Is Patriots' defense good 'enough'?
When coach Bill Belichick was asked to characterize his defense after the team's 35-21 win over the Chargers, he went the big-picture route.
"Well, we're 2-0," he responded. "We did some good things. There are some things we've got to do better and I'd characterize the whole team that way -- offensively, defensively, special teams. We've done enough to win two games."
The question several emailers to the mailbag have is whether "enough" is going to be good enough when it counts.
Perhaps we'll find out this week in Buffalo, where the Bills have rung up 79 points over the first two weeks of the season. With injuries in mind, and how the Patriots proceed from here, that's where this week's mailbag begins.
Q: Hello Mike, I am concerned about Sunday's game versus the Bills. Buffalo is not the pushover it used to be. Detroit is getting a lot of press for their good start, but the Bills seem to be under the radar. I can easily see Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing for 350-400 yards with the Pats' porous pass defense. How does Bill Belichick get this team prepared to play a team that has been the Patriots' personal doormat for so many years? -- Paul O (Kenosha, Wis.)
A: Paul, adding to your point, the Patriots have defeated the Bills in each of the last 15 meetings so if ever there was a team of which players might say "We have their number," this is it. My counterpoint, however, is that a third of the roster is different from last year and with personnel changing so much on a year-to-year basis, there isn't much carryover. I think this is an area that Bill Belichick and players generally do a very good job of addressing; in today's NFL, every team presents some problems and deserves respect. If you don't bring your top performance, you can lose to anyone. If players or reporters haven't learned that by now, we haven't been watching very closely.
Q: Mike, with Aaron Hernandez going down and probably missing a few weeks, how do you see this affecting a Patriots offense that has grown reliant on multiple TE sets? Also, thought you'd be interested to know that Vollmer was quoted in German media after the game saying that he played in a lot of pain Sunday. -- Antti (Finland)
A: Antti, this is all guesswork, but I think this is the exact reason the Patriots had tight end Garrett Mills on the practice squad. When Hernandez went down with injury late last season, the team didn't have anyone like him and had to alter its playbook rather significantly. By promoting Mills, they won't have to change much. Now, there is obviously a talent difference between Hernandez and Mills. With that in mind, one figures it will lead them out of the two-TE packages a bit more and produce more opportunities for Chad Ochocinco in three-receiver sets, or even receiver Taylor Price, if he's healthy.
Q: Mike, Brady is playing unbelievably. I mean, you can't play the position any better and yet the games are competitive deep into the fourth quarter. I think Tedy Bruschi was right when he said the Pats rely too much on Brady. The Pats probably lose both games if Brady doesn't play perfect. Thoughts? -- Bill (New York)
A: Bill, like Tedy Bruschi, that is one of the big unanswered questions in my view. When Brady doesn't play his best game, can the Patriots still win? An elite quarterback can cover up a lot of other weaknesses (e.g., 2011 Colts), so that's when we'll find out how good a team the Patriots truly have. I tend to be an optimistic type and I look at the talent on the club and think there are better things ahead, especially when considering there isn't really any dominant defense in the NFL right now. But I also understand why some would view it differently. Stepping away from it, I think the one thing I take from the first two weeks of the season is that the Patriots look like they're building the foundation for being a mentally tough team, and I think that's a good thing to have going for them. They've responded well in the critical situations in both games.
Q: Mike since I'm sure you maintain a constant vigilance of available punters, in the event Zoltan Mesko is out for some time do you have any sense of who may be out there or if the Patriots brought anyone in during the training camp? -- Fred (Lexington, Mass.)
A: Fred, I saw Mesko on Monday night at Jerod Mayo's charity event and if I had to guess, he won't be punting Sunday. He looked uncomfortable. Second-year punter Matt Dodge, a seventh-round draft choice of the Giants in 2010, figures to get a look. He punted for the Giants last season and was with them in 2011 training camp as well. Veteran Nick Harris, the longtime Lions punter, would also be on the radar, as would Robert Malone, the former Buccaneers punter. In a situation like this, I think experience is important and you want someone who has punted in a training camp this year. All of these punters qualify.
Q: Hey Mike, curious to hear your thoughts on Bill's decision to go for the 4th and 4 early in the fourth quarter. Do you think the call was directly a result of Zoltan Mesko's injury or did Bill want to put the team in position to add more points and effectively end the game? The commentators were quick to question the call -- and inevitably bring up the 4th and 2 decision in Indy -- and hint that Bill didn't have enough faith in his defense, but I'm viewing it from an offensive perspective. If they convert, they're basically in field goal range and make the hill much steeper for Rivers and Co. -- Eliott (Marion, Mass.)
A: Eliott, Belichick was asked about the fourth-and-4 after the game and said the decision was indeed based on Mesko's injury to his left punting leg. If Mesko is healthy, I think they punt there, no question about it. I think one could have made a strong case, before the incomplete pass, that Stephen Gostkowski should have been called on to punt from there. That was risky.
