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Ask PFW: Fixing the secondary, Hightower's usage and more

Pass rush and coverage are the biggest problem. While the secondary has the personnel and it seems to be a communication problem, pass rush doesn’t have the personnel. So, which name could the Pats bring outside the organization capable of doing the Rob Ninkovich role (set the edge, pass rush and cover)? I know trades are unpredictable, but there must be names out there capable to solve this problem.
Gregorio Ladeira

It’s not as simple as you make it sound to just add a player who performed well in so many roles over several seasons. Ninkovich was a versatile player who understood the defensive system in New England and made several big plays during his time with the team. So, asking where the Patriots can find such a player midseason is really impossible. I still feel a veteran like Dwight Freeney might makes sense as a situational pass rusher for 10-15 plays per game, but he would not solve the team’s issues up front. Hopefully the performance against the run at the Meadowlands is a harbinger of things to come and the front seven starts to perform better. But expecting a guy to come in and save the day this point is asking for too much.
Paul Perillo

Why are the coaches playing Dont’a Hightower at DE/edge-rusher? There have been some odd coaching decisions this season but the one I just can't understand is playing Hightower on the edge. This doesn’t suit Hightower’s strengths and it has shown in his subpar play so far this season. I don’t see how his health could be the reason why at this point, and with Kyle Van Noy struggling in a starting role Hightower should be the one anchoring that defense from the ILB positon.
Eddie Sandoval

Hightower was used more on the inside against the Jets than he had been previously this season and I like the idea of him on the inside controlling the defense more so than on the edge. But I disagree with you that Hightower is not suited to play on the outside. I feel he’s been very productive as a pass rusher on the outside over the years and he seems to struggle in coverage against faster, quicker running backs. I understand what the Patriots rationale was in using Hightower differently; I just don’t feel Van Noy has been the answer at ILB and that’s why I want to see more of Hightower in that spot. And yes, health probably did have something to do with it since a player is dealing with much more congestion and physicality on the inside than on the edge, although I’m not sure how big a factor that was in the move.
Paul Perillo

Love all your writing, it really goes nicely in-depth. I have a question about Kony Ealy. For a guy who got cut this summer, Ealy looked really good against the Pats. It makes me wonder why didn't Belichick keep Ealy on the team - is it possible he just didn't evaluate Ealy’s talent correctly? I mean I know maybe he wasn't perfect for the scheme perhaps, but seeing Ealy knocking down balls and drilling TB12 makes me think releasing him might have been a mistake?
John C.

Clearly there was something between Ealy and Bill Belichick that never quite connected from the start. When we got our first glimpse of the team back in the spring, there were already signs that Ealy had fallen out of favor. He wasn’t working with any of the first groups on the defense, and at one point during mini-camp Ealy walked off the field and we didn’t see him again until the second day of training camp. Throughout the summer he never saw significant reps with starters and soon he was gone. My only guess is what you said – he wasn’t a great fit for the system. He’s been fairly active for the Jets thus far and I believe he has some pass rushing ability. Perhaps Belichick could have worked harder with him to find a role that he could have helped in but that didn’t happen and now he’s in New York. Either way I’m not sure it’s a huge loss, but given the lack of depth in the front seven I believe he could have contributed.
Paul Perillo

It seemed like Matt Patricia called a number of blitzes for the defensive backs this week against the Jets (two by Malcolm Butler come to mind right away). More so than usual, and with good success (it seemed). Do you think that was their game plan for the week, a tactic to help jumpstart the D (namely generating pressure) or a strategy that could be employed more through the year?
Connor Hart

I noticed the more aggressive style employed at times and I agree that it was a welcomed change. I like the idea of forcing the issue at times on defense. But there’s also a danger in that approach and while you cited two successful blitzes that caused hurried throws, there was also a huge 32-yard completion to Robby Anderson on fourth-and-12 that kept the Jets hopes alive that came with Butler coming on a blitz. So there is some risk involved as well. My guess is this was more game plan related and specific to something the coaches felt could be disruptive against the Jets, but we will watch this going forward.
Paul Perillo

