New England Patriots Report Card: Week 5

With 151 rushing yards and a touchdown, Stevan Ridley led the Patriots to an “A+” performance against the Broncos Sunday at Gillette Stadium. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

The Red Sox have the Yankees. The Celtics have the Lakers. The Bruins have the Canadiens.

And Tom Brady and the Patriots have Peyton Manning and the Colts Broncos. While the first three rivalries sometimes fail to live up to expectations, the Brady-Manning rivalry consistently delivers excitement and suspense.

Brady vs. Manning, Round 13, went to the Patriots, 31-21 Sunday at Gillette Stadium. So before Manning shakes his head with disgust and re-injures his neck, let’s dole out the grades.

Quarterback: A-

Brady completed just under 75 percent of his passes for 223 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He also rushed for a touchdown. Solid numbers, sure, but anyone who watched Sunday’s game knows that for once, the Patriots’ running game, and not their passing game, carried the day.

Manning out-dueled Brady, throwing for 345 yards and three touchdowns, but the Patriots still won. That means Brady doesn’t get top marks, but I have a hunch he doesn’t care as long as his team wins.

Running backs: A+

The Patriots rushed for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Stevan Ridley rushed for a career-best 151 yards, crossing the 100-yard mark for the third time this season, and added a rushing touchdown (as did Shane Vereen).

Brandon Bolden chipped in 54 yards of his own, while Danny Woodhead rushed for 47 yards overall and 6.7 per carry. Woodhead also converted two third-and-very-long situations, making a 25-yard catch on third-and-14 in the second and rushing for 19 on third-and-17 in the third.

The Patriots controlled the pace of the game for all four quarters, and the running backs made it happen. Perfect score for this group (even with Ridley’s fumble).

Continue reading New England Patriots Report Card: Week 5

New England Patriots Report Card: Week 3

Tom Brady and his receivers get A- grades for their performances Sunday against the Ravens, but the rest of the team didn’t do nearly as well. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Before Sunday’s New England Patriots-Baltimore Ravens game, noted actor (also Ravens linebacker) Ray Lewis said, “Revenge is a dish best served cold. We on fire tonight.”

Facing a mind like that, the Patriots should count themselves lucky they just lost, as opposed to waking up tied to a chair in a basement somewhere.

But lose the Patriots did, blowing a two-possession lead in the fourth quarter and losing on a game-ending 27-yard field goal by Justin Tucker. But before Pats fans start moaning, just remember that the Ravens are a very good team, matching talent with physicality and effort. The Patriots didn’t lose this game — the Ravens won it.

With that said, and before Ray Lewis comes bursting through the door in a clown costume singing “Helter Skelter,” let’s give out some grades.

Quarterback: A-

Tom Brady looked very sharp Sunday, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 335 yards and a touchdown. He might not have gotten it done on the Patriots’ last drive, but he executed a near-flawless two-minute offense at the end of the first half, capping an 81-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman.

Thirty points usually means victory. Brady did more than enough to put his team in a position to win. Don’t hang this loss on the quarterback.

Running backs: B

Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden each scored a rushing touchdown, but along with Steven Ridley combined for just 75 yards, all three averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry. And with the run-game all but stopped, the Ravens began overloading on pass-defense.

Against a worse pass-rushing team, the Patriots can get away with that weak a running game. But against the Ravens? Not so much.

Wide receivers/tight ends: A-

Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd recorded over 100 receiving yards apiece Sunday. Lloyd may have made the flashier catches, but Welker handled the nitty gritty. And both starred against a Ravens secondary that tested the replacement referees’ excessive contact rules every chance it could.

Lloyd brings a dynamic element to the Patriots’ receiving corps that’s been missing since Randy Moss circa 2007. Expect big aerial numbers for Brady and his receivers this season.

Offensive line: B-

The offensive line allowed a sack four plays into the game, tightened up for awhile, then crumbled late in the fourth, allowing a key sack that killed the Patriots’ last drive, forced them to punt and ultimately led to the Ravens’ game-winning field goal.

The line also utterly failed to open up holes for the Patriots’ running game, repeatedly allowing Ravens linemen to simply move across blockers and chase down running backs from behind.

