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Ask PFW: Playoff push

Posted Dec 13, 2011

With the Patriots steaming toward the postseason there remains some doubt with regard to the team's defense. We tackle some of the problems and more in this week's edition of "Ask PFW."

Would you support firing Bill O'Brien for his behavior toward Tom Brady after the interception? Due to the embarrassing defense they run out there every week, Tom is basically required to win games by himself, and after his first pick in five games he needs to endure an on-camera tirade by a no-name assistant coach who probably wouldn't be employed in the NFL if it wasn't for Tom. Thoughts?
Shawn M.

Absolutely not. As accomplished as Tom Brady is as a quarterback, he’s still a player and Bill O’Brien is the offensive coordinator. Brady was upset at Tiquan Underwood after the interception when in reality he threw a poor pass that was late getting there. Brady showed his frustration after the play but he took it out on the receiver. That’s when O’Brien stepped in and barked at Brady. Obviously the exact words of the conversation are unknown but I was glad to see O’Brien show that he wasn’t afraid to do his job – even with a star like Brady involved. And that offense puts up an awful lot of points under the direction of a guy you think doesn’t belong in the league. You couldn’t be more wrong.
Paul Perillo

Couple quick questions: 1) How the heck is Tiquan Underwood ahead of Chad Ochocinco on the depth chart? 2) Do you have the feeling of deja vu from last year? Pats post a good regular season behind an awful defense that got opportunistic turnovers, only to get into a dogfight in the postseason with the Pats being held to under 25 points and lose.
Graham Smith

I’m not sure Underwood is ahead of anybody on the depth chart – well, except Taylor Price but that’s another story. Underwood and Ochocinco are each getting a handful of snaps each week. Underwood does seem to have picked things up quicker than Ocho, but in terms of the offense really both are non-factors at this point. Neither gets many passes thrown in his direction. As for the déjà vu feeling, yes, unfortunately I do. I just don’t see this defense being stout enough against a good team in the playoffs, and assuming said opponent has a defense the Patriots would be in trouble. The last three postseason losses really have all seen New England score 14 points (the Patriots got to 21 last year in the final seconds after the outcome had been decided). I could see a good defense doing that again, and therefore putting a lot of pressure on the Patriots to keep the opponent down. It all depends on matchups, though, and right now it’s too early to know how that will shake out.
Paul Perillo

The Patriots run game has been pretty bad recently, so where does the blame go for this? Is it the RBs, the offensive line or the play calling? The Pats lack an elite runner, but they have a couple capable guys. The O-line has three former Pro Bowlers on it, plus two capable tackles in Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder rotating at RT. The play calling has been reliant on the pass, but it is hard to keep calling runs when they only result in a 2-yard gain. What say you? 
Kyle Volo

I know this is a copout but I believe the answer is all of the above. The running backs haven’t been consistently effective, especially in spread formations that seemed to be much more productive last year. The offensive line hasn’t been able to carve a lot of space for those guys to run, particularly late in games when trying to kill the clock. The play calling also has a part in this. There have been times – like against Indy a couple of weeks ago – when the situation called for a steady diet of runs but the Patriots instead came out with an empty backfield and a no-huddle approach and threw it instead. I think there needs to be a more dedicated effort to run the ball in more conventional ways moving forward to help the offense better manage the lead. But the performance all around needs to improve as well.
Paul Perillo

I think it's safe to say Rob Gronkowski is firmly taking his spot in the hearts of Patriots fans. My question is, is it time to tear up his rookie contract and sign him to a new deal? You always hear of players out-performing their contract and this would certainly fit the case. Your thoughts? 
Darrell Fitzsimmons

I wouldn’t be surprised if the team approached him about a new deal in the offseason. He would still have two years remaining on his rookie contract, but obviously he has performed very well and I’m sure the team would like to keep him happy and make sure he stays here for a long time. It’s not something that is of terrible importance right now, but you can bet there are people behind the scenes worrying about this type of thing as we speak.
Paul Perillo

