The questions in this week's Patriots mailbag seem to reflect what Bill Belichick might tell his players after a victory: happy with the result, but things can get better.
The general feeling was that Sunday's heart-stopping 31-28 victory over the Colts was crucial for keeping pace with the New York Jets, yet the nail-biting fourth quarter was troubling to many. That leads to the question: Why are the Patriots struggling to close out games?
When considering the questions facing other teams in the NFL, this one falls into the "high-class problem" category.
A lot of other clubs would like to be 8-2 and being asked the same question. Also, there are no teams in the NFL right now that are winning convincingly on a week-in and week-out basis.
Q: Hi Mike, at this point 8-2 is outstanding considering the schedule. Should we continue to worry about the defensive backs? I realize they made some plays on Colt mistakes but they seem to have real problems in finishing games. There might come a game (hopefully not in the playoffs) where the offense will match up against a defense that will limit their points. Can these backs continue to give up so much ground and still be successful? -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)
A: Jim, if they keep creating turnovers like they have -- especially in the critical situations -- I think they will be OK. I don't think it's realistic to think they will just change their ways at this point in the season. The identity is well-established -- this is a defense that will give up some yards, but comes up with the turnover or stop when needed. The cornerbacks are obviously a big part of that.
Q: Three times now we've let opponents back into it in the fourth quarter -- Chargers, Steelers and now the Colts. What do you think the team's problem is and how can they fix it? -- Jeffrey Henning (Rockland, Mass.)
A: Jeffrey, I think the Patriots have sometimes lost their edge, which is the sign of a young team still growing. In the Colts' game, I viewed the main struggles as related to: (1) bad tackling; (2) undisciplined penalty; (3) solid play by the opposition; (4) bad execution on offense; (5) questionable offensive play-calls on first-and-10 and second-and-8. Overall, it just seems like the Patriots allow themselves to get too comfortable before they've finished the job.
Q: I love the win but I don't love the fact that the Pats appear to change offensive and defensive philosophy in the third and fourth quarter -- the offense stalls when it goes into run out the clock mode and then the defense appears to give up yards when it goes into a softer prevent type defense. Do you have any thoughts on them not taking their foot off the throttle or playing defense more aggressively at the end of games (even by having a LB cover the checkdown TE or RB outlet)? I'm still thrilled with these results though. -- Steve Slocomb (Marlborough, Mass.)
A: Steve, I'd have to look closer at the defense, and talk to some more players, before having a good feel for what is going on there. I didn't necessarily see a real prevent defense live during the game but I'd feel more confident after running it by some of the guys on the field. Sometimes it comes down to one play and, along those lines, the Patriots were defending a third-and-4 on the Colts' first scoring drive in the fourth quarter and gave up a 36-yard run. That's where I'd start. That shouldn't happen in any defense and it's a result of bad assignment football and bad tackling. As for the offense, I think it's more execution than anything else. I can't imagine that on that first-and-10 play in the fourth quarter, when they went to an empty set, that it was part of the plan to let a rusher come in free. Sometimes all it takes is one mistake to disrupt a drive. In a game against the Colts when every possession is so important, those mistakes are magnified.
Q: Hey Mike, excited about watching the Pats on Thanksgiving. Do you know if they're planning on wearing an alternate uniform (like they did against Detroit back in 2002)? -- Greg (Tempe, Ariz.)
A: Greg, the Patriots will be in their red throwback uniforms for the second of two times this season.
Q: Hey Mike, how does preparation change when the Patriots are dealing with a game on Thursday? -- Jorge (Mexico)
A: Jorge, Bill Belichick explained this a bit on Monday, breaking down the next few days. It's a quick week, with two walkthrough practices and one regular session, and then they go play.
Q: Hey Mike, I'll be honest, in this spot, Detroit scares me. Pats just had two emotional games, and they have the mammoth Jets game coming up. Now they are traveling to Detroit which has a underrated offense with a serviceable backup QB. Do you think this young Patriots team will be able to rebound, both physically and mentally to be ready? -- Glenn (Boston)
A: Glenn, I believe this team will respond accordingly. I think the Pats should win the game as they are the more talented team, but as we saw in Cleveland a few weeks back, all that matters is which team plays better in those 60 minutes. I sense a rising tide within the locker room that won't allow a Browns-like repeat. I envision the Patriots and Lions playing a close first half before the Patriots pull away. They just have too many weapons.
