Some weeks there are a variety of topics submitted to the Patriots mailbag. Other weeks, it's more streamlined.
Count this one in the latter category.
This week's mailbag is focused on mainly one thing -- the Patriots' playoff opener against the Jets. E-mailers do a nice job laying out some of the challenges that the Jets present, as well as some of the areas where the Patriots own clear advantages.
Let's get right to it:
Q: Really looking forward to Part III, but how will the Pats avoid getting grounded-and-pounded? They are thin on the D-line and Brandon Spikes is just returning. Extra men in the box may open up lanes for Sanchez. How do the Pats adjust on Sunday? -- JQA (Boston)
A: Let's focus on the defensive line and what we saw Dec. 6. When the Patriots were in their base 3-4 defense, the three linemen were Vince Wilfork, Gerard Warren and Ron Brace. While Brace didn't necessarily stand out prior to being placed on injured reserve, this is the type of game where he could help most. To me, the big issue is matchups up front. I think the preference would be to keep Wilfork on the nose against center Nick Mangold, who is probably the Jets' best lineman. So you project to have Wilfork on the nose and Warren at one end, then the question is, who is the best 5-technique end to play the other spot? I view Myron Pryor, Landon Cohen and Kyle Love as more interior players. Rookie Brandon Deaderick is probably the most natural fit, but he's fallen off the map of late. So you're probably looking at a bit of a rotation, with Wilfork kicking out to end at times. Will that be good enough to get the job done? It's one of the main areas I'll be watching. In the end, you have to be physical, play good technique and beat blocks.
Q: Mike, the Jets' strength of running the ball, combined with the Pats' thin D-line, could create some problems for Belichick and the Patriots' D. Which players do you think need to step up to slow down the Jets' rushing attack? -- Kartal (Denver, Colo.)
A: Kartal, a player like rookie free agent Kyle Love comes to mind. I say that because I figure the Patriots will want to go big, and Love is one of the biggest they have; he's listed at 6-foot-1, 310 pounds. Love's playing time has spiked the last three weeks -- he's played 97 of his 151 snaps on the season in the last three games -- which reflects his growing role in the defense as others have been sidelined with injury.
Q: Mike, I have increased concerns with the Patriots' defensive line situation for the upcoming playoffs with Mike Wright being placed on injured reserve. Do you think they still have enough depth to continue to be effective since they have relied on a rotation of several defensive linemen throughout this season? -- Ryan Knowles (New Bedford, Mass.)
A: Ryan, it's not ideal, but yes I do think they have enough. I thought they played some of their best defensive football in the final six weeks of the season, and that's when they were without defensive linemen Mike Wright (six games), Myron Pryor (five games) and Ron Brace (two games). So they've actually gotten Pryor back and one could make the case they now have more depth. At this time of the year, it's not unusual to see teams with depleted situations up front. I think the Patriots have enough to keep winning.
Q: Mike, couldn't think of a better matchup! From the previous two Jets games, what would be the Patriots' base personnel for the divisional game? 4-2-5? Or 3-4 base with nickel packages in obvious passing situations? -- Casey B (New Zealand)
A: Casey, the Patriots' base has been the 3-4 against the Jets' standard offensive personnel. When the Jets spread it with three receivers on Dec. 6, the Patriots took out a linebacker (Brandon Spikes) and inserted a cornerback (Darius Butler).
Q: Mike, it seems to me if the Patriots can stop the Jets' running game, they will win. Unfortunately, they've really been thinned out on the defensive line. To me that makes the re-integration of Brandon Spikes into the lineup a top priority. Do you have any indication of what we might expect from him after a four-week suspension? What has he been doing to keep sharp over those four weeks? Do you have any idea where his head and conditioning are at? What do you think we can expect of him? -- Tom Mangin (Medford, Ore.)
A: Tom, I agree with the thoughts on the importance of stopping the Jets' running game as a key. Unlike the Dec. 6 game, when the Jets came out in a three-wide no-huddle on their first drive, I anticipate they will be making more of a commitment to the ground-and-pound approach. I think Spikes will be back in his familiar spot, playing inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, possibly as part of a rotation with Gary Guyton. I think his physical condition will be fine, it's more getting back up to speed with the speed of the game. Spikes is a first- and second-down player; he played 31.7 percent of the snaps this season and finished fifth on the team in tackles (71). I think his role will primarily be what we've seen up to this point.
