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Ask PFW: Defensive, running concerns

Questions about the running game and the suffering Patriots defense kick off this week's mailbag.

Well that was a tale of two halves, wasn't it? I can't help but come away from this loss [to Buffalo] thinking that we are soft. It is blatantly apparent that we have NO defense, at all. What I am more concerned with is the fact that we don't put other teams away. Why don't we run the ball?!? We are a one-dimensional team, not by talent, but by choice. I think that we could run if we wanted to, but the coaches choose not to. A more balanced attack and maybe the DBs aren't sitting on pass plays all day. The lack of running plays is disturbing. Do you see this as a troubling trend as well? Thankfully it is only one game... and thankfully the Jets lost too!
Chas Ackerson

Hey guys at PFW, love your work … Is it me, or does it seem like when the Pats are down even by a couple of points, Belichick starts to panic?
Bearrun Jonsun

Sounds to me like Bearrun and Chas are asking the same question. I hear you both, and at times, I share your concern. Tom Brady does throw an inordinate number of times in an average game, often from his own end zone with no backs and five wides. It's scary, but he's one of the best ever, so, he usually gets away with it.

I thought the Patriots ran fairly well overall against Buffalo (4.2 yard average as a team), with rookie Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead being the most productive individually. The reason New England was throwing so much in that game, I believe, is because Buffalo's secondary was even more banged up than the Patriots' and Bill O'Brien wanted to exploit that weakness. What he didn't plan for was Brady's passes getting batted or poorly thrown, resulting in the four INTs.

More consistency in the running game and balance across the offense would be a good thing, though, I agree.
Erik Scalavino

Will Shane Vereen get to touch the field at all this year?
Zack Jacobs-Aleluia

Can I get an 'Amen' there, Zack?! See what I did there, with your last name? Aaaaanyway … good question. I thought we'd have seen more of the rookie running back to this point, particularly with Kevin Faulk still on the PUP. Vereen did have a hamstring injury that limited him early on. That could explain part of his situation. I figured the Patriots would want to get him some touches in a game to help them determine whether or not they needed to activate Faulk once he's ready.

That, I think, will answer your question, ultimately. If Faulk is back on the active roster next month, Vereen's chances of contributing this year will be reduced significantly. We'll just have to wait and see.  
Erik Scalavino

Do you think it might be time to give Taylor Price some of OchoStinko's reps?
Jesse M.

That time may be coming, I'm afraid. Problem is, Price keeps being listed with a hamstring on the injury report. He's taking part in practice, but on a limited basis. If that changes, and Chad 8-5 continues to have trouble holding onto the ball, the Patriots may have no choice but to activate Price on game day.
Erik Scalavino

Where have Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes been? All I hear is that since they haven't been playing, it must be something that THEY have done. But is it unfair to look at this as a negative pattern with young players over Bill Belichik's career? [Cornerback Darius] Butler has a good first year then regresses into a black hole. [Devin] McCourty has seemingly regressed from his Pro Bowl year. Spikes and Cunningham – two starters in 2010 – have disappeared.
John Deerborn

Spikes was out there for most of the afternoon against the Bills, but you may not have known because he did very little to stand out – aside from celebrating Kyle Love's many run stuffs. Spikes has been disappointingly quiet so far for a guy who was legitimately expected not only to contribute, but also to play a starring role in this defense.

Cunningham, on the other hand, has been cursed with overinflated expectations from the get-go. He was drafted much higher than he probably should have been, then was immediately thrust into a starting role out of necessity, more than anything. With the influx of more experienced, talented veterans and a change in base defensive formation, I'm not surprised Cunningham hasn't seen the field much this year. He's now in the role most of us thought he be in at this level – that of a role player.
Erik Scalavino

Obviously I'm extremely disappointed with the Patriots defense so far this year. Tom can't carry the team every game and [the Buffalo game] was a perfect example. Do you feel like McCourty's Pro Bowl year was a fluke? It's certainly starting to look that way. Also, what is Belichick thinking having Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett as starting safeties? I would rather have Darren Sharper fresh off the couch than scrubs like the above. Sorry for the negativity but I know I'm not the only one. On a positive note, I love PFW thanks for all that you do!
Dave Sarro

Thanks as always for the support for us, Dave. As for the defense and McCourty in particular, no, I don't believe his rookie success was a fluke. I've been trying to come up with some logical explanation for why he's dropped off so far this year, and I've thought back to other young corners who've had early success here, only to flounder.

Darius Butler: second-round pick, decent rookie year, came on strong at the end. Jonathan Wilhite: fourth-round pick, another surprising contributor who actually won a starting job. Terrence Wheatley: second-rounder, had some success in rookie training camp versus Randy Moss, later done in mostly by injuries.

