ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss was nice enough to take some time out of his busy bye week to answer some Patriots questions for BST&N. A very analytical beat guy, Reiss has covered the team since 1997.
Carl Desberg: Vince Wilfork said the defense began to improve once players started to buy into what the coaches were telling them. What did you see as the greatest adjustments for a Patriots defense that ended up finishing eighth in the NFL yielding just 19.6 points per game after allowing just 9.4 points per game over the final five contests.
Mike Reiss: Specific to the defense, I’d say the turnovers in critical situations are what stand out the most. James Sanders’ interception at the end of the Colts game is one example. He doesn’t make that play, they probably lose that day. It hasn’t always looked pretty, but they’ve delivered in the key moments.
CD: This Patriots offense morphs into whatever form they need to as their preparation is so match-up based. If you’re a defensive coordinator heading into the AFC Divisional round against the Patriots, what do you do to slow down this offensive machine?
MR: A lot of it would depend on the strengths of the personnel on that defense, but the first thing I’d try to do is hit Brady or at least direct as much pressure as possible up the middle to get him off the spot, especially when the Patriots go to the empty set. Easier said than done. I’d also have the corners playing close to the line and jamming receivers on a regular basis in an attempt to take away the short to intermediate passing game, disrupting the rhythm of the passing game that way.
CD: Jerod Mayo sprained his MCL in week 1 last season against the Bills. He then missed several weeks before returning and gutting it out as the Patriots made a playoff run. Mayo is now healthy and leading the NFL in tackles. Describe the skill set that makes the first time Pro Bowler one of the centerpieces of this defense in just his third year.
MR: He calls all the defensive plays, leading the huddle, so I’d start with his football intelligence. He is a sound tackler, fast, and you can see when he tackles players, they usually are being knocked backwards, which highlights his strength.
CD: Dan Connolly has missed the past few weeks due to a head injury. Can you highlight the job that the guard had done filling in for holdout Logan Mankins during the first half of the season and his job filling in for the injured Stephen Neal in the latter part? Also, have you liked what you have seen from fourth stringer Ryan Wendell who has started the past couple of games at right guard?
MR: I think Connolly would be a top candidate for the 12th player award if the team was still giving that out. Although it would have been hard for him to top running back Danny Woodhead, you could make a strong case that Connolly has been their most valuable lineman this season. He also has pressured Brandon Tate for the top job on kickoff returns (insert laugh here). On Wendell, the main thing that comes to mind is that he’s hardly been noticed in his two starts at the end of the season. That means he’s doing something right.
CD: Patrick Chung has been forced into duty as a nickle and dime corner in certain situations this season. He is playing out of position to help the team in a weak area. Can you speak to the job he has done in that capacity?
MR: Chung has done a little bit of everything and ended up playing 72 percent of the defensive snaps this season, which was the second highest total among safeties behind Brandon Meriweather. As a rookie in 2009, Chung was on the field for 20 percent of the snaps, so it tells me that the coaching staff has gained more confidence in him. Specific to his work in the slot, “up and down” would probably be a good way to describe it.
CD: Describe covering the beat of the Patriots with such a cryptic head coach. Much of the time answers include the vague “three aspects of the game” and him doing “what is best for this football team.” How does this help and/or hurt the job you need to do in reporting the ins and outs of the Patriots.
MR: I enjoy it. Sure, the non-answers can be frustrating at times, but I understand Bill Belichick’s job isn’t to make life easy for the media. One of the things I enjoy about it is that his teams generally play football at a very high level, so the product is a good one to analyze and write about. I was reminded of that when watching the Rams/Seahawks game Sunday night. That was at the opposite end of the spectrum, and they were playing for a division title.
CD: How have late training camp acquisitions and in season adds such as Jarrad Page, Eric Moore, Danny Woodhead, Deion Branch, and others adjusted to so well so quickly. We have seen veterans (Joey Galloway, Chris Baker) struggle in the past. What’s different with this crop?
MR: I’m not sure there is one answer that applies to all the players. I’d start by saying the players obviously have talent and they are being put in the right position to maximize their strengths and not have their weaknesses exposed. From a decision-making standpoint, I think that’s an underrated strength of this Patriots regime — their player evaluation and maximizing the talents of the players they do bring in.