- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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There were a few noticeable themes from e-mailers to the Patriots mailbag this week:
1. What's wrong with Tom Brady?
2. Why is the pass rush inconsistent, and why aren't more blitzes called?
3. Why so few screen passes against the Jets' blitzing defense?
4. Where was the diversity that has defined the Patriots' offense?
There is much to dissect after the team's 16-9 loss to the Jets. If I had to sum up the first two weeks of the season, it came down to a handful of critical plays in each game. The Patriots made them against the Bills and didn't against the Jets, and thus are 1-1.
This week's mailbag will take a closer look at where things broke down for the Patriots against the Jets, while hitting on a wide range of team-related topics.
Let's get right to the questions:
Q: Hi Mike, a few questions -- 1) Do you think this was just the rare bad day for Tom Brady or is there a bigger problem, such as his knee, shoulder, or something else? 2) Do you get the sense there is just something missing from this team. By that I mean the emotional spark or some other intangible. The play has been sloppy and lackluster, which is not indicative of a typical Patriot team. 3) Do you consider the Falcons game to be big (I do)? I think the way they respond will be a good indication of what to expect for the rest of the season. Your thoughts? -- Paul (Kenosha, Wis.)
A: Paul, I wrote on Brady after the game, with the premise that this was an unfamiliar script. Usually, when Brady is handed the keys to the offense -- as he was in the three-receiver, no-huddle attack that was used exclusively -- winning results have followed. I believe the struggles mainly come down to two points: 1) Regaining a comfort level with his knee, which is affecting his mechanics; 2) Adjusting to game speed, and all the challenging aspects that come with managing a game as a quarterback, which is a hard job, especially the way the Patriots like to play offense. I think expectations were probably a bit too high that Brady could simply return and immediately become the same record-setting quarterback from 2007. There are going to be some bumps in the road. On the Patriots not playing with an across-the-board consistent spark against the Jets, I agree. I noticed more than once how the Jets were pushing piles while some Patriots were just standing around. I wouldn't expect that to continue in the weeks ahead. Emotion is a big part of football and I think the Patriots will find their spark. As for the Falcons game, I'm going to make a prediction that the Patriots will respond favorably. I think they are a better team than what they've shown.
Q: From watching most of the top defenses in the league, they all seem to attack the offense instead of reacting to the offense. For example, teams like the Steelers, Ravens and now the Jets are blitzing offenses like crazy and it seems to work. If the Pats struggle putting pressure on the QB with four linemen, why don't they blitz more? Is it just personnel issues? -- Camilo (Fitchburg, Mass.)
A: This was one of the more prevalent questions in this week's mailbag, Camilo, as several e-mailers are curious about the lack of pressure. The most recent Super Bowl champs -- Steelers (2005, 2008), Colts (2006) and Giants (2007) -- would all be classified in the pressure category. I wouldn't put the Patriots there in terms of pure blitzes, but it was only two years ago that they were second in the NFL in sacks, so I think they've shown they can pressure. Looking back at the Jets game, I think the coaching staff would probably agree that they could have blitzed more. One specific spot that comes to mind was the third-and-13 at the end of the third quarter -- when Leon Washington had a 13-yard catch-and-run -- which I felt was a huge play in the game because of the field-position shift (ball at New York's 12). To rush just three (Gary Guyton initially checked Washington before becoming a late fourth rusher) and give up that play is very poor zone pass defense. Knowing the result of the play, it's easy for me to say it now, but I'd like to believe I would have asked the same question regardless of the result: Why not blitz there? Mark Sanchez was too comfortable for my liking. I share in your thoughts on dialing up more blitzes. I don't think it's a personnel issue.
Q: I was just curious how many times the defense blitzed the Jets. It doesn't seem like they ever forced Mark Sanchez out of the pocket. Maybe they were too worried about Leon Washington breaking loose but as we have seen with Peyton and Brady, lots of pressure can make even the best quarterbacks look average -- Scott (Santa Monica, Calif.)
