- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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This week's Patriots mailbag is larger than the norm, in part because there was so much variety in terms of what is on your mind.
If I had to pinpoint the three areas that concern followers the most, they'd break down this way:
1. Defensive backs/Devin McCourty turning for the ball.
2. Inability to close out games.
3. Stevan Ridley fumbling and whether he heads to the doghouse.
Many have adopted the Patriots' one-game-at-a-time mantra and are focusing on what figures to be a challenging road game Sunday at Seattle. The Patriots will leave Friday for the game, which is standard operating procedure for them on games played in the Pacific time zone.
Others are captivated by the up-tempo hurry-up offense the Patriots ran on Sunday against the Broncos, while some are looking deeper into play calls and questioning them.
Q. Hi Mike, do you think that the Pats can really run that quick, no huddle outside of the friendly confines of Gillette? It was obviously having an effect on the Broncos, but I could clearly hear Brady barking out instructions to everyone the whole game. In Seattle, it will be VERY NOISY when our offense is on the field, it just seems that Brady won't be able to communicate in the same way. I imagine they can use hand signals but I assume that will limit their choices. Any thoughts? -- Jack (Austin, Texas)
A. Jack, my feeling on the up-tempo no-huddle is that it's a changeup. You can't do that every week on a consistent basis. As for the home versus road deal, the Patriots ran a pretty quick no-huddle on the road in Week 3 against the Ravens, so it can be done. It's just a little more challenging and stresses the communication a bit more. Just a hunch, but I'd expect more of a conventional approach this week from the Patriots because that up-tempo, no-huddle approach might play into the strength of the fast, attacking Seahawks defense.
Q. Hi Mike, are there any similarities between the Ravens and Broncos defenses that give a hint about when and why the Patriots would amp up the up-tempo offense? Could it be Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are using the no-huddle to counteract dominant pass rushers like Von Miller or Haloti Ngata? Or is it just the Pats showing their best moves when they need them against arch-rivals? -- Paddy (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
A. Paddy, when the Patriots go to that quick no-huddle, part of it is to eliminate some of the movement/different looks that defenses like the Broncos often utilize before the snap. The movement/different looks can make it challenging for offenses to identify and block them, so by being the aggressor, the offense takes away a trump card that the defense relies on and also makes it harder for the defense to substitute. It takes a special quarterback, and synergy from the other 10 players, to pull it off. Tom Brady, it goes without saying, is the key.
Q. Hey Mike. I am a little concerned that in the second half against Denver, when Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer were out of the game, the pass protection got worse for the Patriots. In the Packers-Seahawks game a few Monday nights ago, the Seahawks had 8 sacks against a very mobile Aaron Rogers. How concerned are you about the Seattle pass rush against a not-so-mobile Tom Brady and a dinged-up Mankins and Vollmer? Will the Patriots use the shotgun more in this game? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)
A. David, I think you've set up one of the key matchups on Sunday. I view the Seahawks as one of the top teams in the NFL when it comes to playing differently at home than they do on the road. That's a nice home-field advantage they have. In December of 2008 when the Patriots played there, I remember the place rocking even though the Seahawks were out of playoff contention, and how they kept a scoreboard tally of how many false starts they could draw. The defensive ends are fast as it is, and then you add in that crowd noise, and it's even tougher to handle them. So this is something the Patriots will definitely have to contend with and the health questions with Mankins and Vollmer are naturally a concern. They've won without both players before, but when healthy, they are arguably the team's two best linemen.
Q. Mike, I sent in some emails during the two-game losing streak urging patience and pointing out that our young players were playing well. Now that analysts think we have the best offense in the league, can we point out that the Patriots are still 3-2 and just beat two teams that probably won't make the playoffs? I don't think we'll truly know if this team is Super Bowl caliber until we play the Texans and 49ers in Weeks 14 and 15. -- Kartal (Denver, Colo.)
