Running from mediocrity

It's tough to put a finger on the 2012 New England Patriots, which is the theme of this week's mailbag.

Can this team really win it all? Or is what we've seen through seven games an accurate reflection of where things are headed?

Opinions from e-mailers are wide-ranging.

The Patriots travel to London on Thursday for Sunday's game against the Rams. It's been a grind for them to this point of the season, but if they record a win, they'll be 5-3, the same record they had through eight games last year.

The AFC is wide open, the Patriots are right in the mix, and we'll open up this week with some bigger-picture perspective.

Q. I think the last few years have taught us that the dominant NFL team in October doesn't win in February. I think the Pats have plenty of time to solidify their defense and make a run regardless of their playoff seed. Am I delusional? -- Ken (New York)

A. Ken, there is certainly still time to get things in order and I do believe the Patriots are a good football team. What you don't want is for the Pats to dig too deep a hole early in the year that they can't get out of it. A Bill Belichick-coached team traditionally improves each year and I'd expect to see the D make some strides as we get deeper into the season. But will that be good enough? I don't see them suddenly becoming a dominant unit. I think we could put the offense in there as well -- improvement is needed, particularly when it comes to closing out games.

Q. Hey Mike, I wonder how many Giants fans were throwing in the towel during their five- or six-week losing streak last season? I think this was actually a huge win for the team -- coming from behind in the last 2 minutes and winning when things weren't going their way. It's especially important for the younger members of the team on defense to get a win like this. When Tom Brady was one of the young guys, this team used to be the one that was always coming from behind late to steal tough wins. All they need to do now is play the fourth quarter as well as they do the first three and they'll be fine. It can't be overstated that these divisional games are extremely tough and absolutely essential to win if the team is going to have a chance to play in January. If they can get to the bye at 5-3, I think they'll be in great position. Thoughts? -- Jon H. (Los Angeles)

A. Great points, Jon. This is still a young team and that type of victory -- especially coming off the disappointment in Seattle -- is extremely important. I thought Tom Brady's comment after the game was telling: "We have the whole season ahead of us. We've been fighting injuries, like every team has. We play a very important game this weekend and then we get a bye, which will be good for this team." It is not often that Brady references injuries or looks beyond the next game, and the remark reinforced my belief that this team is really hurting. If they can gut out a win over the Rams in London, they'll be in solid position at the bye. The Week 9 bye looks good at the start of the year -- right in the middle of the season -- but this year it's been a struggle for the banged-up Patriots to get there.

Q. Hi Mike, the seeming apologetic claim that the Patriots have many young players/rookies and injuries is not good enough to explain away or rationalize the erratic/inconsistent performance of the team. Many other teams are in the same situation, and the Patriots' offense still has more talent than most. Thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)

A. Jake, my main thoughts are that few expected the Patriots to be in this spot -- 4-3 and struggling to close out games. This team has a lot of question marks right now. At the same time, we've seen them play at a championship level in spurts in all three areas, so my feeling is that we know they can do it. The question is can they do it consistently when it counts. I wouldn't bet against them.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm curious about the possibility of the Patriots shoring up their hapless defensive backfield and, more specifically, the possibility of them doing it this season. It's become abundantly clear that the Pats have failed to fix the secondary through the draft, so what are the odds off them pulling off a trade to shore up the secondary NOW? Perhaps they could trade a second-round pick to a team like the Browns for a shutdown corner like Joe Haden? It just seems like we've wasted the prime of Tom Brady's career by having a miserable secondary. Adding a guy like Joe Haden would help this team immensely (and may have won us the Super Bowl last year). -- Patrick (New York)

A. Patrick, the Patriots haven't made many trades at the deadline in Bill Belichick's previous 12 seasons as coach, which makes me think it's unlikely. I was reminded on Twitter that the team did trade Randy Moss and acquired Deion Branch, but I view those as more the exception than the rule. In general, teams usually aren't willing to trade a top corner. If you're the Browns, for example, would a second-round pick really be worth more than Haden? I wouldn't think so. In the end, the most likely scenario is coaching up the players already on the roster and hoping for the best with whatever combination you feel gives you the best chance.

