Back for another edition of the mailbag, and this week it gets ugly. Maybe the ugliest since we started this weekly exercise. We’re talking Tony Siragusa in a hot-tub kinda ugly.
Of course, that was to be expected after one of the most shocking losses in recent memory for the Patriots. As a result of Sunday’s 22-21 defeat to the Dolphins in Miami, there’s more ranting and raving than questions. There’s more vein-in-the-forehead, Lewis Black-style screeds against the state of the Patriots than simple questions. (In fact, we had to cut a few of them for length, as well as colorful language.) Most of them about the state of the offense or the lack of pass rush — or both.
No worries. Bring me your questions, and we’ll work them out together. Consider me your football therapist: Lie back, tell me your problems and we can all work together in hopes of trying to figure out why it is that the Patriots suddenly look very mortal.
Send your e-mails to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We do this every week — don’t be shy, people.
Why are we only hammering the defense? The offense — and Brady in particular — could not deliver time after time in the second half. Can we just admit that Brady and the offense are not special any longer? And most importantly, can we stop worshipping the great hooded one? “Bellycheck” got his coaching butt kicked numerous times this week. He should probably stop reading the stories about what a genius he is (what is his IQ anyway?) and focus on coaching — because he is laying turd after turd.
Just not a good time. The beginning of the end is upon us. Sorry to have to get real.
A: The offense has been inconsistent in two areas — scoring in the second half on the road and in the red zone. In their five road losses, the Patriots have been outscored 83-24 in the second half. And once they get inside their opponents’ 20-yard line, they haven’t been able to finish off drives, including two occasions Sunday where they were inside the Miami 10 and came away with nothing on each occasion. As for the coaching job, I agree with you — Tony Sparano came out of that game looking better than Belichick. And the beginning of the end? Not ready for an apocalyptic scenario quite yet. But if this team somehow loses the division — and remarkably, that’s still a possibility — I’d start stockpiling canned goods and make sure the bunker is ready.
I have 3 questions:
1) Where are the tight ends in the game? Why is Watson even suited up?
2) Why do we go to the passing game in third-and-short? Is it Brady changing the play or the coordinator?
3) Why has Maroney disappeared in the fourth quarter?
A: The tight ends have been a mystery the last few weeks, especially when it comes to their work as pass-catchers. After rewatching the last two games, it appears that Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker are getting their usual snaps. They are simply being utilized more as blockers than as receivers, in part because of game-planning decisions, as well as the fact that New England has been working with a banged-up offensive line. As for passing on 3rd and short, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see Brady changing up the plays once he gets to the line of scrimmage. It’s on a case-by-case basis, but he has greater leeway on that sort of thing than most quarterbacks do. And when it comes to Maroney, I believe that without Fred Taylor, the Patriots’ running backs have been used like pitchers — Maroney’s the starter, while Sammy Morris checks in for the bigger carries late in the game.
Can you explain why on the Crowder interception at the end of the game there was no roughing the passer called? Clearly the defender dove at or fell into Brady's knee. Isn't this textbook interference? I'm not sure this would have changed the outcome, but clearly this should have been called, no?
A: Jules, I initially thought that it might have been a case of a defender diving at Brady’s knees. But after re-watching the game and taking a closer look at how it evolved, it was pretty clear that the defender — Miami’s Cameron Wake — had him wrapped up from the knees down. (From the angle on several pictures, it almost looked like he had him by his ankles.) There was no intent to go at the knees.
The Pats should release Chris Hanson and Stephen Gostowski! Just keep going for it on fourth down. Maybe they can get rid of their tight ends too — none get used very often.
A: I know that the Patriots’ knack for going for it on fourth down has some fans frustrated. While they take more chances on fourth down than usual teams, statistically, they don’t stray all that far from the rest of the pack, at least not this year. Through 12 games, they are 8-for-16 when it comes to converting on fourth-down opportunities. That’s sixth in the league in total chances, and their 50 percent success rate has them tied for 14th in he league. By way of comparison, Kansas City has gone for it the most on fourth down this year with 23 chances — they’re 12-for-23 — while the New York Jets have been most successful in converting, getting the first down on 11 of their 14 attempts for a 78.6 percent success rate.
And the lack of production from the tight ends in the passing game is a concern. As I previously stated, after going back and watching the last two games, it appears the Patriots have shifted their focus from utilizing their tight ends as pass-catchers and instead focusing on their work as blockers, at least while they continue to work with an offensive line that has been forced to deal with some injuries the last month or two. My guess is that when New England has its full compliment of offensive linemen back (including Sebastian Vollmer and Stephen Neal), New England will start to utilize the tight ends more in the passing game than they have the last couple of weeks.
