This week's Patriots mailbag has a mix of questions that look ahead to Sunday's game against the Cowboys, back at the win over the Jets, and examines the disappointing production of highly touted acquisitions Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth.
The Patriots are 4-1, tied for the best record in the AFC with the Bills and Chargers. If we've learned anything through the first five weeks of the season, it's that every AFC team is flawed and that the Patriots remain in the elite class.
Let's get right to the questions
Q. I don't think Dallas will do the Pats a favor like the Jets and force the run. Quarterback Tony Romo will throw and often. Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten will give the Pats secondary major problems. Dallas is very good defensively against the pass and run. It's been Romo that has killed them thus far. This is a bad matchup with a desperate and talented team coming in after a bye week. Thoughts? -- John (Walpole, Mass.)
A. John, I agree this is a tough matchup. If the game was in Dallas, I'd probably lean toward picking the Cowboys. At this point, I am leaning toward the Patriots slightly. As we've learned, the NFL is all about matchups and I think the Cowboys have the personnel to exploit some of the Patriots' weaker areas. If they can play turnover-free football, I think they have a real chance to come up here and hand Brady his first regular-season home loss since 2006.
Q. I thought Logan Mankins and Matt Light were superb opening holes against the Jets. Dallas is top-ranked in rush defense at 3.1 yards per attempt. Will the Patriots be as balanced against Dallas and they were against the Jets? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A. Good stat on the Dallas run defense, David. I think it's going to be tougher to run against this Cowboys defense. I expect more of a passing, spread game, assuming the Patriots can protect. That's no given against this Cowboys defense.
Q. Mike, listening to Tom Brady's comments in interviews after the game it sounded like he was physically and emotionally exhausted. In fact, he commented on how much he and rest of the team put into prep for the Jets. Hearing that, I am worried that this could be a letdown week vs. the Cowboys. I know Bill Belichick does a great job of focusing on the task at hand, but with the bye ahead and coming off big win vs. a hated rival, do you see a chance for a letdown? -- MainerMike (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
A. Mike, I think it's tough to get up each week and this is a fair concern. That said, this is an area in which Bill Belichick and players have been pretty consistent. They give themselves that 24-hour rule to enjoy the victory, then they recharge the batteries, hit the reset button, and start working on the next opponent. They won't take the Cowboys lightly, I have no doubt about that. One counterpoint that I think could help is that the defense didn't play as much as it has in recent weeks (54 snaps, including penalties), so that could help.
Q. Mike, two personnel-related questions here to throw at you. Much has been made of Chad Ochocinco's slow start but do you think it could just be a case of him being behind other guys on the depth chart? Maybe he's not struggling to grasp the offense or his role he's just not as good as Wes Welker, Deion Branch or the tight ends. The other question is on Kyle Arrington. He's obviously in the mix at corner and needed because of the depth issues there, but doesn't he seem like a better fit at safety? He's got good size and he's able to play physical. It could be something to consider down the road. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, when it comes to Ochocinco, I think it's both. He's not as good as Deion Branch and Wes Welker and he doesn't have the full playbook down. One simply has to see the problems he's having lining up to come to that conclusion. As for Arrington, I think he could do it at safety in a pinch. But I think his better position is cornerback. I thought he played a good game Sunday.
A. Paul, I don't think it's time to cut ties with Ochocinco and Haynesworth as much as I'd say it might be time to shift expectations. Clearly, it hasn't worked out as planned with Ochocinco. Based on what they are paying him ($6 million this year between signing bonus and salary), I'm sure this isn't what the team was banking on. But as a No. 3 receiver who can fill a niche role, he still has some value. I still believe Price has a chance to be a player; you just hope, from a Patriots perspective, that the addition of Ochocinco didn't block too much of his development. As for Haynesworth, the back injury is something a team can't project. But like Ochocinco at this point, in a niche role, I still think he brings some value. On Vereen, I think he will be a good player for them, but his preseason injury set him back.