A. Completely agree on the perspective part of this, Kartal. What a difference two weeks makes, right? Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was getting crushed after the loss to the Ravens in Week 3. Just hammered. And now he apparently is directing the league's best offense? It sort of highlights how silly this stuff can get on a week to week basis. As for learning about the Patriots, I think we gather a little more intelligence each week about this team. The win over the Bills, for example, is one that told us a lot about the club's ability to overcome adversity.
Mike, last year Stevan Ridley was shown the bench after some costly fumbles. What do you think will happen this year? I see him as the most explosive back we've had since Curtis Martin (Yes, more explosive than the bruiser Corey Dillon) and we can't afford to see him on the sideline. -- Morgan (Vail, Colo.)
A. Morgan, I think they keep playing Ridley. If Bill Belichick is going to stand behind kicker Stephen Gostkowski through his recent struggles, and do the same for cornerback Devin McCourty, he'd be inconsistent to bench Ridley. I think that would be a big mistake.
Q. Mike, do you know why the Pats are playing at Seattle instead of at home? I always thought the AFC/NFC teams alternated the home and home every four years. In 2008, the Pats also played at Seattle. -- Mo (Watertown, Mass.)
A. Mo, the NFL tweaked the scheduling rotation a few years ago. That's also why the Chiefs, after opening the season on the road against the Patriots in 2008, returned to play the Patriots here in 2011. If I recall, one of the main reasons was to avoid what happened to the Patriots in 2008 when they wound up with four games out West.
Q. Do you think the pass defense is an improvement from last season, or are they trending down the same path since 2010? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A. Alvin, I think the pass defense is better than last year, although the gap isn't as wide as many probably hoped. The safety play still looks like an issue at times. I think the corners are playing better at times. And with Chandler Jones up front, and Rob Ninkovich turning it on, I see the pass rush as being better/more consistent but still not a consistent threat as you see from other teams. One other factor to consider: Time. The Patriots can still get better, and my hunch is that they will.
Mike, the contention that I'm going to address regarding the Pats isn't one that I've read from you specifically, but a popular line of thinking that I wanted your take on. I hear a lot about the difference in this year's defense being they seem to be around the ball making plays, and this could be the difference between last year's defense -- a group that not only bent but also broke and rarely made plays and caused turnovers. To me, the description of a group that gives up some big plays but also gets a lot of turnovers sounds a lot like the 2010 team. They came up with a lot of big plays, beat nearly all of the top teams in the league, and the Patriots still lost in the divisional round because the offense stalled. I say all that to ask, aren't we just at the point where the defense is what it is but to win a Super Bowl it's going to come down to (at best) a few plays that Brady and the offense need to make? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, I also make the connection with this year's defense through five weeks as it relates to 2010. That '10 defense gave up plenty of ground but fed off turnovers and good situational play, just like this year's unit has been doing the past two weeks (nine turnovers). I agree with the idea that the offense will need to rise up in critical situations, more than it has in recent years, to win another Super Bowl. At the same time, I think it's a little early to just accept "the defense is what it is." If they don't get better, I don't think they'll win a Super Bowl.
Q. Mike, I know that as far as Devin McCourty goes, you're a glass-is-half-full type of person as you were with Laurence Maroney. It took you three years to give up on Maroney. When will you see the light on Devin? A real mistake in my mind as a first-round draft choice. -- Doug (Hilton Head, S.C.)
A. Doug, the reason I'm not giving up on McCourty is that I saw his issues Sunday against the Broncos as more technique-related than physical. He still runs well. He's one of the best tackling corners in the game. He's obviously a smart player. Technique issues are correctable. I'm just curious, did you have the same thought two weeks ago after his big game in Buffalo? If you did, kudos for the consistency. No flip-flopping here.
The Patriots DBs are driving me crazy. How can they expect to make a play on the ball when they're not even looking for it? We see it in every game -- they'll be in the right position to make a play but instead they get beaten because they're not looking! This is so elementary that I'm embarrassed for them that I have to mention it. Is Josh Boyer good enough to coach this group? -- Matt (Canton, Conn.)