Q: Hey Mike, at the end of the Patriots/Colts game, the Patriots were taking a knee and running out the clock. I noticed Brady screaming at the refs and getting into it with the Colts D. What happened? -- Sean (Los Angeles)
A: Sean, Brady explained during his regularly scheduled appearance on sports radio WEEI that the Colts were trying to simulate the snap count, which is illegal.
Q: Mike, I know that you keep saying that Bill O'Brien is a good coach, but what was he thinking in the fourth quarter? How do you explain the 5-wide shotgun offense with 7 minutes left and up by 10 points? -- Bill (New York, NY)
A: Bill, I think it's fair to look at that decision critically. My assumption is that O'Brien was thinking that he still had to attack the Colts, with the mindset of not taking the foot off the gas pedal. Before the ball was snapped, I thought it was too risky for my liking. But I'd also say it's one play. Overall, I thought O'Brien called a very good game. If we removed every playcaller for one or two bad play calls, I think we'd have a lot of job openings across the NFL.
Q: Hi Mike,what do you make of the Patriots' electing to kick after winning the coin toss both against Pittsburgh and against Indy? Is this a Belichick vote of confidence in the defense, wanting to start the second half with the ball, or something else entirely? -- Chris (Santa Paula, Calif.)
A: Chris, this has been Belichick's modus operandi since teams were given the choice of deferring. I think Belichick sees it as an advantage knowing his team will get the ball at the start of the second, so it affects some of the situational football at the end of the first half.
Q: Mike, with Brandon Tate getting limited reps, why didn't Julian Edelman see the field more? I think the Pats are really underutilizing Edelman and he may end up walking. Also, how many years does Edelman have left on his contract? -- Arjuna (Durham, N.H.)
A: Arjuna, Edelman is in his second year and the Patriots will control his rights at least for the next two years. As for why Edelman didn't play more with Tate out, it comes down to the Patriots playing more multiple tight end sets. Of 58 snaps, the Patriots had multiple tight ends on for 44 of them. With Deion Branch and Wes Welker the top receivers, it means fewer opportunities for a No. 3/4 target like Edelman.
Q: Mike, what do you think Devin McCourty's chances are for Defensive Rookie of the Year? The guy keeps improving every week and the interceptions are starting to add up. Plus, he is almost always matched up on the other team's top receiver. It seems like Thursday's game will feature his stiffest competition in Ndamakong Suh. -- Cory (Medford, Mass.)
A: Cory, I think it's going to be extremely tough to beat Suh, who has seven sacks. In studying up on the Lions and watching their game against the Cowboys last week, Suh looked to me like a powerful veteran. On one play, he drew a holding penalty on offensive lineman Leonard Davis in the end zone, which produced a safety. While I think McCourty is worthy of consideration, I'd say at this point, it's Suh in a runaway.
Q: Do you think the fact that Randy Moss is gone has helped the Patriots be more dominant? -- Ryan (Arizona)
A: Ryan, I don't think Moss' departure has contributed to the Patriots becoming more dominant. In fact, I still wonder if Moss' presence might have helped at times in which the offense has stalled in recent weeks, such as the fourth quarter against the Colts.
Q: Hi Mike, New England has now beaten Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis -- all winning teams heading to the playoffs. The Jets, on the other hand, have beaten one winning team: the Pats. The Patriots are tested and ready for that playoff run, whereas the Jets are struggling to beat losing teams. Will the experts out there start to realize the AFC East goes through Foxborough? -- Scott (Burtonsville, Md.)
A: Scott, I'd use the term "expert" lightly. I thought Bill Belichick put it best after the team's win in Pittsburgh when he said, "If you knew what was going to happen in this league, you could make a lot of money." I think the smart approach is to point to Dec. 6, when the Jets visit the Patriots, and see who wins that game. That will provide the greatest clarity of all.