What’s the future for Dion Lewis? Do they try to extend him on a two-year deal now while his price should be affordable or try to get a trade done for some defensive help before the deadline? Seems like a waste to just do nothing and let him walk at the end of the season.
Len Carmody

I feel like Lewis remains the team’s best option when it comes to running the football. But he’s also 27 and has dealt with several injuries over the years. At this point I feel he’s too valuable to trade (although that remains a possibility) but I wouldn’t be too willing to extend him unless it came on a real team-friendly deal. Losing Lewis at the end of the season would not be a crippling blow given the depth in the backfield with both Mike Gillislee and James White under contract. If they could get a significant player in return via trade I’d do it but the more realistic option would be to hold onto him and use him as much as possible in the second half of the season. At that point if he holds up physically, then perhaps I’d think about re-signing him for the future.
Paul Perillo

I’m not sure why David Harris and Dwayne Allen are still on the team. Dwayne Allen at this point is zero threat as a pass catching TE. In fact, you could probably cover him with a 340-pound nose tackle and he still couldn’t get open and make a catch. That said, if he is only going to be an in-line blocker, why not use Cameron Fleming as your blocking TE and free up the roster spot? He’s been used in jumbo packages before. As for David Harris, the only thing I can think of is that (1) he’s emergency insurance until Shea McClellin comes back, or (2) they are already on the hook for the money so why cut him loose so he can join another team on the Patriots dime or (3) they are stashing him until the cold weather games when teams are going to have to run more and he would have a more defined role. Any insight on the above?
Alan Bernstein

I can’t really argue with anything you wrote (except for your third option on Harris’ lack of use). Allen is a non-factor as a receiver, which isn’t overly surprising to me given that he’s never really been a gifted receiver. I am surprised that he has zero catches, however. He hasn’t really been used at all (just six targets all season) and when Rob Gronkowski is active he barely plays at all. But when Gronk was out he saw 50 snaps against the Bucs, so obviously he’s still here as insurance. As for Harris, your first two points likely nailed this one. He’s depth in case of injury and definitely the guaranteed money he received had to play a role in saving his roster spot. I don’t expect that to continue all season, though. At some point the Patriots will have some injuries and they won’t have the luxury of having a healthy linebacker taking up a valuable roster spot. If he doesn’t have a role against the Texans, Panthers or Jets, teams who like to run the ball, then when is he going to be needed?
Paul Perillo

Win or not, the lack of focus from the coaching staff is really concerning. With 3:13 left in the second quarter, down by 7, Brady throws the ball deep in double coverage. Best case - we score and give ball back to Jets so they can come back and score again. Worst case, turn the ball over (which is what happened) and a chance to take a tie to the halftime. Whatever happened to systematically driving the ball down the field to score? Why take the risk, especially when run game was finally showing some life.
Sandy P.

I don’t necessarily agree with your point about trying to use clock late in the first half. With over three minutes to go and trailing, the idea should be to score points any way you can, not trying to chew clock. Now, as for the propensity to chuck it deep, I agree with you 100 percent on this one. It seems whenever the offense gets a bit stagnant this year, the deep balls increase and results don’t necessarily warrant it. To the offense’s credit, Tom Brady hit Brandin Cooks on a bomb that set up the tying touchdown, but that came with less than 30 seconds left in the half so the situation dictated a deep shot. Overall I’d like to see more consistency to the offense in terms of the types of drives that you described but so far this season those have been tough to come by, and the loss of Julian Edelman has likely played a role in that.
Paul Perillo

The Patriots defense really seems to struggle with crossing routes by opposing offenses. Is there one particular reason for this or are there several mitigating factors that are the cause?
Josh Lund

