Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Mailbag: Red zone struggles one topic
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
This week's mailbag is filled with more optimism from e-mailers following the Patriots' 26-10 win over the Falcons.
There were several e-mails on the team's defense and the surprising role safety Brandon McGowan is playing. He's been one of the unsung stories through three games, his work on tight end Tony Gonzalez (one catch) helping the Patriots in a big way Sunday.
I asked Gonzalez about McGowan after the game.
"I give him credit; he played pretty well. I hadn't seen him before, but he is a good player," said Gonzalez, who struck me as a classy guy.
In other areas, some e-mailers said they were having trouble locating the mailbag on our ESPNBoston.com site. Your voices have been heard, and you should see a change this week that makes the mailbag more accessible throughout the week.
As a follow-up, the Patriots blog also had its RSS feed fixed, which was an issue from the past two weeks.
A few other prevalent thoughts from this week's mailbag:
1. Red zone offense struggles.
2. Joey Galloway's rocky start.
3. Fred Taylor and sticking more with one running back.
4. Where is Derrick Burgess?
5. Concerns with receiver Wes Welker.
Q: Mike, to what do you attribute the Pats red zone troubles? In the Falcons game, the Pats looked very comfortable driving down the field. Then they get in the red zone and they just stopped executing. Brady seemed to be rushing his throws on a few plays and the receivers were not playing heads-up football. This seems fixable. It seems like a comfort issue more than anything, although some of the play calling in the first three games has been a little suspect. Curious if the loss of McDaniels has anything to do with that? -- Kyle (Newport, R.I.)A: Kyle, I see it as completely fixable. This isn't as much about scheme or play calling in my view, but instead about execution (two dropped passes Sunday). When you have an open receiver step out of the back of the end zone, I think that also is a reflection of how plays are there to be made in the red zone. Here is a breakdown of the team's five red zone trips against the Falcons:
Joey Galloway has seven catches for 67 yards in three games.
First trip: Seven offensive plays (includes illegal motion penalty). Starts at 18-yard line. Breakdown came on first-and-goal from the 7, with Galloway stepping out of the back of the end zone on a play-action pass. Result: 21-yard field goal.
Second trip: Two offensive plays. Starts at 14-yard line. Runs of 6 and 8 yards by Fred Taylor. Falcons defensive tackles powered off the ball. Result: 8-yard touchdown run.
Third trip: Three offensive plays. Hurry-up situation with no timeouts and 39 seconds remaining. Starts at 15-yard line. Three straight incomplete passes, as they are limited to pass plays based on the timeout situation and where they are in the red zone. Key play is a Galloway drop on second-and-10. Result: 33-yard field goal.
Fourth trip: Three offensive plays. Starts at 6-yard line. One running play (2 yards) and two incomplete passes -- one a near-interception, the other a back-shoulder fade to Randy Moss. This would be the one time to question play calling: Why go away from the run on second down? The second throw was more about execution. Result: 22-yard field goal.
Fifth trip: Three offensive plays. Starts at 16-yard line. A run for no gain, a dropped pass by Benjamin Watson and a 1-yard pass to Kevin Faulk. Result: 33-yard field goal.
Q: What do you think Bill Belichick was trying to accomplish by going for it on 4-and-1 on the Pats 24 yard line? He said, "I thought we could get a yard." Obviously, Bill isn't sharing his motivation for that statement play which would either build character or jeopardize the game. The offense's character seemed in question from the repeated red zone failures, and started to boil over with Brady's frustration before the half. I'm thinking this frustration influenced Bill's decision. -- Ned (Greensboro, N.C.)A: That makes sense to me, Ned, but the one point I think is being overlooked is the opponent. The Falcons aren't a big defensive team up front, and that had to be a huge factor in Belichick's decision-making. The Patriots had pushed them around to that point. If the opponent is different, I don't think the same statement is being made.
Q: Hi Mike, after watching Sunday's game, it became clear that all three sections of the Pats are really "work in progress". Not taking anything away from the Falcons but the upcoming Ravens defense is much more robust. Do you think the same philosophy of "keep the other offense away" will work with the Ravens? -- Mrinal (Boston)A: Mrinal, the Ravens' defense hasn't been as dominating as we've seen in the past, but it is still a solid unit. More than anything, I think the Ravens' offense, led by underrated coordinator Cam Cameron, has been the catalyst for Baltimore's 3-0 start. The Patriots won the time of possession battle 39:49-20:11 against the Falcons, but I don't think they'll be able to control the ball as long against the Ravens, who play a much different scheme.
