After landing back in town the day after the Patriots' 13-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and turning on sports talk radio to gauge local reaction, there were a few interesting discussions.
To my surprise, the hosts picked the Patriots after pointing out how vulnerable the Broncos' defense has been this season.
The point was that the 2013 Broncos look similar to recent Patriots teams that have fallen short -- all offense, shaky defense. In turn, the Patriots' defense looks much improved, and that bodes well for when the weather turns colder and games inevitably get tighter.
Do you buy or sell that line of thinking?
The second topic was generated by a caller who was asking about whether we're witnessing the decline of quarterback Tom Brady. Like most issues, there are multiple layers to the question and answer. That theme carried over into this week's Patriots mailbag, which is where we'll begin.
Q: Hey, Mike. Is it me, or does Tom Brady not look like himself this year? I started to see it in the preseason blowout loss in Detroit. He's much more skittish in the pocket, he's missing throws and not even seeing open receivers down the field. And while everyone seems to be pointing to the new supporting cast (or lack thereof), do you think it's possible that Brady's game has been so tailored to the quick timing offense of the past five years that he may not ever be able to adapt and play any other way? -- Kristian H. (Plantation, Fla.)
A: Kristian, Brady has set a very high standard in his time as starting quarterback, and I think it's fair to say that standard hasn't consistently been met through the first five games. He was excellent in the clutch in the season opener against the Bills on Sept. 8, had some big throws Sept. 22 against the Buccaneers, and turned in his best game of the season on Sept. 29 against the Falcons. So it's far from all bad. We're just not used to some of the inconsistency for extended stretches, which mostly came to the surface Sept. 12 versus the Jets and in Sunday's loss to the Bengals. Part of it is related to all the changes on offense around him, and that gets back to the question of whether the team has surrounded him with enough weapons in 2013. But that question aside, there are some decisions and inaccurate throws that have been un-Brady-like.
Q: If Ryan Mallett had been under center with these results, how do you think he would be judged by the fans and the media? How do you think Brady has been playing? As a layman, he hasn't looked very impressive, but perhaps if you consider being 4-1 with only 3 interceptions with these receivers, he's actually having a pretty good year so far. -- Jim (Centennial, Colo.)
A: Jim, I think there would be more criticism of Mallett in that hypothetical situation. As for Brady, I'd start by saying that he's still one of the best in the game, if not the best. If he's the biggest problem the Patriots have, chances are they're probably having a pretty good season. With that as the backdrop, it's been a struggle for Brady at times over the first five games. Not all of it is his own doing, but I think he'd be the first to say he can play better.
Q: Hey Mike, Do you think the Pats have any sort of chance against the Saints? I just can't see them in the same league as the Saints, Denver, Seattle, Cowboys, etc., and being able to score 30 points against one of those teams. -- Jared (Granville, N.Y.)
A: Jared, the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, in the red zone at least, would be a boost. And Danny Amendola wasn't playing a full load (38 of 63 snaps); I think as he gets more comfortable, we'll see more production from him and, in turn, an increased comfort level from Brady. They also need to get more of a consistent ground game going. This is a tough stretch for the Patriots as this type of defensive scheme has sometimes been a challenge for Brady and Co. We saw Rex Ryan's defense in Week 2 do some good things against the Patriots, and now it's Rob Ryan's Saints defense. Expecting 30 points might be too much.
Q: Hi Mike, the ineptness of the offense was crystallized by its failure to score a TD three times from the Bengals' 1-yard line. The play calls were also lacking in deception, creativity or simple force. Your thoughts? -- Jake Malone (Vancouver, British Columbia)
A: Jake, that obviously wasn't a good sequence for the Patriots, even though I thought linebacker Vontaze Burfict got away with a holding penalty on tackle-turned-eligible-receiver Nate Solder on the second-down play. The sequence reflected a theme over most of the four quarters in that the Bengals controlled the line of scrimmage and dictated terms. I'd start by giving them credit. And then I'd turn it back to the Patriots and say it's going to have to be better than that in the weeks to come if this team hopes to reach its goals. I think it will be better.
Q: Hey Mike, as you rightly pointed out in your recent article, against the Bengals, the Patriots succumbed to the familiar defensive script of physical play against the receivers and significant pressure on Brady from the defensive line. This seems like a bigger issue than Brady being a bit off this season and the rookie receivers (see the two Super Bowls against the Giants and last year's playoff game against the Ravens). Yet I feel as though the Pats' O-line is widely viewed as very talented. Why the inability of an excellent O-line to compete effectively against upper echelon D-lines? -- Jay Hedstrom (Waltham, Mass.)