A. Matt, Boyer is a good coach. I view this as the same thing with McDaniels two weeks ago when everyone wanted him fired. As for turning back to the ball, you are right. The cornerbacks need to turn at times and it can be frustrating to watch when they don't. It's not an all-the-time thing, though. Here is the Q&A with Bill Belichick about it on sports radio WEEI on Monday:
Q. On the pass interference calls when it doesn't look like McCourty is turning his head back to look at the ball, do you believe that's why the officials are throwing those flags?
A. What the rule is, is that if you're looking at the ball and there is contact, it's not a foul, unless you're grabbing the guy or obviously flagrantly doing something. But if you look at the ball, it's not a foul. If you're not looking at the ball, and there is contact, then it is a foul. The rule is pretty cut and dried.
Q. It seems to have happened a few times with McCourty. Is that something? It seems like he's stride for stride with his guy, hip to hip, and then he just doesn't turn on it. There have been some negative plays. Is that something he has to do right now -- turn on that ball?
A. Well, you have to be careful. It's fine if the ball is in the air and you turn. That's great. But if the ball is not in the air, and you turn, and then the receiver sees you turn and goes in the other direction and uncovers, then you don't have the guy covered. It's a technique thing. There are different situations that the right thing to do sometimes is to look for the ball and sometimes it isn't to look for the ball.
Q. How do you guys teach it?
A. There's a lot of different situations. We talk about those. It isn't about looking or not looking for the ball. If you don't look at the ball, then you have to play the receiver's hands and knock the ball out when the receiver tries to catch it. If you're looking at the ball, then you play the ball. And hopefully the ball is in the air when you look at it. Because if you're looking at it and the ball isn't in the air, a good receiver will just uncover. As soon as you turn your back on him, he just goes in the other direction.
Q. Hey Mike, I'm curious your thoughts on Wes Welker talking to Mike Felger after the game about his 13 catches and saying it was "nice to stick it in Bill's face." Is this simply a joke or is this from the contract negotiations from the spring spilling out into the media? -- Chase (Connecticut)
A. Chase, I consider myself a pretty serious guy, but even I could tell that was a joke. That isn't to say there aren't some residual feelings from the contract negotiations, but I don't think that's why Welker said what he did. Belichick rides the players hard. In some respects, he's like the dad that's hard to please. That's what Welker was referencing in my view.
Q. Mike, I am curious about the Pats' play calls surrounding the failed 4th-and-5 conversion in the fourth quarter while leading 31-14. Do you think Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels knew they would go for it on 4th down once they got to 3rd-and-5? And if so why not treat the 3rd and 5 play call more like a traditional 2nd down? If they had concerns about punt protection because of Nate Ebner playing for Tracy White, they must have already made a decision about going for it. So instead of the pass to Brandon Lloyd -- almost picked off by Von Miller as you noted in your game review -- what about a run? -- Dan (Wellesley, Mass.)
A. Dan, that was almost a disaster. On a day when the hurry-up was the story, and the offensive efficiency was impressive at such a quick pace, we've pinpointed one of the negatives here. It looked to me like the Patriots got a little too cute on that third-down call, bringing on a grouping of four receivers and one tight end. It's hard to run it when you don't have a running back on the field, unless the tight end is Aaron Hernandez. Like the players, the coaches sometimes make a mistake, too. My guess is that McDaniels would like that one back. No one's perfect.
Q. Instead of going for it on 4th and 5, I anticipated Brady would go for a pooch punt, which he's done in the past from that spot on the field. Did this question get discussed either in one of BB's press conferences or among the writers in the press box? -- Rich (Ashland, Mass.)
A. Great instincts, Rich. It was mentioned at the time. Seemed like a good time for the pooch call there.
Clearly Peyton Manning outplayed Brady. Ridley won the game for the Patriots against the Broncos. -- Ethan (Denver, Colo.)
