#FridayBag: How do the Patriots know which RB to go with?


Every Friday, Tom E. Curran, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi answer your Patriots questions in a joint mailbag, or FridayBag as they call it. Got a question for the trio? Tweet at them using the hashtag #FridayBag. Now, on to this week's installment...

PERRY: That's part of it, Paul. It also has to do with the score and the amount of time left on the clock. If the Patriots are up two touchdowns with four minutes left in the game, Dion Lewis is probably going to be the guy. If they're down and in obvious passing situations late, then it's more likely to be James White. Rex Burkhead seems to be the top multi-purpose option at the moment. But the matchup matters, too. The Bills, for instance, have not been great against the run -- they're 27th in the league, according to Football Outsiders DVOA -- so that could mean a heavy dose of Lewis, who's been the team's feature back since he overtook Mike Gillislee. The Steelers, meanwhile, have had a hard time covering backs out of the backfield so White and Burkhead could be in line for a whole mess of touches in Pittsburgh in a few weeks.

PERRY: Follow the sounds of bodies being power-bombed through plastic. Or the smell of burning flesh. Or the Pike. You'll find it.

PERRY: Good question, Lonn. You're right. There's not much evidence of this particular defensive group having great success against athletic quarterbacks. Alex Smith, Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton all had monster games against the Patriots. But historically Bill Belichick has bottled up Tyrod Taylor pretty well. And the defensive communication has improved immensely since the first month of the season when all those quick-footed passers came rolling through Gillette Stadium. I think a combination of the overall improvement the unit has shown and the team's history against Taylor (not to mention the relative dearth of weapons Taylor has at his disposal) indicates that this week won't be near the mess Weeks 1, 3 and 4 were. 

PERRY:  Not sure why you'd say that, Jeff.

PERRY: Branch has been better than he was earlier this season, Glenn. No doubt. He's doing a better job of keeping his feet -- he was on the ground far too often early in the season -- and I think it says something that the Patriots wanted him in the starting lineup last weekend even with Malcom Brown back in uniform. Brown (26 snaps) ended up playing more snaps than Branch (22), but that's not necessarily an indication that one guy was better than the other. Lawrence Guy (20) played the fewest of any tackle, and Belichick singled him out the next day as having had an exceptional game. There are still more missed tackles near the line of scrimmage than we're used to seeing from Branch, but he's been more dependable than he was when he was still rounding into form earlier in the year. 

PERRY: Could've been worse! I had exceptional mental toughness as a child so even when it was brought up, it never really bothered me. 

PERRY: The plan is for Waddle to really test his injured ankle on Friday. He didn't have that opportunity during Thursday's walkthrough. As I understand it, the injury has improved steadily since Sunday, but Friday will be an important practice for him. If he can't go, that would likely slot Fleming in as the right tackle. My guess for the swing tackle spot, in that instance, would be Cole Croston. He played both right and left tackle during his final two seasons at Iowa, and he's been working all over the line in practices with the Patriots. 

PERRY: Sometimes those players are left unchecked by design and it's up to the quarterback to understand he could be under the gun. I'm not sure if that's what happened in the second quarter against the Dolphins when Charles Harris steamrolled Tom Brady, but it was a designed screen pass so maybe the Patriots thought Harris would be caught in no-man's land and hesitate. He didn't. Brady was also clobbered by an unblocked Kiko Alonso later in the quarter. That looked like a play where the Dolphins just had the perfect blitz called against the perfect look. The Patriots ran a play-action fake to the right, and only fullback James Develin peeled back to the left to block one of three rushers on that side. Both Alonso and Reshad Jones got into the backfield untouched. Really no one to blame there on New England's end -- unless you want to penalize Brady for not recognizing it pre-snap. Seemed like more of a tip-your-cap-to-Miami situation.

PERRY: What's not to get? Makes total sense.

GIARDI: Scott, thanks for checking in. Appreciate you and all that you do. I had a wing phase about three years ago when I decided I didn’t care if I got fat. I had them on every Patriots road trip for like a month That last time though I kinda got skeeved out by ‘em and haven’t had one since.

