Commentary

Mailbag: Early thoughts on Pats-Saints

Game could put Pats in elite class or put monkey on their back

Updated: November 24, 2009, 11:26 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Some weeks, the mailbag is filled with questions from the previous game. Such was the case last week after the Patriots' heartbreaking loss to the Colts.

This week is a bit different.

With the Patriots having taken care of business against the Jets on Sunday, it seems like many e-mailers have hit the fast-forward button and already are looking ahead to the upcoming "Monday Night Football" clash against the Saints.

I also noticed quite a few questions on playoff positioning and where the Patriots would fall if the season ended today. While teams continue to jockey for a possible first-round bye and the Patriots are in a better spot this week than last, I think it's a bit early to go there because of how fast things change in the NFL. If the Patriots lose their next two games -- at New Orleans, at Miami -- they could find themselves tied for the division lead.

Another popular topic this week is the team's ability to close games and keep the pedal pushed to the floor in the second half. Some telling statistics show this has been a problem for the Patriots this season, which is the reverse from this time two years ago, when some felt the team was running up the score.

This is one of my favorite weeks of the year because it usually means time spent with family and plenty of football. Happy Thanksgiving to readers of the mailbag.

Q: Mike, do you see the Pats playing all nickel and dime against the Saints (like the Colts game)? Although underrated, I feel like the Saints running game has the ability to burn teams that play the pass too much. -- Cory (Lexington, Mass.)

A: No question, Cory, the Saints have a more balanced offense than the Colts. I think the Patriots were daring the Colts to run by playing nickel all game, but the Colts mostly stayed in the air. I think the Saints are more likely to run it, and they can pick up chunks of yards in a hurry. Stats can be deceiving at times, and obviously the Saints have been ahead in some games and have run down the clock, but consider these numbers (all rank in the top five in the NFL): 324 rushing attempts, 1,543 yards (4.8 average), 18 rushing touchdowns. I do think the Patriots will view tight end Jeremy Shockey as a pure receiver, so more of the game will be played in sub, but I'm not sure it will be as dramatic as what we saw in the Colts game.

Q: For me, the two biggest surprises on this year's Patriots team are that they have only won one road game and that was more of a neutral site game and have not play well after halftime in a few games this season. Even though it's an NFC game, I think the Patriots really need to win this road game Monday night against the Saints before it becomes a large monkey on their backs. Do you think Belichick and the players see it that way? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)

A: David, I think you nailed it. This is a topic I wrote on late Monday, and this comment from Tom Brady's regularly scheduled appearance on sports radio WEEI stood out to me: "We need a big win on the road. We've had three opportunities and we've lost all three. This would be a great one to get." My view of the game is that it won't dramatically alter the Patriots' playoff positioning, but it will either put them into an elite class or attach a question that will follow them down the homestretch and presumably into the playoffs: Can they win in a tough environment?

Q: Everyone expects Monday to be a shootout. The Saints' defense has great stats because the offense goes up early and the opposition is forced to pass, resulting in tons of picks and sacks -- similar to the 2007 Patriots defense. I think with Sedrick Ellis hampered with an injury, the Pats can slow the game down early and force the Saints out of their passing style. Doing so would take away the defense's propensity to force turnovers and I think their offensive personnel/style give them a better chance in a high-scoring affair. Do you agree a lower scoring game gives the Patriots a better chance to win, and do you think Bill implements this sort of game-plan? -- Michael J (Haverhill, Mass.)

A: I wouldn't be shocked if it went that way, Michael, but I'm projecting the opposite. I think Bill Belichick will look at this Saints defense and see holes. I think Belichick will look at his own offense and believe it can ring up points on anyone. So I think they will spread it out and say, "Let's get it on." A huge storyline is the health of the Saints' secondary. They were without starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter in Sunday's win over the Buccaneers, and Randall Gay left the game with what he said was a hamstring injury. Even if those players suit up, how effective they will be is a major question. As one NFL scout said Monday, "You don't want to be facing the Patriots without your top corners."