Q: Mike, as I was watching the Jets-Colts game, and hearing how we all wanted the Jets to win that game, I couldn't help thinking, careful what you wish for. I know they talk a lot, but the Jets did a great X's and O's job on the Colts on Saturday night. All of the preseason predictions of dysfunctional personalities in the Jets' locker room never came true. They're inconsistent on offense, but as a whole, they seem to learn well from their mistakes. Do you have confidence that a young Patriots team can overcome their youth and make the necessary adjustments? (P.S.: If I'm sounding like we're the underdogs, it's because I've been listening to Coach Belichick!) -- David (Norwalk, Conn.)
A: David, I believe this is the best possible matchup for the Patriots. I thought the Ravens would have been the toughest, followed by the Colts, Steelers, Chiefs and Jets. That's not to say the Jets aren't a good team; they will move the ball against the Patriots and create some problems for Tom Brady. But in the end, I think the Patriots have too many weapons and are the better team. So now we'll see if that comes to life in the 60 minutes Sunday afternoon. The way I see it, it's the playoffs and you're going to have to beat the best teams to accomplish the ultimate goal -- sooner or later.
Q: Hey Mike, do you think the Jets blowout actually helps the Jets? I do, because this is still a young Patriots team and they might come in overconfident. Second, the Jets are a very prideful group and I believe they will play the revenge card. Does this cause any concern? -- Glenn (Boston)
A: Glenn, I think that Dec. 6 loss to the Patriots does help the Jets, mainly because it gives them clear-cut evidence of what not to do. They played and coached a horrible game. As Rex Ryan said Monday, their defensive plan was too complex, so they can use that experience to implement a better plan. To a lesser degree, that game could help sharpen the focus of players as they prepare this week, but in the end we know it will come down to making plays on the field. I don't think the Patriots will come in overconfident. Since Nov. 7 in Cleveland, they understand that if they don't come to play, they will lose.
Q: Mike, had we been in the playoffs the last few weeks I think Aaron Hernandez would have played, but he was being held out to get to 100 percent. What sort of impact do you think he can make against a Jets team that hasn't seen him on film for the past two games? Also, will you be bold and pick the Pats by more than 10? -- Kyle (Cranston, R.I.)
A: Kyle, Hernandez has nine catches and 152 yards in two games against the Jets this season, so I think his availability -- and the way he threatens the Jets' secondary with his running after the catch -- is a very important pregame storyline. He's been slowed by that hip injury, but like you, I think he'll be there. As for my pick, I like the Patriots by a touchdown. I'm not pushing it over the 10 mark.
Q: Hey Mike. Watching the way the Jets beat the Colts, it makes sense for them to try to duplicate the exact same game plan with pounding Tomlinson and Greene at us. Our run defense is certainly better than the Colts', but what game plan makes the most sense to stop the Jets' running game? -- Bill L. (Fort Collins, Colo.)
A: Bill, it starts at the line of scrimmage. The Jets have a solid offensive line of D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Matt Slauson, Nick Mangold, Brandon Moore and Damien Woody, so you have to meet the physical match. The Jets hurt the Patriots with two third-quarter sub runs in the Week 2 matchup, so that's one issue to consider. When they spread the field and get the defense to put an extra defensive back(s) on the field, they can still pound it, so it tests the tackling and physicality of your smaller defensive lineup. But they can also run over your base 3-4 defense in a two-back set with a lead-blocking fullback. So it will come down to matchups and the Patriots winning more of them. I don't think this is necessarily going to be a mental chess match as much as a physical slugfest.
Q: Hi Mike, going into Sunday's game, what do you see as the Patriots' second-biggest weakness after the defensive line? -- Derek (Dallas, Texas)
A: Health at outside linebacker was the first thing to come to mind, Derek. Tully Banta-Cain (groin), Jermaine Cunningham (calf) and Eric Moore (presumed lower leg) have missed practice time in recent weeks. Perhaps they will all be ready to go, but based on the picture we saw last week and the re-signing of Marques Murrell, that's the spot that stands out.
Q: In the last meeting, the Pats threw out so many formations, kept the ball away from Revis and scored quick. This put pressure on the Jets to throw the ball and go away from their running game. How much importance do you think BB and Brady will put on scoring points quickly in the game as a means to counter the run? If that happens, the Pats can focus on taking away Keller and forcing Sanchez to throw outside the numbers, which he clearly wasn't able to do on Saturday with any accuracy. Thoughts? -- Anand (N.Y.)
