In his latest mailbag, Globe NFL writer Ben Volin discusses the Patriots’ issues on the offensive line, the run defense, Nate Solder’s future, and other issues about the Pats and around the NFL:
Q: P.J., Painted Post, N.Y.:
Will the Pats rest guys in Week 17 or play to win and keep the winning streak vs. Buffalo alive?
Ben: Hi P.J., thanks for the question. Bill Belichick of course said, “we’ll do what’s best for the team,” and I think that means we’ll see a mix of some starters playing a half or even three quarters to stay sharp, and some injured or injury-prone players taking a seat. I bet Brady plays a half, and then Jimmy Garoppolo will take over in the second half. I would expect Rob Gronkowski to sit out the entire game, given his history. I think anyone with an injury will probably sit — Blount, Hightower, Edelman, Connolly — and I would probably take Revis and Browner out of the game sooner than later, too. The winning streak against Buffalo is great and all, but this game is meaningless for the Patriots. They can’t win the Super Bowl on Sunday, but they can definitely lose it.
Q: Harry, Homer, Alaska:
I am not comfortable going into the playoffs with Patrick Chung as the Patriots’ strong safety. Despite what I read, my eyes see a guy who’s doing nothing well — not wrapping up runners, lagging behind tight ends, not getting into the backfield. The rest of the [defensive] backfield is good, but not good enough to compensate for Chung against a good offense. What can the Pats do to rectify this situation so late in the season?
Ben: Hi Harry, thanks for the question. When considering the entirety of the season, I think Chung has been a great find for the Patriots. He was great in run support and as an additional defender in the box during the midseason stretch when they had some linebacker injuries, and he has provided some surprisingly decent coverage against tight ends. Last Sunday against the Jets was one of the first times that he struggled in pass coverage, biting badly on a playaction fake and giving up an easy touchdown to Jeff Cumberland. But I think the Patriots’ defense is starting to evolve as we reach the playoffs. Chung is no longer an every-down player, and Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson are starting to get a lot more run on defense, particularly in the Dime package and on obvious passing downs, where Chung historically has struggled. I think the three-man rotation of Chung, Harmon, and Wilson is a pretty solid group overall and a good complement to Devin McCourty at free safety.
Q: Akshith, Jacksonville, Fla.:
How concerned should we be with the Patriots’ run defense?
Ben: Hi Akshith, thanks for the question. I’m not really concerned with anything about the Patriots’ defensive side of the ball. The Pats have held five of their last seven opponents under 100 yards rushing. Some of that has to do with Patriots’ opponents playing from behind in the second half, but the Pats have enough stout bodies up front (Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones) to go toe-to-toe with any power rushing game. The defense has been carrying the offense through its inconsistencies the last few weeks, and if the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl, it will most likely be on the strength of the defense.
Q: Ramon, Boston:
Why do you think the Patriots’ pass rush has been so inconsistent?
Ben: Hi Ramon, thanks for the question. I think the pass rush has been pretty good overall this year, but not because they have a bunch of great pass rushers. Other than Chandler Jones, they don’t really have anyone considered a pure edge rusher. Instead, I really like what the defense has morphed into — they run out of the Nickel package the majority of the time, and the front six is loaded up with hybrid linebacker-defensive end types that are versatile enough to rush the passer or drop into coverage. The Patriots can roll out Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Donta Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Akeem Ayers, and do a really great job of disguising their pass rush. The opponent knows four or five are going to come, but they don’t know which ones, and it has resulted in a bunch of easy sacks. Against the Jets, the Patriots were so concerned with stopping the run that they loaded up with beef on the front line (Wilfork, Siliga, Branch), while Ayers took a seat on the bench with just five snaps played, and this sapped them of their ability to rush the quarterback. But they utilized more zone blitzes in the second half and were able to get to Geno Smith. Plus, the secondary is so good with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Devin McCourty that it gives the guys up front an extra second to get to the quarterback.
Q: Eddie, Orlando:
Based on how Nate Solder has played this year, is it safe to say his spot on the team will be in question this offseason?
