- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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This week's mailbag covers a wide variety of topics.
We're looking ahead to the Broncos game and the unusual aspect of the Patriots facing an undefeated team five weeks in a row.
We're looking back at the Ravens game, which had many elements to dissect -- both good and bad.
And we're looking at a soon-to-be new member of the Patriots, linebacker Junior Seau.
One topic that didn't make it into the mailbag was the status of rookie receiver Brandon Tate, one of the team's third-round draft choices who is on the physically unable to perform list. With Joey Galloway's struggles, Tate is a player e-mailers are curious about, wondering if he could help.
It will be something I will try to follow up on next week.
I also saw a few comments with e-mailers who were having trouble once again with the RSS feed on our Patriots blog. I will check that out, and regret I couldn't get to it quicker. Thanks for hanging with us.
Let's get right into the questions this week:
Q: Hey Mike, just wondering about Junior Seau. It's been seen that Guyton can hold his own, and with Mayo back at practice, I'm just wondering where Junior will fit. You can never have enough leadership, and Junior is a great teammate. However, there are only 11 men on the field. -- Eric (Orlando, Fla.)
A: Eric, I'd slot Seau in as the team's fourth or fifth linebacker, which means he'll provide depth and he will allow the Patriots to be more flexible. I think the defense is handcuffed with what it can do at this point, basically playing with three linebackers (Gary Guyton, Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods) since Mayo has been out. That has forced the Patriots to play the 4-3 and use sub packages that include just one or two linebackers. They've put a lot on Guyton, who hasn't missed a snap since Mayo's injury, and Seau also provides insurance and leadership. E-mailer Nick, from Montreal, was curious if Seau's imminent signing might be connected to a setback with Mayo. I don't think that's the case at all.
Q: Mike, is the rationale for bringing in Junior Seau that the team can set a date in the future and take some time getting him ready to play? Or, do you see them plugging Seau into the defense sooner than his 6-game prediction? I assume he meant six regular-season games, since he'll be just as needed during the playoffs. -- Erich (New Hampshire)
A: I wouldn't rule anything out with Seau based on what we saw last year, Erich. That was one of the more remarkable performances, how he showed up off the surfboard and played two days later against the Seahawks. I know Seau previously said he had six games in him, but after being around Seau the past three years, I think he'd play 16 if that meant he had a chance to win a Super Bowl ring. What a story that would be. As he often says, all you can ask for is a chance. He has another one.
Q: Mike, with reports of Seau's signing being imminent, it raises the question "who's the odd man out?" Galloway?-- Neil (South Boston)
A: Neil, I don't think it will be Galloway who will be on the odd man out. I think the team was sending him a message by making him inactive Sunday, and the hope is that it sparks something within him that leads to better production. My hunch is that the odd man out will come from the special-teams area. A player like Bret Lockett, who has been a valuable contributor in the kicking game, comes to mind. Lockett was inactive for Sunday's game against the Ravens.
Q: Hi Mike, do you think we could see BenJarvus Green-Ellis become active against Denver and let Laurence Maroney sit for a week like they did with Galloway? As well as having a rotation in the backfield, they could rotate who is inactive and use all five backs over the season. Giving each back a couple of games off during the season could only help down the stretch. -- Pete (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
A: I had a similar Maroney-based thought, Pete, but I don't think it will happen. Part of the reason I say that is that it looked like Fred Taylor might have been shaken up late in the game, so his health could factor into any decision-making with Maroney/Green-Ellis. My overall thoughts on Maroney would be summed up this way: That was a disappointing performance against the Ravens, one that has me questioning his future with this team if things don't turn around. I have generally said that Maroney deserves the benefit of the doubt because of health issues, and he remains a dynamic option when getting the ball in space. Yet what stood out to me Sunday against the Ravens was his lack of vision and instincts after taking a handoff or kickoff. He has great physical gifts, but I don't sense that he has the same feel for the game as Patriots backs Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk.
