Washington is coached by someone that seems to have Bill Belichick's number and everyone knows Denver's story. It's actually interesting to think Buffalo might be the easiest game left on the schedule given everyone's thoughts 4-6 weeks ago. What are your thoughts? -- Matt (Boston)

A: Matt, my thoughts are similar to yours. These are some good tests for the Patriots and it's a reminder of how quickly things can change in the NFL because many were saying it was an "easy" finish just a few weeks ago. Add in the fact the Redskins and Broncos games are on the road, and that the Patriots have a shorter-than-normal week before a Saturday home game against the Dolphins on Christmas Eve, and they should be challenged.

Q: I know you pegged the Pats at 12-4 this season and it seems a lot of people have hit the fast-forward button straight to 13-3. I am not so sure these last four games will be as easy as once predicted. Washington has the type of D that could give the Pats trouble, Denver is playing for division title and Miami is playing as well as anybody right now. Who do you think poses the biggest challenge the rest of the way? Also, why do you think some in your profession are in rush to over analyze what we learn from each game week to week? Let's enjoy the ride. What fun would it be if we had all the answers and could predict what will happen in January. What we know is that the Pats are 9-3 in in first place heading down the home stretch. Isn't that enough? Twenty years ago we were watching Hugh Millen play QB. -- Drew (Nashville, Tenn.)

A: Drew, I'll pick the Denver game as the biggest threat the rest of the way. Always a tough place to play and that team is hot right now. As for media members in a rush to overanalyze on a week to week basis, it seems like perspective has fallen out of whack a bit and I'm no exception. I do subscribe to the theory that one week doesn't play much of a factor into the next week, so it's hard to read too much into results. This is the old Phil Simms theory. Everyone wants the answers right now when sometimes you simply have to wait. Striking a happy medium between the two ends of the spectrum is not always easy.

Q: Hi Mike, I'm not ready to give up on Devin McCourty yet but I am puzzled as to why he appears so vulnerable this year compared to last year. Opposing teams complete passes in front of him and, worse, well behind him. Why the big drop off in skill and productivity? He looks heavier and slower than last year. Does he seem slower and heavier to you, Mike? He needs to return to form if NE is to advance in the playoffs. -- Chaucer (North Haven, Conn.)

A: Chaucer, I think McCourty has to be the coaching staff's biggest concern from a defensive standpoint. We have often heard that a player makes his greatest improvement from Year 1 to 2, but McCourty has headed in the opposite direction. I do think he is hurt and Donald Brown's 5-yard TD run stands out as one play where the health concerns showed up. McCourty makes that tackle nine times out of 10 when healthy. It also looked like his feet were cement blocks; I don't know if he's heavier, but I don't see the same explosiveness on the field. I still think he's a good player, but he needs to turn things around.

Q: Mike, don't you think the Patriots cut the cord with Taylor Price too early? I understand that with Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly out they had to activate Nick McDonald, but wouldn't it make more sense from a long-term perspective to cut Tiquan Underwood for one game, play Price vs. the Colts, then put McDonald back on the practice squad or cut Underwood again? No one is going to grab Underwood, who was unemployed for weeks and weeks. Is it poor roster management or is Price really that untalented? -- Tom (Boston)

A: Tom, in the end I think what doomed Price is that he never developed the necessary connection and rapport with Tom Brady. It wasn't getting any closer to happening. Price is one of the most physically gifted receivers I've seen with the Patriots over the past decade, but I think the inability to win the trust of Brady that he'd be in the right spot, coupled with some hamstring injuries, made him less valuable than Underwood in the coaches' eyes. That wasn't changing any time soon. Given those factors, I understand why Bill Belichick decided to move on. We'll see if he made the right decision. Four other teams thought enough of Price to put a waiver claim on him (Jaguars, Dolphins, Buccaneers and Jets).

Q: With the struggles of Chad Ochocinco and the release of Taylor Price, we have heard an awful lot about their inability to earn Tom Brady's trust or develop a rapport with Brady. We even get soundbites where we are told that Ocho was open, but Brady just didn't get him the ball. However, when Brady first came into the league, all we heard was that he was going to get the ball to the guy that was open, whomever that may be. When did this change in philosophy happen? -- Nathaniel (Hyannis, Mass.)

A: Nathaniel, I don't think the philosophy has changed. I think the biggest thing is that players who are consistently in the place they are supposed to be have a better chance of getting the ball from Brady because it gives Brady more comfort to go through his complete progression. I think that's where we saw Brady run into some problems with interceptions early in the year. He had that comfort level with Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Rob Gronkowski, and to a lesser degree with Aaron Hernandez, and he was forcing some balls to them at times.

Q: Mike, can you provide any insight to why the Patriots struggle at acquiring talent at the receiver position through the draft? I really don't understand it at all. Maybe the team ought to just go after whoever is most lauded by analysts since their ability to evaluate the position themselves seems sub-par. -- Jon (Grafton, Mass.)

