Commentary

Up and down at midseason

Updated: October 29, 2013, 10:56 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Last year's NFL trade deadline was exciting for the Patriots, as they acquired cornerback Aqib Talib from the Buccaneers. Will they be wheeling and dealing again this year?

We'll find out by the end of the day Tuesday, and that's the topic that leads off this week's Patriots mailbag.

As for where things stand with the team, quarterback Tom Brady summed it up this way after Sunday's 27-17 win over the Dolphins: "We're 6-2 and we've got a whole season ahead of us, but we obviously have to do a better job."

No question, it's been a struggle at times for the Patriots, and if the NFL wrote the endings at midseason, they might be in trouble. But as we know, that's not the way it works. A lot of things can happen, and as Bill Belichick and Brady sometimes say, the real season starts after Thanksgiving.

Here we go ...

Q: Hi Mike, it is impressive to see how well the defensive newbie trio of Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Logan Ryan have stepped up and improved in each game. Given this fact plus a lack of skilled talent on the market, Belichick is highly unlikely to do anything by the trade deadline unless an exceptional player he already knows will be available. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, B.C.)

A: Jake, Belichick himself had explained last Friday why we see so few trades at the deadline. He also shared more thoughts during his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI on Monday, in which he recapped how the Aqib Talib deal went down last year at the last minute. I'd say a deal is unlikely this year. Here is what Belichick said on WEEI: "You never know. I know last year, with the Talib trade, if you had asked me the same question on the Monday before the trade deadline, there wasn't a lot going on. It came together very quickly. It was in the last 30 to 45 minutes before it had to be submitted, there were a number of things that got taken care of that helped facilitate the trade. So you never know."

Q: In spite of the surprising play of Joe Vellano and Chris Jones as defensive tackles, I really feel that the Patriots should try to make a move for another one to help shore up the run defense. What hurts their chances to do this is that not many teams are truly out of playoff contention right now. But what about this name: Vikings DT Kevin Williams? While he's been a fixture for them through the years, I wonder if they'd be willing to let him go to give him a chance to win a ring? What are the odds you would place on the Patriots making a move for someone like that? Is it worth it in your opinion if it cost a third-rounder? -- Alex (Wakefield, Mass.)

A: Alex, that would be the position I'd focus on at the top of the list if the right player became available. I haven't seen much of Williams lately, but I've always viewed him as more of a penetrating 3-technique than the space-eating run-stuffer. While he's a good player, his skill set appears to be similar to what they already have. My thought has been that if the Patriots can acquire the 2013 version of Ted Washington (2003 trade), that's what they could really use. I'm just not sure that player is out there, and if he is, for the right price. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter suggested Linval Joseph of the Giants in a recent piece. That makes sense, but in the end, I think they'll view the solution as being in-house with Tommy Kelly's return to health and the potential addition of Armond Armstead off the non-football illness list.

Q: Hi Mike, I just can't understand the Patriots' use of Stevan Ridley. He is the best combination of speed, quickness and power the Patriots possess. My question -- once the game begins who decides when and how much Ridley plays? The way he is presently being used flies in the face of doing what's best for the team. Is it Bill or McDaniels? -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)

A: Gary, I believe it's Belichick and in many ways it's predetermined (rotation based on snaps). I understand the thought because it's clear to me that Ridley is their best pure rusher. He's most decisive to the hole and shifts into a higher gear much quicker than LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden. Ridley had averaged 35.8 snaps per game at this point last year. This year, it's an average of 27, so he's definitely being utilized less. I think it comes down to a combination of pass protection (Brandon Bolden is viewed as the team's best in that area right now) and the feeling that Blount deserves time too. In a game with limited overall opportunities like last Sunday's, that contributed to the less-than-expected snap total for Ridley.

Q: Mike, in reading your breakdown of playing time for the backs, it caught my attention when you kept mentioning "big back" and "passing back." Thinking about how predictable the Patriots can be at times, doesn't this seem like a little too much of a tip-off for the defenses? In the past, players like Faulk and Woodhead ran the ball, especially draw plays, extremely well. I don't get that same sense with Bolden in there. -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)

A: Dan, they obviously tried it with Bolden a few times on Sunday, with mixed results. Bolden isn't at the same level of a Faulk or Woodhead, so there's obviously going to be a little bit of a drop-off there. I think the one area we shouldn't overlook is pass protection, and I'm assuming the Patriots don't view that as a strength for Ridley. It's easy to focus solely on running the ball, but given how a play can change at the line of scrimmage, putting a running back on the field who might put the quarterback at risk in pass protection is also a roll of the dice of sorts. If we need a good example of that, we only need to point to the Patriots' opponent on Sunday, as Daniel Thomas struggled big-time in that area (Logan Ryan strip sack, Rob Ninkovich fourth-quarter sack). When the Patriots want to play fast, which is a big part of their attack, that pass protection at the running back spot is critical. Overall, I agree with you. I think Ridley should play more. But I can also understand, with pass protection in mind, how some of the decision-making process has gone down.

