Mailbag: Fixing the Patriots' defense

One theme stood out in this week's Patriots mailbag, following the team's 38-30 victory over the Bills: What's up with the defense?

Some e-mailers said they believe the scheme used by Bill Belichick is outdated. Others look closer at the personnel and wonder if it's good enough.

Although the Patriots recorded a victory to improve to 2-1 on the season, the general tone of fans' questions made it feel like it was a loss.

Let's get right to it.

Q. Mike, after watching the first three games, I think the big thing that the Pats are missing isn't a pass rush, it's the very simple idea of blitzing on third down. While other teams tend to "send 'em all" and hope that their defensive backs don't get burned, the Pats tend to send three or four rushers and drop everyone else back into coverage. It's almost like they are playing prevent defense on every third-down play. You really just can't do that in this league anymore, even poor QBs will pick you apart if you don't put any pressure on them. Check the tape. I'm sure they've done this in the past, but in the past they had Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork collapsing the pocket and Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel roaming passing lanes. Now they have only Wilfork coming up the middle with Jerod Mayo trying to do everything. Their style doesn't work with this group. Thoughts? -- Dan (Dover, N.H.)

A. Dan, I went back and watched every defensive play in the Bills' game, and was expecting to find this lack of blitzing. I was surprised to see that the team blitzed on 14 of the Bills' dropbacks, while rushing the standard four defenders on 16 of the Bills' dropbacks. The best pressure came in the fourth quarter out of the standard four-man rush, which is when Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw both interceptions with the pocket closing on him. So, the idea that more blitzing would automatically create more pressure didn't match up in this game. Here is a link to the Patriots blog entry that breaks down these numbers a bit further.

Q. There is a problem with the pass defense in scheme. It's really a simple equation: Zone coverage with no pass rush = offensive completion. I understand that the Patriots have young corners but they are also pretty fast. I would rather see a defense that attacks rather than sit back and get eaten alive because today's NFL quarterback is extremely accurate and with zone coverage without a pass rush, any quarterback can sit back and pick apart a defense. When the Pats attacked Fitzpatrick on Sunday, he was not as accurate. He overthrew the route or had to let go of the ball too quickly. There are risks involved when blitzing but can we at least agree that the current scheme is not working? I think Darius Butler and Devin McCourty can be good corners but give them a chance to succeed by adding pressure. The zone defense is not working. -- Eric (Weymouth, Mass.)

A. Eric, I understand the general thought, comparing an attacking, riskier-type defense like the Jets to the Patriots' less-risky approach. I think it's a good debate, and you could make a compelling argument that the attacking, riskier defense is the way to go based on the recent Super Bowl winners -- New Orleans (2009), Pittsburgh (2008), N.Y. Giants (2007), Indianapolis (2006) and Pittsburgh (2005). While those teams play different schemes, they are linked by their ability to get after quarterbacks. I personally believe in the Patriots' scheme, if it is being played by good players. Another point is that the Kansas City Chiefs are 3-0 playing the scheme this year, so it can't be all that bad. The other point I would make is in the Bills' game the Patriots actually had more success rushing the standard four defenders than blitzing. Both interceptions came against the four-man rush, and they caused Bills quarterback Fitzpatrick to tuck the ball and run two other times against four rushers. It wasn't always great with the four-man rush, but the idea that every time they blitzed it produced big results wasn't what I saw when reviewing the game.

Q. Hi Mike, as disappointing as the pass defense has been, I'm finding it difficult to fully evaluate the secondary's performance due to the lack of a pass rush. Would a team with a moderate to good pass rush be able to mask or enhance the secondary's performance? Are people being too harsh on Butler or McCourty when they aren't getting much help front the rush? It seems like a perfect storm has hit where the secondary is inexperienced and the pass rush is poor to compound the issue. Not letting the corners off the hook, but people should realize that several good corners in the league would be hard pressed to play well without a complementary pass rush. My true worry is that a young corner's confidence can be scarred for the future with the current conditions in place. -- Kevin (Framingham, Mass.)

A. Kevin, I don't think the rush has been a major issue. It's actually been better than I expected. In this Bills' game, I pin the problems more on bad angles taken by linebackers and defensive backs, poor tackling and blown coverages. All of these issues are correctable but certainly a concern. I think McCourty is doing as well as can be expected. He's a player. Butler is obviously going through a rough stretch, and he is the player that I would look to as someone whose development could be stunted by what is unfolding. He was on the field for four defensive snaps Sunday.

