Running game will be key vs. Falcons

From a bottom-line perspective, the New England Patriots' 3-0 start is as good as it gets. Many emailers to this week's mailbag expressed their satisfaction with those results, even if hasn't always been pretty.

With the Miami Dolphins keeping pace in the AFC East and the Patriots relying on several young players, opening the season with three straight wins for the first time since 2007 has been important on multiple levels.

At the same time, even Patriots players seem to agree that things are about to get a lot tougher. After playing the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the upcoming three-game stretch raises the level of competition.

Sept. 29 -- at Falcons
Oct. 6 -- at Bengals
Oct. 13 -- versus Saints

With that background, let's get to the questions.

Q. Thus far, the Patriots have given us something I have not seen since 2006. The offense is efficient in producing yards and scoring, while the defense is making more stops. Although the competition has been against rookie quarterbacks and a Buccaneers team in a downward spiral, the next three games should give us a better indication on where they stand. Atlanta boasts one of the best offenses in the league, but its defense is very depleted. As great as I think the Patriots defense is now, I feel the game will be high-scoring and the team that makes the stops in the second half will come out victorious. It's not out the question to think that the Patriots defense has turned the corner. The line of Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Chandler Jones, and Rob Ninkovich is capable of making Matt Ryan's night much longer. If the game comes down to a key defensive stop, do you think a defensive linemen will make the difference? If not, who? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Alvin, in watching the Falcons' 27-23 loss to the Dolphins this past Sunday, the Falcons' inability to come up with the defensive stop on Miami's fourth-quarter game-winning drive stood out. It looked too easy for Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. I also think the Patriots can find success running the ball if they make a commitment to it on Sunday night. At the same time, it's easy to see how the Falcons can control a game on offense, as their game-opening touchdown drive against the Dolphins was as impressive as I've seen this year in the NFL. So I think your point is a good one; there could be a lot of points in this game as these banged-up teams square off against each other. I see matchup advantages across the defensive line for the Patriots if they play up to their potential. Thus, you couldn't go wrong with picking any New England lineman this week.

Q. Hi Mike, the Falcons' offensive line remains their deepest weakness in second-half performances. The strength of the Patriots defense is its defensive line, so some edge rush will be paramount to limiting and hurrying Matt Ryan, given his multiple weapons in the passing game. -- Jake (Vancouver, B.C.)

A. Jake, when I saw this past Sunday that the Falcons were starting backups Lamar Holmes at left tackle and Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle, I expected that weakness to show itself. But I didn't think that was the reason the Falcons lost the game. I didn't get the feeling that Ryan was pressured all day; he had his time. The running game looked solid for the Falcons too, with Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling as they committed to it more than they did in the first two games of the season. So while that offensive line weakness could show itself Sunday against the Patriots, I actually thought it looked better for the Falcons than I expected in Week 3.

Q. The offense showed improvement this week, but it was the defense that set the tone and kept the team in it while the offense struggled early. Going into the game against the Falcons, who have a high-flying offense and a porous defense, this seems to be the first game where the offense will really have to show up early and often for the Patriots to win. Do you think the offense is gelling enough to get it done? -- John (Arlington, Va.)

A. John, I think the key is the running game. It's going to be hard to go into that environment (where the Falcons have won 12 of their last 13 games) and be one-dimensional. It's not impossible, as the Patriots showed us in 2006 against the Vikings when they spread the field and leaned heavily toward the pass, but I think the dynamics of this matchup are different. The Patriots didn't want to run against the NFL's top-rated Vikings defense that season and instead focused on their lower-rated pass defense. In this matchup, I think they should make the running game a priority and I see matchup advantages for them in that area. Sunday's win over the Buccaneers showed that the Patriots can run it against tough competition, and I think the Buccaneers are a better run defense than the Falcons. But you still have to execute. One other stat that stood out to me: The Falcons have outscored foes 31-0 in the first quarter this season. They start fast, but their issues have been sustaining and closing out games. So weathering the early storm could be something to watch.

Q. After watching the Broncos last night, I can't help but think we are going to need to get Jamie Collins up to speed and playing at a high level if the Patriots are going to match up with that offense. Thoughts? Happy to see Wes Welker doing so well but would anyone have thought any different? -- Lonster (SoCal)

A. Lonster, a lot of things can change between now and a Nov. 24 game against the Broncos, but I think it's a good thought as it relates to Collins and how he can help the Patriots' defense in that matchup. His increased playing time in the sub defense was one of my big takeaways from the team's 23-3 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday, as it gives the unit an injection of speed. Collins runs as well as any Patriots linebacker, as evidenced by his presence on the "Big 4" special teams units.

