Plenty of concern following loss
There are two main themes in this week's Patriots mailbag.
The first is what to do with veteran receiver Chad Ochocinco. Before the season started, we had a poll that asked whether Ochocinco would meet expectations, and of nearly 10,000 votes, 68 percent said he would either meet them or exceed them.
Consumer confidence isn't as high now.
Meanwhile, the second topic that seems to be on the mind of most followers is the defense: Why so porous, and what can be done to fix it?
With the Patriots preparing to visit the Raiders on Sunday, that's where we start:
Q: Hi Mike, I know everyone will be crying for Randy Moss after Chad Ochocinco's most recent disappointments, but I'm more curious about an in-house replacement. If Taylor Price gets healthy, is he activated on game days and Ochocinco sits? -- Ryan Reilly (New York)
A: Ryan, this wouldn't surprise me once Price returns from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him the first three games. The same challenge he faces -- earning the trust of quarterback Tom Brady -- is what Ochocinco faces as well. Sunday's was a game in which the Patriots needed big things from Ochocinco, and it was a disappointment. I had the thought on the plane ride home from Buffalo, "I'm sure this isn't what the Patriots had in mind when paying him a $4.5 million signing bonus." Ochocinco's immersion into the offense has taken longer than expected, opening the door for Price to possibly cut into his playing time. This is a tough spot for Bill Belichick, because getting Price involved, in my view, is what's best for the team from a pure football standpoint. But you also have to consider how that might affect Ochocinco, and the trickle-down effect in the locker room.
Q: Hey Mike, any chance we see Darren Sharper in town this week? There is no way he could be as bad as our safeties were Sunday. We needed a general out there yesterday, someone to run the show (a la James Sanders) but there was no one to do it. If not, I think Lawyer Milloy is still available! Any word on Patrick Chung's status? -- Philip Berardinelli (Braintree, Mass.)
A: Philip, we'll know more about Chung on Wednesday, but I won't be surprised if he plays Sunday in Oakland. As for the safety play, I'm sure it is cause for concern to Belichick and his coaches. There were troubling signs Sunday in Buffalo. I'd consider Sharper at this point, more than I was thinking just a few weeks ago; the key is his health after playing just eight games with one start last season. But sometimes I think you have to be careful about signing too many veterans on one-year deals and stunting the development of young players. There will be growing pains with young players, and sometimes you just have to fight through them from a personnel perspective.
Q: Painfully we move on to Oakland. Even though the Raiders rank 26th in passing yards, isn't it a concern that the Patriots defense will get shredded and make Jason Campbell look better than he really is? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I watched Campbell in the Raiders' Week 2 loss at Buffalo and was impressed. He really didn't do anything to "wow" you, but for the most part, he made the plays that were there for him. The Raiders are a team that works hard to establish the run, making this a contrast from what we saw Sunday in Buffalo with the spread offense and the Patriots playing mostly a nickel defense (five defensive backs). Expect more power and for the team that establishes the line to be the victor. The Raiders are tough in that area. Traditionally, the Patriots have been solid against this scheme.
Q: Hi Mike, could you explain why a Bill Belichick team is giving up tons of yardage and why the defense in general has been an issue the past 2-3 years? -- Wil (Burlington, Ontario)
A: Wil, I think most would agree there isn't one easy answer to this question. A lot of it is going to be based on one's viewpoint, and what stands out to me is the team's decision-making in the secondary since 2007. Over that span, there have been two first-round draft choices (Brandon Meriweather, Devin McCourty) and four second-round draft choices (Terrence Wheatley, Patrick Chung, Darius Butler, Ras-I Dowling) invested in the secondary. You spent that much capital on the two positions -- including a four-year, $22 million free-agent contract for veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden -- and it should be one of the NFL's better secondaries. Instead, we're seeing a group that is struggling. I'm not sure if they're picking the wrong players or the wrong scheme, but for those who look at it critically, it's hard to ignore this flaw.
Q: Mike, what is the deal with the Pats average pass rush to date? With all the new guys the belief was it would improve. What is the problem? -- Pete (Vermont)
A: Pete, this is similar to the question above and I think you can look at it in a few different ways. I'm going to focus more on personnel. They have invested in Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth and Mark Anderson as top players to help the pass rush, and the results haven't been overwhelming through three games. On the flip side, you look at how the Patriots have invested top draft picks on the secondary over the last five years and I don't see that same commitment to the pass rush with those top chips. The most recent draft is a good example of this. With a chance to draft Jabaal Sheard (3 starts, 9 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble) and Brooks Reed (3 games, 2 tackles, 0 sacks) at the top of the second round, they instead went with cornerback Ras-I Dowling. We'll see how it all turns out, but that particular choice is one I plan on watching closely in the years to come.
