What defensive woes?

Life without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski leads off this week's Patriots mailbag, and I think e-mailers are on top of all the possibilities.

To sum it up, the Patriots are still loaded. But losing Gronkowski hurts.

Before we get into the questions, here's wishing all e-mailers and readers a Happy Thanksgiving. It's my favorite holiday of the year, and a reminder of everything we have to be thankful for. This year the day will be spent in the Meadowlands as the Patriots visit the Jets.

Here we go...

Q. Mike, now that the Pats have lost Gronkowski for the next few weeks, will Aaron Hernandez and Visanthe Shiancoe take over the 2-TE set? And will Julian Edelmen and Danny Woodhead get more playing time? -- Pete (Goshen, Conn.)

A. Pete, the Patriots vary their personnel on a week-to-week basis, so there are no givens when it comes to a Hernandez-Shiancoe tandem in the 2-TE package this week. I do think there is a good chance we see Hernandez, but I view Daniel Fells as the better blocker if the Patriots are looking for a pure tight end to fill that assignment in the 2-TE package. That might be where the Patriots miss Gronkowski the most, in the blocking area, and I also wouldn't be surprised if they use an offensive lineman as an eligible tight end at times. They need to get the running game going more consistently, and adding the extra bulk could help. You up for catching a few passes this week, Nate Solder?

Q. Hello Mike, could you see offensive tackle Nate Solder being used in the "Gronk" blocking role? -- Jay

A. Jay, it makes a lot of sense to me this week. There is something going on with Daniel Fells (healthy scratch), who I view as their best in-line blocking tight end after Gronkowski. So if you're not going to use Fells, I think Solder is the next best option. He's done it before.

Q. Hey Mike, who goes up the seam now? Any chance Visanthe Shiancoe can step up and catch some balls? I fear Wes Welker being double-teamed from here on out until Brandon Lloyd can make some deep plays. -- Glenn (Boston)

A. Glenn, I think Daniel Fells is the best option (visions of that diving catch against the Seahawks down the left side), but something isn't adding up with his situation (healthy scratch Sunday). I haven't seen anything in Shiancoe's 34 snaps over the last two games that scream out "threat up the seam!" He's done it in the past and it's possible he has it in him, but if we're judging based solely on the last two games, I don't think we can say that definitively.

Q. Hi Mike, what was the urgency to put in Rob Gronkowski on special teams for the extra point? Sometimes, BB is inconceivable! -- Mark (Italy)

A. Mark, Belichick has traditionally used his top players on special-teams units, which is part of his coaching philosophy. I lean toward the conservative side and would endorse as few starters as possible out there, but it comes down to maintaining competitiveness on those units, which are an important part of the game. In this case, even before the injury, I'd ask the question: Is there that much of a difference with Visanthe Shiancoe or Michael Hoomanawanui in that role instead of Gronkowski? In 2010 and 2011, Gronkowski played on the kickoff-return unit, but he hasn't been on it for most of this year, so that tells us that there is some thinking along those lines with the coaching staff. Still, given Bill Belichick's success, it's hard not to give him the benefit of the doubt. It is a good football debate.

Q. Mike, given the roster of things the Pats will be missing without Gronkowski on the field, why on earth is he out there blocking for extra points at all? I realize he is an exceptional blocker but how often is an extra point ever missed? It seems foolhardy to have such an important player perform such a trivial role. I think that key players should be kept out of harm's way on special-teams duty. The Devin McCourty kick returner experiment is also needlessly tempting fate, given how thin the Pats are in the secondary. Why does Belichick risk it with key players on special teams? -- Tim (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A. Tim, Bill Belichick views the job differently than you. This is what Belichick said Monday when asked: "I don't think there are any quicker ways to lose a game than getting a kick blocked and run back for a touchdown. That's probably one of the quickest ways to put it up in the loss column. It's an important job. Whoever does it, it's a very important job in the game." Belichick also touched on keeping players in the game into the fourth quarter.

