Andre Carter leaves big shoes to fill

How will the Patriots replace veteran defensive end Andre Carter?

That was the primary question among e-mailers to this week's Patriots mailbag. Carter had an excellent season as one the team's most consistent, reliable defenders. His professionalism and veteran influence was easy to see, and the reaction of Patriots players also spoke volumes.

"Andre puts so much in with his leadership alone. He gives a lot to this team," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said after Sunday's win over the Broncos. "Any time someone goes down, it's tough, but to see a guy like that -- he hasn't really won a lot in his career, but now he's winning, he's happy here, he's having fun, he's playing well. To see him go down, it's a blow."

This week's mailbag leads off with how the Patriots proceed without Carter.

Q. Mike, with Andre Carter out, who do we turn to for pass rush help? Mark Anderson really stepped up this week, but don't we need him on the other end? Is this Markell Carter's turn to shine, seeing as we just gave him a pay raise? -- Charlie (Mt. Vernon, Iowa)

A. Charlie, I don't think they can replace Andre Carter with one player. He was too integral a part of the defense and they don't have one option who could just step into that role. Carter hardly left the field, playing right defensive end in the base 4-3 and then staying on in most sub packages as a rusher. We recently saw him getting some more work as a standup outside linebacker. Overall, he was on for 79 percent of the team's defensive snaps at the time of his injury. I envision the Patriots splitting up his duties among a few players -- Mark Anderson, Eric Moore and perhaps practice squad player Markell Carter. Of the group, Anderson figures to be leaned on most heavily.

Q. Hey Mike, obviously the loss of Andre Carter cannot be understated. That being said, do you envision Mark Anderson keeping pace with Carter's contributions? While they were at times a great combo on the edge, I hope Anderson can be an adequate replacement. Also, is this now put up or shut up time for Shaun Ellis? This has got to be his time to step up and show why BB gave him $4 million when no other teams were even in the same ballpark. He has done nothing except earn free rent in Foxborough, and I'm wondering if you can see him becoming a productive member of this team? -- Dan (Melbourne Beach, Fla.)

A. Dan, I think Anderson has been a solid contributor this year, one of the team's "value" signings in free agency. Part of his success is that he hasn't been asked to do too much. It reminds me a little bit of Tully Banta-Cain in past years -- when he played in sub packages and as an occasional starter, the job got done at an effective level. But when you asked him to carry out that full-time role, some limitations showed up. So while I think Anderson will be the top replacement for Carter, I also expect some form of time share. As for Ellis, I look at it a little differently. He hasn't produced big, but he provided a one-year cushion if second-year man Brandon Deaderick, who opened the year on PUP, didn't pan out in the new scheme. He was expensive depth and thus wouldn't fall in the Anderson "value" category, but I think he's been a good player to have around for limited contributions on the field (best play was helping force INT vs. Chargers in Week 2) and veteran know-how in the locker room. Sometimes you overpay for that and it's OK; you'd rather them take a swing and not make direct contact than not swing at all (e.g. not drafting edge rushers/outside linebackers).

Q. With the loss of DE Andre Carter, what do the chances look like for players like Jermaine Cunningham and Ron Brace getting a chance for more playing time? They have been almost non-existent, which makes you wonder about the future with them. -- Nick (Albany, Ore.)

A. Nick, this is the spot where critics of the Patriots' drafting sharpen their knives a bit because 2010 second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham would have been one option to step in but he had an underwhelming 2011 season before being placed on season-ending injured reserve Dec. 11. Brace is more of an interior defensive lineman, while Carter is an edge player, so it's not really a one-for-one exchange. Brace did show up Sunday with a big forced fumble to spark the defensive turnaround.

Q. Mike, this defense is going to be the downfall of the team and with Andre Carter gone, it just got worse. Whoever the Pats play in the second round (Jets, Ravens or Steelers) will not make the mistakes that the Broncos made. They gave up 200 yards in the first quarter? REALLY? -- Ken (Long Island, N.Y.)

