Patriots Mailbag: Defense Giving Plenty of Reason for Optimism, Increased Expectations

Patriots Mailbag: Defense Giving Plenty of Reason for Optimism, Increased Expectations After a pair of impressive preseason performances, there's a great deal of optimism surrounding the Patriots as they prepare for a season with Super Bowl aspirations. The defense is the unit that stood out mostly Thursday night in Tampa, and that's where this week's mailbag will begin.

Thanks for all of your questions, and if yours wasn't answered, come on back for next Friday's edition.

How high is the ceiling on the Patriots' defense this year?
–@Sammir24, via Twitter

After Thursday night's showing against the Buccaneers, there should be a lot of optimism about the defense, which looks like a completely different unit from years past. Of course, with so many new editions to the line and an apparent change in philosophy, it is a completely different unit.

The Patriots will obviously generate more pressure on the quarterback, as they displayed when they ran roughshod through Tampa Bay's offensive line Thursday night, particularly when the starters were in the game. The unit will clearly only get better, too, once they get Albert Haynesworth, Brandon Spikes, Shaun Ellis and Jermaine Cunningham back into the mix. I think it's definitely reasonable to expect at least 40 sacks, a total they haven't attained since 2007, when they recorded 47 quarterback takedowns, the most of the Bill Belichick era.

With the pressure comes turnovers, but it's going to be tough to improve upon the 38 they forced in 2010, when they were second in the NFL with that total. Plus, only six teams forced more than 38 turnovers in the last five seasons, so it shows just how extraordinary they were in that department. But can the Patriots force 30-35 turnovers, sure, why not?

The Patriots were eighth in points allowed in 2010, which is obviously a very strong ranking, but they were 25th in yards allowed and dead last in third-down defense and punts forced. They gave up long drives, but they were very good in the red zone and the takeaway department, a lot of which can be attributed to the New England offense's ability to put pressure on their counterparts. The offense should be about as good as last year's group, particularly once they get into a rhythm.

Will the Patriots have a feared defense like the Jets, Steelers or Ravens? Most likely not. Will they be effective like the Chargers, Packers and Bears? I think that's more realistic. So, since you're asking for a ceiling, the Patriots could have a top-five defense if they reach their potential, but it's more probable that they'll be a top-eight defense, and that's not a bad thing at all.

I was wondering, if you were that general manager of the Pats, would you find a way to put some higher-mileage veterans or bubble guys on the PUP list, especially at the seemingly deeper positions like wide receiver, defensive line and running back? I was thinking of saving guys like Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, Shaun Ellis, maybe Albert Haynesworth, etc. Logan Mankins showed last year that you don't need the entire season to be very effective.
–Dan

Just to clear up something real quick, players cannot be added to the physically unable to perform list once they start practicing in training camp. Faulk, Ellis, Ron Brace, Brandon Deaderick and Marcus Cannon are the only players on the roster who are eligible for the PUP list, and I think it's a very real possibility that each of them starts the season on the list, which I detailed in this week's roster prediction.

Is Leigh Bodden penciled in to start this season? What is his status?
–Winning Queensberry

Bodden looks good and should be the starter at the right cornerback position across from Devin McCourty. Kyle Arrington has also started strong, and he's gotten some reps at that spot, too. The Patriots could rotate Bodden and Arrington at that spot, but it's definitely Bodden's for now. If Bodden plays as well as he has practiced and performs like he did in 2009, the Patriots will have their best starting tandem of cornerbacks since Ty Law was still in town.

With the money they have under the cap, do you think they sign another quality free agent or re-sign more of their own players?
–@jp1462, via Twitter

The Patriots were under the cap by $9.2 million as of Monday, according to Pro Football Talk, and that gives them some good room to work with. There really aren't any big-money names out there right now, but that could all change in a week and a half when teams must trim their rosters to 75 players.

If the Patriots have any excess money this season, it would definitely be smart to try to roll that into an extension with one of the guys who are in a contract year, maybe like Wes Welker, Gary Guyton, Dan Koppen or Rob Ninkovich.

Keep this in mind, though: The Patriots will continue to sign players throughout the regular season due to injuries and other circumstances. After the mass of transactions around roster cuts in 2010, they signed 16 players to the active roster — either through free agency, waivers or from the practice squad — starting with the Sept. 18 inking of Danny Woodhead. So they will need some extra walking-around money over the next few months.

How far away are Ras-I Dowling and Shane Vereen from getting on the field?
–@MmMmmBlueLabel, via Twitter

A question about Vereen: injured/reserve list, or on the roster at opening day? What do you think?
–@mattmast, via Twitter

The good news is Dowling and Vereen have observed almost every practice since suffering their respective hamstring injuries, and that's a sign that they're closer to practicing than the alternative. The bad news is they've both fallen way behind. Dowling has only practiced once (Aug. 2), and Vereen has been out there twice (Aug. 2-3).

I think the absence hurts Dowling more because of his position, and even if he comes back immediately, it's going to take him awhile to crack the regular rotation. At best, Dowling will be the fourth cornerback on the roster if McCourty, Bodden and Arrington stay healthy.

It's easier for rookie running backs to return, in my opinion, especially if they've got talent. Obviously, Vereen needs to learn how to read blocks, play accordingly in the passing game and adjust to the speed of the NFL game, but his running ability will make up for a lot of that. Vereen's injury is not of the serious variety, so injured reserve should not be an option at this point.

For the first time in my life, I have the opportunity to go to Foxboro to watch a live Pats game. I am super excited! My question is which game would be better to attend and why? The Dec. 24 Dolphins game, or the Jan. 1 Bills game? Thanks in advance, and I would really appreciate a reply!
–Emir

Have fun at Gillette, Emir. I would recommend the Dolphins game because there's always a chance the Patriots won't have anything to play for during their regular-season finale against the Bills. If that happens, there's a possibility that Tom Brady and the starters won't play much, if at all. You shouldn't have to worry about that in Week 16, so the  quality of the experience would be much greater.

WTH, no mailbag this week? "H" = heck!
–Ted Rogers

I appreciate your concern, Ted, but I'm right here, and I will be every Friday throughout the season.

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