Q: Despite the Patriots' woes on third down against the Chargers (10 of 12), I feel the unit has played very well at times this season. In this new era of the NFL, should we expect good offense to outweigh good defense? Has anybody's defense looked stellar in the first two weeks thus far? I feel the NFL is now designed to allow spectacular offenses to flourish, and that we will never see a great defense like the '85 Bears, or '00 Ravens. Your thoughts? -- Justin (Phoenix)
A: Justin, my thoughts are that the defense shouldn't be let off the hook that easily. While I give credit to the Chargers for making some good plays, I thought there were opportunities for the Patriots to make routine-type plays on third down and they couldn't deliver, a point that Bill Belichick echoed Monday. One example was the would-be interception that sailed through safety Josh Barrett's hands in the first half. To the point, though, I don't see another NFL team and say "They have it all figured out on defense." One thing we know for sure is that the defense we see now will look a lot different in Week 16. My question is whether the unit can help the team deliver when it counts, and I do think the Patriots have better players this year compared to last year, so I see this unit having a better chance of turning the corner.
Q: I know the Pats are 2-0, and are regular season favorites. I don't mean see the glass as half empty, but I don't see the improvement from last year on defense. This four man front, is a front. The guys they have there are old for the most part. The linebackers are thin behind Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes (when he plays). Rob Ninkovich is a starting OLB/DE, really? Jermaine Cunningham either can't play, or can't get on the field. Patrick Chung is the only starting caliber safety, and the deep corner position is not so deep after week two. Surprise, Ras-I Dowling is hurt again. When can we call it a pattern? Overall, I can't see this team going very far with this talent. There are too many holes on this D. I'm sure you've seen Ryan Kerrigan, Robert Quinn, and especially Jabaal Sheard, who looked great against the Colts. Guess we didn't need any of those guys. -- Rob (Vermont)
A: A lot to digest here, Rob. Let's start with the draft and revisit the thought that the top pick of the second round (33rd overall) was the defining pick to me. If the Patriots wanted to add a young stud to the defense like Jabaal Sheard or Brooks Reed, that was the place to do it. They went with Dowling instead, and it's been noted here that will be the one to watch.
For me, I want to give it more than two games before making the call. As for the rest of the defense, I look at it a bit differently and think there is better potential for improvement this year than last year. I think they have more talented players.
Q: So diagnose the defense for us, Mike. What's their problem? Yes, they have come up with some great goal-line stands but by and large they have given up a LOT of real estate over these first two weeks, especially through the air. I thought their corners were supposed to be a strength of the team? They keep getting torched, even the once-incredible Devin McCourty. As for the pass rush, it's better this year but still disappears entirely at times. Is this a case of the defense waiting to gel? Or is it the scheme? Maybe the coaches are simply willing to accept giving up huge chunks of yardage in a short period of time so long as they get enough red zone stops. Your thoughts? -- Tim (Alaska)
A: Tim, I think defenses have to be careful when they live on turnovers and red-zone play, as we saw with the Patriots in 2010, because those can disappear quickly. If I had to start diagnosing the defense, I'd say they need better cornerback play. Part of it is that they went against two very good receivers (Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson) who also deserve credit, but there are also plays to be made. So can they win more one-on-one situations going forward? I believe they can. I think the pass rush is better than last year, but agree that it's been inconsistent at times. From an overall context standpoint, I think we can look at a lot of NFL defenses and say the same thing.
Q: Mike, Tedy Bruschi credits Pat Chung with excellent man to man coverage as the main factor in neutralizing Antonio Gates. Gates says the Patriots had him double and triple covered the majority of the game, and that is why he had no catches. So, which is it? In any case, it was impressive. -- Erich (Newbury, N.H.)
A: Erich, it was actually both. The Patriots mixed up their looks, but for the majority of the time, it was Chung who drew the tough assignment. This is an example of something Bill Belichick has often said in the past, "Any defense can take something away, but the question is what you want to give up elsewhere." In this case, the Patriots devoted a lot of attention to Gates and that opened up opportunities for the Chargers' receivers.
Q: Hi Mike, what's up with Brandon Spikes? Has he been abducted by aliens? -- Dave Grady (Birmingham, England)
A: Dave, the ankle injury from the preseason set Spikes back and now I view him as a player who has to win the confidence of the coaching staff back. Last year, we talked quite a bit about whether Spikes could become a three-down linebacker, but that seems very far off right now. He's clearly a two-down linebacker with a run-stopping niche (a la Ted Johnson) who doesn't contribute on special teams because he doesn't run as well as others at his position. On Sunday, the only time we saw him in the game was when the Chargers ran a two-back set or were on the goal line (19 snaps in all). With Gary Guyton missing the game with a hamstring injury, Spikes was active for the first time this season and it will be interesting to see how Spikes' role is affected with Guyton's return to health.
