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Ask PFW: Patching the protection

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With the Denver loss and home field throughout the playoffs for New England does Bill Belichick sit key players against Buffalo? I would sit Darrelle Revis, Rob Gronkowski, Jamie Collins and Tom Brady for sure. Didn't Wes Welker get hurt a few years ago in a similar situation? I know you can never predict what Belichick will do but if you were the head coach would you sit key players out?*
*Dave DeLuca

My guess is most of the players will play at least part of the game. Since the Patriots have a bye, it would make three weeks between games if Belichick opted to sit out starters who were otherwise healthy enough to play and coaches don't like to have their players sit that long. I don't expect Brady and Revis to play the entire game, however. If the Patriots play well early and get out to a lead I could see Belichick pulling the starters in the third quarter and letting some backups play. But unless the players are dealing with significant injuries, like perhaps Julian Edelman and Dan Connolly, I'd expect them to play at least part of the game. Personally, I'd sit Gronkowski for the entire game just to get him some rest.
Paul Perillo

Taking into consideration how bad and how deservedly criticized the offensive line was the first quarter of the season, and then how accepted and excused they were for the next half, how do we approach our obvious protection issues coming into the playoffs?
Matheux Knight

I do agree that this is my greatest concern heading into the playoffs. The ability of the offensive line to protect Brady and create at least a semblance of a running game is key for the offense. Turnovers and negative plays can prevent the Patriots from putting points on the board, and those usually come as a result of shaky play up front. Obviously there is no magic cure other than to simply play better. Nate Solder has to be more consistent, and it would certainly help to get Dan Connolly back healthy and playing up to form. But it is an area to watch moving forward.
Paul Perillo

After three years with an 8-8 record the Cowboys finally found a way to win games: build a strong offensive line. Is it time for the Patriots to draft OTs and OGs in the first rounds too just like Dallas has done in recent years? I was wondering if this unit has become the most important unit of a football team (outside of the quarterback position). Do you share my view?
Aron M.

The Patriots have used significant draft resources on their offensive line. Solder was a first-round pick and Sebastian Vollmer was a second-round pick. This year they grabbed center Bryan Stork in the fourth round. That's three draft picks used on the starting five, which is significant. In terms of importance you never want to be weak along the lines but we've seen examples of teams being able to succeed despite some shaky play up front. Seattle's offensive line is not exceptional and they are currently the defending champs. Pittsburgh for years had a poor offensive line and routinely made playoff runs and won two Super Bowls. The Patriots offensive line has been inconsistent this season but it's certainly talented enough to perform well in the postseason. Now it's time to see if they can do it.
Paul Perillo

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Team photographer, David Silverman, offers his best photos from the Patriots-Jets game on Sunday, December 21, 2014.

I don't understand the logic of Patrick Chung "peeking" in the Jets backfield when he allowed a TD. Even if the Jets RB gets by our solid D-line and then our ILBs, Chung would time to react to run, and the worst damage may be say 10 yards. But if he lets a TE jump on him, it's a TD. Please explain if such peeking makes any sense and if coaching can correct that to be one and done event?*
*Stan C.

Well it's not that easy, obviously. Of course Chung knows he can't let the tight end run past him but he also knows he can't let the running back run free either. Chung has been used mostly as an extra player in the box to protect against the run. The Jets are a run-first team, therefore, he reacted to the play-action fake. It was a mistake. It happens. But Chung can't just allow Jeff Cumberland to race by the way he did. It was poor coverage that started with a mental mistake. Also, you logic is a bit flawed as well. A 10-yard run is not the worst damage the Patriots could have allowed. The Jets had runs longer than that last week and with the ball at the 20 a touchdown could have resulted either way.
Paul Perillo

Since 2007, it was apparent that Patriots need a strong offensive line because Brady is so different under pressure, and it absolutely amazes me that instead of drafting quality guards the Patriots draft questionable players like Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan in 2-3 rounds while relying on undrafted free agents for years now. How many SBs do we need to blow before BB finally gets Brady the O-line that can protect Brady, run the ball and keep defense off the field?
Ben J.

At what point do any of the issues on offense become the responsibility of someone other than the offensive line? I share your concern about the current state up front, but you maintain that Belichick has always used undrafted guards. Logan Mankins was a multiple All-Pro and former first-round pick. He was at guard when the Patriots lost in the Super Bowl in 2007 and was part of the group that got overwhelmed by the Giants. That wasn't Belichick's fault. And you also say that Brady needs great protection and a running game to keep the defense off the field. What quarterback wouldn't succeed under those conditions? Sometimes the team simply needs to play better and over the recent past the Patriots haven't played well in the playoffs. This team seems to be more reminiscent of the title winning clubs of the past. January is right around the corner and we'll figure out if this season will be any different.
Paul Perillo

So how was trading Logan Mankins in the best interest of the team when the Patriots are clearly needing depth and talent on the O-line? Wouldn't we still be a better team with Mankins? What happens if Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork or Ryan Wendell is injured during the playoffs?
Sam

This is a good point. Obviously the Mankins deal was done for reasons other than football, and it could be argued that the financial gains were in the best interests of the team long term. But in 2014, I completely agree with you. This team would be better with Mankins and the depth up front wouldn't be a concern since one of the three you mentioned would be available off the bench. Again, I understand the trade and I understood it at the time. It made sense. But the Patriots are positioned to win the Super Bowl and if the offensive line prevents the team from doing so it would certainly be worth criticizing the move.
Paul Perillo

