Continued success versus Steelers?

The New England Patriots have had the upper hand against the Pittsburgh Steelers in recent years, but could this year be different?

That's where this week's post-bye Patriots mailbag begins.

And while that was the top theme of the 'bag, it wasn't the only one. There was a lot of chatter about running back Kevin Faulk and the others on the team's reserve lists. If Faulk comes back, what type of role might he play? Whose place on the roster might he take?

Those questions are dissected, while the defense also garners attention. The energy linebacker Brandon Spikes brings to the field has caught the eye of emailers.

Let's get to the questions …

Q: Mike, as a displaced Patriot fan living in Pittsburgh, I have seen every Steelers game this season. Two things have stuck out: 1. The struggles of the Steelers' offensive line, and 2. Flashes of greatness from speedy receiver Mike Wallace. As always, I see the pass rush being a major part of this game (for both teams, really). I was wondering if you had any insight as to how the Pats might try to get after Big Ben and keep the big plays from Wallace to a minimum. Your thoughts? -- Arnie (Pittsburgh, Pa.)

A: Arnie, I think the Patriots will be able to get to Ben Roethlisberger, but bringing him down is another story altogether. Few quarterbacks in the NFL can extend a play like Roethlisberger can. In part because it often isn't the conventional route, I don't think he always gets the credit due to him for making plays. As for Wallace, I'd be surprised if the Patriots don't have a safety over the top of him on every snap. As we saw Sunday in Arizona, one slipup is all it takes for Wallace (95-yard touchdown) to hurt you.

Q: In your weekly chat, I was surprised that there was only one person that mentioned the Steelers game as the one that is most interesting, and that was only because it is the next game. This may be the toughest opponent they face the rest of this season. How do you think the Pats will do? Is there another team they will face that presents a bigger challenge? -- Rob (Gloucester, Mass.)

A: Rob, I think part of it might be that the Patriots have had success against the Steelers in recent years. I'd put this game as third toughest of those remaining, behind Philadelphia and the Jets. All are road games. I need a little more time before making a prediction. I do see the Patriots losing at least one of the next three games (at Pittsburgh, vs. Giants, at Jets), I just haven't decided which one I want to pick.

Q: I'm a big fan of Kevin Faulk, but at his age and coming off a major injury, I question how much value he can bring to the team versus taking snaps away from Danny Woodhead and the other backs. What's your take on his value compared to the other running backs? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)

A: Ashley, I think the first area to focus on is pass protection. Faulk is exceptional in that area, so I could see him playing in the two-minute offense over Woodhead, whose numbers have dipped a bit this year. I did think Faulk was slowing down at the time of his injury last year, so a big part of it is how well he runs after a surgery. If he's added to the roster, it should be noted that the next three opponents (Steelers, Giants, Jets) can all get after opposing quarterbacks, so his presence would help.

Q: Hello Mike, my question concerns the current status of Shane Vereen. I know he had a hamstring issue in training camp, but now that he's on the active roster are there any indications that he'll get a chance to make a contribution this year? He is a true breakaway threat that could add some lightning to their offense in addition to running screens with [Rob] Gronkowski. -- Ken (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

A: Ken, Vereen was on the field for three snaps in the team's most recent game, against the Cowboys. That was his first action of the season on offense. With Kevin Faulk possibly joining the mix, I think that could make it tougher for Vereen to break through. If anything, I wouldn't be surprised if Vereen suddenly becomes one of the players who isn't active on game day, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Faulk the running backs on the 46-man game-day roster.

Q: Hey Mike, I had a question about Danny Woodhead. It seems like he has kind of disappeared this season and I was wondering what was up. Last year it seemed he produced a game changing play at least once every two games. This year I haven't noticed him at all (I know he's been hurt the last two weeks). Was last year something of an anomaly? With Kevin Faulk coming back, are we potentially going to see even less of Woody for the rest of the season? -- JStor (Valparaiso, Ind.)

A: I agree that Woodhead isn't making the same type of impact. You look at his rushing average; it was 5.6 last year, it's 4.1 in 2011. His average per reception was 11.1 last year and 7.9 in 2011. So we're not seeing the same explosiveness. Part of that is tied to the injury, but I do think Faulk could cut into his time if he is eventually added to the 53-man roster.