A: Scott, I charted the pass rush when re-watching the game and I saw only three times that the Patriots blitzed. They brought linebacker Gary Guyton as a fifth rusher twice -- once on the incomplete pass to Chansi Stuckey in the end zone that was initially ruled a touchdown, and once in the fourth quarter on a 5-yard quick pass to Leon Washington. There was one play when they rushed six -- bringing defensive backs Shawn Springs and Brandon Meriweather off the defensive left side in the third quarter on the play Stuckey was open in the back left corner of the end zone but tripped on an incomplete pass. Otherwise, I saw two times they rushed just three, while every other rush was with the standard four. If that is the way they are going to play, I think it puts the onus on players like Mike Wright, Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain to get to the passer, since those are their top pass-rushers. Wright and Banta-Cain showed up at times. Burgess did not.
Q: Mike, I didn't get to see the game Sunday, but I wanted to get your thoughts on the Pats defense, which has only given up 16.5 points a game (minus the pick 6 for Buffalo). So far, this unit is holding up its end of the bargain, while the offense has been inconsistent. Also how did Gary Guyton look without Mayo? -- Scott (Woodstock, Ga.)
A: Scott, I've heard the argument that the defense wasn't the problem against the Jets -- you give up 16 points, and there is a good chance you should win the game with a Brady-led offense. I'd go along with that line of thinking. I think the defense has been good enough to win. Not great, though. The question I have is if there are enough playmakers that can rise up in critical situations. They couldn't stop the Bills in the fourth quarter on the drive that made it 24-13, and ditto for stopping the Jets on the first three drives of the second half, which was the turning point of the game. I've generally felt the defense has a larger margin for error because of the high-powered offense on the other side of the ball, but when the offense isn't clicking, I wonder if the D can step up and make plays to win games. I'd use the Ravens and Ray Lewis as an example. When they needed a big play Sunday against the Chargers, it was delivered. My question would be: Who will do that for the Patriots? As for Guyton for Mayo, I thought Guyton accounted as well for himself as possible. Tough spot, he never left the field, and his hustle tackle of Jerricho Cotchery on the third-quarter 45-yard catch-and-run showed a player going all-out. He's the type of player I'd want on the field if I was on the coaching staff.
Q: Mike, in Tom Brady's last three full games (the Giants in the Super Bowl, the Bills and the Jets) the common theme is the opponents consistently getting to Brady, hitting him and rendering him (and the previously potent passing offense) ineffective. Do you see the Patriots inability to protect Brady as a lack of talent or lack of scheme? Also, if the Patriots are going to play mainly a 4-3 defense, whose responsibility is it to set the edge on the run, the outside linebackers or the defensive ends? I don't see that either Pierre Woods or Banta-Cain is capable of doing that. As a result, the Pats are vulnerable to those outside runs and screens on third downs that continue to kill them. -- Speros (Salem, Mass.)
A: Speros, I don't think the O-line should get much of the blame for Sunday's loss to the Jets. I didn't see too many missed assignments. What I did see was the Jets simply outnumbering the blockers the Patriots had, which put the onus on Brady and his pass-catchers to get on the same page quickly. That's where I saw the rhythm of the passing game disrupted. That's not to say there weren't some blocking miscues -- Stephen Neal's holding penalty on Kris Jenkins in the first quarter, for example, got a promising drive starting at the Jets' 17 off on the wrong foot. Both tight ends also had holding penalties, and I'd include them in the blocking analysis. On the 4-3 and setting the edge, a lot would depend on how they line up and what four-man front is on the field. Linebacker Adalius Thomas was one of the primary edge setters in that alignment Sunday, with defensive end Jarvis Green drawing the responsibility on the other side.
Q: Mike, any idea why the Patriots abandoned the run game? If you look at the numbers, it seemed pretty effective. Also, where was the screen game? -- Matt (Boston)
A: Sticking with the run and the lack of screen passes were prevalent topics among e-mailers this week, Matt. When the running game topic has come up in the past, I think it's been important to go through the game -- play-by-play -- and isolate specific areas where they could have run. When I've done that, it has often debunked my initial thought that they "abandoned" the run. Going through the exercise from Sunday's game, and accounting for the feel of the way the game was unfolding, I truly saw only two plays that I could have made a strong case to stick on the ground:
Tom Brady's first-quarter interception: They had just run it three times in a row for 11 yards and a first down. Fred Taylor seemed to be providing a spark.
