Commentary

Patriots' depth tested again

Thrill of Sundays dramatic victory turns to concern about key players sidelined

Updated: October 15, 2013, 2:38 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

The New England Patriots' 30-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints was one of the team's most memorable regular-season games in recent memory, and it seemed like the 24 hours following it were mostly devoted to replaying the improbable ending. It was that special.

But now it's time to turn the page and assess the holes that have been created on the team's roster. They are plentiful, as the Patriots' depth has been, and will continue to be, tested. This is part of Bill Belichick's core philosophy of building the entire 61-man picture (53-man roster plus eight-man practice squad) as we've seen some key players sidelined.

That's where this week's mailbag begins.

Q. Hey Mike, Sunday was a great win for the Patriots, but it was also costly. Would it be fair to assume Aqib Talib and Dan Connolly should return soon, but Jerod Mayo and Danny Amendola are gone for a while if not the whole year? Secondly why can't somebody tell Amendola to not put himself out there so much? We all know he is an ultimate competitor, and extremely tough. Why does he feel a need to embrace contact and huge hits, leading to injuries? He is a small guy, with a history of getting hurt very often, so why haven't the Patriots told him to get out of bounds, or go down sometimes? I can't believe that Amendola is just that much more fragile than Welker, he must be doing something different. -- Joey (New York)

A. Joey, that would be my hunch on the injury situation, as well, that it's more shorter-term for Talib (hip) and Connolly (head), with Mayo (right shoulder) and Amendola (head) in a bit of a longer-range situation. The question remains on what the long-term really is. As for Amendola, I thought Tedy Bruschi once said it best -- his mentality doesn't match his durability. You don't ever want a player to lose his edge, but maybe there are ways he needs to tailor his playing style to preserve himself, similar to a quarterback giving himself up at the end of a run.

Q. The Patriots have endured a tough three-game stretch, yet they are 5-1 after a nail-biter against the once undefeated New Orleans Saints. Despite the injuries and slow start offensively, New England managed to jump out the gate with one of the best records in the NFL. At this point, I don't think anyone should be too critical because of the injuries. If the Patriots were 3-3 then there would be reasonable concern. However, they have found ways not only to stay in contests, but to also win, which is never a given. New England now has divisional games coming up against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins, and then the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's possible that New England will enter the bye with a 9-1 record overall and a 4-0 record in the division. Given the rash of injuries, do you feel they could rest over the next few weeks in order to keep them fresh for the postseason? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Alvin, I don't think "rest" is the mentality or mindset at this point. They have to keep winning games and improving, while attempting to build more positive momentum for when coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady often say the season truly starts, which is on Thanksgiving. Things are fragile in the NFL -- a team can be rolling along and then one week it drops off the cliff. Specific to the Patriots, players' health/availability is always managed, especially with the bye week in mind (Nov. 9-10) so maybe there is some element of that in play at this time. But I don't think that is the primary consideration right now.

Q. Mike: Next to the first Super Bowl victory and his first game back from surgery in 2009 (2 Ben Watson touchdowns at the end), Sunday might have been Tom Brady's finest moment. I know this group of receivers will come around in time and there were flashes such as the game-winning catch, but what does it say about the current state of the receiver corps when two of Tom's throws in the final minute go to a guy who hasn't played a snap for the team all year. These receivers are unreliable at this stage because of too many drops. Amendola doesn't drop the ball but he cannot be relied upon to stay healthy. Those of us who are still not over Wes' departure are furious at the front office for their reliance on Amendola. Wes would have popped up from that same big hit and would have made a gesture that worked the crowd into a fury. He did it time after time. Amendola is great when healthy but he is not and never has been durable. -- Keerock (Texas)

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
AP Photo/Steven SenneAqib Talib has been one of the best players on the Patriots' defense this season. If they lose him (hip) for any length of time, his shoes will be hard to fill.

A. That was one of the great moments of Brady's career, no doubt about it. I was trying to think of a better and more memorable comeback, outside of the Snow Bowl, and this one is definitely right up there. As for the Amendola-for-Welker swap, it's not looking good for the Patriots right now. I've maintained the stance that the verdict will ultimately be judged in time, based on championships, but if we're judging on the present snapshot I can't disagree with you.

Q. With Amendola down and out again, the repeat whining about not re-signing Welker, and how Amendola just has the injury bug is the main theme from many in the media. Why the lack of respect for Julian Edelman? Many of his stats are as good or exceeding that of Welker. While ripping the Amendola deal is standard, why can't detractors notice what Edelman is doing, and might Edelman have been at least a little help in getting to 5-1 without Welker? Declan -- (Chico, Cal.)