Can't we at least touch the others team's QB to let him know we are on the field?
A: TC, the pass rush has struggled for most of the season. (Check out my story here for details.) But Belichick reiterated a point on Tuesday that he has made consistently throughout his career as the head coach of the Patriots — it’s about team defense. In other words, pass rush and pass coverage do not operate exclusively. “I think on pass defense, it’s a combination of pass rush and pass coverage,” he said on a conference call. “Our pass rush could be better with better coverage and our coverage could be better with a better pass rush.”
The play-calling baffles me at times. When they missed the fourth-and-1 in the red zone, it was the previous play that I did not understand — they had third-and-5 or something like that and they did not have either Welker or Moss in the game. Then, on the fourth-and-1 Welker wasn’t in again. The Pats cannot run unless the defense has to be concerned about Welker and the wide receivers. I also did not understand early in the fourth quarter when they had third-and-6 at about the 50, they decided to run — maybe you run off the shotgun with a draw to Faulk or inside handoff, but in this case Brady was under center and it was just a basic off tackle to Morris.
I agree with an earlier comment that they need to blow up the defense. Wilfork has no help on the defensive line and Mayo is the only respectable linebacker. Guyton gets lost out there. The young defensive backs might be OK at some point, but without any pass rush they are going to get beat.
I just do not know how they lost that game. Brady is making some poor decisions — on the interception in the end zone he rushed because the play clock ran out and then threw the ball about three feet too low on that fade play.
One playoff game is probably the best case at this point.
A: Greg, I agree on the play-calling. However, I don’t believe the defense needs to be blown up. There are more than enough quality cornerstones there to build a successful unit. I’d put Wilfork, Warren in that category up front, as well as Mike Wright, a versatile backup who has logged a lot of quality minutes this season, and youngster Myron Pryor. At linebacker, I think you could also build around Jerod Mayo, while Gary Guyton remains very good in pass coverage and Adalius Thomas is also a quality pass-rusher when given the opportunity. And in the secondary, the Brandon’s (McGowan and Meriweather) have more than proven their worth. There’s more there than you might think. However, I do think we’ll see more turnover than we’ve seen in the past from this team this offseason.
From what I see, there are two major problems.
-The pass defense: The two components being pass rush and secondary protection. When the Patriots opened the game blitzing, Hennne was able to fire off quick passes due to there being no fast hits coming to the QB. Darius Butler was picked on left, right and sideways, getting beat every time as a result. In the second half when they dropped more LBs in coverage, the pressure wasn’t getting through along with the DBs getting beat. I think within the next few years the Pats secondary has the ability to be good, but only after these kids get some experience under their belts. In terms of up front, big man Vince is no pass rusher, and as a result we need a playmaker a la Freeney.
-Brady’s '07 hangover: It seems Brady is living in the past when he throws the ball, thinking that he can lob anything to Randy and he’ll come up with it. Defenses around the NFL have had ample opportunity to adjust to the Patriots offense and gone are the days (at least at this juncture) where Brady can stymie defenses outside of Gillette. The offense needs to adapt and adjust and that starts by getting a coordinator (Weis?) and not offensive play-calling by committee (ask the Sox how their closer program worked all those years ago).
I don’t think anyone in the Pats organization would ever admit it, but maybe everyone considered this year as a part of the rebuilding process. Having a D that is composed primarily of young guys who haven’t played in the system before, plus Brady coming back after last year’s injury all contributes to the notion that maybe in a year or two we can have another championship run. This season at least, it looks like a Saints/Vikings/Colts lovefest, much to our chagrin.
A: Patsfan, let me respond to two points that haven’t been addressed already. First the offensive play-calling by committee. I have been told that four different people have called offensive plays this year — Belichick, quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien, director of pro personnel Nick Caserio and Brady all have called plays at one point or another. While each have a great resume, I agree that the franchise would be better served by having a single voice in that capacity. One offensive coordinator.
On your last point, I believe there’s something to that line of thinking. With Brady’s return after a year away and so many new faces on defense, this is a year where the franchise is clearly in transition. I think there are some key areas they need to address if they are going to progress to the next level, including an elite pass-rusher and another quality corner. Whether they can develop those players, acquire them in the draft or pick them up in free agency, it’s clear New England is still missing some parts if they want to truly get back to championship status. Keep in mind, they have done it before: this team underwent extreme makeovers in free agency and the draft after falling short of the Super Bowl in 2002 and 2006, and ended up returning to the Super Bowl on both occasions.