Third-quarter incomplete pass to Julian Edelman: Taylor had just ripped off runs of 13 and 12 yards, helping the Patriots move to the Jets 36. Instead of staying with it, they went to the air (incomplete), which was followed by a 1-yard run (Sammy Morris) and the two costly delay-of-game penalties.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that the Patriots often took themselves out of running situations with penalties, and the score in the fourth quarter dictated more passing. On the screen passes, we saw a few to the receivers, but the running back screen was not a big part of the plan. I don't have the answer why, but maybe Bill Belichick will provide some insight in his Tuesday conference call.
Q: Mike, it did not seem as though the Pats ran any draw plays Sunday vs. the Jets. I thought those types of plays would be effective against the fierce rush. Did anyone ask Belichick about this? -- Tom (Boston)
A: I don't believe Belichick was asked about the draw plays, Tom. Of the 67 official offensive plays (not including penalties), the Patriots were in the shotgun on 46 of them, and in a sense, a running play out of the shotgun is similar to a draw. The Patriots had nine carries for 57 yards (impressive 6.3 average) out of the shotgun.
Q: Mike, do you think the Pats finally try to establish the run against the Falcons? With Brady struggling to find his groove early in the season we need to start giving the backs more touches. -- Patrick (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A: Patrick, in games against the Dolphins and Panthers -- two of the NFL's better running teams -- the Falcons have surrendered 240 yards on 47 carries (5.1 average). I haven't seen the Falcons play this season, but based on the statistics, it would seem to me that the opportunities should be there to pound the football.
Q: Hi Mike, I was wondering if you knew why Kevin Faulk wasn't a bigger part of the game this week. With Rex Ryan's blitzing defense, I expected to see a lot of screen passes and outlet passes to Faulk, to take advantage of the openings in coverage and try to slow down the pass rush. But one catch for three yards? That really surprised me. Were the Jets doing something special to box up Faulk or do you think Belichick had a game plan that just didn't involve him? -- Jeff W., Boston
A: I'd say more of the latter, Jeff, as Faulk surprisingly wasn't a big part of the game plan. He was on the field for only four of 11 drives -- the final two drives of each half.
Q: Mike, I was curious about James Sanders. I didn't notice him that often and thought I saw Shawn Springs as well as Brandon McGowan in at safety. Did I miss Sanders or was he on the sidelines more than usual? Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Right on, Dean, as Sanders didn't have his standard full complement of snaps. My take is that the team had 4-2-5 personnel on the field for most of the game, with the fifth defensive back (McGowan) often coming down into the box in a linebacker-like role to form what was essentially a 4-3. We saw Rodney Harrison play that type of role in the past, and it looked to me that McGowan -- who plays with a similar edge -- was tapped for those duties.
Q: Mike, what's that deafening sound? Guess it's everyone jumping off the Pats bandwagon. Good riddance. A couple of questions: Why do you think Belichick didn't attack the Jets with more power formations, which would've left tight ends and running backs available for blitz pickup if needed? They seemed to stick to that 3-wide formation most of the game. Also, why all the talk about Darrelle Revis shutting down Randy Moss? Looked like Revis had a lot of safety help most of the game. -- Stefan (N.Y.)
A: Stefan, my sense is that Belichick and the offensive coaching staff looked at the most favorable matchups and determined that going up-tempo and getting the Jets into nickel personnel -- which put defensive back Donald Strickland on the field -- gave them the best chance to win. Had they gone for more power, they must have felt they were playing into the Jets' strength in the front seven. Maybe they conceded too much with that decision, because one could argue that the three-wide package played into the Jets' bread and butter: relentless pressure. As for the Revis versus Moss matchup, I'm not sure the level to which double-teams were a factor, as it was hard for me to see where they safeties were on the television broadcast of the game. Rich Cimini of the New York Daily News quoted Revis as saying the Jets were mostly in Cover 1, meaning there was just a single high safety in the middle of the field, which would seem to counter Moss' remarks that he was double-covered.
