The real season starts this week — the good teams always play their best after Thanksgiving, and the Patriots will get right into it Monday night with a trip to New Orleans to face the unbeaten Saints in the Superdome. This week in the mailbag, we’ve got a look ahead to some of the anticipated keys to the Saints-Patriots game, plenty of talk about New England’s second-half struggles and some questions about Junior Seau’s overall role on this year’s team.
Get in touch with me here at email@example.com. We do this every week — don’t be shy. Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving. Here’s hoping you have plenty to be thankful for this year. Make sure you eat plenty of turkey, watch a lot of football and get some rest before the stretch run starts.
What would you attribute the Patriots’ uncharacteristic second-half struggles to: scheme, personnel or lack of execution?
A: Eric, I think that you could make an argument for all three. I also think you could say that in their recent games, the Patriots have taken their foot off the gas pedal a bit, maybe coasting a bit before they could afford to do so. They’ve lacked focus in the second half in recent weeks, and against the Colts, that certainly cost them. On two occasions this week — in his weekly appearance with The Big Show on Monday and on his Tuesday afternoon conference call with the media — Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked what he thinks is the problem in the second half offensively. (Check out both answers here and here.) He essentially gave the same answer each time, saying the numbers don’t tell the whole story but acknowledging they wanted to improve their production in all areas of the game.
What is Junior Seau’s role with this team? Is he more of a coach than a player?
A: Great question, Brent. I’ve had this discussion with my “NFL Sunday” partner Christian Fauria a couple of times, and I like his description of what Seau brings to the team this year. He calls Seau’s impact on this team the “AP effect,” named after former New England defensive lineman Anthony Pleasant. Pleasant played the last three seasons of his career with the Patriots, from 2001-03. He didn’t see a lot of action but was an active mentor to an entire generation of young New England defensive linemen, a group that included Richard Seymour and Ty Warren. I think Seau was brought in to have that same sort of impact on this team across the board. (Julian Edelman has spoken several times about the effect that Seau has had on this year’s team.) However, while he does have that role, he’s also a backup inside linebacker — if Jerod Mayo or Gary Guyton go down, he’s the next man up. But as things stand right now, he’s more of a coach than a player.
What are the Patriots going to do when Matt Light comes back? It seems like Sebastian Vollmer has played well in Light’s absence. Would they ever move Light to right tackle?
A: Carl, I think this is a better team with Sebastian Vollmer in the lineup, and when Light comes back, they have to find a way to keep him on the field. Belichick doesn’t sound too keen on the idea of moving Light to right tackle, and Vollmer does have some experience at the right tackle spot, so the rookie would likely be the one that made the move, at least for the short-term. That move would bump current starting right tackle Nick Kaczur down the depth chart, and push No. 1 backup Mark LeVoir down as well. It’s a small sample size with Vollmer, but I think he’s proven in his short time as a starter you need to do whatever you can to keep him in the lineup. Long-term, Light’s contract is up at the end of 2010. If they can’t reach an agreement with Light, it appears Vollmer will be the left tackle of the future.
Four questions: A) Where was Seau on Sunday? I didn’t hear his name the whole game. B) Where’s the red-area D? Yet another week without a stop inside the 20. C) Has a team with red-area defense this bad even made it to the AFC championship? D) When will this team get better after halftime? Both their D and O is significantly worse in the second half
A: Seau did not play, the third consecutive week where he dressed but did not play a single snap. I don’t think he’s going to be going anywhere, for the reasons I described above.
As for the red-area defense, I agree with you — it’s been pretty bad. As things stand right now, New England is ranked 15th in the AFC in defense inside the 20 — 13 of the 20 times an opponent has had the ball inside the Patriots’ 20, they’ve scored. All that being said, I believe if you are doing your job in other phases of the game, you can get by with bad red-zone defense. Not that it’s not important, but when you look at some of the teams that are best in the league at red-zone defense — Washington, Oakland, San Francisco and the New York Jets are all in the top 10 in red-zone defense — it doesn’t always correlate with overall success. None of them are above .500.
When it comes to the first-half/second-half splits, it is odd, especially in the wake of the 2006 AFC championship game — and the 2007 season — where Belichick constantly preached a “60 minutes” mantra. (There’s a shot that “NFL Films” captured in the second half of the 2007 game against the Colts when he’s walking up and down the sideline screaming “60 minutes!” over and over again at his players.) I don’t think this team is good enough to get away with second-half letdowns. We saw it come back to bite the Patriots in Indianapolis, and against a good playoff opponent, if they don’t play all 60 minutes, it could come back to bite them again.
Hey Chris — got a few questions.
1) Leigh Bodden's re-signing price. How high will it be, and with it being an uncapped year how will it affect our own free agents being re-signed?
2) Terrence Nunn to the Bucs. Why do you feel that Brandon Tate was rushed back and Isaiah Stanback promoted, both ahead of Nunn? I really think he'll be a very good receiver in the league and has a great story as well.
3) What are going to be some key matchups on defense on Monday night? Should Bodden follow Marques Colston around? Brandon McGowan on Jeremy Shockey? And the threat of Reggie Bush and the other three fast receivers all make tough matchups.