Q: Like to hear your thoughts on who gets released/placed on IR assuming Faulk, [Ron] Brace and [Brandon] Deaderick all come back. -- Tom (Santa Monica, Calif.)

A: Tom, I'd look toward cornerback Phillip Adams and safety Ross Ventrone as two top candidates and they've been on and off the roster in recent weeks. I think it would be a mistake, but I wonder if Gerard Warren could be a consideration. You also have the possibility of injured reserve for cornerback Ras-I Dowling if his hip injury doesn't improve.

Q: Hi Mike, do you think the Pats will sign Wes Welker early or put the franchise tag on him? -- Sefenn55 (Providence, R.I.)

A: Barring a change, I don't sense anything imminent with Welker right now. From a general sense, I have little doubt that the Patriots will control Welker's rights in 2012 in some form, whether it's via the franchise tag or an extension.

Q: Mike, Nate Solder has done an excellent job for a rookie filling in at right tackle. When Sebastian Vollmer gets healthy who gets the start? How much of a rotation will there be? -- Rick (Amesbury, Mass.)

A: Rick, when Vollmer played in his only game of the season (Week 2, Chargers), he went wire to wire. Solder was used as the third tight end that day. The answer this week would be tied to how much Vollmer is being bothered by his back injury.

Q: Dear Mike, we've heard you repeat Bill Belichick's words that new players often make their biggest jump from year one to year two. But we've seen major dropoffs from year one to two from players in recent years (e.g. D. Butler, D. McCourty, J. Cunningham). It doesn't seem to simply be a case of better players coming in to take their places as they've been given a chance to play. Your thoughts? -- Jess (Indiana)

A: Jess, I think you've hit on something that has to be a concern for Belichick and his staff. I don't have an answer for why, but I think it's a fair point and something the staff needs to study to determine if it's something it could be doing better to help players develop.

Q: Hi Mike, the Pats defense has stepped up its game a lot over the last two games. Also over that time, I was struck by the energy and exuberance shown by Brandon Spikes and Patrick Chung. These two have just been flying all over the field and are quick to celebrate a good play by them or any of their teammates. I don't think we should underestimate the importance of this youthful exuberance. Football is an emotional game. These guys are playing with passion and I believe it has infected the rest of the defense. What do you think? -- Dave (Berlin, N.H.)

A: Dave, I noticed the same thing and agree that it's notable. You have to play this game with energy and passion. Those who saw the documentary "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" might recall Belichick showing film to his players that reflected they weren't having fun or rallying around each other. A tackle would be made and few were there to congratulate the player. Sometimes Spikes seems to take it a little over the top, but my feeling is that it's better to go in that direction than the alternative.

Q: Mike, one fact lost with the talk about the defense's improved performance over the past few games is that it has all taken place without Jerod Mayo on the field. While I know that Bill Belichick thinks highly of Mayo and that his leadership is important to the team's success, I have to wonder if Mayo is really as much of a difference-maker as we are led to believe. Sure, he makes lots of tackles and has a good eye for the ball, but with two straight above-average performances by the defense, it seems that the defense can succeed without him if need be. In your opinion, is it possible that Mayo may not be as necessary a cog in the wheel as Belichick and others have led us to believe? -- John (Boston, Mass.)

A: John, I think in the long-term, the Patriots are a better defense with Mayo on the field. But what these two games showed me is that the Patriots have the personnel to hold their ground in a short-term injury situation. Part of my thinking is tied to the Jets and Cowboys and how they weren't clicking on offense, and I think that aided the Patriots' defense these past two weeks.

Q: Hi Mike, how do you rate Kyle Love's performance this year? With so many health issues on the D-line, Love has been playing way more than I'd have expected, and seems to have been doing OK. It's hard to think of a more unheralded player than him -- he doesn't even get mentioned as a plucky underdog, even though he's every bit as undrafted as Woodhead, Green-Ellis, [Gary] Guyton etc -- and I'd be interested to know how you rate his body of work so far, and what role you see for him going forward this season. -- Dan (Sheffield, UK)

A: Dan, I think Love has been one of the team's unsung performers this season. He played a total of 151 snaps last season and he's already been on the field for 165 in the first six games. His presence and performance on early downs playing next to Vince Wilfork has contributed to the team not having to rely more on Albert Haynesworth. I see him ahead of Haynesworth at this point as the more consistent player.