On a positive note, the O-line played penalty-free. And with Sunday’s officiating crew, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Defensive line: D

The defensive line put no pressure on Joe Flacco… literally. No sacks, no quarterback hits, only one tackle for a loss (by Patrick Chung, no less). And Ray Rice rushed for over 100 yards, a touchdown and 5.1 yards per carry.

The defensive line so struggled Sunday that Bill Belichick had to abandon his original defensive scheme, moving up a safety to help on run-defense. That left New England’s mediocre cornerbacks one-on-one with receivers — one reason why Flacco threw for 389 yards and three touchdowns.

Linebackers: D+

Jerod Mayo‘s pass-interference penalty on third down in the second quarter extended a Ravens drive that ended with a touchdown pass, but he also led the team with 11 tackles. Brandon Spikes‘ holding penalty, meanwhile, wiped out the Patriots’ only sack and gave the Ravens first-and-goal from the Patriots’ 5-yard-line.

Flacco’s third touchdown throw came on the very next play, making it a two-point game with four minutes left in the fourth. These veteran linebackers have to play better than that moving forward.

Defensive backs: C-

Too, too many penalties really hurt the Patriots secondary. Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore and Devin McCourty all gave away third-and-long situations with defensive holding penalties, and McCourty’s pass-interference penalty turned a 52-yard field goal attempt into a 27-yard chip-shot.

Despite the secondary’s inadequacies, three things picked up its grade: Chung’s fourth-down tackle, Steve Gregory‘s first-quarter interception, and the secondary’s overall high level of energy. For once, the Pats’ defense didn’t look exhausted by the fourth quarter.

Special teams: B+

Stephen Gostkowski made all of his field goals and extra points, and for the most part just kicked touchbacks. Excluding the Patriots’ two drives off turnovers, however, they lost the starting-yardage battle to the Ravens, and no one on the Patriots’ special teams did anything spectacular.

Acceptable play from special teams, but nothing distinguishing.

Coaching: B+

Belichick’s decision to leave the Patriots’ front seven to deal with the Ravens’ running game worked for awhile. But once Rice began running roughshod, Belichick had to bring a safety forward, because as good as Flacco is, Belichick knows Rice is much better.

Despite little success on the ground, Belichick continued running the ball, only throwing the ball about 53 percent of the time. Had the Patriots abandoned the running game, Brady likely would’ve taken far more than two sacks and six hits. The Patriots might have lost, but at least they left Baltimore relatively healthy (though the jury’s still out on Edelman and Arrington).

Belichick for the most part coached well, but his team just couldn’t maintain the level of execution necessary to win.

Troy Brown Elected to Patriots Hall of Fame

Between his punt return skills and his willingness to play defense in 2004, Troy Brown absolutely deserves his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Troy Brown‘s statistics will probably keep him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Other than a few special teams accomplishments, Brown just never did enough to be considered among the best in the NFL. Still, some honor is definitely due to the Pro Bowler who played in five Super Bowls and retired as the Patriots’ career leader in receptions.

Sports writers may never recognize Brown’s greatness, but Patriots fans have, voting Brown into the Patriots Hall of Fame Monday, according to Boston.com writer Steve Silva. Brown will be inducted as the 18th player and 19th overall member of the Hall on Saturday, Sept. 15, one day before the Patriots’ home opener,

Brown’s Punt Return Heroics

Brown played all 15 years of his career with the Patriots, starting in 1993. Though always a competent receiver – he caught a career-best seven receiving touchdowns, including one in the playoffs, in 1997 – his best work often came on special teams. Specifically, punt returns: he led the team in punt-return yardage eight times, including his first two seasons on the team and six straight years from 1998 to 2003.

Brown only scored four touchdowns on returns, but one broke a scoreless tie in the 2001-01 AFC Championship against the Steelers. Considering the Celtics won that game 24-17, one could argue Brown’s special teams contribution made the difference.

Continue reading Troy Brown Elected to Patriots Hall of Fame

Troy Brown and Julian Edelman: Bill Belichick’s Favorite Type of Player

Though not yet at the level of Troy Brown, Julian Edelman has been undeniably productive as a cornerback this season. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

Bill Belichick’s defensive genius, record-breaking offenses and three Super Bowl victories will someday put him in the Hall of Fame. Tom Brady and he have formed the greatest coach-quarterback pair in NFL history.

