I was pleased to be joined by Tom-Masse of Pats Pulpit this week to get to the bottom of some interesting issues surrounding this week's game. While the Patriots are confident that they won't let up on anyone, anything can happen on gameday.
Chris Pokorny: Romeo Crennel was the Patriots' defensive coordinator in New England, but the Browns' defense has not improved since he came to Cleveland. Did fans feel Crennel was a "good" defensive coordinator back when he was with the Patriots?
Tom-Masse: Here's Cleveland's problem as I see it: Yes, New England fans (and even the media) considered Crennel a good -- maybe even a great defensive coordinator. It's just that he's not a defensive coordinator now.
I think it's interesting to note that Bill Belichick had his first head coaching job with (pardon the expression) the old Browns, and he had a rough start before the team improved dramatically before having the rug pulled out from under them. Crennel may be going through the same growing pains, but maybe not.
Once Belichick won a couple Super Bowls, some people questioned whether Bill Parcells' success was due to Belichick, because Parcells was never overly successful without Belichick. Good? Yes. Super Bowl worthy? Not so much. That debate continues.
Similarly, people wondered how much of Belichick's success was due to the workings of "The Triumvirate" of Belichick, Crennel and former offensive-coordinator-now-Notre-Dame-head-coach Charlie Weis. Draw your own conclusions.
Chris Pokorny: Has the addition of Adalius Thomas shored up the defense in general?
Tom-Masse: I don't know if I'd say "shored up," but it all depends on what you're measuring. If you look at total yards allowed, passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed, this defense has been much better -- though admittedly against maybe not the best teams in the league.
If you look at points allowed, New England led the league in 2003, was second in 2004, fell to 17th in 2005, and rebounded back to second in 2006. So there's not much change there. The fact is, when the Patriots have been healthy, they've had an excellent defense. Depth, especially at linebacker and in the secondary, has been a periodic concern.
Thomas definitely gives the Patriots more depth at a very important position in Belichick-architected defenses. He also gives them flexibility, takes the pressure of the "older" linebackers, and allows all of them to play back in their more natural positions.
So, I'd debate "shored up." But "made better"? Absolutely.
Chris Pokorny: How do you respond to the critics that underestimate what the Patriots have done, since their opponents only have a combined four wins?
Tom-Masse: It's hard to blame them. If you look at wins and losses and opponents' win-loss records, it's easy to present such arguments. But if you've actually watched the games, you've seen more than just a few statistics and winning percentages.
By the same token, it's a long season. Lots can happen. Several teams are getting hammered with injuries. At least one coaching change has dramatically altered his team's expectations. Typical to any recent NFL season, there are surprises. But we're just four games in. That team with the coaching change -- just because San Diego is 1-3 now doesn't mean they won't end up 12-4 by the end. Just because Tampa Bay is 3-1 doesn't mean they won't be 4-12.
Parcells would say, "you are what you are." The Patriots are 4-0 and they're playing well and they're mostly healthy. Whether they go undefeated is immaterial and, in the long run, unimportant. I want them to continue playing well and to stay healthy. We'll see what the critics know in January.
Chris Pokorny: Yahoo Sports columnist Vinnie Iyer pointed out that the Patriots have given up touchdowns every time (four) that an opponent has reached the red zone, which is last in the NFL. Is this just a coincidence, or is there possibly a slight weakness here?
Tom-Masse: It's actually six. Six red zone trips (tied for least in the league with Pittsburgh and Seattle). Six touchdowns.
But it's not a coincidence. Philadelphia is fifth in the league in red zone touchdowns allowed percentage (.357) and second in red zone scoring (.643). Chicago is first in red zone scoring (.588). Of course Philly's opponents have made 14 trips to the red zone, and Chicago's opponents have 17. How's that working out for them?
You can call it a weakness if you want. We'll take it.
Chris Pokorny: I'm sure you know of the "any given Sunday" philosophy. Are Patriots fans more concerned about a game like this against the Browns than they were prior to the games against the Buffalo Bills or the Cincinnati Bengals?
Tom-Masse: I'm probably more concerned about the Browns game, because the Browns are something of an unknown quantity -- despite being coached by Crennel. Also, after the Bills, New England had Cincinnati; and after Cincinnati are the Browns. After Cleveland, it's Dallas -- on the road -- and that's when teams get caught looking ahead.
But New England's Belichick teams have rarely fallen for that trap. Besides, the Browns just beat Baltimore, and that probably raised a few eyebrows, made players realize Cleveland can't be taken lightly. That's bad news for the Browns in this game, but it was far more important for them to beat a highly regarded division opponent.
Of course, if they beat the Patriots in Foxboro, some eyebrows will move to the back of some people's necks.EDIT: To see my responses to Tom's questions, please visit the post at Pats' Pulpit.