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With same starting five returning, why has Pats' O-line play been spotty?

The Patriots haven't had consistent play from the offensive line so far this season. Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

Every Saturday, some hot topics surrounding the New England Patriots are touched upon in a mailbag:

Matthew, this is a good reminder of how one year doesn't transfer to the next. One NFL coach I spoke with noted that the team's tackles, Nate Solder (left) and Marcus Cannon (right), are not consistently playing as well as they have in the past, while also pointing out that teams have had some success directly over center David Andrews. Specific to Solder, it has been noted that he hasn't played with a consistently strong anchor point, and thus opponents have tested him often with speed-to-power rushes. Then when Solder might try to compensate for those speed-to-power rushes, it has led to times where a switch-up to a pure speed rush has produced solid results for the opposition. As for Cannon, it looks like more technique issues against some of the NFL's better pass-rushers. Also, credit goes to the opposition at times, as the Patriots have faced some good defenses. Specific to Thursday night's game, that was a Buccaneers D that had just one sack in its previous two games, but the rush looked pretty strong against the Patriots. The Patriots need better play, on a more consistent basis, from the offensive line. Although it isn't always the fault of the O-line, quarterback Tom Brady is taking too many hits.

Johnald, the 2016 trade for cornerback Eric Rowe, in which the Patriots acquired Rowe from the Eagles, is tied to compensation based on Rowe's playing time. So if Rowe played more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps in either the 2016 season or the 2017 season, the Patriots will send Philadelphia its 2018 third-round pick. If Rowe played less than 50 percent of the snaps in both the 2016 and 2017 season, the pick will be a 2018 fourth-rounder. Based on Rowe's current groin injury, and the fact he's already missed two games, it's now looking like the fourth-rounder will be the most likely result.

That was part of it, as Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston missed several open receivers. At the same time, what we saw from the Patriots' defense -- more energy, better tackling, improved communication -- was an obvious improvement. The defense started fast and responded well to turnovers, which are positive signs. This improvement, while also noting the help the "assists" from Winston and kicker Nick Folk, was the theme of my initial report after the game.

Mont, it's a combination that includes players ahead of him on the linebacker/defensive end depth chart, which ties to his own development as a player, in addition to some special teams considerations as well. Because a team can only activate 46 of its 53 players for games, there are often times going to be a couple of development-type players who just don't make the cut, and it's been Langi and fellow undrafted rookie Cole Croston falling into that category this year (Langi played in one game, Sept. 17 at New Orleans). Looking at it with a critical eye, it would seem Langi's special teams contributions might warrant a spot over linebacker David Harris, but the coaching staff has obviously felt that the insurance provides on defense is of greater value (active for four of five games, but playing only seven snaps) for now.

Mike, as each week goes by, it becomes more challenging to justify a roster spot for linebacker David Harris. If he has Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and even Marquis Flowers ahead of him on the off-the-line linebacker depth chart and doesn't contribute on special teams, he's basically on the roster at this point for locker-room leadership (although it's hard to lead decisively when you don't play) and injury-based insurance. Harris is a respected veteran player, and the Patriots are guaranteeing him $1.25 million this season, so perhaps that is part of the thinking as well at this point.

Ed, similar to David Harris, the addition of tight end Dwayne Allen hasn't produced the results many projected. Allen has helped at times as a blocker, but he's been targeted six times in the passing game and doesn't have a catch. That's not all on him, as the Week 4 game against Carolina was one example where he was open on the right sideline and Brady came up short with his throw. At the same time, it seems clear that the Brady-Allen trust level hasn't reached the same point it did last year with Martellus Bennett.

Phillip Dorsett is the No. 4 receiver and still growing in the system. It's a tough situation to ask a receiver to come into this offense on Sept. 2 and play right away, and I think he's done as well as one could realistically expect. He runs well, and I'd anticipate we will see a greater impact in the weeks and months to come. On Thursday, Dorsett's playing time increased because the team went to a four-wide receiver package (often going empty with it) as a result of being without Rob Gronkowski. As Dorsett grows more comfortable in the system, it makes sense to think we'll see him spell top receivers Chris Hogan, Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola a bit more.