Guest analyst: Jon Scott -- Patriots beat writer, PatriotsInsider.com
phillysteelfan: Brady took a lot of hits Monday night against the Ravens, especially when the Patriots went empty backfield. Is that a major concern, and do you think we will see less empty backfield sets against the Steelers?
Jon Scott: The Patriots actually moved out of the empty set to a 1 TE, and single back set to compensate for the aggressive nature of the Ravens defense. They still had trouble with protection after that. Will they use more of a single TE/2 RB set against Pittsburgh? Probably. What I would expect is some of the double TE, single RB sets they used so successfully in the past.
While it's true the Patriots have had unprecedented success with the empty set shotgun look, they are unable to protect Brady from an aggressive blitzing, or zone rush scheme. If the Patriots can get the protection right, I think you'll see a lot of single back sets because of what the Patriots need to do to gain yardage, as well as what they need to do to protect Brady.
VandilayIndustries: With R. Colvin out, the Pats' defense has given up a lot in the passing game to a career backup (Feeley). They were also gashed on the ground by McGahee when they knew Baltimore was going to run given the weather conditions. On a scale of 1-10, how concerned should Pats fans be about the defense and if there is concern, is it correctable given the perceived lack of depth and age of the LB corps?
Scott: Depth and age are always a concern when guys wear down, or get hurt. If you check the tape against Baltimore, you'll see what the Ravens did was to split the DE and the LB using Ogden – a world class left tackle – and their FB Le'Ron McClain. One thing I noticed was a similarity to the run defense trouble they had last year. When you take Richard Seymour or Ty Warren out of the picture, you can usually find enough space to squeeze through the line for a decent gain.
The Patriots gave up yardage over the middle against the Eagles because they wanted to keep Brian Westbrook in check. They did that, but exposed the middle of the field. The game plan was to eventually clamp down on the stuff over the middle, while keep Westbrook in check, and at the end, that's what they were able to do. Is Feeley that good, or will other backups QBs find the same success? No, because they don't have a Brian Westbrook the Patriots have to take out of the attack.
Steelblitzkrieg: What are your thoughts of Bill keeping starters in so late during the blowout games?
Scott: I'm not sure how you define a blowout game, other than maybe the Redskins and the Buffalo games. The others could have been turned around with an interception or fumble return for a touchdown to make the games winnable. Even with just a couple minutes left. We've seen weirder things happen: Chicago vs Cleveland a couple years ago, Tennessee and Houston this year.
With that said, I think the starters need to be removed to protect them, and to give the backups some playing time. I also am a firm believer that the "running up the score" thing is blown way out of proportion. The Patriots had backups in a number of key spots on offense and defense when those scores got out of hand.
When I read some of the media reports on how evil Belichik is by running up the score, or how the Patriots are working hard to embarrass the other teams, I realize how little people in the media know about this team. The stat line doesn't tell the story, and unless you follow this team regularly, you may not see what I'm trying to say. We see these guys on a daily basis, and they're regular Joes. They work hard, they get hurt, they bleed, and still they take pride in what they do, just like players from every other team in the league. There's nothing different about these guys than other teams, they're just more fortunate at times on the scoreboard. They play the game the same way. They play to win, and they try to play mistake free football. Sometimes it works very well, sometimes it doesn't. They didn't try NOT to blowout the Eagles and the Ravens.
Tyranid: What is wrong with the rush defense? Is it scheme or is age finally catching up with that LB corps?
Scott: I was asked that question by a radio personality, and I tried to put it in short and sweet terms. The Patriots aren't old and tired. They're playing a scheme to prevent one thing from happening, but when they do that it exposes another area. When there are new personnel groupings involved, or new players, sometimes breakdowns occur.
Teams can run on the Patriots when New England is playing the pass. It happened last year, the year before and even this year. Once you get past the big boys on the line and block the backer who's trying to fill, you've got room to run. When the Patriots adjust, you see what happens.
Check out the three drives by Baltimore against the Patriots before the final Baltimore Hail Mary drive. Check what happened to McGahee then. The reason: the Pats moved both safeties into the box because they knew Baltimore would try to run on first and second down. If you check the play-by-play after Baltimore went up 24-17, you'll see what I mean. The Ravens ran, ran then passed with the results: runs of 0, 1 (INT); 2, 1, (INC); and McGahee short pass for 7, run for 1, pass for 1.
When the Patriots know what's coming the defense isn't nearly as susceptible as you may think. It has little to do with age, and almost everything to do with schemes.
