- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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The excitement is already building with the New England Patriots and New York Jets squaring off on "Monday Night Football" on Dec. 6. Jets coach Rex Ryan has already called it the "biggest game of the year."
This week's mailbag digs deeper into the game, focusing on some of the matchups and other issues surrounding the teams.
E-mailers brought their "A" game this week, so let's get right to it:
Q: Mike, how do you think the Jets' defense will attack the Patriots -- blitz or stay back and play coverage? In the first meeting Brady really picked the D apart when they blitzed him and seemed to struggle when they just sat back and dropped extra defenders into coverage. This may have also just been the fact that he was clearly forcing the ball to Randy Moss. I think we can handle any D the Jets throw at us this time around because we are far more balanced. -- Cory (Medford, Mass.)
A: Cory, Bill Belichick says that the Jets blitz about 50 percent of the time and I'd be surprised if they all of a sudden go cold turkey on that. So I think we can expect to see the Jets blitz at times. If I had to sum up my thoughts, I'd look to the Cleveland game as a good model to follow. Rex Ryan's brother, Rob, is the Browns' defensive coordinator. On that day, the Browns did a nice job disguising their pre-snap intentions -- sometimes blitzing, sometimes dropping into coverage -- and I expect the Jets to adopt a similar approach.
Q: Mike, I seem to remember the Jets killing us in the second half by running against our sub package defense. How do you anticipate this matchup in the big game come Monday? -- Kartal (Denver, Colo.)
A: Kartal, I see three aspects of overall matchup between the Jets' offense and Patriots' defense. When the Jets have two backs in the game, it's the base 3-4 alignment for the Patriots. When the Jets go with three receivers, that's a nickel package with three safeties. The third matchup is Brad Smith-based. Because he's such an X factor for the Jets and could line up anywhere on offense, the Patriots will have to decide how they want to handle that. Specific to the question, I think the three-safety sub package will be able to hold up enough against the run.
Q: The Bears scare me more than any other team, but this is Jets week. One game at a time, as the coach always says. In your eyes, what contributed to the Jets winning the first meeting, and are Pats able to overcome it this time? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A: Mark, looking back on what I wrote after that game, I was pretty hard on Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. I think Brady would agree that it wasn't his best performance, so I'd start there when revisiting the primary factors that contributed to the team's 28-14 loss. The offense was stuck in neutral for the second half, in part because I thought Brady was jamming the ball into Randy Moss. In retrospect, that might have been the beginning of the end of Moss' time in New England. It is my theory that Brady felt a physical and mental pull to keep Moss involved in the attack so he would remain interested, and it was starting to weigh down Brady and the offense. I don't think we'll see the same problems Monday night.
Q: Mike, the Patriots team and organization have grown remarkably in the last 11 games, been through a lot of changes and passed some pretty hard tests. It looks like the time is near to play a 60-minute complete game at the same level and consistency, and close the game once and for all. Do you think this will happen vs. the NY Jets? -- Memo (Tijuana, Mexico)
A: I think that's what it's going to take to beat the Jets, who have proved to be one of the best teams in the NFL. The Patriots are in a similar class. I believe they will rise up to the challenge on "Tedy Bruschi Night."
Q: Hey Mike, you were accurate in your prediction about how the Pats-Lions game would play out with it being tight early before the Pats pull away in the second half, so how do you predict the Pats-Jets game to unfold? -- Joe (Burlington, VT)
A: Joe, I like the Patriots to win a classic game at home. I am picking them by a touchdown, 24-17.
Q: Hey Mike, just wondering what your thoughts are on the Pats/Jets game on Monday night? -- Rick Cipullo (Brockton, Mass.)
A: Rick, my first thought is to step back and appreciate it. For 10 years now, it seems like the Patriots are playing in at least one of these types of games per year and it's special, something that I sense we'll be talking about 15-20 years from now, saying "Remember the good old days and all those big games?" This is what competition is all about. As for the game, which is what I think the question was really about, I like the Patriots' chances. This team is resilient and has an impressive mental and physical toughness to it. The Jets have a similar quality to them, but I like the Patriots because they are at home.
Q: Mike, hopefully not jinxing in advance of the Jets game, but we've had zero turnovers in the last three games. What's the Patriots' record in this regard? Also seems a good stat to reflect the "big" mistake-free play since the Browns game. -- Mark (Dublin, Ireland)
A: Mark, the turnover differential is a major part of the Patriots' success this year. The team is plus-11 on the season, which is tied for second in the NFL (20 takeaways, nine giveaways), and two of those giveaways came on a Hail Mary and a late interception against the Browns when backup quarterback Brian Hoyer was in the game. As for the record, I'm going to try to dig that up and will either add it into the mailbag or post on our blog.
