The health of the offensive line is the primary topic on the mind of many emailers to the Patriots mailbag. While the team's young blockers stepped in and held their own Saturday against the Dolphins, which reflects a bright future, a scenario where the Patriots enter the 2011 playoffs without starting left tackle Matt Light (ankle) and starting left guard Logan Mankins (knee) is not ideal.
In addition to the offensive line, a few other areas that came up multiple times included:
1. Playoff positioning and matchups
2. Defensive ups and downs
3. Stevan Ridley and the running back spot
Let's get right to it.
Q: Hey Mike, is there any word on the severity of Logan Mankins' injury? While Donald Thomas did better in the second half, I still think that losing Mankins for an extended period of time would be a big blow to this Pats team. -- Jeff W (Cambridge, Mass.)
A: No doubt it would be a big blow, Jeff. Still waiting for an official word on Mankins, but he was in the locker room after the game, which is an encouraging sign. I wouldn't expect that we'll see him this week, so you take this week and then the bye, and hope he might be ready for the divisional round of the playoffs. But that's the hope at this point, not necessarily the reality based on the information we know. One thing about Mankins: He is as tough as they come. I think he'd play with one arm if they'd let him.
Q: Hi Mike, are there any reports on the injury front? Were Matt Light or Logan Mankins visible in the locker room after the game? It's imperative these guys return for at least the playoffs. We all saw what went on in the first half without them. -- Jim C (Seminole, Fla.)
A: Jim, they were both in there, although they didn't speak with reporters. I think Light will be OK, although I'd shut him down until the playoffs as a precaution. Mankins is less certain at this time based on the limited information available.
Q: Mike, I was thinking before the game that the Pats have the best O-line in the league. You have Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Logan Mankins as a solid group to build around. If Vollmer can get healthy, the younger linemen can develop and the TEs keep producing, this offense will be set for the rest of Brady's career. I give a ton of credit to Dante Scarnecchia and hope that Mankins, Vollmer and Light can get back (thank goodness for the bye). So my question is: Am I seeing the O-line too much through my Pats fan perspective and hyping up the group or are they that good? And are they set up that well for the future? -- Jason Jeppsen (Mantua, Utah)
A: Jason, I think "best O-line in the league" is generous, but I agree with the point about a promising situation for the future. Some of the Patriots' best drafting and developing has come along the offensive line. You look at other teams around the league making similar investments -- the 2011 Jets are a good example, and I also thought of the Rams -- and they haven't had the same type of results. When it comes to 2011, I still think there are some signs that lead to concern -- that first half against the Dolphins was ugly -- but overall the line hasn't been high on the list of Patriots issues this season.
Q: Obviously BB knows best, but do you think he might have been over-thinking it a little after Matt Light went down in warm-ups? Instead of shifting Mankins to an unfamiliar position at LT and inserting the little-used Thomas at LG, why not just start the game with Solder LT, Mankins LG, Cannon RT? You're starting two rookies, sure, but at least they all have some experience playing those positions. -- ASB (Longmeadow, Mass.)
A: I agree, ASB. Given the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if Bill Belichick would like to have that one back.
Q: Hi Mike, it does not seem that the Patriots will have a "complete" four-quarter game this regular season, but they have demonstrated to be a team with mental toughness and resiliency like no other in the NFL. Do you think that it will be enough to be successful in the postseason? -- Memo Alfaro (Tijuana, Mexico)
A: Memo, that toughness is the type of characteristic that can help take a team far in the postseason. I think the Patriots have as good a chance as any AFC club. Teams still need some things to break right to win a Super Bowl, and we've seen how fragile things are on a week-to-week basis in the NFL, but I don't see another team in the AFC that I'd look at and say, "I'd rather be in their position heading into the postseason." Do you?
Q: My man Mike! Let's be honest, have you seen another passing defense even remotely as poor as ours? Be honest, because I haven't. With that being said, what do you think our chances are in the playoffs? Even with the first-round bye and possibility of home-field advantage throughout, it's tough to imagine this bunch going one-and-done in the playoffs. -- iannottz (Cranston, R.I.)
A: I don't see much difference between the Patriots defense and the defenses of the Packers and Saints. All three teams, generally considered the elite of the NFL, are powered by lethal offenses. As for the possibility of a one-and-done scenario in the playoffs, nothing would surprise me. Based on the present picture and considering possible opponents, I'd currently pick the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. But if past years have taught us anything, it's that anything is possible in the postseason.
