Commentary

Breathing easier, for now

After feel-good comeback in Buffalo, Patriots still have nagging concerns

Updated: October 3, 2012, 3:01 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

This week's Patriots mailbag is a mix of looking ahead to Sunday's highly anticipated clash against Peyton Manning and the Broncos and looking back on Sunday's stunning turnaround in a 52-28 win over the Bills.

While most e-mails were positive, areas of concern/interest included:
1. Field-goal kicking
2. Third-down defense/safety play
3. Cornerback Ras-I Dowling's disappearance

We'll get into those, but overall this is one of those feel-good mailbags that have been elusive in recent weeks as we've dissected issues such as Wes Welker's playing time, the inability to finish games and Devin McCourty's "decline."

Here we go:

Q. Mike, last year the Patriots owned the Broncos, but that was with their run-heavy attack. How do you see us matching up against Peyton and the Broncos? Stay in the nickel and try to mix up our coverage? -- Jerry (NYC)

A. Jerry, I think you nailed it. The Broncos' offense is similar to what the Colts ran under Manning, and that usually meant the Patriots were in their nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs). One of the buzzwords among coaches and players on Monday was "disguise," which highlights the importance of not giving Manning too much information before the snap on your intentions. Like Tom Brady, Manning will pick apart a defense that tips things off too early. I would expect a lot of sub packages on Sunday. The Patriots have been in sub 60 percent of the time this season, and that number should rise after this game.

Q. Peyton Manning has bounced back from his one bad game against Atlanta and has thrown five touchdowns with no interceptions in his last two games. I expect Manning to throw to their best receiver, Demaryius Thomas, early and often. He is very good. Do you think the Patriots' coverage will be similar to the coverage they used on Larry Fitzgerald when McCourty received a lot of help? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, I think this is going to be a little different than the Larry Fitzgerald plan. While Thomas is very good, and will no doubt draw significant attention, he's not yet in that Fitzgerald category. I think the main thing is that we'll see more mixing and matching on a snap-by-snap and series-by-series basis this week. Just try to keep "spinning that dial" against Manning from a coverage and rush perspective because if you do just one thing, it's probably going to be a long day for your defense.

Q. It has become 100 percent clear that Stephen Gostkowski is a liability and can't be relied upon when games are tight. He already lost one game for the Patriots, and did his best to lose another one Sunday (if they were playing a better team, it may have cost them and will in the future). If I were the coaching staff, I'd be dialing up every/any free agent kicker on the market right now. Thoughts? -- Marcus (San Diego, Calif.)

A. Marcus, that was my quick-hit reaction at the game. Gostkowski has had an inconsistent three-game stretch -- some good, some bad -- and that has to be concerning to the coaching staff. But Bill Belichick made it pretty clear Monday on sports radio WEEI that he wasn't thinking about replacing Gostkowski when he said: "It's the same question we were asked last week about [Devin] McCourty, and everyone wanted to cut him. Then he comes out and plays well and has two big turnovers. I think Steve is going to make a lot of big kicks for us."

Q. Mike, because of the two missed field goals, I think you and others improperly concluded that the special teams were off against Buffalo. I think Matthew Slater deserved a thumbs-up from you. He was all over the field and was key in the two punts that kept the Bills deep in their own side of the field (one he caught the punt, the other he downed a ball kept in play by Marquice Cole). I also noted how positively he interacts with the other members of the special-teams unit and how they, literally, look to him. We're lucky to have him. Is it too late to add him to your list? -- Dave (Berlin, N.H.)

A. Dave, I agree that the punt coverage was a big positive in the win. That easily could have been on the "up" list for that game. Slater was a big part of that.

[+] EnlargeFells
AP Photo/Brian BlancoDaniel Fells, who played 45 snaps against the Bills, gives the Patriots flexibility and depth at tight end.