Q. Hi Mike. Perhaps it's because I live in Denver, but the aspect of losing Welker that most upset me (when it occurred) was the fact that the Pats let him go to a team that might challenge them for the AFC championship. While Welker isn't Peyton Manning's only weapon this year, I think after the season we'll have to evaluate the Welker/Danny Amendola transactions not only with regard to the direct impact on the Patriots' roster, but on Denver's as well and how that impacted the Pats. -- Steven (Denver)

A. Steven, that's fair in my book. Right down to the end, the Patriots had the opportunity to match the offer to Welker, knowing that if they didn't he was heading to Denver. So it wasn't like they didn't have that information. It sort of reminds me of the 2002 trade of quarterback Drew Bledsoe. When the Patriots were willing to make that deal with the Bills, part of the consideration was that they had to be comfortable facing him twice a season within the AFC East. Let's see how this one turns out with Welker and if the present picture sustains. Through three games, the Broncos have to be thrilled.

Q. Hi Mike, the use of LeGarrette Blount on kickoff returns has me baffled. He is not quick or fast. If he receives the ball in the end zone, he is not getting past the 20-yard line. So why even return it? I realize Leon Washington is injured. That being said, there has to be someone on this team who is quicker and faster and can give a struggling offense some better field position. -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)

A. Gary, I share similar feelings. I think Blount can help this team, but I don't see it in the kickoff return game. Rookie receiver Josh Boyce would be another option to consider if Washington isn't healthy.

Q. Hey Mike, do you see any downside to the way the Patriots are using the running backs by splitting carries? And of the uninjured, Bolden seems to be the best dual threat. Would it be better for him to start as that may introduce some uncertainty to the opposing defense (run or pass)? -- Glenn (Boston)

A. Glenn, the only downside is for fantasy football owners. Perhaps there is an element of not allowing one running back to get in a groove, but I don't think that's enough of a consideration to alter their approach of rotating snaps and employing their "game-plan" offense, which alters its attack based on each individual opponent.

Q. Mike, it was great to see Rob Ninkovich get a three-year extension through the 2016 season, but I think next order of business is to get Aqib Talib locked up in an extension. Do you see any chance of that happening before the end of this season? -- Ed (San Antonio, Texas)

A. Yes, Ed, I do. There were a lot of questions about Talib from an off-field perspective when the Patriots signed him. But it stood out to me that Bill Belichick said last week that Talib has not only been a solid on-field performer for the Patriots, but also one of their leaders (not to mention an offseason award winner). From the outside looking in, the more time the Patriots have had to get comfortable with Talib, it seems that would give them more comfort in committing to him longer-term. Makes a lot of sense to me, while still acknowledging there is some risk based on the past, and also uncertainty over how a player will respond after gaining some financial security.

Q. You previously mentioned that the NFC looked much better than the AFC this season (contrary to recent years). By my count, the AFC has won 11 out of 14 head-to-head matchups in the first 3 weeks. Do you still think the NFC is better or have you altered your opinion? -- Ferdie (Pinehurst, N.C.)

A. Still a long way to go, Ferdie, but it seems like I should be penalized for a false-start on that NFC-is-stronger-than-AFC stat. Wow. Didn't see that one coming.

Q. Would you expect the Patriots to investigate Browns receiver Josh Gordon's availability? Suspension issues aside, he's proven himself a dynamic receiver talent in the NFL; clearly the Pats could use someone of his skills to help stretch the field and give Brady another playmaker. -- Erik (Malden, Mass.)

A. Erik, I would be surprised if the Patriots are interested in Gordon. I think they will stick with the young receivers they have right now.

Q. Hi Mike, are you going to be meeting up with fellow Pats fans here in Atlanta? Trying to make tailgate plans and not sure if you're hosting anything Saturday or Sunday. -- Jdog (Atlanta, Ga.)

A. It would be great if we could work things out, but this is going to have to be one that comes together later on Saturday if the opportunity presents itself. I have some work responsibilities that make it hard for me to commit at this time. Don't call off a tailgate on my behalf!

Q. Hello Mike, I know Belichick puts an emphasis on all parts of the game. With that said how is Ryan Allen doing compared to his predecessor Zoltan Mesko and the rest of the league? Has he been progressing like the Patriots have hoped and was replacing Mesko still the smart move here? -- JP (Washington, D.C.)