Q. I've been hearing a lot about Gronk being the Patriots' most important offensive player after Brady. The argument cites the mismatches he causes. Interestingly, I heard the same thing about Hernandez when he went down with injury. Clearly both are extremely good and they both cause a lot of matchup problems for defenses. If Hernandez is coming back at 100 percent, I feel like the Patriots come out close to even on the TE injury front. Finally, can we put Wes Welker in the discussion of the Patriots' second most valuable offensive player after Brady? Or better yet, let's just skip the discussion all together and realize that having two of the three, plus Lloyd, a running game and the occasional wild-card like Edelman is still a pretty good place to be. -- PatsFanBrian (San Mateo, Calif.)

A. Great points, Brian. We did hear a lot of the same things about Hernandez. I think Hernandez is a dynamic player; however, I didn't necessarily buy in to what was being said about him being the Patriots' most important offensive player outside of Tom Brady. I felt like they could manage with Welker working the middle of the field in Hernandez's absence. I don't have as strong of a feeling about the Patriots getting by as seamlessly without Gronkowski, mainly because I don't see a tight end that can block as well as him, and there isn't a similar type red-zone threat on the roster. I think the Patriots are still loaded; they just have to recalibrate things, which they do as well as anyone. As for Welker, in the words of Bill Belichick (when speaking about the Hall of Fame and kickers), what else can he do? Just have so much respect for him as a player. It's too bad that the sides haven't been able to agree on a longer-term deal, which I sense has created some strain. The sides have been so good for each other -- the Patriots have brought out the best in Welker, and Welker has put the team first and had outstanding production over a six-year stretch -- that you'd think they'd find some common ground to continue the relationship beyond 2012.

Q. With Gronk out for at least four weeks, everyone seems to be counting on Aaron Hernandez to come back to give the team a boast at TE. Hernandez has missed six games this year and my gut feeling is that he is hurt worse than people think and it is asking a lot from him to come back and produce. Your thoughts? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, I think Hernandez is close to being ready to go here. I don't think the injury is anything more severe than has been noted.

Q. Hi Mike, what a solid/outstanding game by Julian Edelman, the "do-it-all" Patriot proving his value yet again despite fewer opportunities. Like Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead, he gives it all from the get-go on each play -- speed, moves, stamina -- while his tireless tenacity makes him as hard to tackle as Gronkowski is with his size. He deserves longevity as a Patriot. Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)

A. Jake, Edelman is in the final year of his contract, so a performance like that one can only help him when it comes to longevity with the franchise. It showed how dynamic Edelman can be. I think the main thing for Edelman is doing it consistently and remaining healthy. You look at his snaps progression this season and the numbers spike at times: 23, 75, 38, 0, 0, 0, 7, 21, 17, 52.

Q. On Sunday, it seemed on most third downs the Patriots decided to dial up extra pressure on defense once Chandler Jones left early in the game with the ankle injury. Initially, I was excited to see them blitz more often. However, I question whether it was another way to generate pressure without their best pass rusher. Do you know if the extra pressure was a result of Jones leaving the game or was it their plan all along? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Alvin, I think they were coming after Andrew Luck on third down whether Jones was in the game or not. The Colts' offensive line is not one of the stronger units, and the idea of playing linebacker Brandon Spikes in more of an attacking, blitzing role -- and bringing the corners on blitzes at times -- was part of the original plan, as I understand it.

Q. Great win on Sunday, and a terrific bounce-back game from the defense. It's probably the best this defense has played all season -- the coverage was excellent compared with previous weeks. The only concerns I have are with Stephen Gostkowski again missing a very makeable field goal when the game was 'tight,' and how they're going to temporarily replace Gronk's production. I must say that it's nice to finally have other concerns after a game than our defense. -- Marcus (San Diego)

A. Marcus, Gostkowski's miss from 36 was one of the downers of the day, but I do think he's earned the benefit of the doubt to work through the issues. He was slumping early this year, the Patriots stuck with him, and they were rewarded. But I agree, you can't just sweep that stuff under the locker-room rug. As for the defense, I view the unit the same way I did beforehand -- they thrive off turnovers. I still have the lingering question, "When the turnovers dry up, which they inevitably will at some point, will the defense be able to stop the opposition?"

