The tone of the Patriots mailbag is usually predictable based on the result of the previous Patriots game. A loss often leads to overwhelming concern. A win usually produces optimism.
This week, surprisingly, is an almost even balance of the two.
I was expecting more of a negative/critical vibe after Sunday's 25-17 loss to the Steelers, and certainly there was some of that. The Patriots' personnel decisions, in particular, are coming under scrutiny by some. The regression of the defense also draws attention.
Yet others stepped back from Sunday's disappointing result and focused on some of the positive things the team has going for itself heading into Sunday's home game against the Giants. That was a bit unexpected.
Let's get right to the questions ...
Q: OK Mike, now it's on to the New York Giants. This is a copycat league. In your opinion do the Giants have the personnel on offense to follow the same formula as the Pittsburgh Steelers? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I don't think it's a perfect fit when comparing the Steelers and Giants, but consider that Giants quarterback Eli Manning was 31 of 45 for 349 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's too-close-for-comfort win over the visiting Dolphins. They have a lot of pass-catching weapons that get involved, but where I thought "speed" with the Steelers' receivers, this Giants group is a bit bigger, making the challenge different. Overall, given the inconsistent nature of the Patriots' defense, one can envision the Giants making plays in the game, but I don't see a replica of the Steelers' approach being how it would necessarily unfold.
Q: Hi Mike, you probably have a flood of negative Patriots mail this week, so allow me to point out some of the positives. As bad as the defense played, they only allowed 23 points (excluding the safety), which in many games is enough to win with our offense. As Jerod Mayo is eased back in and is side-by-side with Brandon Spikes, the defense has to improve. We were competitive until the very end and should have been even closer had the Rob Gronkowski TD been called correctly or challenged. Also, maybe this result was inevitable given the week of "Brady owns the Steelers" stories. If there is a rematch in the playoffs, the focus could be on this loss which will give the Patriots motivation. That matchup could come at home too, given that our schedule looks to be slightly easier than the Steelers' the rest of the way, and the Steelers haven't played well on the road this year. What do you think, am I grasping at straws or can we still be optimistic? As Tedy Bruschi said, this is only Week 7 and let's see where we are in January. -- Joe (San Diego)
A: Joe, I'll add another positive and it was something I scribbled in my notebook during the fourth quarter: "Patriots a tough team to knock out." I thought the Steelers deserved to win, but I also felt the Patriots showed a lot of fight on a day that wasn't their best. That can go a long way as they make their way through the ups and downs of the season. I'm not as optimistic about the defense, particularly on the back end, but when you look around the NFL, every team is flawed. Anything is possible.
Q: Mike, I know everyone is bemoaning the Pats' much-maligned defense following the Steelers loss (deservedly so, this week) but don't you think people are panicking too much? I admit they are what the stats and record say they are, and that, at this point, they're not a "championship defense," but they only gave up 23 points following two pretty good performances the prior two weeks. Isn't possible they just had a poor, uncharacteristic day? -- Tom (Boston)
A: Absolutely possible, Tom. I see both sides of the discussion. We can look at the 23 points allowed and say, "That would normally be good enough," and surely, the red zone D was a bright spot. They deserve credit for that (three holds inside the 20; and another hold at the 26 that led to a missed field goal). Others might say the Patriots were only three plays from that 23 becoming 35. From this perspective, I think it's fair to look a bit deeper and ask the questions, "Which players are being developed and getting better?" I saw a Steelers defense that turned to second-year linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (fifth round pick, Utah) in place of James Farrior and they didn't miss a beat. Meanwhile, I'm not seeing enough of the Patriots' young players making that same jump, and in their place are veterans whose contributions have been limited (e.g. Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth). The secondary looks like a legitimate concern.
Q: Mike, it is always tempting to overreact when we all know virtually nobody goes undefeated and the Saints get beat by the Rams. My concern is not playing poorly against the Steelers and still having the ball and being down by one score late in the game. My concern is the apparent inability of the Pats to identify and develop players on the outside on both sides of the ball. Peyton Manning was making practice squad talent look like Pro Bowlers a few years ago, and yet nobody can earn Brady's trust but Deion Branch and Wes Welker? And BB's defensive genius hoodie is pretty deep in the closet after four-plus years of mediocre performance. All teams are flawed in 2011 which gives some hope, but do you see any concrete signs of progress in these areas? -- Colorado Pat (Denver)
A: Pat, I think you've hit on a fair point here. The personnel evaluation, coupled with development, warrants scrutiny from this view. Here is a blog entry on the investments the team has made in the secondary since 2007. Meanwhile, the club hasn't drafted and developed a top-end receiver since Deion Branch and David Givens in 2002. At this point, the main sign of progress I see is in the red zone. If the Patriots can stay strong in that area, they will at least give themselves a chance.