Q: Mike, I'm curious to get your take on the WR situation. I think it's pretty remarkable that we are no longer talking about finding that third option. The combination of Aiken, Edelman, Tate and Stanback has gotten the job done (along with the reemergence of Kevin Faulk). Is this an underplayed story? This group is not star-studded, but they've made us forget about Greg Lewis, Joey Galloway and even the loss of Jabar Gaffney. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A: Dean, this question came into the mailbag in two forms. Your version is the glass-half-full outlook on the No. 3 receiver spot, which I can see. The flip side is that when Wes Welker and Randy Moss are targeted 28 out of 41 passes against the Jets, it reflects a void at No. 3, which I also can see. I think Julian Edelman will start to emerge more, as we saw his playing time increase from the Colts game to the Jets game. That should help. I've also been impressed with what Sam Aiken and Isaiah Stanback have contributed, although I view them more as No. 4 options. Overall, I wouldn't say the No. 3 spot has been filled at this point, but the Patriots have found a way to make it work.

Q: I'm curious to know your thoughts regarding media reports that Darrelle Revis "shut down" Randy Moss. I'm not sure I buy that: 5 catches, 34 yards and a TD translates into season numbers of 80 catches, 544 yards, and 16 TD. While these are not Pro Bowl numbers and are below Moss's normal production, I hardly think they indicate an unproductive receiver. There was also Welker's long catch -- 3 Jets defenders converged on Moss to make it happen. The yards may be a bit low, but I think a lot of teams would love to have a receiver who could put up those numbers I mentioned earlier. Your thoughts? -- Walter (Shrewsbury, Mass.)

A: Walter, I think "shut down" is generous, but I would say Revis had the upper hand. He is an impressive player. I thought his physical play at the line of scrimmage took Moss out of his comfort zone, and I was impressed with how he stayed with Moss on pass attempts down the field.

Q: Mike, I'm surprised that there has been no mention of Moss being on the field for the Hail Mary play at the end of the game. Why would you risk injury for a play that has no impact on the outcome of the game? This to me is shocking considering just last week what happened to Josh Cribbs on a play that could not change the outcome of that game. I feel Bill Belichick was playing with fire there and he is lucky he did not get burnt. What's your take? -- Cali (Los Angeles)

A: I think this is a great point, Cali. Especially given some of the emotions on the Jets' side -- how coach Rex Ryan was upset about the way the Patriots handled the previous drive by throwing to Moss down the field -- this was extremely dangerous and something I believe should have been avoided. Nothing good could come of it. Along the same lines, I think I would take linebacker Jerod Mayo off the punt coverage team. I know the Patriots play starters on special teams and I understand all the spots that have to be filled on the 45-man, game-day roster, but I'd get him out of there, too.

Q: Mike, Seau has now gone three games without playing a snap. It seems like he's been brought in more for the veteran leadership than to actually play. When some of our injured players (Morris/Light etc.) start coming back, do you think we'll see Seau off the 45-man roster on some games? -- Aaron (Washington, D.C.)

A: Aaron, Junior Seau's role is fascinating to me, because you listen to players like rookie Julian Edelman, and apparently Seau has been a strong motivational presence behind the scenes even though he hasn't played. Going forward, I see Seau still being active on the 45-man, game-day roster. He is the top backup behind Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton at inside linebacker, and if one of those players is injured, he'll be needed in a pinch.

Q: Mike, The Pats are high-powered on offense, yes, but how do you explain the lack of balance in their passing attack? It used to be that Brady would distribute the ball to 7-10 different receivers over the course of a game. Yes, Moss and Welker deserve to be the primary targets, but the absence of the tight ends in the offense is baffling to me, especially in the red zone. -- John (Acton, Mass.)

A: Very interesting, John, as the motto of the Patriots' offense used to be that Brady's favorite receiver was the open one. Of late, he seems to lock in mostly on Moss and Welker. Part of it is that Moss and Welker are just that good. Against the Jets, for example, my thought was: Why go to anyone else if the coverage is going to be so inviting? On the flip side, though, I think it's fair to say that any offense needs to be careful about relying too much on one or two players, because that figures to eventually catch up to you. The lack of action for the tight ends in the passing game, specific to the Jets game, was a popular question this week. Chris Baker and Benjamin Watson played in a combined 113 snaps, and they weren't targeted for a single pass. I'm going to try to look back at this area more closely and determine how many times the tight ends released into pass routes compared to how often they stayed in to block.

