Welcome back to my weekly report card. This past Sunday was much better for the New England Patriots, who defeated the Buffalo Bills, 38-30. Since the Patriots won, nobody is getting too bad a grade this week. The logic is: if one position on the team had seriously underperformed, the Patriots likely would’ve lost. Just as no one scored high when they lost to the Jets, no one scored TOO low this week. That’s not to say there won’t be some criticism. This is, after all, impartial analysis. So let’s make like a high school math teacher and give out some grades!
Tom Brady’s passing yardage only went up 8 yards between Week Two and Week Three, as he completed exactly one more pass than he did against the Jets. But his completion percentage skyrocketed, going from 55.6 to 77.8 percent. Add in the zero interceptions against the Bills and you have a FAR-improved quarterback. Brady was absolutely on his game against the Bills. He completed both long and short passes, throwing for 10 or more yards nine different times. Five of his deep passes went for 20 or more yards, including his 35-yard touchdown bomb to Randy Moss, which was thrown with surgical precision. Brady moved quickly when necessary, going 42 yards in 24 seconds to put his team within field-goal range before the first half ended. He also operated well in no-huddle situations and spread the passing out effectively, going to eight different receivers. He threw three touchdown passes and even ran for a first down! Brady was absolutely spectacular against the Bills.
Running Backs: A
The Patriots gained 200 yards on the ground, the first time since October 2008 where that’s happened. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 98 yards and Danny Woodhead picked up 42 yards on just three carries. Each ran for touchdowns, and Green-Ellis’ touchdown in the fourth quarter put the game away for the Patriots. Green-Ellis’ 6.1 yards-per-carry average is good, but his 8.4 yards-per-first-down-carry average is even better. A week after the Patriots running game absolutely failed, they responded with a brilliant game. The only knock on the corps was the running of Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris. They each carried the ball six times, and neither of them could crack 20 yards total. Taylor is old, and Morris’ yards average is plummeting. If they want to keep their jobs, they will have to prove they can still run. When a tight end can run better than you, it might be time to hang it up. Still, the running game was absolutely essential to the Patriots victory, so I can’t give the running backs less than top marks.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: A-
Moss and Aaron Hernandez bumped this group up a bit. Moss caught two more touchdowns against the Bills, and he did it in part by just outrunning his coverage. He is showing week after week that he still has gas in the tank. If he keeps up this level of production, someone will pay him a lot of money if the Patriots don’t re-sign him. Hernandez, meanwhile, led all Patriots receivers for the second straight week. The tight end duo of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who caught all three passes thrown to him and scored a touchdown, may be the best set of tight ends that Brady has ever had to work with. And they’re rookies! The rest of the receivers had o.k. games, but nothing to write home about. Wes Welker caught most of the balls thrown his way, but did little after catching each pass and dropped one that hit him in the hands. He’s clearly still regaining his agility after knee surgery. The tight ends also committed two offensive pass interference penalties, both of which led to three-and-outs for the Patriots. And Brandon Tate just plain dropped the football after catching and running with it, giving Buffalo the ball in Patriots territory. But with nine fewer pass attempts than against the Jets (36 vs. 27), a little less wide receiver production is acceptable. Most receivers did everything asked of them, so they get generally high marks. Just not perfect marks.
Offensive Line: A-
The one knock against the offensive line was the Brady sack they allowed. It led to a Patriots three-and-out that gave the ball back to Buffalo with them down just one touchdown with over three minutes to go. They were bailed out by the defense picking off Ryan Fitzpatrick, but for the second straight week the line could not protect Brady for four quarters. They got lucky this time, or their grade would’ve been lower. But the Patriots rushed for 200 yards against the Bills, and that’s a testament to the offensive line winning the battle at the line of scrimmage over and over again. Green-Ellis’ game-clinching touchdown run in the fourth quarter capped a drive that featured nine consecutive running plays. That takes concentration by the offensive line, and they get rewarded for their tenacity with a high grade.
