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Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Seattle shows Pats fans how it's done

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

There was a noticeable shift in emphasis from emailers to the Patriots mailbag this week.

Last week, a hot topic of discussion was the idea of "loading up" and giving quarterback Tom Brady more weapons for next season. After watching Super Bowl XLVIII and the dominating performance of the Seattle Seahawks defense, more of the focus is now on the New England D.

I'd expect the Patriots to address both areas this offseason, but for this week, it's all about defense.

SportsNation

In which area are the Patriots in more need of an upgrade this offseason?

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    23%
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    77%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,238)

Q. Year after year we continue to see the best defensive team win the Super Bowl, yet our offseasons here in New England have been a pulsating lament about Tom Brady's lack of weapons. Enough! In the AFC title game Brady got the ball for eight drives (14 times the week before) and the Pats D stopped the Broncos ONCE (the one where the national anthem was still playing I think). If Brady gets the ball 10 times instead of eight the game changes dramatically, the weapons he has prove to be good enough and maybe New England is in the Super Bowl to face Seattle instead of the Broncos. Until the focus returns to a tough, physical, deep, talented defense we will all continue to fool ourselves into thinking Brady's lack of weapons stopped his Super Bowl ring collection. Doesn't Bill Belichick and staff see this? -- Dean (Rumford, Maine)

A. I think they do, Dean. Look at the significant investments they've made on that side of the ball in recent years -- the last four top draft picks were all on defense: defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Tavon Wilson. They extended the contracts of linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive end Rob Ninkovich at significant dollars. They paid cornerback Aqib Talib at a high-end rate. I think there is solid personnel here and I expect more talent to be added to the mix in 2014. The question I have, and I don't really have an answer for it because it's at a level of X's and O's outside my box, is whether the scheme is the best fit for the personnel based on the way the game is played today. Pressuring opposing quarterbacks is critical and I wouldn't classify the Patriots' approach as a pressure D.

Q. Very impressed with Seattle's defensive ends. How do the Patriots defensive ends compare? Would you switch? -- Bob (Manchester, N.H.)

A. Bob, on the surface it seems like it's like comparing footballs to soccer balls because the ends are used in different ways. I'd be interested in a tape study that compares how the Seattle defensive ends were utilized in the Super Bowl compared to how the Patriots ends were utilized in the AFC Championship Game (I'll put it on the list and hope to get to it at some point). My initial sense is that we'd see the Patriots ends doing more chipping and sacrificing their initial rush to disrupt the timing of the passing game that way, whereas the Seahawks relied on the ends (coupled with physical play on receivers) to generate a rush to create that initial disruption. If the tape study confirmed that, it would reflect my perception of a difference in defensive philosophy between the clubs. I think Patriots defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are good players that any team would want. So I want to learn more about how they are being utilized in comparison to how a trend-setting defense like the Seahawks might utilize them.

Q. Mike, after watching Denver get blown out in the Super Bowl it convinces me that defenses still win championships and can beat a record-setting offense even in these days of the NFL. Earlier this season we were talking about how improved the Pats defense was looking. Injuries put an end to that. However, I'm optimistic about the Pats' chances in 2014. Injured players come back, young players continue to improve (we hope), and maybe a couple new additions help. Besides the D-line and re-signing Talib, what defensive weaknesses do you think the Pats need to focus on for 2014? Although I'd love to see Brady get more weapons, I'd rather give the young receivers a chance to develop than spending big money on a free agent. Finally, didn't the Pats finish the season as one of the youngest teams in the league? -- Steven (Denver, Colo.)

Peyton Manning
The Patriots didn't lay a hand on Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game, but the Seahawks had no trouble disrupting him.

A. Steven, Patriots owner Robert Kraft pointed out that his research indicates the Patriots were the third-youngest team in the NFL, which is a positive for the future. If Talib is back, I think the next area on which to focus is nickel rusher. When playing sub defense 67 percent of the time, like the Patriots did in 2013, that player is almost like a starter. There are times when playing more coverage is the way to go, but I think this league is becoming and has become more and more about the ability to pressure the passer.

Q. Mike, it looks like the NFL of the future is one of mobile quarterbacks, tall receivers and big defensive backs. The Patriots don't seem to match well with quality players at this time, if this is the future. What are your thoughts on this trend? -- Doug (Hilton Head, S.C.)