Q: Hi Mike. Sunday's game was agonizing, but I can't just put it on how poorly the defense played. I thought the coaches screwed up big time. It's like they were deathly afraid of the Steelers' big-play potential and completely forgot about the other aspects of the game. Belichick offered the Steelers a silver platter with one of the few and only time-tested game plans to beat the Patriots: limit Brady's playing time. And the Steelers took full advantage of the deep coverage and blitzes. I understand the fear and danger of the big play, but I'd rather force them to make the big play over and over rather let them chew up yards and clock with ease. What were the coaches thinking? It's almost unfair to let the unproven and shaky defense to get eaten alive like that. They didn't have a chance -- and neither did Brady. -- Ben (Los Angeles)
A: Ben, I think you're always trying to strike that balance between defending the big play with someone like Mike Wallace, while also protecting other areas of the field. In theory, I could see why the Patriots chose to focus on eliminating the big play going into the game, in part because the Steelers strike me as an offense that would turn it over if forced to drive consistently (similar to what we saw in the second quarter on Gary Guyton's pick). In the end, I think we can look at 5-7 third-down plays and highlight their importance. When you're giving up first downs on third-and-11, third-and-15 and third-and-12, those are big plays and back-breakers. The Steelers should also get some credit for sound execution.
Q: Mike, do you have any information on why Brady took so long at the line after the Gronkowski catch at the goal line? Was he giving BB time to challenge? If not, he seems to have wasted about 30 seconds. Also this seems to be a gap in the new rule. If they are going to review "every" scoring play, would it not make sense to review the ones that were not called TD's? The replay was fairly conclusive that he was inside the goal line. -- David (Minneapolis)
A: David, I heard Bill Belichick explain on sports radio WEEI on Monday that the Patriots planned to run, but Tom Brady correctly checked out of the play because it would have led the ball carrier right into the waiting tackler. To check out of the play takes some time to go through the communication process. As for the rule proposal, it makes sense to me. This is a good example of why goal-line cameras -- which Belichick has long been a proponent of -- would be a worthy investment by the NFL. That way, Belichick and other coaches could guarantee they'd have a good look at a play like that before throwing the challenge flag. Belichick said on WEEI that it wasn't conclusive when he watched the play again after the game, on the coaches' tape.
Q: I've heard and read a lot of discussion about the choice to onside kick. The choice seems easy to me, so I think I'm missing something. If you kick deep, you have virtually no chance at getting the ball because your defense has to make the stop. If you onside kick, you have some chance to get the ball; if you don't, your defense has to make the stop. So the decision seems to risk the chance to get the ball immediately in exchange for field position -- but either way the defense needs to make the stop if the opposition gets the ball. So my question is, why do people seem to take the onside kick as a lack of confidence in the defense, or a poor choice? -- Andrew (Hinesburg, Vt.)
A: Andrew, the main thing there is field position. The Patriots trailed 23-17 at the time of the onside kick, and given the location on the field, it is more of a gamble because the opposition isn't far from field-goal range to make it a two-possession, nine-point game. If you kick it away, you have a greater chance of keeping it a one-possession game, and I think that's where the thoughts on the defense come into play.
Q: Mike, can you offer any insight as to how Bill Belichick could possibly release Leigh Bodden two days before a game if he knew there was a distinct possibility that Ras-I Dowling would be placed on IR? He certainly hadn't been beaten as much as Devin McCourty. -- Brian Desjardins (Tumon, Guam)
A: Brian, this reminds of the Lawyer Milloy release in 2003, but to a lesser degree. In situations like these, I view it as Bill Belichick balancing his role as leader of the team from both the short-term and long-term perspectives. In the short term, he had to know releasing Bodden would hurt the team. They aren't better without him. So in my view, it had to be something long-term and related to his core principles in how he leads players. My sense is that he felt Bodden wasn't fully invested, and if he kept putting him on the field, he was sending a mixed message to his players. When you're a leader of a team, you can't just get up in front of the group and talk it. You have to be willing to back it with actions, too. Belichick isn't sharing his thought process, but that's my sense of what he was thinking with Bodden, even though he knew it would hurt the team in the short term.
