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Ask PFW: Sizing up the defense

How would you grade the defense going into Week 9?

AJ Arris*

As is generally the case when Bill Belichick is involved, I feel the Patriots defense has improved as the season has gone. I also expect it to continue to improve moving forward. The question is, though, will that improvement be good enough? Time will tell but I like the way the front seven has played over the last couple of weeks. The run defense has been much better in the last two games, especially against the tough and physical Jets. If that continues it will forced opponents to be one-dimensional. When that happens the pass rush can help the secondary and cover up for some of the deficiencies in that area. The coverage needs to get better and if it doesn't I fear that a good passing attack – something the Patriots have really only faced once so far (Pittsburgh) – will hurt them. But overall the performance of the defense has been OK and it seems to be on the rise. Keeping Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins healthy moving forward will be key.
Paul Perillo

How close is Jabaal Sheard to returning, does it seem like his injury is a high ankle sprain and how do you see him fitting back in with the lineup we have now?

Chu Snow*

Sheard fit into the lineup seamlessly and he will have no trouble finding a role once he's ready to return. He's provided a steady presence as the third edge player and has also proven to have the ability to slide inside and operate there in sub packages. I'm not sure how serious Sheard's injury is but the fact that he wasn't able to practice and was declared out in Week 7 and 8 leads me to believe it's a significant injury. But once he's able to return he will provide some depth on the edge for the Patriots defense. He's been a solid addition.
Paul Perillo

It's been reported that the Colts breached league rules in not referring to Andrew Luck's broken ribs in their injury report. The injury reporting policy is "of paramount importance in maintaining the integrity of the game." Commissioner Goodell has shown us recently how far he will go to protect the integrity of the game, and Colts GM Ryan Grigson, when emailing the league to ask them to investigate deflated Patriots footballs, likewise stressed the importance of vigilance on matters of integrity. So can we expect an immediate and thorough investigation with harsh penalties if, more probably than not, the Colts are guilty?

Alan MacMillan*

Well, first, the league is investigating the situation so we'll have to wait to see what that brings. But this matter is of zero interest to me, much like the situation with the footballs. I personally thought it was ridiculous how the league so heavily investigated the possibility that the Patriots deflated the footballs – as if that had anything to do with the outcome of the game or the integrity of the competition. I feel the same about this. I don't care what teams do with their injury reports because they're not worth the paper they're printed on. I feel the league should just eliminate them and just worry about playing the games. But with the explosion of fantasy football and all the money the league is making off it I don't think that will ever happen. Fans think the reports are meaningful –even though they're not – so they probably aren't going anywhere. If Luck indeed has broken ribs, and not everyone agrees with that, then I expect the Colts to get fined but we'll see.
Paul Perillo

Everyone has rightfully pointed out their concerns in our secondary. I noticed not only do we have a lot of rookies there but the injuries along our offensive line have been piling up as well. Is it fair to have some concern with our makeshift offensive line moving forward?

Justin Ashburn*

It's more than fair to be concerned about the injuries along the offensive line. With Nate Solder out for the year and Bryan Stork missing the first eight weeks of the season there have been a lot of rookies pressed into action. The reason I'm not as worried about the offensive line as I am about the secondary is simple: Tom Brady. Brady makes the offensive line's job a lot easier by reading and recognizing the defense and where the pressure is going to come from. He gets rid of the ball so quickly that it's difficult for the rush to get to him, even when the protection is all that good. Plus, Stork will be back and the depth up front actually is pretty good. The rookies have gained valuable experience and I believe things will improve down the road with Ryan Wendell being added to the mix as depth. But there's no doubt that a fierce pass rush is a real concern for a team dealing with so many injuries to its offensive line.
Paul Perillo

Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins will all be looking for a new deal soon. My question: Who do the Pats prioritize of those 3? Would they be able to afford all 3?

Jamie O.*

I would prioritize them in this order – Collins, Hightower, Jones – but to skip ahead to your second question I absolutely believe the Patriots could afford all three. I doubt all three will be back because at least one will likely get an offer the Patriots don't feel comfortable with matching. But in terms of cap dollars, the Patriots will have plenty of room moving forward to do whatever they want. Obviously there's no way of knowing exactly how much it would take to sign all three, but given the ever-rising nature of the cap there will be opportunity to retain them. I would put Collins at the top because I think he's the most versatile but not by much over Hightower. Jones is a solid pass rusher and I believe he will receive a lucrative offer on the market and likely go.
Paul Perillo

Why doesn't Bill Belichick take the team early to Denver? The team needs time to adjust to the altitude and the two-hour time difference. Second, what happens if Patriots come into the last two weeks of the season undefeated and with home field clinched? Does BB play for perfection and history? Or does he rest the starters and risk a loss in a return for a fifth Super Bowl?