A: Jon, the challenge of evaluating receivers is something Belichick has touched on and there are a few big factors: 1) There is not a lot of press coverage in college; 2) The complexity of a pro offense is different than college; 3) How much of the receiver's production is a result of the quarterback? Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace is a good example. He was one of the fastest receivers coming out of the draft a few years ago (similar to Bethel Johnson in 2003) and there was some doubt among scouts on whether he could develop into a complete receiver or if he was just a burner. That's a challenging projection.

Q: Mike a few weeks ago I emailed about your stance this past offseason that the team did not need an upgrade at WR, specifically a deep threat. You stated at the time you stuck with your feeling that the answer was on the roster, mentioning Taylor Price. I'll give you a second chance to take a mea culpa on this issue. Are you now willing to admit this is something the team needs to address moving forward? -- Eric (Orlando, Fla.)

A: Eric, I do think this is an area that will be targeted in the offseason. Still, this is an explosive offense that is one of the best in the NFL as it is currently constructed.

Q: Mike, sorry to be the guy with Ochocinco question. It just seems to me that at this point "timing" and "the system" can't possibly be the problem, and that after 11 years in the league Chad suddenly just forgot how to catch a football. He's been open, he's been targeted, he's had his hands on it, and it keeps hitting the ground ... what gives?!?! -- Ben (Somerville, Mass.)

A: Ben, I don't think he's forgotten how to catch it but his skills have regressed. The complex, diverse offense has had him thinking rather than playing without feeling hindered, and the Patriots run the majority of plays with two tight ends. Because of that, the opportunities have been limited.

Q: Mike, any chance you see DeSean Jackson as a Patriot next year? -- Nayab (Las Vegas)

A: Nayab, I don't see Jackson as a Patriot. While he has tantalizing talent on the field, I don't think he's a fit for their overall program (he's created some issues in Philadelphia).

Q: I know this is waaaaay off in the distance, but what are the possibilities of the Pats picking up Reggie Wayne if he's not back with the Colts in 2012? -- Base in Atlanta

A: If Wayne is available, I think it's a realistic thought. There is a lot of mutual respect there. After Sunday's game, Belichick shook hands with coach Jim Caldwell and then before leaving the field hung around for a short period and found Wayne. That was something I jotted in my notebook to store away for the future if the opportunity ever presents itself for Belichick and Wayne to reconnect.

Q: Mike, whereas Bill Belichick's modus operandi has always been to play the "players that give us the best chance to win," are we really to believe that playing a 4th-year wide receiver who's never played safety in a regular season game (Matthew Slater) gave the best "best chance to win?" Or was he simply experimenting and preparing for the future against an 0-11 team? In light of his credo, it's gotta be the former, right? -- Tom (Boston)

A: Tom, I think too much is being made about the personnel Belichick used in the game. To me, the key is to look closer at the options Belichick had. If not Slater, then who -- either Sterling Moore or Sergio Brown. So it's not a major difference in my view. If not Niko Koutouvides at sub linebacker, then who -- either Gary Guyton or Tracy White. These aren't major differences, so I do think there is an element of playing some different options and seeing how they look and using that information to make sound personnel decisions in the future. The key is going to be how this defense looks when safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Brandon Spikes are back.

Q: Should it be alarming for the Patriots that their offense does not seem to be able to really move the ball unless in the hurry up? -- Andrew Gordon (Boston)

A: Andrew, I think the offense is lower on the list of concerns for the Patriots. This is one of the best attacks in the NFL. As Colts players said after the game, with Brady you're in the elite position. It's not perfect, for sure, but there are only a few other offenses in the NFL I'd take over the Patriots and they are the Packers and Saints.

Q: Hi Mike, although it was garbage time, that fourth quarter against the Colts was pathetic. I am interested in hearing your thoughts about it and wonder if this team can finish when in a tighter game come the playoffs. -- CJ (San Francisco)

A: CJ, while the finish was disappointing, I don't think it's anything to be alarmed about. So much changes from week to week in the NFL and at this point last week, many were lauding the Patriots' mental toughness for a great road win at Philadelphia. It's hard to have 16 perfect outings. If it was something that was happening consistently, maybe there would be reason for concern.

Q: Hi Mike, I notice that every year there are a number of seemingly out-of-nowhere Patriots moves (i.e., cuts, moves to IR, etc.). I'm curious (and concerned) that we are getting close to an out-of-nowhere IR move with Patrick Chung. Please tell me I'm wrong. Seems like he's supposed to be back every week, and then doesn't play. I'm worried Bill is going to decide soon that he can't hold a roster spot for him any longer. Am I crazy? -- Peter (Boston, Mass.)

A: Peter, we saw Chung working out on the field before Sunday's game, so I'd be surprised if this happens. He looked to be moving well, and I wouldn't have said "IR" was on the radar based on what I saw.

Q: Mike, you have to wonder if this season is one of the best coaching jobs ever for Bill Belichick. It amazes me that this team has had more defensive starters than any other team in the league PLUS they have had four different guys start at center and yet they are still 9-3. What other NFL team has had this kind of roster turnover and yet still remained in contention, let alone gone 9-3? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ari.)