Q: Hi Mike, am I the only one who is not happy about this latest win over Baltimore? Of course I'll take it, but the Patriots mindset seemed to be of playing "not to lose" more than "going for the win" in the final minutes of the game. The last set of downs by the offense was atrocious, and I'm concerned about the play calling. And the secondary was giving way too much of a cushion on the final drive of the Ravens. Baltimore lost the game more than the Patriots won it. While the Pats are 3-1, they could just as easily be 1-3, with the only decisive win against Atlanta. Finally, if I was the offensive coordinator on the opposing team, I would build my game plan on short, screen passes. The Pats have really struggled on those types of plays. -- Christopher (Cambridge, Mass.)
A: I think you bring up some good points, Christopher, ones that can easily get swept under the locker room rug after a win. These are all topics that probably would have been dissected had the Patriots lost, so they shouldn't be overlooked now. Here are some of my thoughts:
1. At this time of year, I'd be happy about any win. I believe this time of year is about building up that win column any way possible to stay in the chase (e.g. the Broncos and that miracle tip in the opening week). I'd worry more about style points, and how a team is getting those wins, later in the year. I also wouldn't play the "they could be 1-3 game." I believe we could do that with a lot of teams and it overlooks some of the plays the team made in critical situations -- and the other team didn't -- which were instrumental in the final result.
2. I didn't think the Patriots were playing "not to lose." However, your point about their final offensive drive is well taken. That was poor execution in the four-minute offense. I thought it was their worst drive of the season. At the end of the game, I thought they tried to pressure at times while protecting against the big play. It was striking a balance.
3. On the screen passes, the Patriots did get hit on those a couple of times against the Ravens. Seemed to me those were the perfect calls against what the Patriots' defense was doing. I'm with you; I'd have plenty of those in my game plan if I were facing the Patriots.
Q: Mike, a couple of points that no one seems to bring up regarding the Ravens game. One, Mike Wright got flagged with the same penalty that Ngata got flagged for (hitting the QB in the head), but you do not hear the Pats complaining about that call. Secondly, I do not think it was luck on why Mark Clayton dropped that pass. If you watch the replay McGowan was about to level Clayton and it looked like to me he clenched up and that is why he dropped the pass. The drop had a lot more to do with the "new" speed of the Pats secondary as they were punishing the Ravens receivers all day. I just think Clayton heard footsteps and was bracing for another big hit. -- Mike (Alexandria, Virginia)
A: No question, Mike, the Patriots were flagged for the same penalty with Mike Wright. I think Tom Brady summed it up well on WEEI. Those calls generally even out. I think the Ravens come across poorly, from coach John Harbaugh to linebacker Ray Lewis. On the Clayton drop, I've heard that theory about the drop being a result of either anticipating an oncoming hit, or because quarterback Joe Flacco had to unload the ball earlier than he wanted. I don't make that leap myself, but perhaps it was a factor.
Q: Could you check to see how many time the "Brady Rule", going at the knees of the QB, has been called, and how many were called against teams facing the Patriots? I'm tired of everyone saying these calls are only called to help the Patriots. If that's not available, maybe just roughing the passer calls in general. -- Jason (Maricopa, Arizona)
A: Jason, I don't have specific "Brady Rule" penalties, but specific to roughing the passer calls this season, the ESPN Stats & Analysis team passes along that there have been 22 roughing-the-passer penalties this season (which includes Mike Wright's hands to the face, which was called as unnecessary roughness but which I assume will be changed to roughing the passer). Of those 22, three have been called against Patriots opponents, and three have been called on the Patriots. So it's an even split.
Q: Hi Mike, I wasn't able to view the game. Was the officiating as bad as the Ravens' players claim or was it a question of just being upset over a tough loss? -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla)
A: It was called tightly, Jim, and there were times when I thought the officials could have been more assertive and communicated what was happening better, specifically with the spot of the ball after the fake field goal attempt to Chris Baker. But overall, I don't think the officials cost the Ravens the game.
Q: Hi Mike, just a rules clarification here. In the fake field goal attempt against the Ravens, was the penalty "declinable"? I thought illegal procedure penalties were considered "before the snap" and therefore the play is dead. If that is the case, wasn't the whole questions of whether or not fourth down was made moot? -- Keith
A: Keith, the difference in this case is between a false start and an illegal motion penalty. A false start blows the play dead. In this case, it was illegal motion, which doesn't blow the play dead.