Q. I read a piece about defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, on an analytical football website, that detailed why he is having a poor season when compared with others at his position. My question: What's wrong with him? -- Bill M. (Washington, D.C.)

A. Bill, I haven't seen the story, but I'd challenge any opinion that Wilfork isn't a top player at his position this season (maybe not the top, but certainty near the top). When we talk about analytics, and how it fits into football, I think there are a lot of gray areas because it's often impossible to know the assignment on each play. So how do you build an effective metric to gauge his performance? I've seen games where Wilfork hasn't been at the high level we're used to seeing (e.g. versus the Jets), but overall, I'd say he's having a solid season. He showed up Sunday against the Colts in a number of ways that might not always show in the box score (e.g. pressure on Andrew Luck on Aqib Talib's interception that was returned 59 yards for a touchdown).

Q. Hi Mike, a recent article mentioned that the Patriots would receive a compensatory pick if Aqib Talib were to sign elsewhere at the end of the season. I don't remember reading about this in any other articles or analyses. Curious your thoughts. -- Marcin (Milwaukee, Wis.)

A. Marcin, that is accurate, although there is a twist. If Talib signs with another team in the offseason, the Patriots wouldn't be guaranteed a compensatory draft choice. Talib would factor into a larger equation of net compensatory free agents signed by the Patriots versus net compensatory free agents lost by the Patriots. So while it is a factor in the trade, I don't think it is a major factor.

Q. Mike, as you pointed out, Alfonzo Dennard has three interceptions in four games, and he is becoming very relevant. Could you please give us the correct pronunciation of his name? Thanks. -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)

A. Dan, Dennard looks like the Patriots' No. 2 corner from this view. His last name is pronounced Den-Nerd.

Q. Mike, with all the injuries piling up around the league at the QB position, any take on why Brian Hoyer isn't getting a shot? -- Decker (Clinton, Mass.)

A. Hoyer is getting a look in Pittsburgh and my hope for him is that he hooks on. There just haven't been a lot of quarterback signings this year, but as we saw Monday night, that backup position is vital. There is usually going to be a drop-off going from No. 1 to No. 2, so the real question is usually "How steep?" When you watch some of the other teams struggle with the backup, it makes you appreciate what the Patriots accomplished in 2008 under Matt Cassel that much more. It's hard to do.

Q. Hey Mike, it was a great win this week and I think it was just what us fans needed, although losing Gronk is going to hurt. My question is where was Danny Woodhead on Sunday? I missed the first drive because the early game ran over, but I didn't hear his name at all. Also didn't see Greg Salas much. Your thoughts? -- Spencer (Maryland)

Spencer, it was a quiet day for Woodhead, who played 11 snaps and didn't have a touch. Stevan Ridley led all backs with 32 snaps, followed by Shane Vereen's 19. Salas got six snaps -- three in the flow of the game in the four-receiver package and then three snaps at the end of the game.

Q. Mike, I've asked the question before, and you raised the injury flag last offseason. However, halfway through this season, do the Pats extend right tackle Sebastian Vollmer? He is playing at such a high level, I would think that if they don't, they may have to choose whether to tag him at the end of the year. -- John (Manchester, N.H.)

A. John, it makes sense to explore it now. He's a player I'd think they'd want to retain and could be a candidate for the franchise tag if a longer-term agreement can't be reached. I'd think the Patriots will be looking for some type of injury protection in any deal given the history there.

Q. Hey Mike. Any thoughts on Patrick Chung? Is he really banged up or do you think there might be something else going on? Any chance Chung being inactive plays into his contract situation? Saw an interesting tweet from him. -- Tyler (Boston)

A. Tyler, I also saw the tweet, which was quickly deleted. It showed up before Sunday's game -- right around the time Chung was declared inactive -- and read, "Gotta love business." It leaves a lot open to interpretation, and I'd be interested to hear Chung's take. It has been a disappointing year for Chung -- first performance-wise, then injury-wise. It speaks for itself at this point -- no need for me to pile on. He's a hard worker; it just hasn't come together for him and leaves his future in doubt. Every game he doesn't play potentially affects his future earnings. That has to be frustrating for him.