Q: Hey Mike, I know the Pats have to make do with what they have now, but how do you see them fixing their secondary in the offseason? I don't know if throwing more youth at it in the draft is the right answer (unless they trade up for Morris Claiborne, who looks great at LSU against NFL-caliber athletes in the SEC). Are there any pending free agents you see as a good fit? Or is it simply a matter of adding a complementary piece or two and hoping McCourty and Chung stay healthy and improve? -- Sterling (Providence, R.I.)
A: Sterling, I don't think they're too far off. I'm of the belief that all it will take is a few tweaks to help this secondary. First and foremost, they have to get Devin McCourty right. His dip in performance has been a mystery to me. After that, draft a safety, sign a free agent (a lot can change between now and then in terms of who is available), and that's where I'd start. I think there is a good foundation to build off there.
Q: It seems like the regular season is a waste of time. The Pats will finish 13-3 with home field, but in the playoffs, with another team having a good defense and a decent quarterback, the Pats will be gone. Why has Belichick been unable to come up with a decent defense in three years? Are you as pessimistic as I am or do you see a sliver of hope? It is extremely frustrating to see Tom Brady's golden years wasted. -- Michael McElman (San Diego, Calif.)
A: Michael, your thoughts have been echoed by many emailers over the past year or so. When it comes to the regular season being a waste, think about that for a moment. That's how high the bar has been raised here. Think Jets fans, this year, feel the same way? At the same time, I understand your point about maximizing this opportunity with Brady and why there is frustration with some of the continued struggles of the defense. As for the question, I take more of an optimistic view. My return question to you is, which teams out there have a good defense and a decent quarterback? There aren't many, and if the game is played at Gillette Stadium, I'm not counting out the Patriots against anyone.
Q: Despite New England's defensive woes this late in the season, they may end up with home field throughout the playoffs yet again. Some may see the defense as the downfall this postseason, but I tend to disagree. It actually may surprise people this year and rise to the occasion. Not to discredit yards given up, but last time I checked the game was determined by points scored. Do you think this scoring trend will continue to lift New England to Indianapolis in February? -- Alvin (Pelham, Mass.)
A: Alvin, if the Patriots beat the Bills on Sunday, they get the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage. That's obviously what they want when considering two of their biggest playoff threats -- Baltimore and Pittsburgh -- have looked like different teams on the road. The Ravens are 3-4 on the road, while the Steelers are 4-3. As for the defense, always take the points over the yards. Always. My take on the D is that it's a hard unit to invest in because of the inconsistent play, but when you factor in how much pressure the offense puts on the opposition, the defense can play with a larger margin for error. That just might be good enough.
Q: Mike, I think all Patriots fans would agree that the worst playoff scenario for the team would be to have to go through Baltimore and Pittsburgh, in one order or another. Can you spell out what needs to happen this weekend for us to get an opener at home against someone other than the Ravens or Steelers? (After all, I need to know which teams I'm praying for and praying against.) -- Deans Desk (Rumford, R.I.)
A: Dean, all your playoff scenarios are right here. Still a lot of moving parts.
Q: Hi Mike. What are your thoughts on Belichick's heavy usage of Stevan Ridley this week? He looked great, and the Law Firm was an afterthought all game. The Pats have had a committee at running back after releasing Corey Dillon, and I'd rather them spend their money on bringing back Wes Welker than use it to keep Green-Ellis if they already have a good enough RB. What do you think about the RB situation moving forward? -- Perry (Newton, Mass.)
A: Perry, I think Ridley looks like the team's best back right now. Explosive. As for Green-Ellis vs. Welker, we're talking about two different neighborhoods here. Welker is going to command a contract in the $9-$10 million/year range if we use the franchise tag as a barometer. Green-Ellis will be significantly less than that. I agree with the thought that bringing back Welker should be a top priority. I'm not sure about the holdup, but if the Patriots aren't offering a deal that matches or exceeds recent $9/10 million/year pacts signed by Santonio Holmes and Brandon Marshall, then I think they need to bring it up. And if Welker is seeking to match the Larry Fitzgerald $15 million/year deal that is the outlier among receivers, I think he can expect the franchise tag. To me, it shouldn't be too hard to get that extension done. Not sure where the breakdown is.
