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Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Patriots are 7-2, but how?

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

The bye week is a good time to step back and assess where the New England Patriots have been, and where they might be heading.

How is this team 7-2? As quarterback Tom Brady recently said when asked a similar question by WEEI's Gerry Callahan, "That's a very good question."

It hasn't always looked great, but I'd say the combination of depth players rising up and meeting the challenge of expanded roles, coupled with the Patriots acing the critical situations that often determine the outcome of games, has been the winning formula.

As for where they are headed, would anyone disagree that anything can happen? After all the injuries, offensive struggles, and questions about if this team was championship-caliber, if the offense plays like it did Sunday, I think anything is possible, especially when factoring in a defense that should improve with cornerback Aqib Talib's return. Looking around the AFC, I don't see one team that is head and shoulders above the rest. Let's get to the questions:

Q. Hi Mike. The Patriots have played another exciting game and continue to catch me off guard at what they are accomplishing week in and week out. With the amount of injuries on both sides of the ball, the number of rookies, second-year players and pickups along the way to fill in the holes, the Patriots still sit at 7-2. How does Bill Belichick not get a serious look at coach of the year? Yeah, I get Andy Reid's nice run in KC, but he's not having to revamp a team roster every week. Atlanta would be the example as a Super Bowl contender who, with fewer injuries, looks like a mess. Best coaching job for Bill yet!! -- Jason (Fredericksburg, Va.)

A. Could be, Jason, as I've mentioned that it might rival 2008 and how Belichick recalibrated things after the loss of Brady. Belichick and his staff are coaching their tails off, and what stands out to me is that they don't put their players in too many positions where their weaknesses can be exposed. In the end, it's still about the players being able to execute what they're asked to do. My vote would still go to Reid at the halfway point, but I absolutely agree that Belichick, and by extension his staff, should be in the discussion.

Q. Mike, should be an interesting week to hear media and fans backpedal about how much Tom Brady has "left in the tank." Do you think he will garner serious attention for the MVP when it's all said and done? -- Brandon (Schererville, Ind.)

A. Brandon, just as I'd caution anyone from getting too low after a loss, I'd do the same in a situation like this. The Patriots offense had its best game, and that is encouraging for the future, but it was just one game. I feel pretty confident that it will have struggles at some point again this season. It just needs to be at its best in the critical moments and hope it's at its best in a one-and-done situation. As for Brady and the MVP, I think he probably has too much ground to make up. I'd call it a long shot at this point.

Q. Mike, what has happened to Kenbrell Thompkins? He had no catches against the Dolphins and I saw that he was inactive against the Steelers. Is he injured? Not practicing up to par? Or is he in Belichick's doghouse? -- Steve (Belair, Md.)

A. Steve, Thompkins was a healthy scratch on Sunday against the Steelers, marking the first time that's happened this year. Part of that was game-plan specific as the Patriots prioritized a third tight end and lead fullback over a fifth receiver. Then, of course, the question is why Thompkins has slid to No. 5 on the receiver depth chart -- a topic we wrote about on Monday. He has dipped a bit the last three weeks, and at the same time, Aaron Dobson has ascended in playing the same role Thompkins projects to. So that's the first thing to point out. If we go back and watch the Patriots-Jets game from Oct. 20, that appeared to be when the struggles began. Thompkins played a lot that day, but the route-running looked, to the layman, a little sloppy at times (e.g., depth on certain routes). I don't think this means that he is all of a sudden a bad player. He'll probably be back in the lineup this week with Austin Collie injured (knee), so I don't think we need to write his NFL obituary. Just a little bit of a rough patch for a young player, just as Dobson had a little bit of a rough patch when he first arrived in the spring.

Joe Vellano, Chris Jones
Rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are seeing increased playing time and have been a pleasant surprise at defensive tackle.

Q. Hi Mike, in looking at the snap totals against the Steelers, several rookies showed up with significant playing time: Dobson, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon. However, there are others who have hardly seen the field of late, most notably Jamie Collins, but also Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce. As we sit here at the bye week, how would you assess the overall performance and impact of the rookie class so far? Should we be worried to see top draft choice Collins logging so few snaps? -- Neil (South Boston)

A. Neil, this will be a good topic to delve deeper into during the bye week, but overall I'd say it's been positive when it comes to rookie contributions. The Chris Jones/Joe Vellano combination alone has been a big surprise at defensive tackle. On Jamie Collins, he got pushed around a bit against the Dolphins on Oct. 27. I think that in Andre Carter, the coaching staff views it as a situation where there will be a little less volatility and more consistency when compared with Collins. But Collins still has big upside. Just standard growing pains for a rookie.