A. Ethan, I think if we go by stat lines, Manning gets the nod. That's the easy and incorrect route in my view. Brady's mastery of the up-tempo no-huddle offense was brilliant. There is much more to quarterback play than stats, and Brady simply controlled that game. Manning was very, very good but I didn't think there was any question Brady was better.
Q. It looked like Dan Koppen must have had a pretty good game since Vince Wilfork or Kyle Love weren't getting to Manning. How did Dan Koppen play? Sounds like he might be a little bitter. It seems like Ryan Wendell has limitations and that he's still around because of his "flexibility" where Koppen can only play center. How do you rate Wendell? Do you see a possible change in the middle? -- Bob (Holliston, Mass.)
A. Bob, I thought Koppen played pretty well in the game. As for Wendell, given the Patriots' personnel up front, I don't foresee any changes ahead. In the perfect world, they would have Dan Connolly at center and Brian Waters at right guard, but this looks like their best fallback plan. I wouldn't sell Wendell short. After all, he just played center in back to back games in which the Patriots totaled more than 200 yards rushing, the first time that has happened for the franchise since 1978. He's a good player, too.
Q. Mike, lots of good stuff Sunday but the only real criticism is Tom Brady has to start hitting those long passes. Otherwise, the defense will be rolling the safeties up to stop the run. What did you think of Tavon Wilson's performance? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)
A. Joe, I thought Wilson tackled well while appearing to have a few blips in coverage (it looked like he bit hard on the long completion-fumble to Demaryius Thomas). No different than Patrick Chung.
Q. Hi Mike, one of my favorite Bill Belichick quotes is "You're always either getting better or you're getting worse, you're never staying the same." When I look at Patrick Chung, he's a guy that's certainly not getting better right now. He seemed to be a difference-maker last year when he returned from injury, but now I'm second-guessing myself that maybe he was just better than the Sergio Brown, Stewrling Moore, James Ihedigbo crowd that played there most of the year. Regardless, I think he's been around the ball far less in the running game and short to mid-range passing game this year, and his normal slightly below average self on plays where he's moving away from the line of scrimmage. Remember the guy that had a coming out party and flew around the field against Cincinnati on opening day in 2010? The 2012 version of Patrick Chung doesn't look like the same guy. Thoughts? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)
A. Tim, I think this is fair. Still waiting for Chung to take that step to the next level. The first thought I had on Chung this year was that he had to pass the health test and stay on the field. He's done that so far. Now the next step is improving the performance on the field. Sunday against the Broncos, I thought some of the angles he took were curious.
Q. Mike, I was really excited to see Alfonzo Dennard in the game. He seemed to excel at turning his head, locating the ball and disrupting the catch, something I've seen our secondary get burned on the last two years. What did you see from the rookie in the game? Also, what role would you project for him? -- Charlie (Golden, Colo.)
A. Charlie, I thought Dennard was a pleasant surprise. I'd expect to see more from him in the coming weeks if he plays like that.
Q. When Tom Brady points out who the "Mike" is, what does that mean? What is the role of the "Mike"? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Ashley, the "Mike" is the middle linebacker, and when Brady points it out, he's setting the protection for the blockers in front of him.
Q. Hi Mike, have the Patriots disclosed what is wrong with Julian Edelman's hand? It seems like a pretty significant injury, with him missing the last two games. However, I have not heard much else as far as what the injury is, and when we can expect him back. Thanks! -- Will (Milwaukee, Wisc.)
A. Will, the Patriots have not disclosed the details of Edelman's hand injury. The assumption from here is that there is some type of fracture or break, which presumably occurred on either his touchdown catch against the Ravens or the ensuing celebration. Just guessing on this one, but perhaps Edelman will be a post-bye situation, which would mean early November.
