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.

Patriots Report Card: Week 16

He wasn't perfect, but Tom Brady's gritty second-half performance – including two rushing touchdowns – carried the day against the Dolphins. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The Miami Dolphins narrowly avoided disaster Saturday against the New England Patriots. Somehow a group of talented, motivated football players broke into their locker room, knocked everyone out, stole their uniforms and took the field for kickoff. The “Dolphins” went into halftime up 17-0.

Luckily, the true – and truly terrible – Dolphins regained consciousness and took back their uniforms for the second half. The Patriots scored 27 points in a row and held on to win, 27-24.

The Patriots clinched a first-round bye, and the Dolphins continued their mission of destroying the legacy of a once-great franchise.

Which Patriots graduated with honors, and which will have to take summer school classes? Here’s this week’s report card.

Quarterback: A-

Tom Brady couldn’t do much in the first half, what with all the Dolphins constantly in his face. Whatever happened at halftime, the protection improved in the second half, and Brady came alive. Brady’s second-half line: 20-27 for 217 yards and a touchdown, finishing 27-46 for 306 overall. Brady continues to play with guts, QB-sneaking not once but twice for rushing touchdowns in the second half.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 16

Jerod Mayo’s Tackling Anchors Patriots’ Defense

Jerod Mayo's solid tackling has anchored the Patriots' run-defense, forcing opponents to throw almost exclusively. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

If you can only do one thing in the NFL, make sure you do it fantastically. Chicago’s Devin Hester is almost exclusively a punt-returner, but he’s the best punt-returner there’s ever been. Dallas’ Dan Bailey is just a place-kicker, but he’s only missed once in a season in which seven of the Cowboys’ 11 games have been decided by four points or fewer.

And for the New England Patriots, Jerod Mayo continues to be the best pure tackler on the team. He might lag behind tight ends, he might rarely pick off a pass or blitz the quarterback, but he doesn’t allow yards after receptions. He stops running backs cold. He doesn’t allow big plays.

The Patriots made Mayo a captain before the 2010 season – the best of his four-year career, earning him both a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro selection. A league-leading 175 tackles, two sacks, five defensed passes, a forced fumble and three recoveries – all last season, Mayo sent a stern, painful message to opposing teams: “don’t test me.”

Mayo hasn’t done nearly as much for the Patriots this season. He leads the front seven with 52 tackles, but that’s where his contributions stop. An early-October MCL injury that cost him two games might be in part responsible.

Some would argue Mayo’s poor numbers reflect a down season for the 10th-overall 2008 draft pick. Quite to the contrary: Mayo’s fewer tackles are a testament to just how good he really is.

Teams no longer challenge Mayo by throwing against his coverage. Quarterbacks know that even if the receiver catches the ball, he won’t get much after the catch. And a receiver worrying about Mayo’s shoulder crashing into his chest is way more likely to bobble the pass.

Continue reading Jerod Mayo’s Tackling Anchors Patriots’ Defense

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

Patriots Report Card: Week 12

Tom Brady gave a brilliant performance Sunday against the Eagles, completing 70 percent of his passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

It took the New England Patriots a drive to get in rhythm, but once they did, Sunday’s game went according to plan. Tom Brady dissected the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary, the defense allowed just three points across 50 minutes of football, and the Patriots handed the “dream team” Eagles a 38-20 nightmare of a defeat. The boobirds started singing early at Lincoln Financial Field, and they didn’t quit until the stadium emptied out.

Whose play was masterfully artful, and whose was just b.s.? Here’s your weekly report card.

Quarterbacks: A

Tom Brady turned in a brilliant performance Sunday, completing over 70 percent of his passes for 361 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. With little pressure to worry about, Brady had plenty of time to find the open receiver and throw a perfect strike. Only one pass even had a chance at being intercepted, and it wasn’t. Otherwise, immaculate decision-making from the emotional leader of this team. He even rushed for 28 yards!

Brian Hoyer took over midway through the fourth, successfully handing the ball off on three straight plays when the Patriots just wanted to bleed the clock and punt.

Running Backs: A-

BenJarvus Green-Ellis did most of his damage on the Patriots’ first scoring drive, churning up 28 hard-fought yards on eight carries. He ended the drive with a 4-yard burst into the end zone that cut the Eagles’ lead to 10-7 and chewed up almost seven minutes. Green-Ellis added a second, 1-yard touchdown on the Patriots’ next drive.

The running game’s focus shifted towards clock management as the Patriots’ lead grew and grew, but the threat of the run still helped sell two play-action passes. The first, with Danny Woodhead on the field, left Wes Welker wide open for a 41-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. The second led to a 14-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski early in the fourth. That drive ended with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 12

Patriots Report Card: Week 11

Kyle Arrington's two-interception night highlighted a terrific Monday Night Football performance by the Patriots' depleted secondary against the Chiefs. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Kansas City Chiefs threw everything but the kitchen sink (unless you count Jerrell Powe) at the New England Patriots Monday night, hoping to disrupt Tom Brady early on and keep the game close late. It worked for about 20 minutes, but the Patriots eventually solved the Chiefs’ defense. The end result: a 34-3 Patriot victory and a tie atop the AFC standings.

Who published and who perished? Here’s my weekly report card.

Quarterback: A-

Brady showed considerable poise in the midst of the Chief’s early onslaught, then used a combination of screens and hurry-up offenses to regain control at the line and beat that onslaught. Once Brady could breathe again, he began to pick apart the secondary, finishing the game with 234 passing yards and two touchdowns.

The Chiefs played early on as if they really felt they could beat the far-superior Patriots. Instead of panicking when they made a few plays, the unflappable Brady simply waited until they returned to earth, then swatted them aside like the flies they were.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 11

Patriots Report Card: Week 9

The look says it all: Tom Brady played better than anyone else on his team, but too many mistakes and missed opportunities cost the Patriots Sunday against the Giants. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots’ 24-20 loss to the New York Giants Sunday featured several firsts. The Patriots lost at home for the first time in 21 games. The Patriots lost two games in a row for the first time since 2006. And the offense failed to score in the first half, also for the first time since 2006.

While Tom Brady did his best to overcome all of that, the defense – which admittedly played very well for the first half – faltered in the fourth quarter, allowing two late-game comeback drives.

Who’s going to Harvard, and who’s falling back on a safety school? Only my grades can say.

Quarterback: B+

Another game, another two-touchdown day for Brady. But it took him far too long to figure out how to beat the Giants’ defense, and he made too many mistakes while doing it. Both interceptions were Brady’s fault: he failed to account for linebacker Michael Boley to start the second quarter, who easily read Brady’s pass, tipping it to Mathias Kiwanuka. Deon Grant‘s interception later happened because Brady threw a bad pass to Rob Gronkowski deep and over the middle. The first pick killed a scoring opportunity, and the second led to the Giants’ first score.

Brady redeemed himself to some extent with two magnificent fourth-quarter drives, capping 80- and 64-yard drives with touchdown strikes to Aaron Hernandez and Gronkowski, but the defense couldn’t hold either lead. A month ago, this offense could put up 30 points or more without even trying. Now, 20 points is a chore. As the commander of this offense, Brady must shoulder the blame.

Continue reading Patriots Report Card: Week 9