A. Doug, what the Seahawks did is extremely impressive and I also had the thought, "Maybe this is the future of the way defense has to be played in the NFL." But I think there needs to be a level of carefulness in balancing that with the reality that we're talking about a one-year snapshot. I remember thinking after last year's Super Bowl, in which the Ravens beat the 49ers, that the Patriots could benefit from a Vonta Leach-type fullback presence. They got one in 2013 (James Develin was a solid performer), but it didn't produce a Super Bowl championship. It's easy to get swept away by one Super Bowl result. In the end, the best way to sum it up is probably this: The best teams, players 1-65, still have the best chance to win. And there are different ways to do it.

Q. Clearly, Seattle has done a better job than most other teams over the last year (or two) in both developing rookies and in signing veteran free agents. Though, some of that is probably luck, and they have also had tremendous salary cap advantages in having a good quarterback with the salary cap hit slightly above that of a practice squad player. It will be interesting to see whether Seattle can sustain this over the long-term, especially when they have to start paying Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson and others their real market value, and when all of the other teams start poaching Seattle's coaching and player personnel staff. -- Jeff (Arlington, Va.)

A. Jeff, the Seahawks deserve all the credit. That was an incredible performance in the Super Bowl and they earned everything that came to them in 2013. They are benefiting from having star players like Sherman and Wilson on rookie contracts, and it will be a challenge for them to retain their core when those deals expire. But they've also shown a nice knack of drafting and developing talent, so there's no reason to think that won't continue. Also, they have already lost a coach when 2012 defensive coordinator Gus Bradley took the Jaguars head-coaching position. So there is nothing but respect for what the Seahawks have done in 2013. Now comes a great challenge for them: Can they repeat? It is one of the hardest things to do in sports. The 2012 champ, the Ravens, didn't even make the playoffs in 2013.

Q. Peyton Manning will be in the Hall of Fame no matter what happens, along with Brady. What I want to know is how this recent Super Bowl loss affects the Manning vs. Brady debate for best quarterback to play the game, where do these two legends stand now? Here is a bit of a challenge for you, how many playoff losses could be blamed solely on Brady's performance versus Manning's poor performances? Is it ever really that simple? -- Justin (Brookings, S.D.)

A. Justin, I don't get too deeply into this debate as there is really no right or wrong answer. They are both great. I think if Peyton led the Broncos to victory, you would have had some calling him the greatest of all time. Now I think those people have to pump the brakes and simply say he's one of the best of all time. I think we'll be able to make a better determination of how it all stacks up once their careers are over.

Q. Mike, why is surrounding the only real asset the team has (Brady) with weapons such a horrible idea? Why MUST you defend having a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing to Austin Collie in an AFC Championship? -- Dan (Boston)

A. Dan, surrounding Brady with weapons isn't a bad idea. Of course, any team wants to put weapons around its quarterback; I don't think there is one team that says, "You know what, let's make it tougher than it has to be on our quarterback this year." That's different than the premise of "loading up" for a one-year hit, which is more of a fantasy-football-type concept. As for how the Patriots' offense was constructed this year, if you would have told me last March what would happen to Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Amendola, I wouldn't be as understanding as to what unfolded for the offense. Dan, is there any disagreement that the Patriots thought they were putting the most explosive tight end tandem in history around Brady at this time last year? They aren't perfect in their decision-making, and we can criticize and analyze the decisions they make in that regard, but to overlook the fact they were building around the tight ends is negligent from my viewpoint.

Q. Mike, all this chatter about "loading up" for a shot at the Super Bowl ... I wish more Pats fans would appreciate the unprecedented success the Patriots are having with BB and TB. We're in it every year: Can you imagine if we sign Larry Fitzgerald and he blows his ACL out the first game of the season? Last I saw, he counts about $18 million of the Cardinals' cap -- that would be devastating and nearly impossible to build solid depth on the rest of the roster. Don't get me wrong, I loved the Randy Moss signing, but they don't all work out. We all remember the Albert Haynesworth signing -- but at least we weren't crippled when he and Chad Johnson flamed out. -- Don (Atlanta)

A. Well said, Don. As we give the Seahawks credit for their Super Bowl victory, let's not overlook that the Patriots are a consistent contender. I expect that to continue in 2014. There's a lot to like about the present and future snapshot of the team.

Q. Mike, as I was watching the game, part of me thought that the Pats would have provided more of a challenge than the Broncos and part of me was just happy that it wasn't our team getting clobbered out there. At any rate, it was easy to see the impact Seattle's safeties had on stopping the Broncos' passing game on Sunday, and the last six Super Bowl champions had at least one, and sometimes two, Pro Bowl safeties. In terms of pass defense, I think Jamie Collins can have a huge impact next year if he is able to cover the tight end and other third- and fourth-receiver options. But this defense is still missing that hard-hitting safety to patrol the middle of the field. I see this as the biggest offseason need, assuming Talib is re-signed. -- Adam (Broomfield, Colo.)