Q. Hi Mike, the timing of the bye week is both a blessing and a curse -- a blessing given the strong need for some time to heal and rest; a possible curse because it has fallen just as the offense has found some real chemistry/rhythm and thereby momentum. This could flatten/fade off given the elements in play: a longer bye week, an away game against a tough Panthers defense and maturing capable QB, plus a team quite hungry for a playoff position. Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, British Columbia)

A. Jake, count me in the 100 percent "blessing" category on this one. For a banged-up team that has played 13 straight weeks of football (including the preseason), this break is exactly what it needs.

Q. Hi Mike, it's hard to complain after a big win, but I was left shaking my head after the Steelers converted third-and-30 (after a Patriots timeout, no less). This coming after giving up third-and-a-mile to the Dolphins and two long conversions to the Jets. For some reason, the Patriots seem to defend third-and-short better than third-and-very-long. Is it simply loss of focus? -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)

A. On the play against the Steelers, it looked like a breakdown at the linebacker level of the dime defense as Dane Fletcher and Logan Ryan both went to one side of the field, leaving the other side unaccounted for. We could add in a missed tackle by safety Duron Harmon, and that's all it takes for a short pass to become a 29-and-a-half-yard gain. I don't think it's as much focus as it is execution, and the fact that we all make mistakes. There is never a perfect game.

Q. I am still perplexed why the Patriots spent a second-round pick on Tavon Wilson when he only plays special teams. Shouldn't he be seeing more action as a safety, and how well has he done on special teams? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A. Ashley, I'd say that that one hasn't worked out as planned at this point. Teams don't hit on all their picks. We see misses in the first round too. Then when you consider cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (seventh round, 2012) is giving them solid production, it all sort of balances out in the end if a team is having some success in the area of drafting and developing. As for Wilson on special teams, I'd say Sunday wasn't his best game, as he picked up a penalty and there looked to be some penetration on the left wing of the punt team that he plays on in one attempt.

Nnamdi Asomugha
Would cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who was recently released by the 49ers, be a good fit for the Patriots?

Q. Mike, with the 49ers recently releasing Nnamdi Asomugha, could you see the Pats making a move to add him? Since Talib's injury, the secondary has looked pretty poor at times, and even with Talib primed to come back, some extra depth in the secondary couldn't hurt. Also, with us now on the bye, Asomugha would have an extra week to get acclimated to playing here. What do you think? -- David (Hudson, Mass.)

A. David, I haven't seen Asomugha play much this year, so I'd have to take a closer look to see what he has left. I'm curious why two teams (Eagles, 49ers) have now moved on from him. But if he can still play and the price is right, why not? Can never have enough cornerbacks.

Q. Mike, a win is always good, but this one came with mixed results. Tom Brady was very good, but the defense was shaky. Gronk was great, but more team injuries. Going forward, the Patriots need much better play from offensive line, especially Logan Mankins. Thoughts? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, Mankins had two penalties (clipping/false start) and there were some challenges for the entire group in pass protection at times. I thought the run-blocking was generally very good (Mankins was a big part of that), and that counts too. Overall, I think it's a fair thought on the offensive line. Based on the expectations of the group entering the year, I feel like the performance has been a bit inconsistent (e.g., Oct. 6 versus Bengals; third quarter of Oct. 20 game vs. Jets).

Q. Hi Mike. Seems like Dont'a Hightower has played better in the past couple of weeks, and they have him "playing downhill" a lot more than before. For a man who is 270 pounds, do you think he may have been miscast as a LB who plays in space more often than he should? I know Spikes may be hard to re-sign for next year, so would Hightower potentially fit as a MLB next year next to a returning Mayo and hopefully improved Collins? I think Hightower seems to play better near the line of scrimmage, and taking over Spikes' current role while also using Hightower's ability to rush the passer on occasion seems to be the best fit for his future. -- Kevin F. (Framingham, Mass.)

A. Kevin, that's a big-time play by Hightower playing downhill on the fourth-and-1 stop, but the observation about playing in space is an interesting one this week because I thought this was Hightower's best game in that area. He had a handful of plays where he was competitive with running back Le'Veon Bell, one of which helped produce a sack. That has been a trouble spot at times, but I thought this might have been Hightower's best overall game since he was drafted in the first round last year. He is a versatile player who has multiple strengths.