Q. When most teams feature two backs they often have different skill sets. Maybe an elusive guy and a real banger. Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley seem really similar. They're both 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds. They both run low to the ground, have a burst, and can finish at the goal line. Do you see any differences between the two? How do you envision this time share playing out as the season moves along? -- Ritzman (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A. I think you hit on the key points, Ritzman. The one major difference that came to mind was pass-catching. I think Bolden is a little more natural in that area, with Ridley still developing his skills. Bolden is also more of a factor on special teams as a core player. As for the split of playing time, one thing we've learned about Bill Belichick and the Patriots is that it's a meritocracy. Bolden has earned more time with his consistency and strong performance in Buffalo. Against the Bills, it was 34 snaps for Ridley and 26 for Bolden. Those numbers will vary, but depending on the game-plan and who has the hot hand, projecting a 60-40 split for Ridley seems like a good bet.

Q. Mike, I thought Daniel Fells was a big part of this last game. When Aaron Hernandez comes back, how do you see him fitting in on the offense? Do you think we'll run a lot of 3 TE stuff or will Fells just get the occasional snap to give Rob Gronkowski or Hernandez a breather? -- Kartal (Denver, Colo.)

A. I think the answer is both, Kartal. Fells played 45 snaps against the Bills and his presence/performance helped the Patriots stay with the 2-TE package. That was a key in the game because the Bills matched with their smaller nickel defense, creating an advantageous matchup for the running game. There was one series in each half when Fells actually replaced Gronkowski (hip) to give him a rest. I would expect that to continue. We can also take the "matchup" angle one step further. There might be a game in the future when the Patriots decide attacking a team in its base defense is the best matchup, and it wouldn't be surprising to see them run more of their snaps with three tight ends in a week like that. Usually they get a matchup of an opponent's base defense against the three-TE grouping.

Q. Mike, Gronk has had a few drops and the fumble hurts, but can we give him credit for his outstanding blocking? It's what makes him the best "all around" TE in the game. -- John (Maryland)

A. John, when you think about what a true tight end is, I'd put Gronkowski at the top of the list. He's a player who is a difference-maker in the running and passing games. When he looks back on the Bills' game, I think he'll agree it wasn't a consistent enough performance for him, but there were still some very good things. I still think he's rounding in form.

Q. Mike, look forward to Tuesday, lunch of a nice salad, iced tea and the mailbag, doesn't get any better. We fans tend to get fired up about chasing big-name free-agent talent in the offseason, wouldn't "fill in name" be great on our team. Mario Williams clearly is the prime example of what's wrong with that mentality. He looks like a player that doesn't love football and now that he received the big $$, is going to be a bust! Isn't the right answer to supplement and avoid chasing the so-called "big names"? -- Don D. (Mansfield, Mass.)

A. Don, impressive health-conscious decisions at lunch (recommend getting the dressing on the side). I fully agree with this point of view. It's not just spending the money, it's spending smart. Through four games, the investment in Williams isn't paying off for the Bills. It's too early to declare the move a flat-out disappointment, but it's trending in that direction. All that said, I think there are times when a big investment like that can be the right move. I'd point to Julius Peppers and the Bears as an example. But more often than not, I don't think that's the winning approach.

Q. Hey Mike, without the two fumbles in the first half, the Patriots might have had a lead at halftime with the way the offense was moving. That means we could have had even more points. Where was this offense against the Cardinals and where do you see the offense going moving forward? -- Spencer (Maryland)

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Barry Chin/Getty ImagesRB Stevan Ridley has been explosive on the run but is still developing his pass-catching skills.

A. Spencer, I think it comes down to every matchup being different. The Cardinals' defense, through a combination of personnel, scheme and execution, created some more problems for the Patriots. That's going to happen on a week-to-week basis as every game takes on a different shape and some teams will be better equipped to hit the stress points. I think the most encouraging thing about the win over the Bills was the way it unfolded -- the comeback and then the running-game explosion. Bill Belichick was hard on the team last week, telling players it wasn't good enough to average 2.3 yards per carry against the Ravens and 3.2 yards per carry against the Cardinals. He drilled them on it in practice, and the discipline and commitment to working on that area paid off. I think it can be really hard to stick with the run when you fall behind 21-7 early in the third quarter, or when you might start to doubt if you should "get back to being what you were in 2011," so all the praise they are receiving is warranted from this view.

