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Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Defense continues to be main concern

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Here we go. It's playoff time, and emailers are bringing their A-game when it comes to dissecting and analyzing some of the hot topics surrounding the Patriots.

Topics this week include:

1. Can the Patriots make a Super Bowl run with their porous defense?

2. Concern over slow starts.

3. Coaching questions with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien generating interest from other teams and colleges.

4. Juggling parts in the Patriots secondary, with Devin McCourty at safety.

5. Assessing the pass rush and what it all means.

6. Patriots draft chatter.

Q: Hi Mike, resiliency and ineptness were two defining words for the Patriot performance this season. Enough points on offense and enough damage control on defense enabled wins, but only against mid/low range teams. Now they face top range teams with recent winning playoff experience who can better exploit such a defense and better contain such an offense. Dependence on "business as usual" will get the Patriots nowhere but home. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, B.C.)

A: Jake, my thoughts are that anything can happen in the playoffs. I'm not going to sugarcoat some of the Patriots' obvious flaws, just as I wouldn't downplay how explosive they can be on offense. I think it's set up nicely for them -- win two games at home and you're in the Super Bowl. Teams don't get too many opportunities like this. I'm not counting them out, not with the toughness they've shown over the course of the 16-game season.

Q: Hi Mike, although they ended up being blowout wins, I am worried about how poorly the Pats started the last two games on defense. After both games, linebacker Jerod Mayo said something like, "We just had to see what they were going to do and then make adjustments." If we give up 21 points to a good playoff team early in the game, adjustments won't matter, we will lose, just like we did in '09 to Baltimore. Thoughts? -- CJ (San Francisco)

A: I agree with that, CJ. They need to be sharper early in games. In the season finale, let's not overlook special teams as a contributing factor for the slow start. It's the opening drive, fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 43, and you're playing a 6-9 team with nothing to lose, so the Patriots had to be more alert for the fake there. Those are the little things that can hurt a team in the playoffs.

Q: Without a credible defense the Pats are one-and-done because of BB blunders in the draft and free agency and his lack of defensive leadership. Period! -- Jeff (Coatesville, Pa.)

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick has watched the Patriots fall behind 17-0 and 21-0 in their past two games.

A: Jeff, you may be right. You're not the only one who feels this way, as these thoughts reflect the frustrations of some emailers. I think it's fair to be critical of the defense and ask why Bill Belichick has struggled to come up with the answers to turn things around over the last few years. At the same time, my feeling is let's let the games play out before making a final judgment on this 2011 Patriots team. They still have some good things going for them.

Q: Hi Mike, do you think the Pats should change their philosophy of always deferring if they win the toss in the playoffs? I understand why they defer, to get the possession at the end of the half and at the start of the 2nd half, but they end up behind. What if they came out and scored right away? The pressure would shift to the other team. -- Stacey (Providence, R.I.)

A: Stacey, this is an interesting topic to me. I understand the line of thinking, but I don't envision Bill Belichick changing his line of thinking because it puts too much stock in the first drive of the game. So while the intentions are good -- take the ball and score -- what happens if you take the ball and go three-and-out? I understand the flip side, the idea of protecting the defense by getting ahead early, but when looking at the risk/reward of taking the ball, I think you give up too much from an in-game strategy perspective. Also, based on what we've seen from the Patriots offense early in games, I'm not sure there is reason to have much confidence they'd do a lot with their opening drive.

Q: Mike, the coaching staff deserves credit for in-game adjustments on offense and defense. Most teams would be making adjustments the Tuesday after the game (and probably the loss). However, the adjustments and subsequent victories seem to be masking what appears to be a larger problem: Both offense and defense appear unprepared at the start of the game. Is this on the coaching staff, or is it that perhaps opposing teams are saving their best for a shot at the Patriots? -- David (Norwalk, Conn.)

A: David, I think you have to put that on the coaching staff, especially when the problem has come up consistently over time. That's what their job is, to get the team ready to play. Opposing teams deserve some credit too, but I think this is one of those things where it's more on the Patriots staff to come up with the answers to get the team started quicker.