A. Declan, Edelman deserves respect for his contributions to the 2013 Patriots. He's totaled 41 catches for 411 yards and two touchdowns, while playing 84.8 percent of the offensive snaps. Here is his breakdown:

Saints: 43 of 88
Bengals: 60 of 63
Falcons: 64 of 66
Buccaneers: 68 of 73
Jets: 63 of 65
Bills: 83 of 94

At the same time, when it comes to the factors that led to Welker signing in Denver, I put Edelman lower on that list. It wasn't as if the Patriots upped the ante to keep him around as a free agent. It was more of a case in which he didn't have other offers and came back on a prove-it type of one-year deal for what was essentially minimum-level dollars. The Patriots invested bigger in Amendola -- his availability at the start of free agency was what primarily sparked the quick decision with Welker -- and that's why I think you hear more about that one-for-one exchange.

Q. Austin Collie made some big catches at the end. It was great to see. Do you see him moving up the depth chart as he gets more experience with Tom Brady? Hopefully he turns out to be a big contributor, but there was a reason a bunch of teams have passed on him. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A. Ashley, as we know, the primary reason Collie was available was his concussion history. From a pure talent standpoint, he's a professional route-runner with good hands and experience in big games. That has value. On Sunday, he was the No. 5 receiver on the depth chart and he bumped up to No. 4 after Amendola left in the third quarter with a head injury. Given the regularity in which the Patriots are now turning to the four-receiver package, if Amendola remains out, it makes sense to think we will see more of Collie.

Q. Hi Mike. Is the 80 snaps for Aaron Dobson a reflection of a growing confidence in him by the coaching staff, or simply a lack of other warm bodies? From this vantage point, it doesn't seem that he's earned the increased reps. In fact, apart from the occasional flash of talent, Dobson appears to drop far too many routine passes, has difficulty getting open on a consistent basis, and in many instances isn't where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be. Have you seen any evidence that Dobson can consistently help this team this year? -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)

[+] EnlargeDanny Amendola
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaDanny Amendola's head injury could leave the Patriots in a bind again at the receiver position.

A. I think it's a fair thought on the drops, Tman. Too many from Dobson. I would say that he's a little bit of a different type of receiver than the rest of the team's options -- taller at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds -- and that his expanded opportunities Sunday might have been as much about trying to pair contrasting styles of receivers together as much as him specifically earning it. For example, when the Patriots were in their three-receiver set in Cincinnati on Oct. 6, it was Kenbrell Thompkins (6-1), Edelman (5-10) and Amendola (5-10) on the field, and a fade was thrown to Edelman. On Sunday against the Saints, they put Dobson on the field and threw him a fade to utilize his size and leaping ability. That looked like a good adjustment to me, playing to the strength of the personnel. Obviously, that wasn't the only time he was on the field, but I think that was part of the overall consideration.

Q. Dramatic comebacks are all well and good yet the desperate situation would likely have been averted had they scored a touchdown on their previous visit to the red zone. Instead they ran the ball three times and kicked the field goal. So, why take the ball out of the hands of your Hall of Fame QB when the game is seemingly on the line? It seems to me that predictability is hurting the running game. Your thoughts? -- Jeffrey Thrasher (Stamford, Conn.)

A. Jeffrey, I had similar questions about the three runs inside the red zone and had noted it after the game as a "down." But then I watched the game over again, gathered more information on what unfolded, and my opinion shifted a bit. First, let's re-set the situation; it was first-and-goal from the 9 coming off two straight hard-charging 4-yard runs by Stevan Ridley. So they had some success with the run at that point. Second, if we go back to the Patriots' first red zone drive in the first quarter, the Saints played heavy coverage, rushing three and dropping eight and Brady was sacked on third down. If Brady had any pre-snap indication to know that was the Saints' defensive intention on that fourth-quarter series, the run is the best way to counter their approach if the offense can execute its blocking assignments. It's possible that Brady checked into those plays.

Q. The Patriots pass rush, aside from Chandler Jones once in a while, has been invisible. When's the last time Rob Ninkovich made a big play? -- (Winchester, Va.)

A. While they surely would like to get some more pressure out of the four-man rush, another part of it is specific to the game plan each week. Against the Saints, for example, they hardly blitzed and sacrificed part of the rush to disrupt the timing of the Drew Brees-led passing game in different ways (e.g. jamming receivers, using defensive ends to chip, make Brees hold the ball longer and re-set his feet etc.). On one of the best plays by the defense, in which Kyle Arrington intercepted Brees, it was just a three-man rush. So there are different ways to produce the desired result. As for Ninkovich, he is playing every snap, is rock solid against the run/setting the edge, and if you go back and look at Talib's interception in the Falcons game it was a Ninkovich pressure that set it up. So he's making plays. He just hasn't seen the "official" reward on the stat sheet.

Q. Aggressive play and positive change by defensive tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano. I think there is good upside with these younger guys where certain TV pundits predicted a gaping hole with Wilfork and Kelly out. I love the confidence and fun they are both playing with. -- MCLPATSFAN (Brownsburg, IN)

A. I wasn't expecting to see Chris Jones play every defensive snap. They really leaned on him heavily. He showed up on one second-quarter play defending the screen pass. Likewise for Vellano, who also drew a holding penalty. As Belichick said, it's not perfect (a couple of big runs up the middle in the third quarter), but it's hard to ask for much more than what those rookies have done at this point.

