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Words With Frenz mailbag: Closer look at Patriots receivers vs. Buccaneers secondary

Posted by Erik Frenz  September 20, 2013 07:00 AM

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The AFC East is often called one of the laughing stock divisions of the NFL.

Funny, then, that it's also one of the divisions with the most reader interest.

Also funny that it's one of just three divisions that doesn't feature a single winless team (AFC East, AFC West, NFC West), and one of just two divisions with more than one undefeated team (AFC East, AFC West).

It's a long season, but this division is off to a good start.

The landscape is ever-changing, though, and with every week presenting new matchups, players returning from injury or new injuries to deal with, there's never a shortage of topics.

Everything was on the table for this week's mailbag, so let's get into some reader questions on the Patriots matchups with the Buccaneers secondary, the Jets defense with the return of [insert position here] Quinton Coples, the Dolphins struggling running game and a potential post-2013 free-agent departure for the Patriots.

Well, how much time do you have? The matchup will really be dictated by how the Patriots line up, and how the Buccaneers respond with their alignment.

Whenever you talk about the Buccaneers secondary, it has to start with Darrelle Revis. To this point in the season, he has lined up exclusively on the outside, but the Buccaneers may choose to match him up with Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who has become Tom Brady's most reliable target.

That would allow the Buccaneers to match up cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Leonard Johnson -- who are in their first and second year, respectively -- on the Patriots rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Those two have been the source of much debate this week, but they were getting open on a consistent basis against the Jets. They just need for Brady to get on the same page with them, and they need to do a better job of catching the ball.

Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson both bring a combination of size, speed and strength on the back end, and both are versatile players who can play deep zones and take away a tight end or running back in man coverage, as well.

It will be up to those young receivers to take advantage of their matchups with Banks and Johnson, given Brady's track record of throwing away from Revis (targeted 20 times in the past five meetings).

Based on the size, speed and ability of the receivers to get off of a jam and separate from man coverage, I'm inclined to give the advantage to the Patriots receiving corps in this one -- granted they hang onto the football.

With an improved pass-rush, this defense will be much better.

There are a lot of reasons Quinton Coples' positional title doesn't really matter, since he'll be lining up all over the place, but the Jets really need him to be a dominant edge player.

Defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison and Kenrick Ellis have provided a solid set of players to dominate the trenches on the inside, but for years, the Jets have lacked that edge presence to really close the pocket. Last year, outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas combined for 5.5 sacks last year.

The Jets have put pressure on the opposing quarterback just 28.4 percent of the time this year. If that number goes up, they could enter "dangerous" territory, but let's wait and see.

Thus far, they've faced the Buccaneers and the Patriots. Give them credit for holding both teams to 17 or fewer points, and shutting down running back Doug Martin and Brady is a good start to any defensive resumé, but they got some help from downright bad performances by both Brady and Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (15-of-31 for 210 yards, one touchdown, one interception vs. Jets).

At first, it seemed the Dolphins running game may take some time to get off the ground. There were problems with blocking, with backs being tentative, and simply bad play-calling. After rushing for just 0.9 yards per carry against the Browns, the Dolphins picked it up big-time against the Colts with a respectable 27 carries for 101 yards and two touchdowns.

Running back Lamar Miller, in particular, was one player who came under some scrutiny for totaling three yards on 10 carries against the Browns. We were reminded of his dynamic skill set after he ran 14 times for 69 yards and a touchdown against the Colts.

There are also fewer opportunities for the running backs with a heavier focus on the passing game. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill attempted 484 passes in 16 games last year (30 attempts per game), but has already thrown 72 passes through the first two games (36 attempts per game).

With a 65.3 completion percentage, it's understandable that they want Tannehill dropping back to throw. It's not as if all his throws are dumpoffs, either -- only 41.5 percent of his passing yards have come after the receiver has caught the ball.

That being said, the Dolphins will want to get back to running the ball effectively at some point. Tannehill has already been sacked nine times, tied with Jets quarterback Geno Smith for second-most in the NFL behind Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.

Got room for one more.

Anything could happen, Matt, but my general feeling is that he will be playing somewhere else after this year.

The Patriots have moved Brandon Spikes off the field in most nickel packages this year (see my tweet above for a snap breakdown of the Patriots linebackers this year). Spikes has played 47 snaps (34.1 percent) of the team's 138 total snaps this year. In all, 26 of those snaps have come on running downs, and he's crashed the line as a pass-rusher six more times.

Spikes is one of the best run-stuffing middle linebackers in the NFL -- in fact, he graded out as the best middle linebacker against the run in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus.

Given his niche role in the defense, and the limited number of snaps he plays as a result, making second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower the backup signal-caller for the defense makes a lot of sense -- he's seen the field for 117 snaps (82.6 percent).

It may seem like the easy way out of this question, but with the Patriots, the long-term future of a player comes down to two questions: How valuable do the Patriots feel that kind of player is to their team? How does that value compare to the rest of the league?

Sometimes, the latter is greater than the former. It seems that will be the case with Spikes.

Alright, everyone, thanks for the questions! Anything further can be directed to me on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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