I agree with your assessment but can only speculate as to why. First, the formations that these routes often come from have given the Patriots fits. Communication issues have led to guys running free across the field, and the zones that are generally played when this has occurred haven’t been overly successful. I also feel the lack of a consistent pass rush has been part of these failures as well. Some of the deeper in-cuts that have hurt the Patriots take time to develop, and generally opposing quarterbacks have had plenty of time to wait for the receivers to come open. I don’t have a definitive reason these routes have been so problematic but that’s certainly been the case so far.
Paul Perillo

Coach/GM Bill Belichick was often celebrated for dumping players at the right time. But I wonder if having Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan and Jabaal Sheard instead of whatever he brought in free agency would make this D the contender it used to be?
Chuck Moran

This is the ultimate 20-20 hindsight reaction that we’re all guilty of from time to time – fans and media included. First, it would have been quite expensive to retain all the players you mentioned, and most certainly there would be some current individuals here now who would not be if that were the case. And that doesn’t included specific players like Joe Thuney and Malcolm Mitchell who were acquired directly with picks used in the Jones trade. The short answer to your question is yes, there’s no doubt the Patriots defense would be much better with the four players to mentioned. But there a chance other areas of the team might not be as strong if those guys were still here as well.
Paul Perillo

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First, a comment to Paul - Paul said on their postgame discussion that the Pats still don’t have anything to hang their hats on, and that people might be upset with that comment. He was half right, they don’t, yet. And no, I am not upset at the comment. I am upset at the fact. I have been a long-time 40-year fan, and this team feels like a good team, but not much more. Bill says you usually know what you have after four or six weeks and here we are. I think this is one of those years where we go 10-6, maybe 11-5, win the East, just by a win, and maybe a third-seed and out in round one. Question - do you see anything on defense that will change in the secondary and tighten up, and if so is it a trade? I think not, we are what we are. I really think the Julian Edelman injury is having a massive impact, Tom holds the ball a tad longer and takes more hits because nobody is that quick bunny in the slot crossing routes and outs … cannot someone fill that role? It’s been years, decades even, since I remember so much reliance on the long ball. 
Michael Monk

I’m glad you took my comments after the Jets game as there were intended – not as a harbinger of gloom and doom but rather as an observation based off six weeks of play. The Patriots will almost certainly continue to improve as the season progresses, just as they almost always do. I share your concern, though, with the defense in general. I’m not sure exactly how much better things can get on that side of the ball based on what I’ve seen. Even pedestrian (or worse) quarterbacks have had their way with the Patriots secondary and now Stephon Gilmore is dealing with a concussion. Offensively, Danny Amendola is a great facsimile of Edelman but his health is of utmost importance. He clearly can’t be relied upon to carry the type of workload that Edelman once did, so there will be games when he will be a sporadic contributor. With no proven slot option, Brady is going deep more than ever and it has led to some sluggish periods of play offensively. The good news is the entire league is dealing with similar bouts of inconsistency and the Patriots are no different. The bad news the fact that the Patriots are no different.
Paul Perillo

I admit to not studying past schedules right off the top, but it sure seems like the past several years that the Pats have played Denver in Denver. Please explain what appears to me to be a lopsided home/away ratio. Of course, it could be me.
Elizabeth MacLeod

The NFL rotating schedule is cyclical in nature and this happens to be one such instance when it comes to the Patriots and Broncos. As an example, Denver travelled to Foxborough to play the Patriots in 2012, 2013 and 2014 for regular-season games at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots will now play in Denver in 2015, 2016 and 2017. This does not include the postseason, which is always determined by playoff seeding. If the Patriots and Broncos finish this season in the same position in their respective divisions, the teams will play in Foxborough in 2018. If not, they will not play next year in the regular season.
Paul Perillo

This question is kind of off topic, but here is my question. Were the commentators of the Patriots-Jets game pro-Jet/anti-Patriot? I was wondering because they seemed talk better about the Jets. This is just my perspective, what do you guys think?
Srikanth Ganesh