Bill Duncan*

The Patriots often travel early to Denver and other long trips such as to the west coast and Miami. Usually the team leaves on Friday for those games, and sometimes even earlier than that. I wouldn't be surprised if they do so once again this year. As for the potential game plan if the team is undefeated, I think Belichick will do what he did the last time around and go for it. In 2007 the Patriots played their starters throughout and did everything they could to win and finish the regular season 16-0. While they ultimately lost in the Super Bowl, I don't think it was due to fatigue or injury. I do feel like the team felt a lot of pressure in trying to cap off a perfect season, but obviously there would be plenty of pressure at the Super Bowl either way. I think Belichick might rest a starter who is dealing with some health issues at the time but I still think he will try to win the games and make history. And I'm not sure I understand your last question … how does resting starters increase the risk of losing in the Super Bowl? The Patriots have rested starters plenty – including last year – and gone on to win it all. I don't see one having anything to do with the other.
Paul Perillo

With Jarryd Hayne being released and the Patriots not having a fullback with James Develin down, any chance we give him a look?

Andrew DeSabatino*

I am by no means an expert on Hayne but from I've seen of him thus far he appears to be a terrific athlete with some ability as a returner. I haven't seen him do much blocking as a fullback though. I'm not sure he'd make sense in that role. Also, he's a very raw prospect after coming from Australia as a rugby player he's just learning how to play the American game. The Patriots have a fairly complex offensive system and it would not seem to be an easy one for someone in Hayne's situation to pick up quickly. Hayne is an intriguing athlete so if Belichick did express interest I could understand why. I just don't expect that to happen at this time.
Paul Perillo

Jerod Mayo has been so good for the Patriots that his current play– when he is on the field, which isn't much – is sad to watch. If he continues to struggle physically and, as expected, the Patriots don't pick up his option, do you think he would struggle (like Wes Welker) to find a team next year? If so, do you think retirement and coaching (similar to Mike Vrabel) would be a logical step for him? I'd love to see him stay in Foxboro, where he is clearly highly regarded and respected as a man and leader, in a coaching capacity to stay with the franchise and lend his expertise to the defensive coaches and linebackers?

David Beckett*

I agree that it would be surprising to see the Patriots pick up Mayo's option after the season based on his limited playing time thus far. But I don't agree that he would have trouble finding a job next season. Welker is out of work because of his concussion history. Otherwise he'd clearly be on someone's roster playing out the rest of his career. Welker (34) is also five years older than Mayo and even though he's had some injuries he hasn't dealt with concussions like the wideout. Someone will offer Mayo a contract for much less than he's currently making and if he wants to keep playing he'll have the option to do so. I think he has something left to offer on the field but he's not a great fit for the style of defense the Patriots have used over the last year-plus with faster, versatile linebackers playing on virtually every down. I don't see retirement in Mayo's near future.
Paul Perillo

Long time Pats fan from Israel, and enjoy your work. I've heard some rumors regarding the possibility of a trade with the Lions trading Calvin Johnson for a second-round pick. My question is whether that's a trade that can realistically happen?

Shuki Harow*

The short answer is no, I don't think that's a trade that can realistically happen. I don't like to completely rule out things I honestly don't have the information on, but it would be incredibly shocking to see the Patriots acquire such a big-money wide receiver – especially with the offense already performing at near-record levels. Johnson is awesome and having Tom Brady throwing him the ball instead of Matthew Stafford would only make him more dangerous. But that's not something I see happening at this point.
Paul Perillo

With the rash of injuries to our offensive line, do we have some talent in the practice squad that we can elevate to the active roster? I do want to give a shout-out for the outstanding job the O-Line has been doing all season.

Larry Breault*

No doubt the injuries up front are piling up. But there's plenty of depth up front as well. Belichick chose to give a lot of playing time to a lot of players early in the season and now everyone has plenty of experience. Once Marcus Cannon returns the Patriots will have three viable tackles and with Stork returning along with David Andrews, Josh Kline, Tre' Jackson, Shaq Mason and Ryan Wendell there are a lot of options on the interior as well. The Patriots also have to offensive linemen on the practice squad in Chris Barker and Blaine Clausell. While the situation up front isn't ideal with all the injuries, it's also a pretty deep position on the roster.
Paul Perillo

So it has become apparent that Julian Edelman's finger injury that he suffered against the Colts is really starting to affect his game. When do you think he'll be recovered enough to look more like his sure-handed self?

Gary Jenkins*

I don't really think the finger was all that big a deal for Edelman from the start. He had a few drops here and there but nothing that I would deem as a long-term concern. Edelman has occasionally dropped some passes in the past and he's had some costly ones recently. But if the finger was the cause of the problem I doubt that Belichick would continue putting him back deep to field punts. Even in the Colts game when the finger first became a public topic of conversation he was used as the punt returner. Why would Belichick risk ball security in that manner if he felt the finger was the reason for the drops? I don't think he would and I also don't worry about Edelman dropping the ball very often. All receivers drop passes occasionally and Edelman is no different. As the great Fred Kirsch would say, "He'll be fine."
Paul Perillo

Can Brady's arm withstand multiple games throwing for 388 yards per game? It looked good against the Jets but one sack could change that. I think Brady should be more 50-50 run and throw, but I guess it's who they are facing which will make that decision?

