Most would agree that the New England Patriots are playing with fire the way they've fallen behind early in games, creating a situation with limited margin for error in the second half. They've been able to overcome it the last two weeks, but can it continue?
That's one of the main questions surrounding the team, along with the future of lead running back Stevan Ridley, who was a healthy scratch Sunday in Houston.
After reviewing the 34-31 win over the Texans, it clearly wasn't the Patriots' best effort, but one thing that resonated was the excellence of the coaching staff in terms of making adjustments. A big part of the reason the offense exploded in the second half was because of a change in approach -- which reflected how the coaching staff is always thinking.
The players still have to execute it, of course, and they deserve the bulk of the credit.
At the same time, the brainpower of the staff is one of themes of the week.
Q. Hi Mike, much was made earlier in the season about the Patriots' third-quarter struggles, and many pointed to the coaching and how that needed to be an area of improvement. With the Pats outscoring their opponents 42-14 in the third quarter of the three games after the bye, is it safe to say it is coaching adjustments or are they just coming out with more energy after the half? -- Chase W. (New Canaan, Conn.)
A. Chase, I thought the role of coaching adjustments was decisive on Sunday in Houston. For those who appreciate the X's and O's of the game, it was pretty neat to watch how the Patriots manipulated matchups to create advantageous situations for their best players to make plays. The two things that stood out to me in the second half were going empty with two-back personnel (creating a matchup against the Texans' base D) and creating an "open" side of the field by aligning both receivers to one side and attacking the "open" side in the passing game with tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Shane Vereen matched up against linebackers and safeties. They also had some big runs against the Texans' nickel defense out of their two-TE and two-back groupings. It was just another reminder to me that the Patriots' coaching staff is always thinking and one of the best in the game.
Q. Hi Mike, love your work. The Patriots' problems this year have been well documented (Hernandez, Gronk, Wilfork, Mayo, etc.). They're certainly not the Pats we're all used to seeing, and yet in spite of all of these issues and more they sit at 9-3 and look to be tooling up for what I hope is another deep playoff run. So my question is this: Does Bill Belichick win coach of the year? -- Liam (Birmingham, UK)
A. Liam, I put this coaching job right up there with 2008 when the Patriots lost quarterback Tom Brady for the season. I think he should warrant serious consideration for the award, but ultimately don't see him beating out other candidates such as Andy Reid (Chiefs) and Ron Rivera (Panthers). I think one of the things working against Belichick is the "Brady Factor" -- many people have the view that Brady's excellence helps mask some other deficiencies. There is some truth to that, but I don't think that gives Belichick and the staff enough credit for their work at all levels of the roster.
Q. Mike, with all due respect, I think you're being a bit melodramatic about Stevan Ridley being at a crossroads with the organization. Regardless of what BB said on the radio Monday morning, Ridley being inactive was punitive and intended to send a message to the player that this is what happens when he messes up like he has been. There's no way BB is going to say that in public, obviously. If he's inactive next week and the week after, then maybe we're looking at something more, but Ridley didn't exactly look crestfallen on the sidelines Sunday. Beyond all of that, he's the best pure RB on the team and there were times Sunday when it was obvious not having him was hurting the team at least to some degree. -- Matt (Oklahoma City)
A. I respect the opinion, Matt. At the same time, I stand by what I wrote. I know some view it as a break-him-down-and-build-him-back type of situation with Ridley. I don't see it that way, as I think the days of Ridley as the lead back, logging 45 percent of the offensive snaps, are probably over. I'm interested to see if that gut feeling is correct.
Q. Bill Belichick said the comments from Antonio Smith were "a league matter." Does that mean it's up to the league to discipline Smith for slandering the Patriots? -- Bo (Oakland, Calif.)
A. Correct, Bo, and the league doesn't have any plans to do so. I didn't think the comments were worthy of attention or a response because they didn't make sense to me. As Tedy Bruschi said, they came across as frustration from a player who had just lost his 10th game in a row.