Q: With a quarter of the season through, who or what have been the early season surprises? I like Brandon McGowan as my early season surprise pick. I thought he would be a solid special teams player, but he has gotten a significant amount of playing time and has been very productive. -- Juan (Cicero, Illinois)
A: I'd go with McGowan as well, Juan, and also put Guyton in there. One of the questions being asked about Guyton before the season was if he was ready to become a full-time player. Since Jerod Mayo's injury, he hasn't missed a snap.
Q: Hi Mike, One thing I really appreciate about being a Patriots fan is to see how resilient and flexible this team is on both sides of the ball. It seems that with every injury, there is another player who fits the mold, and the wheels just keep on turning. Also, I prefer the current style of football the Patriots are playing over the high flying '07 season. Control the clock, spread the wealth passing game, and stay committed to the run. When we play the Colts and Saints we will have to do just that. Your Thoughts? -- Nick (Hopewell Junction, N.Y.)
A: Nick, I think you summed up my thoughts, and the thoughts of many e-mailers to the mailbag, quite well. Specific to the Ravens game, I thought the resiliency and flexibility were on full display. It stood out to me in a big way when you see players like Sammy Morris and Mike Wright coming up big. It is one of my favorite parts about covering the Patriots, how they utilize all parts of their roster, tap versatility, and smash stereotypes on what a position is supposed to be. In many ways, it's what a team should be, with well-rounded players and open-minded, bright coaches. Interesting that you mentioned the Colts and Saints, because that's where I see the defining point of the Patriots' schedule coming. I think they'll be 7-1 entering that stretch at Indy, home versus the Jets and at the Saints.
Q: With Wes Welker back in the lineup on Sunday, it just seemed like the Patriots offense clicked that much better. Welker had six catches for 48 yards, but even when not catching the ball, you can see the effect he has on the offense. What are your thoughts on Welker's effect? -- Nick (Bridgewater, Mass.)
A: I'd agree, Nick. I thought Tedy Bruschi summed it up well in his "Bruschi on Tap" piece from after the game. This is what Bruschi wrote: "Tom Brady's problem-solver returned to the lineup and the offensive impact was evident. The various blitz looks that the Baltimore Ravens attempted to run were nullified by the quick route adjustments Welker made. His six receptions for 48 yards were modest numbers at best, but it was Welker's ability to get open versus tight man coverage and to recognize soft spots in Baltimore's zone that made the biggest difference."
Q: All week long we heard about the Ravens blitz and how they would pressure Brady, but it seemed to me like they were mostly dropping the LBs into coverage and that Brady generally had plenty of time to throw. How many blitzes did they actually run? -- Chris (Beverly, Mass.)
A: According to ESPN Stats & Analysis tracking, the Ravens brought an extra rusher on 20 of Brady's 32 pass attempts. The one that stands out is Brady's 14-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss, a brilliant blitz-beater and a great example of what happens when the quarterback and receiver are on the same page. Brady was 14-of-20 against the blitz for 167 yards and the one touchdown. He was 7-of-12 for 91 yards against the standard rush.
Q: Hi Mike, I grew up in Swampscott and miss your coverage through the Boston Globe but am getting accustomed to ESPNBoston.com. Reiss' Pieces was a standard daily read for me. All that aside, I've read a lot of comments about Matt Light. I'm not so sure he was ever a Pro-Bowl caliber left tackle but do you think he is capable of getting the job done with BOTH his pass and run blocking this year? -- Wayne (Portland, Oregon)
A: Wayne, thanks for following me over to ESPNBoston.com. I think Light is capable of getting the job done with both pass and run blocking this year. Just last week, he was a game-ball winner for his work against Falcons defensive end John Abraham. This week, he had a tough time on a few plays with Terrell Suggs, but he's far from alone in being in that category.
Q: The Patriots defense is playing inspired football even without Jerod Mayo, one of their best defenders. How much do you think Brandon Meriweather has to do with that? It seems like he is always around the ball and plays full speed all the time. He has the look of a top tier safety down the road. What is your take Mike? -- Nick (Dartmouth, Mass.)