But beyond all of that, one thing truly sets Belichick above the rest: his creative use of personnel. Belichick has always found a way to get maximum productivity out of players cast aside elsewhere.

Troy Brown: Turning Small Receptions into Big Defenses

Brady might be the best example of a nobody Belichick turned into a superstar, but the full list is much, much longer. A perfect example is Troy Brown: a small-yardage receiver (career average: 11.4 yards per catch) who only once gave the Patriots a 1,000-yards receiving year once, and whose touchdown receptions maxed out at six in 1997. He averaged fewer than four catches per game in the playoffs, only scoring once.

As Belichick’s offense became bigger and bigger, Brown’s usefulness as a wide receiver lessened and lessened. So in typical fashion, Belichick made Brown a cornerback in 2004.

The move paid dividends, with Brown picking off three passes and recovering two fumbles. Injuries wracked the Patriot secondary that year, and Brown’s contributions gave the full-time defenders just enough of a reprieve to keep everything from collapsing.

When Brown retired in 2008, Belichick said it was “an honor and a privilege” to work with Brown. High praise from a man who rarely gives any.

Continue reading Troy Brown and Julian Edelman: Bill Belichick’s Favorite Type of Player

Andre Carter A Rousing Success in New England

Andre Carter, this week's AFC Defensive Player of the Week, has been by far the Patriots' best pass-rusher this season. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Few of Bill Belichick’s 2011 off-season acquisitions have worked out. Chad Ochocinco has barely contributed. Albert Haynesworth is gone. The Patriots rotating cast of defensive backs has quite possibly been replaced by cardboard cutouts.

The same can’t be said of Andre Carter, who on Wednesday was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. The award follows Carter’s franchise-record 4.5 sacks against Mark Sanchez and the Jets on Sunday (note: there are some discrepancies across various sports sites as to whether he recorded 4.5 or 4.0; for now, this article will go with 4.5).

Unquestionably the Best Pass-Rusher on the Patriots

Overall this season, the Patriots’ pass-rush has been pretty mediocre; it’s currently ranked 20th in the NFL with 20 sacks. They sacked Sanchez five times Sunday, but that game’s total was a full third of the Patriots’ total over the previous nine games.

Though the Patriots have an above-average run-defense, most opponents have responded by just giving up the run, happy to just pick apart the Patriots’ awful secondary instead. After all, how much pressure will they really have to face?

The lack of pass-rush cannot be blamed on Carter, who has been as much of a disruptive force in the backfield as he can be. His 9.0 sacks tie him for fifth in the NFL. While Mark Anderson has helped out with 5.0 (again, this is based on Carter recording 4.5 Sunday), Carter is far and away the best pass-rusher on the team.

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Pariots Hope to Right Ship Against NFC East-Leading Giants

Eli Manning is having a fantastic 2011 season, and that's bad news for the Patriots, who have the worst pass-defense in the NFL. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

It’s been almost four years since the New York Giants’ ended the New England Patriots’ bid for an undefeated season. That’s far too long ago to call Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium a “revenge game.” Instead, this game will simply be an opportunity for the Patriots to pull their pass defense out of the gutter.

What better way to make a statement than against the streaking, 5-2 Giants?

Eli Manning’s Giant Arm Against the Patriots’ Giant Defensive Gaps

The Patriots enter Sunday’s game with the dead-worst passing defense in the league. Seriously: they allow 323.1 yards per game, ranking them 32nd in the league. And while New England’s nine interceptions are somewhat impressive, remember that two picks belong to Vince Wilfork. Beyond the defensive line, the team’s potential for turnovers is just middle-of-the road.

The Patriots’ terrible pass-defense makes Sunday’s game a potential for total disaster. The Giants have the fourth-best passing attack in the NFL, and Eli Manning is one of the best quarterbacks this season. His numbers season are almost identical to Tom Brady‘s: Brady completes 67.6 percent of his passes, Manning completes 64.8. Brady throws 2.25 touchdowns per interception, Manning throws 2.6. Brady has a 104.4 QB rating (second in the NFL), Manning has a 102.1 rating (third).