I feel like we often think the national announcers have it out for our teams but in reality it’s really not the case. I thought Dan Fouts, the color analyst for CBS in the Jets game, had a tough day but not because he was anti-Patriot. He insisted Devin McCourty’s fourth-down interception, as an example, took away the Jets ability to kick a field goal. Of course the fact that the Jets passed up the field goal on fourth-and-inches took away that chance, but Fouts kept saying it anyway. But overall I did not feel there was any bias shown for or against either team on Sunday.
Paul Perillo

I’m a huge Pats fan and will be for life but what was that call with the Austin Seferian-Jenkins TD?! I love my Pats but even I feel it should’ve been a TD or at least ruled incomplete, what happened there?
Ty Gray

I will state up front that I believe the play should have been ruled a touchdown. I’ve watched about 100 replays and talked about it with dozens of people and the opinions are mixed with an edge going toward touchdown. For this reason alone I feel any replay review should err toward the call on the field, which in this case was touchdown. However, the officials felt it was an “obvious call” and overturned it. Referee Tony Corrente said the ruling stemmed from the following: When Seferian-Jenkins briefly lost control of the ball, he needed to re-establish control in order for it to be a touchdown. He admits that the tight end did in fact regain control but now needed to establish himself in bounds and “survive the ground,” almost like we would say for a receiver making a catch. In the league’s opinion, Seferian-Jenkins lost control of the ball a second time when he hit the ground out of bounds. This made the ruling a fumble and caused the touchback that gave the ball to New England. Again, certainly a lot of ways to look at it but that’s what director of officials Al Riveron determined.
Paul Perillo

Why is this defense so pathetic to date considering they practice daily against a high-powered offense led by the greatest passer of all time in Tom Brady?
Scott Bryant

There really isn’t a lot of first offense playing against first defense going on at practice, and the team is only in full pads once a week in general anyway. More often than not the defense works against a scout team offense that is running plays and schemes from the upcoming opponent. So while working against Brady is a definite challenge, and we see it a lot during training camp, I’m not sure how helpful it is during the regular season.
Paul Perillo

Isn’t it about time the Patriots get a GM? Belichick is a better coach than GM. And it seems his coaching suffers having to do both. He really needs to take over the defense. Everything they could do to have a disgruntled Butler has been done. And his play has shown it. Gilmore, for that kind of money, is a total bonehead move at best. Then they thought Alan Branch would anchor the D-line again after donut therapy in the offseason? Let’s get to your most important position on the offensive line, left tackle. Why hasn’t Nate Solder been upgraded? And he didn’t just hit a wall. The decline has been obvious for a couple of years. Shaq Mason is almost as bad in pass protection, but the GM loves him. Why the running back heavy unit, while linebackers are so thin? All we needed was Mike Gillislee and James White, and either Dion Lewis or Rex Burkhead. Not one keeping the bench warm. In fact, Gillislee hasn’t been what he was at Buffalo, but the offensive line figures into that I understand. Only two QBs, as Brady gets clobbered every week. What is the plan if Jimmy Garoppolo has to start? No backup? Or is Colin Kaepernick on speed dial? Say it isn’t so. A GM, Mr. Kraft, please.
Steve Taylor

I’m curious if you felt the same way last year when the Patriots won their fifth Super Bowl under the direction of head coach and general manager Bill Belichick? There are things to criticize for even the greatest in the business and I would certainly agree that the Butler situation, as an example, was not handled properly. I thought they could have worked more with the corner to get a deal done and not low-balled him before signing a high-priced free agent. Solder? There was no reason to envision the kind of struggles he’s had thus far. He’s in the final year of his rookie deal and Belichick drafted a tackle to potentially take his place. Unfortunately Tony Garcia is on the non-football illness list and won’t get a chance to show what he’s worth. That’s not the GM’s fault. The running backs are not a problem, and using your logic that one is warming the bench why do you ignore the fact that a linebacker (a major position of need for you) is also warming the bench. McClellin is also part of that mix and potentially can start practicing now and return after the bye week. Overall I get that people want to point fingers and cast blame, but looking Belichick’s way after what he’s done seems a bit silly. Again, no one is above reproach but the man’s resume speaks for itself.
Paul Perillo

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