Mailbag: Plenty to second-guess
Readers concerned about some troubling Patriots trends, both on offense and defense
The surprising second-half turn of events in the New England Patriots' 28-14 loss to the New York Jets filled up this week's mailbag quickly. The main question was: How could the Patriots look so good in the first half and then look so different in the second half?
Another big issue facing the team is the health of running back Kevin Faulk after the 12-year veteran and team captain was knocked out of Sunday's game.
No Patriots running back has played more snaps than Faulk in each season since 2007 and losing Faulk, in my view, would be similar to another team losing its starter. He's the team's best pass protector, not to mention one of its most clutch players.
Last week, the question was asked if the Patriots got value in trading Laurence Maroney to the Broncos and the answer was that the value would be determined, in part, by whether the team's older backs could stay healthy. So the news with Faulk will be important to monitor.
Let's get to the questions:
Q. It seems last year's letdowns in the second half have carried over to the 2010 season. What's your take on this phenomenon? Could it be a case where the Pats' first-half success leads to complacency on the coaches' part, leading them to stick with strategies while their opponents are devising schemes to counter in the second half? With that said, why did the offense turn vanilla after halftime against the Jets? I guess I'm still not sold on Bill O'Brien as offensive coordinator. -- Justin (Denver)
A. Justin, this was the hot topic in this week's mailbag. The search is on for how the Patriots could look so lethal moving the ball on offense in the first half, and then struggle so badly in the second half. It's a big problem for this team in road games and one that remains a large mental and physical obstacle to overcome. In their last eight road games, not including last year's neutral-site game in London, the Patriots have been outscored 116-41 in the second half. That's not a statistic to be proud of. I think most would agree that some hard questions need to be asked in coaching and player meetings. My feeling is that we often want to be able to point our finger at one thing as the reason why, but as is often the case, it's a combination between the coaches and players. If I had to boil it down, a lot of these second-half road struggles come down to one or two plays -- the situational football that Bill Belichick preaches. The Patriots are not winning those situations. They need to get that edge back.
Q. Hi Mike, after watching the second-half collapse Sunday, I was left with two questions: Why do the Pats not make any second-half adjustments? Why do the Pats abandon the run in the second half and become one dimensional by being "pass happy?" -- Merritt (Wainfleet, Ontario)
A. Merritt, I think the adjustments need to come before halftime, although the break in between halves does provide more time to assess and deliver a message to the full team and coaching staff. Something isn't working with the Patriots' approach on the road and, as we assess what we've seen to this point, discovering the solution to those problems is going to be the key to their season. As for abandoning the run in the second half, I don't see it that way. They did try to run it, but when you gain 1 yard and minus-1 yard on first-and-10, it puts you in obvious passing situations pretty quickly. I could pick out maybe one or two plays when it could have been a run, but the team had some pretty good results on those plays passing. After watching the game over again, I didn't see the lack of commitment to the run as the big issue in the team's second-half offensive collapse in this game.
Q. Mike, I am a huge supporter of the Pats and Tom Brady but, let's be honest, Tom's performance in the second half was one of his worst. I replayed the game and was amazed at how many times Tom didn't go to receivers that seemed wide open (especially Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker). He seemed fixated on getting the long ball to Randy Moss. I think the offense's demise in the second half rests on Brady's shoulders. Tom will play better. Rex Ryan clearly also adjusted at halftime to attack Darius Butler. I'm worried about other teams following this. What do you think? -- Dave (Berlin, N.H.)
A. Dave, I was hard on Brady myself in my postgame piece for ESPNBoston.com, as I thought he played a poor second half. Even the elite players and coaches can have an off day. They're human, too. Overall, Brady targeted Moss 10 times and completed just two passes, which to me is a sign that the connection wasn't working and other options needed to be explored more consistently. Also, Wes Welker disappeared in the second half. As for teams attacking Butler, I didn't necessarily see that as an adjustment that was made during the game, but something the Jets were doing from the get-go. I'd expect future opponents to do the same until Butler shows he can make those plays.
Q. Right on with the article on the Jets game being a coaching catastrophe. Doesn't this beg the question: When do the Krafts insist on getting an offensive and defensive coordinator? It is clear that BB is best when those positions are filled with people he respects. -- Fletch (N.H.)
A. Fletch, I don't think the loss to the Jets had much to do with the overall coordinator issue. I think the Patriots have good coaches on the staff -- last week they were terrific -- so I don't see it as a knowledge issue. I think most are in agreement that the big question the coaching staff must answer is why the team is having so much trouble in the second half of road games and find a way to turn that around. That's what coaches are paid to do and I'd imagine that everyone will be on edge in the Gillette Stadium coaching offices until that problem is solved.