Q. Hi Mike. There has been some talk that the eventual return of starting safeties Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung is reason for optimism. However, Gregory has not played particularly well (Bills game), and hasn't always tackled well (Ravens game). Chung has played so poorly this year that one almost wonders who the imposter is. He has taken bad angles that bring back memories of Tebucky Jones and Brandon Meriweather. His pass coverage has also been suspect at best. Given the evidence of their play in previous games, I just don't see the re-introduction of the two injured starting safeties back into the starting lineup as some elixir that will cure the many ills of the secondary. Thoughts? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

A. Tman, I think you make fair points. I viewed Chung as a disappointment through the first six games. He doesn't just need to return to the field, he also needs to return to his past form. Conversely, while Gregory has had some ups and downs, I think his calming presence and ability to get everyone lined up would be a benefit to have back on the field. If Chung doesn't improve, maybe the answer is to have Gregory and Tavon Wilson as the starting safeties, with Chung in a support role.

Q. The Patriots defense has faced Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez in the last two weeks. Neither of them had put up big passing numbers until they faced the Patriots. The Rams are 25th in passing in the NFL and the Rams' offensive line has already given up 21 sacks. With a Patriots defense that has had an inconsistent pass rush and some poor coverage recently, are we looking at the possibility that the Patriots make Sam Bradford better than he is like they did with Wilson and Sanchez? Why could the game be different? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, I don't think anyone can say with certainty that this game will be different. But one thing we know is that every week is a fresh slate, some different personnel might up available/not available, and there are different individual matchups that either present advantages and/or stress for teams. For example, the Rams' offensive line looks weaker than the Seahawks' and Jets' from this vantage point, so perhaps that will help the Patriots. Then again, if you were to line up Russell Wilson, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford and give me my pick, I'd take Bradford, so that could balance things off. So to sum it up, hang on for the ride. This could be another wild one.

Q. Hey Mike, the secondary is obviously receiving a lot of criticism for its continual inept performance. However, I think the defensive play-calling is the bigger issue. The lack of consistent pressure by the front four is leaving opposing quarterbacks plenty of time to dissect the secondary. New England's stubbornness to not blitz is infuriating to me. It seems the team's safeties and linebackers are incapable of blitzing. I can't remember the last time I saw Patrick Chung blitzing. My question to you is why wouldn't they at least TRY blitzing more? The pass defense can't get any worse from what it is now. -- Ian C. (Bangkok, Thailand)

Ian, I also like more of a pressure-based style. I don't have the numbers, but I'd guess that the Patriots have one of the lowest percentages of blitzes in the NFL. They sprinkle them in there, but it's not a big part of their plan most weeks as they balance the risk-reward of blitzing (in theory, a blitzing team is more vulnerable to the big play because they are taking a player out of coverage, and if the rush doesn't get there, it could be trouble). Last week, my sense was that the plan was to rush four, make Mark Sanchez go through his progressions, and see if he could beat them. He almost did, so in retrospect, you look at it and say, "Maybe they would have been better forcing the issue more." I remember when Dom Capers was here in 2008 as a special assistant/secondary coach, the thought intrigued me that maybe the Patriots would integrate some Pittsburgh-based zone blitz schemes into their arsenal. It never happened. This is what the Patriots do, and essentially have done for most of Belichick's tenure, and it seems like they're convinced it's the right approach -- for better or worse.

Q. The vanilla, sit back in a deep cover-2 isn't working. We are getting beat deep and underneath anyway. Why not try to take advantage of some youth and athleticism and let guys stunt, blitz, fly around a little more? The results couldn't be worse, could they? -- Luigi V. (Austin, Texas)

A. Luigi, they played quite a bit of man coverage on Sunday against the Jets, so I think it would be a mistake to pigeon-hole them as a pure Cover-2 scheme. I happen to like a little more blitzing as well because I feel it gives you a better chance to dictate play, but at the same time I think we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking a blitz will automatically produce better results. It has to be a balance.

