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Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Questions again focused on defense

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

The New England Patriots' 37-31 victory over the Bills on Sunday has sparked concern about the team's defense. This is the main topic in the weekly Patriots mailbag.

Meanwhile, as we look ahead to Sunday's game against the Colts, I look at the game as a prime example of what makes the NFL so great. When the schedule came out in April, and we looked at the Nov. 18 matchup between the teams, few could have envisioned it would be one that pitted two 6-3 teams against each other.

The Colts hit rock bottom last year, but rookie quarterback Andrew Luck -- the top overall draft pick -- has been the spark to help them to such a quick turnaround under first-year coach Chuck Pagano, whose battle with leukemia has inspired the team. I'm looking forward to this game as much as any the Patriots have played this year.

And now, on to the questions.

Q: Hi Mike, are there any fixes to be made with this defense? One player (Aqib Talib) is not going to turn this into a good defense. As I see it they have some good players but they just can't get it done. It doesn't appear as though the coaches are doing a good job in coaching these guys up. The coaching staff almost looks confused on the sideline and doesn't know which way to turn. They don't really try anything creative as far as the scheme is concerned. It looks like they will win the division but an early out in the playoffs if they don't fix this. -- Jim C (Seminole Fla.)

A: Jim, I watched the game over again Monday, and between what I noted Sunday while at the game and then the review, I'd break down my thoughts on the defense this way:

1. I'd be surprised if we see as poor a tackling performance from the Patriots again this season. That is the exception, not the rule. They are better than that, and will be better than that.

2. I don't think this defense is suddenly going to become a top, feared unit, but when I isolate the first 15 minutes, it's a reminder that they have the ability to be disruptive and dictate the way the game is played. Can they put that together for 60 minutes? If you're an optimist, that's what you're holding on to for hope. We haven't really seen that yet, though.

3. On the coaching, I think it ties more to philosophy than anything else. They were having trouble generating pressure for much of the final three quarters, and yet there was no real counter from the sideline to stem the tide. It looked to me like they just kept doing what they were doing from a pressure standpoint. No change-up, no spark. That would be a criticism after reviewing the game.

4. At some point this week, we're going to debate the defense on ESPN Boston as it relates to the playoffs, and I could see a case being made for both sides (it's good enough to make a deep run versus it isn't good enough). In the end, I'd focus on what we've seen to this point, and it's hard to invest in the unit based on the inability to stop the opposition consistently. Reminds me a little bit of 2010 and makes one wonder if the turnovers dry up, can this unit rise up?

Q: Here we go again Mike, our defense just cannot cover. After 6-8 years of trying to build a defense the only logical conclusion is that Belichick has thoroughly failed to put together even an above average defense. Given that they can't cover, my question why are we constantly rushing only three and four guys and expecting our poor secondary to be able to cover for an extended period of time? You would think the logic would be to blitz or at least send more than three guys to limit the coverage. What is Belichick's logic, and do you think he needs to question his approach? -- Marcus (San Diego, Calif.)

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick's defense currently ranks No. 24 overall in the NFL.

A: Marcus, I believe Belichick has limiting big plays in mind with the blitzing approach. Giving up the big chunks is something the Patriots have struggled with this year, and when you rush extra players, you're more vulnerable to those plays because there isn't as much help if the blitz is picked up. I like the idea of bringing some more pressure at times in an attempt to dictate the terms of the game, but as we saw on one Bills touchdown -- a 2-yard pass to Donald Jones -- just because a defense blitzes doesn't mean it produces the desired result.

Q: After watching the game against Buffalo, I'm starting to question if New England is utilizing its LB corps correctly. With their skill set, they should blitz or stunt more on passing downs than staying in coverage. We've been heavily critical on the secondary, but it's been displayed on Sunday that some of the receptions are being completed to the TE or RB. Unless zone is being called, that responsibility usually falls on the LB in coverage. Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower are much better in run coverage than pass coverage while Jerod Mayo is average in pass coverage at best. I'm aware that blitzing leaves the defense susceptible to the big play, but even dropping seven in coverage, the defense this season is still allowing those big plays. Perhaps rushing more than four on at least third downs will lead to more incompletions, perhaps not. As far as I can tell, New England doesn't have enough talent to get to the quarterback with only four rushers, so why not get creative? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A: Alvin, I think you raise some excellent points. There were times in the game that the Patriots were dropping eight and we were still seeing some receivers who weren't just open, they were wide open. That has to be a concern. The counter, from the Patriots' perspective, is that they rushed three on the game-ending interception and it produced a turnover. Of course, we can argue if that was more a result of the Patriots' coverage, or the Bills' own ineptitude.