Q: Hi Mike, what was the deal with the offense going no huddle with a three-receiver set and sideline personnel holding up boards to communicate? Why do you think the Pats did that? What was their goal? -- Cegeon (Somerville, Mass.)
A: Cegeon, I think the decision was tied to the fact that Joey Galloway was playing his second game with the team, and Julian Edelman his first, so the question is: How do you best ensure there are no breakdowns when going up-tempo no-huddle with two players so new to the system? Had it been at home, and crowd noise wasn't a factor, they probably wouldn't have done it.
Q: My question pertains to the offensive play-calling. The play-calling has been very stale and predictable for the first two games. Do you think this is a product of Brady playing his way back into form and/or Bill O'Brien trying too hard to be Josh McDaniels? Within the next few weeks will we see them getting more creative on offense? Watching these first two games makes you miss the days when Charlie Weis was running the offense. -- Ben (Boston)
A: Ben, I think Brady is clearly still getting comfortable, so that is a part of it. On the second part, I can definitively say that this isn't about Bill O'Brien trying too hard to be Josh McDaniels. I think there are a few things about the Patriots' offensive infrastructure that are important to keep in mind: 1) Brady checks in and out of plays at the line of scrimmage regularly based on the pre-snap read, which is one of his great strengths; 2) Patriots coach Bill Belichick has regularly met with the quarterbacks every Tuesday to talk about strategy and approach so he sets the overall offensive agenda; 3) Belichick has veto power on all decisions during the game. With this in mind, I don't think it's fair to pin it on O'Brien. Some e-mailers echoed thoughts on missing former coordinator Charlie Weis, as well as his successor Josh McDaniels. I think both are very good offensive coaches. At the same time, I remember hearing some other comments about them when they were in the offensive coordinator seat here in New England.
Q: Hi Mike, do you think that some of Tom Brady's problem's Sunday had anything to do with a shoulder problem and not his knee? Just wanted your take on it. -- Christine (Lexington, Mass.)
A: Brady said otherwise, Christine, and I believe him. I am not a quarterbacks coach, but I feel comfortable from having seen enough football to point out that Brady's mechanics were way off with some of his throws, which I believe is because he still needs to get more comfortable with game speed and all the challenging aspects of managing a game as a quarterback, one of the toughest jobs in sports. One of the things that I think is impressive about Brady is how calm his body is in the face of pressure, which helps him execute the proper technique. That stood out to me on his first-quarter interception, how his body was well out of whack.
Q: Mike, what would you say was the biggest chink in the Pats' armor right now? Despite the new faces on defense, I don't feel they're playing poorly and think they may need some time to gel. I think my biggest issue is the apparent lack of a third receiver. Galloway does nothing for me -- he just doesn't seem to be on the same page as Brady. In turn that frees up opposing defenses to pick on Moss. On the upside, I think Edelman gave a decent account of himself on his first outing. I think having both him and Welker on the field at the same time would be a headache for opposing teams. -- Jonathan (Fairhaven, Mass.)
A: I'd start with Brady, Jonathan, because if he isn't right I think it changes the entire complexion of the team. He's shown flashes of his old self, but I'd say the biggest question I have now is: How long will it take for him to find his old form on a consistent basis? On Galloway, I think it's clear that he isn't always on the same page as Brady, which is a concern, although I think that situation deserves a bit more time to develop. I agree that Edelman is the real deal. He had made a strong impression all the way back in the spring and has steadily improved.
Q: Hi Mike, I was wondering about the status of WR Brandon Tate. It seems as though he may be an eventual replacement for Joey Galloway if he can heal from his past injury. I remember during the draft a lot of experts saying he was a first-round talent but due to his injury slipped to the third round. Does he have any chance of contributing this year and if so, is he more of a slot type player or can he be split wide? -- Paul M. (Tewksbury, Mass.)
A: Paul, Tate is currently on the non-football injury/physically unable to perform list. He will be eligible to start practicing after the sixth week of the season. The Patriots also have offensive tackle Mark LeVoir on PUP, so he's in the same category. I think Tate could line up in all the receiver spots. He's definitely someone to keep on the radar.
