This week's Patriots mailbag starts big. Albert Haynesworth big.
Six-foot-6, 350-pound Haynesworth has yet to register a quarterback sack, but it's not a coincidence that his addition to sub packages has contributed to the Patriots' turnaround on third down.
The Patriots held the Cowboys to 4-of-12 on third down. The week before, against the Jets, it was 3-of-11. That's solid.
Haynesworth's sub-based role seems like a good fit at this time. He's playing less in the base defense, giving way to Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love at defensive tackle, which is keeping him fresher to rush the passer. The pass rush is an area where the Patriots have been inconsistent in recent years.
Particularly against the Cowboys, Haynesworth drew a lot of attention.
"I thought he had several good plays. It was encouraging," coach Bill Belichick said.
Although Haynesworth's production hasn't matched the high expectations from when he was acquired, he is starting to come on. It's a storyline to monitor as the team heads into its bye week.
Q. Mike, although Haynesworth isn't producing big tackle or sack numbers, it seems like he is helping the team out a great deal when he is on the field. Whenever I see No. 92 out there he is pushing the pile back, or getting double teamed, and occasionally he is pressuring the QB. Have you seen the same? Do you have stats on how well the D has done with Al on the field vs. not on the field? -- Steve (Quincy, Mass.)
A. Steve, I have noticed the same with Haynesworth, particularly Sunday against the Cowboys. Here are the results of 28 plays when Haynesworth was on the field:
" Passes -- 9-of-14 for 103 yards, 1 TD, 2 sacks
" Rushes -- 12 for 48 yards, two holding penalties
Overall, I'd say that's solid. You rewatch the game and see him drawing multiple blockers, which had a trickle-down effect to help other defenders. If Haynesworth keeps improving and stays healthy, he could be a difference-maker.
Q. Hi Mike, while I realize that the struggles of Cowboys' offensive line are well documented, I can't help but be encouraged by the play of the Patriots' front seven on Sunday. The defensive linemen, in particular, seemed to be generating good, consistent pressure and collapsing the pocket regularly. Haynesworth seems like he saw the field a bit more, too. Hope this game acts as a springboard for them going into the bye week and gives them some confidence. -- Neil (South Boston)
A. Neil, I had similar thoughts and wrote about the defense after the game. Haynesworth's performance reflected how stats don't tell the whole story, as he finished with no tackles and one quarterback hit. But he was a presence. He wasn't the only one. I thought the entire line contributed in different ways. Solid effort.
Q. Mike, is it reality or perception? Many in the press are saying that you just knew Tom Brady was going to mount another comeback victory on the last drive. I know he did it many times earlier in his career, but when was the last time? How many since 2007 season? Widen it to fourth quarter drives that win the game if you'd like, not just last possessions. I'm curious. -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)
A. Dan, before getting to the numbers, I think many had some doubt about the Patriots' ability to pull the game out when the Cowboys punted the ball with 2:42 remaining. The Cowboys' defense had ruled the day to that point; the Patriots' previous drive was a three-and-out. As for Brady's fourth-quarter comebacks from a deficit or tie, there had been three since the end of the 2007 season: Sept. 14, 2009, versus Buffalo; Oct. 17, 2010, versus Baltimore; and Dec. 19, 2010, versus Green Bay.
Q. Mike, do you look at the last game optimistically or skeptically? I've been going back and forth over whether (aside from the final drive) the Patriots' performance is due to the high quality of their opponent or a case of poor game plan/execution. Thoughts? -- Erich (Newbury, N.H.)
A. Erich, I thought it was a very good win for the Patriots. To pull out the victory when you have four turnovers, and your offense struggles for the most of the day, is uplifting. In the critical situations, the Patriots once again showed they are one of the NFL's best clubs. They are mentally tough and know how to win.
Q. Hey Mike, I liked what I saw from Brandon Spikes against the Cowboys. Tedy Bruschi mentioned that Spikes was rushing the passer more often and would occupy the center, who couldn't "clean out the pocket," which might have allowed the ends to get more pressure on the quarterback. My question is why has Spikes only made a contribution recently and why wasn't he in at the beginning of the year? Also, as I recall, he was doing really well last year until he got suspended. Do you think he'll progress over the year and how effective do you think a Spikes and Jerod Mayo combination will be in the playoffs, assuming we get there? -- Dave (San Francisco)
A. Dave, Spikes injured his ankle in the preseason and missed a lot of time. I don't recall the injury taking place during practice, and I think it affected his conditioning. So my sense is that Spikes had some ground to make up in terms of winning back the confidence of the coaching staff. He's been doing that the past two weeks. The energy he brings to the defense is noticeable.
Q. Hi Mike, Two questions: 1. How is Marcus Cannon doing? 2. Do you see a possible trade for Brian Dawkins? He would fill a need, I always liked the way he played, and he should be relatively cheap. -- Paul (Watertown, Mass.)
A. Paul, I asked Bill Belichick the question last week, and he didn't want to provide an update on Cannon's health/medical situation. But I can tell you that Cannon has been more visible in the locker room lately, and my sense is that he has intensified his workouts. Late last week, for example, he came through the room and was drenched in sweat. As for Dawkins, I read this week that he's injured. I think that would be the first hurdle to any trade. On top of that, I just don't see the Patriots making a deal, barring an unexpected change.
