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Ask PFW: Backs in focus

Posted Oct 9, 2012

Questions surrounding the Patriots rushing attack are one of the many topics in this week's PFW mailbag.

Really love the run game we have going for us. It appears we have really upgraded the position, and made it a lot younger. We have four legitimate contributors in the backfield. I see where our old guy, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who never fumbled all his time with us, has had three already this year. Do you think Bill Belichick will get away from the run game because Stevan Ridley had the fumble late in the Broncos game? I sure hope not. Although perhaps this could open up more time for Shane Vereen. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Keep up the great work. All the way from Baffin Island in Northern Canada.
Michael Jewis

Obviously the running game has given the offense a lift in a few of the game early in the season. Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden have been productive when called on and the offense has had more balance than in recent seasons. But it’s still early and time will tell what kind of impact the running game will have over the course of the season. And ball security is definitely an issue with Ridley right now. You mentioned Green-Ellis fumbled three times but it’s actually been just twice, the same number Ridley has fumble through five games. Remember, Ridley also fumbled against Buffalo but the ball went out of bounds. He needs to do a better job of holding onto the ball if the Patriots are to make him a true option down the stretch of close games. His play-making ability is evident and a huge upgrade over Green-Ellis, who is really just a straight-ahead, push-the-pile runner with no breakaway speed. If he can eliminate the fumbles I think Ridley can be a big part of the future.
Paul Perillo

Just one game but how good do you feel about Alfonzo Dennard after his debut? Tavon Wilson looked pretty good in the start, albeit with a few rookie mistakes. Even though he hasn't played much, I still look forward to seeing Nate Ebner progress in the next couple of years. I think we’re one or two good DBs drafted away from a dominant defense.
Mike Aboud

Well, that’s certainly a very optimistic look at the current state of things. I feel the defense has definitely improved over the last couple of seasons but the secondary hasn’t necessarily been part of that. I thought Dennard competed well in his debut, showing a physical style that will no doubt warrant him some penalties but also allow him to break up some passes – as he did against Denver. I wasn’t as thrilled with Wilson’s performance against the Broncos. I thought he was late helping on several of the deep balls Peyton Manning was able to hit. But he is a rookie and I guess those mistakes are somewhat expected for a guy making his first career start. Overall I’d say I’ve been encouraged by his play. Ebner hasn’t shown a thing as a defensive back and there’s no way of knowing how he’s progressed in that department until he plays. Despite some injuries he’s yet to get much of a shot, and Belichick used cornerback Ras-I Dowling instead of Ebner as an extra safety/linebacker against the Broncos on a limited basis. In terms of drafting, the Patriots have really struggled trying to find defensive backs. Devin McCourty, Dowling, Wilson, Patrick Chung, Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite were all chosen in recent years and still the pass defense resides near the bottom of the league. So, simply drafting DBs isn’t going to make the defense dominant.
Paul Perillo

Hello guys, question is in relation to Devin McCourty. Seems we are getting things on track as the season progresses as we should, and although he has had some good plays, this guy is costing us. Might be a harsh statement there but he gets beat and then never looks for the ball, thus drawing fouls. He has potential, but my question is with all our injuries, what options do we really have?
Gene Daskey

I’m not sure which injuries you are referring to because other than Steve Gregory the secondary has been pretty much intact. Gregory missed the Denver game with a hip injury but other than that the other three starters have been available every game. Also, Dowling, Sterling Moore and Wilson – the team’s next three defensive backs – have been active for every game as well. And rookie Alfonzo Dennard made it back for the Broncos game in Week 5. McCourty is struggling, there’s no question about it. He’s been beaten often on deep balls down the sideline as well as crossing routes over the middle. His interference penalties have come on plays in which he’s been badly beaten and racing to catch up. That’s why he hasn’t been looking back for the ball. So, until he can figure out how to keep his man in front of him I wouldn’t expect to see his head looking back for the ball. It’s hard to do that when you are chasing. The secondary is still a work in progress, but it is improving and the improvement of the front seven also should help. Be patient, it’s still early.
Paul Perillo

I know by being a fan, my views are obviously biased, but I honestly believe we are the best team in the NFL. I think the Texans 5-0 is a fraud because of the teams they've played. The only one of those teams that is a valid contender is the Broncos, in which we've already beaten. I know injuries are no excuse but if Aaron Hernandez didn't get injured I’m more than sure we’d be 5-0. We’re a field goal away from 4-1 and a review away from 5-0. You're thoughts?
Joe Pesci

You’re wrong about the Texans but probably right about the Patriots. I believe if Hernandez didn’t get hurt they would have been be at least 4-1 and maybe even 5-0 after five weeks. But if we’re playing in the land of make believe then I guess I should point out that the Patriots are always a fourth-quarter Buffalo collapse and two ridiculous Willis McGahee drops away from being 1-4. New England’s performance over the first five games was a bit uneven with periods of brilliance (31-point fourth quarter in Buffalo) and incompetence (virtually the entire Cardinals game). Houston is a solid team and that was proven last year when the Texans won plenty of games, including one in the playoffs, with a third-string quarterback. Are they unbeatable? No, but neither are the Patriots.
Paul Perillo