Q: Hi Mike, any reason for the reduction in snaps for Kenbrell Thompkins on Sunday? Was he carrying an injury, as he normally seems to be on the field and targeted more than he was (I can only remember the one target)? -- Sim (England)

A: Sim, the 14 snaps for Thompkins were easily a season low and I think it was just a chance to see what Aaron Dobson could do with those opportunities (I thought he came through in the second half) after a so-so game for Thompkins last week. As we've seen over the course of the year, that could change this week, but it's been a bit inconsistent for Thompkins. Here are Thompkins' snap totals for the year:

at Bills: 91 of 94
vs. Jets: 55 of 65
vs. Buccaneers: 69 of 73
at Falcons: 60 of 66
at Bengals: 61 of 63
vs. Saints: 59 of 88
at Jets: 73 of 79
vs. Dolphins: 14 of 65

[+] EnlargeAaron Dobson
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesAaron Dobson one of his best games Sunday, catching four passes for 60 yards and a TD.

Q: Mike I noticed that it seems that Aaron Dobson has been getting more snaps as of late. Is this a matchup factor from week to week, or an overall improvement from Dobson? -- Nick Montemurro (Orono, Maine)

A: Nick, Dobson played more snaps than any receiver last week and I think his second-half performance probably earned him more time in the weeks to come. I'd be hesitant to lock anything in with this coaching staff's approach, as we've seen things change from week to week, but the one thing that stands out to me with Dobson is that he's 6-foot-3, so he has a little more length than the other receivers on the roster. I also think he has the highest upside.

Q: Mike, wondering your thoughts on if the Pats would be in on the Larry Fitzgerald sweepstakes in the offseason. With the state of your receiving corps (young), a veteran like Fitzgerald could be a great fit, and having someone as obviously skilled as he is could do nothing but help our offense. I could see him being a huge addition to the Pats and would make Brady happy to get a top-flight receiver after he restructured his deal to add cap space. He is a vet in the locker room to mentor the young guys and seems like the kind of class player the Pats want on their team. Thoughts? -- Jake (Key West, Fla.)

A: Jake, that would really be something if it went down. Why not at least explore the possibility? It seems like one of those things that probably wouldn't happen because of all the moving parts, but I've had the chance to speak with Fitzgerald before and it was probably the most impressive interview I've had with a player. His knowledge of the Patriots, and other teams, was Belichickian. That's a special guy now so you at least have to look into it.

Q: Hey Mike, in your view, what was the biggest adjustment the Pats made between the first and second halves? I noticed less of Jamie Collins on defense (not sure if it's fair to single him out; the D-line couldn't get off blocks) -- but that doesn't explain the offense, either. -- GoobyB (Boston)

A: I'd say they blitzed a little more in the second half, got rookie cornerback Logan Ryan into the game after he didn't play a defensive snap in the first half, and subbed out Jamie Collins for Andre Carter to get a little bigger in the front seven. Offensively, there was better production in the running game and some more accurate passing from Tom Brady.

Q: Mike, in the past eight weeks, you have reiterated to many of your fans that Brady has had such an elite career (performance and stats-wise) that you wouldn't say he is having a bad year, but that he just isn't playing up to his own very high standards. He is 29th in percentage of completed passes, 30th in yards per attempt and 17th in touchdowns. You still think he is simply just "not having a typical Brady year," or can you finally start agreeing with many others that Brady is just flat out not having a good year at all? I can't even see where Brady is having an "average" year compared to other QBs. Two TDs and four INTs in his last four games? Ouch. -- Mark (Mass.)

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesTom Brady threw for just 116 yards Sunday against the Dolphins.

A: Mark, I'm going to stay in the same place I've been, because I still see some top-level plays out there in critical moments. For example, that 14-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Dobson against the Dolphins was a terrific play by Brady, in the face of pressure. Going back to the Saints' game, I think we can take for granted the game-winning touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins. Ridiculously good. So I know all about the stats and I'm not saying Brady's been consistently great. He hasn't and I think he'd say as much. But I just look a little beyond the stats on this one. There is so much that goes into quarterback play beyond the stat line.

Q: When you see a picture of Brady's mutated swollen hand go viral and then hear Brady denying everything to do with his hand, what advantage does that give? I understand he is not the guy to make excuses, but why won't he just say "yes, my hand is a little banged up?" -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)

A: Ramin, it's because Brady respects all the other players in the NFL and he knows that everyone is dealing with something. Why should he be singled out? I respect it.

Q: Mike, as much as I loved seeing Dane Fletcher tap-in for Hightower in coverage situations, I was sort of surprised they didn't plug in Jamie Collins. I was under the assumption that Collins was drafted for exactly those types of situations. Would have loved to have seen them go that route at the end of the Jets game also. But at this point do you see Collins' speed/athleticism as more of an asset as a blitzer rather than in coverage? And therefore they'll turn to Fletcher on passing situations? -- DC (Phoenix, Ariz.)

A: DC, in reviewing the game, one thing I picked up on that didn't come across watching it live was some of Collins' struggles. I'd say it was sort of a welcome-to-the-NFL type experience, as he was overwhelmed at times by the size of Dolphins offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and was pushed around in the running game. He played 22 snaps in the first half and four in the second half, and that wasn't a coincidence from this viewpoint. He has a bright future ahead of him, but it takes some time for most players to get up to speed in this defense.