Q. Mike, I am really impressed by our defense. I think Sunday's win is because the defense made a lot of great plays, including great turnovers. After four weeks, I am more concerned by the offense. We can not afford to start slowly against good teams. Are you concerned about the slow offense and do you think our defense will become as great as the Ravens' or Steelers'? -- David L. (Coleraine, Canada)

A. David, the defense did a great job with six turnovers against the Bills. However, if I had to choose one side of the ball that led to more "concern" over the long haul, I'd still pick the defense. Those turnovers aren't always going to be there, and what happens when they aren't? I'm thinking about the 2010 season, in particular, as an example of this. It comes back to your fundamentals at that point and I still see the defense as a work in progress. Signs are encouraging, and this isn't to say the offense has been flawless (it hasn't), but I would want to see more before picking the defense over the offense at this point.

Q. Hey Mike, Devin McCourty had two interceptions against the Bills, after dropping two potential interceptions against the Ravens. After a rookie season with seven picks, people seemed to label him as a shut-down corner. I've never seen that. People made plenty of plays on him as a rookie (and since then, even more). Rather than a shut-down corner, when he was on his game he was a play-making corner. In other words, more Asante Samuel, less Ty Law. Do you see him as a shutdown, Revis type of corner? I think anybody who expects that is going to be disappointed. -- Rob M. (Medway, Mass.)

A. Rob, it's been notable to me how much opinions on McCourty have varied. I wrote about it last week. I don't think there is a true "shutdown" corner in the game, as I've seen Revis beaten at times. This is not to take away from a top player, which Revis is, but I just don't buy the whole "shut-down" angle. McCourty said it himself after the Ravens' game -- his fourth-quarter performance wasn't good enough that day. I thought he rebounded very well against the Bills. He looks like he's running well and I could make an argument that he's one of the best tackling cornerbacks in the NFL (Dennis Pitta TD aside). I see more promise than concern at this point, but in McCourty's own words, he needs to be more consistent. Sunday against the Bills was a good start toward developing that consistency.

Q. I know everyone will want to focus on the positive, but can you comment on Ras-I Dowling's decline? Once again, it seems like the Pats have struggled when drafting CBs (you've often discussed the struggles drafting WRs, so I won't even get into that). What has happened with Dowling? -- Michael (Boston)

A. Michael, it has been surprising. He played 36 of 65 snaps in the opener as the nickel back, had a pass interference penalty, and has since been demoted in place of Sterling Moore. My assumption is that whatever he showed on film in the opener, coupled with practice performance, wasn't to the liking of the coaching staff. In terms of specifics, I'm not sure why.

[+] EnlargeRas-I Dowling
Rob Tringali/Getty ImagesPatriots CB Ras-I Dowling, who played in just two games last season before being sidelined with a hip injury, has dropped in the depth chart behind Sterling Moore.

Q. Mike, I think sometimes as a sports fan you get such a familiarity with injuries you start to feel medically qualified. Short of hurting my own knee, I never expected to know the difference between an ACL, MCL, PCL and their individual recovery times. Having said that, how concerned should we be that a player who played as many as 10-plus games last year with a torn ACL -- left guard Logan Mankins -- has missed Week 4? In addition, does Donald Thomas have a chance of success or is it time to reopen the lines of communication with Brian Waters? -- Dean (Taunton)

A. Dean, when it comes to toughness, Logan Mankins is near the top of the list. What this tells me is that the hip injury must be nagging him pretty significantly for him to miss practice all week and then the game. So yes, that would fall in the "concern" category from this perspective. As for Donald Thomas, I do think he has a chance at success. He started 12 games for the Dolphins in 2009, and at the time was viewed as an ascending player. I thought he had a solid training camp, and while he's been up and down at times in regular-season games, there is talent and potential there. We saw that on Sunday in Buffalo when he stepped in at left guard and played well.

Q. Mike, why so many injuries? How do the Patriots compare with other teams, like San Francisco or Houston? And why the secrecy about injuries -- would giving more information hurt the team somehow? -- James E. (Portsmouth, R.I.)