Q. Obviously it might be a little early to think about Brandon Bolden's jersey hanging in Canton, but it looks like he is a solid asset with NFL level talent. By all accounts he is a good citizen from a good family. Why was he undrafted? Why did 32 teams think a strong, 220-pound, versatile, healthy kid was not NFL worthy? -- Rob (Grants Pass, Ore.)
A. Rob, Bolden suffered a hairline fracture in his left ankle in the 2011 season opener at Ole Miss and he dipped the rest of the year after a strong junior campaign. So he hadn't built much momentum leading into the draft. One scout who worked on him also had some off-field questions. I think one of those two, or perhaps a combination of some sort, probably explains the reason for Bolden going undrafted.
Q. Had a quick thought while I was reading the blog post about Chandler Jones winning rookie of the month. I seem to remember a fair amount of people thinking that Jake Bequette could have an impact sooner than Jones because they thought he was more ready to rush the passer. The playing time for Jones (as well as Dont'a Hightower, Wilson, and at times even Ebner) has been pretty impressive. We haven't seen much from Bequette, however. In your opinion is it a system thing, an injury thing, or maybe something different? I think in this defensive rookie class he has quite a bit to try to keep up with, so it could just be a high standard that his classmates are setting. I also know that four weeks into the season is a little early to be concerned, so that's not the case. I'm just interested in your thoughts. -- Mark (Fall River, Mass.)
A. Mark, I like this perspective because it reminds us of how expectations sharply shifted for both of these players. The thought was that Jones, coming out of Syracuse as a junior, might need a little more seasoning. On the opposite side was Bequette, who entered the draft after his senior season and had rushed the passer in the ultra-competitive SEC. It all made sense at the time, but ultimately, players dictate playing time through their consistency and performance and I think that's where Jones has separated himself from Bequette. I do believe players develop at different rates and Bequette just needs more time to develop that consistency. He definitely flashed at times in camp. The potential is there.
Q. Hi Mike, how is it that Ras-I Dowling has dropped off so much after he was a starter before his injury last year? Let's not forget a few weeks ago Bill Belichick was applauding him for his offseason and how he is ahead of last year. I just do not understand how he is ahead but not playing at all. Our secondary is still a concern compared with other parts of our D, which are looking good, so why not try to infuse Dowling into a game situation? Fact is, he is a big, physical corner and may be the exact boost our secondary needs. I think being a judge of him in just practice is unfair to him and the team because he can help if given time in game situations. While it is not as bad as last year in some people's eyes, we clearly need to try something different back there. Thoughts? -- Greg (Lincoln, R.I.)
A. Greg, like you, I'd be interested in seeing more of Dowling as his drop-off has also caught my attention. He was the nickelback in the season opener (36 snaps) and has played 20 snaps total over the next four games, with 11 coming Sunday against the Broncos in a linebacker-type role as the dime back. The main conclusion I draw is that whatever happened in the season opener (he did have a pass interference penalty), or perhaps the ensuing week of practice, wasn't to the liking of the coaching staff. I hear what you are saying about practice, but if there is anything we've learned from Bill Belichick's 13-year tenure as Patriots coach, it's that nothing is given to anyone around here. You have to earn it -- every day. Right now, it looks like rookie Alfonzo Dennard, the seventh-round pick out of Nebraska, is ahead of Dowling.
Q. Hi Mike, something that ties in with your note about the Pats lining Rob Ninkovich up on the right side at times is his performance there, on a percentage basis, that dwarfs what he's done on the left side. He definitely showed up more the last two weeks than he has at any point thus far in 2012. ... I wonder if Belichick will start to rotate a bit more at end to keep them all fresh (Jermaine Cunningham?), and in doing so will return Ninkovich to his (assumed) more comfortable side on the right more often. -- Pat T. (Wakefield, Mass.)
A. Pat, I don't think it's as much of a "right side" versus "left side" thing with Ninkovich. If I had to pick out one reason he showed up more the past two weeks is that he was utilized a little more on the move -- not so much moving from left to right as it was dropping out, rushing forward, etc. I think Ninkovich is probably best when used in that type of role as compared to more of a stationary left-end role.
