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Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Winter wonder land

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

When the New England Patriots lose a game like they did Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, much of the discussion after it trends to the negative side. It's understood.

At the same time, I don't feel any differently about the team now than I did at this point last week. If I had to sum up the 2013 Patriots, it would go something like this: injury-ravaged, resilient team that fights until the end, is vulnerable on defense and can beat anyone in the NFL ... or lose to anyone in the NFL.

I thought it was interesting listening to Patriots president Jonathan Kraft on his pregame radio interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub on Sunday morning, when he said: "The one thing I'm sure of, a handful of things that we don't expect to happen over the next three weeks will definitely happen. It will happen in the AFC. They will happen in the NFC. People will be talking about it, and as we go into the playoffs, people might think they know what's going to happen but they won't. I just hope we get to be a part of it for a long time into February."

How prophetic.

Anything is possible, as we saw Sunday in Miami, so let's get to this week's mailbag, which reads more like a "complaint box."

Q. Mike, it appears that LeGarrette Blount was, early on, running the ball very well, with consistent 4-5-plus yard runs. In several games, he has seemed capable of running the ball, as has Stevan Ridley. Why do the Patriots insist on limiting their variety of backs to only a few carries each and rely so heavily on their struggling passing game? I understand late in the game when there is little time and a long way to go, but I feel that the running game was working quite well and should have taken a larger role in the overall game. -- Bill (Connecticut)

A. Bill, this has been one of the more notable "complaints" from emailers to the Patriots mailbag after Sunday's loss. I think there is some validity to it, but let's first acknowledge that they were throwing the ball well, too. It wasn't like they were having trouble making plays through the air. So I always try to be fair and ask the question, "Am I mentioning the idea of abandoning the running game because of the failed end result, or did I really go through the process play-by-play and make a fair, leveled analysis?" There were a few spots I could have advocated for the run -- second-and-goal from the 4 with 4:06 remaining in the first quarter, the sequence of plays starting with 11:26 remaining in the third quarter from the Dolphins' 30-yard line and third-and-2 from the Dolphins' 5 with 7:53 remaining in the game -- but I didn't think it was necessarily egregious because they were moving the ball through the air, too. In the end, this is what I think it comes down to: Do you play for the advantageous matchup or simply decide that you are running regardless? The Patriots more often play for the matchup and maybe, in the red zone particularly, they could have benefited from taking the latter approach. At the same time, let's also give the Dolphins' defense some credit. They made some good plays.

Q. Hey Mike, the Patriots' offense is mind-numbing and I feel like it all starts with poor offensive line play, especially in pass protection. Why do we not run the ball more? Ridley and Blout between the tackles are good and Vereen can run it as well. I haven't seen a draw play in a while, which was a staple in our offense. It will also open up play-action and more downfield plays while protecting Brady and keep the defense honest. I believe it all starts with Josh McDaniels, who is doing a subpar job starting with incorporating the run especially within the red zone. -- Mark (Brighton)

A. Mark, I thought Tedy Bruschi said it best in his weekly "Bruschi on Tap" chat Monday. If we can guarantee that the backs are going to hold on to the ball, it makes sense to run it a little more. But what confidence does everyone really have that will be the case? And I know this won't be popular because the Patriots' offensive coordinator has annually been a "whipping boy" of sorts, going back to Charlie Weis in the early 2000s, but McDaniels is a solid coach. Just watching the first drive of the game, and the way the Patriots came out with some unique wrinkles (3 WR/1 FB/1 RB package), it was easy to appreciate the thought and innovation that goes into the weekly plan. Like any coach, McDaniels isn't perfect (arguably the NFL's best playcaller, Sean Payton, had a tough day on Sunday, too) and we can quibble with some of his in-game decisions. But I think McDaniels is one of the best in the business.

Q. The Gronkowski factor in the red zone has been beaten to death. Can Aaron Dobson or tight end D.J. Williams, re-signed last week, help? With the small WR sets in close, doesn't the empty backfield make the D's job a lot easier? An OL unit can build momentum with success running the ball, as the Pats seemed to be doing early on. They like to be the hitters instead of getting beat up in pass protection, particularly in the red zone where Blount should be a beast. What part of this concept does McDaniels not seem to want to recognize? -- John D. (Sebastopol, Calif.)

Shane Vereen
Shane Vereen's lack of production Sunday was more a result of the Dolphins' defense than the Patriots' offensive game plan.