Q: Mike, any chance that the Law Firm's problems are physical? Does he have turf toe, which we've seen sideline running backs before (Fred Taylor)? Isn't this a contract year for him, too? Will we see him back with the Pats? -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)
A: Dan, Green-Ellis' contract expires after this season and I could envision a scenario where his return will be dictated by other teams. I believe the Patriots will be in the mix to retain him, but like they often do, will set a limit as to how far they're willing to go. If another team offers more, I could see Green-Ellis playing elsewhere in 2012. Injury-wise, Green-Ellis was battling an illness last week. Previously, he had been slowed by a toe injury.
Q: Mike, would you agree that Jerod Mayo is one of the most underrated defensive players in the NFL? He may not get attention for flashy plays like a Ray Lewis does, but he fits the Patriots system perfectly, and it was great to see him step up and have a huge day against the Dolphins this week. I think Pats fans should be very happy about having him for another five years. I don't know if Mayo would fare as well on another team, but he's perfect for Belichick's system yet doesn't get enough credit, in my opinion. -- Ben (Waltham, Mass.)
A: Ben, I think Mayo is rated pretty highly around the NFL. He was a Pro Bowler last year. The biggest thing to me is that we're starting to see some more game-changing plays from him -- interceptions, disruptive blitzes, etc. As Tedy Bruschi said in the past, that's one of the final pieces in his game to have him consistently in the discussion as one of the top players at his position.
Q: Watching the Saints on Monday night, I noticed that Drew Brees is under center on almost every play, whereas Brady is almost always in the shotgun. Do you think it would help the New England offense, and especially the running game, if Brady was under center more? The way it is now, if Brady is under center, teams can almost guess it will be a run. If he was under center more, it would be much more unpredictable. And a second question -- the Saints ran a lot of screens. What happened to the Patriots' screen game? They used to run a ton, now it is almost never, except the occasional bubble screen to Welker. -- Mike Thomas (Boston)
A: Mike, I wouldn't alter much with the Patriots offense at this time. To me, that's the team's primary ticket to success and the results have been solid overall. There are times when I think one could quibble with too much shotgun -- third-and-1 in the first half against Miami is one example that comes to mind -- but this is a passing offense first and foremost. I was impressed that they could turn to the running game like they did against the Dolphins late, with rookie Stevan Ridley leading the way, and have success with it. As for the screen game, it's been inconsistent. Part of the reason I think we haven't seen it at times is that when the Patriots try it early, it hasn't had success, so they are less likely to stick with it. We have seen the tight end screen, one of my favorite plays, a bit more of late.
Q: I know this may be nitpicking, but it bothers me a little that in the last two weeks, Brady has decided to call his own number and rush for three touchdowns. Wouldn't it be a good thing for any of the running backs to get a chance to score? Brady already gets enough attention, does he really need to also be rushing from the 1/2 foot line. It reminds me in basketball of a good point guard on a fast break - maybe the point guard can score, but a good one will always pass the ball and let a teammate get the chance. -- Andrew Gordon (Randolph, Mass.)
A: Andrew, it's all about the points to me. You have to get them any way you can, and if they think the sneak is the best way to go, I endorse the sneak. They've been a little inconsistent running out of the "jumbo" package in recent weeks, so I take a bottom-line approach on this topic. Now, if we bring the higher rate of injury into the conversation, that might be something to consider when altering the play-calling. You want to be careful subjecting Brady to any extra hits.
Q: Mike, what is your opinion of the physical condition of Tom Brady's arm? This is way beyond tennis elbow. He has pilled up big stats, but it is easy to tell something is wrong. Are you sworn to secrecy? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)
A: Joe, if I had concrete, reliable information to pass along, I would do so. No secrecy here. It's about bottom-line results and Brady keeps delivering. I'm sure the arm is sore, and he's banged up in other areas, but I don't think it's anything that is going to stop him from playing at a high level. He's tough. Let's not over-think it.
Q: The Patriots have released several CBs and safeties who were high draft picks and some current players have clearly regressed. Is the problem primarily coaching? Safeties coach Mike Patricia had no prior experience coaching safeties and Josh Boyer's experience prior to being hired with the Pats was with Division II or III. Why doesn't Bill Belichick hire retired players who played the position who can better relate to the current players? -- David (Lawrenceville, Ga.)
A: David, I don't think it's about being a former player. As we saw in 2010 with safeties coach Corwin Brown, a former NFL player, that didn't change the performance of the safeties much. This is a tough one for me because when cornerback Devin McCourty was having a standout rookie season in 2010, there was nothing but good things to say about coaches such as Boyer. So now he's all of a sudden a bad coach? That doesn't seem fair to me.