Q: Has Rob Gronkowski become the second best player on the Patriots? He has been the best all around TE in the league, bar none in my opinion. He has been matched up against elite pass rushers 1-on-1 and held his own, been dominant in the running game, and has been insane in the passing game/red zone. It's hard to put anyone save [Tom] Brady ahead of Vince Wilfork, but it makes you wonder. Gronkowski has singlehandedly redefined the Patriots offense. -- Tony (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A: Tony, I think Gronkowski has been excellent, but I'd still put Wes Welker ahead of him at this point. Still, as Tedy Bruschi noted a few years ago, Bill Belichick has been searching for the next Mark Bavaro for years. Bavaro was the great Giants tight end from the 1980s, and Belichick has his new Bavaro in Gronkowski.

Q: If the Pats had not spent the money on [Chad] Ochocinco, would James Sanders still be a Patriot? -- Jon (Washington, D.C.)

A: Jon, I don't think it's that simple, but my sense is that Sanders still wouldn't be a Patriot. It wasn't a case of having to trim salary to absorb Ochocinco's contract, as much as Bill Belichick just not seeing Sanders being worth the $2.8 million salary. Sanders hasn't done much in Atlanta in recent weeks, so based on his performance there, it's tougher for me to build a strong case on his behalf. I think the one counter is that just because Sanders hasn't done it in Atlanta doesn't mean he couldn't have helped the Patriots this year.

Q: Hi Mike, I recognize that Ochocinco is saying and doing all the right things, beyond running the correct routes. It's great that he's not rocking the boat. But can't we fans question the wisdom of bringing in such an expensive role or niche player? Couldn't that money have been better spent elsewhere, like on the pass rush? Heck, I'd rather be paying James Sanders that money right now. -- Paddy (Gwangju, South Korea)

A: Absolutely Paddy, it's fair to question the acquisition and the salary-based investment the team is making in him. For a team that talks about "value" a lot, Ochocinco doesn't represent great value at this point.

Q: Mike, your article about the struggles of the '11 Colts making the '08 Patriots look better fed into the Colts' fans argument that Peyton Manning is a better player and means more to his team. It's the whole Brady being a "system" guy thing. Just a little too much of a love fest in that article. -- Jim Ricks (Boston)

A: Jim, does anyone seriously think Brady is a system guy? With all due respect to anyone that would make that argument, I find that preposterous. He's one of the greatest who ever played the game. I look at this topic completely differently. The difference between the '08 Patriots and '11 Colts speaks more about structure/makeup of the teams than anything. You see how much the Colts are struggling without Manning and it validates Bill Belichick's team-building approach that much more.

Q: Hey Mike, if Tom Brady couldn't play, do you think Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett would become the next Matt Cassel or would they falter? I like how Hoyer has looked in the preseason, and he started looking like Cassel did in the 2008 preseason. I can't help but feel confident that if Brady were to have to miss any games, that Hoyer would be able to step up and handle the offense. Your thoughts? -- Ted (East Brunswick, N.J.)

A: Ted, I think the situation would be similar to 2008 and we'd see the Patriots scale some things back for Hoyer. I believe the team would still be competitive.

Q: Is this the weakest AFC you can recall in the last 10 years? It's like the whole conference is littered with middle relief. -- DeansDesk (Rumford, R.I.)

A: Dean, I do think the AFC is weaker than it's been in recent years. Even the top teams, like New England and Baltimore, have noticeable flaws on one side of the ball that make you wonder about their championship hopes.

Q: Hi Mike, in your "football journey" for Dan Gronkowski, you mentioned that Dan/Rob are the fourth set of brothers to play together for the Patriots. Who were the other three? -- Paul Sanner (New York)

A: Paul, the other sets of brothers were Whit/Justin Canale (1968), Chuck/Rod McSwain (1987) and Robert/Clarence Weathers (1983-1984).

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.