A: Jay, I think the offensive line is better than what it showed on Sunday in Cincinnati. We talk about all the changes on offense, but that's a unit that returned intact this year and I think it's fair to expect better. That's a unit that should be leading this offense right now as the passing game attempts to get on track, but I felt like the Bengals took it to them on Sunday. They were very good Sept. 29 in Atlanta, so we know it's there, but they have to prove they can do that consistently.
Q: Mike, you have to put some of the blame for the offensive issues on the play calling. Second-and-goal at the Bengals' 1-foot line, and the Pats threw a low-percentage fade to an offensive lineman followed by another low percentage back shoulder pass that was hurried. I know Gronk was not out there in the middle of the field like he usually is, but neither of those passes was likely to be successful regardless of who was in the pattern. Aside from that series, all I saw were vanilla running plays and almost no shots taken down the middle of the field. Brady was off and the O-line struggled mightily, but it would seem Josh McDaniels is a big part of the problem, too. Thoughts? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A: Gregg, I didn't think it was McDaniels' best game. They had only seven rushing attempts in the game after LeGarrette Blount's second-quarter fumble, and while some of that is a result of checks at the line of scrimmage (when a called run play could be switched to a pass) and situations in which they were forced to pass, that's still too low of a number, especially given the way the Bengals were getting after Brady.
Q: Mike, do you think the Pats can afford to play the rest of this season with a defensive tackle rotation of Tommy Kelly, Joe Vellano and Chris Jones? The injury to Kelly makes this a very concerning issue. -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)
A: I don't, Gary, and I would expect a move to be made at the position, likely as early as this week. That could simply be a practice squad promotion (Marcus Forston or A.J. Francis) or something else, but with Kelly not finishing Sunday's game, that just leaves them too thin.
Q: Hey Mike, bummed about the loss, but when you factor in all the injuries, it's not that surprising. My question is regarding the run defense. I didn't see stats posted, but it looked like Brandon Spikes got more playing time Sunday than any previous week. Do you think the Patriots have more of a reason to re-sign him now given the state of the middle of the defense? Also, any word on Armond Armstead? -- Kevin (State College, Pa.)
A: Kevin, Spikes played 57 snaps on defense after averaging 22 per game through the first four weeks, so he was a much bigger part of the plan. But I don't see this affecting his future with the team, or an increased motivation from one side to strike a deal; it was just the best option for this week on how to fill the void. As for Armstead, he's been attending meetings with the team and a plan is in place to determine if he will be able to help this season. He isn't eligible to start practicing until after Sunday's game against the Saints, so we could know more at this time next week.
Q: Mike, extremely disappointed about Sunday's game! They need to do something to stop the run; the scheme they tried just did not work. What are they going to do when it's New Orleans or Denver? Do they make a move for a veteran defensive tackle? There are still some options out there. What about Casey Hampton or Ma'ake Kemoeatu? Wouldn't they be worth a look at least? What about Myron Pryor? He is still out there and at least he would know the scheme the Pats are running. It just seemed like they ran right at Vince Wilfork's spot and there was no stopping them. Your thoughts? -- Regis (Braintree, Mass.)
A: Regis, it obviously wasn't perfect, but I didn't think run defense was the reason they lost the game. I thought the Patriots were competitive. Players like Hampton and Kemoeatu come with more of an injury risk because they are older, haven't been in a training camp, and you don't know what type of physical condition they are in. Also, there's a question of what they have left. That's a tough position to just sign someone from off the street and have them come in and contribute.
Q: Hey Mike, that LeGarrette Blount fumble killed the Patriots' drive when they finally got the momentum going. Do you think that the coaching staff will look at that and say, "Hmm, fumbles are actually part of the game!" and start using Stevan Ridley like he should be used? I know he was hurt Sunday, but Ridley is the type of back who can make something out of nothing or exploit a small hole for a big gain. Blount needs a hole big enough to drive a truck through. They have to stop punishing Ridley for the occasional fumble as he's clearly our best back with Shane Vereen hurt. And with the inconsistency at WR, we're going to need lean on the run game at times. I'd be interested in your take. -- Justin (Jersey Shore)
A: Justin, I think the situations that led to the Ridley benching in the Sept. 8 opener and what unfolded with Blount on Sunday were different. Ridley had ball-security issues on two plays that day, while Blount's was a one-time deal in the game. That said, I do think Ridley gives them the best chance to win as the lead "big back." When he returns to health, I do see him being tapped as the top back and used a little more than he has been to this point.