Even their protection has been similar: Brady’s been sacked 14 times, Manning 15.

Manning has been nearly as good as Brady this season, but Manning will be throwing against a far inferior Patriots secondary. If Miami’s Chad Henne can throw for 416 yards, Manning’s final numbers could border on obscene.

Continue reading Pariots Hope to Right Ship Against NFC East-Leading Giants

Former Patriots FB Heath Evans Retires to NFL Network

Heath Evans rushes for a two-point conversion against the Dolphins on Nov. 13, 2005- his first and best game with the Patriots. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

Former Patriots fullback Heath Evans tweeted Tuesday that he has decided to retire, trading in the helmet and shoulder pads for a necktie and microphone on the NFL Network.

Evans played 10 full seasons in the NFL with four separate teams. The Patriots signed him on Nov. 1, 2005, after the Miami Dolphins released him a week earlier. Evans stayed with the Patriots through 2008, never missing a game.

Evans played his last two seasons with the New Orleans Saints but was rarely used. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Saints after the 2009 season, though a knee injury ended that season for him in an October 25 game against the Dolphins.

Evans finished his rushing career with 579 yards, a 3.5 yards-per-carry average and four touchdowns. He recorded 439 receiving yards, posting a 7.7 yards-per-catch average and four receiving touchdowns. He also returned for 247 yards, bring his all-purpose total to 1,265.

Before the Dolphins, Evans spent four years with the Seattle Seahawks.

Evans in Foxboro

Evans’ best years unquestionably were with the Patriots. Over three quarters (453) of his career rushing yards were gained with the Patriots, as were over half (229) his receiving yards. Evans finished his career with eight career touchdowns, and half came with the Patriots (three rushing, one receiving).

As a fullback, Evans struggled to carve out a niche in a league that is quickly moving away from the position. Quicker and stronger running backs no longer need fullbacks to clear out blocks. Shooting the gap and turning the corner are requisite skills for RBs now, so players with the bulk to clear space aren’t as crucial.

The emergence of Kevin Faulk as Bill Belichick’s go-to third-down back in the last few seasons further diminished Evans’ usefulness to the Patriots, and the Saints never found a way to work him into their system.

Knowing When to Call it Quits

Faulk caught just seven passes and rushed only twice in 2010, and with the new kickoff rules for 2011 killing the need for quality special teams players, Evans likely saw his chances of ever getting serious playing time again (even by his standards) fading.

Evans had the chance to retire healthy and handsome. He had already established himself as a good quote-man in the locker room, and now he could go on t.v. and make some decent money without leaving football entirely. Totally sensible move.

A Measure of Revenge

Evans played 54 regular-season games with the Patriots. His best came on Nov. 13, 2005. Though it came against the Dolphins, the team who had cut him less than three weeks earlier, it was also Evans’ first with the Patriots, and the only 100-yard game of his career, rushing for 84 yards on 17 carries while adding 18 receiving yards on three catches. Evans may have set the bar too high too early.

The Patriots beat the Dolphins 23-16 that game, with Evans running in the two-point conversion with just over two minutes to play to put the Patriots up a touchdown.

After the game, Tom Brady said, “I remember the first day at practice when we thought, `Why did somebody release [Evans]?’ We thank the Dolphins very much for letting him go.”

The Memory of Evans Will Likely Fade Away

Evans missed by a year the Patriots’ three-title dynasty. From 2005-2008, the Patriots lost in each successive round of the playoffs (divisional round after ’05 season, AFC Championship after ’06, Super Bowl after ’07) until missing them entirely in 2008.

Other than a minor contributing role on the 18-1 2007 Patriots (in which he rushed for all three of his Patriots rushing touchdowns), Evans leaves virtually no mark in the annals of Patriots history. There won’t be a statue, a parade or even a discussion of his greatness. Evans simply didn’t do enough to merit any of that.

Evans legacy will be only that he played three and half of his 10 seasons in New England. He could very easily leave a far more indelible mark as a broadcaster, if only because his time as a player was so nondescript as to make a less memorable broadcasting career virtually impossible.