Two themes stood out from this week's Patriots mailbag -- the team's offensive struggles, and playoff positioning.
The most common question was, "What's wrong with the offense?" As for the playoffs, I'm going to spend time today breaking down all the possibilities. It's always a challenge to piece it together, so my general thoughts now are simple: The Patriots need to win this week and wrap up the AFC East so they can rest key players the final week of the season at Houston.
I think that's why what unfolded Sunday was huge for the Patriots, not only their beating the Bills but also the Dolphins' and Jets' losing. It put the Week 17 "bye" in play, which I think is more important than going all-out for a higher playoff seed.
I personally view the No. 4 spot as a better fit for the Patriots anyway, because I like the matchup against the Colts (No. 1) better than the Chargers (presumed No. 2) if they advance to the divisional round.
I hope the readers of the mailbag have had an enjoyable holiday season.
Q: Mike, I want to echo your thoughts with the Pats' lack of offensive production recently. I think we can lay the blame on unimaginative play-calling and poor play by Tom Brady. First, on Brady: Whether it's because of injuries or lingering rust from missing a year, he just has not looked very good at times. Poor throws (Paul Posluszny interception) and poor decisions in the red zone have been more frequent this year than ever before. The play-calling has contributed to the problem. This week 18 of 23 attempts went to Moss or Welker. None went to a tight end. Where is the intermediate passing game? This team can't score 17-20 points and hope to beat the Jags and Texans. -- Mike (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
A: Mike, this has been the most glaring issue to me over the last four weeks. This offense averaged 28 points per game as of mid-November. Over the last four weeks, it has scored 17, 21, 20 and 17. That is a bad trend. I think you've nailed two of the key issues: Brady's struggles at times and the continued search for that dangerous weapon outside of Moss and Welker.
Q: Hi Mike, until this year the Pats have been renowned for making the right adjustment at halftime whether they were leading or not. More often than not they would come out firing on all cylinders in the second halves. What has been the problem with making the right the adjustments and who is responsible for them on the offense? Assuming that Bill Belichick works more with the defense, someone is having real problems planning for the final 30 minutes. -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)
A: Jim, the numbers are telling: The Patriots have scored 241 points in the first half this season and 124 in the second. Looking just at this last week, I don't think the problem was adjustment-based. I think the Patriots made the right adjustments. I thought it was play-calling (three passes to open the half) and execution (Wes Welker and Julian Edelman got tangled up on third down, ending a long, promising drive). In terms of who is responsible, I don't think you can pin it on one person -- it's a collaboration among Dante Scarnecchia, Ivan Fears and Shane Waldron (running game) and Bill O'Brien, Nick Caserio and Chad O'Shea (passing game), with Belichick pulling it all together.
Q: Mike, the Pats' offense is as stagnant as I remember in recent memory. I think the losses of Josh McDaniels and Jabar Gaffney have been very significant. The Pats are entirely predictable. Brady looks to Welker and Moss on virtually every pass play except for the occasional token attempt that becomes a Sam Aiken drop. For some reason the Pats refuse to further integrate Ben Watson into the passing game. Isn't it time to acknowledge that Coach O'Brien is no Josh McDaniels and the Pats offense is stale and predictable? -- Glen (Minneapolis)
A: I'd agree with most of it here, Glen, up to the point on O'Brien. I wouldn't judge his abilities as a coach solely based on this year. There has to be a learning curve; Josh McDaniels wasn't as good a play-caller in 2005 as he was in 2008. I currently think the Patriots' offense is as easily defended as it has been in recent years, which I believe is more a personnel problem than anything. That's a concern, and I think part of it can be traced to Gaffney's departure, but not all of it. I'm at a loss to explain why the tight ends aren't more involved in the passing game. When I consider the possibilities of what could add a spark to this offense outside of Moss and Welker, the first player who comes to mind is Laurence Maroney. I'd keep riding him as we've seen in recent weeks. And I might now consider something more innovative such as a Julian Edelman-based Wildcat or the speedy Darius Butler with the ball in his hands as a changeup option.
