Patriots’ Secondary Helping Out Pass Rush, But Defensive Backs May Need Help Against Falcons (Mailbag)


Steve Gregory, Devin McCourtyFOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots have certainly had their fair share of struggles this season, but almost every issue they face is fixable.

The offensive line has had some problems, but with Dante Scarnecchia coaching that unit up, it should only improve. The running game will get better as the offensive line shores up, and Tom Brady‘s accuracy will get fixed as he gains more confidence in his rookies.

On defense, Vince Wilfork hasn’t been playing like himself yet. Once he’s back at the top of his game, the entire defense should only improve. That’s a scary thought for the teams remaining on New England’s schedule.

In this week’s mailbag, I’m set to tackle who should be starting at running back, what is plaguing Brady and Wilfork, which unit is performing best on defense and much more. Check it out below.

Brandon Bolden for starting running back. Yay or nay?

I think Bolden had a very impressive game against the Buccaneers, which was highlighted by his 46-yard run, but it’s not time to crown him the starter just yet. Right now, the team seems to be content to go running back by committee. Stevan Ridley will likely take most of the first- and second-down snaps, Brandon Bolden will be the passing back and LeGarrette Blount can help eat up the clock at the end of games since he has fumbled less than Ridley recently.

We’ll see what happens once Leon Washington gets healthy, but he will probably be mixed in on third downs, as well. There’s a reason Ridley was able to gain 1,263 yards and score 12 touchdowns last season. He’s the best running back on the roster. He hasn’t been able to get much going the past two games, but the Patriots have also had struggles along their offensive line. Playing stout run defenses like the Jets and Buccaneers isn’t helping matters, either.

Bolden is definitely a talented back, and he’ll have a role all season, but it’s not wise to get too worked up over one good game when Bolden was only given three carries. It’s obvious the Patriots like him, otherwise they would not have held onto him out of training camp when he wasn’t healthy, but they like Ridley too.

Ridley should look much better this weekend going up against the Falcons, who don’t have nearly as good of a defense as Buffalo, New York or Tampa Bay.

Do you truly think Ryan Mallett is the heir apparent to the starting quarterback position, or do you see Bill Belichick drafting another QB next year or in the near future?

I don’t, and it has to do with money and contracts. Brady just signed a new deal that will keep him in New England until 2017. Mallett’s rookie deal runs out in 2014, and the third-year player would be 30 years old by the time he got the opportunity to start with the Patriots (assuming Brady plays out his contract and doesn’t extend at any point).

When Mallett’s deal runs out (assuming he’s not traded this offseason, which is a distinct possibility), a team will likely overpay for him. The most likely scenario is that he’ll sign with a team with a shaky starter at quarterback. Mallett will be able to compete for a starting job.

New England probably wouldn’t be willing to overpay for a backup quarterback, and Mallett is going to want a chance to start. He doesn’t want to be Brady’s backup when he should be entering the prime of his career.

So, I do expect the Patriots to draft another heir apparent. It could happen next year, if the team thinks it has a deal for Mallett. If not, it will come in 2014 after Mallett has left. Based on past drafting, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 2014 third-rounder used on a signal caller.

With recent injuries to Troy Biermann and Sean Weatherspoon, who do we fear can legit rush the passer on Atlanta? Especially versus Marcus Cannon at right tackle?

The Falcons’ defense won’t be as good without Biermann and Weatherspoon, but they do still have some players who can get after Brady. Jonathan Massaquoi will be lined up across from Cannon at left defensive end. Massaquoi is a tad shorter than the typical edge rusher, but he’s got incredible length for his height and did a nice job pressuring Sam Bradford and Ryan Tannehill.

Osi Umenyiora will be rushing from the right side. The 11th-year veteran isn’t quite as quick as he used to be, but he can still rush around the edge. He has two sacks on the season (both came against Miami), but he was also collapsing the pocket on Drew Brees and Bradford.

Finally, Jonathan Babineaux is an underrated three-technique defensive tackle who could wind up giving Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly fits. The Patriots still shouldn’t have too much of an issue moving the football, but Brady will be under fire.

Why do you think Tom Brady has been off the last couple games? For example, with Aaron Dobson open deep versus the Bucs, Brady underthrows, ended up being defensive pass interference.

I think Brady still doesn’t have 100 percent confidence in his receivers. When Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins improve, we’ll also see Brady get better. I think the lack of trust has Brady hesitating a bit on his throws. And when timing is off a little in this offense, accuracy will diminish, as well.

Getting Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola back will play a role in Brady improving. By the end of the season, any concerns about Brady’s accuracy or ability will likely be laughable.

Has Vince Wilfork lost a step? He was never a sack guy, but I don’t see the upfield pressure as much.

I think Wilfork has been nursing an undisclosed injury. He barely played in the preseason, and he doesn’t look to be playing at full speed quite yet. He’s been getting pushed out a little too often when single- and double-teamed.

Like Brady, by the end of the season, Wilfork should be back at the top of his game.

Adrian Wilson seemed like the likely candidate to cover tight ends. Who gets Tony Gonzalez this week? Can a linebacker do it?

I don’t think they’ll handle Gonzalez much differently than the tight ends they have already faced. Sometimes Dont’a Hightower will cover Gonzalez in man and sometimes Steve Gregory will come down to cover him. Mayo will likely get some snaps against him. I doubt the Patriots will stick one player on Gonzalez to shadow him. Gonzalez is a good player, but he’s not a Jimmy Graham anymore.

Is the pass rush helping the secondary or vice versa?

At this point, the secondary is helping the pass rush more than vice versa. But that may have to change as the season progresses. Fortunately, the Patriots haven’t blitzed much yet, so they’ll have the opportunity to ramp up the pressure.

I’d say at this point, about half of New England’s sacks have been thanks to impressive coverage from the secondary. The defensive backs will need help against the Falcons, though. It won’t be easy to cover Julio Jones and Roddy White for long. So, Chandler Jones and company will need to bring the heat.

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