Q: Mike, I'm concerned about the Patriots' lack of halftime adjustments on offense. In their three losses -- and to an extent in most of the other games as well -- they have struggled to produce on offense in the second half. It seems to me that in those moments, the run game has been lacking and the Patriots have struggled to work the ball down the field. What do you attribute this to? And most importantly, do you see the Patriots being able to fix this? -- Antti (Helsinki)

A: Antti, I think this is a significant concern, although I am not sure I'd classify it in the "adjustments" category. My general belief is that teams can't wait until halftime to make adjustments. Those need to be made on the sidelines during the first half. More than anything, I think it's a failure to emotionally keep their foot on the pedal. It's interesting because two years ago, this was a team fingered for running up the score. Now, the Patriots can't seem to find that killer instinct. Even in the Jets game, I thought they couldn't deliver the knockout punch when they had a chance earlier in the contest. You look at the scoring breakdown by quarters this season: 71 in the first quarter, 125 in the second, 39 in the third and 55 in the fourth. Some stats are deceiving, but those numbers are not.

Q: If I remember correctly, I think Pierre Woods started against the Jets. I know they rotate Woods, Thomas, Banta-Cain and Burgess. What does Woods bring to the table compared to the other linebackers? -- Jarrod (Rhode Island)

A: In this case, Jarrod, the first thing was that Woods was healthy. Tully Banta-Cain was banged up from the previous week, and I believe that's why he was in a more limited role. So then it would have come down to Woods versus Derrick Burgess, and I think Woods is a bit stronger against the run, and that was the Jets' bread and butter, as they entered ranked first in the NFL with 170 rushing yards per game. Woods ended up playing 19 snaps in the game.

Q: Mike, I thought Pierre Woods may do something as an edge rusher this year. Is Banta-Cain taking a majority of his snaps? I haven't noticed him out there too much in any of the packages. -- Mike Dinicola (Woonsocket, R.I.)

A: Mike, prior to the Jets game, Banta-Cain had been starting at that outside linebacker spot. He's been one of the best players on defense, consistently generating pressure, with his five sacks leading the team.

Q: Hi Mike, What is going on with all the delay-of-game penalties? They have had problems with this throughout the season. I'm not sold on the play calling/personnel grouping management. It seems like this is a coaching issue that has to be fixed before the playoffs. They're getting too many of these penalties and burning too many timeouts, and this will cost us. What are your thoughts? -- Bill Young (Orlando, Fla.)

A: Bill, those were close calls against the Jets, and depending on the officiating crew, the Patriots might get those plays off in another game. Tom Brady said after the game: "I put my head down with one [second left] to snap it, and I just think I'm getting that off. Typically we go down pretty late in that count a lot of the time. He was pretty quick on that whistle." On some of the game management/delay-of-game penalties from other games, I think it's been a little sloppy at times. Those are the type of things that can hurt you going forward, so I think it's fair to say that some cleanup would be important.

Q: Mike, with Matt Light coming back this week or next, would you keep Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle, and put Light at right tackle for the rest of the year? And do you pay Light 4.5 million as a right tackle in 2010? -- Fred Ranahan (Knoxville, Tenn.)

A: Fred, I'd probably handle it in stages. When Light is active for the first time, I'd rotate him into the mix by having him play a series in each half at left tackle. Then I'd assess the situation at that point -- factoring in injuries, etc. -- and make a decision. I don't see Light going to right tackle. I think the Patriots like Nick Kaczur in that spot. They signed him to a contract extension through 2012 this year.

Q: Third seed is critical, as it could easily allow the Pats to host the AFC title game. In my realistic scenario, San Diego vs. Pittsburgh in round one, with winner going to Indy and either is more than capable of knocking out Colts. Pats draw the 6 seed in round one, dispatch them and beat the Bengals round two in a close game. Then Pats host Steelers/Chargers. I would say this is as realistic of a playoff scenario as any other. -- John Krruszyna (Housatonic, Mass.)

A: Fun to play along, John. A lot can change between now and then, which I think is important to keep in mind. I look at a team like Pittsburgh and a shaky situation at quarterback from an injury perspective, and it's another reminder of how everything is week to week in the NFL.

Q: Hey Mike, a healthy and confident Laurence Maroney is becoming an integral part of the Pats' offense. In very limited use, he has been effective as a receiver and I think he could really do some damage if he gets into the secondary. I think there could also be a surprise factor there to add to his effectiveness. Do you see the Pats possibly using him more in the passing game? -- Garry McGrath (Orange Park, Fla.)

