Patriots Mailbag: Secondary Faces Big Challenge Without Devin McCourty But Also Has Opportunity to Grow

Patriots Mailbag: Secondary Faces Big Challenge Without Devin McCourty But Also Has Opportunity to GrowFOXBORO, Mass. — There were a ton of great questions for this week’s mailbag, so much so that I had to trim a few good ones. Thanks as always for submitting them, and if I didn’t get to yours, please come on back next week for another round.

Are the Patriots in trouble without Devin McCourty?
–Mike L. (South Boston)

Well, it looks like he has escaped anything serious with his shoulder, so that’s a good sign. However, of course they’re in trouble without him. McCourty has been a lot better over the last month since the Patriots gave him more help over the top, and he was playing with more confidence in his assignments, which have been similar to last season.

Kyle Arrington has played well, no doubt, but he might be challenged by opposing offenses more than ever before now that McCourty is (presumably) out. From there, the Patriots have Antwaun Molden on the outside, and Molden was benched against the Steelers. Phillip Adams has played inside in the nickel role, and he’s done all right. I don’t think it’s fair to expect too much from Adams, but I like his grit and his fight.

The cornerbacks will go up against some tough receivers over the next two weeks with Kansas City (Dwayne Bowe, Steve Breaston and Jonathan Baldwin) and Philadelphia (DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin), but the Patriots could be bailed out based on their opposition’s quarterback situation.

Let’s get into that now.

I heard some radio guys commenting on the number of backup quarterbacks the Pats will be facing going forward. Given the talent in the Pats’ secondary, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Does this give the defensive backs a chance to firm up and become a legit playoff-quality squad, or will we (and they) get lulled into a false sense of security if they do well against the likes of Chiefs quarterback Tyler Palko, etc. and get into the playoffs?
–Steve (Bedford, N.H.)

That’s really a great question, Steve. Palko, who two years ago was cut by a UFL team that no longer exists, is making his first NFL start this week. Then, the Patriots could face either Michael Vick or Vince Young in Philly, followed by Curtis Painter (Indy), Rex Grossman (Washington), Tim Tebow (Denver, like you didn’t know that by now), Matt Moore (Miami) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo). Young, Painter, Tebow and Moore entered the season as backups, and Grossman was already benched once this year, so that’s the type of competition they’ll be facing.

But you’re right, this is something of a catch-22. On one hand, you’d like to see the secondary get tested so they know exactly what they’ve got when they head into the playoffs. On the other, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for them to develop some confidence over the next two months.

It’s tricky, and I’m not sure if there’s a perfect answer. I do think the soft schedule will benefit the Patriots because they’ll have an easy time staying at the top of the standings, and it will give them an opportunity to try some new things with a little more room for error. However, they don’t want to be paper tigers heading into the postseason.

I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer here.

I noticed the Jets’ tight ends and running backs had minimal catches against the Pats. This has been an area of concern because our linebackers have been unable to stay with either position in the passing game. Is this a credit to the linebackers getting better in pass coverage? Was this a reflection on Brandon Spikes’ true value since he didn’t play (being known as only a good run stopper)? What are your thoughts? Thank you.
–Aaron Millman

I think the answer has a few layers. First, I crushed Spikes for his shortcomings in zone coverage against the Steelers, but he was much better in man assignments the following week against the Giants. When Jerod Mayo is on the field, Spikes simply becomes a better all-around player.

I’d definitely give credit to outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich. He does a lot of dirty work at the line of scrimmage, and he’s usually given the assignment of checking the tight end at the line before dropping into coverage or rushing the passer. Ninkovich did more of that against Dustin Keller in the Jets game, and I definitely believe that played a role in Keller’s off-day, particularly because it took him longer to get open, which didn’t work so well when quarterback Mark Sanchez didn’t have much time to throw it. So, in line, give credit to the front four for generating pressure.

I think the Patriots have paid more attention to running backs since the Chargers beat them so often in Week 2. But LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene average a combined five catches per game, and they hauled in four passes Sunday. So they weren’t too far off from their typical production there. The check-downs haven’t been as big in their passing game this season because Tomlinson is inconsistent and Greene has blocks on his hands.

Can we expect to see more of Julian Edelman on the defensive side of the ball?
–Aaron (Irvine, Calif.)

Here’s the thing about the regular season: The media never gets to watch any significant drills in practice, so I truly have no idea how much playing time Edelman really gets on defense. As an educated guess, I’ll say it’s not a lot. I’ve tried to caution anyone who looks at Edelman as a Troy Brown-type who could be some sort of secret weapon for the secondary because I don’t think that’s realistic, especially not this season.

And if Bill Belichick truly believed he had something in Edelman as a cornerback, I don’t think he would have shown his hand in a blowout victory on national television. More than anything, I thought Edelman was out there as a precaution to protect the little depth the Patriots have at cornerback. Plus, once safety Patrick Chung returns, Sterling Moore would probably be added back to the depth chart at cornerback, ahead of Edelman.

If Edelman is out there for anything more than an emergency situation, I think it’s safe to say the Patriots’ secondary is in trouble.

Jarrod Page is available and could help the Patriots’ depth in the secondary at least, right?
–@kbb8787, via Twitter

I agree. I think he could be an asset to this team, but for whatever reason, that ship has apparently sailed. Page was on the books for a base salary of $685,000 this season, and if the Patriots claimed him on waivers, they’d only have to pay him about $220,000 over the remainder of the season. That’s a pretty cheap price for someone who knows the system and could definitely add depth to the safety position.

I was always under the impression Page left in free agency due to playing time. After all, heading into training camp, he knew he’d have slim chances of getting a lot of reps over Chung, Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders. Obviously, since the Patriots haven’t looked in his direction, we’re missing something behind the scenes.

Has anyone asked Ross Ventrone what it’s like to go through as many roster moves as he has/is? How does he feel about it?
–@alecweston, via Twitter

First, I like the use of the backslash to keep the situation current. Second, yeah, I spoke with Ventrone for a story I posed a few weeks ago, which you can read here. Ventrone is a good guy with a positive attitude. Of course, I’m sure he’d prefer to stay on the roster instead of getting a seemingly-weekly two-day vacation, but he’s remained in good spirits throughout the process.

Jeff! OMG! Thanks for taking my tweet. You obviously have a grudge against Penn State, so who’s your team in the BigTen? Huge fan, btw!
–@RandyScottNESN, via Twitter

This guy again, huh? First of all, to the readers, Randy is making a joke about the response I got from Penn State loyalists who assumed I simply had it out for their program when I wrote that Joe Paterno needed to be fired for his role in the Jerry Sandusky madness.

But since you’re asking, Randy, let’s go with, “anyone who plays Northwestern that week.” Does that work?