Q. Hi Mike, one thing that gives me a sliver of hope that this secondary can be better in December and beyond is the thought that Patrick Chung hasn't been healthy at any point this year, and that when he returns he's going to look like the guy that stabilized things a little bit when he returned from injury last year. I think the ship may have sailed on him becoming the heir to Rodney Harrison that we hoped for, but when he's healthy, he's at least a league average safety that can execute his assignments and be physical in the run game. The player we saw earlier this year wasn't very impressive, but he did have that injury late in camp that may have been a little overlooked. Do you think there's a chance that we see him play much better when he comes back in a couple weeks? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

Tim, I'd like to see it happen for Chung because I know how much he puts into the game, but it's a tough one for me to invest in right now. I just didn't think he was playing at a high level before the injury this year.

Q. Hi Mike, I haven't seen analysis on the secondary based on these approaches. Maybe you can give your thoughts. Darius Butler was a former Patriot and he was the AFC defensive player of the week for Week 10. Do you think him and other former Patriot DBs are doing better in other systems? Also, do similar secondary systems in the league have a lot more success than the Patriots? That might shed more light on whether it's the talent or the coaching system. -- Den (Sacramento, Calif.)

A. Den, outside of Asante Samuel, I can't think of another defensive back who has consistently played better elsewhere than he did in New England. Butler had a great game against the Jaguars in Week 10, but that was one game. In 2011, he played in Carolina and didn't stick there, and on Sunday, he struggled at times (e.g. missed tackle on Julian Edelman on a third-down receiver screen). Brandon Meriweather was in Chicago for a season and wasn't re-signed (he just went on injured reserve with the Redskins this season). In terms of what secondaries are asked to do, I personally subscribe to the "Aqib Talib School of Coverage" -- let's not overcomplicate things; just cover the player in front of you. Obviously, it's more than that, but I think this is more about talent than anything else.

Q. What is the big deal all of a sudden with Darius Butler? The Pats cut him in 2010 and he does absolutely nothing with the Panthers and Colts until he plays the Jags and gets two picks. Now all of a sudden he's a combination of Ty Law, Mike Haynes and Deion Sanders? -- Spacecrime (Portsmouth, N.H.)

A. Spacecrime, in this case, I think a frustrated fan base is looking for a decisive answer as to why the secondary has struggled in recent years. So when a player does something well, even if it's one week, people might be inclined to jump on it. Also, one week has never stopped those with an agenda from blowing it up. While I didn't think Butler was the Colts' biggest problem Sunday against the Patriots, he did have his struggles, so let's keep that one-week window in perspective.

Q. Hi Mike, I can sense your frustration with people picking on the coaches. You make valid points and to a degree I agree with you. One thing I thought might alter your perception on it is this: You often say how the DB's do not go on to other teams and have very much success, which I wholeheartedly agree with. But can we not use the same formula with the coaching staff? Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis and even Josh McDaniels did not do very well with their attempts at greater things, so that puts an equal flooring in terms of "who to blame." My thought is that it is partially scheme based, partially personnel and partially coaching (all three phases). Just as a win for the Pats can not be solely attributed to one play or one player, I think the difficulties in the secondary can not be attributed to one simple facet of the whole dynamic. We win together and we lose together. -- Bajuhn (Los Osos, Calif.)

A. Bajuhn, I don't think the coaches are perfect. None of us are. But I look at the struggles of Mangini, Crennel, Weis and McDaniels as different than this issue, because they were in the head coaching role, overseeing the entire program. That's different than a position coach when you're zeroed in with a position or an offensive/defensive unit. It reminds me of 2006 when Mike McCarthy was the offensive coordinator of the 49ers and they had the 32nd-ranked offense in the NFL. But the Packers hired McCarthy as head coach anyway, and it turned out to be a pretty good decision. Josh Boyer is a good coach. As Aqib Talib showed with his dazzling 59-yard interception return for a touchdown, good players often make the coaches look that much smarter.