A: Gregg, I can't think of too many others and it is a credit to Belichick. Some of the roster turnover has been of his own doing, but this is something several Colts players noted after Sunday's game. The Patriots are a well-coached team that seldom beats itself.

Q: Mike, the Pats defense just isn't very good, and 100 percent of that rests with Belichick and his roster management style of "value" instead of talent. A secondary concern has been arising that nobody is talking about, the Pats offensive coordinator (O'Brien) is not doing a good job. This team struggles early on offense each week, that is until they go to a "hurry up" offense which takes a lot of the play calling away from O'Brien and puts the "keys to the offense" in Brady's hands. I know you are an O'Brien believer, but I'm not seeing it. Their offense is very uncreative and much more predictable since McDaniels and Weis have left. If these slow starts/predictable offensive play calls continues coupled with a weak defense, the Pats don't stand a chance against a good playoff team and would need schedule help in the playoffs to make a Super Bowl run. Thoughts? -- Marc (Lowell, Mass.)

A: Marc, I think Belichick takes accountability for the defense and the final answers on whether his decisions were the right ones won't come until the playoffs. If the unit rises in the playoffs, then he's done the job. If it doesn't, then he can be held accountable. So let's see how it unfolds and acknowledge that 9-3 is a good place to be right now. From an overall defensive perspective, I look around the NFL and see some dramatic improvements from other teams on D (the Texans under first-year coordinator Wade Phillips is one example) and wonder why it's taken multiple years for Belichick to get the Patriots where they want to be on defense. It's not all bad, and the stinginess in the red zone could take them far, but it's not a unit that inspires the same type of confidence as others around the NFL. So my view is that in the end, it will come down to the playoffs, which is essentially what Belichick said last year after the early playoff knockout. As for O'Brien and the offense, I don't think the majority of early-game struggles are coaching-based. I think it's more execution.

Q: Hi Mike. I don't know what to make of the Pats' defense -- whether to be disappointed that they're making opposing QBs look like Peyton Manning, or to be delighted that a bunch of no-names is hanging in there and challenging hard for the playoffs. Anyway, my question sort of merges both the positive and negative aspects we've seen this year: Do you think Kyle Arrington is playing well enough to take Devin McCourty's spot in the Pro Bowl? -- Dan (Sheffield, UK)

A: Dan, I think Arrington has a real shot for a Pro Bowl berth as a lot of people will see the NFL-high seven interceptions and put the check next to his name. He's been a more consistent player than McCourty.

Q: Mike, when it comes to "start fast" and "finish strong", the Pats did neither on Sunday. They played 30 minutes of football. They had the ball briefly (2 minutes) in the first quarter and played a horrible fourth quarter which I trust is a disappointment to everyone. What does this defense have to do to show that it can be competitive in the playoffs? What changes have to be made? One and done should not be acceptable to the organization. -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)

A: Jim, I think the biggest thing is getting some of the banged-up players back -- safety Patrick Chung, linebacker Brandon Spikes and even linebacker Dane Fletcher come to mind. If they do that and stay stingy in the red zone, I think they have a good chance to get better. As for one-and-done, that would be a big disappointment. As Belichick said last year after the playoff loss to the Jets, "There were certainly a lot of good things that happened for us [in 2010], but that definitely gets overshadowed by the final results." So the key is being best positioned to play the best football in the playoffs.

Q: Mike, what has happened to Shaun Ellis? He very rarely sees the field now. Has father time caught up with him and the young guys are better, or does he have an injury that we are not aware of? He is being paid a lot of money to sit on the bench. I thought he would be rotated in on the DL and play 20 snaps or so a game. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Ashley, Ellis' playing time dipped dramatically since he missed the Nov. 6 game against the Giants with a rib injury. Here is his snap progression on the season (Games 1-11): 40, 46, 37, 42, 27, 40, 9, 0, 22, 0, 1, 3. The main thing I see is that Ellis has been passed on the depth chart at left defensive end in the base package by Brandon Deaderick. Also, the Patriots haven't played a lot of base in recent weeks, further limiting his impact and opportunities.

Q: Mike, what are the chances of Jermaine Cunningham getting cut before the season is out? Thanks. -- Jeff (Arlington, Va.)

A: Jeff, nothing would surprise me but if I had to make an educated guess, I think they'll give him into 2012 training camp to get things back together. He's taken a step back this year. After playing 50 percent of the defensive snaps last year, his snap progression is as follows this year: 1, 7, 16, 8, 2, 0, 0, 4, 4, 6, 0. Teams drafting a player in the second round expect more.

Q: Hey Mike, if you had to combine your sentiments on Nate Jones' performance Sunday, what would they be? It seemed like a success. How much credit should he be given compared to the coaching staff for his performance? -- Ian (Bangor, Maine)

A: Ian, I thought Jones played well and he deserves the bulk of the credit for that. The high number of plays he was on the field (69 of 73, including penalties) stood out, as did his multiple roles (slot corner, safety) and sure tackling. That was a solid debut.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.