Q. Mike, in last week's mailbag, I thought you took a stance defending Haynesworth's production due to his back injury, which is out of his control. I disagree. I think it's apparent that he came into camp out of shape and is still out of shape. If you don't take care of your body you are more susceptible to injury and that is what we are seeing. He can't stay on the field and that is on him. This should be taken into account when reviewing his production through 5 weeks. We're 30 percent through the season and he has only showed up for one game. -- Matt (Boston)
A. Matt, this is a fair point. Conditioning is clearly still an issue. At the same time, I think you have to hold the team accountable too. They traded for him, giving up a fifth-round draft choice, and the deal was contingent on a physical. If Haynesworth looked to be in that poor of shape, they could have nixed the deal. I do think Haynesworth has a chance to help the team this year; I just think my prediction for a seven-sack season isn't looking too good right now.
Q. Hey Mike, I know he didn't show up on the stat sheet but what kind of impact, if any, did Haynesworth have against the Jets? It was hard to tell during the game how much he contributed. Thoughts? -- Jamie (Richmond, Va.)
A. Jamie, he was on the field for 20 of 54 snaps (includes one penalty) and his role was mostly to push the pocket in sub packages. I thought he did so at times. From an overall perspective, it's still limited impact based on what I was expecting. Here is Bill Belichick's view when asked on Monday: "I thought he did some things to help us."
Q. Mike, I think Patriot Nation is getting impatient with the progression of Ochocinco, and at the same point eagerly anticipating the return of Taylor Price. This is the second game in a row that Price was suited up but did not play (at least much). When is the "tipping point" for realizing Ocho was a nice experiment but he is now hindering the development of Price with nothing much to show for it? -- David (Phoenix)
A. David, I'm going to echo a point that Tedy Bruschi made in our weekly podcast. If it doesn't happen by the bye week, that's enough time to make a determination that, in the words of Bill Belichick, "it is what it is."
Q. I know trades in the NFL are rare, but what would be the chances of getting someone in a trade to be a pass rush specialist from a team that's out of contention? -- Ian (Tampa, Fla.)
A. Ian, I view this as a long shot. Pass-rushers are hard to find, and even a team out of contention is going to be unlikely to trade one away because they are a commodity. And as we've seen from year to year, a team out of contention can quickly rebound the next year, so gutting the roster doesn't make much sense if the pass-rusher still has something to offer. I like the topic and think the Patriots' next opponent, the Cowboys, is a good one to look at when it comes to landing top pass-rush talent. They've invested in that area with first-round picks DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and that's what I think the Patriots could benefit from.
Q. Mike, I usually don't notice the coordinators but I thought Bill O'Brien called a fantastic game against the Jets. The direct snap to BenJarvus Green-Ellis on third-and-4 was brilliant and the long play to Welker to start the second half was a gutsy call. How do you think he's doing this season? -- Tanvir (Norwalk, Conn.)
A. Tanvir, I agree with the thoughts on O'Brien. I've always thought O'Brien was a solid coach and the thing that stood out to me Sunday was that he stuck with the running game, staying disciplined in that area, even when there wasn't much success early. I thought that was key.
Q. Mike, what's up with the defensive genius (or lack thereof) Bill Belichick? Why has seemingly every quarterback in recent years sliced and diced the New England defense? -- Nayab (Las Vegas)
A. Nayab, the game has changed and Belichick is attempting to adjust with it. Some might say he's been a bit slow to do so. I'd also add that Bill Belichick the personnel evaluator could do a better job helping Bill Belichick the coach. All that said, let's not forget the bottom line and Belichick has had a lot of wins in recent years.
Q. The Patriots' last drive was a huge improvement over the early season mentality, successfully running out the clock with the game on the line. Great game by BJGE, but what happened to Stevan Ridley? Was this just a case of BGJE's more patient approach as a better fit against the Jets than Ridley's straight ahead running? -- Patrick (Kennett Square, Pa.)
A. Patrick, the thing that stood out to me the most was that the coaching staff was sticking with the known talent in a game of this early-season magnitude. Also, Green-Ellis was used in Danny Woodhead's role as the passing back, which added to his playing time total (61 of 81 snaps, including penalties). Ridley's opportunities were limited in this one, but I could see him getting more time in the weeks ahead. Just a unique set of circumstances against the Jets.
Q. Was this win against the Jets a good showing for the Patriots defense, or just a show of how anemic the Jets offense is? -- Mike (Cambridge, Mass.)
