Commentary

Patriots raise readers' spirits

Fans feel better after rout, but that doesn't mean they don't have questions

Updated: October 30, 2012, 1:29 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

LONDON -- Unlike the past two weeks, when frustrations percolated and the weekly Patriots mailbag was filled with fiery questions and widespread concern, things have settled down a bit this week.

That's what a convincing 45-7 victory over the Rams at Wembley Stadium will do.

Many of the submissions this week were more neutral in nature, focusing on personnel decisions and strategy. It was a nice change-up heading into the bye week.

Bill Belichick has scheduled one practice during the bye, on Thursday, giving players a well-deserved break. It's not a full seven-day respite, which Rex Ryan gave the Jets, but certainly plenty of time for players to recover and mentally give themselves a break.

Here we go …

Q. Hi Mike, I'm wondering if you think it's time to move Devin McCourty to safety full time, like Tebucky Jones. He's a great tackler and it would give some of the younger players like Alfonzo Dennard a chance to get reps and hopefully improve at corner over the course of the season. It's a gamble, but when you make Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez look like Montana and Elway, you probably are not a serious championship contender anyway. -- Slup (Acton, Mass.)

A. Slup, this one reminds me more of Eugene Wilson in 2003 than Tebucky Jones before him. I think it could definitely work with McCourty at safety, but here is the concern from this perspective: You want to put your best four defensive backs on the field, and I think if everyone is healthy and playing up to their potential, the puzzle pieces probably fit best with McCourty at left corner and either Dennard or Kyle Arrington at right corner, with two from the Steve Gregory/Patrick Chung/Tavon Wilson trio at safety. One other thought: Just because the Patriots made Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez look good doesn't eliminate them from championship contention from this perspective. I don't see a team head and shoulders above the pack this year. I think it's wide open.

Q. Mike, looking at the Patriots' offensive execution over the first eight games, one thing has stood out to me -- the most effective Patriots offense is on the field when Aaron Hernandez isn't. With all due respect to Aaron and his abilities, I think that Josh McDaniels and the rest of the play-callers get too creative and over-focus on the Hernandez "matchup", getting away from what they do best. The offense has Gronk as the biggest mismatch, and when Hernandez isn't available they focus on that and are much more effective. What are your thoughts going forward? -- Sean (South Boston)

A. Sean, I see this as two different thoughts. The first is if the Patriots are a better team with or without Hernandez. I think they're better with him. The second is if Hernandez's presence leads to a different offensive plan that isn't as effective as what they're doing without him. I don't see it. I did think the Patriots streamlined things a bit versus the Rams, but to me, that's more specific to the matchup than anything else. They felt like they didn't have to get too creative because they were winning the simple one-on-one matchups. It won't be like that every week.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Lloyd
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireBrandon Lloyd's two touchdowns against the Rams deserved some attention, a reader writes.

Q. I had a strange thought this week that, once again, one of the Patriots' best rushing days was in a game where Logan Mankins didn't play. I still think of Mankins as elite, but is that notion outdated? Or is something else at play? Is there maybe an O-line configuration that uses him somewhere else along the line and keeps in some of these other guys? Confused, but loving the strong running we've seen this season from Ridley and others. -- Tim J. (Upland, Ind.)

A. Tim, I think this is a similar scenario to Aaron Hernandez in the question above. I still think they are a better team with a healthy Mankins in the lineup. Take nothing away from Donald Thomas, who has done a solid job filling in, but I do believe they would have had similar results in those specific matchups with Mankins in the lineup.

Q. Mike, I realize that your "3 up, 3 down" segment is a quick, gut reaction posted immediately following the game, but I think that after we've had some time to go back and think about it, it'll be evident that Brandon Lloyd also played a pivotal role. Not only did he have two touchdown catches, but he also laid out several key blocks to spring other big plays. Given some of the missed connections he's had with Brady over the past few weeks, I thought this was a huge game for him going into the bye week. -- Neil (South Boston)

A. Neil, Lloyd was excellent in the game. I guess I wasn't as down on him as others following his disappointing performance against the Jets, so there wasn't a feeling that he necessarily had to turn in a top performance to regain confidence or anything like that. I looked at it as one poor game in an otherwise productive season. He's helped the team and I think he will continue to help the team, as he did Sunday against the Rams.

