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Ask PFW: Dramatic dip on D

On paper, we had the best scoring defense in the league last year. It was quite interesting honestly, because we didn’t have the star players you would expect on a “top” defense. Throughout the offseason, we really didn’t lose too much, besides some rotational players. Our biggest loss was [DE Rob] Ninkovich, which admittedly was rough. Other than that though, we kept all the main pieces around and added Gilmore to the mix on a huge contract. So what, in your opinion, is throwing us off? Thanks. Krynt O’Donnell

My question is quite simple this week, even if the answer is not as simple. How come the best defense last year is the worst one now, with not so many changes? Ludovic Boisseau, Versailles, France

Let’s go down the list of personnel changes on defense from last year.

Logan Ryan, a decent corner who got better throughout his career. No, he wasn’t a Pro Bowl talent, but he rarely got beaten badly and almost always knew his assignment. Plus, he was a solid tackler who typically kept receivers in front of him.

Rob Ninkovich, a dependable playmaker and experienced leader who knew the system thoroughly. Also had the versatility to play d-end or linebacker equally effectively.

Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard. Maybe not the most threatening of pass rushers, but worked well in this system.

That’s four regular starters/contributors, or around a third of your defensive 11. Not an insignificant number, in my estimation. And their knowledge of their roles, as well as those of their teammates, should not be underestimated. Erik Scalavino

The defense has allowed by far the most points in the NFL so far this year. What would your number one move be to strengthen the defense and how? Dwight M. Lee

First, fix the catastrophe in the secondary, which was supposed to be this defense’s strength. There’s obviously a considerable amount of confusion at the moment on the back end, which is allowing far too many big plays. If the secondary were playing up to its potential, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia might be able to dial up blitzes more frequently to disrupt the timing of opposing quarterbacks and maybe get some crucial sacks.

I’d also find a medical miracle to heel Dont'a Hightower’s right knee. His absence through the two-plus games in the first month severely limited New England’s ability to put pressure on the quarterback. We saw a little more risk-taking in this regard when he returned against Carolina, but until the safeties and corners can all get on the same page, this defense will continue to suffer. Erik Scalavino

After a very poor game against the Panthers, will Bill [Belichick] “do what’s best for the football team” and sit [CB Stephon] Gilmore out a game similar to what he did with Malcolm Butler? Or do you believe he will start Gilmore and hope he can work out his kinks? Sam Smith

Even if Belichick would like to do that, he might not be able to afford to do so. It appeared that Gilmore was going to be benched at the start of the second half versus the Panthers, but just one play into the third quarter, Eric Rowe aggravated his groin injury and couldn’t continue. Gilmore was forced back onto the field as a result.

Later in the locker room, Rowe could barely walk. So, if he’s unavailable on game days, New England’s only other option is second-year man Jonathan Jones. Besides, the Patriots are paying Gilmore way too much money to have him collect dust on the sideline. He needs as much work as possible right now to get up to speed. Erik Scalavino

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What do you believe the Patriots will do about their pass rush and secondary? I have seen plenty of miscues leading to uncharacteristically allowing big plays. I have faith they will make the needed adjustments. I am wondering what they plan to do. Maybe look to sign some veteran pass rushers? Vaughn Brownlee

What are the chances of the Patriots getting a decent pass rusher or linebacker before the trade deadline? I know it wouldn’t be a block-buster trade, but maybe just for a depth guy, maybe someone like Aaron Lynch from the 49ers. He could come in and be able to be a rotational guy and get some sacks for us. The pass rush really needs to come through this year. Unlike last year, we don’t have multiple guys rotating (Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard) but only have a couple full time guys. I would like to be able to get another rotation guy. Joseph Wright

If history is our guide, I’d say it’s more likely than not that New England will execute a trade or two of some sort prior to the Halloween deadline this year. As always, I hesitate to name any specific players, because it’s nearly impossible to predict whom the Patriots might want to acquire, but certainly a pass rush specialist seems like a top priority at this point. Perhaps even another linebacker.

