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Ask PFW: Pats steal one from Steelers

Great win on Sunday. There was a play that I don’t think gets enough attention. The play before the interception. Darrius Heyward-Bey was tackled inbounds to keep the clock running and that caused all kinds of havoc. If he had gotten out of bounds then Pitt would have been able to regroup and run a play. Do you feel this play isn’t getting enough attention or am I giving to much credit?
Monty Borrowman

I agree it was an underrated play but I do believe Bill Belichick spoke about it a bit on Monday. But I also think Pittsburgh had plenty of time to do whatever they wanted with third down coming and still more than 15 seconds remaining as they were lining up. And in all honestly I totally agree with the play the call to go for it on third down, even using a fake spike to try to catch the Patriots off guard. The problem is, fake spike rarely catch the opponent off guard. Sometimes they work anyway because the receiver just beats the coverage, which was sort of what Pittsburgh did against Dallas last year. But the Patriots were prepared and stopped the play. My problem with the Steelers play call was sending the lone receiver across the middle where there were several Patriots defenders standing around waiting since no Steelers were going out for a pass. That created a tight window and for Ben Roethlisberger and Eric Rowe made a great play to deflect it away. It makes more sense to try a fade there to the outside where the worst case scenario is an incomplete pass. Had Malcom Butler not tackled Heyward-Bey inbounds, the Steelers wouldn’t have tried to trick the Patriots and they may have scored. So yes, I agree the tackle was a huge play.
Paul Perillo

Why do teams keep punting? A) It’s a dangerous play. B) It’s mathematically worst to punt. C) It’s much more exciting when teams to go fourth down, and even more exciting when it is in your own end of the field. I understand that’s going be 32 unemployed players, but, that’s life, with the evolution some professions surge and others disappear. I’m sorry, but we have to think about the evolution of the game.
Gregorio Ladeira

Wow, coming out spitting fire. While I don’t necessarily agree with your premise that teams should never punt, I do agree that teams punt too often. I’ll give a very controversial case in point. Sunday night in Pittsburgh the Steelers had a fourth-and-one with just over two minutes left in their own end. Le’Veon Bell had his way with the Patriots throughout, and I would have gone for the first down with two things in mind. First, pick up the first down and basically end the game. Second, if not then the Patriots would have had a short field and theoretically scored quicker to leave more time for the Steelers to come back. That’s the type of situation I don’t believe enough coaches are willing to try. I give Dallas some credit for doing that late in their win over Oakland later that night. Fourth-and-inches from their own 40 in a tie game. But I don’t understand why it’s a dangerous play, or at least any more dangerous than any other play. And there are times when team have to punt, like facing fourth-and-long from deep in their own end. It would be silly to go for fourth-and-15 from your own 10, as an example. So punting will never be completely taken out of the game, but deep down I sort of know where you’re coming from. I’d love to see more aggressiveness in play calling.
Paul Perillo

You won’t catch many people saying Eric Rowe is a shutdown corner, and in the first half of the Steelers game he was getting beat pretty bad but, when it counted he came through. If not for him grabbing JuJu Smith-Schuster’s foot just enough to slow him down and be tackled the game would have ended right then with a TD. And then his tip of the pass in the end zone also would have been a sure catch and TD as well. So is Rowe a keeper going forward into 2108?
Gary Abrams

Who is suggesting Rowe isn’t worth keeping around in the future? He’s under contract for next season and I haven’t heard anyone say he won’t be back. As for the game in Pittsburgh, he certainly redeemed himself on the final play. Otherwise, he was awful. And while you mention the grabbing of Smith-Schuster, which did help slow him down, you failed to mention that he was in coverage on the 69-yard catch-and-run in the first place. He struggled all night trying to keep up with Smith-Schuster, and he surrendered Eli Rogers’ touchdown catch as well. You are correct, he made the only play that mattered and saved the game with his diving deflection. But again, no one is looking to get rid of Rowe, at least not that I know of.
Paul Perillo