Q: I truly believe that if the Patriots and Bears swapped secondaries, the Bears would still have a dominant defense while the Patriots would continue to struggle against the pass. And it would not be because of the pass rush. Whether it is our coaching, scheme, or play-calling something is off, and it is going to have to change. Hopefully Talib shows up and makes a huge impact, but I really don't think this is a personnel issue. -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)

A: Ramin, I don't think anyone knows more about X's and O's than Bill Belichick, so it's puzzling to me how this could be a recurring problem in recent years. It does make you wonder if it is something tied to philosophy/scheme. You look at how the Patriots' offense has adjusted to the changing NFL game since 2007, and we can't really say the same for Belichick's defense. Pressure and some imaginative wrinkles seem to be as important as ever in today's NFL, yet we don't see a ton of that from the Patriots. My sense is that he's keeping it as simple as possible to fix one problem (giving up big plays) and thus has to accept that a team might ring up some yards as long as the defense can rise up in the critical moments.

Q: I'm excited to hear about Aqib Talib getting put into the mix this week. What kind of impact do you think we can expect come Sunday. Will there be an adjustment period or do you expect him to be thrust into the mix? Secondly, any thoughts about the Ray Edwards move? -- Doug (Los Angeles)

A: Doug, I think we'll see Talib dress and play in Sunday's game against the Colts. If it goes well, he should start. No reason to wait if he can absorb the information, as I think he can be their best cover corner. As for Ray Edwards, I think the Patriots are pretty deep at defensive end and don't see the fit/need there. Right now, I'm more intrigued by someone like rookie free agent Justin Francis, who showed up with a few strong rushes on Sunday. Edwards was a disappointment in Atlanta -- on the field and apparently in the locker room, too.

Q: Hi Mike, with Kansas City possibly firing Romeo Crennel at the end of the season, do you see a scenario where he comes back to New England and takes over the defensive coordinator job. I think Romeo can turn this defense around and let's face it - they need new coaches and players in for this unit. It stinks to high heaven. -- Pat (Nashua, N.H.)

A: Pat, I could envision a scenario with Crennel returning to the Patriots, similar to what we saw last year with Josh McDaniels. But I'd be surprised if Bill Belichick hired someone over Matt Patricia. I think Belichick believes Patricia is the right man for the job.

Q: Mike, it's been almost five years since Belichick had to turn over the defense, and rebuild through the draft, and free agency. The defense has not gotten better. As a matter of fact, I have come to the conclusion that when Scott Pioli left to go to Kansas City, Belichick hasn't had someone to tell him different ideas on talent. So when is Belichick going to stop being stubborn, and bring in someone like a Pioli? -- Matthew Wilson (Framingham, Mass.)

A: Matthew, I think he has a Pioli-type presence in Nick Caserio, who is highly respected around the NFL for his work. As we've seen this year with Chandler Jones, the Patriots know how to identify talent. If we go back to some of the final drafts the Patriots had with Belichick and Pioli running the operation, there were some shaky selections. I don't think losing Pioli, who has run into some of his own struggles in Kansas City in the top decision-making role, is the issue. I think it might be more of a coaching/philosophy thing in terms of building/calling a defense to compete in the modern-day NFL.

Q: Mike, during the secondary's breakdown last season, you continually stressed that Devin McCourty wasn't fully to blame because of weak safety play behind him making him look worse than he actually was. I was one of many Patriots fans who hoped for a move to safety for him, and I like him a lot better there. I know a lot is made of the safeties not being relegated to roles of typical base strong/free safeties, but yesterday felt like they were too light against the run with McCourty and Gregory back there. I hate to say it, but I think McCourty and Tavon Wilson made a better pairing. Thoughts? -- Casey (Plymouth, Mass.)