Q: Mike, Albert Haynesworth seemed to spend a lot of time on the ground pinned down by the San Diego offensive line. When can we expect to see more contributions from him? I thought the most disappointing aspect of the SD game was the lack of one-on-one battles won by the NE defensive line. While it's hard to draw too many conclusions from two games, is it unfair to wonder if the d-line has what it takes to be a difference maker? -- Chad (Atlanta)
A: Chad, I agree it was a quiet game for Haynesworth. I had him on the field for just 22 plays (including penalties) and he didn't show up on the stat sheet. I saw one rush that looked semi-explosive and he clogged things up inside on a run play, but otherwise, there was no big impact. I think Haynesworth is the type of player who could just explode at a moment's notice. A matchup like this week's, against the Bills, seems like a good one in which Haynesworth could make a mark. I wouldn't be surprised if it happens.
Q: Mike, it appeared to me that Antonio Garay's low hit on Tom Brady was a classic "Brady rule" type play. No one blocked Garay into Brady. He simply went for the quarterback's legs. Why wasn't Garay flagged, and fined? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)
A: I'm interested to hear the NFL's take on this one, Tman, because I thought the same thing. My sense is that we'll come to find out it was simply a missed call.
Q: It looked like a textbook hit by Andre Carter on Philip Rivers but he was flagged for a personal foul. Later in the game Antonio Garay dove at Brady's knee which could have caused a devastating injury, yet no flag was thrown. And in the Sunday night game, Matt Ryan was sacked on a vicious helmet to helmet hit, and again no flag. Carter's was the most benign hit of the three, yet the only one that drew a flag. I don't know what Carter could have done differently. Infuriating. Thoughts? -- Mike (Las Vegas)
A: Mike, I thought the same thing until I saw former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira explain it on Twitter -- Carter led with the hairline/top of his helmet and drove it into Rivers' chest. He just needs to pick his head up a bit based on the letter of the law.
Q: What can the Patriots do if opponents start faking injuries to get timeouts when the Patriots go no-huddle? -- Ken (Englewood, N.J.)
A: Ken, all a team can do in that situation is hope the officials do their job and regulate that it's a fair game. This seems to come up every few years with various teams, with one of the classic examples from 1989 with the Seahawks and Bengals. It can be a tough judgment call for an official, but in my view, there is nothing from stopping the official from throwing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty if he deems a player to be faking an injury.
Q: Hi Mike. I like how the Patriots got Solder on the field as a TE to help out against the San Diego front. I am always a fan of putting your best players on the field in whatever way is possible. I couldn't tell from watching at home, but did Solder actually release into a receiving pattern like a TE? Or was it more like an unbalanced OL position and reporting him as a TE was just semantics? -- Alex (Wakefield, Mass.)
A: Alex, of the 18 snaps Solder was on as the third tight end, 14 were runs and one was a penalty. I remember one of the pass plays, he was blocking as a sixth lineman, and assume the other two were the same situation.
Q: Hey Mike, on the Wilfork INT, it looks like he actually dropped off the line to cover the RB coming out of the backfield. Any idea if that was designed or was that Wilfork's decision while reading the play? That seems like a great play call by one of them and I can't remember him doing that much in the past. -- Glenn (Boston)
A: Glenn, that was Wilfork's reaction after reading the play, which is something both he and Bill Belichick pointed out after the game. Great instincts and execution by Wilfork.
Q: Unlike many teams, the Patriots have kept 3 QBs on their 53 man roster. Do you see this continuing throughout the season or do you think it is possible that Mallett picks up the offense sufficiently as the season goes on that the Patriots would try to trade or release Hoyer to free up what could be a valuable special teams player roster spot? - Bert (Wellesley, Mass.)
A: Bert, I think we'll see all three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster throughout the year. Then the question becomes do you have all three active on the 46-man gameday roster, and I don't think we'll see that. My sense is that Bill Belichick sees the greater value in having a position player who helps on special teams instead of a third quarterback.
Q: Mike, I heard Drew Bledsoe was honored at halftime of the San Diego game. No footage was shown on the CBS broadcast. Any idea if there is any footage of the ceremony? -- Ed (Derry, N.H.)
A: Ed, that was a great moment at the stadium. We don't have it on ESPNBoston.com; I'd suggest taking a closer look at Patriots.com to possibly find it. I took a quick look Monday and didn't see it. If I come up with it, I'll send it along.
Q: Mike, as a person that does not have access to the NFL Network yet is a big Pats fan, I would love to see the Belichick documentary. Do you know of any other way to see it (eventual DVD, or download)? -- Paul Lynch (Fairfield, Maine)
A: Paul, there are clips of it that can be found online, but I haven't seen anything in full at this point. I'll keep my eye out for you and will pass it along.
Q: Only 2 catches for Chad Ochocinco, but they contributed to scoring drives and he didn't commit any stupid penalties. Out of the woods or are haters still going to hate? -- Chad (Foxboro, Mass.)
A: Chad, I'm appreciative that we've made it to this part of the mailbag before we came to a question about Ochocinco. I thought the performance Sunday was solid given the limited opportunities (17 snaps). Those were two good receptions, the second of which came on a nice route that created separation from cornerback Antoine Cason. It's a step in the right direction.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.