Q: Hey Mike, Why is everyone acting like the sky is falling for the Pats? While it doesn't help my blood pressure, this is the Patriots team that I've wanted to see for a few years. It reminds me of the Super Bowl-winning teams. They don't quit, they fight tooth and nail until the last second and have won some really close games with key contributors injured. It's what has been lacking in previous playoff runs. This team might actually be able to get a defensive stop at a crucial time. Imagine what they will look like once they get Vereen back, and Gronk gets going. Denver may look like the 2007 Pats, but we all know how that season ended. Proud to be a Pats fan this year. -- Jake Cole (Palmyra, N.Y.)

A: Jake, I think a lot of the frustration you might hear is from those feeling management made it harder than it had to be and potentially "wasted" a precious year of Tom Brady's career. You only get so many cracks at this thing. I see both sides but lean toward your line of thinking. This team is learning how to win, such as Sunday when the wind was a bigger factor in the game and they seemed to adjust better to it than the Dolphins. This sort of reminds me of the 2006 season -- it was a struggle at times but they were there with a chance at the end and it will come down to a few plays. I wouldn't count them out.

Q: Hey Mike, whatever the reason, it's clear that we are not the only team to be hit with a rash of injuries during the first half of the season. Do you think a pattern is developing or is it just a cyclical thing? Also, what are the chances that the league expands the rosters so that teams are better able to react when the injured player is not placed on IR? -- Keerock (Texas)

A: Not sure if there is a common thread on the injuries. Obviously, what happened to Sebastian Vollmer on Sunday is more of a bad-luck type of deal. As for expanding the rosters, I don't think we'll see it because it comes down to money. More players means more money that has to be spent. I think owners like the idea of the 53 plus the eight-man practice squad.

Q: Mike, how did Hernandez and Gronk pick up the offense with such ease (especially Hernandez where he plays in multiple sets) and the new crop of "rookie" receivers are struggling so bad? Gronk and Aaron don't seem to be rocket scientists, so how can those guys pick up a system so fast and these other guys can't? -- Mike (Washington, D.C.)

A: Mike, I remember plenty of struggles for Gronkowski and Hernandez their rookie seasons. A game in Cleveland, in particular, stands out as one in which the team was relying on more of the two-TE set with them and it was a disaster.

Q: Hi Mike, really enjoy your work every week. I have come to a realization the past couple of weeks. The problem with the offense, and the team for that matter, is the offensive line. Brady has been sacked I believe 17 times the past four games. 17 TIMES! This is from the QB with the quickest release time in the NFL (I think like 1.6 second avg release time). When he is not sacked he is hurried, knocked down, or just generally uncomfortable back there. I don't understand the criticisms toward Brady, and even the young receivers, and no one seems to be addressing the real problem -- the O-LINE. With Seabass down with what appeared to be a pretty serious injury, things will only be worse. Is it just me or is the line regressing every week? I mean Brady can't even drop back without being hit. Do you see this problem being the No. 1 focal point for the team going forward? Also, any chance of a trade for a quality guard or tackle? Hope you can shed some insight and maybe get some of the misguided blame off No. 12. -- Adam (Aiken, S.C.)

A: No question, Adam, the line has to be better on a more consistent basis. In Sunday's win over the Dolphins, left guard Logan Mankins had a tough time, which was a surprise to see. The week before, it was left tackle Nate Solder and center Ryan Wendell. So the struggles have been widespread. At the same time, we've seen them perform at a high level (e.g. Atlanta), so we know they can do it. It's just a matter of putting it together.

Q: Hey Mike, a little bit of a different question but one that I find interesting nonetheless. Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant's outburst was portrayed as negative by some but now others are viewing it through a positive lens. I think it's safe to say for now he has turned the corner and answered the question marks surrounding him to become an elite talent. Looking back on the 2010 draft and knowing where the offense and defense are now, would you still select Devin McCourty with that pick or take Dez Bryant? I am a McCourty guy but completely understand if people want Dez. Thanks. -- Mark (Brighton, Mass.)

A: Mark, this is a good topic and one that picked up some steam this weekend when it was mentioned on one of the national pregame shows. I think McCourty is playing at a Pro Bowl level right and could emerge as one of the best safeties in the game. I don't know Bryant, and haven't seen the outburst, but I have doubts that it would have worked for him here. There is a lot that goes in to building a team, and I wouldn't have gone in that direction in 2010 and wouldn't do it now.

Q: Hi Mike. I know the INTs aren't there this season, but Devin McCourty is having a great year. He seems to always be in position and helps get everyone else in position. He makes plays against both the pass and the run and doesn't make many mistakes. Pro Football Focus has him rated as their top safety so far this year! Do you think he is taking that next step and becoming a Pro Bowl safety? Why don't you think he gets more respect around the league? -- Adam M. (Framingham State)

A: Adam, I think that respect is earned over time and it's coming. If McCourty keeps playing like he is -- think of the pass breakup in the end zone against the Jets and the tip to Marquice Cole on the sideline versus the Dolphins -- he'll be mentioned among the AFC's best at the position.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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