Q: Mike, while I was less than pleased with Zach Sudfeld's performance through the first four weeks of the season, doesn't cutting him seem a bit extreme? I understand all 53 roster spots are valuable and there are special teams considerations, etc. But why not cut a guy like Steve Beauharnais, who seems to be in the same developmental boat as Sudfeld but at a position, linebacker, where seemingly we look to be in good position right now and in the future (the three starters plus Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher). The coaching staff does not even feel confident enough in Beauharnais to activate him for a game to play special teams, forcing us to make other transactions (bringing up the Kannoris Davis/Ja'Gared Davis tandem). -- Bert (Concord, Mass.)
A: Fair point, Bert, and the only conclusion to be drawn is that they see a brighter future for Beauharnais (as compared to Sudfeld), and that's why they keep protecting that asset. Let's see how that one turns out.
Q: Mike, no one seems to be talking about this, but how about the loss of Danny Woodhead? I don't understand the reluctance of the Patriots to re-sign him for very short money. He would look really good now. -- Alan (Boston)
A: Alan, that was something I wrote when Woodhead first signed with the Chargers. Obviously, the Patriots figured it was time to turn things over to Shane Vereen in that role, and it affected how far they were willing to extend themselves for Woodhead, My opinion has been that what Woodhead signed for, and would have re-signed with the Patriots for, was worth extending to, and I think the team made a mistake by undervaluing Woodhead. As Bill Belichick said Friday, "It's a tough position to play, and you've got everybody after you when you have that ball. So to have depth and have multiple guys that can do it and spread the load a little bit, then you just have a fresher guy who's stronger, fresher, ready to go." In particular, I thought the Patriots missed a Vereen- or Woodhead-type presence Sunday.
Q: With the decimated TE and RB positions and the rookie WRs, a loss was due to happen. Belichick is known for not making the same mistake twice, so what lessons have he and the Krafts learned from the loss of Welker? Amendola is a great player, but as has happened multiple times in his career, he has missed significant games due to injury. Meanwhile, Welker continues to hum right along. -- Arliss Wilson (Saint John, New Brunswick)
A: Arliss, agree with it or not, I don't think they'd do much differently if faced with the same situation again. I do wonder, specific to Welker, if there is now any slight regret on strengthening one of their top rivals in the conference. I'm guessing that wasn't a big part of their thinking as everything was going down, but in watching the Broncos, it makes one wonder if it should have been.
Q: How is Belichick, the personnel man, not getting more if not all the blame for this season? Nearly every one of the team's problems this year had solutions on last year's team. He cut players that at the time weren't considered a huge deal, but now they are coming back to haunt this team. I'm looking at the cutting of Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love, whose depth we could use with the Vince Wilfork injury. The failure to re-sign fWoodhead, whom we are sorely missing with Shane Vereen going down. And, of course, the Wes Welker situation, which admittedly may not be his fault, but still seems to be a mutual breakdown. Anyway, why do think this is? -- Ryan (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Ryan, I think the Patriots and Belichick have been accountable for their personnel decisions. Welker, in particular, was a firestorm around these parts. On the defensive tackles, Love is still available and I don't think Deaderick -- currently playing as a reserve in Jacksonville -- would be a difference-maker or decisive upgrade compared to what they currently have. There is a lot that goes into putting a team together, and sometimes things we don't always know on the surface (e.g., how does the player fit in the locker room). This isn't to say that the Patriots have made the right decision every time, and I think debate is fair on Welker and Woodhead, among others. No NFL team is strong top to bottom right now.
Q: Hi Mike, why did the Pats sign Leon Washington when he had an injury that kept him out of three of the team's first four games? Now, he's injured again. At some point, Belichick will realize that older players are available from their ex-teams for a reason. Of course, the Pats are not in the same category because they let their tough, reliable players go while they're still in their prime (Woodhead and Welker). -- Dan (Marco Island, Fla.)
A: Dan, if the Patriots adopted that line of thinking from a black-and-white perspective, they never would have signed Rodney Harrison. Or a more recent example is Tommy Kelly, who has been solid for them. They obviously thought they saw something in Washington, and his value as a locker room presence is something I think that can bring a lot to this team. But it hasn't worked out on the field at this point.