Q. Mike, kind of an off-topic question, but a question nonetheless: Why doesn't Eric Mangini have a job in the NFL? After watching him on ESPN for two years and last night in "A Football Life," he seems like a genuinely good guy with solid communication skills and a vast knowledge of football. Do you believe he has been "blackballed" within NFL circles for violating a code of silence regarding Spygate? He failed as a head coach, but one would think he could still make solid contributions as defensive coordinator. Would love to get your thoughts. -- Mike (Westwood, Mass.)
A. Mike, I feel the same way. I always thought Mangini was a solid coach and evaluator of talent. I wouldn't be surprised if part of it was Mangini's own doing, as he might be waiting for the right opportunity. The other part of it is relationships. So much of this league is about relationships, which lead to opportunity. The "Spygate" situation is a factor in that regard because I'd think no one with Patriots ties would be
interested in reconnecting and that limits opportunities.
Q. Mike, what players that were in the Patriots camp made the roster for other NFL teams? Jabar Gaffney, Dan Koppen, Andre Carter (loosely defined definition). Anyone else? Anybody that the Pats cut who you thought would have caught on elsewhere? -- Matt (Boston)
A. Matt, every Wednesday morning during the season, we've been doing a "Catching up with former Patriots" blog entry. We're going to add Jabar Gaffney (inactive for the Dolphins in Week 5) and Andre Carter (Raiders on a bye in Week 5) this week. Here is the link to that blog entry with some of the other players.
Q. Mike, will Jake Ballard and Myron Pryor be available at Week 6 or after, if at all? They both are on the PUP list and can return, correct? I think both could help significantly if healthy! -- Chuck G. (Oscoda, Mich.)
A. Chuck, both Ballard and Pryor are on the physically unable to perform list, and would be eligible to start practicing after the sixth week of the season. The assumption is that Ballard will need more time, while Pryor has a chance. They could use the depth with Pryor, especially after free-agent signing Jonathan Fanene didn't work out.
Q. Mike, maybe I missed it but will you be doing a blog post about catches vs. targets for the wide receivers, TE's and running backs this year? I always found that to be very interesting. -- Shane (Beacon Falls, Conn.)
A. Shane, I haven't been doing that on a weekly basis this year, but with your suggestion, will put one together this week. The reason I stopped is that sometimes the targets required added context (for example, a screen pass two weeks ago versus the Bills would count against Shane Vereen when in actuality Tom Brady was throwing the ball away), and other responsibilities were taking me away from providing that context on a weekly basis.
Q. Hey Mike, that Santonio Holmes fumble two weeks ago reminded me of a play in the early 2000s when a Patriot player pulled their hamstring and as a knee-jerk reaction he threw the ball down. Do you remember who that player was? -- Matt (Cambridge)
A. Matt, that was running back/fullback Patrick Pass.
Q. Mike, curious on Brain Hoyer. Is he playing football anywhere else? -- Phil (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Phil, Hoyer remains an unrestricted free agent. He previously was working out with a bunch of former Patriots in the area, and has also spent time closer to his roots in Cleveland. My sense is that he's on speed dial for the Patriots in the event of injury to Tom Brady or Ryan Mallett.
Q. Hi Mike! I've enjoyed your work ever since your time at the MetroWest Daily News. I've since moved to the West Coast and will be traveling up to Seattle to watch the Patriots take on the Seahawks. Are you planning on having a Tweet-up there next weekend? It would be great to meet you in person and talk some football the night before the game. -- Phil J. (Mountain View, Calif.)
A. Phil, a tweet-up is in the works, with details still coming together. We could be looking at Saturday afternoon. The plan will be to post final details on our Patriots blog on ESPNBoston.com. Thanks for the interest.
Mailbaggers love the hurry-up, but will they see it Sunday in Seattle?