Q: Mike, although the Buffalo win was a pretty good one, I'm still concerned at the offense's inability to close the game. Brady had three drives in the fourth quarter that went 3-and-out. This seems to me to be a recurring problem. What do you think is the longer-term solution? Do you think Fred Taylor's return may make a difference? Or do the Patriots need to focus on developing Edelman and/or finding a true third receiver? -- Ivan (Chapel Hill, N.C.)
A: Ivan, those three possessions broke down for a few different reasons, so I don't think there is one solution. If I had to choose one, it would be better play on third down. The Patriots had third-and-4 and third-and-6 on the first two fourth-quarter drives -- both manageable -- but pass plays couldn't be converted. Throw in an offensive holding penalty on Sam Aiken on first down -- while also considering that the run game didn't break a big one when the Bills knew they were running -- and you can see that it's a little bit of everything that is hurting the Patriots.
Q: Mike, something that I've noticed all year is that it seems Brady is under-throwing the long passes. Most recently as seen by the Randy Moss long bomb that drew the pass interference penalty. Have you noticed this at all? And if you have, any thoughts on why this might be happening? -- Alex D. (London)
A: I have noticed this, Alex, although we shouldn't overlook the long ones he's hit -- most recently to Randy Moss and Sam Aiken in Miami. But specific to this last game, one thing that stands out to me is that Brady seems extra concerned about the rush. I think it's in regards to his ribs and he doesn't want to take a hit. I notice that he's sometimes taking his eyes off his targets, so it's my feeling that he's picking up the receivers too late, which is disrupting the timing of some of the long throws. Another theory could be that his finger is affecting his long throws but I don't buy that one as much.
Q: Mike, what do you do when the best player on your team, your future Hall of Famer, icon of your program, is part of the problem? If you look at Tom Brady's play this year -- it's not up to par -- critical interceptions, off the mark passes, etc. How do you assess his performance? I know injuries are a factor but he has had some form of injuries each year. -- Neil (Southington, Conn.)
A: Neil, I think what you do is stick with him because he's still one of the best in the game and has hit a rough patch. I agree that Brady has struggled, but from my perspective, you wouldn't want anyone else leading that huddle. In terms of the injuries, Brady would be the last to make an excuse, but I think what he's dealing with this year is more severe than what he's encountered in some prior seasons. The ribs, specifically, have affected his comfort level in the pocket in my view.
Q: Mike, this year reminds me of the 2001 season when we had a relatively new team that was not predicted to make an impact in the playoffs. It allowed the team to play the "no respect" card effectively in the locker room which appeared to motivate the team to win. Do you think there is an opportunity to regain that edge this year? -- Justin R (Portsmouth, N.H.)
A: Justin, I have two thoughts on this one: 1) I don't see the edge being regained this year. I get a different vibe when I walk into that locker room; 2) In the end, all the analysis on this team is going to come down to 60 minutes of football in the divisional round of the playoffs and possibly the AFC Championship Game. I think the Patriots are going to make the playoffs, win their wild-card game at home, and then we'll see. They haven't been convincing of late, but the only thing that will matter is if they are convincing in those defining 60 minutes on the road. They've shown flashes this year, but can they put it together on that day?
Q: Mike, did you see Clay Matthews against the Steelers? He was really good. Why did the Patriots pass on Matthews? I know the Patriots search for a particular size of players, but are they wrong? Before that, they passed on Jon Beason, which I assume was because of size as well. I'm not sure Elvis Dumervil has the "good size," but I'll take him anytime. Is the "Patriots OLB size standard" ruining their pass rush? -- David Laflamme (Quebec, Canada)
A: Insightful point, David, and one that I think has merit. To me, it's a fair question to ask: Should the Patriots' outside linebacker/pass-rushing standard be loosened a bit? In this case, when the team drafts a defensive player in the first round, the feeling is generally that you want him to be a three- or even four-down player. I would imagine that the Patriots didn't see a fit with Matthews in their 3-4 scheme on early downs -- he'd struggle setting the edge in the running game because of the size concern -- and thus didn't have a first-round grade on him. From the team's perspective, I think the 3-4 scheme is still sound so I wouldn't compromise in that area. But when you consider that the Patriots have been in sub packages 50 percent of the time this season, I think it's a fair question to ask: Should the Patriots lessen the standard on late-first-round picks and allow themselves to take a player who might not be a three-down player? If that player would help generate the all-important pass rush, I think it's something they should strongly consider.