Your thoughts... True or False? 1. Wes Welker is still the No. 1 key receiver to a consistently successful offense. 2. The successful Patriots running game will continue for the rest of the season with Ridley running for 1,500 yards this season. 3. The Patriots secondary will be the weak link for team success for the whole season. 4. McCourty is a completely different (better) player when he turns to look for the ball in coverage. 5. The O-line has faults hidden by the successful running game.
Wayne Y.

I love games so big thumbs up to Wayne for providing one. Here goes … True, False, True, False, True. Welker is definitely the lead receiver, at least as long as Hernandez is out. Perhaps if and when the tight end returns things may change, but Welker is just so consistent it’s hard to believe the coaches intentionally lessened his role early on. Ridley will be fine and I expect him to keep producing. I don’t think he’ll wind up with 1,500 yards because at some point defenses will have to change how they line up and better protect themselves from the running game. Of course, when that happens look for Brady and the passing game to take off. The secondary still worries me. I’ll leave it at that. McCourty’s head turn is such a hot-button topic but it’s such an oversimplified one. If he were in position, of course he’d look back for the ball. But too often he hasn’t been and he’s been left chasing. If you’re not tightly covering your man, and you peek back for the ball, what happens if the ball hasn’t been thrown yet and the receiver changes course? McCourty’s problems are with coverage, period. The offensive line has patched it together pretty well but I do believe it does a better job running the ball than pass protecting. We’ll see if that changes over the coming weeks but that’s what I’ve seen thus far.
Paul Perillo

I had intended to discuss the victory over the Broncos, but then I saw the Kansas City game footage. The Chiefs fans cheering an injury to their own quarterback as he lay prone on the field with a significant head injury? Really? Where has the sportsmanship gone in the NFL and with its fans? The players are responsible as well. How many times have we seen players overreact with their own performance on a standard 10-yard catch? Or jumping up and down for a tackle in the first quarter? I never saw Jim Brown play but always remember my father telling me after every touchdown he simply handed the ball to the ref. Today’s players should act like they have been there before. And to the fans, it’s only a game. One I love, but only a game. Thoughts?
Brett Larson

Obviously the fan behavior by those who chose to cheer in Kansas City was despicable. Injuries are not something that should be looked upon favorably by anybody yet we see it all the time in sports. This isn’t about Kansas City as much as it is our society in general. How many times have you heard Patriots fans crowing after learning of a key injury to an upcoming opponent’s player? Just recently this happened with Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes for the Jets. I never like to see players get hurt and I certainly would never cheer a player because he was unable to get up. But I do like the enthusiasm today’s players display provided it’s at the right time. If you make a key play on third down to stop a drive and it’s only the first quarter, I say celebrate away. I like Brandon Spikes’ post-tackle ritual where he pretends to hammer a spike into the ground. I don’t care if it’s the first quarter or the fourth quarter as long as it’s a truly positive play for him and his team. Same goes for touchdowns. Celebrate away, unless you’re down by 30 with two minutes left, of course. But celebrating injuries?? That’s despicable and the few Chiefs fans who did so the Cassel should be ashamed.
Paul Perillo

Hi guys, I look forward to your column every week. It seems the key issue for the team at the moment, aside from our play in the defensive backfield, is a strong presence at center. We seem to be missing Dan Koppen more than anyone anticipated - no one more than No 12. Do you think it possible we might see BB and look at options here, potentially seeking to coax a veteran like Olin Kreutz out of retirement or an alternative free agent to provide stability up the middle?
Michael McMillan

Maybe I’m guilty of some good old fashioned homerism here but I think Ryan Wendell has been solid at center. I haven’t noticed many issues with shotgun snaps or missed assignments. There haven’t been too many occasions where the pocket has collapsed up the middle and prevented Brady from stepping up to throw. Wendell has been steady despite the fact that he’s played with different players at either side of him constantly over the first five weeks. I’m not sure I see the problems in the middle that you do, and I don’t think Belichick sees them either.
Paul Perillo

Hey guys, love Ask PFW! My question is, if the Patriots win the Super Bowl, do players that were on the roster for a portion of the year like Kellen Winslow get rings?
Jake Blankenship

Those decisions are up to the team to determine. As a general rule any player who spent significant time with the team would be in line to get a ring, and certainly players who finished the season on the active roster, practice squad or injured reserve would get rings. As for Winslow, I’m not sure he would get one because he spent so little time with the team and reportedly asked to be let go. I’m not sure he should get one, but ultimately the team gets to decide.
Paul Perillo