Q. Hi Mike. First of all, hope you got home safely and in a timely manner from London. Secondly, I think with all of the attention paid to the secondary and some other struggles in recent weeks, we need to give some props to what people thought may be a liability at the beginning of the year -- the O-line. In recent weeks they have played pretty well despite some health issues with their best linemen, Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer. Nate Solder hasn't been mentioned too much, which is a good thing, and Dante Scarnecchia has taken some developmental players like Donald Thomas and Nick MacDonald, and they've performed pretty well when called upon. Props to the unit for keeping it together thus far when so many were worried that they were the weak link on the squad. -- Kevin F. (Framingham, Mass.)

A. Thanks, Kevin. One of my favorite moments of the preseason was when Dante Scarnecchia came to the defense of the line during joint practices in Tampa. I think the first credit goes to the players, as they are the ones out there doing it. But I loved Scarnecchia's reflecting back to 2001 and how Matt Light had some growing pains initially replacing Patriots Hall of Famer Bruce Armstrong. It's a process, and we forget that sometimes. And one player we forgot to mention -- starting center Ryan Wendell. Similar to what you noted about Solder, the fact we haven't really noticed Wendell is a credit to him.

Q. Recently when discussing the secondary, you didn't want to blame the coaching, saying that Josh Boyer was a "good coach." Since he's been with the team, I have not seen any DB improve their game. In fact, I feel several have gotten worse under his watch. I think Boyer's results have been poor, but since I respect your opinion, I'm very curious as to why you feel he is a good coach. -- Rich D. (Easton, Mass.)

A. Rich, the reason I feel that way is that Boyer has been coached by Bill Belichick, so he's well-schooled in what Belichick wants from his defensive backs. I think he does a good job coaching and communicating what Belichick wants. In this case, I don't think it's an issue of coaching as much as it is talent evaluation. If any of the defensive backs went on to greater things elsewhere, I might feel a little differently. Furthermore, my feelings are strong on this because I watched one of the NFL's best assistant coaches, Dom Capers, coach the secondary in 2008. The unit had a tough year in '08.

Q. It's good to have the bye week to get the Patriots healthy. Also, I think it's important that the Patriots, after the break, will have two straight home games for the first time. They play five home games and three road games the second half of the year including the two home games against the best teams they have to face -- the Texans and the 49ers. What are your thoughts on the importance of that? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, when the schedule came out in April, I think most of us agreed that it was a front-loaded slate in terms of travel. If we go back to the preseason, the Patriots have been on the road for seven of their past 10 games. That's a grind. I think the schedule sets up nicely for them in the second half of the year from a home-away perspective, although those two Dolphins games look a lot tougher now, don't they?

Q. This bye week might be a good time to remind everybody of two things: 1. That's why they play the game; 2. It's a long season. What I'm referring to is the fact that this St. Louis Rams team is the same team that beat the Seahawks and Cardinals in back-to-back weeks by 6 and 14 points, only to have their doors blown off by the Pats this week. Let's see where the Pats are after 16 weeks. -- Tom (Boston)

A. It's a good perspective, Tom. There are ups and downs in every season and the scrutiny is as high as any time I can remember, for pretty much every team. It's no fun to flatline everything from the external perspective, as getting emotionally invested is part of what makes following/analyzing a team fun, but I think it's best done with this perspective in mind. This is the type of performance that shows what the Patriots are capable of producing. But we already know they won't be able to do that every week. No team can.

Q. Mike, from a media person's perspective, how do you see the possibility of the NFL expanding to Europe and having a London-based team? You now have recorded two trips to London and have worked on travels, time zones and other tidbits overseas. I am guessing language is the least issue in London for a Boston media person, but other than that how do you envision the future of the NFL in the other side of the pond? -- Mark J. (Japan)

A. Mark, I'm not looking for any sympathy here because I feel fortunate to get to experience something like this. I had never been to London before, and because of covering the Patriots, I've had the good fortunate to do it twice (2009 and 2012) and tour this great city. At the same time, work-wise, these trips can be challenging from a logistical perspective. The general stress level is higher, and that's the case even if we get great support from the NFL's communications office. I said to a colleague that I think it would be tough to be covering the Jacksonville Jaguars, because they will play here once a year from 2013 to 2016. There is no disrespect meant to anyone in London, but just sharing the perspective of a media member on these trips. I also question how it can work from an NFL perspective. I can't see a team based here, but I could envision a scenario in which every team plays one game here each season.