Q. Mike, I feel the Patriots are following the Red Sox game plan of a bridge year. It is evident the personnel on defense are not up to championship caliber (Steelers, Ravens) and we will have to wait another year for help. I think the strategy of always trading back in the draft has now proven to be costly for the defense. No pass rush, bad coverage, lack of aggressive linebacking -- this is 2009 all over again. Very disappointing for a team with the highest-priced tickets in the league. Not to mention the Logan Mankins situation, which is embarrassing if the reports are true for the public apology. -- Michael (Washington, D.C.)

A. Michael, I can't disagree. The team is not looking championship caliber at this point. But what I would add is that it's Week 3 and a lot of things change between now and the end of the year. I understand the feeling that people want the answers right now, but no team has them all right now. Even Baltimore, who is mentioned as a championship caliber team, is going through some significant struggles with its offense. As for the trading back, I look at it differently. I think the secondary, in particular, has high-end talent. There is Brandon Meriweather (first round, 24th overall, 2007), Patrick Chung (second round, 34th overall, 2009) and Devin McCourty (first round, 27th overall, 2010) and Darius Butler (second round, 41st overall, 2009), and the question I have, "Are these players getting better?" If they aren't, I put that mostly on the team for failing to develop them properly. On the reported public apology, I agree.

Q. Mike, are there any cornerbacks on the open market that can help the Pats right now? It's becoming very obvious the young corners are not doing the job and it's difficult to learn anything positive when you are constantly being beaten (Leigh Bodden's loss is magnified each week). On another note isn't it time to start or at least give BenJarvus Green-Ellis the bulk of the playing time at RB? -- Jim (Seminole, Fla.)

A. Jim, I used the ESPN Insider tracker to compile a list, and you're looking at names like Ty Law, Hank Poteat, Nick Harper and Ken Lucas as options on the open market. As for Green-Ellis, I think he's positioned himself for that lead-back type duty, especially when coupled with Fred Taylor's nagging toe injury.

Q. Mike, cornerback Terrence Wheatley seems to be getting closer to a return. Do you think he can be of any help to the secondary once he gets back? He was having a good camp before he got hurt and he has a lot of time in the system. -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)

A. Gregg, it would make sense to me if they wait until after the bye to get Wheatley back on the field, giving him a little extra time to be 100 percent. I wouldn't count him out from contributing, although I think it's a big leap to expect him to start and lock down the right side.

Q. Hi Mike, I feel like we've seen less of Wes Welker this year and it would seem that he's been out on fewer plays. Is this part of him recuperating from his injury or is there something else going on? -- Zoe (Tampa, Fla.)

A. Zoe, I've charted Welker on the field for 116 of 191 snaps (including penalties) through the first three games of the season. That's a 60.7 percent clip. It's a hard comparison to make to last year, when Welker played 62 percent of the offensive snaps, because he didn't play in the second and third weeks of the season and was knocked out of the season finale, skewing the numbers. Overall, I'd say Welker's playing time numbers are down a bit this year, which is probably a combination of his recovery and the team's integration of the tight ends into the offense.

Q. Hey Mike, can you give us some insight on what is going on with Brandon Meriweather? I read his explanation this week for a lack of playing time but I am curious what your opinion is. -- Dan (Melbourne Beach, Fla.)

A. Dan, my thought is that this is a major disappointment, both with the coaching/scouting and individually with Meriweather. First, the Patriots thought highly enough of Meriweather to select him in the first round, and if the scouting/development was hitting on all cylinders, it should have him in a position to be making a major impact right now. I think it's a fair question to ask whether Meriweather has gotten better because he's gone from playing more than any defender last season to a significantly reduced role in 2010. He looks like a trick-or-treat player to me -- some terrific plays and some head-scratchers. I can see where his lack of consistency would not be viewed favorably by the coaching staff.

Q. Mike, I'm sure Shawn Crable wasn't in on very many plays on Sunday (1 tackle). However, how would you rate his performance on Sunday, regarding his ability to rush the passer and his ability to set the edge? -- Jay (Atlanta, Ga.)