I know this question would get Andy mad, but guys, hear me out. I think it would have been better if the Patriots actually lost the game. Now, I know that sounds crazy because there is a good chance of getting home field, but think of how hard it is going to be to beat the Steelers twice (remember, Miami?) in a relatively short amount of time. If we lost, we would have the three seed and knockoff Jacksonville, and then bank on KC or Baltimore knocking off Pittsburgh. Then, we would still end up in Gillette at home facing a lower seed opponent. Isn’t this better than getting home field for the sake of home field, and then having the Steelers fresh and healthy and potentially losing!? Does this theory at least hold some merit?
Joe Howard

I have a feeling Andy isn’t going to be the only one getting mad at this post. Patriots fans might not be too pleased either. How could you possibly think it would be potentially better to play three games to get to the Super Bowl – something the Brady-Belichick Patriots have never accomplished – than two? And two of those three games would more than likely be on the road. Now think of things in these terms. Pittsburgh just had its heart ripped out, and now hopes it can claw its way to a few more wins just for the opportunity for a rematch with the Patriots in the AFC title game in Foxborough. The Steelers couldn’t survive the ground and now they’re going to have to survive January in Foxborough? I’ll take my chances with the win and the first seed.
Paul Perillo

I’m not even going to harp on the tackling or run stopping issues the Patriots clearly had in this game. My big concern is why Trey Flowers was covering Le’Veon Bell at any point in this game? We get beat constantly by backs against linebackers so why put a defensive end in that position? I understand the Steelers have a potent offense but especially since Antonio Brown went out why did we not focus on stopping Bell? That said the defense came up big when they needed to but I worry about their ability to go all the way considering the lack of talent in the front seven.
Bryan Johnson

It’s tough right now for the defense considering the missing pieces up front. Alan Branch and Kyle Van Noy were out, Dont’a Hightower is on IR and Flowers just returned from an injury himself. There aren’t a lot of answers and I share your concern that at some point the offense won’t be able to bail the team out – sort of like was the case in Miami. I can’t get too worked up about Flowers on Bell though. Teams scheme to force matchups and the Patriots have done that as well as anyone. Give Pittsburgh credit for working personnel groups to their advantage and getting Bell in space against Flowers. Overall though, I understand your points about the defense. I’m just not sure there are any easy answers to fix it unless the offense carries the team down the stretch like it did down the stretch against Pittsburgh.
Paul Perillo

If somehow Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners win or play competitive against the Jags and their legion of doom, should people really start asking if that trade was a giveaway or even warranted?
Pat Belucci

I didn’t like the timing nor the return on the Garoppolo trade from the moment it happened. Nothing that happens in the future will change my opinion on that. The fact is he had tremendous value and was dumped at the deadline for a second-round pick. The Patriots could have gotten more at the draft last spring and even if they waited to franchise him next spring. They didn’t and it now a second-rounder is all they have to show for a guy who was coveted by several teams. If he continues to play well, it will only look worse.
Paul Perillo

IR rules keep evolving year to year, and we know that Patriots can bring only one player from back IR, but is there any rule limiting who that player can be in terms of when he was placed on IR? For example, can the Patriots bring back say Dont’a Hightower or Marcus Cannon if by miracle one of them becomes healthy enough to practice?
Ben Larkin

There are a couple of parameters to be eligible to return from IR, and one eliminates Cannon. In order to return you have to sit out at least eight weeks, and since there are not eight weeks left in the season Cannon will not be able to return. The other requirement is any player eligible to return must open the season on the 53-man roster. Hightower would be able to return if he was healthy enough, but that would be a longshot.
Paul Perillo

Why can’t Mike Gillislee unlike say Rex Burkhead or Brandon Bolden play special teams? What makes a player unable to train for such role given a season worth of training?
Jason Lucas

I don’t think it’s a matter of Gillislee lacking the skill set necessary to compete on special teams but he hasn’t really done it. As a running back he would certainly possess the athleticism to play in space that coverage players need, and he has the strength to battle through blockers and make plays. Maybe it’s just not something he has any experience with and the Patriots feel better about the others you mentioned in those roles. Maybe Gillislee simply isn’t a good tackler or blocker. I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. But clearly he has lost playing time due to his lack of versatility in that regard, although with Burkhead now banged up he should be back in the lineup.
Paul Perillo

Hi PFW, big fan from Italy. Just one simple question: why is Joe Thuney still playing since I believe he is the one to blame for the recent offensive line struggles?
Alessandro Ramaioli