If you take a look at the Jags and Texans rosters, you might find some options there, as the Patriots often like to trade for players they faced in joint training camp practices (Akiem Hicks, Jonathan Bostic, Aqib Talib). In fact, New England has already picked up a former joint practice opponent this season (rookie wide receiver Riley McCarron, formerly of the Texans). Erik Scalavino

What the deal with Nate Solder? He dealt with an injury all camp and “needed treatment” before the Texans game. He also seems to be getting beat quite oftenBrandon Cox

Have you considered that the two factors might be related? Although Solder is not currently listed on the injury report, the team’s starting left tackle did miss extensive time during the summer with an ailment that was never specified. It’s possible he’s still dealing with the after-effects of that problem, which could explain his struggles through the first quarter of this regular season. His pregame absence prior to the Texans game was also odd, but sadly, we’ve not been given any concrete explanation for it.

It’s equally plausible that he’s just not playing well, but he’s still a better option than any of the players behind him on the depth chart. Erik Scalavino

Do you have any detail on just what is afflicting the rookie [offensive lineman Tony Garcia] who is on the NFI [non-football injury] list for the year? Edward Drohan

Unfortunately, we do not. As you are well aware, injury information is often difficult to come by around here. However, he has been spotted recently taking part in rehab and conditioning exercises in shorts and a t-shirt during practices. The NFI rules are similar to PUP (physically unable to perform), which means we might soon know if Garcia has a chance to contribute this year or if he’ll be reassigned to season-ending injured reserve. Stay tuned. Erik Scalavino

With injuries mounting and inconsistent play from a few position groups, is there anyone on the practice squad you have your eye on to be promoted? Anyone you think has a good chance to make a meaningful contribution down the stretch? Timothy Woodman

That’s difficult to say, given the mercurial nature of the 10-man practice squad roster. Players come and go with such frequency that it’s rare to see anyone last an entire season there. That said, there’s only one defensive lineman on the roster, third-year man Angelo Blackson, and his position is an area where depth might be needed on the 53. Erik Scalavino

Wondering if you could provide clarification: When a player is signed by one team from another team’s practice squad, is the transaction negotiated? In other words, does the player have the option to say “No, I’d rather stay on this team’s practice squad than be on your active squad?”  Or, is it similar to waivers, where a player is essentially “claimed” and has fewer rights/options? Thanks. Tom DiGangi

It is indeed a negotiation, not an obligation. Players can elect to join the team that expresses interest in them or remain with their current club. There have been instances here in Foxborough where a practice squad player has stayed because he felt it was in his best interest to do so. New England actually treats its practice squad players well, in terms of compensation and opportunities for advancement to the 53-man roster.

If you’d like more details about what life is like on the practice squad, read* this feature I wrote on the subject earlier this calendar year. *Erik Scalavino

I know Erik is the only one that is going to answer this, so I’m glad he is up this week. I don’t want to get really into the politics of this; I am just shocked out of all the teams, the Patriots would allow their players to kneel during the National Anthem. But, my question is more “policy.” Is this a decision that Coach Belichick has, or is this a type of issue that Mr. Kraft handles? Benny Tilton

It’s my understanding, based on the comments by the players after Week 3’s incident, that they themselves held a meeting to discuss what to do. Whether or not the head coach and/or owner were involved, no one has said, but I would assume they both did, as they are the leading authority figures within the organization.

The Tuesday following the Week 3 demonstrations, a meeting between league owners, select players (including Kraft and co-captain Devin McCourty), and Commissioner Roger Goodell took place at NFL headquarters in New York (as reported by ESPN this past Sunday) to discuss the matter.

In all likelihood, then, players, coaches, and ownership were involved in the Patriots’ decision to stand as a team in Week 4 against Carolina, with one hand over their hearts and another on the shoulder of the teammate to their left. Erik Scalavino

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