Q: Mike, since Nate Solder was a tight end early in his college career, do you think we may see him catch a pass to catch a defense off guard sometime? I think that scenario was more likely before the offensive line got banged up (necessitating Solder remaining at tackle). Will we see the second coming of Mike Vrabel down on the goal line sometime? -- Steve Foster (Friendswood, Texas)
A: Steve, I concur. I thought we were headed in that direction -- Solder was releasing into pass routes about once a game of late -- but now with the injuries along the offensive line, it seems less likely. Solder only played two snaps as an eligible receiver against the Dolphins.
Q: Good article about how a two-TE offense is viewed as being more balanced by Belichick. With that in mind, shouldn't the Patriots carry more TEs in case of injury? If they lose Hernandez or Gronk, they have to go to the practice squad for Garrett Mills, a significant drop-off that likely requires changing the game plan. When Branch was injured, the Patriots could choose from Ochocinco, Edelman and Underwood, who are all on the active roster. It seems like the Patriots should have one more full-time TE on the roster in place of a WR, recognizing that Hernandez can play a dual role. Having one backup at TE seems better than three backups at WR. -- PatsFanBrian (San Mateo, Calif.)
A: Brian, this is interesting roster-based chatter to me. They have both Garrett Mills and Dorin Dickerson on the practice squad as more of a "move" tight end if anything happened to Hernandez. But there isn't a bigger tight end behind Gronkowski. They had two of them in training camp in Lee Smith and Will Yeatman, and I'd assume they wanted one of them on the practice squad, but they were both claimed by other teams.
Q: Mike, this is the final week of regular season, and so many days have passed since we discussed the initial 53-men roster. I still vividly remember me wondering if Mark Anderson was powerful enough to play DE or if Sammy Morris should be kept on the roster. Not surprisingly, many transactions have occurred and other than 20 Ventrones (and counting), I agree with you that the release of Albert Haynesworth has the largest impact. In my view, the second most important transaction was signing of Danny Aiken. Punts have become one of the strong weapons of the team, and Aiken's unsung steady role should not be overlooked. What is your take? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A: Mark, you are a die-hard if you're talking long snapper as one of the most important transactions. Hat's off to you. That was an important one. It was a little risky entering the season with a rookie snapper and had me wondering if the team's brass erred in not retaining Lonie Paxton, but they have been proved correct. They deserve credit for that.
Q: Hi Mike, with Steve Spagnuolo likely out in St Louis at the end of the season, can you assess the chances he could be a Patriot next season? Is there any history between him and BB? -- Casey (New Zealand)
A: Casey, that would seem like a long shot. Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune presented some different scenarios today that had Spagnuolo landing in Philadelphia as Andy Reid's defensive coordinator. That makes more sense to me.
Q: Mike, I thought the officiating in the Pats-Dolphins game was subpar, with questionable spots and what, to me at least, appeared to be an egregious pass interference penalty on Devin McCourty. Obviously this is all debatable and the refs do a generally good job most games, but it made me curious about the NFL's response when an officiating crew does a poor job calling a game? I'm sure the NFL looks at lousy officiating as something that takes away from the overall quality of their product, so I was wondering if you had any insight into the league's quality control mechanisms regarding officiating. Thanks. -- Brian (Fort Riley, Kan.)
A: Brian, officials are graded on every call of every game. Ultimately, those grades provide the answer of which officials get the top playoff assignments. For what it's worth, I thought both pass interference penalties (on McCourty and Rob Ninkovich) were the right calls.
Q: Hi Mike, I think Markell Carter is one of these guys that has great potential, and that Belichick seems to be trying to save for the future. I'm not sure what the risk is of activating him as opposed to leaving him on their practice roster. Would he need to clear waivers in the offseason or if they deactivate him? They need a pass rusher desperately. -- Paul (Canada)
A: Paul, I thought the pass rush looked pretty good against the Dolphins, with the five sacks. As for Carter, if the Patriots signed him to the roster and then waived him after the game, 31 other teams could claim him, and the Patriots would lose Carter. As a member of the practice squad, Carter could still be signed by another team, but it would be his choice if he wanted to go (he elected to stay when another opportunity came up recently). In the end, this one is simple to me. When Bill Belichick feels he's ready, both on defense and special teams, he'll be promoted. I don't think there is much more to it.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.