Lots of Wildcat talk this week. Tons of it. People want to know how much Wildcat we’ll see from Miami on Sunday, how to stop it, and if the quarterback is fair game when he splits wide in a Wildcat formation. We’ve also got thoughts on whether it’s OK to stand at the goalposts and try to block a field goal, a Brandon Tate-Percy Harvin comparison, and how the Patriots shape up the rest of the way.
As always, feel free to join the fun by sending an e-mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We do this every week, people. Don’t be shy.
This game with Miami presents an interesting matchup involving the Patriots defense and the Dolphins offense. Chad Henne, a second-year QB out of Michigan, will face a [Bill] Belichick defense for the first time. Given Belichick’s record facing a quarterback for the first time (Mark Sanchez notwithstanding, of course), will Tony Sparano overplay the Wildcat offense, given how well it worked at Foxboro last year? Or will Sparano test the Patriots secondary by using the Wildcat to set up the pass and make Henne the centerpiece of the Dolphins offense?
A: I don’t think we’re going to see an over-reliance on the Wildcat on Sunday, Bob. I really don’t. It’s still a big part of the Miami offense, but my gut says that it’s not going to be much more than 10-12 Wildcat snaps, tops. (According to the Miami PR staff, the Dolphins have run 66 plays out of the Wildcat formation this season, an average of nine a game.) The Dolphins won’t make Henne the centerpiece of the offense, but they will try to do just enough to keep the Patriots defense aware that the threat to use it is always there.
Shortly after this year's draft there was a rumor that the Patriots were going to draft Percy Harvin with their first-round pick. However, as we know, the Vikings drafted him the pick before. Do you have information whether the rumor was true? He sure would have been a great addition to them as he has star written all over him so far. Also, can Brandon Tate be someone resembling Harvin’s skill set?
A: I think it was clear the Patriots were in the market for Harvin — or any rookie receiver, for that matter — but didn’t want to go after a first-rounder. It’s not like them to toss first-round dollars at a rookie wide receiver. (Under Belichick, they’ve taken three receivers in the second round — Chad Jackson, Bethel Johnson and Deion Branch — but never one in the first round.) So they settled for Brandon Tate, a player who projected to be a first-round talent but ended up staying on the board until the third round because of a knee injury and some character issues. A good value for a pick at that level.
I think the comparisons between Harvin and Tate can best be addressed by Patriots director of pro personnel Nick Caserio, who addressed the topic during his weekly conference call on Monday. Caserio said they have the same overall skill set but had different roles as collegians: "The way that Florida had used Harvin, he was almost more of a de facto running back because he was very involved in the running game and they played him in the slot. I think Brandon played a little bit more in the perimeter from a receiving standpoint and he also played in the slot. I would say they were similar from the standpoint that they were both good with the ball in their hands but they were playing in different offenses and their schools employed them a little bit differently."
How do you see the Patriots countering the Wildcat on defense? In my opinion, an extra safety "big nickel"-type package could work well. If you can get hard-hitters [Brandon] McGowan, [Brandon] Meriweather and [Patrick] Chung on the field together you will neutralize the big play potential on ground and through air.
Your thoughts on scheme(s) to stop the 'Cat?
A: Dan, there are many schools of thought as to how to best smother the Wildcat. One of my favorites came a couple of weeks ago in the Saints-Dolphins game. Miami came into the contest averaging 7.1 yards on 47 Wildcat plays, but New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was able to hold it in check with an aggressive blitz package. Whenever Miami running back Ronnie Brown moved behind center in the shotgun formation, the Saints blitzed defensive backs, often sending cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter off the edge. The Dolphins rarely throw out of the Wildcat (Brown has just four pass attempts this season in 66 Wildcat snaps), so the idea of sending cornerbacks is a high-percentage move. Against New Orleans, Miami got 27 yards on 14 Wildcat snaps. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots try to do the same thing — although defensive coordinator Dean Pees did caution this week that just because one team was able to stop the Wildcat, it doesn’t mean everyone can. “Watching somebody else’s Wildcat — or any other formation for that matter — can be totally different with two different teams," Pees said Monday.
Is the quarterback considered differently with respect to the referees and the rule book when a team employs a Wildcat formation?
P.S. Hope you had a restful weekend.
A: Nope. When it comes to the Wildcat, if the quarterback is split wide, it’s my understanding that he is fair game. My colleague Mike Reiss asked Bill Belichick earlier this week about the pros and cons of going after the quarterback when he is lined up wide. Belichick said he’s seen it done, but it’s a double-edged sword. "There have been teams that have gone out there and tried to, on a snap of the ball, go attack the quarterback and hit him and all that," Belichick said. "Of course, the downside of it is that they put a player out there who really can’t block and he’s eliminated one of your players because you’ve chosen to take him out of the play to go hit him. You’ve sacrificed a player that you could actually gain into the play because that quarterback is not really a threat to do much blocking."