Q. Mike, that blown route by Chad Ochocinco that had Brady throwing the ball to open grass has to be the final nail in his coffin, don't you think? The Patriots are clearly using a lot of hurry-up and no huddle this year to tire defenses, and keep them from substituting, so you've got to have the players on the field that know exactly where to line up and where to run to. Ocho doesn't seem to have improved from Week 1. -- NorCalMike48 (Los Gatos, Calif.)
A. Mike, I have a few thoughts on Ochocinco that sum up the situation. Here goes: (1) I don't think it has worked out the way either side had envisioned. You don't pay a receiver what the Patriots are paying Ochocinco and expect this. (2) With Ochocinco not creating any issues with his role, I don't see any reason to cut him. He still has value from a niche perspective (e.g. two-minute offense) and adds depth in the event of injury. (3) I understand why the story is compelling, in part because of the attention that comes with Ochocinco, and that's something Ochocinco and the Patriots signed up for when they agreed to come together. I think it's worth being reported. That said, I don't think it's a major issue for the team. Ochocinco is a role player at this point.
Q. Mike, why does Chad Ochocinco rarely ever talk to the media after practice or games? It seems like Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater get interviews much more often. Is this his own doing, or is Bill telling him to keep quiet for now? -- Paul (New Hampshire)
A. Paul, that's just Ochocinco trying to play the role of the good team player. He realizes that anything he says will probably get blown up into something more than it is. It seems as if he wants to do the right thing.
Q. Any news on Taylor Price? Is he ever going to see the field? At this point, Brady might be happier throwing to him than 85. -- Jim (Boston)
A. Jim, Price played one snap Sunday against the Cowboys, and it was the play in which Brady was intercepted in the first quarter. I wouldn't be surprised to see him get some more time in the coming weeks. This was the first step.
Q. Mike, what is the history of the Pats reaching contract extensions during the season in recent years? It seems like the bye week is a great time to revisit an extension for Wes Welker. Do you see this as a possibility, or will the Pats take their chances letting him hit the open market? -- Chris (New York)
A. Chris, I've always mentioned the bye as a good "marker" for business-based things such as a contract extension. I don't think anything is close, but I'd be shocked if Welker gets to the open market. I think the sides will work something out; I'm just not sure when. Those types of situations can change fast.
Q. Hey Mike, I'm really glad our defense has been able to step up and play when our offense plays badly. I'm worried about Brady taking so many hits. What's wrong with our ability to pick up the blitz? Most teams know by now that pressuring Brady early and often is the key to beating us. Our last three playoff losses are a proof of it. What do you think? -- Chris (Panama)
A. Chris, the past few weeks have seen an increase in the hits Brady is taking. More than anything, I credit the opposing defenses. They have good players, especially the Cowboys. When a defense can rush with three or four and still get pressure, that's a tough formula to beat. Overall, I think the Patriots have proved, over time, that they can protect Brady more often than not. Certain matchups create additional challenges, and that will be the test come the playoffs, however it all unfolds. I think one of the keys I've noticed in recent weeks is how the running game has produced results and helped create balance in the attack. That's what the Patriots will need in the playoffs, too.
Q. Hi Mike, I hear Brady at the line yell "50's the Mike" and points at number 50 or "25's the mike" and points at number 25 on the other team. What does that mean? -- Paul (Seattle)
A. Paul, that is Brady letting the blockers in front of him know who the middle linebacker is, then they set the protection based on that call.
Q. Hey Mike, what was up with Brady icing his right, throwing elbow on the bench in the second quarter? I can't remember the last time I saw Brady doing that during a game, if at all. -- Bruce (Warwick, N.Y.)
A. Bruce, on sports radio WEEI on Monday, Brady said, "Just a little precautionary. It's nothing to worry about." I think Brady's arm is sore and the bye comes at a good time for him to rest it.
Q. What's up with Dane Fletcher? He only played 1 snap vs. the Cowboys. I thought he looked great in his preseason reps, which obviously has to be taken with a grain of salt. But I fully expected to see him more when Mayo got sidelined, but he's been pretty much a non-factor. Is it just because Gary Guyton and Spikes have been better in practice? -- Matt (Brookline, Mass.)
A. Matt, I asked Bill Belichick why the team played with just three linebackers (Rob Ninkovich, Spikes, Guyton) and he explained that part of the reason was to simplify substitutions and give those linebackers a chance to develop chemistry from a communication standpoint. With that approach, you're probably choosing between Fletcher and Guyton, and the fact that Guyton leads the huddle and has done it before gives him the edge in this situation.
Q. Hey Mike, what's with all this practice squad/waiver movement this year? I feel like the Pats have signed a guy and cut him the next day about 10 times. I get the idea of always doing your homework and keeping your options open, but it's getting a little ridiculous. -- Jerry (Duxbury, Mass.)
A. Jerry, I think you can file it under the "roster management" category. The Patriots have had a run of injuries, and Belichick has had to tweak the roster to cover his bases based on the health status of players. For example, he needed someone on the punt return team this week with Sergio Brown unable to go with a shoulder/chest injury, so he dipped into the practice squad for Sterling Moore. There seems to have been one of those situations each week.
Q. Mike, at this juncture of the season, if you are allowed to change your prediction for the season, would you do this? I was expecting 11-5 season & a wild-card spot (behind the Jets), but I am now believing 12-4 season. -- MarkJ (Japan)
A. MarkJ, predictions are always fun to revisit. I went 12-4 when the schedule came out, and I'm going to stick with it. So much changes on a week-to-week basis that the picture is ever-evolving.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.