Q. Mike, you mirrored my confusion as to why the Pats were playing so much zone coverage on Sunday after having played man very reliably this season. I was also baffled as to why they ran so many 3-4 fronts, with Chandler Jones and Joe Vellano as the ends. I know we also talk about them being "multiple" rather than a 3-4 or 4-3 team, but for the last couple of years it's been far more 4-3. So you're A) Asking young guys -- including most of the LBs -- to play a scheme they're less familiar with, and B) Requires Jones, Vellano, Isaac Sopoaga/Sealver Siliga to be on the field. We've got more out of Jones and Vellano than we had any right to expect, but this doesn't really -- to quote Bill -- seem to give the team the best chance to win on Sundays. -- Martin W. (London)
A. Martin, I agree when it comes to this specific plan coverage-wise. They seemed to go into the game thinking one thing, before making an adjustment to more man coverage in the second half. That happens every week and is, from this viewpoint, the sign of a good coaching staff to correct something that isn't working. Of course, we can ask the question "Why did they think it was the best decision in the first place?" and that's fair. They obviously have a lot more information than we do -- injury-wise etc. -- which probably factors into the reason they planned to do so initially. On the 3-4, that's essentially what they played against Carolina and they did a good job stopping the run that night (other than QB scrambles). So I don't think it was necessarily a bad decision against Houston -- it was just more about execution, getting off blocks and making tackles.
Q. Hey Mike, my question is regarding the Patriots defensive scheme. Obviously the run defense has struggled. They used a lot of base defense mostly in the 3-4 to stop the run, which I didn't understand. I am not exactly sure about this but in the 3-4, doesn't it require defensive linemen to contain two gaps rather than one in the 4-3? If I understand correctly, doesn't it seem that with the Patriots defensive line personnel this would be a bad idea? With the interior defensive line asked to do more, and different things it seems the linebackers were taken out of the play, causing an even weaker run defense. Is there anything the Patriots can do to fix the run defense like the 2006 Indianapolis Colts did? -- Joey L. (New Rochelle, N.Y.)
A. Joey, the key here is what techniques you're asking the defensive linemen to play in the 4-3. In some schemes, it is indeed a one-gap type of responsibility. But in the Patriots' 4-3, I still see two-gapping, so it's not a complete contrast. As for fixing the run defense, similar to the 2006 Colts, if I recall it was safety Bob Sanders' return to health that sparked their postseason turnaround. I don't see a similar player who can do that for the Patriots, so I think what you have to look towards is situational defense and making enough plays (red zone, third down) to complement an evolving-and-potent offense -- just like we saw in the fourth quarter of the Houston game.
Q. Mike, wanted to get your thoughts on two coaching decisions that I think deserve mention this year. In 2012, kicker Stephen Gostkowski had perhaps one his shakiest seasons and there was some belief in the offseason that, at the very least, he needed some competition in camp. On the other hand, Zoltan Mesko was solid. Bill Belichick instead decided to bring in a punter and let Gostkowski retain the kicker job. He's turned in perhaps his best season, certainly given that the offense started out slowly and he had to make some big kicks and Ryan Allen has been excellent. I think a lot of coaches in the NFL think it's their job to always push players and threaten their place on the team but BB seems to have benefited from taking a long view with his kicker, while not being content and realizing there could be room for improvement from his punter. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, I thought Gostkowski's performance Sunday might have been his finest hour in his eight-year NFL career. I remember thinking myself that Gostkowski could be on shaky ground in 2012, and that was more of a knee-jerk type reaction that would have been costly if I was a coach. So I agree that Belichick's willingness to take the long view with Gostkowski, and stick with him, has paid dividends and wasn't always the "popular" decision. As for Allen, I thought it was a gutsy decision. I still thought Mesko was more consistent in camp but it was clear Allen had greater upside. So it was a projection -- and as it turned out, the right one.