It would appear that the Patriots are headed for the playoffs, and hopefully a few home games. However, I think it’s evident that the pass defense is suspect at best. Do you think the last few games hurt them? Since the middle of November, they only have one team with a winning record, the Broncos. I think that hurts them going into the playoffs, even if they win out. Your thoughts?
Greg White

I don’t think it hurts them at all. Securing a first-round bye is obviously of utmost importance and the Patriots will almost certainly have to win out in order to get one. The odds are better the Patriots will win these games against poor teams than they would be facing the iron. So you could argue that the team will not be as prepared to face the toughest teams because of the schedule, but I’d rather have that situation than being faced with playing on wild card weekend on the road – or worse. The defense is what it is at this point. I guess all we can hope for is to get Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes back healthy as soon as possible.
Paul Perillo

Hey guys, with Shaun Ellis being such a disappointment as well as being thin at linebacker, why are we not seeing Jermaine Cunningham? Is he THAT bad? Or is he injured?
Russell Obremski

It’s a good question about Cunningham. I couldn’t understand why he saw so little playing time all season when it appeared as if Ellis was really struggling and they didn’t seem to want to have Mark Anderson playing on every down. Belichick eventually started to use Brandon Deaderick at end while Anderson played in passing situations and Ellis was relegated to spot duty in short-yardage situations. Meanwhile, Cunningham barely got off the bench. Then he pulled a hamstring two days before the Washington game and was placed on injured reserve the next day, ending his disappointing second season in New England. This is a guy we’ll have to keep an eye on in the offseason to try to figure out what went wrong.
Paul Perillo

My question is about the defensive line. Why is it that Shaun Ellis and now Brandon Deaderick are getting the starts at LDE when clearly Mark Anderson is a more impact player. The combination of Carter and Anderson with Wilfork and Love in the middle seems to generate a good pass rush thus helping our patchwork secondary. Is it that Anderson can't play the run? Simply put, Belichick always states that the best players will play which is why Love is starting at DT and Haynesworth got cut. But Anderson seems to clearly be the best option on the roster opposite Carter. What's your take on this?
Leif Divoll

From what I’ve seen this season, Anderson is strictly a pass rusher. He has a hard time keeping contain while playing the run and that sometimes leaves him out of position. I don’t think he’s been terrible when asked to play on early downs, but Deaderick has done a better job stopping the run. Obviously Anderson has to be on the field with Carter in passing situations since they’re really the only two players who have generated consistent pressure all season. But I have no problem with Belichick’s decision to limit Anderson to those packages.
Paul Perillo

What do you feel about the Pats picking up Terrell Owens for the stretch run.With the releases they seem to be up to something.
James Knudsen

I assume you’re referring to Taylor Price’s release but I don’t think that had anything to do with adding a receiver. The Patriots had already signed Tiquan Underwood, giving the team one extra at the position. Then they needed to add center Nick McDonald from the practice squad because of injuries, so someone had to go. I don’t believe it should have been Price, but there was a surplus at wideout and he wasn’t getting any playing time. I don’t believe this had anything to do with TO, nor should it have.
Paul Perillo

Do you think Ryan Mallett was drafted with a view to him eventually replacing Tom Brady, or was he drafted more to be developed and then traded? If he is seen as the future franchise quarterback, when should he be expected to replace Brian Hoyer as the backup?
Paul Dymond

I’m not sure Belichick looks at these things so specifically when he makes these decisions. He drafted Mallett because he believes Mallett has the talent to play in the NFL. He also has Hoyer because he believes in him. I don’t think he specifically says, Mallett is the guy to replace Brady. It’s probably too early to make that determination. But if the coach’s thought process is along those lines, then I’d say we should see a true competition for the backup job next summer. Entering his second season, Mallett should show enough progress where he should be expected to be a legitimate backup. Brady did that in his second season, beating out Damon Huard for the backup job during camp before taking over for the injured Drew Bledsoe. Now it’s not fair to compare anyone to Brady, but I include this to show that if a guy has the ability, generally it should show pretty quickly.
Paul Perillo