Q. The second half Sunday reminded me of last year. No run game, uncreative play calling and Brady looking for Moss too much. Where were the screen passes and creative plays to keep the defense honest? -- Paul (Boston)
A. Paul, because the Jets weren't blitzing as consistently as one would have expected, I'm not sure the screen play would have worked. As for the creativity, I saw plenty of it in the first half, such as Julian Edelman lined up in the offensive backfield and motioning out into an empty set. Or the play-action deep ball to Moss. I think you also have to give some credit to the Jets here. They won the critical situations, which is something the Patriots have prided themselves on in the past.
Q. Hi Mike, do you think the offense would be better if the Pats dropped Moss? Brady seems obsessed with getting him the ball even when covered. This stood out Sunday because it always seemed like a tight end was open when he was throwing to a covered Moss. I miss the old days when Brady's favorite receiver was whoever was open. -- Rick
A. Rick, I've thought about it, and I find it hard to believe they'd be better without Moss. I'd keep him on the team, but if it was really becoming more of an issue in terms of forcing him the ball on a weekly basis, I'd simply start reducing his playing time. Moss is usually part of every personnel package, although in this game, he came off in some groupings that included three tight ends, and even some two-receiver sets.
Q. Hi Mike. Is it safe to say Moss isn't able to win those tough 1 vs. 1 matchups on the outside anymore? He seemed to struggle all game getting separation and fighting through the man/press coverage. Is Moss simply a deep threat at this point in his career? Is it up to Brandon Tate to develop into someone Brady can trust on the outside, since Welker/Edelman/Hernandez/Rob Gronkowski are more middle of the field receivers? -- Bob (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
A. Bob, I agree that Moss didn't seem to create separation on a consistent basis against the Jets, and when he was open over the middle, he didn't have the razor-sharp focus to make the tough catch in traffic. I still think Moss is a dangerous threat that must be respected by opposing defenses and believe he remains the team's top receiver, but this wasn't his best game.
Q. Mike, I know it's early yet but can we expect more up and down performances until this team discovers its identity? I see a lot of good young talent. Do you think BB can get them solidified by playoff time? -- Enjoythegames (Cleveland)
A. I think that's fair, all around. I think Belichick is one of the best coaches in the NFL and I'd lean toward this team getting better as the season progresses. I sense that some are quick to pile on Belichick in situations like these, perhaps because of their dislike for him. I prefer to look more at the one-game snapshot and say he and his staff had a bad day. The week before, in the season-opener against the Bengals, I thought it was a strong reflection on what a solid coach Belichick is, and how good of a staff he has. So I think it's important to take everything in its complete context.
Q. Mike, the offense often becomes stagnant in the second half of games. In those situations, why do the Patriots wait until they are behind with two minutes left before going to a no-huddle, quick-strike offense? Brady is the perfect QB for it and we saw those two big quick-strike plays before halftime to Hernandez and Moss. Even going back to the 2007 Super Bowl, that one no-huddle drive absolutely killed the Giants (who knows what might have been had they gone to it a few drives earlier). When multiple drives are going three-and-out, going no-huddle would allow the offense to get into a rhythm, gas the defense, and prevent/dictate substitutions. Your thoughts? -- Vincent (Weston, Mass.)
A. Vincent, I think the no-huddle is like a change-up pitch in baseball. You pick your spots with it and that's what makes it effective. But overall, I absolutely agree with the thought because it could create an urgency to combat the mental struggles the team has had in the second half of road games. When you look at the stat that the Patriots have been outscored 116-41 in the second half of their last eight road games, I start with the coaching staff. They have to find a way to create that spark and get this team to play 60 minutes. That's what coaches get paid to do.
Q. Mike, is there any real indication this defense can play any better? Is there no one that can cover the opposing TE? -- Bryce (Mississauga, Ontario)
A. Bryce, I thought the defense played well enough to win, even with the struggles at cornerback. There was a three-and-out at the start of the third quarter, then coming up big in the critical situation to hold the Jets to a field goal to maintain a 14-13 lead with 4:53 left in the third quarter. That kept the team in the game. They were creating enough resistance that if the offense could have complemented them with one score, we might be talking about a different story today. The defense forced another punt in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, the way I view it is that when an offense doesn't score in the second half, it's not fair to pin the outcome of the game on the defense. In the end, I do think this defense can play winning football. I saw some good things in this game (e.g. run defense in the 3-4 alignment; pass rush). On the tight ends, we saw the struggles in the preseason and then Sunday against Dustin Keller. That's a fair question. I think they will get it tightened up because I believe in Belichick and his staff.