Throwing rocket shots all the way from Italy. Thuney has definitely struggled over the past several games, but I think it’s a bit unfair to suggest he’s been the only problem. I’d say Shaq Mason has been the one starter up front who has performed at a fairly high level all season. The other four have had their share of struggles, Thuney included. He slowed down considerably last year as he appeared to hit the rookie wall so his problems of late are perhaps a warning sign that a repeat slip in play late in the season is coming. As for replacing him, I don’t believe Ted Karras is a better option, although Karras fared reasonably well playing in place of David Andrews at center for a couple of games.
Paul Perillo

I have no issue with Tom Brady going to Rob Gronkowski almost all the time, especially at the end of a key game, but Gronk can wear down taking hard hits, so wouldn’t it be smart to spread the ball more besides Gronk and Brandin Cooks?
Larry G.

The problem has been Brady hasn’t really had any other options that have been consistently productive. Cooks has been solid at times and not so much at others. Danny Amendola has been steady but it seems the Patriots would rather monitor his usage from game to game and haven’t relied heavily on him. The backs have been a significant part of the passing game, but James White’s production has dropped as well. And Chris Hogan has been injured. That really leaves just Gronk, and the Patriots have needed every one of these wins in order to secure a bye in the AFC playoffs. One loss could mean dropping from No. 1 in the conference to No. 3, so the Patriots don’t have the luxury of pulling back from Gronk and relying on others.
Paul Perillo

I meant to ask this before the Steelers game, and Burkhead’s injury may change the situation somewhat, but I was wondering how you would grade the running backs in pass protection? More specifically, could that be a route out of the wilderness for Mike Gillislee, with Marcus Cannon who was one of the top two Patriots linesmen done for the year? We’ve seen in the past (specifically Denver 2015) that pressure can limit Brady, and with our top tackle out it might lead Josh McDaniels to leave a RB in the backfield as extra protection at times. Therefore if I were Gillislee I would be doing everything possible to show the coaching staff that I could be the guy in pass pro and also to churn out short yards when needed as the line had some struggles before losing Cannon. My thoughts were he could potentially replace James White, who’s role was becoming less with Lewis the No.1 guy in the backfield and Rex taking over a lot of the passing game but now it seems there’s room for all 3 till Rex gets back. Any thoughts?
Alex Marr

I believe White is the best blocker of the bunch but Lewis is very good at it as well. Lewis in my mind is the best running back the team has and that’s why he’s emerged as the lead back. Burkhead has been steady as the secondary back while White is the primary passing back. Gillislee will now likely get a chance to pick up some of Burkhead’s carries, assuming Burkhead will be out of the lineup for a while with the knee injury. I don’t think Gillislee’s path to the lineup was as a blocker but he’s likely going to get the chance to suit up again.
Paul Perillo

Danish Patriots fan here. I want to ask you about the term “situational football.” What kind skillset is characteristic for the players to be able to understand and execute a play when it really counts? Intelligence, effort and being prepared for any situation? Is it a team skill or individual skill and how much does coach Belichick value it when he drafts a players?
Soren Kristensen

Basically you answered your question with all of your suggestions. Belichick definitely prepares his team for as many situations as he can possibly create during training camp and at practice. We see it every summer and then we watch the team execute it during the season. So that’s a big part of it, but it’s also important to have players who are receptive to it and intelligent enough to apply it in the heat of the moment. Like on Sunday when the Steelers looked like they might try the fake spike, the Patriots defenders talked about how they had discussed that scenario during practice. So intelligence, effort, preparation … all of the above.
Paul Perillo

Hi from France where it’s all about soccer! First would you say the refs gave us pats the game vs Pittsburgh? Second, I didn’t see Kyle Van Noy on the injury report during the week so knowing he re-injured his leg during the Buffalo game it was somewhat of a surprise and is it permitted by the league?
David Aubertin