What do all of these players have in common? Strong rookie performances, followed by slumps in subsequent years, and when asked to explain why, they usually cited the somewhat vague "technique." Which got me thinking … could they have been simply playing on instinct and athleticism in their first years? If so, has the "technique" taught in the Patriots' system caused them to think more and react less out on the field?

Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi told us, during a summertime interview at a charitable golf event, told us an interesting story about Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law. Often, when Bruschi was calling signals in the defensive huddle, he'd look around and not see Law. When the huddle broke, Law would already be in position and would yell over to Bruschi, "Man or zone?" Law was so good, Bruschi explained, that he didn't need to know all the defensive minutiae, just whether he needed to guard his man or establish a  zone.

Of the aforementioned group of young corners, perhaps only McCourty has the talent to be as good as Law was, but I wonder if the concept this applies. And in fairness, Law was already an established player when Bill Belichick arrived and had more leeway to improvise than these more recent players, who've only known the Belichick system. Maybe, just maybe, the system is in part to blame for the decline of these corners after their first years. Something to consider.     
Erik Scalavino

Devin McCourty is a good corner, but given how badly he has looked recently against big-play, number-one receivers, why not try something different? McCourty could match up against the number-two receiver one-on-one while [Leigh] Bodden/[rookie Ras-I] Dowling cover the number-one receiver with safety help over the top so they can play more aggressively underneath. Dowling's size in particular would be an asset against big guys like Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson.
Kyle Volo

Interesting idea, Kyle, but the one problem there is that Dowling hasn't been healthy enough to stay on the field for an entire game. Clearly, a taller corner has an advantage over a shorter one against the kinds of receivers you mentioned. So, I wouldn't be completely opposed to mixing up the coverage lineup, if everyone back there is healthy enough to do so. Something needs to be done to fix  this porous pass defense.
Erik Scalavino

Conspiracy theory alert. Is it possible that identical twins Devin and Jason McCourty have switched place? That would explain Devin's poor play and Jason's good start [in Tennessee]. I noticed Jason has a forced fumble and two INTs already.
Steve Lowery

New craigslist ad. It will read: "Wanted - New England corner back. Needs to have some ability to run next to a person for 10 yards. Must be able to turn around and do more than watch receivers catch balls." Seriously though, this defense gets worse every week. It's so painful watching them. This is turning out to be a nice, one-and-out playoffs this year. Do you guys think [Ty] Law or [Rodney] Harrison wouldn't mind a couple of more games?
Pat Stanton

I applaud your attempts at humor, guys. They would be even funnier, though, if the problem with New England's defense weren't so serious.
Erik Scalavino

Hello PFW, great job on your weekly coverage. What are your thoughts on defensive players faking injuries to slow the tempo of the offensive? There was some potential that this occurred during the San Diego game but even more apparent and obvious during the Giant vs. Rams game. Rather than have the player sit for one play, have him sit for the series. This would possibly make them think twice about it. It's unfair to the offense, but I also understand it probably the oldest trick in the book.
Nelson A.

On the surface, I like your idea as a way to curtail what I feel is a cheap tactic that every team, including New England, has been accused of doing at one time or another. That might be the best way to legislate it because, as you point out, it would make fakers think long and hard about doing so if they were forced to sit out more than one play.  
Erik Scalavino

If a field goal attempt is blocked and the kicking team recovers the ball and the ball is past the first down marker, does the team keep the ball or is it considered to be dead for them once the kick is no good?
Dan Nepini

If a kick is blocked and the ball remains behind the line of scrimmage, it is a live ball and either team can recover and advance it. However, if the ball is blocked but crosses the line of scrimmage, it is treated like a punt. Only the defense can pick up the ball. However, once a defensive player touches the ball, it becomes live again (remember the Leon Lett gaffe in the Thanksgiving snow game versus Miami back in the '90s?). In that case, if the defender loses the ball and a member of the kicking team recovers, the kicking team retains the ball and gets a first down wherever the play is ruled dead.
Erik Scalavino

I'm really curious. Will New England be wearing their awesome throwbacks from the 2009 season this year? I definitely think they should. Brady and the Patriots look good in red.
Anthony Macareo

Hey, Macareo! (Sorry, couldn't resist. I know you probably hate that song and dance and have heard that a thousand times.) … The Patriots will indeed be wearing an alternate jersey this year. We're actually going to announce details later today, so, stay tuned (hint: make sure you're following us on Twitter and keep refreshing our blog homepage to find out as soon as possible).
Erik Scalavino

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