I am always baffled by our play against the Jets, whether they are 12-3 or 3-12 they always play us tough and it always comes down to a final play. I watch Coach Ryan execute the perfect defense every time for getting Brady off his spot and making him look awful. Vice-versa we make Geno look great at times. My question is twofold though. 1) Would BB ever consider bringing Rex onto his staff to coach our defense so that we may someday see a great pass rush too? 2) Why don't other teams seem to have the success that Rex does against us, or why does he have so much success against us?
Thomas Raymond

First question … I highly doubt it. I do believe there's a level of respect between the two that often gets glossed over due to the bombastic nature of Ryan, but I just can't see a loud personality like that mixing well with Belichick. In fairness, Rob Ryan was once on the Patriots staff and his personality isn't much different from his brother and that seemed to work. The Patriots also have a defensive coordinator in Matt Patricia who is leading a spirited group this season. Bringing in Ryan might disrupt that chemistry and could cause some friction. I don't see that happening. The second part is more difficult. Teams that can create pressure up front without blitzing seem to give the Patriots the most trouble. That's the style that teams try to emulate, but Ryan's ability to change game plans and his familiarity with the Patriots from facing them twice a year gives him an edge.
Paul Perillo

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It's early yet, but which teams' D-lines scare you the most and how do they compare with the Jets?*
*James Siegel

In terms of playoff teams I'd say Baltimore, Cincinnati and to a lesser extent Denver in the AFC and Seattle and Detroit in the NFC. The Jets defensive line is terrific but it's not known as a huge pass rushing group. There was a lot of blitzing by New York in Week 16 and that caused some problems, but in general teams have had a hard time blitzing Brady over the years so that's not necessarily something every team can copy. In general the Patriots just need to play better offensively in order to remain productive in the playoffs.
Paul Perillo

Do you think the Pats have any interest in signing a WR? Mike Williams is a free agent and has talent that Buffalo did not know how to use and I think he would complement the likes of Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman really well, thoughts?
David K.

I don't really think the Patriots need another wide receiver at this point. As long as Brady has Gronk, LaFell and Edelman (or Danny Amendola) at his disposal I feel the Patriots have enough weapons to move the ball. It wouldn't hurt to add one to the mix but bringing in someone like Mike Williams this late in the season would be tough. Williams doesn't know the offense and was basically a non-factor in Buffalo all year. I'm not sure what you could expect from him at this point, and with so little time to get him up to speed my guess is not much.
Paul Perillo

I just cannot wrap my head around why Logan Ryan is getting playing time ahead of Alfonzo Dennard. Ryan is getting picked on just about every game and I feel like Dennard would be able to do a better job. Dennard hasn't been on the injury report, so has he simply fallen down the depth chart or could it be due to other factors we may not be aware of such as disciplinary issues?
Sean Jessiman

There is always the chance that something we don't know about is affecting Dennard's playing time. But assuming there is nothing discipline related, I share your confusion. Ryan has indeed been picked on consistently all year while Dennard went from the starting to basically being a healthy inactive. Dennard is more of an outside corner while Ryan plays in the slot as well, but Ryan has not done that job well most of the season. Malcolm Butler has also received playing time over Dennard on the outside, and he's struggled too. I don't have the answer to this question but it would seem that Dennard would be a more viable option than either one at this point.
Paul Perillo

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Was there lack of a pass rush by the Patriots by design to keep Geno Smith in the pocket? Or was the Patriots pass rush really pitiful?*
*Wano Yee

There is an element of containing mobile quarterbacks with the pass rush but I also believe the Patriots need to do a better job of bringing the heat. Smith is not an overly mobile quarterback to begin with. He can move a little and in the first game he hurt the Patriots at times by scrambling for first downs. But he's not exactly Russell Wilson out there. The Patriots seem to be willing to keep erratic passers like Smith in the pocket and force them to throw the ball with the idea that at some point they'll make mistakes. Smith did so late in the third quarter with a bad interception, and then later when the game was on the line the Patriots did a nice job of turning up the heat to get some pressure.
Paul Perillo

Do you think that Patriots made a mistake releasing Kenbrell Tompkins who seems to be doing well with the Raiders? And do you think that Patriots may use another quality target for Brady?
Ken K.

As I mentioned earlier in the answer about Mike Williams, I don't feel the Patriots are lacking an additional wide receiver. LaFell has been solid as an outside threat and I don't feel the need to add another one with Gronk and Edelman already in the picture. Thompkins is an average receiver at best and has 14 receptions during his time with the Raiders. He is not a difference-maker and that's why the team felt comfortable letting him go. He's still young and perhaps the Patriots would have liked to continue working with him but he's light years behind LaFell in a similar role.
Paul Perillo

If you are 5 to 10 yards from the end zone and you have LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray, why not let them run it in instead of having Brady try to throw it in on first and second down?
Jeff Dalton

At times this annoys me as well but you really can't argue with the overall results. The Patriots are the highest scoring team in football and they've done a good job getting the ball in the end zone from all over. Against the Jets they ran it inside the 5 on consecutive plays and Gray scored. There have been other times when they've thrown it from the 1 and not scored – like in San Diego. I feel they need to run the ball more inside the 5 but when you have a quarterback as efficient as Brady it's tough to take the ball out of his hands.
Paul Perillo

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