This week's Patriots mailbag has a defensive flavor to it. The main questions are what happens in the absence of injured linebacker Jerod Mayo, and if there is any hope for the defense to improve later in the season.
The Patriots have raised the bar over the last decade. While many clubs would be thrilled to be 3-1 at this time, some followers view the team's start in a negative light, mainly because the defense is giving up yardage at a record clip.
Clearly, the Patriots' past success has heightened expectations, so let's sort through it all and see what we come up with this week.
Q: Mike, Gary Guyton was the main replacement for the injured Jerod Mayo. I had been expecting to see more Dane Fletcher, and he did get 20 snaps against the Raiders. Assuming Mayo is out for the foreseeable future, what do you see as being the role for our linebackers? -- Kartal (Denver, Colo.)
A: Kartal, I think a lot will depend on the specific gameplan that week, as the Patriots alter their approach on a weekly basis. For example, Sunday's game against the Raiders saw them in a base defense for the majority of snaps, which was different from what we had seen from them through the first three games. I expect Guyton to take Mayo's place in the base defense. In the sub, it would usually be Guyton and Mayo, so I think that's where Dane Fletcher comes into play. Either Fletcher or veteran Tracy White look primed for more playing time in that situation.
Q: Hi Mike, I've been wondering about Lofa Tatupu for a while ... and with Mayo now hurt, wouldn't he be worth a look? The family ties alone make him a natural fit for the Pats uniform, and while his stock is down, it could be a good value pick up for the linebacking corps. What are your thoughts? I had a bad feeling Mayo might get injured again, but think this could be a nice supplemental move. I also like Dane Fletcher to contribute. -- LT (New York)
A: LT, I'm surprised that Tatupu hasn't landed with a team at this point. I view him as a good player. That said, I think it's very difficult to sign a player at that position and expect an immediate impact. A good example of this was Kirk Morrison with the Jaguars last year. You're asking someone to quarterback your defense who hasn't been in the system and that's asking a lot. I like your thought on Dane Fletcher. I see him playing more in Mayo's absence.
Q: Mike, putting the recent victory behind us and looking ahead to this week's AFC East showdown, how do you anticipate the Patriots to counter against the pressure defense of the Jets that grounded us in the Divisional loss last season? The Jets seemed to take away our first, second and third options so well during the last matchup, placing relentless pressure upon Brady and limiting Welker's touches on short and flat passes. What can we do differently this time around to free up the receivers from line jam? Motion? -- Jonathan (Chester Springs, Penn.)
A: Jonathan, I think the first key against the Jets will be to gain some positive yards on the ground early in drives, specifically with the running game. I don't see a huge pressure defense from the Jets at this time, but like most any unit, get in second- and third-and-long and it could be trouble. So I'd start with the running game. As for how receivers can get open, the idea of motion could help, as we saw Welker line up in the offensive backfield at one point Sunday before motioning to the left slot.
Q: Hey Mike, recently you dismissed the idea of Bill Belichick relinquishing his duties of D-coordinator and said he was the best man in the business. I agree with that in theory. However, the Patriots' roster is one of the deepest and most talented on paper but they do not produce on the field. I believe this is both the fault of the coaching staff (in the lack of player development) and the drafting process (a general lack of explosive players). Both of these parties are run by Belichick. He has too much control of a team that desperately needs a change of culture. Assuming Coach Belichick maintains his stranglehold on the direction of the team, will the Patriots actually improve over the next few years and be able to beat a tough opponent in the playoffs? I don't think that they will. If the patriots lose early in the playoffs does a change finally take place? -- Chris Osborn (Annapolis, Md.)
A: Great question, Chris. I didn't mean to dismiss the idea. I think it's fair. It's just my belief that Belichick is still the person you want running that defense, although I think it's clear he's still trying to figure out how to make it all happen. I'd focus more on the personnel side, as I don't think Belichick the personnel evaluator always gives Belichick the coach the right pieces to work with, specifically when it comes to front-seven players who can rush the passer.
Q: Hello Mike. This is now the 4th year of similar defensive play from the Patriots. The Super Bowl years were won with strong defense and good offense. We have drafted defensive players to fit the Belichick scheme -- smart, reactive, etc. -- but those who are not a physical presence that concern offenses (Mayo & Chung are exceptions). Many defensive players that have been passed on by the Patriots go on to be just those type of game-changing players. Why is this defensive scheme adverse to physically aggressive players that are not a good fit for the Patriots (i.e. Clay Matthews). -- Clint Smith (Youngsville, N.C.)
A: Clint, this is the area that I think Belichick and his top trusted advisors can look at themselves critically and ask why they haven't been able to land a high-impact pass-rush, defensive lineman-type in recent years. To me, it would make sense to go back to some of the players you mention and ask why they were graded where they were in the team's system. Matthews, for example, might have received a third-round grade in the Patriots' system. Why? Chris, the emailer above, talks about a culture change. I think we could make a case that this would be an area that culture change could help.
