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Ask PFW: Defensive concerns

I'm impressed with the way Danny Woodhead continues to produce on offense. He is fast, very quick on his feet and stays low to the ground. As I was watching the lack of pressure being put on Peyton Manning during the fourth quarter of the Colts game, I thought why not put Woodhead in at one of the ends and let him rush Manning. With the offense and defense tiring out, why not give Woodhead a few plays?Sparky G.

Normally I'd scoff at the notion of putting such a small player in a role like that but Bill Belichick basically did it by using Kyle Arrington in an outside linebacker role throughout the second half. Now, the reason I'd argue against it is exactly what happened to Arrington – he got killed. Rushing the passer is about much more than simply running around the blockers. It takes timing, precision, strength and speed. Tackles are too big and strong for players like Arrington, or Woodhead, to beat consistently off the edge. Once a tackle gets his hands on such a small defender, the play would be over. Woodhead's role is as a running back, and right now it's quite a valuable one for the Patriots offense.
Paul Perillo

Are the Pats the luckiest team in the NFL? Surely three or four of their wins this year seemed almost gift wrapped. If the Pats put up seven on one of their last three possessions, I wouldn't feel so lucky about the win over the Colts.James Siegel

That's pretty much what people said about the 2001 Patriots too. In fact, a lot of people said it in 2003 as well. I'm sure the Patriots don't care as long as they wind up where those two teams did. Look, have the Patriots have their share of good fortune thus far? Of course they have. Teams leaving a live ball on the ground, throwing backward passes, missing field goals, running bad routes, opponent's injuries – all these things have helped the Patriots pick up a win or two here or there. But as the cliché goes, good teams make their own luck. New England has forced much of its opponents' misfortune with well-timed plays, particularly in the clutch when games are won and lost. I'll admit that the formula used in many of the wins thus far is a bit shaky, but that's the nature of the NFL in 2010. Even the teams with the best records like the Jets and Patriots appear to have serious flaws. Better to be flawed atop the league than flawed on the outside looking in.
Paul Perillo

I hope these haters of the defense start stowing it soon. Yes they give up yards, yes they are young and make mistakes, but really these guys when push comes to shove have shown they are going to try their hardest to win. Three interceptions on arguably the second best quarterback in the league (behind Tom Brady). Peyton admitted that the defense confused him a couple times. This guy eats coverages for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I want to know if the writers at PFW think this may turn into a Super Bowl caliber defense by the time the playoffs come?
Kristopher Jones

I'm thinking you and James should get together for a couple of beers over lunch and hash this one out. As I alluded to in the previous post, the Patriots "blueprint" for victory often times this season has not been ideal. No game plan calls for the opponent to put up 400 yards, convert more than 50 percent on third down and put 25-plus points on the board. That's basically what every team is doing to the Patriots defense this year. But you're right when you say the defense has made plays when it's counted. Whether it's tackling a guy short of the first down sticks to force a late field goal in San Diego, stuffing a fourth-and-goal run against Minnesota and picking off Manning, the defense is finding ways to survive. It's an awfully tenuous and dangerous way to live, but so far it's worked. Do I think a team can win a Super Bowl doing that? No. In order for that to happen the Patriots will need to improve and not just force a turnover when the game is on the line. At some point that turnover will not come. Last New Orleans used a playmaking defense in that mode but in the playoffs, particularly the Super Bowl, the unit played much better. If the Patriots play better in January, then this offense is good enough to get another title.
Paul Perillo

Why must we always stop doing what had been working fine on defense and instead switch to the prevent defense when the game is on the line? I know it is meant to prevent the big play but, with rare exceptions, it simply enables the opponent to drive down the field in 10-20-yard chunks and score seemingly at will, usually with less than two minutes elapsing from the game clock. I fail to see how that is much better than the extremely rare chance that, while playing our normal schemed defense, we will give up one big scoring play that might take only 15-30 seconds off the clock. How about, for a change, sticking with what enabled us to build up a lead in the first place? Prevent defense is short for prevent us from winning even though we have an enormous lead.Keith Perry

I think you're confusing late-game collapses with prevent defense. The Patriots fourth quarter pass defense has been terrible this season, and really it hasn't been all that much better in the first three quarters either. You mention the need to continue doing what we're doing to close out these games. What difference in coverages did you see against the Colts in the fourth quarter from the third? The Patriots spent almost the entire game with five and six defensive backs on the field. At times they used Kyle Arrington as a blitzing outside linebacker in the second half. That's not prevent defense. Just like against Minnesota when the Vikings scored late to get within a field goal when Devin McCourty blitzed off the edge on the play where Brandon Meriweather was beaten by Randy Moss to set up a touchdown. The only game I would classify as true prevent defense with three and four players deep at all times was Pittsburgh. The Steelers fourth quarter success was the result of some soft underneath coverage designed to run the clock out and that's exactly what it did. Now, I'm sure Belichick would like to see that scheme executed a little better than it was that night but I doubt he thinks the Patriots were in prevent mode against the Colts.
Paul Perillo

In spite of great numbers in our running game, I wonder, why couldn't the Patriots just run the ball on the Colts in the fourth quarter? Would having Fred Taylor helped with that?
George Ladinoff