A. Jamie, I don't have any injury stats through four weeks, but I don't get the sense that the Patriots are more banged-up than the norm. We can look around the league and see that there are big injuries for most every team on a weekly basis. The Jets, with cornerback Darrelle Revis (torn ACL), are one example that comes to mind. As for the secrecy on injuries, it's all about protecting competitive advantage. If an opponent knows it doesn't have to prepare for certain players, that's time they can devote to the other players.

Q. Hi Mike, when can we expect Aaron Hernandez back in fold? Also, can you explain to me this RB rotation (Danny Woodhead and Bolden over Ridley)? -- Nemanja (Vranje, Serbia)

A. Hernandez was back at Massachusetts General Hospital on Friday to gauge his progress, and all indications are that he's coming along nicely. Media members have seen him in the locker room in recent weeks and he's been walking around without a noticeable limp. I'd say within the next few weeks would make some sense. As for the running-back rotation, a lot of that is game-plan specific. When the Patriots are in the hurry-up/quick-paced offense, that's often the best fit for Woodhead because he's a top pass protector and pass-catcher among backs.

Q. Mike, I have heard so much about Dont'a Hightower and how well he is playing. Well, I don't see it. Other than a fumble recovery against Tennessee, this guy looks lost to me. Am I missing something? -- Scot (White Plains, N.Y.)

A. Scot, I don't think you are missing something. There have been some early growing pains for Hightower, who is playing strongside linebacker in the base defense, and then some nickel situations. He generally plays strong against the run, but there have been times he's looked a step behind (this showed up most in the Ravens game). I think that's fair. He also plays on the punt-coverage team, which reflects the view of the coaching staff that he runs pretty well. Hightower left Sunday's win over the Bills late in the first quarter with a hamstring injury, so his status bears watching this week.

Q. I can't help but notice Rob Ninkovich keeps coming up in the mailbag, Mike. I'm in kind of the same boat -- I can't say he's exactly shining as a pure defensive end, versus last year when he was playing OLB. I know, tomato-tomato. Am I alone in thinking that Rob was a more effective pass rusher when he was working in space? In the playoffs last year I thought he was phenomenal at finding the quarterback. Not to mention his awareness during the regular season in those turnover situations. -- Austin (Portland, Maine)

A. Austin, there are some differences in the role between 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end, but a lot of the fundamentals are the same because he's still an end-of-the-line player. I think Ninkovich himself would agree that his performance against the Bills was a step up from what we saw in the first three games (which wasn't bad, but just didn't include many game-changing type plays). One point I'd make is that this is a little bit of a different type of 4-3 as it still includes two-gapping principles at times. Ninkovich's first job is often to set that edge and play two gaps, and if he's just rushing up the field and is undisciplined, he'll be heading right to the sideline. Could he be getting to the quarterback more? Yes, although I thought he did well in that area against the Bills. Overall, I don't think the coaching staff sees that spot as an issue as much as those externally might.

Q. Hey Mike, wondering about this guy Terrell McClain the Pats just signed. I read he was a third-round pick just last year, and started 12 games as a rookie. How is it that this guy was already in his street clothes and looking for a job? That seems really early for a not-so-good team in Carolina to already give up on a second-year player. What's his story? -- Brendan O. (Marlborough, Mass.)

A. Brendan, this is quite unusual, to see a third-round draft choice available after he played significant snaps as a rookie. Pat Yasinskas, who covers the NFC South for ESPN.com, wrote the following: "I strongly suspect something was going on behind the scenes and the move was about more than football ability." Here are two more links that provide a little bit of a feel for McClain: 1) An interview with the Panthers' official website; 2) A Charlotte Observer story on his release, with comments from general manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera. McClain played late in Sunday's win over the Bills, totaling 11 snaps. Looking at his body type and watching him play, it reminded me a little bit of 2009 sixth-round draft choice Myron Pryor.