Q. Hi Mike, Dont'a Hightower's ongoing struggles are worrisome, especially since they seem to be more mental mistakes. It should be correctable but will it be soon enough for this season? Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)
A. Jake, I wrote on Hightower a bit on Sunday and think a big part of it is that with Jerod Mayo's season-ending injury Oct. 13, all the linebackers are now put in different situations that don't necessarily suit their strengths. But he's a team player and he's doing what he can with it. Tedy Bruschi echoed some of those thoughts in his weekly "Bruschi on Tap" chat.
Q. What is Brian Daboll's role this season? Has he had any impact? Also, If Bill Belichick were to get sick and miss a game or two, who would be the head coach? -- Mike (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Mike, Daboll's official title is "offensive assistant" and he's mostly worked with the offensive line. The key consideration there is that venerable O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia is closer to the end of his career than the start. Thus, at this point, any good manager would be thinking of a potential replacement should Scarnecchia ultimately decide it's time, and that, to me, is where Daboll has mostly fit this year. As for a scenario in which Belichick was sick, Scarnecchia is currently the assistant head coach and would technically have the title, but I think it's fair to say there would probably be a restructuring to spread some of those responsibilities around.
Q. Mike, I still can't believe that Tavon Wilson is not getting any snaps on defense. With all of the injuries to the secondary you would think he would be out there for at least a couple of plays, especially in some of the specialty sub packages, but he is never out there. Even Nate Ebner had two snaps against the Texans. I almost completely forgot about Wilson until I saw your review of the Texans' long kickoff return that he was on the field for. Thoughts? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A. Gregg, what I mainly see in Wilson is that he's the size of a safety (6 foot, 215 pounds) but moves more like a linebacker. So I don't think you want him on the back end of the defense, which would lock him only into a "money" linebacker-type role in the dime. As you mentioned, he's not even getting on to the field in those situations, so he's basically a special-teams-only player at this point, which I'm sure isn't the way it was envisioned when he was selected in the second round (48th overall). While Belichick and his staff are deserving of praise, a situation like Wilson's is a reminder that no staff gets it right all the time.
Q. Julian Edelman is once again proving he is a both a quality receiver and one of the all-time best punt returners. Do you think that the Pats will offer Edelman an extension with Danny Amendola money and a signing bonus of several million to make up for the very one-sided contract Edelman signed this year; or do you think they'll let him go to free agency? -- Otis (Boston)
A. Otis, I wouldn't rule anything out, and I'd fully expect the Patriots to at least dip their toe in contract extension talks with Edelman. My educated guess would be that Edelman makes it to the open market, though, and at that point anything can happen. Amazing, in some respects, to think that any team could have signed Edelman for cheap money this past offseason. It was all about if he could stay healthy.
Q. Hey Mike, can you review the details of Amendola's contract? Is he guaranteed money for 2014 or can the team cut him? Edelman is clearly more valuable to the offense (and team), but it would be a shame if they couldn't resign him due to the commitment they made to Amendola. -- Eliott (Massachusetts)
A. Eliott, here are the details of Amendola's contract. He's a good player who, similar to Edelman prior to this year, just needs to stay healthy and string some games together.
Q. Mike, help me to understand the Patriots' decision to sign Kyle Arrington for four more years. He simply can't cover anyone. -- Nemanja (Serbia)
A. Nemanja, Arrington was excellent against Wes Welker in the slot on Nov. 24. That's where he does his best work. And with the Patriots in a sub defense about 68 percent of the snaps this season, he's essentially a starter in that role and worthy of such an investment. When asked to play outside (which really only came on that one series Sunday in Houston), that's when some of the problems come into play. He's also playing through a groin injury.
Q. Hey Mike, I know the football season has not finished, but I was wondering: If the Jets let go of coach Rex Ryan, do you see any way Bill will bring him on for defense? If you look at the Patriots' defense, it's good but not great, and if that opportunity comes I think Rex will go long way to help Brady as he gets older. -- Mark (New Jersey)
A. Mark, I don't see it happening, but it's a fun hypothetical to consider. This is still Bill Belichick's defense in many ways, and I don't see him turning it over to Ryan.