Having Taylor in the backfield would definitely help. As well as BenJarvus Green-Ellis has performed, Taylor is a more proven commodity when healthy. The problem is he's rarely been healthy as a Patriot. It's tough to run the ball at the end of the game when the defense loads up the box and knows it's coming. Even the best running teams have a hard time doing that. The Colts aren't a great run defense but in that situation it's hard to move anyone and the Patriots obviously didn't. Otherwise I believe New England's ground game has been excellent, especially lately.
Paul Perillo

What do you think about Alge Crumpler this year? I feel like he's not getting a lot credit because he isn't out on pass routes very often but from what I've seen he's been a big contributor in the run blocking that they haven't had out of the position in awhile I also noticed a three-TE set against Pittsburgh. Do you think they will run this more often, I think it could be dangerous for opposing defenses in the red zone.Michael Sansone

Crumpler has been excellent as a blocker this season. And you're right – it's been quite some time since the Patriots have had a blocker like that at tight end. Probably back to Daniel Graham. He's a big part of the running game and on the few chances he's had to catch the ball he's shown great hands. Crumpler is also known as a terrific veteran presence in the locker room and I'm sure he's been more than a little helpful to the rookies he's working with – Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The three tight end sets have been a big part of the offense this season and the versatility they provide – with one often lining up in the backfield and shifting out – has been a huge asset to the offense. I'd expect that to continue moving forward as the weather makes running the ball even more vital to success.
Paul Perillo

As I watched the Pittsburgh game I saw with Logan Mankins back, Tom Brady knew he could sneak for TD running behind Mankins. Am I wrong that when you have a Brady you make sure he has a great line to protect him? Mankins is a top three offensive player in the NFL. Pay him.
Bob Leonard

I share your enthusiasm for Mankins and I really think beyond his considerable ability he provided a toughness and an edge up front that is lacking without him. Mankins plays like an enforcer and he's always willing to mix it at any time. That's a great characteristic for an offensive lineman. But I'm not sure it's as easy as saying "pay him." How much are you willing to spend? If he wants to be the highest paid guard in football, are you prepared to make that happen? I'm not sure I would be. I want Mankins re-signed and I actually believe there's a pretty good chance that it will happen, but I do not want to break the bank for a guard. When Dan Connolly was in there in his place there wasn't a huge difference. I do believe Mankins is better but not so much so that he's worth $50-plus million guaranteed. This will be one of the more interesting developments this offseason.
Paul Perillo

I know the current starters are young and starting because of injuries; but I was wondering if you think they will bring Leigh Bodden back next year or let him go and continue to develop the younger corners?
Nolan Michalski

Only one of the current starters is playing because of injury and that's Kyle Arrington. Bodden would be starting at right corner while Devin McCourty handled the other. McCourty actually replaced Bodden to open the season and Darius Butler appeared to be set to open the season as a starter regardless, but Butler's disappointing play early cost him the job that Arrington now has. I believe Bodden will be back in 2011 and assuming he's healthy he should get every opportunity to win his job back. That would push everyone down a notch on the depth chart and should give the Patriots secondary a significant boost. It also won't hurt anyone's development since there will still be plenty of playing available for the others to fight for.
Paul Perillo

It seems everyone is focused on our defense and how they can't close out games or they give up so many big plays. Well how about some criticism for the offense for not closing things out after moving up and down the field at will all day against the Colts? I am so sick of watching the Pats completely kick butt for three quarters then our offense just completely goes cold. If we got just a few first downs in the fourth quarter we are not even having a conversation about last year's game becoming this year's déjà vu moment, or how close Peyton Manning came to a great comeback win. When are we going to start blaming the offense, offensive play calling and the poor play of one Tom Brady? I am actually quite excited about this year's defense and for that matter this defense for years to come.Tom Raymond

Maybe the offense doesn't get as much heat as the defense because it's played much more consistently this season. In the Colts game the Patriots scored on five of their first six possessions and put 31 points on the board. Even though the offense failed to score on its final two series, that kind of production really should be enough. It nearly wasn't because the defense allowed too many big plays. It's tough to score on every possession. People that have been critical of the defense have pointed out some fairly obvious and relevant facts – the group has struggled getting pressure on the passer, covering receivers, getting off the field on third down and allowing too many points. The Patriots are forcing turnover, however, and that's been one reason for the team's overall success. But the overwhelming offensive production has been the most important factor in that success.
Paul Perillo

It was interesting to learn that this year's Patriots defense is statistically one of the worst they have ever put on the field, yet the team is tied for the best record in the NFL. It seems that they are making big plays when they need to, unlike the past couple of seasons. One player who has been making those plays recently is James Sanders. I know you guys really like Sanders, and I think the defense is better with him on the field. What do you think has caused him to step up his game recently? How do you think he compares to other better-known safeties in the league like Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed? Do you think Sanders is living up to the expectations the team had when they gave him a new contract?Shawn D.

You hit the nail right on the head when it comes to this defense. The unit is coming up with more big plays (turnovers) than in recent years and it's making an otherwise subpar performance look a lot better. Sanders has been one of the key factors in those big plays, which is a bit different for him. During his time in New England Sanders has been a solid but unspectacular player known for his steady tackling and good communication skills in the secondary. He's been a leader and a strong locker room presence. He's not in the category of Reed or Polamalu – he simply doesn't possess that type of athleticism and play-making ability. But that hasn't prevented him from being an important part of the defense during his career. Yes he's a big PFW favorite but even if he weren't I'd say the same thing – good teams have players like Sanders filling important roles.
Paul Perillo

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