Again in the last Ask PFW, praises have been sung for the pats offensive line coach for always putting a good product on the field no matter who is available. I have posed the following before and I pose it here again: by the same token, shouldn't we question the coaching ability of the Patriots defensive backs coach/coaches for repeatedly putting a poor product on the field no matter who is on the roster? (It seems disingenuous to praise one and yet never criticize the other).
Rhye Toring

You are not the first to raise this point. But I’m not sure I totally agree with either. First, Dante Scarnecchia receives a ton of praise because his units typically play sound football regardless of the lineups. But just because the secondary hasn’t always run as smooth doesn’t mean it’s all on the coaches. There is a serious talent issue in the Patriots secondary and that’s caused two offensive players plus various scrap heap guys to carry the load. The offensive line may have lost Dan Koppen, but talented players like Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters remain. The secondary started with a talent level well below that and was weakened by injuries. While the results statistically have been poor, the team has managed to win games for the most part. But I would say that there does seem to be some dissatisfaction on Belichick’s part regarding the secondary coaches. It’s a position that has rotated consistently in recent seasons. Joel Collier, Dom Capers, Corwin Brown and Josh Boyer have all held the title of defensive backs coach in some capacity over the past five years. Only Boyer remains and he’s now splitting the duties with Matt Patricia. So clearly Belichick is searching for more from the spot as well.
Paul Perillo

I just voted for who I think should be the lead back for the Patriots. I voted Stevan Ridley. I noticed most votes went to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, which I can understand being he is reliable and does just what’s needed of him. I feel Stevan Ridley is the next lead back because he has talent to be a core back to make breakout runs for long yards. BenJarvus is good, but he clearly doesn’t have the talent or ability to break out into huge plays on a weekly basis. I feel Ridley can provide that as long as he gets the touches. What alarms me about this vote is Danny Woodhead was voted for more than Ridley. What are people watching? Woodhead is brutal. Only time he gets any yardage is as long as the blockers make an enormous hole. He’s too small, he can’t get by anyone, people touch him and he goes flying, to me he’s no good for the team. He is simply hurting us by taking more touches away from Green-Ellis and Ridley. Am I the only person out there who thinks Woodhead is garbage and belongs on the practice squad? What are your thoughts on this?
Randy Berube

I totally agree with your assessment of the lead back situation. It’s unlikely to happen this season, but I feel Ridley is the guy of the future. He has a dynamic element that Green-Ellis lacks, and if he can display Benny’s durability and reliability, two big ifs, he should get the bulk of the working moving forward. While I am not a huge Woodhead fan, your criticisms of him take things way too far. He’s a solid third-down back who provides a nice change of pace. Is he better than Kevin Faulk was in his prime? Absolutely not, especially not as a blocker and receiver. But Woodhead doesn’t belong on the practice squad either. He’s a steady player who does well on special teams and is capable of helping out offensively as well.
Paul Perillo

What are your thoughts on Taylor Price’s and Phillip Adams’ release? IMO Phillip Adams looked to be our best corner for a couple weeks and Taylor Price seemed to be developing from what we saw in the preseason. Is our offensive system is too complicated based on the recent receivers that were signed, or drafted cut within a short time.
Tre Vang

I remain confused about Price’s situation but definitely did not see what you did in Adams. I’ll take Price first. He never seemed to get a chance despite never really doing anything wrong on the rare occasions he did get to play. He caught the ball well in training camp and the preseason, and when he dressed he showed the ability to get open. For whatever reason, they didn’t feel he was capable of contributing more. Adams was a stop gap guy from the start. He made a couple plays here and there but really struggled badly in Philadelphia. That was his last game and I guess Belichick had seen enough. I’m not sure he was any worse than the others defensive backs have been, but to say that Adams was our best corner for a couple of weeks is not accurate.
Paul Perillo

Hey Guys, Great job as always. I have a two-part question. What is wrong with Darius Butler.....errr.....Devin McCourty this year? He seems to be in *ahem* decent position but just seems to let the receiver catch the ball always. I just don't see that explosion to the ball when it’s in the air. Was last year just a fluke?
Kyle Witkowski

