Brandon Spikes, Chandler JonesFOXBORO, Mass. — With Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson banged up, the Austin Collie signing was not even a little surprising.

Collie helps improve the team’s depth at receiver, but if Thompkins and Dobson have to miss this week’s game, there will still be a lack of downfield targets in New England. Collie, like Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, is more of a slot receiver than “X” or “Z.” Fortunately for the Patriots, Collie, Amendola and Edelman all have the versatility to line up outside — as does rookie Josh Boyce — but none are as dangerous down the sidelines as Dobson or Thompkins.

This season, Amendola has been the team’s main slot receiver. Out of his snaps in the passing game, 81.9 percent have come in the slot. Edelman has spent 55.5 percent of his time in the slot, Collie 42.2 percent, Boyce 25 percent, Thompkins 15.7 percent and Dobson 14.9 percent, per Pro Football Focus.

So it’s likely, if Thompkins and Dobson can’t go, that we see Edelman and Collie as the outside receivers with Amendola lined up inside. James Develin and Matthew Mulligan will also get plenty of snaps at fullback and tight end and Shane Vereen will continue to split out.

That’s how the offense may look on Sunday against the Browns. There could be some changes defensively too. I’ll dive into those possibilities in this week’s mailbag.

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I can see why Bill Belichick thinks a base 3-4 (three down linemen, four linebackers) is the way to go, but I don’t necessarily agree with it. Obviously the Patriots’ run defense is lacking (don’t worry, we’ll get into that later) and that’s at least partially because Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have a tendency to get pushed around a little bit up front. I’m not blaming them. They’re rookies and they’re playing nearly every snap. It’s natural that this would happen.

By going with a 3-4, that puts three big bodies up front: Jones and Vellano on the ends and, at least last Sunday, Isaac Sopoaga or Sealver Siliga at nose tackle. One would think more big bodies up front would mean a better run defense. That hasn’t exactly been the case.

As Kevin said, going with a 3-4 base makes outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich drop back into coverage when the opposing team passes. That’s wasting their talents as pass rushers. Ninkovich is better in coverage than Jones, who has very little experience in that role, but neither player is a typical cover linebacker. The pass defense is weakened twofold. Jones and Ninkovich aren’t great in coverage and the extra big body isn’t as good of a pass rusher as the outside linebaker who’s dropping.

A 4-3 would allow Jones and Ninkovich to rush the passer on every snap on passing downs down at defensive end. Since Dane Fletcher and Jamie Collins have played well lately, it may also put the best 11 base defenders on the field. A 4-3 would also allow Chris Jones and Vellano to rotate more. Those guys are playing way too many snaps lately. Jones missed just one defensive play on Sunday while Vellano was off the field for just 10.

The base front seven would look like this in a 4-3:

43Then in the nickel defense, Sopoaga would come out, Chris Jones and Vellano would play up front at defensive tackle and Spikes would come off with some combination of Hightower, Collins and Fletcher at linebacker. On third and long, the front four would be Chandler Jones, Ninkovich, Chris Jones and Andre Carter.

Going to a 4-3 seems like it would play to everyone’s strengths a little more. They may even improve against the run, despite the loss of about 50 pounds (since a linebacker would be replacing a 300-pound defensive tackle). Ninkovich and Jones are great at setting the edge and it would be more clear for the linebackers which rushing lanes to fill.

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He’s still far off if Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are healthy. Ryan’s been very good this year, though. The Patriots have missed Dennard and Talib due to injuries, but having Ryan has really helped.

Ryan’s obviously not Talib, but if the No. 1 cornerback is commanding too much money in free agency this offseason, and if New England does not feel comfortable paying him so much, Ryan has proven that he’s a future NFL starter this season.

I still think the best alignment of cornerbacks is Talib and Dennard outside and Arrington in the slot. But Ryan is great if opposing offenses go four wide. He’s also been amazing depth.

Ryan hasn’t passed Talib or Dennard outside or Arrington in the slot yet, but he has the talent to start.

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As long as Talib’s hip is up to it, I think we see the sixth-year cornerback on Gordon. Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory and possibly Duron Harmon will be helping out back deep, though. Gordon has proven that it’s not wise to leave him alone in one-on-one coverage, despite how good the defending cornerback may be.

Quite frankly, I’m just hoping we don’t see the Patriots return to the zone coverage they flashed against Houston. That was leaving way too many holes open for Andre Johnson and the tight ends. New England went back to man in the second half and played much, much better.

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The run defense is certainly a concern. But if the Patriots are going to be in shootouts, and with Tom Brady at the the helm, it’s very possible, they would rather have a crappy run defense than pass defense.

The pressure is on for Brady and the offense, though. If they can’t get going, teams can definitely move the football on this defense. And it will come on the ground and by eating up clock.

The Patriots didn’t only lose to the Panthers because of the picked-up flag at the end of the game. They also lost because the offense got off to a slow start and the front seven couldn’t stop Carolina’s run game. It didn’t help that New England didn’t force any turnovers.

When a team is letting up chunks of yards on the ground, they have to get the ball on the ground.

So, yes, I do think games will be close, as they have been all season. I think New England can win it all with a shoddy run defense and I don’t think it’s that big of a concern. It’s on Brady’s shoulders, though, and if the defense is going to be letting up yards, they have to do their part in forcing turnovers.

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Forgiven? Probably. But that doesn’t mean Ridley will be starting or even active this week. LeGarrette Blount was very good against Houston, even though his stats didn’t look great.

Blount didn’t break off any double-digit yard runs, but he was fighting for every extra inch and, most importantly, he held onto the ball. At this point, Blount has to be considered the “lead back,” though Vereen will be getting the bulk of the touches. He just has to stop dropping the ball when he’s targeted deep.

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