Q: Mike, while the offense has been prolific, it is also predictable. The decision to carry one TE on the game day roster not only seems risky, but, it also served to really narrow the options that the Bills had to prepare for. What is it going to take for the Pats to truly commit to a more balanced approach? -- BlackSox Jack (New York)
A: The first thing is a return to health for tight end Aaron Hernandez so they can get back to the two-tight end offense. But on top of that, I think it's more of a mindset from a play-calling perspective. The Patriots are pass-heavy, and I think they could benefit from trying to take the air out of the ball at times and integrating their two young runners to complement BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.
Q: Mike, every game I watch this year, I grow more and more sick that McCourty is the next Darius Butler. Please help talk me off the ledge on McCourty. -- Rodney Haveman (Westwood, N.J.)
A: Rodney, it hasn't been a great start for McCourty this season, but I think it's important to look at the overall body of work in a situation like this. Players go through rough stretches, and clearly this is one, but it's not like McCourty suddenly lost his talent. I look at this situation as one in which McCourty just needs one big play to go his way and that could turn things around for him.
Q: Do you really think Bill Belichick's specialty is defense? When was the last time his defense was over average against the pass or rush? He should get a defensive coordinator ASAP. -- Zal Otola (Miami)
A: Zal, I'm a believer in Bill Belichick's ability to fix the issues. I wouldn't want another coach diagnosing problems and putting the defense together. I understand that's a bit of blind faith based on the recent performance of the defense, and that reputation means little because it's "What have you done for me lately?" Where I have a bigger questions is about his personnel decisions. Better players make every coach look smarter.
Q: Hey Mike, why didn't Devin McCourty let Fred Jackson score at the end of the game to set the Pats up with a chance to go down the field and tie, rather than allow the Bills to run the clock out and kick the FG? I thought about that before the play, and figure if I can understand that concept, Belichick and McCourty have to as well right? -- Jarrod Maki (Duxbury, Mass.)
A: Jarrod, Belichick was asked about this Monday and said he thought McCourty made a good play. As a play is unfolding quickly like that, it's awfully hard to think that quickly and know where exactly you are on the field.
Q: Hey Mike, what was up with that first timeout called during the Bills final drive? It didn't seem like Bill Belichick demanded it and it ended up costing the Patriots. So what was that about? -- SWATAIR (Boston)
A: This turned out to be much ado about nothing. There were a couple of factors in play, starting with the fact that the timeout was called after an instant replay reversal. Basically, Belichick and referee Carl Cheffers explained that they had a discussion in which Belichick was asking when the clock would start, and Cheffers said it would start after he completed his explanation to Belichick. Soon enough, Belichick became animated. It was unclear why, but Belichick essentially explained it on sports radio WEEI on Monday. I think it comes down to Belichick's feeling that it's the referee's job to communicate this stuff to the sidelines, and that an announcement made during the game often can't be heard. It had nothing to do with the clock or anything like that. I think his frustration on the way that unfolded was why he was so animated.
Q: Mike, when are we going to see more of Steven Ridley in game action? I think he showed some great speed and power in the preseason and I think he could add to the Patriots running game. -- Edward M. (San Antonio)
A: Edward, we're seeing a steady progression from Ridley. He dressed but did not play in the season opener, was on for two snaps in the Chargers win, and saw his workload increase to 11 snaps against Buffalo (7 carries, 44 yards). I think we can expect to see more of him in the coming games.
Q: Hey Mike, my question is about Sebastian Vollmer. How can one not be worried, missing two games with the back and stating he played through a lot of pain in the other? After seeing Kaczur suffer a back injury and costing him a year, it causes me concern, even with Solder. Thoughts? -- Jason Brown (Nova Scotia)
A: Jason, I think it is a concern with Vollmer, especially when considering he had some questions about his back coming out of college at Houston. The Patriots have a nice fall-back option in first-round draft choice Nate Solder, but I don't think they would have waived Steve Maneri (claimed by the Chiefs) if they knew this is where things were headed with Vollmer.
Q: Any news on the health of Mike Wright? He suffered a season-ending head injury last year and he got hurt again in Week 1. He was becoming a quality player and I fear these concussions might end his season again, possibly his career. -- Paul (Rochester, N.Y.)