A: Nick, I'd say it has been an outstanding two weeks for Meriweather. I thought he had one of the costly plays against the Jets, missing that tackle on Jerricho Cotchery's 45-yard catch-and-run, which was one of the key plays in that game. I was hard on him after the game. Since that time, he's looked like a different player -- fast, sure of himself, and a ball hawk. He does look like a top-tier safety based on the past two games.
Q: I was at the game Sunday, so unfortunately I didn't have the luxury of replays often times. But one play in particular I was really impressed by was a Brandon Meriweather pass deflection. It looked like he came literally flying in to break up that pass at the last moment. I think the secondary is pretty good, I think they have a great mixture of guys that can really hit (Bodden), guys that can run (Butler), and some that do both (Meriweather). How do you rate this secondary against previous NE teams? -- Jarrod (Rhode Island)
A: I was really impressed with the secondary in the game, Jarrod, as the Patriots were in their dime (six defensive backs) more than 50 percent of the time. So I thought the defensive backs were a big part of this plan, and I thought their presence made the defense look faster and a bit more dynamic. Very impressed with Bodden to this point, both in coverage and as a tackler. I think this secondary is considerably better than last year and might be the team's best since 2003 when they had Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson. I thought that was the best all-around secondary I've seen in Bill Belichick's tenure.
Q: Has any team ever played five straight games to open a season and never faced a team with a loss? That has to be some kind of record right? -- Rodney (Fort Worth, Texas)
A: Rodney, thanks to the Patriots' media relations staff -- which assists the media in its coverage of the team and makes us look smarter than we are -- the answer was easy to find. The last time this happened was in 1986, with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Q: Why do you think people are surprised by the Patriots' defensive play? They may not be the most talented team ever on D but they're still more talented than most teams, plus they have Belichick behind the controls. -- Christian (Framingham, Mass.)
A: Christian, my feeling is that probably the biggest reason people had doubts is because the defense has lost some of its stalwarts from past seasons, players like Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. I might be in the minority, but I'm still not completely sold, even after the defense held the Bills (17), Jets (16), Falcons (10) and Ravens (14) to fewer than 20 points. It's hard to argue with the bottom-line results, and I think the defense -- which looks like it is improving on a week-to-week basis -- deserves credit for coming up with big plays at critical times. At the same time, I also think the Patriots have been helped in the time of possession area -- they are averaging 35:41 per game, while the opposition is averaging 24:19, in part because the offense is controlling the ball so much. Tom, from Medford, Ore., asked another question about what might hold the defense back this season. The first thing that came to mind was if it will be able to consistently pressure out of the standard four-man rush.
Q: With nickel and dime coverages being used so much in today's NFL, should teams start using it as a base defense? They could just use larger safeties like Brandon McGowan to stop the run and that way you have a faster defense that is good against the pass and the run without having to change personnel all the time. -- Jordan (Shrewsbury, Mass.)
A: Jordan, in some cases we're seeing this play out right now. The Patriots have done this in certain matchups. But I don't think a team would want to commit to it full-time because it would want to maintain some flexibility based on each week's matchup. Overall this season, the Patriots have been in a sub package more than 50 percent of the time.
Q: Mike, I liked Tom Brady's comment on the radio about coach Belichick making a point to the team before taking on Baltimore that the officiating crew for the game led the league in penalties called the last two seasons so the team should expect things to be called tightly. I assume researching the officials for each game is part of normal preparartions, but how early in the week do they know who's calling the game? -- Andy (Brighton)
A: Andy, teams usually find out a few weeks in advance. For example, the Patriots and Broncos learned that Carl Cheffers' crew will be officiating Sunday's game early last week.
Q: Hey Mike, what's your take on the play of Terdell Sands? I couldn't tell how many plays he was in for. He appeared effective at pushing the pocket in, but he also appeared to fall down a lot. -- Gooby (Cambridge, Mass.)
A: I had Sands in for 14 plays and it looked to me like his role was simplified -- line up over the guard or center and plow ahead. I saw some penetration at times. Another time, it looked like he got caught in the same rush lane as Myron Pryor. I saw Sands used in two different packages -- a 3-2-6 dime as a rusher over the nose, and as part of a four-man line in the 4-3 in which he played more over the guard.