Q: Mike, I wanted to know your thoughts on Shawn Crable's release. All the arrows in height, weight, and purposed athleticism projected Crable to be the ideal OLB. But I thought Crable was very slow off the line and his pursuit angles and speed weren't up to speed trying to contain a faster back crashing inside/outside of the tackle. I think Pierre Woods did an OK job as a linebacker, making solid contributions to the special teams unit, and frankly I think it's really beneficial they signed someone who knows the system. Thoughts on Woods? -- Joe (Northampton, Mass.)
A: Joe, I was surprised at Crable's release, especially since he played a career-high 42 snaps against the Steelers. Usually if a player is on the field for such an extended period of time, it means he's doing something right. As for Woods, I don't expect to see him much at linebacker. I think the Patriots brought him back with special teams in mind, as they have been having some problems with containment on coverage units. He adds depth at outside linebacker behind Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich and Tully Banta-Cain, but as we saw Sunday against the Colts, his main value came on the kickoff coverage and punt return units.
Q: Hi Mike,did you ever in your wildest dreams foresee Kyle Arrington as the replacement to Shawn Crable? What do you think Bill Belichick saw in the Colts that would allow a 5-foot-10 196-pound cornerback to line up as DE and get pressure on Peyton? -- Billy (Dublin, Calif.)
A: Billy, that was a game-plan defense that the Patriots planned to spring on third down at some point in the game. The idea was to give Peyton Manning a new look to digest (3-2-6 dime, with the sixth defensive back rushing from a three-point stance) and see how he responded. When it looked like Manning had found his groove against the 4-2-5 nickel package at the end of the first half, the Patriots were proactive and made the switch, going to the Arrington rush package for an extended period of time.
Q: Hi Mike, I'd like to respectfully disagree with your take on whether or not the Pats will franchise Mankins at the end of the season. Belichick is cut-throat when it comes to his team. Much like the decision to franchise Matt Cassel a few years back, assuming they don't find middle ground on a contract, Mankins will be franchised. No one knows what the new labor agreement will entail when it comes to compensatory picks next year and because of that, Belichick will take the guarantee of receiving some sort of compensation via a trade as opposed to the risk involved in simply letting Mankins become a free agent. Thoughts? -- Rob C (Auburn, Mass.)
A: You're probably right, Rob, assuming the Patriots feel they can get something for him, even if it's "only" a late-round pick. The Patriots would be within their rights to do so and it would classify in the "what's best for the team" category. I can't say I agree with it, but I understand the line of thinking.
Q: It seems like Belichick made another great call in activating Logan Mankins into the starting line-up immediately upon his return. Mankins had a great block on Woodhead's 36 yard score (as did Alge Crumpler) and his physical style has been evident in watching the success of both the run game and giving Brady fantastic protection in the last two game. Your thoughts? -- Billy (Manchester, N.H.)
A: No arguments here, Billy. I view Mankins as the Patriots' best offensive lineman.
Q: Hi Mike, Jerod Mayo has a lot of tackles, but is that a good stat to evaluate a player? In Mayo's case he has very few sacks and QB hurries. Is Mayo really their best defensive player? Who are the Pats top 3 defensive players? -- Ashley McNamara (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Ashley, I'd say if all the tackles are 20 yards downfield, it could be a deceiving statistic. Specific to Mayo, I think he is the real deal, a rare three-down player in the Bill Belichick defensive scheme. If I had to pick the Patriots' top three defensive players, I'd go with: 1. Vince Wilfork; 2. Jerod Mayo; 3. Devin McCourty.
Q: Hey Mike, there have been a lot of comparisons between Brady and Manning. Statistically speaking, the career regular season numbers Manning has are slightly better (yds, TDs, passer rating, etc.). Because of this people claim Manning to be the better QB, but aren't his stats inflated a little because he plays at least eight games per year in a dome? What do you think the Manning-Brady comparison would look like if Manning played in a similar outdoor environment like Foxboro? -- Dave (Austin, Texas)
A: Dave, I'd start by saying that you can't go wrong with either Manning or Brady. Your point is well taken; Manning's numbers are aided by playing in a more controlled environment. In the end, it comes to wins and Super Bowl championships and both have a few notches in their belt with those.