Ben: Hi Eddie, thanks for the question. I don’t think Solder’s play has been as bad as some fans have said, but certainly his inability to get low and prevent the speed rushers from getting around the edge has not been ideal. I think Solder is safe for 2015, even with the Marcus Cannon signing — which I think was done more for depth purposes than a sign that he’ll be given a starting job next year — but Solder won’t be in the clear until March. The Patriots exercised Solder’s fifth-year option for 2015, which will pay him about $7.4 million, but it doesn’t become guaranteed until March 10, the first day of the new league year. The Patriots can cut him without penalty before then, but realistically, I don’t see that happening. Sebastian Vollmer also is one to watch, with a $1 million option bonus due in March, but I think he has played well enough to come back next year, too. Solder is also represented by agent David Dunn, who has become a nemesis of sorts to the Patriots since the Wes Welker fiasco, and the Cannon signing, plus the Cameron Fleming draft pick, gives the Patriots some leverage in future contract negotiations with Solder/Dunn.
Q: John, Shelburne, Vt.:
Will offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels think run-first (or at least, run often) during the playoffs? Less sizzle, more steak.
Ben: Hi John, thanks for the question. I think the LeGarrette Blount signing was made just for that reason — so the Patriots can be a power-running offense in the cold, inclement January weather. The offensive line has been inconsistent and the receivers don’t have great separation skills, so they need the playaction pass just to create a little space in the defense and give Brady time to throw. And the only way to do that is to keep defenses honest with the power run game with Blount and Jonas Gray. The Patriots already manhandled the Bengals and Broncos at home, and I don’t see the Colts, Steelers or Chargers giving them much trouble in Foxborough, either. But facing the Seahawks in the Super Bowl? That’s going to be a challenge. That said, let’s cross that bridge when we get there.
Q: Richard, Marina Bay:
If [Logan] Mankins is released by Tampa in off season, would Pats make run at him for reasonable dollars.
Ben: Hi Richard, thanks for the question. Nah, that ship has sailed. I would think Mankins is probably leaning more towards retirement than anything, and the Patriots have moved on. But the offensive line should undergo a makeover in the offseason, particularly at the guard spots. I would bet that the Pats use a first- or second-round pick on a guard.
Q: Ness, Philadelphia:
Since the recent reports of how Tom Brady is conditioning his body, will this be a new strategy considered for the rest of the players to maintain a great condition as well?
Ben: Hi Ness, thanks for the question. Based on that Sports Illustrated article, it seems like Brady wants to make it his life’s mission to teach better conditioning and training techniques — at least after his playing career (don’t want to give away too many competitive advantages while he’s still playing). That said, not everyone has the money or access to resources to do what Brady does. But improvements in conditioning, nutrition, and education are always being made in this area.
Q: Bob Ugi, Derry, N.H.:
In your estimation, [who are the] top three coaches today who are the best at half time adjustments?
Ben: Hi Bob, thanks for the question. I’ll admit, this area isn’t my specialty, since I’m busy watching the Patriots each Sunday and only get hit-and-run views of the other teams around the league. However, I tend to think that only a few coaches in the NFL are true difference-makers. I’ll start with John Harbaugh in Baltimore, who has built a consistent winner in Baltimore and always has his team in the playoff hunt despite myriad changes in personnel, injuries, and an inconsistent quarterback in Joe Flacco. The Ravens might miss the playoffs for the second straight year, but this would be the one team that I think could come into Foxborough in the playoffs and put a scare into the Patriots. His brother, Jim Harbaugh, is also an excellent coach, although the stalled development of Colin Kaepernick is disconcerting. But wherever Jim Harbaugh lands — Oakland looks like the good bet, to me — I would expect an instant turnaround. I’m a huge fan of Chip Kelly, although this late-season collapse doesn’t look great on his resume (I tend to give him a pass because he’s riding Mark Sanchez, but still, a three-game losing streak is a three-game losing streak). Have to give Andy Reid a lot of credit for building a consistent winner in Philly and turning around the Chiefs, and Mike McCoy has done great things with Philip Rivers and the Chargers over the last two seasons. And I’m a big fan of Rex Ryan, who would be a great fit for the Falcons and would instantly turn around that woeful defense. It’s too early to tell on Bill O’Brien, Mike Zimmer, and Mike Pettine, who all have done nice jobs in their first seasons.
Q: Charlie, Natick:
Why don’t NFL teams employ the “coffin kick”? Kicking punts out of bounds is much safer than providing kick returners with an opportunity to make a big play.
Ben: Hi Charlie, thanks for the question. I don’t have a great answer for you, other than maybe coffin kicks are very difficult to execute, with a decent probability of kicking the ball out of bounds a lot further up the field than you intended? Coffin kicks do seem like a good idea, but maybe teams would rather take their chances of trying to down the ball inside the 5- or 10-yard line, or trying to create a muffed punt, instead of chancing it with a sideline kick?
Follow Ben Volin on Twitter @BenVolin.