A: Paul, I've noticed there have been times that Wright's chair has been folded up at his locker over the last two weeks, creating a perception that he's not at the facility as he works through these concussion-related issues. That changed Monday, so perhaps he's turned a corner. I know Wright had a tough time last year dealing with the after-effects of his concussion, and wish him the best. I asked coach Bill Belichick about this on Wednesday of last week, and he said: "That's something that goes through our medical department. I think Mike is getting good care. I talked to Mike about it and Mike has obviously talked to our medical people. I think there's a good understanding of what the situation is and how it changes or when it changes, this year relative to last year to other years, those are medical decisions."
Q: Mike with all the injuries to the D-line, why do I never read anything about Ron Brace? Is he even an option any more? -- Derek M (Chesapeake, Va.)
A: Derek, Brace is currently on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, which means he's not eligible to play until after the sixth week of the season. Given the run of injuries along the defensive line, the presence of both Brace and Brandon Deaderick on the reserve/PUP list looks important from a depth perspective.
Q: "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" was amazing. It shows how Belichick is smart and that he is always coaching, but at the same time he is still human and makes mistakes. Favorite parts were when him and Tom Brady are talking about Ed Reed and how much respect they have for him, and during the Saints game when they are on the sideline just talking about how they just lost. They seem like they are always on the same page and think alike. Maybe Brady follows Bill's footsteps into coaching. Also made me miss Moss a bit. Felt bad for Wes too. I have always been a Pats fan but seriously a huge BB fan. -- Mike O'Brien (Pflugerville, Texas)
A: Mike, I also enjoyed the documentary. I think we're talking about one of the greatest coaches in NFL history and the chance to peek behind the curtain a bit and see how he approaches his job was fun to see. The part I enjoyed the most was seeing him on the V Rings boat in Nantucket, and to realize that he actually does relax and forget about football at times.
Q: Mike, what was your favorite part of the Belichick special? I can't get past the clock comments. Hilarious but true. It took us 5 or 6 separate attempts to reset the clock in my mother's Toyota and when I saw Belichick battling the same system, I didn't feel so bad anymore. It really isn't easy. My wife was yelling at him to use the controls on the steering wheel. The Welker injury and the talk of keeping him out made me sick all over again since I was actually at the Houston game wearing my Welker jersey. I really came away missing Moss for his playfulness that was well documented and those incredible catches shown throughout the show. When his mind was right, he was truly special. -- Keerock (Orange, Texas)
A: Keerock, I'm glad you mentioned the part about Belichick pondering Welker's playing time for the season finale at Houston, and how he considered sitting him. While Belichick isn't the type to look back, I'm sure he regrets that one. Belichick didn't seem to be decisive with his message to players leading into that game: Are we going for it, or are we treating this as a bridge to the playoffs by keeping some players out? I know some players were confused even during the game, the way Tom Brady was in, then out, then in, then out. Others, too. Overall, I just appreciated the documentary and how it captured what Belichick is all about. As emailer Mike says in the submission above, Belichick is human too, and the documentary brought that to life.
Q: Just got done watching the Belichick NFL Network documentary and it was amazing. Just a quick point, Randy Moss comes off as incredibly likeable and personable in it, which makes his non-reunion with the Pats all the more mind boggling to me. Is the decision to not bring back Moss therefore limited to an on-the-field analysis of needs that Moss doesn't fit, or is his supposed personal issues still a big part of it? -- Josh K (Baltimore)
A: Josh, that definitely shined through to me as well when it came to Moss. As for a reunion, I think this is a case of Belichick realizing that he got the most out of Moss when he was here and that it was heading down a slippery slope, as Moss' antics were becoming more unpredictable at the time of the trade. In the event of a run of injuries, I could see possibly revisiting it, but otherwise I think Belichick and the Patriots have moved on.
Q: With the success of rookie QBs this season what sort of position does this put the Patriots with Mallett? Do you think they may consider trading him before the deadline? -- Eric (Albany, N.Y.)
A: Eric, I think they hold on to Ryan Mallett this year. The value they could get in return right now (estimated to be a mid-round pick, if that) isn't worth it when you consider that he is at the start of his learning curve with the team and has upside. I think the idea is to keep him in the system for a year, see how he develops and reassess at that point. In part because the Patriots had seven injured players, Mallett dressed for his first game Sunday in Buffalo.
Q: Hi Mike, I've noticed that Zoltan Mesko always holds for the PAT's and FG's. Wouldn't you think it would make more sense if they had someone who could give you more options with a fake such as Edelman, who could be a run, catch, throw treat? -- Jon (Raleigh, N.C.)
A: Jon, one of the main reasons teams have the punter hold is for practice purposes. Part of what makes a successful operation is repetition and consistency and when you're conducting a practice, you basically have all your players on one field and your specialists on the other. If Edelman were to work as a holder, it would significantly take away from his practice time on offense, and I don't think they want to go there.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.