Q: Hi Mike, I thought that Fred Taylor's performance against the Falcons was one of the biggest positives from the game. Do you envision a bigger role for Taylor going forward? If so, does this mean we might see a reduced workload for Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris? -- Rob (Manhattan)A: Rob, I do see a bigger role for Taylor going forward. The production speaks volumes. I could see Maroney's workload being reduced.
Q: Glad to see you're still doing the 'the bag' Mike. I know the defense is playing a bit better but why can this team not get any pass rush whatsoever? I'm so puzzled by this. Many teams in the league blitz w/ regular success (e.g. Jets, Ravens, Steelers). How come the Patriots don't dial up more pressure to knock a QB off his game? Also, I think the Patriots did a better job of going with one running back for the most part and riding him. I think they need to get away from having one guy come in for few series then another coming in, etc. Run with one guy and that guy should definitely be Fred Taylor. Maroney should be packing his bags. -- Stephen (Ogdensburg, N.Y.)A: All good points, Stephen. On the pass rush, I see it as a classic case of risk/reward. If you blitz, you're leaving yourself vulnerable down the field if you don't get there. The Patriots have played it conservative, hoping they could rush four and drop seven, which puts more pressure on pass-rushers Derrick Burgess, Tully Banta-Cain, Jarvis Green, Mike Wright and Myron Pryor to get to the quarterback in one-on-one matchups. They haven't won those matchups consistently. On the running back, I tend to agree. I like the idea of letting one back get into a rhythm, which I think will help the offensive line as well. Then you can pick your spots to rest that back so he stays fresh. On Maroney, I still think he has value on the roster, but I'd stick with Fred Taylor as the lead back.
Q: Mike, what can we say about Gary Guyton? I think he's filled in very admirably and I think when [Jerod] Mayo returns the Pats will have a young, very athletic group of inside linebackers. Also what are your thoughts on Vince Wilfork, out 2-3 weeks? -- Jarrod (Rhode Island)A:Guyton has been solid, Jarrod, leading the team with 10 tackles against the Jets and seven against the Falcons. He hasn't come off the field, playing in every package -- 4-3, 3-4, dime -- and has held his own. I think you nailed it, how this experience is only going to help make him a better player when Mayo returns. If the Patriots play a 4-3, I envision Guyton moving to the weakside position next to Mayo in a starting role. As for Wilfork, it all depends on the type of injury. We knew he suffered a left ankle injury at the game, but some key details are yet to be learned. Is it a high ankle sprain? Low ankle sprain? How severe? My hunch is that the Patriots wouldn't have signed free agent Terdell Sands if they knew right now that Wilfork would play Sunday against the Ravens.
Q: For all the criticism I've heard in the media and from fans about Joey Galloway, it seems as though it's Derrick Burgess who has struggled more to this point. He was basically invisible on Sunday and I don't feel he's made an impact play yet. Since his acquisition cost a draft pick and not just money, shouldn't we be even more concerned with his progress? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)A: Dean, I'd agree that Burgess has been quiet. I've had him on the field for 40, 17 and 19 snaps over the first three games. In those 76 snaps, he's totaled four tackles and one quarterback hit. He's also lost containment at times in the running game. Burgess is an important player for the Patriots in sub packages, when they want to rush four and still get pressure. To this point, he hasn't brought enough heat.
Q: So do you think Welker is going to be banged up all season or will this go away eventually? -- Joe (Hartford, Conn.)A: Joe, my hunch is that he is dealing with some type of swelling in the knee, and the fact that it's happened so early in the season is troubling. It will not surprise me if there comes a point at which Welker is shut down -- maybe around the bye -- with the thinking to have the knee cleaned out so he has a chance to return to full health. This is all speculation on my part based on my feeling that that when a player is dealing with a knee injury and is a game-time decision in Weeks 2 and 3, it's usually not the type of situation that goes away on its own.
Q: Mike, I have a question about injuries in general and this is referring to Welker. Why do coaches have injured players who are "game time decision" come out to practice when theoretically they could sit out the week to rest (less straining on the knee on Welker's case) and improves the chances of playing? -- Alex (Rome, N.Y.)A: This is a tough one to answer, Alex, because I don't have the full context of Welker's injury situation. It's quite possible that Welker had no chance of playing and Belichick had him out at practice, jogging lightly in front of photographers, so the Falcons still prepared for him. Preparing as if Welker would play took time away from the Falcons' preparing for other parts of the Patriots' offense, such as the power running game. Without knowing the specifics of the injury and more about the overall situation with Welker, I'd just be guessing. My feeling is that Welker's presence at practice wasn't a big factor in his not playing.