Patriots scoring by quarter:

First -- 82
Second -- 148
Third -- 141
Fourth -- 142

Q: What adjustments did the defense make after giving up 21 points in the first quarter that enabled them to shut down the Buffalo offense in the next 3? -- Norbert DSouza (Mesa, Ariz.)

A: Norbert, I think Tedy Bruschi had some interesting observations on this from his "Bruschi on Tap" chat Monday. They got away from man defense and rushing four and five defenders and went to more zone coverage and rushing three defenders.

Q: Mike, if Bill O'Brien were to get a head coaching job, is there anyone else on this staff that might take over at offensive coordinator? Ivan Fears or Chad O'Shea. I just don't see anyone that is already here that would be a good fit. How about Josh McDaniels, Brian Daboll or Jeff Davidson, who are some former assistants? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: David, I think it could be a situation where there is no defined offensive coordinator, similar to what we've seen in recent years before the title was officially given to Josh McDaniels and later Bill O'Brien, even though they basically handled coordinator duties. I see Brian Ferentz (tight ends) and Chad O'Shea (receivers) as the in-house candidates, with the context that Dante Scarnecchia is locked in as O-line coach and Ivan Fears is a constant as running backs coach (both Scarnecchia and Fears are key cogs on the offensive staff). As for bringing someone in from the outside, I agree with your line of thinking on those with ties to the organization. McDaniels would be a great choice, and no bridge has been burned there, so the key would be if he's let go by the Rams. Davidson is the O-line coach in Minnesota and he'd be another solid consideration in my view. Unlike McDaniels and Davidson, however, I don't envision Bill Belichick inviting Daboll back; my sense is there are some hard feelings there after he departed with Eric Mangini to the Jets in 2006.

Q: If the Chiefs don't end up re-signing Romeo Crennel, could you possibly see the Pats making a play to sign him as a defensive coordinator? It worked well enough last time, and while Bill has a great defensive mind, two heads are better than one. -- Ben (Massachusetts)

A: Ben, I think that would be a great move, but it looks like a long shot to me because it's hard for me to envision a scenario in which Crennel doesn't stay in K.C. I do think the defensive staff will be tweaked this offseason, with a primary focus on getting the right coaches in the right places to help the young talent in the secondary grow.

Q: Any remote chance of Steve Spagnuolo landing in New England? -- Hub (Glenmoore, Pa.)

A: Hub, I assume we're talking about as defensive coordinator for Spagnuolo, who was the coach behind the Giants' impressive performance against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. I like the thought, but I'd call it a long shot because in Bill Belichick's tenure as coach, he's never really brought in a coach from outside the system and given him that type of position. The idea has been that if a coach like that comes and implements his system, then leaves in a year, then what do you do? You want the system to endure.

Q: Mike, Jan. 14 is my birthday. I believe the last time the Pats played on Jan. 14 they beat the Jaguars pretty easy. Can I expect another good birthday present? -- Ernie (La Mirada, Calif.)

A: Ernie, some early birthday wishes from here. The last time the Patriots played on Jan. 14 was in the playoffs following the 2006 season -- a 24-21 win at San Diego. That was the Troy Brown-forcing-a-fumble game, one of the more dramatic playoff wins for the Patriots to set up a date with Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game.

Q: Mike, I am really impressed with the play of Julian Edelman on defense. Not that he is always making the right play, but he brings a sense of grit, determination and sense of urgency on defense. A quarterback back turned receiver turned defensive back ... usually happens in high school! Thoughts? -- Doug (Scituate, Mass.)

A: Doug, what Edelman pulled off Sunday was impressive to me. He came in to the game on the Bills' fourth series, with the Patriots trailing 21-0. He played 41 straight defensive snaps, and when he left the field with a minor hamstring tweak midway through the fourth quarter, it was 42-21 Patriots. His coverage was solid and it was clear he brought energy to the defense in replacing Nate Jones. You look at a performance like that and say, "No reason he shouldn't be out there as the slot corner." I'd keep working him there and see where it leads.