Q. Every other team in the NFL that uses the 3-4 defense attacks the quarterback. Is the Patriots' "bend but don't break" defense antiquated in a league where teams aren't allowed to harass receivers like they used to only a few years ago? -- Rob (Boston)
A. Rob, I wouldn't call it a bend-but-don't-break defense. I actually think they've generated better-than-expected pressure over the last two weeks against the Bengals and Jets. For what it's worth, I asked Scott Pioli the question in February at the NFL combine and this is what he said: "Everything goes in cycles. They thought that defense was dead in '86 when the Giants won the Super Bowl, and then didn't go to the Super Bowl for two more years. And that defense didn't go to the Super Bowl from '90 to '96. You guys have run out of patience up there, haven't you?"
Q. Mike it is painfully obvious to me that without a running game, the Patriots will not succeed this season. This is not the '07 team that can line up and spread the field and pass the ball 80 percent of the time. I remember in '04, the last Super Bowl that we won, it was largely in part because of a 1,600-yard back named Corey Dillon. So with that being said, do you see the Pats making a trade for say Brandon Jacobs, Marshawn Lynch, or someone like that this season, or will we have to wait to draft Mark Imgram next season with the Raiders' pick? -- Mike (Pflugerville, Texas)
A. Mike, I don't see Jacobs or Lynch arriving via trade, although if Kevin Faulk's injury is serious -- and a Tweet from Dan Roche of WBZ-TV in Boston said it looks like that is a strong possibility -- it wouldn't surprise me to see a roster move to fill that third-down back type role. As for the Patriots' approach, I thought they made an honest effort to run the ball against the Jets. At the half, it was 20 pass attempts against 14 rushes, and I thought the team's short-yardage running was excellent. The pass/run numbers got a bit out of whack late because the team was in catch-up mode. I think this is a week, against the Bills, that the Patriots can work on being more consistent in the run game from start to finish.
Q. Hi Mike, Darius Butler looked rather small, especially on the 2-point conversion that Braylon Edwards snatched over his head. It wasn't necessarily that the Jets receivers were wide open, but that Butler and Devin McCourty were always near plays and unable to break them up. Is size a problem, or is it technique that they can learn as they gain more starting experience? -- Nathan (New York, N.Y.)
A. Nathan, on those plays, I think it was more about technique. He was in position, but he needs to make better plays on the ball. I thought Butler was primed for a big year, but he's off to a rough start.
Q. Mike, I'm a bit confused by the defense's inability to get off the field on third down. It seemed that the line was generating plenty of pressure (hurries, sacks, knockdowns, etc.), but for some reason the overall unit just couldn't close the deal. In your view, what was the cause of this? Obviously Butler had a terrible afternoon, but were the any other contributing factors I missed? -- Neil (South Boston)
A. Neil, I think it was more coverage- and penalty-based than anything. But overall, I thought the defense did enough to win that game -- they forced two second-half punts as well as holding for a field goal on a third-quarter drive. Surely, they had some breakdowns, but I didn't think the defense was the main reason for the team's second-half collapse.
Q. Which would have been more helpful Sunday: 1) Ty Warren at left end; 2) Leigh Bodden on Braylon Edwards; 3) Moss off the field in the second half so Brady could avoid risky fade passes? -- ECF (Washington, D.C.)
A. I'll go with No. 2. I thought Ron Brace was competitive at left defensive end in the base defense, and while it seemed like Brady was locking in on Moss, a case could be made that his decisions were sound but his accuracy was not. This was a game where I thought the Patriots really missed Bodden.
Q. Mike, I know a lot of people are focusing on the passing game but the lack of a running game is equally as puzzling. Fred Taylor had done well on the first series (including 36-yard run called back), but then was benched in favor of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was a non-factor. Unless Taylor was injured, it seems curious that Belichick would make that switch. -- Rob (New Orleans)
A. Rob, I wouldn't say that Taylor was benched. The coaching staff knows a 34-year-old like Taylor needs to be conserved over the long haul of the season and that's why a series-by-series rotation was adopted. I thought the Patriots had a very good day running in short-yardage situations. It was some of the early-down runs that hurt them.