Q: How do you leave Jerod Mayo off the list of top 5 players to impact the Colts/Pats rivalry in years to come? I'm biased as a Vols fan, but he has the most impressive closing speed of any middle/inside LB I've seen this year. I'm not imagining things -- he's a home-run player, right? -- JT (West Chester, Ohio)
A: JT, I should have been more clear in the piece as I was picking players in their first or second year as regular players. Mayo is in his third. Mayo is having a great season, and as we know, he was named Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2008. He will absolutely have a big impact on this rivalry in years to come, but he didn't qualify as a first- or second-year player. I personally wouldn't call him a home-run player until we see more plays behind the line of scrimmage, or more turnovers, but I can think of 31 other teams that would like to have him.
Q: The Patriots have been known the last few years as a mediocre running team, which one could say is the reason why the past years haven't produced championships. Even with Woodhead and Green-Ellis, do you see the Patriots drafting a guy like LaMichael James of Oregon, Mark Ingram of Alabama or Ryan Williams of Virgina Tech with Oakland's first-round pick? -- Michael (Irving, Texas)
A: Michael, I think the Patriots are going to have to add a running back in some form, and it wouldn't surprise me if it's in the first round of the draft with those two picks. They have BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead as players whose contracts will still be under the Patriots' control in 2011, and while they were powerful and dynamic Sunday against the Colts, I still think more help is needed there. The Patriots are light on numbers at running back in 2011 as Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor all have contracts expiring after this season.
Q: I'm getting tired of hearing about every other team's injury problems. "The Steelers were missing two of their starting offensive linemen. The Colts are all banged up." What of the Pats? They're missing their best CB (Bodden), 2nd best DL (Ty Warren), and are using a 3rd stringer on the offensive line (Connelly backs up Kaczur, who backs up Mankins and Neal), and a 4th stringer at RB (at the season's start, Green-Ellis was behind Taylor, Maroney, and Faulk). Why do you think the opponents injury problems get such big play in the media, but the Pats injury issues don't seem to get "equal time?" -- Walter (Shrewsbury, Mass.)
A: Walter, I think those who have followed the Patriots from the outset of the season acknowledge how this team has overcome injuries. They have placed double-digit players on season-ending injured reserve and their quality depth -- coupled with top coaching -- has helped them pull through. Injuries are seldom an acceptable excuse, unless perhaps you get into a situation like the Dolphins did when they lost their top two quarterbacks. That's a tough one to overcome. But otherwise, planning for injuries and building depth is a big part of the game as Tedy Bruschi pointed out in this week's "Bruschi on Tap."
Q: Mike, I keep hearing fans and pundit alike criticize Bill Belichick on the 2007 and 2008 drafts. Take a look at all teams and you will see what BB has said -- those drafts were not deep and the Pats were stacked in all phases of the game with very good, battle tested vets, so rookies were probably not going to make the team. The only draft of note I saw was the year the Vikes got Adrian Peterson and Sidney Rice, but most all teams had poor drafts. The last two drafts were deep, which is why BB moved into what you call the sweet spot, which is where they will be next year with a bunch of picks if needed or they can trade them to some poor team falling in love like the 49ers did with Staley which yielded Mayo. These deep drafts are the only reason the Jets have found some good players with limited picks. Do you agree/disagree? -- Tom (N.H.)
A: Tom, I think the truth is in the middle. While the 2007 and 2008 drafts were not particularly deep, I still think there were opportunities there that the Patriots did not capitalize on. At the same time, a lot of other teams fall into the same category. I also think it's giving Belichick a bit too much credit for trading into the 2009 and 2010 drafts with the idea that he knew they were deep. At the time he made those trades -- one full year away from the drafts -- he couldn't have possibly known that for sure without knowing which juniors would declare. But I do think it is fair to say he was smart to push assets into the following year with the hope that those drafts would be deeper. I'd sum up my thoughts by saying that the Patriots' draft record stacks up favorably with most every NFL team. They obviously know what they are doing.
