McDaniels earns high marks for Garoppolo game plan
Perry's Report Card: McDaniels earns high marks for Garoppolo game plan
The Patriots went into Arizona down three of their best players and still managed to beat a team that many believed to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. That they did it with a game plan that resembled one they might run even if they had Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Nate Solder at their disposal made the victory all the more impressive and served as a sign of just how deep and well-coached this roster is. The performance wasn't without its flaws, but by and large, it was one that deserved high marks across the board.
Given the difficulty of the situation -- without Brady, against a good defense, and in a hostile environment -- the plan of attack put together by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff was on the money. The Patriots are the owners of what is usually a clear-cut pass-first offense, but against one of the best secondaries in the league, they went balanced (33 passes, 31 runs). And when they did throw, they used many of the same concepts they might use with Brady behind center, running rub routes, play-action, and utilizing spread formations to help identify coverages. Of course, Julian Edelman's effectiveness in the short-to-intermediate range, which melds perfectly with Garoppolo's quick release, was also taken advantage of. The Patriots trusted their new starter to run a varied attack, and they reaped the rewards as he handled it all with poise.
Against the Cardinals, Garoppolo put on display many of the qualities that made him worthy of a second-round pick. He used his legs both to pick up yardage and to keep plays alive, as he did on a crucial third-and-15 in the fourth quarter, when he found Danny Amendola in a scramble-drill situation. He also flashed his quick trigger finger and exceptional accuracy on the very next third down he faced when he hit James White through a tight window for a first down. Aside from his fumble -- which came on a strip-sack while he tried to step up in the pocket away from pressure -- and an inexplicable delay-of-game penalty, this was as well-played a game as the Patriots could've asked for.
RUNNING BACK: B
The Patriots received clutch contributions from James White (three of his five catches went for first downs) as well as LeGarrette Blount (third-and-11 conversion late in the fourth, eight-yard touchdown run with the majority of the Cardinals defense trying to stop him), highlighting the variety of athletes they can use successfully in the backfield. Had it not been for Blount's fumble, which led to a Cardinals score, this grade would have gotten a bump. Though Blount had ball-security issues earlier in his career (he had nine in his first two years as a pro), he has fumbled just once in each of the previous two seasons. Brandon Bolden also fumbled, coughing up a hand-off that the Patriots recovered. He did not see another offensive touch.
Edelman was Garoppolo's ultimate security blanket, helping the Patriots extend their first drive of the game with his catch-and-run on their third play from scrimmage. He caught all seven of his targets for 66 yards and carried a career-high three times on jet sweeps designed to catch Arizona's hard-charging defense off-balance. Amendola was typically opportunistic, catching three of his four targets, while Chris Hogan (37-yard touchdown) and Malcolm Mitchell (28-yard catch-and-run) made impacts on the outside. The faith the Patriots showed in Mitchell, who started and played in over 50 percent of the team's offensive snaps, was particularly noteworthy after he missed the majority of the preseason due to a dislocated elbow.
TIGHT END: B+
Martellus Bennett didn't end up with big numbers -- he caught three of five targets for 14 yards -- but he made a sizable impact as a blocker with Solder and Gronkowski out. "[We] ran behind him a lot in the running game," McDaniels said of Bennett's night. "He did a good job on the edge, we kept him in pass-protection more than a handful of times, and he did a nice job in terms of securing the edge of the pocket there too. Unselfish, team guy." Bennett was flagged for a hold on Chandler Jones when matched up on the former Patriots defensive end one-on-one, but it seemed to be a questionable call from this vantage point. AJ Derby was used as the team's No. 2 tight end, getting the nod over Clay Harbor, who was inactive. He didn't record a catch and he was called for a false start.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C+
"Credible." That was the word that Belichick threw out when describing the play of fill-in left tackle Cameron Fleming against the Cardinals. It's a fitting description for how the entire offensive line unit performed. Garoppolo was sacked twice and hit four times, but protecting him were two rookies and two backup tackles. Against one of the best defenses in football -- a group that blitzes as much as any team in the league -- they helped keep Garoppolo in one piece. Marcus Cannon had a particularly difficult time, allowing both sacks. He was also called for one of the unit's three holds, and he may have been dealing with an injury as he was spotted on a cart after the game.
The Patriots held Carson Palmer and the Cardinals offense in check for the better part of four quarters. The only two scores they allowed through the game's first 50 minutes came off of turnovers. They didn't create any turnovers, and they stumbled late when they allowed future Hall-of-Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald to take over, but the game-plan was sound. They protected against the long-ball -- one of coach Bruce Arians' staples -- and allowed Palmer to try to beat them with shorter completions underneath. Michael Floyd reeled in the team's only reception for 20 yards or more, a 39-yarder with Malcolm Butler in coverage.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Start on the edges where starter Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long were effective both against the run and as pass-rushers. Combined they recorded seven pressures -- Sheard led the team with four -- and helped keep Palmer from being able to let receiver routes develop deep down the field. Trey Flowers, Anthony Johnson and Malcom Brown also recorded pressures from their spots in the trenches. Long and rookie Vincent Valentine posted two of the team's three sacks. It was a solid showing from Valentine in his professional debut, as he made three tackles. However, he also had running back David Johnson in his grasp in the fourth quarter before letting Johnson wiggle free for a 45-yard run that set up Fitzgerald's one-yard touchdown grab. Not to be forgotten, Alan Branch was strong against the run and looked particularly explosive early in the game. Now in his tenth season, his length and strength still plays.
Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower picked up where they left off as two of the team's top defenders. Collins picked up a sack, though he rushed on just eight snaps, and Hightower recorded three pressures of his own. One of those pressures resulted in Hightower getting a little banged-up when an offensive lineman landed on the back of his legs. He was checked out by trainer Jim Whalen briefly but was back on the field after a short stay on the sidelines during Arizona's subsequent drive. Hightower didn't look to be completely right while in pursuit of the football or while dropping into coverage so his status bears watching in the days and weeks to come.
The Patriots couldn't come up with any picks, but they were solid in coverage for most of the game and just missed on a few opportunities to intercept Palmer. Butler, who continues to display an innate ability to get his hands on the football, had two pass breakups. Justin Coleman, playing as the team's No. 3 corner, also got his hands on the football twice. Logan Ryan had some difficulty with Fitzgerald late, no easy task, but he had a pass breakup of his own, and he was one of the team's strongest tacklers in the defensive backfield. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon both missed a chance to bring down Johnson during his 45-yard run, but they were where they needed to be in order to discourage Palmer from going deep.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
It might be difficult for the Patriots to top what they were able to do in the kicking game on Sunday night. Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect 3-for-3 on his field goals, including a 53-yarder and the game-winning 32-yarder both in the fourth quarter. Gostkowski and New England kickoff unit was also successful in pinning the Cardinals deep in their own territory on four different occasions, as Gostkowski's kicks were targeted for the area near the goal line to encourage returns. Nate Ebner, Patrick Chung, Matthew Slate and undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones all showed up in that phase of the game to help disrupt Arizona returns. Jones, who seemed to be on the bubble as the Patriots were selecting their initial 53-man roster, appears to have a knack for getting down the field quickly -- he ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at this year's combine -- and finding the football.