Q: Hi,Mike, I really liked the balance in the offense for the Pats against the Raiders. It was clear that the running game helped to manage the game and the clock. Playing that way is not as "sexy" as an all out air attack, but it looks that playing that way helps the defense? Your thoughts? -- Memo (Tijuana, Mexico)
A: Memo, I think a balanced offense is a good goal, but don't necessarily buy into the idea that the offense needs to help the defense by running the ball. For the most part, I think the biggest help is when the offense gets out to a big lead and dictates the way the game us going to be played. From an overall standpoint, I like the idea of the Patriots running it a bit more, and giving the linemen a chance to exert their physical prowess during specific parts of the action.
Q: Mike, four games in, it looks like the drafting of Nate Solder and the signing of Brian Waters were A+ offseason moves. Assuming no one else gets hurt, I feel comfortable with this unit, which we were concerned about at beginning of year. Your thoughts? -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)
A: Kyle, I agree. I have been impressed with both. Check out our "football journey" on Solder from Saturday in which he comes across as mature beyond his years. Waters, meanwhile, has fit right in and appears to be a true pro. Both have played well.
Q: Hi Mike, despite the win, it still looks like the secondary is in trouble, and the big issue seems to be ball skills. Players seem to be in position a lot of the time but they just can't seem to locate the ball in the air. Do you think that coaching can improve the problem, or is it an issue of talent? Also, if the secondary keeps playing this way, how long do you think it will be before BB puts in a call to Sharper or some other vet with some proven ball skills? -- Darryl (Woodstock, Vt.)
A: Darryl, I think the safety spot is hurting them. They have Patrick Chung, but it's been a revolving door next to him and Sergio Brown looks overmatched at times. When considering someone like Sharper, I think it becomes a question of how much it could stunt the growth of safeties Brown, Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo. A team has to be careful taking on too many veterans on one-year deals. At cornerback, I see them getting better there.
Q: Before the season started, I thought the days were gone where Wes Welker ended up with 100-plus catches in a season given the talent on offense. It's only four games into the season and he's already at 40 receptions. Mike, he's in a contract year and he's proving that he does not need a deep threat to get his. Is there any reason to think he won't be a New England Patriot in 2012? It seems he's the type that would rather win rather than get paid, but that's my opinion. Thoughts? -- Alvin (Pelham, Mass.)
A: Alvin, I'd be surprised if Welker's not here next season and beyond. I think both sides realize it's a perfect fit -- the system and catching passes from Tom Brady is good for Welker, while Welker has become much more than a "system" player. He's dynamic in any system.
Q: Hi Mike. How is it that Chad Ochocinco, despite positive receptions, was again underused even when the Patriots were up 31-13 in the fourth quarter and then later in the four-down failure from the Raiders 3-yard line. More passes and especially a TD is what he needs now in his Patriot development. Thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, B.C.)
A: Jake, it looks to me like Ochocinco's learning curve is still steep. He still doesn't have the Deion Branch-like and Wes Welker-like connection with Tom Brady, and I think part of it is that he's challenged by the thick playbook. That's what I read into his lack of playing time Sunday.
Q: Hi, Mike, just wondering, did Vince Wilfork and Devin McCourty switch souls during the offseason? Given how anemic the pass defense has been, any thoughts on switching Wilfork to corner? On a serious note, how concerned are you about Pats lack of tight end depth, I know we used Welch as a tight end, but how effective would that be in the long run? -- Fanfan (College Park, Md.)
A: Good one on Wilfork. Thanks for the laugh. When it comes to the tight end position, I think using a player like Thomas Welch is a short-term solution until some of the injuries across the roster clear, specifically with Aaron Hernandez. I think the Patriots would have liked to see one of their training camp rookies, Lee Smith and Will Yeatman, clear waivers and land on the practice squad. But that wasn't in the cards. Overall, I don't think it's a real lack of depth there. They can get by.
Q: Any chance Eric Mangini can return as defensive coordinator, or has that bridge been burned? The Pats won't win another Super Bowl (or maybe even a playoff game) with the state of their defense currently. -- Fritz (Rochester, N.H.)
A: Fritz, I think that bridge has been burned. The way I view it is that a new coordinator isn't what the team needs, but a new outlook on personnel. That sort of ties in to the questions above as well. I think about 2008 and how they had Dom Capers as secondary coach. I thought the fusion between the Belichick defense and Capers defense could be a great mix, but it never turned out that way. I don't think there was much of a priority to integrate some of Capers' schemes.