Q: Hey Mike, you mention that Darius Butler is further down the depth chart and his limited contributions also have to do with his special teams value. But wouldn't rebuilding his confidence be a good thing? I seem to recall he was considered an option for punt return/kickoff return duties. Not trying to take away opportunities for Tate/Edelman/Welker, but has he been given a shot in return duties in practice? It seems like it couldn't hurt. -- Elie (New York)
A: Elie, Butler is an option on kickoff returns, but I think you hit it right -- you don't want to take the ball out of Tate's hands if he's healthy. Tate is more explosive. As a coach, you are also balancing what gives you the best chance to win versus a player's confidence. I think the smart thing is to lean toward what gives the team the best chance to win, while trying to find ways to build confidence within that. I do think we'll see Butler more at cornerback in the future, especially after he entered the game Sunday at the start of the second half and stayed on the field throughout the final 30 minutes.
Q: Hey Mike, do you think the substitution of Darius Butler for Kyle Arrington in the third quarter was more related to the minor injury Arrington suffered at the beginning of the game, performance related, or a combination of the two? Your thoughts on Butler's playing time? -- Bill (Manchester, N.H.)
A: Bill, I thought the switch was performance related. As for Butler's second half, it seemed like he hung in there. But I haven't had a chance to fully analyze his play, so that's going on the feel of what I saw live.
Q: Mike, after I read your "football journey" article on Gerald Warren, it comes to mind that the Patriots being a winning team for years could become a strong hand in negotiating with veteran free agents who have been hungry for winning. Do you think this is the case for free agents signing in recent years? How about rookie FAs, who might think they have less chance making the roster here? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A: Mark, in most cases I think it comes down to money. The exceptions are with cases like Warren and Junior Seau, players at the tail end of their careers chasing that ring; they know that with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady they have a real chance at that. As for rookie free agents, I actually see it the other way. As we've seen almost every year, the Patriots have a rookie free agent make the roster (this year it's Dane Fletcher and Kyle Love). That's an example of a team that doesn't make decisions based on draft status as much as performance.
Q: Mike, once again the Pats have stockpiled picks for the 2011 draft. However, due to all the picks in the previous two years, and the re-singing of last year's free agents, there are a lot of players signed through 2011. As for major contributors, I only see Matt Light, Logan Mankins and BenJarvis Green-Ellis as free agents after this year. How can the Patriots add another 10 players via the draft with so many … quality players signed through 2011? -- Kartal (Denver)
A: Kartal, I think 10 players is doable, although based on the team's history, one figures they will push one of those picks into 2012. One thing to keep in mind here is that even though players return in 2011, some of them might regress, or have plateaued, so their spot on the roster might be tenuous.
Q: Hi Mike, question about the practice players of the week. Do they get any type of incentive for that? Or is it just an acknowledgment by the coaching staff? -- Tim (Boston)
A: Tim, mainly it is a tip of the cap from the coaching staff, with the players being recognized in a full team meeting and then wearing black jerseys during practice.
Q: Just a comment on a huge weekend for Dane Fletcher. On Friday, his high school completed an undefeated season and won the Montana state class AA high school football championship (for the first time in ages). On Saturday, his alma mater Montana State beat FCS powerhouse University of Montana in the annual brawl of the wild in Missoula to claim the Big Sky conference title. And then, of course, the Pats held on against the Colts today. -- Jay (Helena, Montana)
A: Jay, thanks for passing along this bit of information. Fletcher has become a key contributor on special teams for the Patriots playing on the kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return and punt coverage units.
Q: Mike, do you think Brandon Spikes will eventually be an every-down player? As I understand it, his speed isn't the greatest to be a great coverage linebacker, but could he work towards being an adequate one? -- Scott Krause (New York)
A: Scott, I think it's possible, but I don't see it happening this season. Spikes seems dedicated to his craft and willing to put in the time, so I view him as a player who will give himself every chance to get better and become more of an every-down player.