Q: I can't remember another time that a team as successful as this year's Patriots was still shuffling around their secondary this late in the season. I mean, we moved a Pro Bowl corner to safety the same day our other safety returned to the lineup and made several in-game changes at corner. Does your crystal ball have a prediction for our starting secondary in the base and nickel come January 14? -- Jerry (New York, N.Y.)

Patrick Chung 120103
Patrick Chung, left, returned to the Patriots lineup Sunday after missing seven games.

A: Jerry, in the sub packages, I'm keeping McCourty at safety and pairing him with Patrick Chung. That position has been a trouble spot for weeks now, so my thought is "Why not?" That leaves me with Antwaun Molden, Kyle Arrington and Edelman (slot) at cornerback, which is a bit risky, but I'll take my chances with it. In the base D, there are some options, such as bringing James Ihedigbo on at safety and having McCourty replace Molden at cornerback.

Q: Mike, I was surprised to see how much Antwaun Molden played in your snap counts. I don't recall hearing his name much on the broadcast, which for a defensive back can sometimes be a good thing. Any thoughts on his play from your perspective? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A: Dean, we saw Molden get the pass interference penalty on the Bills' opening drive, a 47-yarder that set up the Bills' first touchdown. I thought he struggled a bit in coverage overall, but he hung in there and was rewarded with that late interception.

Q: Where do the Pats rank with sacks? Last season and during the offseason, everyone complained that we had a weak pass rush and no help came via the draft, but free agents Andre Carter and Mark Anderson have done very well. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Ashley, the Patriots finished the season with 40 total sacks, which ranked 14th in the NFL. Carter and Anderson became the first Patriots tandem since 1985 to each record 10 or more sacks in a season. Both were solid free-agent signings, and I think you could make a strong case for their return in 2012, regardless of what scheme the Patriots run.

Q: Mike, I don't get to watch many of the games up here in AK, so I was wondering ... Last year the big complaint on defense was a lack of a pass rush. It seems this year the pass rush has been better, but the secondary has fallen (off a cliff). How has the pass rush been this year compared to last year? -- David (Juneau, Alaska)

A: David, I think the pass rush has been better than 2010. But overall, something just seems flawed to me when it comes to the way the Patriots play on that side of the ball, and I say that with defenses like the Texans, Steelers and Ravens in mind. I'm not sure if it's the general philosophy or more personnel-based, but this is an area I think requires some significant alterations in the offseason. It's a topic we've discussed quite a bit in recent years and it remains an issue for this team.

Q: Hey Mike, I think it's funny how everybody says that the Pats have the worst defense in the league but the Packers gave up more yards and points. Do you think that the Pats defense gives up so many passing yards because they may be trying to set up interceptions early in drives? If this is a possibility, do you think that they could tighten it up a little when necessary like they do in the red zone? -- Godwinks (Richmond, Va.)

A: I don't think the Patriots defense is purposely giving up yards or doing any type of bait and switch to set up interceptions. As Tom Brady noted in his interview with ESPN's Chris Berman over the weekend, the defense has been solid "situationally," and that's been a key. I view the defenses of the Packers and Patriots similarly -- both feed off turnovers while giving up a lot of yards.

Q: Mike, the Patriots ranked tied for 21st in the NFL in red zone defense (TD percentage), but I would like to see where they ranked in trips allowed and total red zone scores allowed. I know the big factor is points allowed, but if they make it to the Super Bowl, it will be Drew Brees or Aaron Rogers. They won't be throwing picks to Sterling Moore. -- John F (Walpole, Mass.)

A: You got it, John. The Patriots allowed 61 trips inside the red zone in the 2011 regular season. That tied with the Giants for the second-highest total in the NFL, behind only Tampa Bay (70). As for total touchdowns allowed in the red zone, the Patriots' 34 ties with the Giants for the fourth-highest total in the NFL. As for total scores allowed in the red zone (touchdowns and field goals), the Patriots' 50 ties with the Vikings and Colts as the third-highest total in the NFL.