GIARDI: It’s in New York, Scott, but not near NYC. 

GIARDI: I took a veteran’s rest day last week. I am back and back big this week. Thanks for your concern.

GIARDI: You will get nothing and like it, Jensen. Meanwhile, much credit to defensive coordinator Matt Patricia for mixing and matching until he’s found the right answer. That answer would be a whole lot of Kyle Van Noy. He’s in the middle. He’s on the edge. He’s playing in the sub packages. Van Noy is being asked to do all the things that Hightower did and he’s doing them at a decent level.

From LT @2JVT4EVER: Will you be watching @49ers vs @ChicagoBears on Sunday to watch Jimmy G?

GIARDI: I would love to catch that game however the NFL was unkind. They scheduled the Pats in Buffalo at the exact same time. As my job is to cover the Pats, I must keep both eyes on the field. But if you don’t think I’m watching the rebroadcast on NFL.com that night you’re out of your mind. #Jimmy

GIARDI: Jacob, I think they’ve done a very good job in the back end covering, which is what we all expected when the season started. It obviously took a while to get to that point but now that they have, that unit consistently has had four or five guys playing well each and every week. Up front, they generated more pressure because they’ve started to become less vanilla. They’re running more games up and haven’t hesitated to send one of their corners either. I think Miami was clearly confused by some of these looks and it led to some of the easiest sacks you’ll see.

As for a weakness, I’d say offensive line. They have to keep Brady clean and they did for a good portion of this winning streak. They backslid on Sunday, although some of that can be attributed to injuries. Would love to see Cannon back out there (though he’s missing from practice again this week).

GIARDI: Most impressive? I’m going to have to say Devin McCourty. He’s a rock. Sound in coverage, sound tackler and he quarterbacks the secondary. Some people believe he’s overrated. I believe those people aren’t watching the same games I am.


GIARDI: Caserio is the X-factor in all of this, in my opinion. Does he want to stay and bridge the gap between Bill Belichick and the next head coach (and who knows when that will be)? If he does, that would be a great thing for the Patriots organization. Not that he’d be the one voice, obviously. The Krafts would drive the entire conversation but Caserio knows a whole bunch about every facet of this organization.

As for the heir apparent, they’ve lost a bunch of draft picks over the last few years either because of league-imposed penalties or trades so they really could use to replenish that stock. I’d be inclined to say ‘no’ which probably puts me in the minority.


CURRAN: I think you’d be surprised, Mike. Meanwhile, there are times you self-edit and say, “Everything can’t always be awesome all the time, can it?” I think I keep it pretty measured in pointing out stuff that doesn’t work or has the potential to not work. But for crissake, we’re covering a team with a record that only the Harlem Globetrotters could approach. Bill Walsh and Vince Lombardi combined coached as many seasons as Belichick has and he’s the sideline equal of both men. And Brady’s success is in the Gretzky-Jordan-Russell realm. So, my friend, if you aren’t puckering up in thanks for the enjoyment you derived every now and then I don’t think we’d have a lot of interesting conversations.

CURRAN: I do, Fred. And I think that winning back-to-back for a second time (2003 and 2004 being the first) would further add to the almost untouchable legacy Belichick and Brady are authoring. The Broncos went back-to-back in 1997-98, the Cowboys did it in 1992-93, the Niners did it in 1988-89 and the Steelers did it twice 1974-75 and 1977-78. The Dolphins and Packers did it as well in an NFL that was drastically unlike this one. Also, as an aside, Chuck Noll gets ridiculously short-shrift in the greatest coaches conversation. Please read the great book, “Three Bricks Shy of a Load” for a better grasp of that guy. Maintaining home field for the playoffs – which means winning at Pittsburgh – and then being fortunate against either Philly or the Vikings in the Super Bowl are the obvious hurdles. The smaller ones – staying healthy being the prime one – are constant as well. But who would you think is more likely to win in February?

For old time’s sake, let’s check in with the Super Across the Way. 



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