A. Jay, I charted Crable on the field for nine snaps, including one false start penalty on the offense. His role was straight forward as part of the team's dime package (6 defensive backs), mainly as a rusher. We didn't see him in a true edge-setting type situation in the 3-4 alignment. I thought he accounted well for himself in limited opportunities.

Q. Mike, I am interested in which player you believe has more upside at this very early point of the season: Ron Brace or Jermaine Cunningham? -- Laurie (Moncton, Canada)

A. Laurie, I don't see the connection between them because they play different roles. Right now, I think Brace has had a larger impact. He drew a holding penalty in Sunday's win over the Bills, and is holding his own as a powerful left defensive end. That is clearly his best position in this scheme, and I'm expecting him to remain with the top defense.

Q. Hi Mike, the defense did not look too good against the Bills, but the young players seem to be getting better with each game. In your opinion, how did Brandan Spikes and Cunningham look? Are they living up to their high draft pick status so far in this young season? I was surprised to see Cunningham start in place of Tully Banta-Cain. -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A. Ashley, overall I'd say yes, they are living up the second-round draft status. Of the two, I thought Cunningham had the more notable game Sunday. He had a powerful rush on the first interception, and was also rushing on the second interception, drawing a double team. He has a good combination of speed and power. He's still learning about the challenges of setting the edge as a 3-4 outside linebacker, which is to be expected.

Q. Mike, I thought Jerod Mayo was tremendous against the Bills. I saw polls where the question asked who readers thought was the player of the game and Mayo was not even in the list. Where do you think he ranked? -- Chuck (Ballston Lake, N.Y.)

A. Chuck, I should have included Mayo as an "up" in our postgame blog entry. But at the time of posting that blog entry, I didn't fully grasp his excellence in the game. It came through clearly when reviewing the game. I'd put him behind Tom Brady and Green-Ellis on the "ups" list. He looked like the Mayo we remember from 2008.

Q. From an X's and O's standpoint do you think the injury to Kevin Faulk might be a blessing in disguise for Randy Moss? The added touches, especially on third down and strange down-and-distance situations, were clearly going to the tight ends. Reference Moss and Welker's low catch totals (TDs still were money) in contrast with the overall offensive production. Do you think the emergence of two dominant TE pass catching threats, especially with very different skill sets, will force safeties to focus more on the middle of the field and streaking TEs, and therefore free up the deep outside ball for Moss? Regardless of whether it is the corners or the safeties playing over top, threats in the middle should free up the deep outside? -- Andrew

A. Andrew, I think the point is sound, but I'm not sure it is directly related to Faulk. Even with Faulk in the lineup, I think the presence of tight ends like Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski working the short to intermediate areas of the field would help open things up down the field.

Q. Mike, are we seeing why Belichick was so obsessed with drafting TEs over the last few years. It seems that he loves creating mismatches with the new TEs. What exactly are they doing with the TEs to create a more dynamic offense? -- Perry (Jay's Deli)

A. Perry, the biggest thing I see with the tight ends is versatility. We might see them come out in a three tight end package and have them all at the line of scrimmage in a power-running type look, or the Patriots could split them wide into more of a passing formation. The versatility of the tight ends creates a challenge for the defense in terms of how to match up.

Q. Although we do not have designated offensive and defensive coordinators at this time from a title perspective, what is your take on how much assistant coaches like Bill O'Brien and Matt Patricia challenge Belichick's authority? Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini were all strong personalities, but after reading Michael Holley's "Patriot Reign", it sounds like Belichick is receptive and welcome to ideas, improvement and change if it can be justified and it helps the team secure victories. How instrumental are they versus their predecessors and how is this structured internally from a responsibility standpoint? -- Jonathan (Glenmoore, Pa.)

A. Jonathan, I don't have a good sense how much O'Brien and Patricia challenge Belichick's ideas and concepts. Knowing they were groomed in the system, coming up through the ranks and being taught by Belichick in many ways, it seems like a fair question to ask. Belichick can be an intimidating guy, too. As for the structure internally, I view O'Brien as the offensive coordinator and Belichick as the defensive coordinator, with Patricia his top assistant.