A: I think that's a big part of the plan every week and has been a huge part of the Patriots' success all season. The Patriots have outscored opponents 103-39 in the first quarter, which has allowed them to play games on their terms. Get the Jets in an early hole and it makes it harder for them to stick with the run.
Q: Hi Mike, Pats fan in enemy territory here. One of the biggest problems the Jets had in playing the Patriots in December was the loss of Jim Leonhard on defense. How do you see the Pats matching up against a defense that has had more time to adjust to the loss of Leonhard (who was considered a defensive QB) this time around? -- Mike Kmiec (High Bridge, N.J.)
A: Mike, the Patriots definitely went after Eric Smith in that Dec. 6 game. Smith was called for the defensive pass interference against tight end Rob Gronkowski that set up a touchdown, and Smith also looked like he might have botched an assignment on Deion Branch's touchdown on fourth-and-3. I think the plan will be similar for the Patriots: Attempt to establish some balance, use spread formations to test the depth of the Jets' secondary and rely on the skill-position players to win more battles in the non-Revis matchups.
Q: Hey Mike, the Patriots have a lot of young players making their first playoff appearances. I think Devin McCourty will be able to handle the pressure, but I am not too sure about the other rookies on defense. Your thoughts? -- Sig (Richmond, Va.)
A: Sig, I think it's a fair concern, both on defense and offense. You never know how players will respond until that big moment comes. Overall, I think the leadership is strong on the Patriots, and the rookies will be prepared to be at their best. Now let's see how they respond.
Q: Hey Mike, Brandon Meriweather did not have his best year but was named to the Pro Bowl anyway. He has great potential and it's tough to be mistake-free as a safety, but I think that he went through a tough stretch after his helmet-to-helmet fine. He looked tentative. Did you notice this as well, and if so, do you think he has regained his mojo and made adjustments? He is a cornerstone of this defense's success and I think that he has righted himself over the past eight games. -- Jeremy (Springfield, Mass.)
A: Jeremy, Meriweather had the significant dip in his playing time Dec. 12 in Chicago (14 snaps) and has had a few noticeable breakdowns in coverage, but overall it looks to me like he's re-established himself as the top safety in the eyes of the coaching staff. I didn't notice him changing much after his fine on the helmet-to-helmet hit, but perhaps I missed it.
Q: Mike, like the rest of us, you picked the Colts and Saints to prevail this past weekend (the Ravens and Packers were a bit easier). Did you get the feeling during the Colts-Jets game that the Colts were not anything like the powerhouse they have been in past years? It seemed to me that Freeney and their other defensive guys seemed a bit slow; perhaps time has taken its toll. Peyton himself just was not as sharp, although he did not have all of the weapons he has grown accustomed to. Still, if he could lose by only one point with that kind of sluggish offense, we should be heavily favored over the Jets again, don't you think? -- Adrian V. (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Adrian, when I watched the Colts, one of the main thoughts I had was that the Jets match up well against them. I also thought that when many talk about the Colts' defense, they mention how disruptive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can be, but it's easy to overlook the importance of being able to stop the run. I think the Colts' deficiency in that area caught up to them in a big way. As for the Patriots-Jets, I understand why the Patriots are heavily favored. They should win if they play their best. Now it's about going out and doing it.
Q: Do you think we'll see more of Julian Edelman against the Jets after his great showing against Miami? Who'll be the No. 3 WR -- Edelman, Brandon Tate or Taylor Price? What a great position to be in when those three are backups. -- Otis (Boston)
A: Otis, I think Edelman is the type of player to keep on the radar from an unconventional standpoint. We know the team has some non-traditional packages that involve him, yet we haven't seen them this year. So perhaps that's sprung in the playoffs. But overall, assuming full health for all the receivers and tight ends, I still see Edelman as the No. 4 receiver and top punt returner. Prior to the season finale, when he played 59 snaps, Edelman averaged 7.6 offensive snaps per game. That's about what I'd project to see Sunday, assuming everyone is healthy.
Q: Hello Mike, this week's game will be close, but I see a very beatable Jets team. I think their secondary, with the exception of Darrelle Revis, can be exploited, and Mark Sanchez looked very sketchy against a decimated Colts defense. The key is special teams play -- particularly kickoff coverage -- and time of possession. Might we see the Pats look to control time of possession instead of scoring quickly (I still see the Pats being able to put points on this defense)? Will Belichick even elect to receive if we win the toss, just to try and established that pace? -- Jim (New Hampshire)
A: Jim, I agree with the good matchups for the Patriots against the Jets' secondary. I think it's easy to sometimes focus so much on what the opposition does well that you forget, "Hey, this Patriots team is pretty good too and creates a lot of problems for others." So I'm on board with you on that one, as well as the importance of special teams. However, I don't see Belichick taking the ball if the Patriots win the opening toss. Overall, I do see the Patriots focusing on an offensive attack that features balance and sustained drives.