A: Casey, I thought Steve Gregory missed some tackles in the game, and also took some poor angles (e.g. on a second-quarter 14-yard catch-and-run by receiver Stevie Johnson). Still, I think one thing Bill Belichick probably felt good about was that there weren't any long-bomb big plays and that's an issue that Wilson was working through. I think Gregory offers a little more stability in that regard. Is it ideal? Probably not, but I think Gregory offers a little more consistency and dependability there right now, while Wilson has the higher ceiling in the long run.

Q: Hi Mike, what are your thoughts on McCourty and his play at safety? I noticed his last interception, even off a horrible throw, was a good example of him being a better zone DB than a man-to-man type of player. That strength would suit a safety. Is there a coincidence with him playing safety and the Bills not scoring any big pass plays over the top? -- Nathan (Melbourne, Australia)

McCourty
Devin McCourty sealed the Pats' win over the Bills with a late interception.

A: Nathan, I think McCourty has been solid at safety and has helped stabilize the back end when it comes to those big plays. The main thing to me is how do you get your best four defensive backs on the field? I think you could play McCourty at either spot, and a lot of that is going to depend on the health/production of the other defensive backs. If Patrick Chung doesn't return to the field, or to a higher level of performance, I don't think McCourty is going anywhere from that safety spot.

Q: Mike, I disagree with you on your grades about the clock management. I think it was bad coaching at the end of the game. How could the Pats have given the ball to the Bills before the 2 minute warning when they got a first down at 3:14? They should have burned the clock with runs only. Ridley had a solid game. They took only 20 seconds to try a run, after they got a penalty and they finished with two incompleted passes. You call that good clock management? -- David Laflamme (Coleraine, Canada)

A: David, those grades spark discussion and I respect the viewpoint. After watching the game over again Monday, I wouldn't call that good clock management. I think it's debatable, and would lean toward the quick snap falling into the "this isn't smart situational football" category. The quick snap worked for them earlier in the game, producing a touchdown, and they tried it again. Do you stay aggressive and try to put the team away, or do you manage the clock? Smart situational football would seemingly tell us to manage the clock, but Bill Belichick, Tom Brady & Co. have been aggressive all season, so it's not like it's totally out of character. It's a mindset and they were going for the jugular with a killer instinct. From this view, I lean toward your line of thinking that it could have been managed a little better.

Q: Every week it seems the offense has a chance to close out a team with a score late or hold onto the ball and get a few first downs and finish strong but they can't seem to do it and they leave the defense to save the day. Is it a matter of play-calling or is it a matter of the players just not executing when it's the fourth quarter? -- Scott (Barnstable, Mass.)

A: Scott, it's both from this view. In this game, they had first-and-goal from the 2 and a chance to make it a two-score game with a touchdown. From a play-calling perspective, we can argue if a quick snap/run play to Stevan Ridley (for negative yardage) was the right call there, because it didn't work the clock down enough. Or you can look at that and say they should be able to block it better (they scored on a similar situation earlier in the game). I'd lean toward the game-management side on that one. But then the next play, Ridley is penalized for a false start. That has nothing to do with play calling. That's purely execution. So I don't think it's one or the other; I think you can look at both of them on that one.

Q: Hi Mike, I am sure you have about 1,000 questions on the secondary, so I will ask a question on a different topic. Although I thought Josh McDaniels called a very good game overall, passing from the end zone three times after the fumble recovery on the 1-yard line seemed a very suspect decision. Running three times would have worked the clock, too. I know hindsight is perfect, but the odds of a first down in that situation with the Bills needing a three-and-out to stay in the game seemed slim. -- David McMurtrie (Minneapolis, Minn.)

A: David, their big personnel package wasn't producing on the ground -- runs of minus-2 and minus-1 yards in the game -- so I'm not sure how much confidence he had in the running game at that point, knowing that a negative run would be a safety/two points for the opposition. I understood the decision to pass it. To me, that's less about the play calling and more about the execution -- Wes Welker needs to hang on to the ball and finish that catch to dig them out of that "tough" spot field position-wise.

Q: Mike, terribly disappointing defensive performance against the Bills. Do you think our rookies have hit the proverbial wall? -- Neil Pountney (North Branch, Mich.)