Q. Could the Patriots' inability to perform to expectations late in games be related to conditioning of the respective offensive and defensive lines? This seems to be the pattern over the past few years, especially against the more physical teams. Sustaining a pass rush into the fourth quarter appears to be a problem. In addition, pounding the ball on the ground hasn't been able to pick up the first downs to maintain possession and kill the clock. Your thoughts? -- Mike B. (Bluffton, S.C.)

A. Mike, it's possible, although I don't view it that way. I think it's mostly a combination of execution/play-calling. Offensively, there is nothing about conditioning when I revisit Brandon Lloyd's offensive pass interference penalty on a crucial first-down play late in the fourth quarter against the Jets, or Tom Brady's ill-advised decision to loft a should-be interception into the arms of Antonio Cromartie. That's execution to me. And to run on second-and-20 in that situation, that's play-calling from this perspective.

Q. Mike, while team expectations are fast approaching mediocrity, it is time for Brandon Lloyd to be a dependable target and spread the field. Safeties are supporting the run defense, not concerned about the edges. TB needs the option. Thoughts? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, I think most would agree that Sunday's 29-26 overtime win over the Jets wasn't Lloyd's best performance with the team. But I remember writing last week how fun it is to watch him work a sideline when he's making tough catches, so I wouldn't get too carried with one result. I think Lloyd has already helped the team, and he'll continue to do so.

Mike, saw you listed Ras-I Dowling in your 3-down segment. While I agree he obviously made those errors you listed, I thought his good plays (which you mentioned as well) outweighed the bad, and he showed flashes of being a decent CB. To me, in a limited sample, it seems like Alfonzo Dennard and Dowling are at least making plays on the ball, which I have seen very little of from Kyle Arrington or even Chung. -- Bob (Washington, D.C.)

A. Bob, I struggled with that choice at the game, and I always point out that the "3 up, 3 down" blog post is more of a gut reaction than one after a more measured film study. I've since re-watched the game, and I probably would have subbed out Dowling, and put Kyle Arrington in his place. Obviously Dowling's performance wasn't as consistent as you'd like, but you see flashes. I think he's a presence at the outside cornerback spot, and when they put him there in nickel at times, the first thought I had was that is where he truly belongs (not in the linebacker-type role in dime). We'll see how his injury affects any momentum he might have built in the eyes of the coaching staff.

Q. Hi Mike, why aren't all the 53 players on the roster allowed to be active for a game? -- Neeraj (D.C.)

A. Neeraj, the reason all 53 players aren't allowed to be active for a game is with injuries and competitive reasons in mind. A quick trip back in time: Prior to 1993, teams had been allowed to place players on injured reserve and bring them back later in the season. That changed in 1993 when the league made two notable changes: 1) Created the season-ending injured reserve rule; 2) Created the active/inactive list on a game-to-game basis. So the active/inactive list system, which remains in place today, is a way for teams to keep injured players on the roster without having competitive balance affected too much.

Q. Mike, I think the year-over-year poor play of the secondary/defense means Bill Belichick loses his rep as a defensive genius. Hall of Fame coach yes, defensive genius no. The defense hasn't been playing at a high level for years. It's either talent, coaching, or schemes. All roads lead back to the same source -- Belichick. The Giants defenses he coordinated were great year after year, but that was a long time ago. -- Griff T. (Winchester, Va.)

A. Griff, I don't think anyone is calling Belichick a defensive genius these days. I understand the frustration of followers that the Patriots haven't been able to turn a more decisive corner on defense.

Q. Mike I think a lot of Patriots fans like myself have been spoiled with success and are truly in denial about the plight of the current team. And it's easy to blame the defense, which certainly deserves blame, but the play-calling is bland and unoriginal and conservative (mostly defense) and this seems to continually put the Pats on their toes and sadly in a position to lose. The defensive backfield has become a punch line and a national joke, and sadly these guys couldn't find a receiver with a GPS. But the truth is that Bill Belichick needs to finally be held responsible, as he's had six years to improve this defense and he hasn't gotten it done. He's wasted Tom Brady's twilight years, and for you or anyone to say that this can be improved by year's end, well I'll return to my original idea, DENIAL! When does Robert Kraft hold Belichick accountable and either make him hire coordinators and personnel guys that are not puppets, guys who truly get to run their department, or gives Bill the ultimate ultimatum, Coach or GM, but not both if you refuse to evolve. It's broken and it needs to be fixed. -- Howard T. (West New York, N.J.)