Q. Mike, how would you see the current role of Quinn Ojinnaka? I thought he could be a better guard than Ryan Wendell, but he has been inactive so far. When Dan Connolly plays power fullback, the Pats need a good backup guard, and I'm wondering whether the Wendell/Mark LeVoir combo is the best on game-day. -- Mark (Japan)

A. Mark, Ojinnaka looks like the eighth lineman to me, and a player the Patriots probably feel is important to have, given the injury history of starting right guard Stephen Neal. Ojinnaka adds some insurance at tackle, but with the Patriots only activating seven linemen on game day he's been a healthy scratch the first three weeks of the season. At this time, I haven't seen anything from Ojinnaka that would lead me to think he's the better option than Wendell.

Q. Mike: I really like how the 2009 draft class is progressing. Have you seen any improvement to change the grade for the 2008 draft class so far in 2010? -- Justin (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A. Justin, I'd say the 2008 analysis is about in the same place it was. Mayo is the stud of the class, but we're still waiting to see Wheatley (second round) and Crable (third round) become more consistent contributors. Matthew Slater (fifth round) contributes on special teams, while Gary Guyton (2008 rookie free agent) is a top reserve at inside linebacker.

Q. While I was pleased to see the offensive diversity this week, as a true Patriot fan, I know this defense is nowhere near championship caliber. Since I know that changes during the offseason are very rare in terms of major free agents or trades, what do you think of a safety tandem of Jarrod Page and Patrick Chung, and moving the less physical and more of a finesse Brandon Meriweather to starting cornerback? To me it's deja vu, as I see this year's version of Jonathan Wilhite, one Darius Butler, a major liability. Your thoughts? -- Howard

A. Howard, when Meriweather first arrived in New England, he was tried at cornerback and it wasn't a fit. I think his best position is safety. If he's not back there, I think it has to be James Sanders because of his ability to get everyone lined up, which is an underrated and often overlooked aspect of the job description.

Q. Hey Mike, with Bill Polian announcing to an Indianapolis radio station that the 18-game schedule is all but installed, I was wondering what your thoughts on the 18-game approach are? Is it possible to do a story asking the players what they think about it? I firmly am against it because of risk of more injuries, skewed statistics, and less opportunities for players like Troy Brown or even Wes Welker to emerge. It will hurt the game more than help it. -- Ian (Hamden, Conn.)

A. Ian, I'm not a fan of the 18-game regular season/2 preseason game setup. The injury factor is what I have in mind, first and foremost. I think it's a great idea to ask players what they think about it. The majority of players I've spoken with prefer 16.

Q. What has happened to Jarvis Green? Is he injured? He was signed by Denver in the offseason with a bonus of over $3M then released just before the start of the season. I assumed he'd be contacted by the Pats as well as all of the former Pats coaches and GMs -- Scott Pioli in KC, Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta, Eric Mangini in Cleveland. All I've found is one report that he would visit Cleveland but nobody seems to have signed him. Couldn't the Pats use him to improve the awful run defense? -- Ed (Framingham, Mass.)

A. Ed, the word I received on Green is that it looked like he had declined in the preseason. I don't think his potential addition would make the Patriots any better against the run than they currently are.

Q. Mike, you're probably sick of getting this question, but are all trade possibilities for Mankins off the board? What is the likely scenario at this point? -- Steve (Friendswood, Texas)

A. Steve, I think a Mankins trade has been a longshot from the start. For a team to not only give up the big contract but the big compensation, a lot of stars have to be aligned. I think the Patriots would strike it, if the right deal presented itself. The more likely scenario, in my view, is that Mankins reports by Week 10 of the regular season to ensure he gets an accrued season.

Q. Mike, who's bigger, you or Danny Woodhead? -- Mike (London)

A. Good one, Mike. We'll have to get the tale of tape going on this one. I think it's a close one.

Q. Mike, it seems like the rookies on the team are talking to the media more than in any year in the past decade. Do you agree? I know it had been an unwritten rule that rookies do not talk. Willie McGinest wouldn't have stood for it. Is this a conscious change because it is a "new" team, and they have tried to move on from the history this year (like taking the photos of great moments off the wall at Gillette). Perhaps they are just doing things a different way this year? -- Stanley

A. Stanley, I think certain rookies have been given the green light to speak with reporters more so than in recent years, but not all rookies. I don't view it as any sort of philosophical change by the team. Part of it might be that with the rookies representing a significant part of the roster -- and key leaders like Vince Wilfork and Matt Light not making themselves available on a daily basis in the locker room to reporters -- the restrictions have been loosened a bit.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.