A: Neil, I thought both first-round picks were more inconsistent in the game than they have been up to this point, specifically linebacker Dont'a Hightower. It's something to keep an eye on if it's related to fatigue. My sense is no. Just an off day, as it was for most of the defense.

Q: Hey Mike, Here's one for you. Should we be more concerned about the injuries to Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly or the problematic play of our DBs (taking into account the arrival of Aqib Talib)? -- Gooby (Boston)

A: Gooby, I think you always want to have Mankins and Connolly, but the Patriots have good backup options there, as we've seen. They can win with those players, as I'd rate Donald Thomas as one of their unsung performers this year. That's why I'd lean toward the defensive backs as being the greater concern at this point, because that's been a more consistent issue this season.

Q: Mike, watching the TV broadcast of the Bills game, I noticed that Patriots have used several different combination on DL players in obvious pass situation. Is this a new twist on pass D, or something else? -- MarkJ

A: Mark, the main thing the Patriots did in the game was insert Jermaine Cunningham for Kyle Love (based on the personnel the Bills were bringing on the field) to give them a little more quickness inside. Rob Ninkovich was almost always at left end, with Vince Wilfork inside, and Chandler Jones/Justin Francis on the right side. Brandon Deaderick also played a bit -- some inside, a little as a 3-4 end type. I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary.

Q: Mike, what happened to the "deep threat"? In the last couple of years it seems that the "deep pass" has all but disappeared from Tom Brady's repertoire. Is this the departure of Randy Moss or is it a wiser, post-ACL-injury Tom? Are Branch and Lloyd satisfied playing essentially slot receiver positions? -- Vlad Liberman (Reading, Mass.)

A: Vlad, I certainly think the departure of Moss has something to do with it. He was a rare talent. I don't think the Patriots have a burner in the receiving corps, but Brandon Lloyd is a competitive outside-the-numbers target. He's just not that blazing-fast type who will draw consistent over-the-top help like you sometimes see with Moss. I don't sense any discontent with Deion Branch or Lloyd regarding their roles.

Q: Mike, you've often suggested that BB prefers to acquire veteran WRs instead of drafting unproven skill players. Fair enough. It seems to me that the Pats are 0-for-whatever in drafting corners and safeties over the last few years. Any chance BB looks to acquire some veteran (proven) corners and safeties in the offseason and go for a solid WR early in the draft? We still don't have a deep-threat WR and this secondary is not going to win any championships. BB needs to find the next Rodney Harrison. -- JB (Dallas)

A: Yes, JB, I could envision that unfolding, although one thing that stands out to me is that there aren't a lot of top safeties in the NFL, so I wouldn't expect there to be a huge market there. That's why in the pre-draft process, I thought Notre Dame's Harrison Smith was a real consideration later in the first round -- part of it was tied to the idea that if you don't take that plunge, your options to help yourself are really limited. Belichick might not always make the right decisions, but he never stops trying to find different ways to better the team.

Q: Mike, you constantly site a lack of DBs landing elsewhere after getting cut as proof that the problems in the secondary are talent based and not coaching based. Wasn't that former Pat Darius Butler who just had 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, a fumble recovery and a TD playing for Indy? -- Bill (San Diego)

A: Bill, that's correct. Butler had a great game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In fairness, a lot of players look good against the Jaguars. If he keeps stringing the good ones together, then maybe it's time to revisit the thought that few (if any) of the team's defensive backs have left New England and had greater success elsewhere.

Q: Hi Mike, amidst all the attention and noise about the defensive struggles, it is impressive to see how Danny Woodhead has quietly gone about his business, solid and reliable with adept performances as he becomes ever more Faulk-like in his role and production. He is a keeper for the long-term. Thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver)

A: Jake, I have been quite impressed with Woodhead this year. Coming in, I wondered if his role might be curtailed with two second-year backs in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, but Woodhead has weathered the storm and is an extremely important player for the offense. I wondered if maybe Woodhead had plateaued, but he's proven this year that he's as good as ever. Have to give him credit and think about the idea of extending his contact, which expires after the 2012 season. He's a player I'd think they want to keep around.