A. Howard, it's true that we've been talking about defensive issues, on and off, since the 2005 season. And I have also wondered if the team might have been able win another Super Bowl since that time with a stronger defense. I have questions about the scheme as well, and these aren't new. But then I stop myself and say, "If David Tyree doesn't make that ridiculous catch in Super Bowl XLII, or Tom Brady and Wes Welker make that connection in Super Bowl XLVI, are we even having this discussion?" Maybe we still are, but the point I take away is that as frustrating as the defense has been to watch at times, this team is still consistently in the championship hunt. Would it be nice if the defense could make a one-year Houston Texans-type turnaround like we saw after they hired Wade Phillips as coordinator? Of course. But I just don't see a scenario right now where Belichick would do something like that, and given his winning resume, I don't see a scenario where Kraft would step in and insist on such a change.

Q. With all of this negativity can I lighten up the mood and point out that the transition from Matt Light to Nate Solder has been great? I haven't heard anything about Solder, which for an offensive lineman is perfect. Also he's had some devastating blocks. Your thoughts? -- Tyler (Bangor, Maine)

A. Tyler, you've officially brought some positive vibes into the mailbag. It reminded me of line coach Dante Scarnecchia's passionate defense of Solder during a joint practice in Tampa on Aug. 22. Scarnecchia was right -- these things have a way of working themselves out.

Q. Mike, just want to revisit the discussion from earlier in the season about who the Pats might next target for an early re-signing. As the season progresses, it seems less likely to me that the Pats would look to re-sign Patrick Chung or Sebastian Vollmer. I just don't think Chung is that good, and the injury risk on Vollmer still seems too high. But, what do you think about Brandon Spikes? If his game continues to progress, and if he can stay healthy through the season, it seems to me that the Pats might look to give him a long-term deal. Thoughts? -- Jeff (Arlington, Va.)

Jeff, I'd agree with the thoughts on Chung and Vollmer. As for Spikes, I view him on the rise, like others. If the team feels like it's getting a bargain by going in early, why not? Otherwise, I don't see the team being too aggressive in that area at this time.

Q. Mike, do you have any updated information on the Brian Waters situation? The Pats' O-line has only been average this year and I think they really miss Waters in the lineup. Why not pay the guy what he wants? -- Pete (Central Vermont)

A. Pete, I haven't heard that anything has changed with Waters and the Patriots. I also don't view the offensive line as a primary reason for some of the inconsistency on offense; I think that group has been pretty good.

Q. Hi Mike, I took my son to Seattle to see our very first football game live when the Patriots were there. We had great seats, and were so close we could actually "smell" football from where we were sitting. Here's what stood out to me in person... I have never in my life seen a ball long-snapped so hard, so fast, and so perfect. Do you know the velocity of Danny Aiken's snap? These little things are sometimes lost on TV, but I can tell you, it's incredible to witness it in real life. -- Ron B. (Salmon Arm B.C. Canada)

A. Ron, in general, snappers like to be at .75 seconds on a punt. For a field goal, an ideal operation from snap to kick is 1.3 seconds.

Q. Hi Mike, how do you feel Bill Belichick and the Pats view traveling for Sundays game in London?? I can tell you it's going to feel like a home game, as there are a LOT of Pats fans over here. To say I'm excited would be the understatement of the year. -- Marc (London)

A. Marc, the excitement is what it's all about. Great stuff and it's why the NFL is continuing to play these games in London. I'm looking forward to it as well. I do think the trip is a burden of sorts for Belichick and his staff from a football perspective, but he also understands this helps the business side of things. Belichick likes the competition, no matter the location. The message he drives home to his players is that this is a business trip, and that's the way he views it as well.