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Monday, December 2, 2013
How long can offense carry Pats?

By Tedy Bruschi
ESPNBoston.com

Join my weekly chat every Monday to have your question considered for the weekly Bruschi on Tap Q&A.

Q. Tedy, without Mayo, Big Vince and Tommy Kelly, can we really expect this team to be able to consistently stop the run and win the AFC? If our defense is healthy, I think we can beat any team, anywhere. But with five starting rookies, and an ailing Alfonzo Denard and Aqib Talib, I just don't see it happening. Do you? -- Jarod (Foxborough)

A. Jarod, I'm going to hold out hope a little bit longer. As of right now, it doesn't look good. Although they are finding ways to win, which is the most important thing, I agree with you. You have to wonder "when is a team able to exploit all of those defensive weaknesses?" Since Mayo went down Oct. 13 versus New Orleans, they've played six games. In four of those games, they've given up at least 30 points. I almost have the mentality right now where we're back to the point that this offense has to score 30 points for this team to win.

Q. Hey Tedy, On several of Ben Tate's touchdown runs yesterday it seemed like the defense didn't even try to get in his way after he got to the second level. Devin McCourty and others seemed to be content to just let him in untouched rather than try to knock him down. Was this just a matter of practicality (i.e. he's a big back and probably wouldn't be stopped anyway), or is this lazy play? The run defense has been an issue lately, so this left a bad impression for me in regard to the will to commit to stopping big runs. -- Alex (Boston)

Dont'a Hightower
Dont'a Hightower has struggled, but give him time. The talented LB has had to make a huge adjustment with Jerod Mayo out.

A. As a former defensive player, that pains me to see. I want to see guys laying out and giving great effort every single play. This Texans running game is different than they've experienced before. From a front-seven perspective, on a regular basis, players were chopped down and on the ground. The Texans' offensive line is coached to cut block on the back side, and cut block linebackers, and for inexperienced players like Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, it can be a shock to the system. I've been in plays where there's a split second when you see the ball carrier and the next instant you're looking at the turf because you were cut down. I don't think they were ready for that up front. That is tough to simulate in practice. From a secondary perspective, when that happens to your front seven, what you will have is big Ben Tate with a full head of steam coming right at you. Sometimes you can't adjust your angles quickly enough when your front seven isn't even getting a hand on the running back because they are on the ground. I'm sure that factored in with some of those untouched touchdowns.

Q. I am now convinced that Dont'a Hightower was over-touted coming out of college. He feels like Adalius Thomas 2.0, everything you want in a LB: size, speed, intelligence, but damn, he's playing really slow on the field. I'm sure he's got bumps, bruises and wear and tear from being an NFL LB having played all season, but I don't think he's hurt. Maybe there was no way he could live up to the billing coming out of Bama, but the problem I have is that I see no motor. What I want to see is Hightower running full speed. He appears hesitant on the field, hesitant to fill the holes, he's awful in coverage but that's asking a lot for a 270-pound LB. What is your expert analysis of Hightower's play compared with your expectations? -- Eric (Massachusetts)

A. Dont'a Hightower is a good player. Has he struggled as of late? Absolutely. But you have to think of the adjustment he's had to make since Jerod Mayo went down. There is a lot more on his plate mentally. To have to deal with that for the first time during your career, during the season, can be very difficult. No longer is Mayo there to make sure everything is right before the ball is snapped. It now falls mostly on Hightower. Can he get help from Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich? Yes. They're easing him into the full-time LB communicator role with Devin McCourty having the green dot on his helmet. Playing ILB for Bill Belichick, after QB, is the most complex position on that team. Let's give the kid a little time to settle down and get his mind right because he was thrust into the fire after Mayo got hurt.

Q. Tedy, have we seen the last of Big Vince Wilfork in a Pats uniform? High salary cap number next year, 32+ years old, and coming off a serious injury ... hate to say it, but Belichick, as much as we love him, is ruthless when it comes to personnel decisions. Is he another Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour and or Lawyer Malloy waiting to happen? -- Tom (Boston)

A. I would definitely have to say no. Right now the alternative is Joe Vellano, Chris Jones and Isaac Sopoaga. Vince is still playing at a high level. Do you want to continue to be one of the worst teams in the league against the run? I doubt that Bill Belichick would want that.

Q. Tedy, LB Brandon Spikes looked very limited on Sunday. He could move forward but was tentative moving laterally, and it looked like it cost the Patriots on a couple of plays. It looks like he's still dealing with an injury. What was your assessment of Spikes and why do you think we didn't see more of Dane Fletcher? Thank you for all your great work and insights. -- Scott (Alexandria, Va.)

A. This is a direct effect of the cut block. This is a direct effect of when you've been chopped down a few times and you're looking at who is going to be diving at your legs. This offensive line is full of ankle-biters. Sometimes you have your eyes on the linemen, worrying about your knees. I've been there. It's tough. When you have young DLs who are letting the linemen get up to you at linebacker quickly, it's a tough down.

Q. Hi Ted! I am happy to see our offense back, scoring a lot of points again. However, if our run defense continues to play like that, I don't see a possibility of winning the fourth Lombardi Trophy. So my question is: With the current roster, what should Belichick do in order to improve the run defense ? It appeared, against Carolina and Pittsburgh, that the run D improved, but the following two games (Denver and Houston) were pretty bad regarding run defense. What are your thoughts? -- Claudio T. (Brazil)

A. Coaching-wise, Belichick is doing everything he can. You could even see a scheme change versus the Texans. He played some 3-4 fronts, with linemen almost a yard off the line of scrimmage, so they could deal with that zone-blocking scheme. So he's doing everything he can, but when rookies see a new scheme, you're putting them in a tough spot. That's all they have. Sometimes as a coach, I've heard it many times, once you get to this point in the year "you're not a rookie anymore." They put more on your plate. Going from a 4-3 to a 3-4, I'm sure it made it tough on some of those young DLs. But these are the growing pains you're going to have the rest of the way. Going forward, the more film opponents see of the Patriots giving up these rushing yards, the more teams will attempt to exploit it.