Q: Hey Mike, despite the gloom and doom over the Pats' secondary, I think Leigh Bodden is having an amazing year. Looking at some of his stats, he's been a top 10 corner all year. Opponents' passer rating is an impressive 55 for all throws against him. Should the Pats re-sign him before the season is over and try to save some money before he hits the market? I don't think the Pats can afford to lose him, especially the way Wilhite has played this year. -- Johnny (Hackensack, N.J.)
A: Good point, Johnny, as I thought Bodden played well Sunday. I noticed a lot of safety help over the top to protect against the big play on both sides, but when Bodden was challenged, he was mostly up to the task. He's pretty banged up right now, too, so I give him a tip of the cap for battling through. As for re-signing him, I think it would be a good move. Bodden came here on a one-year deal with the promise of not getting a franchise tag, so he might want to test the market first, but I would imagine the Patriots are interested in bringing him back.
Q: Mike, I haven't heard/seen mention of the tackling issues that Pats have been having. This seems to be a recurring theme that no one has picked up on. It's especially frustrating to see during key plays. It first became apparent to me during the Saints game when three defenders missed a key tackle. What is your take on this? -- Chris (Bangor, Maine)
A: Chris, the tackling hasn't been as sound and the one that stands out to me this week is Brandon Meriweather on Josh Reed in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-9. Meriweather went for the kill shot instead of the wrap-up. Fine-tuning this area can be a challenge during the season because there aren't many full-padded practices, so you often lean back on the fundamentals from training camp. I'd agree with you: If the Patriots are going to get where they want to go, this area will need to improve.
Q: Mike, I believe we've seen a steady decrease in the quality of Brandon Meriweather's play in the last few weeks. Do you think that might be partially due to the lack of another player on the roster to push him for playing time? There's no counterpoint like with Sanders/McGowan or the battle at the CB position. That might be OK if your safety is Rodney Harrison, but could Brandon be too comfortable? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Interesting thought, Dean, and to be honest, I don't know the answer. I'd lean toward the line of thinking that Meriweather is not too comfortable and is just in a bit of a bad stretch right now. Every player goes through them.
Q: I did not get to see the game against Buffalo. I was interested in your thoughts on the play of Ron Brace. Did he look at all like a second rounder out there? -- Watson (Canton, Ohio)
A: At this point, Watson, I'm answering based on the eye test, as I've yet to get through the game on review. There were times it looked like he was struggling, which I expected, as this is a hard technique to learn for the first time. But overall, I didn't think he was out of place. He is a big body in there, and with some fine-tuning, I could see him being a hard player to move in the run game. He played 30 snaps by my count, getting the nod at nose tackle over Titus Adams, who played just one snap in the short-yardage defense.
Q: What were the circumstances that allowed Adalius Thomas to come back to the starting line-up? Did he patch things up with Belichick or was it due to injuries? I know he had three tackles but how well do you think he played Sunday? -- Ahmed Al-Salem (Syracuse, N.Y.)
A: Ahmed, I asked Thomas after the game whether anything had changed, such as him clearing the air with Belichick, and he said the only difference was that the team was coming off a win. His return to the lineup wasn't because of injuries, but more that he is one of the team's best linebackers on early downs so he gave them the best chance to win. I had him on the field for 33 of 60 snaps (penalties included), and it looked to me that he did his job well.
Q: Hey Mike, it has been said that Belichick hasn't been using Adalius Thomas in a way that he can "thrive." In what way could he be used where he could "thrive," and why wouldn't coach Belichick use him in such a manner if he would be more productive? -- Joe (Rutland, Vt.)