If I remember correctly, before the season got started, you guys predicted Chandler Jones to be through Week 16 with something between 6-8 sacks. He's already recorded three sacks and two forced fumbles, making a huge impression. Do you see Chandler Jones finishing with way more than any of you expected, maybe in double digit territory?
Vincent Villette

Jones is off to a terrific start but I don’t see the need to dramatically change expectations for his first season. He has three sacks in five games, which puts him on track to finish with about 10 for the season. There’s not really a huge difference between eight and 10, and I’d also caution against using such a small sample size to determine what’s going to happen. Hopefully Jones continues to make some plays and showcase the athleticism he’s shown thus far. If that happens, the number of sacks he winds up with will be less important than the impact he makes to the big picture.
Paul Perillo

I was wondering what your take is on the lack of activity around the trade deadline. It’s the most boring of all of our professional sports. I get that it could be difficult for, say, a receiver to get acquainted to a new playbook six weeks in, but if that receiver could make a few big plays down the field, that could be the difference between being 8-8 and out, or 10-6 with a fighting chance. Same for a couple big-time, maybe aging defenders. Is it more of a contract situation? What big trade would you love to see the Pats pull off this year? If the deadline is moved to Week 10 and the 18-game schedule does happen, do you foresee a change? Or will it be even more ho-hum?
Dante Swinton

You hit on the main reasons the trade deadline in the NFL isn’t a big deal. First and most important, it’s tough for a player to change teams midstream and pick up a new system. Players who spend entire offseasons with new teams often have difficulty doing this so it would be incredibly difficult to do it on the fly. Second, the deadline, although pushed back to Week 8, is probably still too early. Not too many teams feel as if they’re out of it halfway through the season and therefore would be unwilling to give up much. Most NFL trades involved a specific set of circumstances like a disgruntled player holding out and a team willing to take a chance. That was the case when the Patriots sent Randy Moss to Minnesota – he was on the verge of becoming a problem in the locker room and Belichick sent him packing. Acquiring disgruntled players on a regular basis doesn’t seem to be good business, though, and therefore you don’t see a lot of this. If the deadline was pushed back a bit more there would be a better chance for losing teams to possibly deal players perhaps in the final year of their contracts, but the obstacle of integrating such a player would be even more difficult because there would be less time to do it.
Paul Perillo

Hey guys, I was wondering about your take on the defensive ends this year, specifically Rob Ninkovich. I expected big things out of him this year, especially at defensive end, but thus far, (less the strip sack last game) he has shown next to nothing. I rarely even have seen him pressuring the passer. And then I look at Jermaine Cunningham, who I thought had potential this year to be a "surprise" player with about 6-8 sacks. I've still been impressed with him, but I feel as though he's not getting the reps he deserves. Am I missing big stops in the running game that Ninkovich provides, and Cunningham can't? I know that's what limited Mark Anderson's reps last year, as well. Thanks!
Zach Lax

I think Ninkovich has been his solid if unspectacular self. He’s not a guy who’s going to wow anyone with lightning speed off the edge but he’s also not going to be caught out of position much and he will provide some big plays over the course of a season. He had strip sacks against the Bills and Broncos and also stripped Willis McGahee with a key play late against Denver. Will he wind up with 12 sacks and go to the Pro Bowl? No, that’s not the kind of player Ninkovich is. But he’s really good at a lot of different things and in my mind is far more consistent and versatile than Cunningham.
Paul Perillo

Just wanted to point out that in a question that was posted in your last article that a ball hitting the uprights in football was the same as a ball hitting the foul pole in baseball is actually incorrect. Although called a foul pole a ball that hits it is fair and a ball traveling directly above that pole is also fair. Just being picky and correcting the writer of the question.
Frank Mecurio

This is what happens when Andy and I let Erik handle the mailbag. Of course a ball that hits the foul pole is a home run, which is something I would think any sports fan would know – especially in Boston where Carlton Fisk hit a pretty important ball off the foul pole to win Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. But then again, this is Erik so we’ll have to give him a pass.
Paul Perillo

Greetings from Holland? Why does the NFL require injury reports? As far as I know, no other sports teams report on the condition of players unless they are out for an extended period of time. Usually you don’t even know who is playing until game time. So why is it so important in the NFL? Is it gambling related?
Greg Lovett

This is a great question and one that has bothered me for a long time. I think you answered it at the end with your gambling reference, but that seems rather silly to me as well. Forcing teams to report injuries every week is pointless. Few teams if any actually treat it with any seriousness and if everyone knows they aren’t to be taken seriously then what’s the point? The league tries to control everything in an effort to keep the information from getting to the gamblers, but the league can’t stop gambling. It’s one of those things that I feel has long since outlived it’s usefulness, but injury reports aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact Buffalo was recently questioned about not listing Mario Williams on its reports.
Paul Perillo

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