Q. Tedy, can you please call Bill and tell him Kyle Arrington does not work on the outside? Why does he keep putting him in there? -- Ryan (Boston)

A. Ryan, do you have any better answers? Alfonzo Dennard was out. I like the work that Arrington does in the slot, but you're thin at the position, players are going to have to play everywhere, especially in this defensive scheme BB runs. There is never a player that is told to do just one thing.

Q. Hey Tedy, I'm 18 years old and a lifelong Patriots fan, grew up loving to watch you! Favorite play you made was that strip of Dominic Rhodes in the playoffs! My question is, do you see any truth in Antonio Smith's comments regarding the Patriots and spying? Should Patriots fans be concerned? -- Saad Y. (Carrollton, Texas)

A. I heard the statements Antonio Smith made, and to me it just sounded like a desperate player who was trying to find answers for his team that has lost 10 in a row. This is also a team that lost to Jacksonville last week. If I could just speak truthfully, whenever players start making excuses like this for losing, that's the sign of a losing team.

Q. Do you think Stevan Ridley will be activated next week? The offense seems to run the best with Shane Vereen in there more. The Pats become less predictable because Vereen is so versatile. Do you see Vereen's role growing? -- Tim (NE)

A. I definitely don't see Ridley being done for the season. This is a classic "break-you-down-then-build-you-up" technique. He had to be sat down. I believe it was the right decision. You're a detriment to the team if you can't hold on to the ball. For the Patriots to win, they need Stevan Ridley. He'll get another chance, but if he fumbles again, that could be his last.

Tom Brady
Julian Edelman's increased production can be attributed to the trust he's developed with Tom Brady over the years as well as his ability to stay healthy.

Q. Hey Tedy, Why do you think Edelman has been catching more passes than Danny Amendola? Is Amendola not getting open, getting extra attention that Edelman isn't, or is Brady just not looking for him? I imagine he's just not getting open as a result of his injury, but I'd definitely like your take! -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)

A. This comes back to the trust that has been developed over five years between Brady and Julian Edelman. One of the big questions with Edelman was "could he stay healthy for a full season?" He has, and we've seen the results. Remember, he was coming on last year, too, before he was injured. On Amendola, it's just a matter of staying on the field because it takes time for that trust to develop. You may be looking at a player who vanishes this year. The only thing Edelman is doing is earning cash right now. So next season, he'll be 28 and a free agent after initially entering the league as a seventh-round pick in 2009. It has to be in his thought process to test free agency. He's playing so well right now, I don't know how he can be in a Patriots uniform next year.

Q. Hey Tedy, do you think the Patriots' path to the Super Bowl is dependent on clinching the No. 1 seed in the AFC East? It will be hard enough to beat the Broncos for a second time, but without the cold weather of Foxborough, would it be impossible? -- Brendan (Hoboken, N.J.)

A. If you travel to Denver, I would assume it would be pretty cold there, too. Either way, I think if they do meet Peyton Manning again, that's an advantage to the Patriots because of the weather. I don't think they necessarily need the No. 1 seed. Maybe the biggest compliment I can give them after watching them all year is that I'm a fan of their mental toughness.

Q. I have met you in the past and your are a great guy and sportscaster. My question is how far in the playoffs do you think the Patriots will go in the future. -- Nick F. (Rhode Island)

A. I see them in the AFC Championship Game.

Q. Would you call Stephen Gostkowski the best kicker in the NFL right now? -- Dylan (Afghanistan)

A. Gostkowski leads the NFL in scoring with 118 points, followed by Justin Tucker, Mason Crosby and Matt Prater. He's doing a great job and I would call him the best kicker in the league. I saw him come in as a rookie and it's nice to see him kick those 50-yarders and see them go through the goalposts and possibly be good from 60. But I'll tell you the truth, every time I see him make a long kick like that, oh man, I wish he would have been given a shot in Super Bowl XLII on that 48-yarder. And, by the way, I am so much better of a bowler than he is!

Q. Afternoon Teddy, I can't over-stress this years team is very scrappy no matter the situation and I'm impressed. I wanted your thoughts on the heart of this team. Reminds me of 2001 -- just finding ways to win and playing for eachother! -- Angel (Florida)

A. I think this team is showing incredible amounts of mental toughness that is very similar to that 2001 team. This team has gone through a lot this year, with the Aaron Hernandez situation, injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Amendola, and injuries to two of their defensive captains in Wilfork and Mayo. The strength of the team has shifted from the middle of the year -- defensive-dominated team to an offensive-dominated team. They've won multiple games in the fourth quarter. This team's mentality is hardened, and that's a huge advantage to them going into meaningful games in late December and January.

Q. Do you think Fletcher should be placed above Hightower in all situations (pass/run)? He seems lost a lot and doesn't play with much urgency. -- Joe (NYC)

A. Just as you've seen Stevan Ridley get benched, Bill Belichick views every position the same way. Hightower, I think, will settle in and get used to being one of the main signal-callers of that defense. I definitely would like to see more of a three-man rotation there with Fletcher, Spikes and Hightower. Fletcher is one of those guys that just seems to find a way to do the right thing.

Q. Love the new ice cream commercial... my question is, do you really enjoy rocking pajama pants and a good cry? -- Mike (Denver)

A. Saline drops, buddy. LOL. Pure saline drops. ... And it is a soft T-shirt.