Q: Hey Mike, did you see Julius Peppers on Sunday? What I wouldn't give for a pass rusher even somewhat close to his league. How can we get someone like that? -- Papi Shimon (NYC)
A: Papi, you either have to open the financial vault to the tune of six years, $91.5 million with $41 million in bonuses/guarantees -- which is what the Bears paid -- or have the keen scouting eye to draft and develop a player like that out of college. This topic has been explored multiple times in the mailbag this year, but the Patriots had a chance with Clay Matthews last year in the first round of the draft. I watched him with interest in Sunday's Green Bay-Atlanta game and I was impressed with how quick and explosive he was, thinking to myself, That's the type of player the Patriots need, assuming all the off-the-field questions are answered positively. The Patriots obviously did OK with Patrick Chung, but I couldn't help but wonder what Matthews, solely from a pass-rush perspective in sub packages, would have been like in New England.
Q: What is wrong with the defense? There seems to be a lot of homers telling us how great the individuals are, but what makes the Patriots the 31st-ranked defense? -- Earl (Waltham, Mass.)
A: Earl, I'd start in two areas when it comes to assessing the defense. The first is the pass rush. Too many times I feel like opposing quarterbacks are too comfortable as a result of not feeling enough heat on a consistent basis. The second is youth. I think the players sometimes get a little jittery at times and have trouble stabilizing themselves because they are still growing into the job. Obviously these aren't the only issues, but that's where I'd start. The other point I'd make is that the 30th ranking doesn't account for one of the key parts of football -- turnovers. This defense comes up with them at critical times and it deserves credit for that.
Q: During the last game, Phil Simms made the comment that the Pats were struggling at times against the run because they were scheming against the Lions' pass first, run second. While that may have been partly true, I saw it more as the Wilfork effect. When he was not on the field, the Pats struggled against the run. Is there any question he is their best and most dominant defense player? All due respect to Mayo, it's not even close. Beyond that, he's the second-best player on the team behind Brady. While the Patriots made it interesting during the contract negotiations, this personnel decision has been a home run. -- Brian (Mansfield, Mass.)
A: Brian, Tedy Bruschi made the same point in his most recent "Bruschi on Tap" piece (see point No. 4). Going back to those negotiations, I think a big part of it is that Wilfork is more than just a standard two-down nose tackle in the 3-4, so it was a bit more of a challenge to find a comparable player to establish his market value. Wilfork is versatile and can do a lot of different things -- if asked to do so. We're seeing that this year. I agree that he is their defensive MVP. He's having a terrific season and I know how highly Jets center Nick Mangold thinks of him; Mangold calls him one of the toughest players he has to match up against.
Q: In order for the Patriots to make a playoff run in January weather, I think their defense needs to start holding teams under 20 points per game. We cannot expect the offense to score 30 points in the playoffs. Your thoughts? -- Paul (Scituate, Mass.)
A: Paul, that's a tough one for me to be real convincing on because a lot of it will depend on the matchup. A game against the Jaguars in the playoffs, for example, and I like the Patriots' chances of scoring 30.The Jets? Maybe not so much. I look at it this way: If Tom Brady keeps playing the way he is, and this defense keeps coming up with critical stops and turnovers, anything is possible for this team. It's a winning formula.
Q: Hi Mike, many of us were curious to see how things would pan out with Coach Belichick leading the defense and Matt Patricia not officially been named defensive coordinator. Through 12 weeks the Patriots are 31st in the league in team defense. Can you shed some light on who you think has had more of a say on defense? -- Derek (Dallas, Texas)
A: Derek, I think it's Belichick, first and foremost. Players say he's the one leading the meetings, unless something has changed in recent weeks. Patricia looks like the No. 1 defensive assistant, the coach who would pull it all together if Belichick is pulled in another direction.
Q: Mike, it is well documented that defensively the Patriots struggle mightily on third down. While that can't be denied, is it possible the bigger issue is more on first-down D? It seems that over the course of the season they have given up more than most teams on first down. Not only does this give the offense more flexibility on second down, but it often leaves the Pats in a third-and-short situation when the opponent does fail to convert on second down. -- Ken Snyder (Indianapolis)
A: Ken, the Patriots rank 18th in the NFL in terms of yards given up per first-down play, with an average of 5.82. So that's just below the average and wouldn't seem to be the big area of concern.
Q: Hi Mike, where do the Patriots' special teams rank in the NFL? They started off strong but seemed to have trailed off. They seem like a middle of the pack special teams unit. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Ashley, this is a good observation and I believe it's one of Bill Belichick's big concerns entering Monday's game as the Jets look like they have an advantage in that area. The Patriots rank 19th in kickoff return average, 11th in punt return average, 21st in kickoff coverage average, and fifth in punt coverage average.