Q: Hey Mike, if Joey Galloway continues to struggle, what do you see the Patriots doing to address the issue? Once Welker returns, could we see [Julian] Edelman replace Galloway, or is it asking too much of a rookie WR to learn the wideout responsibilities on top of the slot receiver responsibilities? If not Edelman, what about Watson taking more snaps as a wide out? -- Skip (Conway, N.H.)A: Skip, I don't think it's too much to put on Edelman, as he already is playing some of those roles right now. He's been more than just a slot guy. As for Galloway, I think he gets a little more time because there are no better solutions available at this time. I'd agree that it doesn't look good with Galloway. He is hurting this offense. An X factor not to overlook is rookie Brandon Tate, who currently is on the non-football injury list and is eligible to return in Week 6. One other thought: If I were a Patriots decision-maker, I'd inquire about the possibility of trading for Deion Branch in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 20 trading deadline. Not sure the Seahawks would do it, but for a quarterback seeking more comfort with his receivers, it makes sense to me that the Patriots would at least explore the possibility with one of Brady's old go-to guys. E-mailer Dave in Kalamazoo, Mich., had the same suggestion.
Q: Hey Mike, I'm still puzzled by the cut of Greg Lewis. He made an unbelievable game-winning catch Sunday for the Vikings and at only 29 years old, I thought he'd be a nice [Jabar] Gaffney-like option this year. When you factor in the trade of a 5th round pick, why could they not find him a roster spot? Do you think something may have happened internally that triggered the release of Lewis a few days after final cuts? -- Jonathan (Quincy, Mass.)A: I think the biggest thing, Jonathan, was an injury to top special teams player Matthew Slater in the preseason finale. As the Patriots planned for the season opener without Slater (elbow), they decided they needed more special teams help and claimed Bret Lockett on waivers. The question was how to create that room, and because Lewis's contributions are limited in that area and he was No. 5 on the receiving depth chart, he was the choice to go. Given Galloway's struggles, it is a fair second-guess when it comes to Lewis, although I didn't see Lewis as a viable No. 3, either.
Q: With how the Pats ran the ball against the Falcons do you think they will try and have a balanced attack more since it kept the opposing off the field. Or do you think it will change each week depending on the strengths of the defense they are facing? -- Nick (Dartmouth, Mass.)A: Nick, I think we'll see the pass-run numbers even out a bit more, but my overall feeling is that the Patriots have a game-plan offense and will adjust their attack on a weekly basis based on an opponent's strengths and weaknesses. It is one of the reasons I enjoy charting the Patriots' offense on a week-to-week basis, to see how much they change formations and personnel groupings. Against the Jets, it was almost exclusively a three-receiver attack. Against the Falcons, it was more two tight ends and fullback play. The Ravens are more Jet-like, so it will be interesting to see how the Patriots mix and match this week.
Q: Hey Mike, I enjoy your blog. I know how you break down the offensive sets each week, but I was just wondering if you take a look at what schemes and coverages the defense uses each week, as the coverage changes each week depending on what type of offense the Pats face. I find it tough to look at what coverage the defense is using during the game. -- Nick (Bridgewater, Mass.)A: Nick, that is very difficult to do watching off the TV because the main tipoff on coverages is with the safeties and they often aren't on the screen with the shots TV uses. That's why it's such an advantage to have the coaches' tape with end zone angles when analyzing games, and those coaching tapes are restricted. I was talking to Matt Millen about that recently, and his feeling is that if you don't have the coaches' tape, don't bother watching. I still rewatch the TV broadcasts of games, but it's in the context of knowing you are limited in what you can pull out of there.