Q: Hey Mike, when the Pats signed Tiquan Underwood, I figured maybe he'd help out by returning kicks, but Belichick still just sends Woodhead back there (although Slater returned one this week pretty tentatively) and seems content with just making sure they don't fumble. I know Slater fumbled once, but why not give someone else besides Woodhead -- maybe someone with speed -- a chance to run back some kicks? -- Dan (Duxbury, Mass.)

A: Dan, I don't have the answer for this one other than that I'd be surprised if the coaching staff is pleased with the kickoff return results this year. In the limited opportunities they've had in that area of the game -- a result of the new kickoff rules -- there hasn't been much explosiveness. I envision it will be an area they target in 2012.

Q: Hi Mike, during Tom Brady's postgame press conference, there were several questions about the Pats' lack of a Moss-like receiver who could "stretch the field." I thought it was a strange question to ask of a quarterback who has thrown for well over 5,000 yards in an offense that is ranked 2nd or 3rd in many categories this year. I feel like with all the YAC potential of the receivers and tight ends that a long-ball receiver really has not been missed. What do you think about this line of questioning? Thanks! -- Cheryl Edwards (Ashland, Mass.)

A: Cheryl, I didn't hear the questioning, as I was in the locker room at the time and Brady was at the podium in the interview room. I could understand where some would see that as being out of context for the moment, but one never knows the assignment a writer is working on, and what the availability of a player will be (so sometimes you ask even if it doesn't always feel like the right time). I look at the topic of "stretching the field" a little differently and focus more on the overall production from that No. 2 receiver spot. When it comes to the No. 2 pure receiver in the season finale, between Deion Branch, Tiquan Underwood and Chad Ochocinco there were 62 snaps, one target, and no catches. Part of that is obviously tied to tight end Aaron Hernandez basically serving as another receiver. That pure No. 2 receiver spot, which is essentially the Patriots' fourth option on offense, is one I envision the Patriots targeting in the offseason.

Q: Hi Mike, I thought of this after seeing the blog post on the Patriots' draft picks in 2012. Bill Belichick passed on the following players over the past few drafts: Clay Matthews (Pro Bowler), Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks this season), Brooks Reed (6 sacks as a rookie). A lot of media in Boston seemed to think that these would be people BB would go after in the draft. It shows that BB doesn't have a good grasp at evaluating pass-rushers coming out of the draft. Is he changing his evaluation system? I'd just hate to see any more good pass-rushers be passed on. -- Jim

A: Jim, I think the overall point is a fair one when it comes to drafting and developing promising young talent in the front seven. At the same time, to be fair, a lot of teams passed on those players. I do think the team could benefit from throwing a few more darts at the board on those type of players early in the draft -- the "tweener" edge rushers. It's hard to develop them if you seldom draft them in the early rounds.

Q: Mike, I had a draft theory I wanted to run by you. The Patriots have been known to consistently trade out of the 1st round. However, with the new CBA, the risk/reward of first- round draft picks is now lower -- same great players but cheaper than in years past. With this said, do you think this might change the way the Patriots draft? Meaning, is this the year we actually take two players in the 1st round? -- Charlie (Golden, Colo.)

A: Charlie, I don't envision the philosophy of trading will change too much for the Patriots with their first-round picks, which project to be closer to the end of the round, an area traditionally where the finances aren't a major factor. I also think they'll still be looking to wheel and deal by pushing chips into the future, even though I'd personally endorse the idea of staying put and making the picks. It's easy to say it now, but a Nate Solder/Jabaal Sheard/Brooks Reed combination last year -- at picks 17, 28 and 33 -- would have infused this team with the type of youthful boost that can make a big difference, sort of like the 1995 draft was for the franchise. In the end, the fundamentals of it all come back to scouting, correctly evaluating talent and then developing that talent, which is hard for all teams. The last point I'd make is that it seems like only a year or so ago that many in the media were advocating the Jets' approach of trading up and mortgaging a lot of picks to do so, but we see how that has worked out for them. That's a flawed team with little depth. So there is a lot to digest with this topic.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.