A: That was just my opinion, Joe. My point is that when assessing Thomas' tenure with the Patriots, you have to consider how he was employed by the coaching staff -- at inside linebacker for most of his first season, before moving to more of a pass-rushing role outside late that year. My opinion is that Thomas could help the team's pass rush more, but my feelings obviously aren't in alignment with those of the coaching staff, as Thomas has been used only on early downs for most of this season. That was the main point I was trying to make.
Q: Mike, do you think it the play-calling in the second half when the Pats are ahead is too conservative? -- Jake Roberts (Somerset, Mass.)
A: I thought it was just the opposite in this last game, Jake. The Patriots had established a physical edge over the Bills in the first half, but to start the second half, they came out in the shotgun with an empty backfield and threw the ball on first down. Then they had an incomplete long bomb on second down, followed by another incompletion. So the first drive out of the halftime break, they had three straight passes with Kevin Faulk in the game as the running back. I am guessing that part of that was to see whether the Bills were making any adjustments coverage-wise at halftime, but I thought that was a poor series of play-calling. I liked that they got back to pounding it on the next drive.
Q: Do you think the Pats can count on this version of Laurence Maroney for the rest of this year, and in the future? When he plays like he has recently, he looks to be more than enough to carry the load for the Pats. Where has this guy been, and what changed? -- Rick (Lowell, Mass.)
A: He's more decisive, Rick. Maroney has talked about that of late. He is a different player, for sure, and this is probably a good example of why teams have to be careful of giving up on a player too early. After the Ravens game this year, I remember writing that I was having a hard time defending Maroney, with whom I had been very patient to that point. His U-turn has been impressive. As for whether the Patriots can count on him going forward, I think it's better to let more time pass before making a definitive call on that one.
Q: Mike, could you give us your assessment of Jerod Mayo's sophomore season? -- Bob Kebartas (Southborough, Mass.)
A: Bob, Mayo is one of the few players who stays on the field on all three downs and I think he has been solid, but not spectacular. He talked before the season about becoming more of a big-play linebacker, but it hasn't happened. In that sense, it's disappointing. But he's still a very good player, in my view.
Q: Hey Mike, looking back at Sunday's game, what do you think was the key to our successful pass rush? This was the first game where I really noticed a dominating pass rush, an element that has been lacking all season. The commentators were talking about "exotic" defensive sets. Do you think this is something we will be able to continue as we play better teams with better offensive lines and quarterbacks, or was it just a byproduct of playing the Bills? -- Eitan Tye (Newton, Mass.)
A: I'd say it's probably a little bit of both. The Bills' offensive line is not very good, but you still have to make the plays and the Patriots had some excellent individual efforts in the pass rush. Another factor is that the Bills were often in third-and-long situations, which made it easier to get after quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trent Edwards.
Q: Mike, I loved the Patriots taking a page out of Rex Ryan's book this week by moving so many guys around. As AD mentioned, it was "organized chaos." Two questions, first, do you think this was game-plan specific or will we see more of it? Second, Tully Banta-Cain now has 8.5 sacks good for 12th in the league. Do you think he has effectively negated the loss of Mike Vrabel? They seem like relatively similar players on defense. -- ECF (Washington, DC)
A: I think that package was probably specific to the game plan -- to exploit a pieced-together Bills line -- and based on circumstances of the Patriots' not having enough defensive linemen. I do think we'll see it again, just probably not on a regular basis. As for Banta-Cain, I think he's had a very good year. I'd vote for him as the team's 12th player award winner. I think he's an upgrade in the pass rush over Vrabel, but not as strong on early downs against the run. When you also look at Vrabel, I also think his leadership counts, so I wouldn't go as far as to say Banta-Cain has essentially replaced him.
Q: Hey Mike, seeing how well Mike Wright played on Sunday, would it be far fetched to see him replace Ty Warren in the starting lineup? He has five sacks and that is a huge number for a DE in our defensive scheme. -- BHarat (R.I.)