Q. Hi Mike, it was interesting to read about the Patriots' seemingly laid-back approach to their London trip and also to hear how positive Robert Kraft and all the players were. But I can't help but think that at the end of the day, what we're really talking about is the NFL robbing a fan base (next year, two fan bases) of a home game solely to increase its own profits. Given all the examples of the NFL putting financial gain over fans, maybe this is something that we should be thinking a little more critically about. Would we really be so positive about this if it meant taking a game out of Foxborough? -- Gus (Los Angeles)

A. Gus, I don't think there would be as much of a positive vibe if it meant one fewer home game at Gillette Stadium. In fact, Robert Kraft wouldn't have the Patriots over here if it meant losing a home game. That's why the teams that come over to London for "home" games are ones who are struggling a bit at home or have stadium/lease issues. In a sense, it's almost like a leverage play by the NFL with those cities on behalf of the teams.

Q. I'm hoping that you can answer this because I cannot come up with any reason why BB continues to keep Kyle Arrington starting? What keeps this guy on the field? I have never seen a player get beat as many times as he does. I know we are thin in terms of secondary talent, but at this point anyone looks better than Arrington. -- Lorenzo R. (Staten Island, N.Y.)

A. Lorenzo, I think Arrington is a good player who has hit a bit of a rough patch here. Some of the things I think the coaching staff likes are his toughness, ball skills, knowledge of the defense and physical presence versus the run. As a coach, there is always a balance to strike when a player dips a bit. Do you stick with the player or turn to someone else and risk losing the player even more? Arrington has played some good football for the Patriots (NFL-high seven interceptions in 2011). I thought the way Belichick stuck with Devin McCourty and Stephen Gostkowski this season paid dividends, so I can understand why he's doing the same with Arrington.

Q. Hi Mike, I thought Marquice Cole looked very good Sunday as the nickelback. His coverage was tight and he seemed to have knocked down a couple of passes -- two things that have been sorely lacking in the secondary so far this year. He also looked great on special teams. I certainly hope that his hamstring injury is not a serious one. Given the Patriots' struggles in pass defense, why has he been on the bench this long? If he regains full health, do you see him becoming a starter or regular contributor in the secondary for the rest of the season? -- Chris (Toronto)

A. Chris, I thought Cole was competitive in coverage as well. He's done it before with the Jets, so I think that highlights his value as a slot defender and special teams contributor. If he plays like that, he will press for more playing time in sub packages, assuming good health. As for why we haven't seen much of him before Sunday, I'm not sure, to be honest. The coaching staff has preferred Kyle Arrington in the slot, and as noted above, I think Arrington is a good player as well who has just hit a little tough skid here.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Joe Toth/US PresswireThe Patriots rode the hot hand at running back against the Rams, with Stevan Ridley drawing 17 second-half carries.

Q. What is your take on this constant shuffling of RBs? I feel that they never give anyone the opportunity to get in the flow of the game. I would think it would make the guys tense and scared to make a mistake, because if they do they might not see the field again. I know the feeling is that it will create more healthy competition, but I don't know. To me, it doesn't seem to give anyone the opportunity to get on a roll (unless you are going against Buffalo's D). -- Andrew (Apex, N.C.)

A. Andrew, my feeling is that it's bad for fantasy owners but a good approach as long as you're not too married to it and eliminate the possibility of riding the hot hand. I thought this past game was a good example of being flexible in that regard. In the first half, Stevan Ridley had 13 snaps, Danny Woodhead 13 and Shane Vereen 12. But in the second half, they rode Ridley with 17, compared to seven apiece for Woodhead and Vereen.

Q. Mike, how likely do you see the Pats going all in to sign Danny Amendola in the offseason? I think he could put up some Wes Welker numbers. -- Thanos (Scituate, Mass.)

A. Thanos, it's easy to see why any team would be interested in Amendola. But I'm going to stick with my belief that Wes Welker will ultimately be back with the Patriots. Welker has proven his worth this season, and I believe the sides will find a way to work out an agreement that works for both of them.

Q. Do you think Sam Bradford would be considered an elite QB if he were lucky enough to have landed on a team like the Pats? He sure looks like he has the talent. -- Adam (Cranston, R.I.)