Q: Shayne Graham has had a solid half a season for the Patriots, but he doesn't have the consistently long kickoffs as Stephen Gostkowski did. Considering the possible cold weather and the Jets' very good kickoff returners in Brad Smith and Antonio Cromartie, do you think the Patriots will squib kick to keep the ball away from Smith and Cromartie? Also, the longest field goal that Graham has had was 41 yards against the Jets a month ago. Could his lack of range change the Patriots' kicking philosophy for this game? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I could see the potential for squib-type kicks or pop kicks. Graham doesn't have as strong a leg as Gostkowski, but when he gets the ball up there with good hang time, giving the coverage a chance to get down the field, that can be effective, too. As for Graham's field goals, he's 12 of 12 this year with the Patriots. It doesn't get any better than that. Depending on the conditions, I think you're looking at a range of about 45 yards. Graham did have playoff struggles last year, so it seems like something that is fair to watch, in terms of how he responds.
Q: Hi Mike, the on-field impact of Alge Crumpler this year underscores the importance of a true blocking tight end. Daniel Graham is another good example. Considering the limited impact someone like Crumpler has as a pass catcher, his recent touchdowns notwithstanding, and the scarcity of elite blocking tight ends in the NFL, why don't more teams use an offensive tackle in this role? I know extra linemen are common in short yardage situations, but why not on first and second downs? I would think the increased blocking would compensate in part for the down-field threat, and they could still be used for check-downs. -- Carl (Philadelphia)
A: Carl, outside of a few teams like the Ravens -- who have done it a lot in the past -- I think a big reason you don't see it is that it limits your options. Most offenses want to at least have the threat of a pass-catching option, but when you put an offensive lineman there, you are basically conceding that.
Q: Mike, for years I have read about prospective players coming in for a "workout" in midseason, as four DLs did recently for the Pats. Obviously it wouldn't be difficult for a punter or kicker, but what about players in high contact positions? Do the coaches get a chance to see DLs performing in full pads against OLs? Do the DBs try to defend passes against the WRs? Is it more a matter of the team putting the players through a bunch of drills to evaluate their strength, agility, speed, etc.? I assume that they also review films of these prospects playing in college and for other NFL teams. -- Jim (Natick, Mass.)
A: Jim, it's more a team putting the players through drills to evaluate their condition, strength, agility, etc. No contact involved. Sort of like the NFL combine.
Q: Mike, has Belichick spent time with the players to go over the playoff overtime rule changes as part of the preparation for the playoffs? -- Rob Black (Brookline, Mass.)
A: Rob, I heard Belichick mention on sports radio WEEI that he has gone over possibilities with members of his staff. That figures to be something they address with players this week. Listening to Belichick, you could tell he wasn't crazy about the rules changing in the playoffs.
Q: With so many injuries to the defensive line (Mike Wright, Ron Brace), do you think the Patriots will address the defensive end position in the upcoming draft? -- Darnell Aie (Mount Pocono)
A: Darnell, I would put that spot as the team's top need in the draft. Those big guys are tough to find, so when you have a chance to select one, it's usually not a bad direction to go.
Q: Do you think that Brian Hoyer could end up being a Brady version 3.0? He, Cassel and Brady all were drafted low and had slow starts to their careers. -- Seth (Kansas City)
A: Seth, it would be hard to put anyone in Brady's class at this point, but I think Hoyer has a bright future ahead of him. When one considers that more than 60 quarterbacks started at least one game this season, a player like Hoyer is someone I envisioning having a long, productive career.
Q: Hey Mike, do you think there is a chance the Pats will try to sign Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency? I think he could form a formidable partnership with Devin McCourty at CB. Kyle Arrington and Darius Butler have struggled at CB this season, which solidifies my belief that Asomugha would be a great Patriots signing. -- Robert Powell (Liverpool, England)
A: Robert, I'd be surprised at the Patriots paying big money to Asomugha one year after inking Leigh Bodden to a generous four-year, $22 million deal. If Bodden returns to full health, it seems like it's not a place the Patriots should be devoting significant funds. I'd focus more on the line of scrimmage -- defensive line and outside linebacker.