Q: Hey Mike, as a diehard Longhorn fan, David Thomas was one of my favorite players. I recall you writing several times during training camp that he was one of the big surprises and best players. How is it then that the Pats could only get a seventh-round pick for him? I just don't get it. Also, would incompatibility with Tom Brady be any kind of possible reason why both Kevin O'Connell and Andrew Walter were dumped? It still shocks me that [our] only other QB is an undrafted rookie. I have to think someone will be headed this way soon, don't you? -- Alex (Austin, Texas)A: Alex, I think it was a combination of the Patriots' desire to get bigger at tight end in addition to what the market dictated that resulted in Thomas' netting only a seventh-round draft choice. There were a few teams short at tight end (Saints, Eagles, Ravens), but only the Saints deemed Thomas (two starts, three catches, 34 yards) a fit for their offense and worth parting with a future draft choice. In New England, Thomas projected as a lead blocker in two-back sets, but once the Patriots decided Sammy Morris would return to that role, it seemed to set the wheels in motion on Thomas's departure. On the quarterbacks, I didn't sense that incompatibility with Brady was the issue, just performance.
Q: Do you think the Patriots will make an attempt at signing Leigh Bodden to a long-term deal during the season? I know it has only been three weeks, but he seems to be a very stout corner who plays well in man-to-man matchups (bigger, physical cornerback). It seems like this is the risk of the one-year deal from a Patriots perspective. If he keeps playing well, his price tag at 27-28 years old keeps getting higher. I remember him saying when he got here that he'd prefer to get something done during the season. I think he'd be a nice veteran presence over the next 3-4 years as Wilhite, Wheatley, Butler and Chung grow into their roles. -- Jonathan (Quincy)A: Interesting point, Jonathan, and one I think has merit. Bodden has been one of the team's top players through three games. That situation has a few layers. The Patriots initially offered Bodden a multiyear deal as a free agent, and he turned it down because he thought he could do better. Turns out he couldn't, so he settled for the one-year, $2.25 million contract, with a provision that he can't be assigned the franchise tag. So Bodden is positioning himself to hit the market after a "rebound" year with the Patriots, which would improve his market value. I wonder if the Patriots offered him the same multiyear extension now, or perhaps a deal that is a bit richer, if he would accept.
Q: Mike, how do you think Myron Pryor and Ron Brace have progressed so far this season? Do you think either can be an impact player this year? -- Jeremy (Montclair, N.J.)A: I think Pyror has been one of the team's most pleasant surprises, Jeremy, and Sunday's win over the Falcons was the latest example. When Vince Wilfork left the game with a left ankle injury in the second quarter, Pryor played every snap the rest of the game. He finished with 27 snaps played, a season high, and I thought he held his own (three assisted tackles). He is quick and seems to play with sound technique; Bill Belichick previously noted that Pryor was an advanced technique player from having been coached by Rich Brooks and his staff at Kentucky. While Pryor has been on the rise, Brace has been a bit slower to emerge. I thought he struggled against the Jets in Week 2 on a few run plays up the gut, which might have factored into his did-not-play (coaches decision) against the Falcons.
Q: I'm wondering why Pat Chung hasn't seen the field other than on special teams. Also, do you know what's wrong with Welker? He seemed like he was ready to go. Is his injury more sever then led on, or are they just being cautious? -- Sean (Orlando, Fla.)A: Sean, a big factor has been the emergence of free-agent signee Brandon McGowan, who has become a 2A to James Sanders's 2B. Coaches really seem to be high on McGowan's toughness. McGowan has bumped Chung to fourth on the safety depth chart, and the Patriots haven't called on him unless they've gone to a seven-defensive back package. We saw him struggle a bit in pass coverage in the preseason, and that also could be part of the reason he hasn't played much defensively. On Welker, I don't have any concrete information. My guess would be that he has swelling in the knee.
Q: Hi Mike, do you think that one of the main reasons for the Patriots running almost all of their plays out of shotgun in the first two weeks was to make Brady think less about his knee in the drop-back? It seems shotgun requires less movement by Tom, and he has been most comfortable in shotgun formations historically. It seemed that in the Falcons game we saw a greater percentage of conventional formations with Tom under center as he works back confidence in the knee and to work in the play action. What are your thoughts? -- Graham (Weymouth, Mass.)A: Graham, the Patriots were in the shotgun on 31 of their 83 snaps (including penalties) against the Falcons, which seemed like a lower percentage than normal. For a comparison, they were in the shotgun 46 of 67 plays the week before against the Jets. I think it was more about the running game. When you're in the shotgun, your run options are more limited compared to dropping back from center.