A. Adam, I like what I've seen from Bradford in the few times I've watched him. He's been unlucky to be in three different offensive systems in his first three seasons in the NFL. This stunts development. Along those lines, think of how lucky Tom Brady has been -- same system for 13 years running. I'm not saying that's the reason for Brady's success, but it helps.

Q. Julian Edelman is a fearless and capable punt returner, but with his success on punt returns, why isn't he used on kickoff returns as well? -- Otis (Boston)

A. Otis, he's done it in the past. Edelman has 23 career kickoff returns for 525 yards (22.8-yard average). I don't know this for sure, but it could just be a way to reduce the big hits he takes.

Q. Hey Mike, it seems like Michael Hoomanawanui (I had to cut and paste that, no way I could spell that last name!) was really key in the blocking game on the goal line. He also had a pretty good catch coming out of the backfield. He blocks like a fullback and caught the ball like a tight end. I think he was a good pick-up for the Pats. Do you think his role will continue to grow, especially as a blocker, or will Hernandez coming back healthy keep that from happening? -- Sam (Brunswick, Maine)

A. Sam, I also thought Hoomanawanui did some good things in the game. When projecting the return of tight end Visanthe Shiancoe from the injured reserve list, I wondered if maybe Hoomanawanui's spot would be in jeopardy. But I could envision a scenario in which they keep him as a fifth tight end/lead fullback. I think he's shown he has some value, both on offense and on special teams (three units vs. the Rams).

Q. Hey Mike, with the impending return of Visanthe Shiancoe, who has been a productive pass-catching TE in the past, whose roster spot do you view as being in jeopardy? Daniel Fells was considered a good offseason signing, a guy with a pedigree as a solid combo TE. While he has struggled with injuries, Fells hasn't seemed to live up to expectations since his return. Meanwhile, Michael Hoomanamanui seems to have carved out a niche role on this team as a blocking TE, lead blocking fullback and even an occasional pass-catcher. That 19-yard catch was a great play Sunday. Is it possible that the Patriots could even keep all five TEs on the active roster and cut someone like Deion Branch, who, despite playing the majority of the snaps last night, was held without a catch. -- Dave (New York)

A. Dave, as we saw with Branch being cut at the end of the preseason, anything is possible. I'd be surprised at that one though. While Branch didn't have a catch, he did draw a pass interference penalty and there is a comfort level that Tom Brady obviously appreciates. I could actually envision a scenario in which they keep five tight ends, especially with injury considerations in mind. I could see someone like defensive back Malcolm Williams going back to the practice squad to create room for Shiancoe. On Fells, I think he sticks. He's a valuable asset to the Patriots and looks like their most consistent blocking tight end to me.

Q. Mike, have you heard any news related to Jeff Demps? How has his recovery been? Did you pick up anything else related to why he was redshirted this year (injury did not seem that serious when it happened in the preseason game). The RBs have been solid this year, but it would have been nice for TB12 to have Demps' speed as another option. -- Matt (Boston)

A. Matt, Demps was around the locker room in recent weeks and he seemed to be doing just fine. I think in addition to the injury, it's also a matter of him building up some more overall strength. He'll be in the mix next season. As for the running back corps right now, as you mentioned, it's been solid with Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen. I think a lot of the concern regarding the loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis in free agency has subsided.

Q. Mike, saw your comments about Ras-I Dowling in "quick-hit" thoughts. Are the Pats not so good at identifying good defensive backs in the draft or are they deficient at developing young DBs? -- Ben F. (Windhoek, Namibia)

A. Ben, I'd lean toward the first explanation. If a bunch of draft picks weren't making it with the Patriots but going on to bigger things elsewhere, it would be easier to think it's a developmental thing. Too many misfires for Bill Belichick's liking. At the same time, he'll be the first to say that nobody is perfect.

Q. Hi Mike, is it concerning that Myron Pryor doesn't appear ready to contribute yet? It seems like with most of last season, the entire offseason and half of this season, he should be 100 percent healthy. I think the interior pass rush has been weak, and if Pryor can get on the field he might be able to help. Asking Wilfork to play all but a series or two a game isn't helping, and he can't be expected to be very explosive in the pass rush that way. Unfortunately, the Jonathan Fanene move didn't work out too. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, I don't think Pryor is that far off. If he still hasn't been activated after the next two weeks, then I might up the level of concern. I thought the Rams game showed the need for another interior presence behind Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love. Backups Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace were quiet.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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