I don’t feel the refs were a major part of the game in Pittsburgh at all. Tony Corrente’s crew has the reputation for throwing a lot of flags but I thought they did a decent job of letting the teams play and I didn’t see many major calls that were bad or missed. Obviously the non-touchdown by Jesse James was a huge play in the game but that really wasn’t a call by the refs as much as it was an application of a rule based off the replay. As for Van Noy, I’ll forgive you because you’re all the way over in France but the linebacker was indeed listed on the injury report and it was not a huge surprise to see him forced to sit out in Pittsburgh. He’s still dealing with that calf injury he re-aggravated in Buffalo.
Paul Perillo

The team hasn’t looked anywhere near as sharp as it had been the last few weeks. Do you feel all the injuries have taken a toll on the on field product?
Josh Lund

Absolutely. And it might all start with Brady, who has been good but not great over the past month or so. He just doesn’t look the same to me and injuries (Achilles, hand, shoulder?) may have something to do with it. Clearly the front seven on defense is banged up, and that has affected things as well. But there are a lot of healthy players still available and many of those – the secondary, Gronk, most of the offensive line, the running backs – need to carry the team through. It will be interesting to see how the next couple of weeks unfold because the Patriots won’t likely be afforded the chance to rest anyone.
Paul Perillo

If the Pats beat Buffalo will they be able to rest their starters against the Jets regardless of what PIT/JAX do?
John Lewis

Which leads me to this … the short answer is not likely. A win over Buffalo on Christmas Eve won’t clinch the first-round bye unless Pittsburgh and Jacksonville also lose. If one or both win, then the Jets game matters. The Patriots lose the tiebreaker with Jacksonville based on conference record and obviously if the Steelers win out the Patriots would need to win out to remain even and therefore ahead based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Paul Perillo

In response to a reader’s question last week you mentioned the team designated Shea McClellin to return from IR, but also mentioned that the other spot was not reserved for any specific player and could be open for Malcolm Mitchell, Vincent Valentine or (hopefully) Hightower. My question: Why would the team bother designating anyone to return when there’s a possibility that that player’s (as in McClellin’s case) injury might get worse and risk wasting that spot on that player. Why not leave the two spots open?
Jamie Baines

Once a player starts to practice he is officially one of the players deemed designated to return. Teams can’t have guys practice and then designate one when they decide the time is right. A guy practices, like McClellin, and then he takes up one of the spots. Unfortunately McClellin wasn’t able to physically make it back to the roster and the Patriots lost one of their two designations.
Paul Perillo

Concerning injuries and IR - I often read in your posts how someone injured was seen walking through the clubhouse. Are those injured or on IR not allowed to talk to the press or public? Are they ordered by the Pats organization not to talk to anyone about their injury?
Jeffrey Anderson

Players are not prohibited from being in the locker room while on IR, but it isn’t an overly common occurrence. It also depends on the extent of the injury. Julian Edelman hasn’t been in the locker room much, although he has been around the team often throughout the year. Malcolm Mitchell has been spotted quite often, although he also has the possibility of returning and is doing a lot of rehab work. In most cases it’s an individual preference. Some players don’t like the glare of the media, most in fact, and likely choose to stay away during the window when we’re allowed in. Very few if any players on IR ever actually speak to the media in the locker room on the record, but I don’t believe it’s based on any edict from the coaches, but team rules aren’t always common knowledge.
Paul Perillo

Very avid ready here, is there any chance at all that Julien Edelman uses our last IR to return spot? Would become a huge boost to our Super Bowl aspirations.
Brendan
Saint John, N.B.

Edelman tore his ACL in August so it would be physically impossible for him to return in time for the Super Bowl. Generally those injuries take nine months to a year to heal properly. But it’s also literally impossible for Edelman to return off IR since he wasn’t part of the 53-man roster to open the season. That makes him ineligible for one of the designated to return spots until 2018.

Paul Perillo

How do you think they’ll integrate Kenny Britt into the game plan? Do you think they’ll give him the same slice of the playbook that Marty Bennett had and try some of those 2 TE plays? Or more like Brandon LaFell?
Brian Clark

Britt will likely be worked in slowly and if he picks up the offense reasonably quickly I could see him being used on the outside and in particular in the red zone. He caught one pass near the sideline in Pittsburgh and I don’t see his role expanding tremendously until he gets some time in the system under his belt. His size would seem to give him the opportunity to contribute outside the numbers and that’s how I see the Patriots trying to use him. We’ll see.
Paul Perillo

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