The second-half play-calling looks uncertain. Why do they keep trying the fade to Moss in the end zone? Has it worked before?
A: The second-half play-calling has looked uncertain at times — when they’ve had a lead, there are occasions where the Patriots appear unsure whether they want to run the ball and kill the clock or try and keep airing it out. When it comes to the attempted end zone fade against Miami, they’ve used that with Moss on a few occasions. At 6-foot-4, Moss is a taller receiver and has been able to out jump plenty of defensive backs in years past. I have to think they had a good feeling, based on the fact that Moss has a five-inch height advantage on Vontae Davis, who was in single coverage at the time. Give Davis for making a nice play on a bad ball by Brady and coming away with the interception.
Pats teams, until Moss showed up, were always tough both mentally and physically. Moss is neither. He has more gifted skill than most, but no fight. Then you make him a captain, a leader? He takes plays off at the most crucial time. He rounded off the out in New Orleans. He missed that block on the Faulk screen yesterday. In the Super Bowl against the Giants, he failed to go after the ball at the end of the game because he had already given up. He is the disease of this club and it's contagious. Either get him to overcome this, or get him out of the locker room.
A: I think you’re off base there, Rich. Moss is not the player he was two years ago, and he has been responsible for his share of bad plays this season — that missed block on the Kevin Faulk pass on Sunday was an example of that — but he is far from being the clubhouse poison you characterize him to be. The young receivers such as Brandon Tate and (before he was picked up by Tampa Bay) Terrence Nunn talked of Moss as a great teacher. Belichick says he’s the smartest wide receiver he’s ever been around. He remains a peerless deep threat, and has the most receiving yards in the league this season through 12 games. From where I sit, Moss isn’t the problem.
Bottom line — for all the yards the offense puts up, it can’t gain one or two yards when it matters most. And the defense — one that we all thought was making progress a month ago — can’t stop anyone when it matters most. I’d be worried about making the playoffs now, never mind winning the AFC East. And by the way, CBS flashed that list of fourth-quarter Brady-led comebacks since 2001. How many has he had since their last Super Bowl win? I’d venture to say, not many!
A: According to the Patriots media guide, Brady has led 12 game-winning performances from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie to a win since New England’s last Super Bowl victory. Included in that group is a win over the Bills in the season-opener. In his career, he’s done it 29 times.
I believe I may have reached the gates of insanity. Please let me know if I am still in control of my senses or whether the rubber room awaits me in the near future.
Defensively, the Pats can't apply pressure with a three-man front ... or four-man front ... or five-man front ... and can't cover anyone even with eight in coverage. The scheme devised by the coaches is designed to protect the young secondary even though the game plans can't stop either the top-rated or one of the worst passing offenses in the league. Defensive personnel wise, we have the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year and one of, if not the best, nose tackles in the game — which is more than most teams have. They’re also coached by a recognized defensive genius who I am told has few peers. With this said, it has now been proven and confirmed that the defense cannot make a stop when the game hangs in the balance and has trouble making stops, period.
Offensively, the Pats can't run the ball consistently, which means they are passing the ball regularly in the red zone or at times in the game when the idea should be to eat clock. The Pats are regularly frustrated by secondaries playing rookie corners due to injury, rookie corners by design, or players signed off the street a week before the game. The offensive line can't protect Brady from a three-man rush regardless of the team even if the game is on the line and most fans couldn't name any of the rushers not named Porter or Taylor. Similarly the offense cannot be counted on to make a play, be it to ice the game or to create a chance to turn three points into seven.
Even in light of all this, there are still people — maybe even myself — who still want to believe the Pats are an elite team with a February date at the Super Bowl.
I’ve lost it. Haven’t I, Dr. Price?
A: An all-time great e-mail, Mike, and one worth ending on. I’ll be honest, I don’t know if you’ve lost it. However, if you’ve booked a flight to South Florida for late January/early February, you might want to think about seeing if you could make it a refundable ticket. The Patriots have struggled to contain opposing offenses, and they have a puzzling offensive inconsistency that has everyone stumped. There’s still time to turn it around — one optimistic fan brought up the 2007 Giants, who were in much the same situation before they went on their memorable run that ended in Glendale, Ariz., against the Patriots — but New England’s chances are starting to run out.