This seems to be the $64,000 question. McCourty has really struggled all year long and I would even say describing him as being in decent position is even being kind. He has consistently allowed receivers to get well past him on deep balls and he’s had a hard time tracking receivers over the middle. It’s something that began in the preseason and has persisted throughout the year. Now he’s playing injured with a bad shoulder and that’s hurting him too. Hopefully we’ll look back on 2011 as the aberration in his career but the point you raise about last year possibly being a fluke may be true as well.
Paul Perillo

Could you please explain to me why the Patriots did not use their timeouts at the end of the Redskins game?  On first down and goal to go with 2:00 to go, the Redskins ran the ball.  Clearly time was not a factor at that point for the Redskins, but it was for the Patriots.  Why would you not call a timeout immediately to save as much time as possible for Brady in the event of a touchdown? Did the thought not cross Belichick's mind that a 4-7 team scoring a touchdown with virtually no time on the clock, might go for a two-point conversion and the win as opposed to taking the game to overtime? What was there to lose by calling a timeout?
Gary Goldstein

I think this is an excellent point and it’s one that Andy Hart and I talked about at length at the time. Given the situation, the Redskins were either going to score or not, but time wasn’t going to be a factor. If you use your timeouts, and the defense stops them, then you simply kneel on the ball and run the clock out. There would have been no harm in using timeouts, and keeping them in no way affected how Washington chose to call its plays. Belichick was asked about this after the game and seemed to be more concerned with the alignment of the Redskins offense and making sure his defense was properly aligned. I think time was more important at that point (assuming there weren’t any egregious problems like 10 men of the field). Luckily, the Redskins had their touchdown called back and time never became a factor.
Paul Perillo

Hey guys I love your weekly mailbag!!! Keep up the good work!!!! Quick question, how come teams don’t play more man-to-man and jam the receivers to disrupt the routes more?? Obviously playing zone and off the receiver is not working very well. We all know the type of numbers that quarterbacks are putting up this year. The Pats defense is getting beat constantly so why not try a different approach?? Also, maybe I'm one of the few optimistic fans out there but I'm not as concerned about playing Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco in the playoffs. I mean, we make Rex Grossman and Dan Orlovsky look like elite QBs so playing the real thing isn't gonna be any different. This team will go as far as the offence takes them.
Edgar Paz

Playing tight man coverage is not as easy as you think. The Patriots tried it extensively early in the season and it was a disaster. I can’t comment on every other team other than to say not many corners in this league are talented enough to play like Darrelle Revis and live to tell about it. Zones are safer and my guess is coaches prefer safe. As for your quarterback scenario I don’t understand your logic. You don’t think Roethlisberger or Flacco (or a top-level quarterback) is capable of making more plays than Orlovsky and Grossman?? Those guys are considered journeymen for a reason – they’re not very good. It’s impossible for me to think better quarterbacks would take better advantage of the Patriots secondary, like Roethlisberger did in Pittsburgh in October. I believe it will be far different for the Patriots, and if they play the same way against the Steelers as they did against the Redskins, it will be a short postseason.
Paul Perillo

My question is, if the kicker missed the field goal on third down (last seconds or overtime) what will happen on fourth down? Can they have another kick try?
Guy Hilli

As long as the ball is kicked, that’s the only chance you get. Teams like to kick on third down in case there’s a bad snap or something out of the ordinary happens. As an example, if the holder bobbles the snap, he would simply cover it up and try again on fourth down. But if the kicker makes contact with the ball and misses, he does not get another chance on fourth down.
Paul Perillo

Why does Belichick keep making the offensive players play defensive back? It is not a strength for typical offensive players that they used to be. Why can’t he find real DBs that can help the team during the playoffs?
Peter Pham

This is something that has bugged me a bit as well. Wouldn’t James Sanders or Jonathan Wilhite or Darius Butler be better options in the secondary than Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman. Anyway, that ship has sailed and we’ll likely never know why Belichick chooses the paths he does. But I do know the team doesn’t have enough quality players in the secondary to avoid using offensive guys to help out.
Paul Perillo

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