Common practice these days is for sports writers to give a report card to the Patriots for their previous Sunday’s performance. Borges does it. Felger does it. Minihane does it. So I’m doing it! Let’s get started.
On Sunday the Patriots were beaten in all three facets of the game. Head Coach Bill Belichick said as much in his post-game press conference. It’s impossible, then, to give anyone a good grade for this game. Therefore, my primary criterion in assigning grades was whether or not any one position’s play was SO bad that it actively contributed to the loss. If it did, then I had no choice but to assign a failing grade. If it did not, then that position passed. However, had even one position excelled, this game probably would’ve been remarkably different. So no one is getting an A. Now then, on to the grades they DID get.
Tom Brady threw for two touchdowns, which is good. One was a particularly beautiful pass 34-yard bomb to Randy Moss that landed in his outstretched right hand. Moss’s catch was spectacular, but Brady gets credit for putting the ball in a spot where cornerback Darrelle Revis had zero chance of knocking it down. However, Brady also overthrew Moss twice in the second half, and both times led to interceptions. In both instances, Moss did not seem to be in the right place. I’ll critique the wide receivers and tight ends next, but Brady gets at least half the blame for badly placed passes. Now, none of his other incomplete passes were egregiously off-target, so his accuracy for the most part was there. The strip-sack that killed their last drive was not his fault. I think Brady’s overall performance, while not great, was not so bad that it gave the Patriots no chance of winning the game. A better defensive performance and slightly more effective receivers and the Patriots probably overcome Brady’s miscues and win the game. Not a performance you want to see repeated, but one that I’ve seen a lot of teams win with (Oakland, for example, beat St. Louis while throwing two interceptions and just one touchdown pass).
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: C+
The play of the tight ends kept this grade from being even lower. Aaron Hernandez caught all six passes thrown his way for 101 yards, and Rob Gronkowski added 14 yards on his lone reception (he was only thrown to twice, and the one he missed was thrown behind him). Combine their numbers and you average more than 19 yards per catch. That’s exceptional production, especially from tight ends, especially from ROOKIE tight ends. If I could grade them separately, I’d give them an A. Unfortunately, the wide receivers brought the grade down. Moss and Wes Welker each caught touchdown passes in the first half, but they disappeared in the second half. During that half, against a secondary WITHOUT their top cornerback, neither wide receiver was able to get open. Welker had two catches that combined for 5 yards. Moss had no catches and was overthrown three times, twice leading to interceptions. The Jets cornerbacks completely outplayed the Patriots wide receivers in the second half, and the Patriots loss can absolutely be attributed to their lack of production. Their first-half production kept them from failing, but if I could grade them separately, I’d give them a C-. So average an A and a C- and you get around a B-. Since the Patriots lost, I took off an additional half-letter grade.
Running Backs: F+
Had a single running back rushed for 52 yards, I’d give him a decent grade. But it took THREE running backs to gain 52 yards, with no one back getting even half of them. Even worse, it took them a whopping 20 attempts to get those 52 yards. That’s 2.6 yards per attempt. That’s unacceptable. Of the 20 attempts, only six times did a running back gain five or more yards. I consider 5-yard rushes to be the threshold for successful runs, so they ran successfully 30% of the time. In baseball that’ll fly, but in football, that’s a failing grade. Had the Patriots running backs played as poorly against the Bengals, a game in which the Patriots won, I could give them a D because while they were bad, the team’s offense clearly is structured to not rely on rushing. However, they gained over 100 yards against Cincinnati. So they definitely have the potential to run well, they just failed to do so against the Jets. I gave them the F+ only because, as much as they contributed to the Patriots losing, the cornerbacks contributed even MORE so.
Offensive Line: C+
They only allowed one sack, and it came late in the game at the hands of the always-annoying Jason Taylor. Matt Light, the lineman who let Taylor go, didn’t do himself any favors come free agency with that play. So in terms of quarterback protection, the line did o.k. However, the failure of the running backs lies at their feet as well. There was not a single play where I could find a sizable hole through which a running back could break off a large run (if we discount the run nullified by holding in the first quarter, which wasn’t the line’s fault). The offensive line got beat at scrimmage over and over again, and the running backs paid the price for it. If one back had had a bad day, I’d place the blame mostly with the running corps. But with all three backs playing so ineffectively, the fault lies with the line as well. They played slightly better than average and did a decent job of protecting Brady until the end, but I had to ding them for not opening up significant holes on any rushing attempt.