Q: Hi Mike, we meet again. I felt Maroney was totally useless. When the passing game wasn't working, he certainly didn't contribute in the running game. Fred Taylor might be older but he looked way better. There are many areas of the game that need to be corrected in all phases from that game, but my question to you is this. Do you think Maroney will still be on this team if he continues to play like this? Also, do you think they will try to get another linebacker like Derrick Brooks? -- John M (Hampstead, NH)
A: From a pure running standpoint, John, I'd agree that Taylor looked better than Maroney against the Jets. But I think Maroney checked out well in the all-important blitz pickup area, which was a huge part of that game. Maroney should be with the team, as I don't think he's played poorly. In terms of another linebacker, I think the team will take a look at it since they are handcuffed by their personnel shortage at this time.
Q: Mike, do you think the fact that the Patriots have seldom taken any deep shots this year is a reflection of where Tom Brady is with his knee? It just seems like that is a very important part of the offense that has been missing, which was key in opening up the shorter underneath routes in the past. In 2007, Brady would throw it up to Moss, even in double coverage, just to stretch the defense a bit. -- Greg (Canada)
A: Greg, we didn't see many, if any, downfield shots against the Bills but I thought there were a few against the Jets (interception to Randy Moss, incompletion to Joey Galloway in the end zone). I think we'll see more of them going forward.
Q: Hey Mike, with the Jets doing all they could to get their fans all fired up for this game (Rex Ryan pre-recorded phone message, trash talking, and the game ball afterwards) what and how do you see the Pats doing the same with their fans? I don't see Belichick doing much of that stuff, but the Jets crowd really made a difference and in the battle of Boston/NY, I can't see the Pats fans allowing the Jets fans to show them up like that. -- Randy (McHenry, Illinois)
A: I think that one would be up to the fans, Randy, as I don't see the Patriots going out of their way to fire them up with voice mails. The best fans in the NFL are there for their team in times of need -- through good and bad -- and that was something that really stood out to me last year with the trip to Seattle. I thought the Seahawks fans were a special group given that the team was already out of the playoffs. As we saw Sunday in the Meadowlands, the 12th man can be a powerful force.
Q: Mike, it sure did seem like the Jets were a step ahead on Sunday. How much do you think Kevin O'Connell's knowledge of the Pats offense factored in? -- Tony (Burlington, Vt.)
A: Whether it did or did not, one thing I've learned from being around the Patriots in recent years is that over the course of a long season, you need little things to fire you up or make you believe. My sense is that O'Connell's X's and O's impact was limited, but if Jets players believed they were being helped -- and thus played with more confidence because of that -- then it was worthwhile.
Q: The backup QB player is often a practice team player of the week. How is this player effective in learning Brady's plays and offensive scheme for the upcoming opponent, while being able to mimic the offensive style of the opponent's QB? -- Rob (Halifax, Nova Scotia)
A: Rob, I think you hit on an interesting point that highlights the weekly challenge for backup quarterbacks. They don't get a lot of physical reps in practice, so most of their preparation is mental reps in the classroom. I would imagine it must be hard for backups to put in all that time each week without seeing the on-field reward for it. Because of this, I thought Matt Cassel's performance in the 2008 season opener, coming off the bench and helping the Patriots beat the Chiefs, was one of the more professional efforts I've seen in recent years.
Q: Do the practice squad players count against the salary cap of the team? -- Tim (Dover, NH)
A: Yes, Tim, the practice squad players count against the salary cap.
Q: I was wondering if you knew who the players were that were awarded the prime parking spots as a result of being the top performers in offseason workouts. I'm wondering if someone like Gary Guyton or another young player on defense got one of them. This would give me more confidence going forward. -- Sean, Sterling, Mass.)
A: Sean, here is the list of offseason award winners:
Q: Would it be possible to find out where former Patriots tight end Ben Coates ranks among all time Patriot receivers in numbers of receptions? -- Ron (Marlborough, Mass.)
A: Ron, Coates is third all-time with 490 receptions. The top two players on the Patriots all-time receiving charts are Troy Brown (557) and Stanley Morgan (534).