(Oh, and I did have a restful weekend. My wife and I went to Maine and I had a gastronomical adventure. Not to get all Peter King on you, but I had oxtail ravioli, something called cereal-bowl fudge and a feast at the world-famous Maine Diner. Not all at once, but you probably guessed that. Good times.)
A few quick hits as questions.
Is it fair to say that the Patriots defense can no longer be classified as old? Media outlets still seem to talk about our aging defense. But look at our back seven. With [Jonathan] Wilhite and [Darius] Butler starting, the entire secondary is at the oldest 25/26 and below, along with [Jerod] Mayo and [Gary] Guyton. Then you've got [Myron] Pryor as well as a pass-rusher. We could have a scary good defense in 2-3 years if they keep developing as they already have.
Would you re-sign Benjamin Watson at the end of the year?
Do you see Leigh Bodden re-signing?
And a scenario.
If (and when) the Patriots finish in the top eight teams, they will need to let free agents go in order to go and get some free agents. Do they release Adalius Thomas to free up some money? And are there any other big-money players that could be out at the end of the year should that scenario occur?
A: You’re correct — the Patriots defense isn't old anymore. Losing Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour certainly made the defense a lot younger in a hurry. Guys like Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton (who might be one of the fastest linebackers to play for the Patriots) are tracking guys down, which hasn’t happened a whole lot the last few years. The only question here is the key word is "developing." As long as they continue to improve, the Patriots will be in really good shape a year or two down the road. Problem is, there have been promising young guys who have been bought into this system who haven’t evolved as players. (Terrence Wheatley, I’m looking in your direction.) As long as the rest of the young guys — especially in that secondary — continue to build on what they’ve accomplished, all will be well.
As for Watson, I would wait and look at the market before I made a move. You have Chris Baker signed through 2013, and they signed Rob Myers to the practice squad this week. Knowing Belichick’s M.O., they could always make another addition at the tight end spot sooner rather than later. Belichick has tight ends in and out of Foxboro so fast it makes your head spin.
I do see Bodden re-signing — for the most part, I think he’s had a good year. He adds depth and a veteran savvy to the secondary. Plus, he’s one of the biggest, most physical corners the Patriots have had in a long time. If the money is right for both sides, I wouldn’t be surprised if he re-signed for a couple of years.
As for Thomas, I don’t think they would release him — it would cost them way too much money. If they wanted to move him (I’m not suggesting they do, but if), they will do whatever they can to get as much as they could for him in return, probably a mid-range draft pick or maybe two.
Something’s gotta give, Chris.
We’re down to two TE's and the O-Lineman as a TE/FB experiment seems less rewarding this year.
We’re waiting on our LT and two HB’s (that we NEED) to come back from getting dinged.
We have a tough stretch coming, what’s the tipping point? Will the roster get a shuffling or do you suspect these guys will start trickling back?
A: No roster shuffling, at least no dramatic action. I think the Patriots are going to stand pat with the guys they have until some of those players start trickling back. We have more and more sightings of guys who have suffered injuries and are hanging around the locker room — Matt Light has been around a lot, and wide receiver Julian Edelman was spotted walking through the locker room on Tuesday. (He did have a big sweatshirt on, so you couldn’t tell if there was a cast on his arm or something along those lines.) But I would expect many of those walking wounded to start trickling back within the next week or two. You can get by without a lot of those guys against the Dolphins, but the Colts the following week is another matter entirely.
Can an NFL player try to block a field goal by jumping up in front of the posts and swatting the ball down?
A: From the research I’ve done the last few days, my answer would be no, it’s not legal to essentially goaltend a field goal attempt. Apparently, the NFL outlawed leaping at the crossbar some time in the late 1960s after it had been in vogue for a while. (For what it’s worth, NCAA rules prohibit the blocking of field goals at the crossbar by a player as well.)
After the Patriots' 5-2 start, what do you predict their final record will be? Please give a quick reason for each win/loss?
A: Ian, at the start of the season, I had them pegged for 13-3, with losses in three of these five games: Ravens, Titans, Colts, Saints and Dolphins in Miami. (Man, would I love to have that Titans pick back.) With the early season loss to the Jets, I’d probably go back and revise it to 12-4 right now, with the only two losses the rest of the way coming in Indianapolis and New Orleans. When it comes to the losses, I think the Saints offense is just too much to contain, and their defense has been much better than expected. As for the Colts, Peyton Manning is having an MVP season. If the Patriots are unable to mount a serious pass rush — as has been the case through the first seven games — Manning will be able to have his way with them. I think if the Patriots’ full stable of running backs returns from injury (namely, Fred Taylor), New England will be able to run the ball and control the tempo against both the Colts and Saints. If you can keep Manning and Drew Brees off the field as long as possible, then you have an excellent chance to win. But right now, I’m not sure the Patriots ground game will be at 100 percent for either one of those games. I think the Patriots will be able to run the table the rest of the way, especially through December and into January — a weak schedule down the stretch will set things up very nicely for New England come playoff time.