Q. Mike, please update us on the status of Jeff Demps. I understand he was placed on IR, but is it the short term or season-ending? Special-teams return game looks awfully anemic. It would be nice to throw in some explosive speed. -- Landon (Texas)

A. Landon, Demps was placed on the full injured reserve list, meaning that we won't see him until the 2013 season. The Patriots used their one short-term IR designation on veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Q. Mike, what's your feeling on Robert Kraft's part, if any, in the new agreement between the NFL and the NFLRA? The replacement refs already cost the Patriots one crucial game (Baltimore) that could come back to haunt them later in the season. I wonder if Robert Kraft exerted any pressure to ensure that no additional games were "at risk" due to the poor officiating. -- Al (Peterborough, N.H.)

A. Al, Judy Battista of The New York Times wrote a nice "behind-the-scenes" piece that included a few thoughts on Kraft's role in the process. It didn't sound like he was a major player in the negotiations, but his concern that the product was being damaged did lead him to play a role as somewhat of a facilitator/conciliatory figure among owners.

Q. Mike, I understand your frustration at the referee situation, but with all due respect, I think you seem a bit inconsistent by calling out for Bob Kraft to negotiate a settlement here. How many times have you written in the last few years (see Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, et al) that both sides need to find a common or middle ground in order to make a deal? Is this any different? -- Tom (Boston)

A. Tom, I appreciate the "all due respect" and think what you wrote is totally fair. I do believe it's a two-way street on issues like this, and I don't spare the regular referees complete accountability on this one. I guess my frustration was more based on the fact that it's understandable two sides could disagree, but it seemed like the owners' backup plan was poor. I really think they made a mistake in that regard.

[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesFormer Patriots RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, one of New England's most reliable ball carriers, has now fumbled in two straight games for the Bengals. Just saying.

Q. Mike, wow ... what an impressive defense Pete Carroll is putting together out in Seattle. Makes you realize how lacking the Patriots are on that side of the ball. ... I know that good defensive football is out of fashion in the NFL these days with all the rules favoring the offense (pass interference, etc.), but it was a real pleasure watching them last week on Monday Night Football. -- Will (Dorchester, Mass.)

A. Will, the Seahawks certainly play a different style -- attack, attack, attack -- and it was also fun for me to watch that game. That's a team I don't get to see often and I'm looking forward to the Oct. 14 game between the Patriots and Seahawks there, as it's a tough environment in which to play. As you saw this past Sunday, the Seahawks couldn't sustain the momentum in a road loss to the Rams. I wouldn't say the Patriots are lacking on defense, though. They just play a different style. We can debate whether that style is best for the long haul, but I think they still have some very good players on that side of the ball.

Q. Hi Mike, one thing I was curious about was BenJarvus Green-Ellis fumbling for the first time in his career. What are your thoughts on this? -- Parker L. (Durham, N.H.)

A. Parker, in a surprise, Green-Ellis has now fumbled in back-to-back games. I think Green-Ellis is a good back, and he's a great locker room guy, so this is no slight on him. Fumbles happen and I don't think it will become a consistent problem for him. I do think it is timely to revisit some of the things that were said/written after his decision to sign with the Bengals, with some projecting it would really hurt the Patriots' running game and how Stevan Ridley had a fumbling problem. Looks like the Patriots are going to be OK there.

Q. Mike, my love of Cookie Monster and the Muppets is surpassed only by my passion for the Patriots. Can we get a photo of Vince Wilfork in the Cookie Monster T-shirt? -- JA M. (Wilbraham, Mass.)

A. JA, I wanted to take a picture of Wilfork in the black Cookie Monster T-shirt on Friday, but let's just say it might not have been the best professional decision, and I'm glad I showed restraint. Wilfork is 6-foot-2 and 325 pounds, and I'm checking in closer to the Danny Woodhead/Wes Welker side when it comes to height/weight. The tale of the tape didn't favor me.

Q. Mike, your recent photos on Twitter showing the view from the press box in Buffalo and Baltimore (both near midfield) got me thinking... what stadium do you think has the best and worst view from the press box? Seems like Gillette would not be one of the better ones, with the view from the end zone vs. midfield. -- Bob (Holden, Mass.)

A. Fun question, Bob. Was thinking about this myself the other day because we probably led off with the three best in the NFL this year -- Tennessee, Baltimore and Buffalo -- as all were close to the 50-yard line. My least favorite is Washington's Fed-Ex Field -- low and in the end zone.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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