The Patriots are getting ready to head to Pittsburgh for a game that could start to give some shape to the AFC playoff picture. With a victory, the Patriots would have an early inside track on a bye as the calendar turns toward November. That's not all that's going on in New England, though.
Let's break out this week's mailbag, which takes a look at a big weekend for Albert Haynesworth, the plan for Kevin Faulk and some thoughts on Ras-I Dowling's injury issues, among plenty of other topics.
How likely is it that Albert Haynesworth reaches the level of play he was known for in Tennessee?
–@Sammir_24, via Twitter
To be fair, Haynesworth was the most dominant defensive player in the NFL over a two-year stretch in Tennessee, so I don't think it's realistic to expect him to ever reach that form. I do believe Haynesworth wants to be at his best with the Patriots, and I think he's working to get there. He had his best game last time out against Dallas, and he's just scratching the surface, especially if he can stay healthy this season.
I also think this will be a big week for Haynesworth because he'll have to bring it against the Steelers. Center Maurkice Pouncey is a nasty player, and that should prompt Haynesworth to match that nastiness. Even if Haynesworth doesn't have his best game against a very good center, I think this weekend could be a big jumping-off point for his season.
How will the Pats work Kevin Faulk back into the offense?
–@tomwatsonpats, via Twitter
I think it will be interesting. When Kevin Faulk returns, whether it's Sunday or further down the road, he'll have a similar role to Danny Woodhead. Also, the two have never played together, so there's no blueprint for how the Patriots would go about divvying up the snaps. Bill Belichick told Faulk before the lockout that he wanted him on his team in 2011, so Faulk won't be a sideline ornament.
At first, I'd expect Faulk and Woodhead to split series in situations when they'd be needed the most — the no-huddle offense, two-minute drill and occasions when they need an extra pass protector in the backfield. The Patriots' running backs might be driven by their respective roles more than ever before.
What are the odds of seeing Shane Vereen or Faulk essentially playing wide receiver if Taylor Price and Chad Ochocinco continue to be irrelevant?–Steve, Bedford, N.H.
I like the creativity, but Vereen has to get the running back thing down first. In an attempt to mix it up, or at least give one of the receivers or tight ends a breather, the Patriots have split out Woodhead this season, and they've done it in the past with Faulk. There's no doubt that they're perfectly comfortable using Woodhead and Faulk as pass-catchers, and they'll continue to do just that. More often than not, though, it happens during the no-huddle offense.
Was that the worst two-minute drill in the history of the NFL by the Chargers in Sunday's loss to the Jets?
–Mark Sullivan, Stratham, N.H.
It was bad, but it fell in line with a lot of two-minute bumblings by a Norv Turner-coached team. Even still, it wasn't nearly as awful as Matt Flynn's comeback bid for the Packers in last season's loss to the Patriots.
Jeff, do you expect the Pats to blitz a little more with Pittsburgh's problems on the offensive line, and so receivers can't get too deep, or sit more in coverage and zone? Thanks.
–@patriotssox1, via Twitter
The Steelers definitely have some issues on the offensive line. Through seven games, they've started three left tackles, two left guards, two right guards and two right tackles. It's similar to Pittsburgh's O-line issues from last season, and considering that, it was a miracle the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl.
Anyway, I'd expect more of the same from what you've already seen out of the Patriots' defense. They'll more than likely use their front four in an attempt to generate pressure, and they'll mix in the occasional blitz from Brandon Spikes or Jerod Mayo, who I believe will play Sunday.
If the Patriots can't get any pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, maybe they'll bring a little more heat. But if they mix it up with heavier blitz patterns, it would essentially be the first time they've gone that route this season. They just haven't blitzed that much, to a fault at times in my opinion.
Any updates on Ras-I Dowling's injury? The knock on him going into the draft was that he was injury-prone. Are we going to regret passing on Jabaal Sheard and Brooks Reed (see Clay Matthews)?
–Jeff D., North Attleboro, Mass.
Dowling missed Thursday's practice — his third absence in five sessions since the Dallas game — and he hasn't played since Week 2 (Dowling was inactive three times, and he didn't get on the field against the Jets).
Dowling's inability to get through this injury has got to be one of the most frustrating storylines of the Patriots' season to date. He started against the Dolphins in Week 1, so they had big plans for him, but they've obviously been derailed.
Also, I want to clear up one thing that I've heard lately (not from you, but others). There's some preconceived notion that Dowling was injury-prone throughout his collegiate career at Virginia, and that's not the case. He certainly succumbed to a rash of injuries during his senior season, but that was just one bad year for him. Dowling has said it, and his former head coach, Mike London, told me the same thing after the draft. He played 35 games in his first three seasons at Virginia before only playing in five as a senior.
Obviously, that has carried over into his rookie year, and it's tough to shake an injury-prone tag when you've got two bad years in a row. But I think it's unfair for people to throw it out there that he was always hurt in college.
Anyway, back on track. If Dowling never contributes, of course the Patriots will regret drafting him with the first pick of the second round. It's just way too early to know whether or not Dowling will ever contribute. However, Jabaal Sheard has gotten off to a terrific start with Cleveland, and Brooks Reed took over as the starter in Houston after Mario Williams went down. I strongly cautioned against the Clay Matthews comparison before the draft, though. I think people were too hung up on the hair and position. Matthews is one of the three best outside linebackers in football, and the only reason why Reed was even considered as a potential late first-round prospect was because the class of outside linebackers was considered poor this year.