Pete Carroll
Safety Kam Chancellor had an interception, 10 tackles and two passes defensed in the Super Bowl.

A. Adam, you and Rodney Harrison are thinking along the same lines. The Patriots tried to add one in 2013 when they signed Adrian Wilson, but that didn't work out for them. They tried to add one in 2012 in drafting Tavon Wilson in the second round and that hasn't panned out. Part of what makes it work for the Seahawks is the unusual range of Earl Thomas, which is almost Ed Reed-like. That is the perfect complement to a bigger safety like Kam Chancellor, who if forced to play in the deep third of the field for extended snaps would not be utilized to his strengths. I've heard several coaches say that you don't have the traditional free safety/strong safety pairings in today's game and that players at that position have to be interchangeable, which makes it hard to find the right mix with a bigger safety who is a little bit more of a liability in deep coverage.

Q. Wondering if you have a sense of what the issue was with Adrian Wilson prior to this season. I know he was ultimately placed on injured reserve, but he was barely making the cut anyhow. Was it injury-related or was he just too big and slow? Just having some Kam Chancellor dreams here. -- Jake (Portland, Maine)

A. Jake, I didn't have Wilson on my final roster projection. I couldn't decipher if it was a case of his having lost a significant step or if it was more of a result of his playing slow because of the system fit. I don't expect him back in 2014, and the Patriots would pick up $1.2 million salary cap space if that's the case.

Q. Hi Mike, after watching the Seattle defense totally stifle the NFL's leading offense, I want to put the brakes on the "Let's load up on offense" philosophy. I guess defense still wins championships. Assuming the Patriots re-sign Talib and the injured players return, one element is still missing. The Patriots need a strong safety that can consistently tackle and be an intimidating force in the secondary. What do you think of taking a chance on Bernard Pollard? His inability to stay with one team concerns me, but he is a hitter who would be an upgrade to the secondary. -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)

A. Gary, that would be my first question on Pollard: Why has he been on four teams in six years? I'd want to investigate the locker-room fit before committing to that.

Q. Hey Mike, what is your assessment of the safety position for the Patriots? Devin McCourty is a cornerstone but Steve Gregory is extremely average. For every good play he makes, he makes an equally bad one. Is Duron Harmon good enough to start for the Pats next year? He looked good in limited action to me and didn't seem to make many obvious mistakes. If not then, do the Pats draft a safety for the third year in a row? Any chance for Jairus Byrd or another free agent? -- Spencer (Maryland)

A. Spencer, I thought Gregory had a solid year for the Patriots and his value came in the all-important communication that ensures everyone in the secondary is on the same page. Gregory is one of the smartest players around, which the Patriots value, although he doesn't have the physical upside of a top-tier safety. I don't think the Patriots will be in the Byrd mix given their other needs, and Harmon showed some flashes that he can be a contributor, but it remains to be seen whether he can be a long-term starter.

Q. Mike, you've said you think the Patriots may choose not to re-sign Julian Edelman if finances dictate all. But can they really afford to lose 105 catches given their passing game, and will Tom Brady have any say in the matter? -- Brad (Washington, D.C.)

A. Brad, finances obviously dictate for every team based on the salary-cap structure of the NFL, and it's just a matter of how far a team is willing to extend. They will obviously want to keep Edelman, and Edelman has earned everything coming to him, but I think there is confidence in the system that the potential loss could be absorbed at an acceptable level.

Q. Any chances that the Patriots might pick up a compensatory pick or two this year? In this regard, would Edelman classify as a free-agent signing? -- Kim (Adelaide, Australia)

A. Kim, here is a neat link to Patsfans.com on the subject. The math adds up where they are in position to potentially receive a compensatory pick (or picks).

Q. Mike, do you see the league giving the Patriots any relief from Aaron Hernandez's salary? With him counting $7.5 million against the cap as "dead money" hurts us next season. If they do not get that relief they only have about $4 million to spend next season. This will make it extremely difficult to sign any free agents and get the help they need. From your experience and what you see around the league will the NFL give it to them? -- Regis (Braintree, Mass.)

A. I do think the Patriots have a good chance to get about $3 million in relief from that situation, whenever it ultimately is decided. Overall, one thing to keep in mind is that salary-cap space is fluid. The Patriots aren't in a great position, but I wouldn't say they have ironclad handcuffs on them and can't make any moves to improve.