A. Mike, I think it was both. The Jets made a lot of mistakes. At the same time, I give the Patriots' defense credit for playing the run tough and coming up with some big stops.
Q. Mike, is it just me or does Darrelle Revis get away with more penalties than any other cornerback in the NFL? -- Brian (Livingston, N.J.)
A. Brian, I think Revis is the best cornerback in the NFL. At the same time, I do believe he gets away with his fair share of holding/illegal contact penalties, a la Ty Law. I saw a few Sunday. On a related note, you have to give Wes Welker credit for that 73-yard catch against the Revis/Eric Smith combination. You don't see Revis involved in too many miscommunications and that speaks highly to the high level of Welker's play in 2011.
Q. When Bill Belichick challenges an official's call, what coach in the booth advises him to throw the red flag? -- Larry (Sharon, Mass.)
A. Larry, Belichick was pretty expansive on this topic over the last two days, crediting his coaches in the booth for their work. Specifically, he mentioned football research director Ernie Adams. He is one of Belichick's most trusted advisors. Belichick said Monday on sports radio WEEI that he thinks Adams knows the rulebook as well as anyone.
Q. Mike, as I was watching Bill Belichick toss the challenge flag around Gillette on Sunday, I wondered why the NFL only allows you a set number of challenges even if you're right every time? I can see why you would limit a coach's challenge if it turns out the challenge is denied, but why limit him if he's right? Any insight on this? -- Kevin (Novato, Calif.)
A. Kevin, this is mainly done in the interest of time. The league wants to limit delays and if a coach had unlimited challenges, we could see more stops and starts and have games nearing the four-hour range. The preference, I've always assumed, is to keep them closer to three hours based on the television packaging.
Q. Hi Mike, what are your thoughts on the progression of the defense, and in particular the pass rush? I realize the return of Nick Mangold really helped to galvanize the Jets O-line, but it was disappointing the Pats weren't able to generate more pressure on Mark Sanchez. -- Neil (South Boston)
A. Neil, I thought the ball was generally out pretty quick when it came to Sanchez. That made it tougher to generate consistent pressure. Overall, I just don't see major pass-rushing threats on the defense. I think this type of performance is what we'll be seeing for most of the year.
Q. It's great that we beat the Jets at home, but it's obvious that we are not winning anything in the postseason with this defense. We spent one of our first six picks on offensive players in this year's draft. Is BB trying to prove he can win a championship without drafting defense? Please explain it to me so I understand. Do you think Everette Brown would be able to help us? Perhaps he just struggled in Carolina's scheme? -- Josh (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
A. Josh, the Patriots had Brown in for a workout, but I don't think he's an upgrade at this point over Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis and perhaps Jermaine Cunningham. As for Belichick and the draft, I think it was simple -- in the first three rounds, he didn't want to select a player he felt wouldn't make the team, and there weren't many defensive options in those spots. They could have gone with defensive lineman Cameron Jordan over Nate Solder in the first round, but I think we all agree the Solder pick is solid. So, in the end, you always have tough choices to make.
Q. On Joe McKnight's two long kickoff returns, it looked like the Jets set up a wedge both time. There were three blockers together on the first, and four on the second. Did this show up on your game review, and could you clarify the rule? -- Jeremy (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A. Jeremy, I watched those plays over to get a closer look and this is what I saw: On the 43-yarder in the first quarter, the Jets had a two-man wedge with a single blocker far enough away that it wasn't considered a three-man wedge. Looked legal to me and well-blocked. If the single blocker was lined up closer, shoulder to shoulder, that's when the flag could have come out. On the 88-yarder, it looked like two separate two-man wedges, which is legal as long as they are spaced out (which they were).
Q. As a passionate TV-watching-only fan, it seemed to me that the crowd was really into it for this game and they made a lot of noise. Is that an accurate appraisal, or did I just tune out Phil Simms' numbing Jets-love? -- JJ (Upper Valley, N.H.)
A. JJ, the crowd was loud Sunday. Bill Belichick even noted it the day after the win, saying: "They were definitely into the game, no question about it. Obviously it was an exciting game against the Jets. It's loud when we go down there; it's loud when they come up here. The fans were great. They gave us a lot of support. [I'm] glad we were able to give them some plays to encourage them to keep giving it to us."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.