Tyranid: Is Harrison healthy? He's looked slow against TEs and crossing routes, and hasn't been bringing his signature wood on tackles.
All the guys are banged up. In my opinion, Harrison's multiple knee injuries are catching up with him. He always seemed to be a bit off the pace in open space, but he fills the gap with the best of them. When there's a lot of open space that doesn't play to Rodney's strengths. He's not injured any more than other guys at this time of the year, but I can tell you, he's still trying to get back to 100% on that knee injury he's recovering from.
Tyranid: Why can't the Pats run the ball? Maroney looked okay catching the ball, but this team seems to be missing Corey Dillon.
Schemes. Faulk gives them the best versatility. You can tell when Maroney will get the ball, because the alignments are similar. When that happens the defenses key on the play. With all the kudos Josh McDaniels has received, you'd think he'd be able to find a better way to get Maroney into open space.
Also, the Patriots continue to juggle injured linemen. Stephen Neal isn't himself (shoulder injury) and Russ Hochstein isn't the same caliber when he's in there as a replacement. Put that together with telegraphing the run based on alignment or personnel packages, and I think you can see why teams are able to stop the run..
This team really misses Sammy Morris, and they haven't found a suitable replacement.
bspaduff: Has there been a notable decline in Rodney Harrison's production since he was forced to quit using performance enhancing drugs?
Noticeable, not really. It's more about what he's being asked to do. When he is on run defense, or playing center field, he's still the same Rodney. When he has to cover the TE, or back releasing out of the backfield, he's showing some of his lack of speed.
chefgriff: Adalius Thomas ate Ben Rothelisburgerfor lunch last season with the Ravens. Can you see him having similar success with the current injuries and his position change?
Something about Thomas is that he hasn't looked comfortable in the Patriots defense yet. He was the 5th guy in the rotation at times in the middle of the season. Because he has to move to the outside – a better position for him – I think he'll pick up the tempo. The problem he has now is learning when to rush and when to hold his gap. You saw what McGahee was able to do when Thomas didn't abide by his gap responsibility. Big chunks of yards right through the hole Thomas was responsible for.
Because Willie Parker is such a threat to expose the same gap discipline breakdown, you'll see less of Thomas in the backfield unless the score is lopsided in the Patriots' favor.
GreensboroNCLion: What will Bill B. risk to go undefeated? Will he play players late into routs or start resting guys? Is it possible that his obsession to show the league could lead to his downfall? In other words is it possible that the man could out coach himself out of a championship?
I'm not sure being undefeated is the crux of the issue. It's certainly the popular story outside of New England. People like to make Belichick the scapegoat, and he makes a good one with they way he carries himself, or reacts after a game. The whole "cameragate" thing didn't' help his image any. What you don't see is the rotation of personnel into the game. Visiting press never catches it, and the National guys aren't interested in writing about that part because it doesn't support their argument. If I didn't break the game tape down every week, I might also believe it is ego, which drives Belichick's coaching decision to keep certain starters in the games late. But I think it has more to do with what the Patriots are trying to perfect via execution. They can't practice those plays against their own defense during the week, so they want to continue to perfect it during game days, blowout or not.
Watch the player numbers this week. See how many times New England changes personnel on offense and defense. I think you'll see that there are so many players rotating in and out on different series that you'll realize late in the game – if it's a blowout – there are already second and third string guys playing. Just because Tom Brady is still in there doesn't mean the Patriots are going full tilt. Guys like Gaffney, Eckel, Evans and others are in the lineup because Belichick wants to see if those guys can execute as well as the starters ahead of them with Brady under center.
If you think about it, he's really preparing for the eventuality that everyone but Tom Brady will be unavailable and he wants game tape on those players now so he can determine what to do with them in the off-season. How else can he determine the value of guys who may get replaced in the off-season, other than to see what they can do with Tom Brady in a real game situation? The coach is a lot smarter than people give him credit for. And you wonder why the Patriots are able to stay good for so long? It comes from self-scouting now.
SteelMagnolias: Why does Belichick have BB embroidered on his hoodie - I would think you'd be able to tell which hoodie is yours by the stench emanating from the lack of wash cycles not to mention the ripped sleeves. And why does he cut off his sleeves? I'm sure this all stems from some sort of superstitious behavior. Or does he have OCD?
To humor you, the BB is on there because someone may want a cut off hoodie, and you never know which one is the coach's unless his name is on it. Seriously: He wears that attire all year. You see him in it in the middle of training camp, or on sidelines during game day. You pass him coming off the elevator on the way to press box, same hoodie. It's his style. There's no need to worry about him landing in GQ any time soon.