Bill Treadwell*

I wouldn't worry about Brady's arm holding up over the course of the season. I also wouldn't want to see the Patriots achieve a 50-50 balance between running and passing. The Patriots are a passing team and that's why the offense is so productive. They do not run it nearly as well, so asking them to run it as often as they throw it would be counterproductive. Brady is in tremendous physical shape and I have no concerns about his arm being able to withstand the wear and tear of throwing it as often as he needs to.
Paul Perillo

A question that occurred to me after reading some of last week's answers. Do you think that Tom Brady might decide to retire if Josh McDaniels moves on to a head coaching job elsewhere and allow a new offensive coordinator a fresh slate? Brady keeps talking about playing 10 more years, do you believe he'll hang them up when the time is right (could be a while yet hopefully) or could you see him playing a season too long like Brett Favre and I'm sorry to say Peyton Manning? And finally do you think that Josh McDaniels is Bill Belichick's natural successor and as a result he will be more likely to stay as part of a long term continuity plan?

Alex Marr*

Brady keeps saying he wants to play for 10 more years but obviously that's not very realistic at this stage of his career. At 38 it would be very tough to envision him playing at age 48. That said, he clearly shows very little signs of slowing down. This has arguably been the best he's ever played, and assuming he can continue to get the ball out of his hands quickly there's no reason why he can't keep playing at least into his early 40s. As for McDaniels, I'm not sure that's a factor at all. Brady would keep playing if McDaniels left. If Belichick retired then I'd be curious to see what would happen. A lot of people do believe McDaniels is the logical successor but that's a decision that Robert Kraft will have to make when the time comes. I'm not sure that's going to have anything to do with Brady, who I expect will be finished before Belichick decides to hang it up. But this is all complete speculation because neither Brady nor Belichick would discuss their plans with the media at this point.
Paul Perillo

Do you see the Patriots adding more depth to the running back position? LeGarrette Blount is a solid runner and has played some good games but without Dion Lewis the running game was non -existent against the Jets.

John Rodriguez*

The Patriots simply didn't try to run against the Jets because they thought throwing the ball was the way to go against such a big and physical front that is tough to run against. I think the Patriots have plenty of depth at running back with Blount, Lewis, James White and Brandon Bolden. I don't think they need to add to the position unless something were to happen to Blount because the team doesn't have any other big backs to fall back on. But I like the mix in the backfield as currently constituted and I don't feel they need to do anything at this point.
Paul Perillo

Throughout preseason you could not get away from the significant concern about the secondary. Understanding that Revis and Browner (the most penalized player in the NFL this season) had departed, I never understood this. Certainly Malcolm Butler has exceeded expectations and solidified as the number one corner, but the safety position is top 5 NFL as it was expected to be. I am a Logan Ryan fan, who had an excellent rookie season. Secondary concerns?

Brett Larson*

I have to be honest here and say that I'm still very much concerned about the secondary. Aside from opening night against the Steelers, the Patriots haven't faced a playoff-caliber passing attack and yet have still looked vulnerable at times this season. Against Miami the front seven dominated the game and allowed the secondary to perform. The five sacks and complete shutting down of the run put Ryan Tannehill in bad positions and the secondary took advantage. But even in that game, which was by far the best effort for the Patriots defense this season, there were plenty of open receivers. I haven't seen Butler solidify himself as a No. 1 corner. He's been OK considering how far he's come as an undrafted rookie but he has not been great. Eric Decker really got the better of him in Week 7. Overall the defense is playing better than I anticipated but that hasn't been because of the secondary. I'm still worried that once the Patriots face quality offenses in the playoffs that things will look different – fortunately the offense has been so productive that it really hasn't mattered.
Paul Perillo

What is the difference between being a tight end and a wide receiver? For example, Jimmy Graham is a tight end, but he clearly doesn't like to block. Why not just "make" him a wide receiver instead? Also, on the Dolphins hard knocks special a year back, a player was a decent pass catcher, but was obviously undersized for a tight end and couldn't block either. Again, if he is "too small" to be a tight end, but can catch and run routes, just make him a receiver. That's simple common sense, correct?

Tara Neilson*

There's a little more to this question than what you're describing but your basic point is a good one. Some tight ends really are glorified wide receivers who do very little blocking. Graham in one of those. But it's not just as simple as making him a wide receiver. Some of the things that make him an effective receiver wouldn't be as evident working against corners who would be faster than he is. We saw that in New England a few years ago when Aqib Talib completely shut him down. My basic point is Graham is fast and athletic for a tight end. As a wide receiver he'd be big but just average in terms of speed. Therefore, he wouldn't create the types of mismatches that he sometimes does as a receiver. Sometimes players are sort of 'tweeners where they don't quite fit into one category based on size an ability. The player you're describing from Miami appears to be along those lines. If he was a tight end but too small, than he was probably too slow to be a wide receiver. There are many players like that at different positions and the best coaches figure out a way to utilize the strengths those players have while covering up for their weaknesses.
Paul Perillo

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