A. John, I'd lean more toward the running game in the red zone as being a difference-maker than someone like Dobson or Williams. If we look at it on a play-by-play basis, they ran it well in there on Sunday against the Dolphins (e.g. LeGarrette Blount, 8 yards, 8:35 remaining). When you can run when the space gets tight, it makes everything else easier. Maybe they should do it more.

Q. Hey Mike, the final four plays of the game really hit home one thing to me: The Patriots needed a big pass catcher. They basically threw three jump balls to Austin Collie, Julian Edelman, and Danny Amendola -- none of which I trust in a jump ball/fade situation. Without Gronk, the offense has stalled all year in the red zone and the game didn't inspire much confidence that it'll change. What's the status on Dobson and why didn't the Patriots have a backup WR/TE that could be a red zone threat? -- Trevor H. (Nashua, N.H.)

A. Trevor, the Patriots' two tallest receivers -- Dobson (6-foot-3) and Kenbrell Thompkins (6-1) -- were inactive because of injuries. Dobson has missed the past three games with a foot injury, but returned to practice Friday and could be ready to return this week. Thompkins has missed the past two games with a hip injury and he also should be getting closer to being back. As you said, when the space gets tight on the field, it helps to have those bigger targets and we saw the impact of the Patriots not having Rob Gronkowski. The only other option available to them Sunday would have been tight end D.J. Williams (6-2), but I don't think that would have been a difference-making answer.

Q. Mike, do you see them making a game plan around Shane Vereen to go against the Ravens on Sunday? He seemed to be left out last Sunday and I just think he needs to get more touches. He has the speed to beat the Ravens linebackers and they should be throwing screen passes to him (instead of a WR) and let him go! What do you think? -- Phil (Braintree)

A. Phil, the Dolphins did a nice job on Vereen, devoting some additional resources to him as the Patriots' defense did to tight end Charles Clay. Vereen played a running back-high 48 snaps, so I don't think he was "left out" as much as well defended. Sometimes it's easy to forget, but there are good players on the other side, too.

Q. Hey Mike, were you surprised by Shane Vereen's showing on Sunday? All the talk during the week was how Vereen would become an even more integral part of the Pats' offense now that Rob Gronkowski is out for the year. But he finished with only two rushes for 13 yards and three catches for eight yards. Did the Dolphins do something special to take him out of the game or did the Pats simply not go to him enough? -- Rene R. (Boston)

A. Yes, Rene, I was surprised that Vereen was held to those totals. It was clear that the Dolphins paid extra attention to him, particularly with linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and some defensive backs, as well. When that happens, as we've seen in the past, many offenses hope to go to their other options with success.

Q. Mike, after the last two days, I don't see the Pats having a shot at winning next Sunday. Can we stop Joe Flacco from looking like an All-Pro? NO. Can we score on physical defenses? NO. Game over! -- Dan (Leominster)

A. In that case, Dan, maybe we should tell the Patriots to save the money and stay home. So much of this league is week to week and anything is possible. I do think you're right in that it's a tough spot for the Patriots as the Ravens should be favored to win.

Q. Hey Mike, as a Pats fan should I be worried that our defense can't stop anybody? Comebacks are great and exciting, but we ran out of magic in Miami. -- Daniel S. (Painesville, Ohio)

Steve Gregory
Has strong safety Steve Gregory become a liability in the Patriots' secondary?

A. Daniel, a good defense finds a way to make the play on fourth-and-5, and the Patriots didn't do it. They are a vulnerable unit that needs to win enough in the critical situations (red zone, third down) and create turnovers. The turnovers have dried up the past two weeks and we see how that alters the picture. I thought the defense, given injuries to key players, did some good things on Sunday -- and the overall game plan to focus on tight end Charles Clay and the middle of the field seemed sound -- but those elements get overshadowed because they didn't make the key plays in the clutch. Safety Steve Gregory, in particular, had a tough day.

Q. Hi Mike, the Patriots must address the strong safety position during the offseason. Steve Gregory has become a real liability in the secondary. Horrendous pursuit angles and poor tackling on his part led to two Dolphins TDs. Do you think Duron Harmon has the potential to succeed at SS or is it back to the drawing board? -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)

A. Gary, yes, Gregory did have a few notable miscues. I thought he also had a chance to bring down Charles Clay on the big fourth-and-5 play as well but just didn't line him up. Harmon, while bigger in size, sort of reminds me of Gregory in that he's a heady player with not as high of an athletic upside. He has a chance to develop, though, and I do think he'll be in the future mix to compete for a starting role.