A. JP, here are the bottom-line stats through three games:

* Allen: 20 punts, 43.9 average (25th in NFL); 40.0 net (20th in NFL)

* Mesko: 16 punts, 43.4 average (27th in NFL); 38.1 net (26th in NFL)

As we know, stats can sometimes be deceiving and there is an element of situational punting that can be so important and tie in to hidden yardage. I'd say Allen is a work in progress in that area.

Q. Mike, when are you bringing back the weekly podcast with Tedy Bruschi? I listened every week last season. I miss that bridge between games. -- Trevor (Germany)

A. Thanks, Trevor. The plan is to do the podcasts on more of a monthly basis than a weekly one, due to scheduling. We appreciate your interest.

Q. Hey Mike, regarding the defense, there have been some comments that they have not faced a legitimate quarterback and offense. Although this may be true to some extent, I feel like people are forgetting that the Patriots used to give up 400-plus yards to below-average quarterbacks just a few years ago. With that in mind and seeing how they have shut down these offenses I think it is safe to say that they have at least taken a legitimate step in the right direction. It all starts with the fact that these defensive backs actually turn for the ball now. -- Mark (Brighton, Mass.)

A. Mark, through three games, I'm not sure much more could be asked of the Patriots' defense. I agree that they've taken a step in the right direction, yet at the same time I believe we'll have a better idea of how big a step after these next few games -- at Atlanta, at Cincinnati, and at home against New Orleans. Veteran defensive lineman Tommy Kelly said as much after Sunday's win.

Q. In Field Yates' review of the Patriots' next three opponents, he notes that one of leaders of Cincinnati's defensive line is Carlos Dunlap. He is emblematic of the Patriots outsmarting themselves during the draft. Dunlap and Cunningham both played on the defensive line at Florida. All the experts saw Dunlap as the superior prospect, but the Patriots, with the inside information from Urban Meyer, drafted Cunningham instead of Dunlap. Thoughts? -- Acton (Austin, Texas)

A. Acton, that's one the Patriots would obviously like to have back. When drafting a prospect 53rd overall, like they did with Cunningham, the hope is to get more than three years of low- to mid-level service from the player. The Bengals took Dunlap 54th overall that year and he's proven to be the better player. As Belichick said on WEEI on Monday, the draft is a challenge for all teams. I think we could line up all 32 teams in the NFL and find similar examples. Are the Patriots perfect? Absolutely not. For example, the struggles in the secondary are well documented. But when we measure them from a big-picture perspective against their competition, in my opinion, they still stack up favorably.

Q. Mike, I wanted your assessment on Dont'a Hightower so far and really the entire inside linebacker position with the Patriots. Hightower reminds me of the early years of Jerod Mayo: a solid player who seems to make the right decision, but not a lot of difference making-plays made. Do you agree, and do you think that may just have something to do with the learning curve at that position with the team? Are those players asked to do more from a coach on the field type perspective and does that hold them back at first? Mayo seems to have moved past that stage and has a bit more freedom, so I'm OK with that as Hightower's trajectory. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A. Dean, I was impressed with Hightower in the team's 23-3 win over the Buccaneers. You see him doing a lot of different things -- covering downfield against running back Doug Martin, split out wide and jamming tight end Nate Byham at the line of scrimmage to decisively knock him off his route, playing a little 3-4 outside linebacker, some 4-3 strongside linebacker etc. He caught my eye as a Swiss-army-knife type, and it's notable that he's playing more in the sub defense this year. I think he's certainly growing in the system.

Q. Hey Mike, very happy about the season. The defense and receivers were very impressive Sunday. Now for a complaint: What are your thoughts on Zach Sudfeld? I missed the preseason this year as I was overseas, but kept reading that he was very impressive. So far, he has been mediocre, in my opinion. His playing time has been limited, but when playing I don't see very good blocking, or separation in his routes. He has one drop that led to an interception, and his only other target on the season was an incompletion. -- Joey (New Rochelle, N.Y.)

A. Joey, Sudfeld has had a slow start to the regular season after playing well enough in the preseason to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. He played 19 snaps in the season opener and then 17 against the Buccaneers, so it's not extensive playing time. Sudfeld naturally still has room to grow, and he's more of a receiver than a blocker, but I think it's fair to say that the momentum he built in the preseason hasn't translated to the regular season.