Perry's Report Card: Belichick finds answers for Watt, Hopkins
Perry's Report Card: Belichick finds answers for Watt, Hopkins
The Patriots would not let Texans defensive lineman JJ Watt and receiver DeAndre Hopkins beat them. After re-watching Bill Belichick's team get its 11th win of the season in Houston on Sunday night, that much was clear. On 53 percent of New England's pass plays, Watt was either double or triple-teamed. When he wasn't, the Patriots had a play called that was designed to give quarterback Tom Brady the opportunity to get the ball out of his hands quickly. Threat negated. Watt got to Brady just once, and when he did he was flagged for a late hit. When it came to locking horns with Hopkins, one of the game's best deep threats, the Patriots forced Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer to look elsewhere by placing a safety -- either Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon -- over the top of corner Logan Ryan's man-to-man coverage. Aside for one 40-yard catch when the game was all but out of hand, Hopkins was essentially shut down. After two weeks of uncharacteristic ugliness in all three phases, the Patriots had a sound game plan in Houston that was well-executed, which is reflected in this week's grades.
Credit offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for finding a cure to what ailed the Patriots in Week 13 against the Eagles. By getting his receivers in motion in Houston, he helped solve the issues they have had uncovering early in plays a week prior. Putting Brady's weapons on the move before the snap allowed them to not get caught up at the line of scrimmage, catch it early, and then do damage with their legs after the catch. Brandon LaFell and Keshawn Martin were both beneficiaries of this kind of action. The misdirection McDaniels employed at the line of scrimmage also helped keep Houston's talented edge defenders -- Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, in particular -- honest. The Patriots offense stalled in the second half, scoring its only touchdown after getting good field position following a strip sack from defensive end Jabaal Sheard, but with a fresh wrinkle and with the addition of tight end Rob Gronkowski, this group looked significantly improved against one of the league's best defenses.
While Brady made a handful of very good throws in the game -- including his pass to Gronkowski across the field in the first quarter, his touchdown toss to Gronkowski in the back corner of the end zone, his sideline pass to James White that was eventually ruled incomplete -- it was his work before the snap that may have been the most impressive. For a team like the Texans that moves its best player all over the defensive formation, it was critical for Brady to make sure the Patriots were in the right play, and that their protections were set up correctly. Knowing when he had time to throw -- like when Watt or Clowney were doubled -- and when he didn't was just one more thing Brady had to process at the line of scrimmage. One week after being hit 13 times, Brady seemed calm behind center, and he made his decisions rapidly and decisively. The combination of having Gronkowski at his disposal and having confidence in the game plan paid very clear dividends. His 73.3 completion percentage since a Week 5 win against the Cowboys.
TIGHT END: B+
What a difference a couple of weeks can make. After writhing on the Mile High Stadium turf in pain in Week 12, Gronkowski was back on the field at NRG Stadium and played in 60 percent of the snaps. It wasn't a typical workload for the 6-foot-6, 260-pounder, but he looked to be the player the Patriots have come to expect to see when healthy. He secured the football when it was within his grasp, he didn't avoid contact, he ran well after the catch, and he did it all with his trademark zeal. His touchdown catch at the end of the second quarter was a prime example of just how thoroughly he can change a game. Though the Texans had seen that play on film -- the Patriots ran it in Week 1 against the Steelers -- they had no answer for Gronkowski's size and leaping ability. Scott Chandler played just one offensive snap, which happened to be the play when Gronkowski scored. Chandler, who was limited in practice last week with a knee injury, also saw time on the field goal unit. Michael Williams continues to be an important fixture on the offensive line as a blocker. In the run game, he prevented Houston defensive tackle Vince Wilfork from making tackles with a couple of "wham" blocks, and he was a critical part of the plan to thwart Watt, linking up with right tackle Marcus Cannon to double the likely Defensive Player of the Year.
Martin's first-quarter touchdown came after he ran an over route that turned into a corner route and had rookie corner Kevin Johnson all kinds of confused. LaFell had five catches for 32 yards and turned in his ninth drop of the year, which leads the team. Danny Amendola was this unit's top player with six catches for 42 yards, including 21 yards after the catch. With Julian Edelman out hurt, he's been a vital piece of the Patriots offense, getting free over the middle where his quarterback so often likes to work. Gronkowski's availability made life much easier for this crew, as could be plainly seen when he was doubled on Martin's side of the field, leaving Martin much more space to work during his score.
RUNNING BACK: B+
LeGarrette Blount's hard-charging first half was the best he had looked since a Week 9 win over the Redskins. He fought through five would-be Texans tackles during a 17-yard run and didn't go down until a sixth piled on top of him. He suffered a hip injury in the second quarter that forced him from the game and reportedly has him wearing crutches Tuesday. While sometimes it takes him some time to find running lanes, Blount has a talent for creating yards on his own in the open field, and if he's lost for any significant amount of time it would be a blow to New England's running back group. With Blount out, Brandon Bolden ran hard, both between the tackles and on the edges when given an opportunity there. He averaged just 3.2 yards per carry but forced six missed tackles by running hard at -- and sometimes through -- Houston defenders. James White picked up a two-yard touchdown with a subtle side-step when center Bryan Stork was blown back into the backfield by Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus. He also had a 27-yard catch and run where he made one defender miss. With each passing week, White seems to be playing more confidently and subsequently gaining more and more trust from Brady. He may not have the elusive skill set that Dion Lewis flashed earlier this year, but he's looking like a very capable passing-down back in this offense.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
Watt may have had a hand injury, but it's hard not to credit the Patriots offensive line for rendering him a non-factor. Yes, they used double and triple teams. Yes, McDaniels and Brady made sure the ball was out quickly in the passing game. But to keep Watt from wreaking havoc in the backfield -- and doing it just one week after defensive lineman Fletcher Cox had his way with Brady's protection -- was impressive. Marcus Cannon held his own with Watt when asked to block him one-on-one,as did rookie left guard Shaq Mason when he got an opportunity early in the game. Mason -- who played 100 percent of the snaps for the first time this season -- had the best game of his young career, highlighted by when he got Watt on the ground in their toe-to-toe matchup. Stork left the game in the fourth quarter, giving way to David Andrews for six snaps. It was Andrews' first work since going up against Buffalo in a limited capacity in Week 11. Stork's status is worth monitoring over the course of the week.