Special Teams: C
Stephen Gostkowski missed a 37-yard field goal after punter Zoltan Mesko committed a delay-of-game penalty that cost the team three points. Add that to Kyle Arrington’s fair-catch interference penalty on a punt that would have pinned the Jets within the 10-yard line and you get a special teams group that certainly under-performed Sunday. The saving grace was Mesko’s punting, which averaged 48.7 yards per punt (the best punter in the league this year, Shane Lechler of the Oakland Raiders, is averaging just a yard better per punt, according to SI.com). That balances out a poor kicking performance and a decent but unspectacular kick- and punt-return game. All told, the special teams didn’t actively contribute to the loss, but they didn’t really do the Patriots any favors either.
Defensive Linemen: C-
Yes, Gerard Warren had a terrific game, recording two sacks against Mark Sanchez. But the defensive line also needs to plug the center against the run, and they did not do that. The Jets rushed for 136 yards against the Patriots defensive line and linebackers. And what’s worse, they did it almost exclusively by moving within the linemen. The line allowed way too many rushing yards, but they DID sack Sanchez twice. They didn’t fail at their assignment, but they didn’t perform at even an average level. Warren saved them from the D-range.
Most of the success of the Jets running backs lies with the defensive line. But the linebackers didn’t do much to help their cause. They hit Sanchez just twice, and neither time resulted in a sack. And they usually plugged up the holes after the running backs got through, but not always. LaDainian Tomlinson broke off three runs of more than 10 yards, and those were as much the linebackers’ responsibility as the defensive line’s. There were very few pass plays where the ball went in their direction, so they either did a decent job in coverage or Sanchez just opted to pick on the Patriots cornerbacks (more on them next). Either way, their performance wasn’t good or bad. Just average. So give them a C.
Defensive Backs: F
Darius Butler and Devin McCourty, you guys got beat. The safeties had unremarkable games (no defensed passes, but no missed tackles either), so they don’t count. The cornerbacks, though, got destroyed. Over and over again they were out-ran, out-jumped, and out-muscled for the ball. Twice Butler was so far off his man that he had no choice but commit pass interference against the receiver and hope he didn’t get flagged (he did, both times). All three of the Jets touchdown passes came because their wide receivers either eluded the Patriots cornerbacks or jumped over them. The same thing happened on the Jets two-point conversion. It didn’t matter who the Patriots matched up with which Jets wide receivers or tight ends: all of the Patriots cornerbacks were out-played every single time. They looked borderline incompetent, and that incompetence more than anything else led to the Patriots losing. By themselves, the cornerbacks get an F- (although I’m not sure that’s an actual grade). The average safeties bring them up a half-grade, but that’s still unacceptable. Straight up, they failed.
Belichick definitely had a good game plan coming into the game. The Patriots moved the ball successfully in three of their first four drives, scoring touchdowns in two of them and missing a field goal in the third (which isn’t the coach’s fault). And the defense held the Jets to a three-and-out in their first drive and forced them to punt again in the second quarter. The Patriots outplayed the Jets in the first half and went in up 14-10. They even held the Jets to another three-and-out on the opening drive of the second half. But after that, everything went to hell. In the second half, Belichick got out-coached by Rex Ryan. Nothing the Patriots did offensively worked, and the defense allowed the Jets to score on three of five drives in the second half (not counting their last one, where they rushed enough to run the clock out). Anytime you go scoreless for the second half, you got out-coached. Ryan figured out what the Patriots were doing and schemed a way to stop it (with a depleted roster, no less), and Belichick did not respond. Give him credit for the first half, but he loses SERIOUS points for the stagnant offense and unsuccessful defense of the second half.
So there you have it. The loss lies primarily at the feet of the ineffective running backs and the even LESS effective cornerbacks. Tom Brady comes away the least responsible, since without him the Patriots don’t score ANY points, plus his wide receivers didn’t get open for him at all in the second half. No one, however, looked good against the Jets. Average all the grades together, and you get around a C-. And that’s exactly what the Patriots were last Sunday: a below-average team that got beat by a team that played well, but not exceptionally.