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Ask PFW: Post-Steelers victory

In this week's mailbag, we begin with your questions about various aspects of the win over Pittsburgh, plus the development of some young Patriots, particularly on defense.

Hey guys, what a game against the Steelers. What did you think of the pass rush? Was it poor play by the Steelers ragtag O-line or did our guys just play lights out? And what the heck happened to Hernandez? Was he just not put in the game plan or what?
Mike Duran

In your opinion, do you think the presence of a pass rush [against Pittsburgh] was due to an improving Pats D, or a weakened Steelers O-line?
Jesse M.

The Patriots were able to get good pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, in part because of Pittsburgh's patchwork o-line. But the Patriots tried other methods, too, including sending safety blitzes with James Sanders and stunting Mike Wright. It was a good combination of scheme and circumstances playing in New England's favor.

And Mike, you hit the nail on the head with Hernandez – he just wasn't a huge piece of this particular game plan. Clearly, he was against Cleveland. But against the Steelers, apparently the coaching staff was right to find mismatches for the 6-6 Gronkowski. I wouldn't be too worried or read too much into Hernandez' reduced role, except to say that he needs to stop dropping the football so much. He'll be back, though, I'm sure.
Erik Scalavino

I have no understanding how Meriweather got flagged for pass interference late in the game. From my vantage point, he saw the pass, he was ahead of the receiver, and made a play on the ball. It seems the Steeler's receiver flailed his body at the ball and pushed Meriweather out of the way. It could have been a pick otherwise. How is this pass interference? Were the refs just trying to make it a game?
Kert Richardson

No, Kert, they weren't. But what I can say is that the play happened directly in front of us in the Heinz Field press box, and Paul Perillo and I both exclaimed, "Oh, that's a flag," even before the ref tossed it. Was it a close call? Sure. But Meriweather made contact before the ball got there. Simple as that.
Erik Scalavino

Hey PFW! How are the Patriots comparing to your preseason expectations/predictions? To me, they are fairly inconsistent, but overall performing better than expected, even on the road! What have been the biggest surprises and disappointments so far? Given the right attitude on gameday, I see the sky being the limit for this team! Go Pats!
Jeremy Schain

Well, I predicted an 8-8 campaign, so they've already exceeded my expectations in that regard. I just wasn't convinced, after what I'd seen in training camp and four preseason games, that the players who've become regular contributors would be able to do so this quickly. I'm talking about guys like Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Tate, Kyle Arrington, etc. Yes, they're inconsistent, but I believe they're showing improvement, however incremental. That's been the biggest surprise, for me, and a pleasant one at that. Followed closely by the return of Logan Mankins. I thought he'd played his last game for this team.

Biggest disappointment? Has to be how the whole Randy Moss affair went down. It never needed to come to that, had Moss just behaved. I think he realizes his mistakes, too. Shame. I'm also extremely discouraged by what's happening to Darius Butler. We could have another Terrence Wheatley in the making, minus the injuries, which makes his situation even more troubling. He seems to be regressing rather than progressing.
Erik Scalavino

Great win by the Patriots! My question is, with the emergence of Mike Wright, and getting Ty Warren back next season, do you think the Patriots will bring back Richard Seymour? They need leaders and Big Sey has many good years left.
*B.M. *

You learn, covering this team, never to say never. However, given how Seymour left town, I'd say the chances are somewhere between slim and none. Wright, by the way, is not "emerging." He did that years ago. He has become what he will always be: a reliable, versatile, reserve defensive lineman, who can make plays on occasion. Much like Jarvis Green used to do.
Erik Scalavino

How important do you think Patrick Chung is to this defense? It seems like he brings a lot of energy to the team.
Bill Sackett

Chung is becoming a fixture on the Patriots defense. He had his best game as a pro, I thought, in Pittsburgh. He's still young and improving, but right now, he's a solid starter and might be the best overall player in the secondary. Plus, he's a reliable contributor on special teams. Unlike Butler, this second-year defender is heading in the right direction.
Erik Scalavino

Hey guys, great stuff every week. I appreciate the job you do. As for my question, how do you guys feel about the development of the young defenders? I feel like [Brandon] Spikes, Chung, and McCourty are playing at a very high level but how about [Shawn] Crable and Cunningham? They both seem to have a decent burst off the edge and get close to the quarterback but they aren't used as much in run situations is that because they can't set the edge well?
Nick Messier

Thanks, Nick. I think we're seeing exactly what we expected out of Spikes: a starter from the get-go, with a knack for making plays in spurts. He and Jerod Mayo complement each other well in the middle. Spikes will only get better. I've addressed the Chung issue above, so let's move to McCourty. He has his rookie moments and still has a lot to learn about playing corner in the NFL, but he's held up better than I expected to date. I like his physical style, and he's putting himself in better position to make plays (INTs, pass breakups) each week. He just needs to do so more consistently. The best is yet to come from him as well.

Crable, it seems, is finally healthy and starting to get opportunities. Though I've yet to see anything spectacular from him, I'm mildly encouraged by his mere presence on the field. Cunningham flashes brilliance, then disappears or gets gobbled up on other plays. He has potential, though, from what I've seen. There are definitely reasons for optimism among the young corps of defenders.
Erik Scalavino

One of the biggest shocks for me so far this season has been the virtual disappearance of Julian Edelman ... What is keeping him from getting on the field much this season?Kenyon Gagne

Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, that's what. The rookie tight ends are adding an element to the offense that has been sorely lacking for quite some time. Edelman was forced to play a lot more than most of us expected last season because of sheer lack of depth at the wide receiver position. The Patriots still aren't exactly stocked at wideout, but the addition of tight ends who can catch makes that less of an imperative. Anyway, at best, Edelman is a younger version of Wes Welker – slot guy who can return punts. New England already has one of those on the field. They don't really need another one at this point.
Erik Scalavino

Is it possible we are getting too attached to this 2 TE 2 WR set? I'm all about the mismatching difficulties it can bring given our talented 2 rookies, but wouldn't a more of a traditional spread formation to "widen" the defense at times? We've had trouble consistently moving the ball the past few weeks and am just wondering if a change at times would help alleviate this inconsistencies. We certainly have the talent to spread the ball, and can dink and dunk with the best of them, but I'm definitely worried about the consistency to maintain drives all 4 quarters.
Kyle Witkowski

Geez, Kyle … go toss that wet blanket in the dryer, why don't you. In case you haven't noticed, the two-tight-end, two-wide-receivers sets have been working, more often than not, for the Patriots. I understand you're looking for some creativity to make the offense even better, but right now, it ain't broke, so there's no need to fix it.
Erik Scalavino

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