A. You may be right, Ken, but I'm willing to actually let the game play out before determining the outcome. I'd also point out that over Sunday and Monday, I saw the Jets, Ravens and Steelers make plenty of mistakes in three different losses. Anything can happen. In the end, this defense might not be good enough and there will be hard questions to ask if that's the case. I'll get in line because, like others, it seems as if not all opportunities were maximized to improve the defense and some of the personnel decisions warrant scrutiny. But echoing the theme from last week, I wouldn't count out this Patriots team -- which factors in an offense that puts a lot of pressure on the opposition, the up-and-down defense, and improving special teams -- at this time. They have as good of a chance as any.

Q. Hi Mike, you know the questions are coming on the defensive side of the ball again this week. We all know about the porous secondary but the Pats are having difficulty stopping the run the past two weeks. Is the problem poor play, poor players, poor coaching, or another problem? Is there a fix to the problem? If you can't stop the run or the pass before the playoffs begin, I'm not sure how this season will end. -- Jim (Seminole, Fla.)

A. Jim, this is a fair concern. I think that Broncos' rushing attack is a bit of a unique entity and don't read as much into that game. In the big picture, the Redskins' effort was more concerning to me (170 rushing yards allowed) because it was more of a conventional approach and they still had trouble with it. I think the personnel is good enough, as they've previously proven they can stop it (e.g. Week 4, Raiders, vs. Darren McFadden). They just have to play it better.

Q. Mike, I emailed you two weeks ago worried about the possibility of a surprise IR move regarding Patrick Chung. You assured me it wasn't going to happen. Take two. Still feel as strong about that? I feel like it's coming any day now. -- Peter (Boston)

A. Peter, I don't feel as strongly about it now. It makes you wonder if the Patriots, who had Chung warming up before the Nov. 13 game against the Jets, pushed it a little too hard with him that day. I still feel like Chung will be back, but the feeling isn't as strong as before.

Q. Hi Mike, unless something drastic happens, the Patriots should face in the playoffs a QB (and hopefully 2) by the name of Roethlisberger, Flacco, Yates, Tebow, Sanchez or Dalton. Which QBs of this list do you think will give the Pats D the most trouble? -- Nick (Montreal)

A. Nick, I'm looking more at complete teams than just the quarterbacks, so with that context, I'd list them this way: Roethlisberger, Flacco, Sanchez, Yates, Dalton and Tebow. If we were to expand the list, Rivers would be closer to the top at this point. A few points I'd add is that so much can change in the final two weeks of the season. Look at the 2009 Patriots as an example, when Wes Welker injured his knee in the season finale, which altered the look of that team entering the playoffs. So what the picture looks like now could be different in a few weeks and that's why players have to be so mentally tough at this time of year not to let up.

Q. Hey Mike, I kept my eye on Marcus Cannon when I could see he was in the game. He looked solid throughout, and at times, dominant. He has amazing size and power, with some serious quickness in his feet. He handled the end beautifully. I know he played primarily at tackle at TCU, but was projected at possibly an interior guy. Where do you see him landing long-term with this team? -- Tim (Newton, Mass.)

A. Real good observation, Tim. Cannon was on the field a lot, coming on at right tackle when the Patriots moved Nate Solder to tight end (19 snaps). Because Solder couldn't go from tight end to tackle without missing one play, by rule, it further increased Cannon's playing time. It looked good to me. As for where he lands long-term, right guard would be my projection at this time, assuming good health for young tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. If I'm the Patriots, I bring Matt Light back in 2012 (he's played at a high level) and feel extremely good about the quality and promise of the tackle spot, which probably means more work for Cannon as a guard/tackle option.

Q. I was at the game on Sunday. First, it is a great stadium to see a game; the fans in my section were very friendly, knowledgeable, and want Tim Tebow to be the quarterback of the future. The thing that stood out the most to me was the noise that the crowd was making and the shaking of the stadium. I noticed during the game when Tom Brady was in shotgun that Ryan Wendell was getting tapped in the thigh by Brian Waters to snap the ball. How is this not a false start? I would think the noise from the fans was the reason for the interaction. -- Josh (Boston)

A. Josh, that was a great football environment. The press box was shaking at times. What you saw with Waters and Wendell is a technique the Patriots have used this year on the road with their silent snap count and it is within the rules. Here is a link that explains it further.