Q: Mike, can you try to explain why the Patriots seem intent on using Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk for kickoff and punt returns? Maroney's goal on kickoffs seems to be just make it back out to the 20. Faulk calls a fair catch on 95 percent of punts. For a coach like Belichick who places such an emphasis on special teams and field position, you would think he would find someone with a little more speed or elusiveness, either on the Pats roster already or on the wire. -- Matt (Andover, Mass.)
A: Matt, I don't think Maroney will be there much longer if he returns kicks like he did against the Ravens (4 returns, 75 yards, 18.8 avg.). I think the return of Matthew Slater to the kickoff return unit could help, and perhaps we'll see more of Julian Edelman back there as a returner, not as a lead blocker. On the punt returns, it has been a conservative approach with Faulk (5 returns, 2 fair catches), which is in part a result of Welker's prior injury. I'd like to see Edelman back there a bit more.
Q: As much as I have been a fan of Matthew Slater, I don't get why he was activated and Terrence Wheatley was not in the Baltimore game. Wheatley was a good kickoff returner, one of the areas that Pats need to improve, and is fast. He has shown some solid performance as a special teamer in past games, and his ability to play CB should be an asset. -- MarkJ (China)
A: MarkJ, Slater was part of three special-teams units, and is one of the team's best special-teams players. He does things on special teams, from a coverage perspective, that Wheatley can't. I like the idea of Wheatley as a kickoff returner, though. Maybe he slides onto the roster this week in place of a different player. I think they want Slater on the field.
Q: Seems like the Pats missed at least three chances to pin the Ravens deep inside their own 20 on punts from around midfield. Any word or comment or insight on the punt coverage? -- LBCjr (Richmond, Va.)
A: This is another area that probably would have been more scrutinized had the Patriots lost. The plus-50 punting -- when the team is on the opponents' side of the 50 -- was not good (2 punts, 2 touchbacks). I think the results are more on punter Chris Hanson, as it wasn't as if the punt coverage team was in position to make a play but didn't. The balls just went into the end zone. That's 20-30 yards of hidden yardage that I'm sure the Patriots would have wanted. Knowing how much time Hanson puts into his craft, I'm sure he'll be working on that part of his game as much as ever this week.
Q: Mike, any updates on contract talks between the Pats and Brady? Have talks been shelved until the offseason? While I know this probably isn't the case here, is there any tension due to the fact the team hasn't paid Brady yet? -- Ben (Boston)
A: Ben, there is no tension that I am aware of, and I'll stand by my previous thoughts that it isn't a matter of "if" it will get done, but more "when." The Patriots realize how special Brady is, and they're not about to consider life without him. He'll get what's coming to him and it will be a great moment for the franchise, knowing it has a key player locked up for the long term.
Q: Do you know what the conditions were for the Prescott Burgess trade? Do the Ravens get Burgess and the Pats seventh-round pick? -- Tom (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A: Tom, the Patriots do not lose that seventh-round pick. It was conditional on how many games Burgess was on the active roster.
Q: Mike, let's go back to the Seymour trade for a minute. I don't understand why Bill Belichick wanted the 2011 first-round draft pick from the Raiders for Seymour instead of the 2010 pick. What am I missing? -- Ian (Connecticut)
A: Ian, I think it was solely economics and the Patriots banking on the fact there will be a rookie salary cap in 2011, which increases the value of that pick. If they took the 2010 pick, it's not a safe assumption to assume they could have traded down and accumulated other picks. Few teams want to trade up to those spots anymore.
Q: No comment or question, just a sister to three brothers (no sister) and a mother to three grown sons (no daugher) and a love of the Patriots! Breast cancer survivor of one year (next week) was overwhelmed by pink on the field Sunday. -- K DiOrio (Jamestown, RI)
A: Let's end on this positive note, and with best wishes to your continued health. That was very powerful. As receiver Randy Moss said, "Keep rocking that pink."
This week's Patriots mailbag has questions about Junior Seau, some unsung players and more.