What the Patriots have done over the course of the last two weeks has been pretty remarkable. They've allowed just four scoring drives and 20 total points with one of their best defensive players, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, out due to a knee injury. Plus, against the Texans, New England's other top linebacker, Jamie Collins, played a full workload for the first time since missing a month due to illness. And that's not to mention the fact that Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia deployed a starting corner on Sunday who had been signed just a few days prior. No matter. With a secondary that has improved as the season has worn on and a defensive front that seems to apply pressure at will, the Patriots put together one of their best performances of the season in Houston.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Jabaal Sheard played like a man possessed, spending large chunks of the game wedging himself into the Texans backfield. He finished with two strip sacks, a quarterback hit and a quarterback hurry. Houston right tackle Derek Newton had a difficult time figuring out when to block Sheard and how to do it, helping to lead to such a big night for New England's most productive free-agent acquisition from the offseaon. While Chandler Jones was relatively quiet against talented left tackle Duane Brown, Rob Ninkovich showed up with a handful of flash plays. His instincts aided the Patriots in sniffing out where Houston's Wildcat plays were headed, and he added a sack of his own with a quick move where he slapped Newton's hands down by his sides and scooted past. Dominique Easley added a sack and a quarterback hurry before leaving the game with a thigh injury, and Akiem Hicks had his most disruptive game of the season by racking up a pair of sacks and a pair of quarterback hits. Both sacks came in the second half, a sign that the rotation on the interior of the Patriots defensive line has helped keep their big bodies fresh. Hicks played in 25 total snaps, which matched his season-high with the Patriots.
One of the more noteworthy developments for this position group is that Jerod Mayo is looking more and more like he's finally fully over -- or getting close to fully over -- the knee injury that landed him on injured reserve a season ago. He looked quick in getting up the field, making seven tackles, including a pair of tackles for loss in the running game. When the Patriots had developed a larger lead toward the end of the game, and after safety Devin McCourty left injured, Patricia called on his defense to run some Tampa-2 coverages (with two deep safeties splitting the field and a linebacker taking the deep middle portion of the field), and Mayo seemed to have no limitations in making his deep drops. If Hightower continues to miss time, and if Jonathan Freeny is out for long with a hand injury that knocked him from the game, having Mayo hit his stride for the stretch run of the season could be hugely important to this unit.
The Patriots presented Hoyer some obvious double-teams of DeAndre Hopkins in order to deter him from force-feeding the talented wideout. But as the game wore on, and as Ryan showed he could stick with the 6-foot-1, 214-pounder, he was trusted more and more with handling those responsibilities himself. Hopkins got the best of Ryan on his 40-yard catch -- it looked like Ryan misjudged the football while it was in the air and briefly stopped running -- but Ryan was targeted just three times while in coverage of Hopkins and that was the only catch he allowed. He broke up the other two passes that were thrown his way. Malcolm Butler had a strong day on the opposite side of the field as he ran with Nate Washington. He bit hard on a double-move from Washington, giving up a 49-yard gain on third down, but otherwise found himself at the right place at the right time consistently. His ability to locate the football, jump with receivers, and continuously try to whack the pass away before it's completed -- even as he's falling to the turf -- is rare, and it allowed him to break up a pair of big throws headed Washington's way, one of which occurred in the end zone. Patrick Chung was once again stout in run support and likely would have played every snap had he not missed some time due to injury in the third quarter. Like Ninkovich, his experience in the Patriots defense helped him solve Houston's Wildcat sets, blowing them up before they could get any kind of significant gain. Leonard Johnson, signed in the days leading up to the game, looked ready to play. He read routes well and broke on Hoyer's passes quickly, breaking up two of the three targets sent his way -- one of which occurred on a fourth-down play after Martin's muffed punt. The former Bucs corner, and celebration dance aficionado, could give New England some much-needed depth in the secondary for the final portion of the regular season and into the playoffs. The 53-man active roster has just four corners -- Ryan, Butler, Johnson and Justin Coleman -- at the moment. It's unclear how much time McCourty's ankle injury will keep him away from game action, but he's expected to be just fine for the playoffs.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
The Patriots would have loved to keep Amendola off the field for punt-return duty, but their hand was forced when Martin muffed one in the third quarter. If not for a turnover on downs forced by the Patriots defense on Houston's subsequent set of downs, this unit would have been primarily responsible for points off of a special teams turnover for the third consecutive week. Despite dealing with a nagging knee sprain that the Patriots would have liked to rest during special teams plays, Amendola caught everything kicked his way after Martin's drop. It's a wonder if Martin, who was primarily a punt returner last season with the Texans, will get any further opportunities in that role with the Patriots. Prior to his fumble, he showed good burst on three punt returns, including one that he took for 21 yards. That muff is the only real reason this group's grade is down. Stephen Gostkowski was perfect once again on his three extra points and two field goals (from 43 and 49-yard away). Ryan Allen continued his strong work this season, dropping three of his six punts inside the Houston 20-yard line, including one in the second quarter that was downed at the Texans 3-yard line. Filling in for rookie Geneo Grissom, Rob Ninkovich was solid on the Patriots punt protection unit that allowed a blocked punt last week against the Eagles.