A: Garry, more than anything right now, I think Maroney's greatest contributions have come in keeping his legs churning and being more of a north-south type of runner. He's been very important for the Patriots in terms of staying balanced and bridging the gap until Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor return to health, assuming that will happen. I don't sense that Maroney has a natural feel for the passing game. While he can be effective on a few plays per game, and shows impressive speed and power in the open field, I don't see him as someone who would make a consistent major mark in the passing game.

Q: Mike, looking backward and looking ahead, what would the impact of having Richard Seymour have meant against Indy, and, what sort of impact or game planning would he have against the Saints? -- Pete (Scituate, Mass.)

A: Pete, my feeling is that Seymour would have a significant impact in both games. When the Patriots made the trade, my take was that they got better in the long term but worse in the short term. The question I had was whether they'd still be good enough in the short term. So far, I'd say they've passed the test.

Q: I'm curious to hear your take on our D-Line. With the (unfortunate) loss of Richard Seymour, and with Vince Wilfork seemingly prepared to test the open waters of free agency at year's end, what steps are being taken to ensure that we don't let this pivotal part of our defense crumble completely in future years? -- Shane Marques (Orlando, Fla.)

A: Shane, I don't know about any definitive steps other than to say the sides previously discussed an extension but nothing appears imminent. The Patriots potentially could use the franchise tag to retain Wilfork, and that's a possible step down the road to keep in mind.

Q: Mike, could you give some details of the botched direct snap to Edelman early in the game? Was that just going to be a QB sneak type play or was he going to throw? And who was at fault for putting the ball on the ground? -- Allon Bloch (Brighton, Mass.)

A: Allon, that was a third-and-1 play in the first quarter, and the Patriots were in a three-receiver set. Edelman motioned in from quarterback to take the snap, and my feeling was that he was going to sneak it. But either the center/quarterback exchange wasn't clean or Edelman had trouble securing the ball after the snap, and the Patriots were fortunate to dodge a possible turnover.

Q: Mike, what are your thoughts on Terrence Wheatley? What do you think the coaches are looking for in order for him to see some playing time? -- Jeff (Alexandria, Va.)

A: Jeff, Wheatley was featured on ESPNBoston.com as part of the Football Journey feature Saturday, and he's impressive when you speak with him. Very well spoken and seems to have a strong head on his shoulders. In terms of what the coaches are looking for from him, I'd say just more competitive coverage, because he's been passed on the depth chart by Jonathan Wilhite, Leigh Bodden and Darius Butler, playing in just 18 defensive snaps by my count. Because he contributes in some special teams areas, he's been active the past couple of weeks over Shawn Springs.

Q: Mike, when Moss has these non-injury days off almost each week, is he at the practice facility, or is he actually getting an extra day of vacation? Seems odd since one of Bill Belichick's big things is treating everyone the same. -- Niko (Los Angeles)

A: Niko, Moss is at the facility on days he doesn't practice for non-injury-related reasons, and he's putting in his time in different ways. That usually has been on a Wednesday.

Q: Hey Mike, I've been curious about the team leaders in special teams tackles. Would it be possible to post that? -- JK

A: Through nine games, according to coaches film review, the Patriots' special teams tackle leaders break down like this: Pierre Woods (10), Eric Alexander (8), Pat Chung (8), Brandon McGowan (7), Sam Aiken (7), Matthew Slater (5), Brandon Meriweather (5), Kyle Arrington (4), Bret Lockett (4) and Rob Ninkovich (4).

Q: Hey Mike, with ND's loss to UConn, I think we all pretty much know Charlie Weis's fate after the season (even if he claims he doesn't). Any chance he comes back to Foxborough for next season? -- Will (East Lansing, Mich.)

A: Will, this is completely speculative on my part, but I'd say, "Why not?" It seems like Belichick and Weis still have a strong friendship, and I think it would be a fit if Weis were interested.

Q: Mike, I've noticed in the past few weeks that punt defenders have come dangerously close to getting their hands on the ball. It seemed like every game someone was almost hitting Hanson before he got the punt off. This week it finally happened. Is protection an issue with punts? Is Hanson just a slower punter? Am I imagining this? -- Aaron (Washington, D.C.)

A: Aaron, I think it's fair to say that protection is an issue with punts. I'm not sure how much of it is on Hanson, but that block against the Jets looked like it was on Pierre Woods. It seemed as if he missed his block.