Q. Mike, why is everyone reluctant to question the defensive coaching on this team? I feel that they play not to lose, too many coverage issues, too many bad angles. How can we have a 270-pound linebacker covering a 185-pound running back in space? This has been going on all season. I feel it's questionable coaching and this isn't the first year that these issues have arisen. Outside of Chandler Jones, I feel the defense has gotten worse year to year. -- Bill (Framingham)

A. A lot to digest here, Bill. And I know this won't be popular, but I thought the overall defensive plan was excellent Sunday. On a defense that has been ravaged by injuries to key players, they hung in there and had the team in position to win. What they failed to do was make the one or two plays to close it out, and part of that could fall on the coaching staff. They inserted Dont'a Hightower into the game for the 14-yard touchdown and gave him the tough assignment of jamming Charles Clay and then getting out in space on Marcus Thigpen. That does seem questionable, especially considering the struggles in coverage we've seen from Hightower. The problem, as we know, is that players have had to do things that aren't necessarily in their wheelhouse because of the other injuries. You leave the lighter linebackers or dime defense in the game and you're vulnerable to the run. So it's a trade-off. Ideally, you have a player who fits all schemes/roles but those defenders are rare.

Q. I find this loss very concerning because Tom Brady and the offense played fairly well. I'm not sure there's anything they can do to improve going forward. Please give me some hope! -- James (Providence, R.I.)

A. James, the Patriots moved the ball well but couldn't finish, with just one touchdown in four red zone trips. So while there were some good things, scoring 20 points isn't going to be good enough most of the time because the vulnerable New England defense needs some more margin for error. As for hope, I would focus less on the end result and more on the process of what unfolded Sunday. It was really the same type of games we've seen -- it could have gone in either direction if one or two plays were made -- so I wouldn't make any sweeping judgments based on the result. This is a resilient team that can beat anyone in the NFL, and can also lose to anyone in the NFL. So maybe the best approach is to just fasten your seatbelt and hang on for the ride. They are still 10-4 and in position to qualify for the playoffs.

Q. Hi Mike, of course, not having Gronk in the mix made a significant difference this week against Miami. But not having the two rookie receivers also seems like an important loss. How do you feel the lack of options in terms of offensive targets (beyond Gronk) affected the Patriots this week? Thanks! -- Zoe (Tampa, Fla.)

A. I didn't think it was a huge factor, although Dobson's height (6-3) could have been helpful on the final drive. Even then, there have been games where he's active and not playing in those situations. Probably the biggest thing is that rookie Josh Boyce, who stepped in, had two drops. Do Dobson and Thompkins make those catches? No guarantee there. The other factor in the Patriots' inability to execute longer vertical routes on a consistent basis was that the ball was out quick to account for the Dolphins' strong rush.

Q. Hey Mike, just wanted to say that I feel like Stephen Gostkowski is taking more criticism than is due for this game. First of all, on the missed field goal, you can clearly see by the flags at the top of the goalposts that the wind died pretty much at the exact moment that Gostkowski made the kick, and he was counting on that wind to nudge the ball back in. As for the kickoff out of bounds, it obviously wasn't planned that way and Gostkowski was clearly upset, but it may actually have worked in the Patriots' favor. Just consider: if the Dolphins had made it from the 20 to the 40, taking perhaps 30 seconds, and then continued with the drive that we saw in the game, then those 30 seconds would have been shaved off the time left for Brady's final drive, giving us at most one shot at the end zone rather than four. -- Michael (Cologne, Germany)

A. Michael, Gostkowski was pretty hard on himself after the game, as he knows the kickoff out of bounds is inexcusable. The field goal miss, from 48 yards, is part of the game and no kicker makes them all. I think it was more about the kickoff than the field goal miss.

Q. Hi Mike, how much do you think Aqib Talib's hip is still bothering him? Just by watching him it seems he is not as fluid as he was earlier in the year; I know I know everyone is banged up at this time of year, but he just doesn't seem as sharp as he was. If it is his hip it could be costing him some $$$ this offseason. -- Chris (New Haven, Conn.)

A. Chris, it's not the same Talib we saw earlier in the season because it's an injury to manage, but I thought he looked good on Sunday. I didn't see anything that stood out to me in terms of movements. I thought the reason they had him in the middle of the field was to take that away from the Dolphins, so the coaching staff is still viewing him as a shutdown type of option.