Q. Hey Mike, just wondering what you thought of Belichick's decision not to challenge the Aaron Hernandez touchdown. To me, it seemed to be low-risk, high-reward in that situation, so it was just another in-game mistake made by Belichick this year (i.e. lack of taking timeouts). Isn't that what Ernie Adams is for? They had the ball, so they could (somewhat) take their time to see the replays, so I don't really get it. A reporter weakly asked him after the game about it and for some reason refused to follow up Belichick's one word answer. -- Jerry (Duxbury, Mass.)

A. Jerry, I thought it was worth a challenge. One could make the case that nothing is more important than points and that was four of them right there (the difference between a TD and field goal). I heard Belichick go into further detail on the topic Monday on sports radio WEEI, and one of the things he said was that if he lost that challenge, he'd basically be losing two (if a coach isn't successful on one of his first two challenges, he loses the right to a third challenge). I can understand that line of thinking. At the same time, had Belichick said, "Nothing is more important than points", I would have bought that, too.

Q. Hi Mike, Rob Gronkowski got the coverage and treatment I expected while the absence of Deion Branch was noticeable. Yet others stepped up enough, including RBs. However, in the playoffs with even tighter and tougher defenses showing varied coverage and containment on receivers and the run game, Branch and his experience will be essential to compensate or trouble will be in store. Your thoughts? -- Jake (Vancouver, BC)

A. Jake, I think the Patriots would be better off with Branch over their other options, but "essential" seems too strong to me. Really, we're talking about the team's No. 4 pass-catching option on offense after Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Q. Hi Mike, I am a fan of Rob Ninkovich and feel he is a solid pro. However, when watching the film he was awful in the first quarter. The first three long runs he got sealed and the running back found the outside for big gains. Then, they split him out a few yards on the next play so the TE could not hook him again. When I saw that, it was clear Tebow was going to audible to an off-tackle run, inside the TE. Sure enough, they ran inside for another huge gain. The series of plays was very disappointing and I think he may have been exposed quite a bit. Am I over-analyzing or did his play stick out to you (first quarter) as poor? -- Sans (Danvers, Mass.)

A. Sans, I thought Ninkovich struggled in the first quarter. He was a stand-up guy after the game, taking accountability for his early performance. Ninkovich also said that the Broncos were testing the Patriots' run force -- their ability to force the play back inside -- and that is part of his job. Ninkovich said the Patriots needed to change some things up and once they did that, it seemed to get better. Part of the change was also to improve tackling. I don't think it was all on Ninkovich, who has had a solid year in my view.

Q. Mike, I was watching the game and was perplexed by how easily the Broncos were running wild on the Patriots. It looked like the defense was so worried about giving up a big play to Tebow that they were "flat" on their feet, which was putting them out of position to make a tackle. Looks like once they settled down and got a little comfortable things changed. Just wondering your thoughts. -- Brian (Maine)

A. Brian, I thought there were three factors in play -- 1. Players needed to settle down; 2. The run fits weren't executed properly as the Broncos' shifting and motion hit the stress points of the Patriots' scheme; 3. The fundamentals of shedding and tackling weren't being executed when players were in position.

Q. Mike, what is the situation with Gary Guyton? I don't recall seeing him in for any plays against Denver. I recall a few other games where he played very little. Yet, there have been other games where he plays a lot. Is this variation due to game plans or performance? Thanks. -- Ben (Windhoek, Namibia)

A. Ben, it seems to me that Guyton has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff a bit. He came on late Sunday against the Broncos, replacing Dane Fletcher on defense. He's also not showing on special teams coverage units, which tells me that coaches might have concern over how he's running. Here is Guyton's playing time progression this year: 43, 0, 18, 48, 54, 74, 52, 26, 0, 37, 11, 24, 0, 12. The high numbers in Weeks 4-7 were when he stepped in for Jerod Mayo when Mayo was sidelined with an MCL injury.

Q. Mike, with all of Devin McCourty's struggles this season at corner, why do we continue to play him on the kickoff unit? I was looking at your piece on the special teams starters and it really jumped out to me. I don't remember him even making a huge impact, and I have to think someone else could fill in well enough. Kickoff coverage, although it looks pretty straight forward, can require a lot of extra practice and scouting week to week. -- Andy (Chapel Hill, N.C.)