Q: Hey Mike, I was wondering if you could comment on why all of the criticism seems to be on the defense. Everyone keeps mentioning that since we lost all of those starters it will be hard to function. However, it has been our offense that has held us back, Tom Brady has not yet come back to his normal self, and the team has been awful in the red zone. -- Brian (Billerica, Mass.)A: I'd agree with this, Brian. I think the defense has generally played well enough to win in each of the first three games, and it's been the offense holding things back. At the same time, if there is one aspect about the defense that stands out to me, it's the lack of turnovers and consistent stops in critical situations. I thought the defense played its best game against the Falcons, and it helped that the unit was on the field for only 20 minutes, in part because of a clock-eating Patriots offense. The defense came up with the big fumble recovery in the second quarter that was a huge play in the game. Prior to the Falcons game, I thought the unit was struggling in critical situations, unable to stop the Bills in the fourth quarter or the Jets in the third quarter when that game turned. So my feeling is that I'd like to see more before jumping to any definitive commentary on how good this defense truly is.
Q: Mike, was Coach Belichick calling the offensive plays a change from earlier this year (and years past)? I don't recall seeing him with the play-chart in the past. Also, what is the situation with receiver Terrence Nunn? Is he an answer to the Gallaway mistake? -- Matt (Kailua, Hawaii)A: That looked like a change to me, Matt, and it's something I'd be interested to hear Belichick talk about in his Tuesday conference call if he'll address it. He usually keeps a folded-up piece of paper in his pocket to chart timeouts and other game-management-type stuff. But I can't recall seeing him with the play sheet in recent memory. I think he was more actively involved in the play-calling process. On the second part of the question, Nunn is on the practice squad, so he could be activated to the roster at any time. If the Patriots were considering making a switch at receiver, limiting Galloway's reps, Nunn would be part of the consideration. I just don't think it's a reasonable expectation to think Nunn could step in there right now.
Q: We're all doing the whole "the sky is falling" routine for the Patriots lately, but what about the Steelers? They're the reigning champs and they really should be 0-3 at this point, with their one win coming against the 0-3 Titans. Frankly, the Patriots have played superior competition and looked a lot better than the Steelers have. Further, everyone's made critical comments on our defense, but it is ranked 6th in yards and 7th in scoring. Our offense is moving the ball consistently, just not scoring. So I have to ask: Why the different treatment for the two ball clubs? -- Domenic (Washington, D.C.)A: Domenic, I can't speak strongly to the different treatment between the Steelers and Patriots because I haven't followed the reaction around the Steelers through three weeks. I do think there was a pretty strong reaction to the Patriots' Week 2 loss to the Jets. Now we see how a win quiets things down pretty quickly and changes the entire tone around the team. In the end, as I see it, the truth is somewhere right in the middle -- things weren't as bad as they seemed after the loss to the Jets, but it's not as if the Patriots have solved all their key issues, either.
Q: Hey Mike, there was some buzz a couple of weeks back about both Kevin Carter and Derrick Brooks, who had said he was going to make a decision last week and that there were two teams interested in him, assumption being Chicago and New England. Whatever happened with them? -- Lisa (Sharon, Mass.)A: Lisa, the last time I checked in with Carter's representative a few weeks back, Carter was deciding between retirement and the Patriots. At this time, Carter hasn't had the urge to leave his family behind in Florida and play for New England. That could always change in the coming weeks. In terms of Brooks, there has been an open dialogue between the sides, and there continues to be.
Q: Hi Mike, this is a more X's and O's type question. In many Pats games, (maybe even more so in Sunday's game), the TEs split out wide, resulting in the WRs being slot guys. Why do that? If the purpose is to get the LBs out of the box, why not just go to a 4 WR set? What's your take? -- Cegeon (Newton, Mass.)A: My take on that, Cegeon, is that it's all about matchups. When you split the tight ends out wide like that, you want to see how the defense will match up and how that creates opportunities in other areas of the field. The first time the Patriots split the tight ends out, the Falcons kept their corners on the tight ends and didn't bring anyone into the slots on the receivers. A quick pass to Randy Moss, for 7 yards, was the result as Chris Baker provided a nice block on the outside.
Q: I've often wondered about security and privacy in pro sports locker rooms. It looks like the lockers are really just open stalls with no doors. And sometimes the locker rooms seem packed with reporters. With all the expensive jewelry and cash the players must carry, why isn't security a big issue? Do the players have anywhere to secure their valuables? -- Johnny (Rutland, Vt.)A: Johnny, each locker has a small area with a lock where players can secure their valuable belongings. There also are security personnel in the locker room when reporters are present, and I believe that security presence is around the team all day. I see it at practice as well.