Q: Seriously Mike, don't you think there is a roster spot that could be better used by someone who can stretch the field and actually get open to catch passes? The Chad Ochocinco experiment has got to come to an end now. Agreed? -- Benjamin (East Lansing, Mich.)
A: Benjamin, I could envision it happening, but I don't think it's a necessity, in part because I don't see someone else out there that would be an immediate upgrade. Another factor to consider is how Julian Edelman's arrest early Tuesday morning potentially affects any decision-making at the position related to Ochocinco's status and role. If anything, perhaps they put Taylor Price ahead of Ochocinco on the depth chart and see if he can provide more. The one play from Ochocinco that stands out from the Steelers game was the long ball over the middle in which he and Brady weren't close to making a connection. Brady didn't seem pleased afterward.
Q: Mike, you mentioned both pre- and post-game that you felt Kevin Faulk's return would cut into Danny Woodhead's playing time. That being the case, to what would you attribute the reduction in BenJarvus Green-Ellis' playing time. It occurs to me if he was less than 100 percent, Steven Ridley could have been a decent backup option. All a long way of asking, do the Patriots have a 2nd option behind Green-Ellis if they actually want to establish a running attack? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Dean, I see two primary factors that led to Green-Ellis' decrease in playing time. First, they tried to get him going early -- bringing on a third tight end in an attempt to establish the line of scrimmage -- but had little success. It's hard to keep calling it if it's not working. Second, by getting behind and going to more of a hurry-up attack, that's not the best fit for Green-Ellis. As for a second option behind Green-Ellis who wouldn't be classified in the Faulk/Woodhead "passing back" category, that would be Ridley.
Q: Logan Mankins had some key penalties in yesterday's game. He is not having an All Pro season so far after seven games. I'm surprised especially since he now has the big contract. The offensive line in general has not been playing well, except for Brian Waters. He has been a great pickup. Your thoughts? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Ashley, that wasn't Mankins' best day as he was penalized for two false start penalties in the second quarter. Overall, I agree he hasn't been playing at an All-Pro level. I don't think it's necessarily because of the contract, as Mankins is the type of player who would work harder just to prove he's worth it. I agree on Waters. However, I think the offensive line has struggled a bit over the last three games and needs a big effort Saturday against the visiting Giants to establish the line of scrimmage.
Q: Mike, I'm wondering if Ras-I Dowling is going to be a bust given how little he's been on the field the past two years (counting his final year of college), and whether the Pats passed on better players. Can you think of any players that were picked behind Dowling in this year's draft that are making solid contributions to their teams' defense? -- Steven (Denver)
A: Steven, I think Dowling will have something to prove next season and he deserves another season before even considering the word bust. It's early yet. As for defensive players who were selected around that range and are playing a lot, a few that stand out: DE Jabaal Sheard (Browns, 37th), LB Akeem Ayers (Titans, 39th) and LB/DE Brooks Reed (Texans, 42nd).
Q: Mike, the officiating is usually lousy, but Sunday seemed to reach new lows. In addition to missing Troy Polamalu's illegal swat at the game's end, and Rob Gronkowski's TD, the refs missed an obvious personal foul when Polamalu blatantly "tackled" Wes Welker's head and face-mask, all of which prompted some serious woofing by the crowd and defense, i.e., it wasn't a low-key play. I thought they also blew an obvious pass-interference call on a deep ball to Taylor Price. Will the Pats do or say anything to the league about this? They played lousy, to be sure, but blown calls like these still affect the game. Would the league say or do anything to the refs themselves about it? -- John (Alexandria, Va.)
A: John, on a weekly basis, all teams identify plays they'd like an explanation about from the league's officiating department. For example, Bill Belichick was particularly curious about the low hit on quarterback Tom Brady, delivered by Chargers defensive lineman Antonio Garay, in the second week of the season. He came to find out the officials erred in not penalizing Garay. The league grades officials on every call and if there are mistakes, the officials' grades reflect that.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.