A. Andy, I don't think it's as much about the practice on those special teams roles, it's about the violent collisions during games and increased exposure to injury that is the primary consideration. I think the key is to put yourself in Belichick's hoodie and ask the question, "If not McCourty, then who?" Or "If not Solder or Gronkowski on the wedge, then who?" There are only so many options on a 46-man game-day roster and it's always been Belichick's philosophy to play his top guys on special teams. If you wanted to go more conservative, you could replace Solder with Dan Connolly/Donald Thomas, Gronkowski with Eric Moore, and McCourty with James Ihedigbo/Nate Jones. I think you could make a case for doing that, but last I checked, Belichick wasn't opening his suggestion box to media members or fans.

Q. Mike, I have always been a fan of Kevin Faulk, but he just seems way too slow out there. I can't understand why he is taking reps away from Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley. Is his pass protection that much better? -- Andrew (Apex, N.C.)

A. Andrew, pass protection would be the reason. I concur that Woodhead and Ridley play in a higher gear than Faulk. At this point, Faulk is a situational player for the team (pass protector, occasional runner and receiver on screen plays, punt return option) and one of its leaders. I don't expect his playing time to rise considerably.

Q. Mike, we constantly hear the Patriots getting slammed for failure to draft/develop a young receiver but how about giving them some credit for Gronk and Hernandez? These two are putting up numbers as good if not better than the top receivers in the league. Who cares where the passing yards come from as long as you have playmakers? Both have made a huge leap in year No. 2. I would take these guys over almost any young receiver. -- Matt (Simsbury, Conn.)

A. Great picks, Matt. Both came with some risk and the reward has been great. Credit where credit is due, not just for the selections but for creating a dynamic where both could thrive (e.g. signing free-agent Alge Crumpler as a mentor-type in 2010). I'm a believer that it's not just about drafting the player, but putting him in position to succeed.

Q. Hi Mike, Couple of questions for Belichick if you would: 1. How is Ryan Mallett's progress so far? The Colts' season spurs this interest. 2. Is there any stadium or condition in which you would accept the kickoff instead of deferring? -- Paul (Mount Vernon, Maine)

A. Paul, these are topics that Belichick has recently touched on, so I'll relay his thoughts. On Nov. 25, Jeff Howe of NESN.com (rising star on the Patriots beat) asked Belichick about Mallett and here is Howe's piece. In summary, Belichick has liked what he has seen. As for deferring, I've asked Belichick about it in the past and he said weather would be the biggest factor for taking the ball over deferring (e.g. heavy rains/winds were expected during the action but hadn't yet started.)

Q. The Patriots look far more dangerous when they run the no-huddle. I know they publicly say they can't run it all the time, but other teams (the '89-'92 Bills come to mind) have done it. Why can't/won't they? -- Eric (Carlisle, Mass.)

A. Eric, the no-huddle takes a lot out of players to keep that pace up over four quarters. It also taxes the team's own defense, which I think those Bills' teams of the late '80s/early '90s would tell you, making it harder to play complementary football. I think it's most effective as a change-up pitch.

Q. Hey Mike, what was the deal with Dane Fletcher's forward lateral on the fumbled punt at the end of the first half? Seems like it should have been a penalty (with a 10-second runoff?). -- Bruce (Minneapolis)

A. Bruce, in that situation, the ball is dead once the player has possession. That was confirmed by the Twitter feed of Mike Pereira, the former NFL vice president of officiating, who is a good person to follow for rules of the game questions.

Q. Mike, this edition of the New England Patriots makes us scratch our heads at times but the sustained excellence of this franchise in the Belichick/Brady era has been special. Sometimes fans take for granted these eras (Russell, Orr, Bird). Can you take some time to remind us? -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)

A. Sure Paul, let's end on this note because one might think we're talking about a 3-11 team at times. The first Patriots game I attended was in 1992 against the Colts. It was at an old rinky-dink stadium with aluminum benches in early December, and the Colts won 6-0. There were 19,429 fans there. The team had an unstable ownership situation at the time and little hope. We could go back even farther than that for more perspective, but that's the image I have in my head right now. This is the golden age of Patriots football. I have no doubt we'll be talking about it decades from now and saying, "Remember how good we had it with Belichick and Brady?"

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.