Q. It seems clear to me that Kyle Arrington plays at his best when he's covering the slot receiver (except for the occasions when he displays his dominance at defensive end). When the Pats acquired Talib, Devin McCourty and Arrington seemed to fall into their most effective positions, turning a mediocre at best secondary into an outstanding one. However, I think that Arrington has actually shown some improvement covering the outside. He obviously still has plenty of work in that area, but he did seem to disrupt a few difficult plays. Did you see any similar improvement or should I make an appointment to see an optometrist? -- Jim C. (Centennial, Colo.)

A. Jim, the play Arrington made on the left sideline against Antonio Brown in the fourth quarter was a very good one. It's easy to focus on the plays Arrington doesn't make -- and there have been a few of those in recent weeks -- but he keeps competing and I think that's what the coaching staff appreciates. I see the same thing you do.

Q. Almost every game, there is a shot of BB with a stubby pencil and a piece of paper making notes. Just wondering if these are things he wants to talk about with the D or O after that series or if it is for some other purpose? -- Arliss W. (St. John, New Brunswick, Canada)

A. Arliss, Tom E. Curran of Comcast SportsNet recently wrote on this. Here is his piece.

Q. Mike, I know this is a long way away, but what about the draft next year? What is the Pats' biggest need? Could it be DT or OL? Is Vince Wilfork in his last year? Also, do you think the Pats are glad they didn't lose a third-round pick on Emmanuel Sanders? -- Eric (Tennessee)

A. Eric, I could see the Patriots taking a "fortify-the-line" type of approach in the 2014 draft. They could use some talented young prospects on both sides to keep the pipeline going. Wilfork enters the last year of his contract in 2014 and is scheduled to earn $7.5 million. As for Emmanuel Sanders, I think the Patriots could live with either result. They would have been happy to have him at a $2.5 million salary for 2013 while giving up the third-rounder. At the same time, they have some momentum building with the pass-catchers they currently have on the roster. It was all about setting a value and being comfortable with it. It was interesting to me to hear the Steelers-based media chatter that Pittsburgh is now likely disappointed that it didn't take the draft pick instead.

Dont'a Hightower
Dont'a Hightower's performance on Sunday against the Steelers might have been his best yet as Patriot.

Q. As if the Dolphins offensive line didn't have enough problems to deal with already, now there are reports that Richie Incognito may be cut and there is no telling if Jonathan Martin will be back and ready to play against the Patriots on Dec. 15. What is head coach Joe Philbin's accountability in all this? Belichick always seems to have a tight grip over the locker room, and I can't see him or the veterans allowing such behavior to happen here, but if it did I would think the media would be raking BB over the coals (similar to Rex Ryan last year with the Jets locker room woes). But I see Philbin barely mentioned outside of saying he's going to fix the situation only after it all blew up in the team's face. -- Dave R. (Sonora, Calif.)

A. Dave, I'm obviously not close to that situation, but here are a few thoughts from afar: 1) Of course Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland should be held accountable. It's unacceptable and looks like they don't have a good feel of what is happening in their own building; 2) Philbin, from my experience, is one of the most decent people in coaching. He's a second-year head coach and I would think this is a wake-up call to him in terms of ensuring he has a better grip on what is happening inside his locker room. I would imagine Bill Belichick has a better feel now than he did in his second year as Browns coach in 1992. We often learn through experience; 3) Every team deals with some form of blind spots with players (e.g., Patriots/Aaron Hernandez); 4) Who are the leaders on that team and how does someone like Incognito get named to the leadership council? It makes me question what type of players Ireland is bringing into that locker room.

Q. Mike, after two weeks of rule questions, I hate to bring up another one, but here it is anyway. With about 4:30 left in the game Roethlisberger threw a dump pass to Jonathan Dwyer. He then ran about 15 yards and then lowered his head when Devin McCourty went to tackle him. Dwyer clearly initiated helmet-to-helmet contact in open space. I thought there was a new rule where this was supposed to be a penalty on the offensive player. I bring it up because it's the first time I saw it happen this season, and I'm curious if that's what the rule is in place for. Should Dwyer have been flagged on the play? Thanks. -- Scott (Wilmington)

A. Right on, Scott. I think they missed the penalty on that one. Just like the coaches, players, and writers covering the game, the referees make mistakes too. That one was a little surprising to me because it was right in front of the official. One factor that might have contributed to the non-call was that one official was hurt during the game, so they were only working with six at that time. It looked to me like Belichick was pretty upset about it on the sideline.