A: I think Bodden’s stock is rising by the day. He’s been able to make some plays in the secondary this season, and he brings an added physical dimension that the Patriots have been lacking at the cornerback spot the last few years. I don’t think he’s going to break the bank and get top-tier money, but I believe it’s going to cost more than New England initially believed it would to get him back to Foxboro after the end of the season.
Paul, I know you are a well-known Nunn fan. I just think the Patriots would have loved to keep him in their system for a year, have him learn the offense and get his feet underneath him before tossing him into the action. (If this was college, New England would have loved to have Nunn take a redshirt year, or even discover a phantom “injury” so they could place him on IR for the season.) I know the franchise was high on him, but he’s going from a place where he wasn’t playing to a destination where he could see some time before the end of the season.
As for the key matchups Sunday night, I think you hit on one of them — McGowan vs. Shockey. No reason to think that McGowan, who has done a terrific job providing coverage and doing the majority of work in shutting down Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Dallas Clark, wouldn’t get the call on Monday against Shockey. I also think that the Patriots are going to try to defend Bush in the same way they attacked Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI. Belichick talked at length on Tuesday about the similarities between the two players — pass-catchers out of the backfield. Look for New England to try to do whatever it takes to throw Bush’s timing off with a series of hits as soon as he comes off the line of scrimmage.
What’s the biggest difference in Tully Banta-Cain’s game since he was here the first time? He seems to have really improved, not only as a pass-rusher, but a complete football player.
A: Thom, I think Banta-Cain was the biggest beneficiary of the Mike Vrabel trade — the biggest change for him is the fact that he’s now getting a chance to play every day. When he was with the Patriots as a younger player, he was a spot rusher and more of a special teams presence. To his credit, I think he took the lessons he learned from Vrabel and Willie McGinest as younger player and really develop into an every-down player who’s really done a nice job operating in that outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid position.
Just wondering what will be the three keys to beating the Saints Monday night?
Thanks and Cheers!
Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada
A: Geoff, I think the biggest key to beating New Orleans will be keeping the Saints offense off the field for as long as possible. Whether it’s through a running game or a short passing attack, I think controlling the pace and the tempo of the game is key. The more time Drew Brees, Marques Colston and Reggie Bush are on the sidelines, they less chance they have to score. (In addition, if New Orleans does have a defensive Achilles’, it’s the run defense — the Saints have yielded an average of 116 rushing yards a game, 19th in the league.) Second, I think the Patriots have to slow down the New Orleans passing game. I wouldn’t be shocked if you saw New England favor some nickel and dime packages, trying to focus on taking away the Saints passing attack and making them rely on the run. Third, I think you need to get up on them early and avoid giving up a big play. The Superdome is an awful loud building, and if you let the crowd get cranked up, it could cause big problems early.
Nationally, everyone has been saying the weakness of New Orleans is its run defense. Do the Patriots have the ability to exploit this, and will they use a back-by-committee or will any one back in particular be most effective?
A: Mike, I think a lot of this could come down to whether or not Sammy Morris is healthy. It’s my understanding he was close to playing on Sunday against the Jets but was ruled an inactive at the last minute. I think if Morris is back, it marks the closest that Voltron has come to being fully operational since the early stages of the season, and it gives the Patriots a number of different looks at running back. If that’s the case, I could see New England relying on the running game more than it has the last month or so. But if it’s just Laurence Maroney, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk, look for the Patriots to try to rely more on a short passing game in an attempt to control the pace of the game. That situation likely favors Faulk, a good changeup option who is the best running back on the team when it comes to blitz pickup.
Great bounce-back win for the Patriots over the Jets — although I’m reserving my judgment until we face a team whose quarterback can at least complete as many passes to his own team as he does to the other team. And that will come next week.
A: Man, Mark Sanchez made some lousy decisions against the Patriots, didn’t he? I think he’s still struggling to find his footing. I believe he will be a good quarterback in this league. He just needs to temper that aggression a little bit, take the sack when nothing is there and not try to do too much if no one is open. At this stage of his career, he needs to be a bit more of a game-manager and a little less of a game-changer.
Does coach BB prefer day games or night games — Sunday night or Monday night? And how did he enjoy England?
A: I believe that if Belichick had his druthers, he’d play every Sunday at 1 p.m. Having covered the team since 2001, I think more than anything else he’s about consistency. He knows that football players are creatures of habit, and the most natural time in the world for a football player to be out there is Sunday at 1. I have never asked Belichick that question, but in many ways, I consider Tom Brady to be an extension of the coach, and the quarterback talked about it on his weekly appearance with Dennis & Callahan earlier this week. “Sunday at 1, to me, is perfect. I love Sunday at 1,” Brady said. “Monday Night Football, when you get to the game and start to play, it’s pretty cool. But Sunday at 1, that’s the best. You get home at 6 or 7 o’clock. You have all day Monday, all day Tuesday, and you can get prepared for the following week.” As for London, I thoroughly understand that he enjoyed the trip, but anything that takes his team out of its normal, day-to-day routine, he’s not a fan of.