Q: Mike, help me to understand something. I always hear how smart Bill Belichick and the Pats GM are, so why didn't they go after a pass rusher. Everyone and their brother knew that was one of the team's weakness. So what happened? This team will not make a deep run into the playoffs without one, that's providing they even get there. -- J.C. (Edison, N.J.)
A: J.C., Belichick made the calculated decision that free agents like Andre Carter, Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis could provide that pass rush, and now we'll see how it unfolds. Right now, it doesn't look so good. There were some good opportunities for pass rushers at the top of the second round. Teams don't often get opportunities to land those type of players, and the Patriots passed, and that could be one Belichick ultimately regrets.
Q: Hey Mike, isn't it just time to accept that this Patriots team will be a very exciting team but not necessarily a championship team? Championship teams are able to provide critical stops and get off the field, but a BB defense hasn't gotten a critical late game stop since before the 2006 AFC championship. So as fans, shouldn't we just enjoy the magnificent Tom Brady, and just be prepared to lose when he has an off day or when we face a really good defense? -- Bill (New York)
A: Bill, my view is that it's too early to determine this for certain. It's only been four games, and a team evolves over the course of the year. I think we have a pretty good feel for what the Patriots are -- Bill Belichick made the point that you really don't know what you have until three or four regular-season games -- and I have the same question you do: Are these Patriots built to win in the playoffs? While there are doubts, I just don't think we can definitively answer that question right now.
Q: We often mention position coaches as deserving high praise for their work generating top units. The O-line is the preeminent example of this. My question is on the other side of the issue. Should the annually under-performing play of the Patriots secondary have us all up in arms about the secondary position coaches? Each year the Pats seem to have the talent, and we constantly comment "he's in position but just needs to make the play." That comment to me screams "the position coach doesn't know how to coach up his players." Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard you even mention the patriots secondary coach. Should we heap negative criticism on the Patriots CB coaches just as we heap positive criticism on Scarnecchia? -- Galen (West Sacramento, Calif.)
A: Galen, the Patriots have Josh Boyer working with the cornerbacks and Matt Patricia with the safeties. I think they are good coaches, but the results speak for themselves. I always try to catch myself when it comes to praising and criticizing coaches, just making sure I'm consistent. Last year, for example, I could have praised Boyer for his work with McCourty, who turned in a Pro Bowl season. Did he become a bad coach overnight? I don't believe so. Overall, I think the point is fair and everyone is held accountable, I just don't feel that strongly about singling out coaches one way or the other.
Q: Mike, what's your feel on the Albert Haynesworth situation? I want to believe this guy can be an All-Pro caliber player for us, but it seems like he really isn't physically ready to contribute? Will he do anything before the bye week or even after then? -- Anthony (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A: Anthony, my feel is that the back injury he's dealing with puts a major question mark on what he'll be able to do. I thought he'd have a big year for the team, predicting him to total 7.5 sacks as an interior rusher, but the injury changes everything. I'm not sure how serious it is but it has to be a concern. His biggest impact was in the season opener, drawing two holding penalties, before he tailed off in Game 2 against the Chargers. And that's all we've seen.
Q: Is it too early to give up on Chad Ochocinco and try to bring back Randy Moss to take his place at least for the remainder of the year? -- Jorge Garcia (Mexico City)
A: Jorge, I think we'd all agree the Ochocinco/Tom Brady connection hasn't gone as smoothly as desired. But I wouldn't make an Ochocinco-for-Moss switch at this point. If anything, I'd give more reps to someone like Taylor Price and see what he can do.
Q: Are the Patriots a group of talented individuals that are great players in their own right, but are not a TEAM yet? Also, do all the roster moves within the last month have an adverse affect on team moral, how can a player concentrate on training, film, etc. while looking over his shoulder wondering if he is going to get cut? -- Lee Tempest (Gloucester, UK)
A: Lee, I sense that the Patriots have a solid locker room at this point. Remarks made by veteran guard Brian Waters, noting how many players he sees on days off, resonated with me. So I don't see this as a 2009-type issue at this point. As for all the roster moves, I don't see that having an adverse impact on team morale. That's the business, and a lot of the moves are because of injuries.
Q: Can you remind us, with all the recent Drew Bledsoe talk, who the Pats drafted with the pick they received from Buffalo? -- Mike G. (North Hampton, N.H.)
A: Mike, the Patriots landed defensive lineman Ty Warren with that pick. They traded up one spot to make sure they got Warren in 2003.
Q: Mike, why do some of the team captains on the field in certain games have the "C" logo included on their jerseys (e.g. Mark Sanchez of the Jets in the Sunday night game last week), whereas you never see the Pats captains with that logo? -- Jordan (New York)
A: Jordan, teams can decide if they want to wear the captain's patch and the Patriots have decided against it. Just their personal preference.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.