A: I don't see that changing for a couple of reasons: First, Warren is excellent, one of the underrated players in the NFL, in my view. Second, I think Wright's strengths -- quickness, athleticism and hustle -- are accentuated when his playing time is rationed in a careful way. For example, on Sunday, he played 42 of 60 snaps. I think that is a good ratio to keep him from wearing down.
Q: Hi Mike, contemplating our suddenly thin D-line, I was wondering again about the Seymour trade. Do you think that the loss of the extra first-round pick in the Spygate aftermath was on Belichick's mind? It seems to me that the organization put a lot into obtaining that pick, and that maybe BB just wanted it back. It would be interesting to see the affect of the value that went out the door with that lost pick on the 06 and 07 Patriots' drafts, taking account of all of the trade-downs and maneuvers that produced it. -- Danny (Brookline, Mass.)
A: Danny, I don't think Spygate had anything to do with the Seymour trade. That situation was headed down that path regardless. The Patriots and Seymour were not on the same page -- both knew the relationship was closer to the end -- and that is something I think that both sides can take accountability for.
Q: I thought you missed Chris Hanson on your "down" list on the Patriots blog. His short punts are getting real old, especially that one in the fourth quarter. -- Gary Thiessen (Alexandria, Va.)
A: That's probably fair, Gary. It was a tough day for both punters in the plus-50 category, as the Bills' Brian Moorman, one of the best in the game, also struggled. That probably influenced my thinking. I probably should have had Sam Aiken as a "down" as well (drop, offensive holding penalty, mishandling the onside kick).
Q: Mike, can you give us an idea of what life is like on injured reserve for players like Tyrone McKenzie, Brandon Tate, George Bussey, and Shawn Crable? Do they attend meetings, watch practice, watch film, workout, or go to the games? Have you seen any of them recently? -- Joe D. (Vt.)
A: Some of it depends on where the players are in their rehab, Joe. Of late, I have noticed Crable and McKenzie more in the locker room, so they are around. You don't see them at practice, but more walking through the locker room during the media-access period. It usually looks as though they are coming from the weight room or training room.
Q: Hey Mike, I haven't gotten to watch all of the recent games here in L.A., but you've pointed out that Matthew Slater has mostly played receiver in beefy formations. What's the reasoning for putting in a guy deep on the depth chart in these situations, rather than a Moss or Welker who might command more double teams? Also, if he's good enough to be on the field for these types of plays, why isn't he higher on the depth chart? I'm not being critical, just curious. -- Niko (Los Angeles)
A: Niko, Slater played in two-receiver sets Sunday in Buffalo for the first time I can recall this year. At the same time, the first long bomb to Moss in the game came in a 1 WR/3 TE/1 RB package, so it's not as though Moss is always coming off in the single-receiver sets. My sense on this one is that the Patriots are thinking about wear and tear. If the play is a run, why subject Moss to a physical jam at the line of scrimmage?
Q: The kickoff return rotation keeps going and going. Do the Pats miss the cornerback [Ellis Hobbs] who was in charge of kickoff returns last year? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A: No doubt about it, MarkJ. A tip of the cap to Ellis Hobbs, who always ran hard and had that combination of speed and vision that made him a top returner.
Q: Mike, I think it is fair to say that Chargers and Colts are getting byes. Now just looking forward a little bit -- which team is a better matchup for the Pats? Colts again? -- Alex (Rome, N.Y.)
A: Alex, I thought of you on the drive to Buffalo when I saw the exit sign for Rome, N.Y. I think the Colts are the better matchup for the Patriots, and I know some players in that locker room want a chance to avenge what happened earlier this year. I think the team would go into that game with a lot of confidence.
Q: Hi Mike, can you explain us why some journalists and media analysts have access to coaches' tapes while others don't? -- Julian (A Coruna, Spain)
A: Julian, the "all-22" tape can be seen at NFL Films by the likes of Ron Jaworski, Merril Hoge etc. Those are the camera angles that show all 22 players on the field, unlike the television copy, which most often follows the ball and has more isolation shots. Other than NFL Films or journalists/analysts getting the tape directly from teams, it is not available, as I understand it.