Q: Hi Mike, I'm really worried about our kicking game now. Shayne Graham on kickoffs is weak. Do you think Mesko could take the kickoffs? He has a big leg and one day someone is gonna take a kick to the house against us. -- Imala (Brisbane, Australia)
A: Imala, this has to be a big area of concern for the Patriots this week, given the Jets' strength. One thing I'd say about Graham is that he is not known for distance on kickoffs, so he needs to be better with his hang time. We saw it against the Lions -- his longest kickoff was a low line drive that was returned 42 yards, the longest return of the game. I'm not sure if Mesko could take the kickoffs. My hunch is that the Patriots will stick with Graham.
Q: Hi Mike, in light of the revelations regarding Josh McDaniels, I had a question regarding the previous Patriots penalty. I was always under the impression that if the Patriots had just taped the Jets' hand signals from the stands/crowd, then it's considered legal and that the location of the taping was the illegal part. Is that correct? -- Gary (Cambridge, MA)
A: Gary, the initial rule in the Constitution & Bylaws was written poorly so that it could have been interpreted in a number of ways. In September 2006, the league sent a memo to all teams letting them know that any taping of signals -- from any location -- was prohibited. Here are the three key pieces of information which I dug up from that time:
Constitution & Bylaws: "Any use by any club at any time, from the start to the finish of any game in which such club is a participant, of any communications or information-gathering equipment, other than Polaroid-type cameras or field telephones, shall be prohibited, including without limitation videotape machines, telephone tapping, or bugging devices, or any other form of electronic devices that might aid a team during the playing of a game."
September 2006 memo: "Videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent's offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches' booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game."
League's operations manual: "No video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game." Furthermore, all video shooting locations for shooting purposes "must be enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead."
Q: In Sunday's "quick-hit thoughts" you speculated Josh McDaniels might be fired after this season. If so, what's the chances of him coming back to Pats' coaching staff. He and BB seemed to part on good terms but maybe he'd rather stay out from under BB's shadow to make his own name now. -- Johnny (Rutland, VT)
A: Johnny, I could see a scenario in which McDaniels returned to the Patriots in a similar role that Bill Belichick did under Bill Parcells in 1996. I am a big believer in McDaniels' abilities as a coach and feel like he'd be a serious consideration as a successor to Belichick when the time came that Belichick felt ready to step down. I think McDaniels' big issue in Denver is not having a good personnel man by his side. He's made some very poor personnel decisions there.
Q: Hey Mike, I've heard announcers and commentators calling BenJarvus Green-Ellis a "serviceable back". This makes it sound as though he is just a fill-in for Fred Taylor or until we draft a new back. But he is second in the NFL in rushing touchdowns, has more rushing yards than Matt Forte, Shonn Greene, Brandon Jacobs and Fred Jackson (who are all established starters), and is on pace to easily rush for double-digit touchdowns, something not done since Corey Dillon. He has great vision, power and speed. And he's only a third-year player. Why can't he be our starter for years to come? -- James (Gainesville, Fla.)
A: James, I think he can be, but I do believe the Patriots still need to add to the running back spot because only Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead are under the team's control from a contractual standpoint for 2011. As we've seen, that's a position that can quickly become depleted and depth is important. It's also a position where it seems like a replacement is easier to find than others.
Q: Yeah, Hernandez, Gronkowski and Woodhead have all been a boost to the offensive production this year. To me it's been Green-Ellis just doing his job by running hard and following his blockers that has been most impressive. The yards per carry by the running backs and the play of the offensive line was good last year, but Benny's ability to follow the line's blocking and avoid negative plays and most importantly be able to pick up first downs and run out the clock better than they did last year have made a big deference in this year's team. Your thoughts? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: You said it well, David. I don't think many followers of the team thought this is the way the Patriots' running back situation would unfold. Green-Ellis has been terrific.
Q: Mike, how do you think Brandon Tate's drops are impacting his role in the offense? Does he get a little extra slack for being young and a hard worker, or is Brady's confidence in his ability to catch a big pass eroding? Also, am I crazy for thinking Devin McCourty is a couple big plays away from ROY? -- Matt (Charlestown, Mass.)
A: Matt, I don't think Tate's drops are impacting his role as much as three other factors: 1. The chemistry which has been recaptured between Tom Brady and Deion Branch; 2. The return of Wes Welker to close to full strength (did you see him power through those two Lions players near the goal line?); 3. The offense shifting to more of a two-tight end attack, which means only two receivers are on the field at the same time. As for McCourty, I'd still call him a longshot for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. It will probably go to Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and he's a worthy choice. But I think most anyone who watches football and studies it would agree that McCourty deserves to be in the discussion.