Q: Hi Mike, with Shawn Springs being deactivated two straight weeks and Wilhite getting burned two straight weeks, can we expect to see Springs next week? For a player who's supposed to be the Pats best cover corner, Wilhite certainly looked foolish Sunday. It didn't look like he even turned his head on that TD pass to Cotchery. -- Neil (South Boston, Mass.)

A: I don't see Springs unseating Wilhite at this point, Neil, and part of the reason he's been inactive is that Wheatley and Kyle Arrington provide more value on special teams. It's been a tough fall for Springs, but he's taking it well, at least on the surface.

Q: Hey Mike, with Isaiah Stanback now on the 53-man roster, can they designate Hoyer as the third quarterback, effectively opening up another spot on the game-day roster for special teams, etc.? -- Dave (Brighton, Mass.)

A: This is an option for the Patriots, Dave, and something to consider. I could envision a scenario in which they would do this, but there are a few balls in the air. If the third quarterback enters the game before the fourth quarter, that eliminates the first and second quarterback from playing that day. Assuming the Patriots would go directly to Brian Hoyer if Brady were hurt in a game, they'd have to feel comfortable losing Stanback for that game.

Q: What does it say about the 53-man roster if WR Isaiah Stanback can come off the practice squad and play 42 of 72 snaps against the Colts and CB Kyle Arrington can come off the practice squad and lead the team in special teams tackles for two weeks in a row. Why aren't the guys on the 53-man roster from the previous weeks executing in these roles? Are there other guys on the bench (Vollmer before last week) or the practice squad who can play better than the guys in there now? -- DD Lang (Eagan, Minn.)

A: I see what you are saying, DD Lang, and I guess there are two ways to look at it. One is that the practice squad is very good; the other is that the 53-man roster isn't good enough. I tend to lean toward the former. In the case of Stanback, it's also important to point out that Edelman was a game-time decision against the Colts and then Sam Aiken got hurt in that game, so it thrust Stanback into an unexpected role. As for Arrington, he had been on a 53-man roster previously, so that is less of a surprise.

Q: Mike, what do you make of Matthew Slater's role on certain offensive sets? He seems to be mostly involved in goal line packages. Does he have a particular skill set that makes him good for that? -- Scott Krause (New York)

A: Scott, I think the idea of putting Slater on the field in that 1 WR/2 TE/1 FB/1 RB package was to preserve Moss. That is usually a Moss package, but I think the Patriots were thinking, "Why subject Moss to more physical jams from Revis on plays we are going to run?"

Q: Hi Mike, I saw the movie "The Blind Side" over the weekend and I had a question for you. The movie shows the announcement of the trade between the Patriots and Ravens for Michael Oher, what did we get in return? I know we traded that first round pick down and moved around the board (so I am not sure if it is as simple as we traded X and got Y since we did move around a lot in the 2nd round). Do you know what players we ultimately got for that pick? -- Steve Avitabile (Raleigh, N.C.)

A: Steve, the initial trade with the Ravens was a first-round pick (23rd) for a first-round pick (26th) and fifth-round pick (162nd). The Patriots ended up trading both of those picks to Green Bay. It is not an apples-to-apples type of situation.

Q: Mike, during halftime of the Sunday night broadcast, Bob Costas commented on the NFL's overtime policy (sudden death, possession determined by coin toss). He presented no new arguments, but with so many people seemingly in agreement that the overtime rule stinks, how come the NFL hasn't acted to change it? -- Steven Weiser (Denver)

A: Steven, it was interesting to me as I researched this question -- I had written about it one year ago to the day. I'll include the link from the old Boston Globe article here, which includes comments from Colts president Bill Polian. For those running the hurry-up, the short answer is that the competition committee looks at the original purpose of the overtime rule -- to avoid ties -- and sees that the current format has accomplished its original goal.

Q: Hey Mike,What are the chances of the Pats hosting a Thanksgiving night game in the near future? As a season ticket holder, I'd love to go to NFL game on Thanksgiving without having to travel to Detroit or Dallas. Makes sense to me that an NFL game be held on Thanksgiving in the place where it all started. Keep up the great work. -- Chris (Ayer, Mass.)

A: Let's end on this one, Chris, as it is Thanksgiving week. I know there has been some media chatter in recent years of spreading those games around so it's not always at Detroit and Dallas. The NFL has added a third game, on the NFL Network, and that's where I could envision the Patriots falling into the Thanksgiving calendar in upcoming seasons. It wouldn't surprise me if that happened in 2010.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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