Special Teams: C+
Had the Patriots lost, this would be a LOT lower. The Patriots special teams unit allowed a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, cutting the Patriots lead to one, 24-23. The special teams unit looked like a joke, missing tackles, over-pursuing returner C.J. Spiller and running over their last potential tackler, Stephen Gostkowski. Additionally, Zoltan Mesko’s punting average dropped more than 10 yards from last week. Against the Bills it was a paltry 37.7 yards-per-punt. To his credit, Gostkowski snapped a streak of three consecutive missed field goal attempts and nailed all five of his extra point attempts. That’s the only thing that kept this unit from a straight C.
Defensive Line: C
For the second straight week, the opposing team was able to run right through the teeth of the Patriots defensive line, rushing for more than 130 yards once again. However, if you discount Fitzpatrick’s 18 scramble yards, the number drops to 116, which is more respectable. But factoring in the line’s failure to sack Fitzpatrick, it’s impossible to say that they really played well. It was the definition of an average performance: not good, but not bad enough that it really cost the team a chance to win. Against a bad team like Buffalo it was good enough, but it won’t do against teams who can keep the Patriots out of the end zone. For its own sake, the defensive line has to figure out how to stop the run and pressure the quarterback.
Jerrod Mayo sacked Fitzpatrick after Tully Banta-Cain flushed him from the pocket. Additionally, the linebackers only allowed four runs of more than 10 yards, one of which was a Fitzpatrick scramble. When the Bills running backs penetrated through the defensive line, the linebackers were usually there to quickly make the tackle. And of the 247 passing yards Fitzpatrick picked up, only 21 went to a tight end, the position usually covered by a linebacker during passing plays. This wasn’t a bad performance from the linebackers. It didn’t contribute greatly to the Patriots victory, so they don’t get an A. But they definitely did their job more times than not, so they get a B.
Defensive Backs: B-
Two interceptions are two interceptions. Patrick Chung’s interception was in the Patriots end zone, killed a Bills scoring threat, and led to at least a 10-point swing in the Patriots’ favor. Brandon Meriweather’s interception ended the Bills’ final offensive drive. Were the intercepted passes overthrown? Yes, absolutely. But Chung especially and Meriweather to a lesser extent picked those throws because they were in the correct positions to do so. They didn’t get lucky: they played smart. Give the safeties at least a B+. The cornerbacks, meanwhile, are another story. The Bills wide receivers racked up 203 yards against the paltry Patriots corners. Kyle Arrington missed a point-blank tackle that allowed Roscoe Parrish to pick up 31 yards on a third-quarter catch. He also got lucky on a pass attempt to Lee Evans in the end zone, a play in which Arrington never turned to see the ball, facing Evans the entire time. The ball hit him in the back of the helmet, and he was fortunate that both the ball was under-thrown and that he was not flagged for pass interference. Darius Butler, meanwhile over-committed on a Spiller run in the second quarter that wound up being a 19-yard play. And Devin McCourty was beat by Steve Johnson to the end zone for a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, which cut the score to 38-30. The corners get a C-, the safeties get a B+. That averages to a C+, and I bumped them up a half-letter because the Patriots won.
Bill Belichick gets credit for making the necessary adjustments at half-time to not allow another second-half Patriots meltdown. The defense wasn’t exactly good, but it didn’t kill the Patriots on Sunday. This was a game that to me at least never felt in question. The Patriots seemed to be in complete control of the game, even during the first half when they were behind some of the time. Belichick came up with a creative game plan, one that featured the most rushing attempts since December 2009. And despite allowing two touchdowns in the second half, the defense allowed fewer appoints (14) on fewer offensive (two) drives than they did in the first half (16 points on four drives). So not only did Belichick come up with a way to SCORE more points in the second half, he also came up with a way to PREVENT them, at least to a small degree. Was it the greatest game plan ever? No, probably not. But it got the job done. Toss in the judicious use of timeouts in the first half, which gave them a chance for the 24-second drive that ended in a field goal and the lead, and you have a decent coaching performance. The offense had to perform at an exemplary level to overcome a shaky defense and secure the win, so clearly more defensive preparation and coaching is necessary. That kept Belichick out of the A-range. But the Patriots won, and to the head coach that’s the bottom line.