Q: Mike, Jerod Mayo has ridiculous tackling numbers compared to the rest of the league. He has 132 and the next-highest guy (Tennessee's Stephen Tulloch) has 110. Pro Bowl year for Mayo? -- James (Gainesville, Fla.)
A: I think he has to be in consideration, James, but it could be tough given the competition. You figure Ray Lewis is a lock for one of the inside linebacker spots based on a combination of play and reputation. So that would leave Mayo battling for the other spot with the likes of Lawrence Timmons, Bart Scott, DeMeco Ryans and a few others. Tough call there. It's hard to make it on tackles alone. I think more big plays will be needed for Mayo to break through.
Q: Mike, what on earth has happened to Taylor Price? Has he just fallen out of the good graces of the coaching staff? With the departure of Randy Moss I thought he might see some game action but he seems to be AWOL. What gives? -- Ed Alves (Nashua, N.H.)
A: Ed, there are two main factors that I see when it comes to Price, who is basically serving a redshirt-type season after being selected in the third round of the draft. 1. Because the Ohio University offense was option-based, Price had a steeper learning curve when coming to the NFL than most, so it's taking a little more time, and it didn't help that he had to miss some spring camps; 2. The Patriots have morphed into more of a two-receiver attack, and when you have Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman, there isn't room for a fifth option unless he's a major difference-maker on special teams. Price will be in the mix next year, for sure.
Q: Hi Mike, with Mankins playing well and the nasty attitude he is bringing to the offensive line, do you think there is a chance he will re-sign? Is the offer from the team still on the table? I personally don't believe there is a better alternative. -- Mike (Phoenix, Ariz.)
A: Mike, the sides have agreed that now is not the time to talk; they will revisit after the season, perhaps. From Mankins' viewpoint, assuming he doesn't get assigned the franchise tag, I think he will still want to test the open market. If the Patriots' offer is the best he can get, I could envision him staying. But if another team steps up with a better offer, I think he'll be on his way.
Q: Mike, there have been a few games lately where I'm not sure who to root for as a homer. With Miami and Oakland on Sunday, I chose to root for Miami since they don't seem to be a threat within the division while Oakland traded us the first-round pick. Who else has traded future picks to the Pats and what are they? -- Paul (VT)
A: Paul, the teams you want to be keeping an eye on are Carolina and Minnesota. The Patriots own Carolina's 2011 second-rounder as a result of trading a 2010 third-round pick during April's draft. Terrific trade. The Patriots own Minnesota's 2011 third-rounder as a result of trading Randy Moss this year. In retrospect, it's hard to argue with that one either.
Q: Hey Mike, I have a few questions and all of them have to do with free agents. Jarvis Green was released by the Broncos, and Sam Aiken and Adalius Thomas were let go by the Patriots. Why haven't they found new teams? Finally, Shawne Merriman will be a free agent at the end of the year, as will Sidney Rice and Vincent Jackson. Any chance one or more of those players will end up in New England? -- Andrew Child (Mexico, Maine)
A: Andrew, the answer is pretty simple: Teams don't think they're either good enough, worth the cost to sign them or worth the roster spot that could go to a younger player to develop for the longer term. Aiken had hooked on with the Browns briefly before being let go. As for Thomas, this is a chance to acknowledge that I was wrong last year when I thought he should have been rushing the passer more. If 31 other teams feel the same way, I think it's about time to fess up on that one. I don't see Merriman, Rice or Jackson coming to New England in the offseason.
Q: Mike,there was a report this week that Plaxico Burress is drawing interest from two teams. Do you see him as a possible fit on the Patriots' roster and will the Patriots be interested in him? -- Jay H (Beirut, Lebanon)
A: Jay, I don't see the fit or any interest for the Patriots. I think their focus will be more on developing and working with Taylor Price, their 2010 third-round choice who is being groomed behind the scenes.
Q: Hi Mike, in the ongoing negotiations between the league and the players' association, is there any discussions about a modified injured reserve? It's a shame that under the current system, a player like Leigh Bodden is out for the year when he looks pretty good right now after his surgery. Any thoughts about an eight-game IR? -- John F (Walpole, Mass.)
A: John, one of the ideas is a six-game injured reserve list that teams could place one player on during the year. That would be one of the alterations the league would consider if going to an 18-game season. We'd also probably be looking at expanding the 53-man roster by a spot or two and adding one or two practice squad spots.
This week's mailbag is focused squarely on the huge MNF game against the Jets.