Q. Hi Mike, it was unbelievable if not shocking that Bill Belichick seemed to inexplicably so distrust his well-proven defense to stop Drew Brees that he was willing to risk it on fourth-and-6 in the fourth quarter. That ultimately forced the offense to get a TD instead of a FG to win. This is akin to the old Colts game on 4th down. The defense came through and was the real reason the Patriots were given one last desperate opportunity to drive and score. Your thoughts. -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, B.C.)

A. Jake, the short-handed defense absolutely came through, but I didn't interpret Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth down as a result of any lack of confidence in the defense. He had a play he liked and it was there to be made. You just have to catch the ball. So I didn't see going for it as anything more than just playing sound fundamental/situational football.

Q. Mike, huge win Sunday, but one of the concerns has to be play of the O-line. What was supposed to be a strength has, in my opinion, been less than what was expected, especially with the continuity and familiarity of having all starters back. Left tackle Nate Solder in particular seems to be struggling. Is this a legitimate are of concern and can Dante Scarnecchia correct it? -- Tom (Boston)

A Tom, I thought the offensive line bounced back from its performance the week before in Cincinnati specific to the running game. It was shaky at times in the passing game, but the Saints are a challenging scheme to play against and part of it was just good defensive football. They really mix it up -- sometimes with overload blitzes, other times just rushing three and dropping eight. They make it hard on teams. Maybe I'm being too easy, but I'd be surprised if the offensive line is an issue going forward for the team.

Q. Hi Mike, I think one of the least talked-about parts of the Patriot this year has been their lack of good kickoff returns. My guess is they can't be getting much further than the 20-yard line. I am not a huge fan of LeGarrette Blount in that role, and I certainly don't like jeopardizing someone like Devin McCourty. With Leon Washington not being healthy, what about trying someone with some speed? -- Mike (Newton, Mass.)

A. Mike, here are the numbers for the season: 10 kickoff returns, 228 yards, 22.8 average, with a long of 29 yards. The next option would probably be rookie receiver Josh Boyce. He'd be worth a look in that role. I don't see it with Blount.

Q. The fans leaving early didn't surprise me at all. I have made it to a Pats game once a year in Foxborough for over a decade and the crowds seem more anemic each year. I think it boils down to most Patriots fans hopped on board after the first Super Bowl. Everyone's expectations for the Patriots are so high, because they weren't fans in the tough days (that includes half my friends and family.) -- Paul Loomis (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A. Paul, that surprised me on Sunday to see a half-empty Gillette Stadium as the Patriots were making their dramatic final march. I think it surprised and disappointed some players, too. It would be more understandable if it was a prime-time game, or if this was a few decades ago and Mark Wilson or Hugh Millen was at quarterback. Tom Brady has engineered 38 comeback drives when the Patriots were either trailing or tied in the fourth quarter.

Q. I am confused by the Gronk situation. On one hand he has not been cleared to play by the doctors but on the other hand people, including his mother and Robert Kraft, say that only Gronk will know when he is ready to play. So who's call is it, the doctors or Gronks? -- Andrew (Albany, N.Y.)

A. Andrew, in the end it's Gronkowski's call. Only the player himself can ultimately determine when he's ready to play. There are numerous cases where players are cleared to practice but not yet play in games. My read on it is that it's less of a physical issue and more of a mental one -- when Gronkowski feels completely comfortable with stepping back on the field.

Q. Was Stevan Ridley's performance enough to finally win back the bulk of the carries moving forward? It seems Brandon Bolden drops half the balls that hit him in the hands, and LeGarrette Blount simply isn't as quick and elusive as Ridley. I understand they were annoyed by the fumbles, but Ridley had over 1,200 yards last year and double digit TDs, and he's losing carries to guys that aren't nearly as skilled as he is. -- Rick (Pelham, N.H.)

A. Yes, Rick, that's also the way I see it. There is a big difference when Ridley is in the game and he runs like he did Sunday. He led all running backs with 38 snaps, followed by Bolden (34) and Blount (16). I still think we'll see more of Blount in the "passing back" role, even with his drops and what might have been a blitz-pickup error. With Shane Vereen on short-term injured reserve, this team misses that Kevin Faulk/Danny Woodhead type presence.

Q. Hi Mike, curious to know why the Pats haven't been trying to trade for a NT/DT around the league. Wilfork's loss is being felt by the run defense. Also with Tommy Kelly's injury status week to week will the Pats seek a trade to help the DL out or will they keep bringing in guys who have been cut. I would hope they'd attempt to fix the holes by trading draft pick like they did with Talib last year. -- William (New York City)

A. William, they are obviously exploring their options, but those situations/options aren't plentiful. First, you need to find a dance partner and then the player has to be a fit. Then the compensation needs to marry up. Sometimes it falls into place, such as with Deion Branch in 2010 or Talib in 2012. But those are usually the exception more than the rule.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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