Q. Hi Mike, Jerod Mayo has been solid, but not as great as his rookie year. Do you think playing beside Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, and having their skill set to depend on in the front seven, gave us an inaccurate impression of Mayo's talent? It's kind of like Matt Cassel putting up those numbers with Moss and Welker but now laying an egg in K.C. Your thoughts? -- Adkjani (Fargo, N.D.)
A. It looked like Mayo struggled in the third quarter of the Jets game, but overall, I still see a solid player to build around. I thought he was terrific as a rookie but then took a step back while playing through a knee injury in 2009. He looks closer to the '08 version to me this year -- smart, fast, strong and physical.
Q. Mike, where was Gary Guyton on Sunday? I would think that Guyton's speed would have been better suited for the Jets offense. Your thoughts? -- Philip (Braintree, Mass.)
A. Philip, Guyton played the same role he did against the Bengals, coming onto the field in sub situations. The difference was that the sub defense wasn't used as much because the Patriots were in their base 3-4 alignment more often against the run-based Jets. I thought rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes held his own in there next to Jerod Mayo.
Q. Hey Mike, where was Brandon Meriweather against the Jets? He only had one tackle and I didn't see him involved in any plays throughout the game. Just curious what you saw from him. -- Bill (Hackensack, N.J.)
A. Bill, Meriweather did not start in the base 3-4 alignment. After playing more than any Patriots defender in 2009, he has seen his playing time reduced this year. He explained it during an interview on sports radio WEEI, saying that coaches have demoted him because he wasn't practicing the way they hoped he would.
Q. Hi Mike. Do you have any info on Jarrod Page and whether he might start getting out there with the defense? -- Julie (Los Angeles)
A. Julie, Page is the Patriots' fourth safety at this time, with his primary contributions coming on special teams. On Sunday, he played on the kickoff coverage, kickoff return and punt return units, and then you saw him on the field for the two-point conversion. In two games, he's played just a handful of snaps on defense, which makes sense as he is still learning the team's system. At this time, it seems like the Patriots are locked in with a James Sanders/Patrick Chung combination at safety, with Brandon Meriweather the third man in. So I don't see Page's role changing much right now.
Q. Mike, can you elaborate more on Vince Wilfork's comments about sub runs? What is a sub run and what would the approach be to stop it? -- Matt (Boston)
A. Matt, here is a blog entry from Wilfork's comment. Basically, this is a situation where the offense brings on personnel that would favor a pass (e.g. three receivers) and instead runs the ball. The Patriots could keep their base 3-4 personnel on the field in such a situation, but the concern would be that they are compromised against the big play in the passing game.
Q. Who do the Patriots typically have on their field goal kicking team? Is it made up of all offensive linemen and tight ends? Who do the Patriots typically have on their field goal blocking team? -- Matt (Methuen, Mass.)
Matt, the field-goal unit is comprised of all offensive linemen and tight ends, along with snapper Jake Ingram, holder Zoltan Mesko and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. The delay-of-game penalty in the first quarter is on Mesko as that is the holder's responsibility to keep an eye on the play clock. One could also argue that the coaching staff needed to make a quicker decision on kicking the field goal. As for the field-goal block team, it is more of a mix of positions, with some big players and some smaller, faster players.
Q. Mike, rumors here in Texas continue to suggest the Cowboys might try to acquire Logan Mankins. The Cowboys' offensive line is terrible, the chief reason they haven't won. What do you think the likelihood is that the Pats deal Mankins to the Cowboys ... and soon? -- Steve (Friendswood, Texas)
Steve, this one is out of my range as it would all come down to the Cowboys' decision-making process, and I'm not privy to that information. I think the Patriots would pull the trigger if the Cowboys were willing to part with a first- or second-round draft choice and the big salary to Mankins.
Q. Hi Mike. The Patriots' performance was hauntingly familiar, as was the postgame talk. Where is the hunger and mental toughness, leadership and chemistry, smarter and adjustable qualities that were guaranteed for this season? -- Jake (Vancouver)
Jake, I still think the Patriots are a very good team and should be in the discussion among playoff contenders. I also think that quarterback Brady and Belichick are among the best in the business despite having what I felt was an off day Sunday. Overall, I'd sum up my thoughts this way: This isn't about postgame talk. They can say "we have to do better" all they want, but in the end, they need to prove it on the field. That was a terrible second half, from whatever happened in the locker room to when the team took the field. It comes down to actions, not words. When they have a team in a compromising position, they need to execute the kill shot and bury them.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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