Perry's Report Card: Patriots vs. Panthers
As bad as it looked for the Patriots defense on Sunday, what might have been the most alarming part of the entire afternoon was what was said in their locker room after the fact.
Players were at a loss. Smart players. Experienced players. They had no real answers for why things were as ugly as they were, and when they tried to explain themselves in some detail, they rattled off a list of things they never seemed to really finish: Missed assignments. Faulty communication. Poor fundamentals...
The resulting grades -- on the defensive side, at least -- aren't good. Click through to see how each position stacked up.
The final two drives for the Patriots were surgical thanks to Tom Brady. His 10-yard throw to Danny Amendola on the last drive, and then his touchdown to Amendola in the back of the end zone, were both pinpoint passes. He had a similar back-end line touchdown to Chris Hogan earlier in the game. Brady also used his legs effectively in this one, sneaking for a first down, and buying time with his legs to pick up a pass-interference call on Gronkowski for a 33-yard gain. Brady took a sack despite good protection in the first quarter. He also made a few questionable throws late in the first half -- one behind Gronkowski and one low and away to Hogan -- that led to settling for a field goal. His deep throw to Dwayne Allen was off the mark, as was his deep attempt to an open Brandin Cooks on the first drive of the game. Not Brady's best work, but what he did late makes this a more-than-acceptable grade.
RUNNING BACK: B
The Patriots went run-heavy on their second drive after chucking it all over the yard to start the game. Mike Gillislee got what was blocked, but he didn't break a tackle until the third quarter. He had a defensive back one-on-one in the flat on one run in the first quarter. He picked up five yards but had he made the tackler miss, he might've had a big-gainer. In the third, Gillislee started to look more like the back he was in Buffalo last season, making tackles miss on back-to-back snaps for 19 yards. Dion Lewis gave the Patriots a boost as a runner, though his snaps continue to be limited. The juice is there, as it was when he beat a Panthers defensive back to the end zone in the fourth quarter. Just seems like the Patriots want to manage his workload. James White missed a chip on Julius Peppers in the third quarter leading to a sack. But he was reliable as a receiver, as usual.
WIDE RECEIVER: B+
This group had a pair of questionable drops, one from Brandin Cooks and one from Chris Hogan. Hogan also had an instance where he showed head-scratching field-awareness for the second straight week. On third-and-10, he caught Tom Brady's pass at about eight yards and decided to pick up the remaining yardage by running back inside to the teeth of the defense instead of trying to beat his man one-on-one with the ball in his hands. He was stopped short. Hogan did have a nice block on Dion Lewis' touchdown run, and Cooks even got into it as a blocker, helping open up some room for Mike Gillislee early. Cooks was also the pick man on a nice gain to Danny Amendola early on, showing he's more than just a deep threat. Hogan's and Amendola's touchdown grabs were both clutch, and both players showed good toughness on those drives. Before scoring the game-tying touchdown, Amendola was bent in half on a five-yard catch but went on to make two more and looked no worse for the wear. Hogan absorbed a big shot on the back-end line on his TD, but held on.
TIGHT END: B+
Rob Gronkowski's work as a receiver is well-documented, and he had another fine day against the Panthers. His first grab was one of his more impressive ones, as he had to reach behind him on the back-shoulder toss to pick up 17. He also did some good work after the catch on his 43-yard seam route, picking up extra yards by fighting off Mike Adams. But his work as a blocker shouldn't go unnoticed; he was effective in the running game, working on Luke Kuechly to open some running room for Mike Gillislee early. The Patriots had a pretty good play design to get Jacob Hollister free on his lone target by the goal line, but Brady appeared to be a tick late and missed him high. Dwayne Allen continues to be a non-factor in the passing game. He let Brady's long toss slip through his hands in the third quarter; it wasn't a great throw, but had he held on it might've done something for their chemistry. Hollister and Allen combined for just 13 snaps so this wasn't a big multi-tight-end-formation game.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B-
Tom Brady was sacked three times, but the argument could be made that this was the game in which the Patriots protected their quarterback best. One of the sacks can be chalked up to Brady's willingness to hold onto the football (and his receivers' inability to get open). Another is partially on James White for whiffing on his chip of Julius Peppers. And Marcus Cannon was beaten cleanly once by Peppers for another sack. Dealing with an ankle injury, Cannon didn't look quite as light on his feet as he has in the past, but he was pretty stout in the running game. Joe Thuney and Nate Solder (four hurries and a hit between them) had relatively clean days. David Andrews was blown up at the line of scrimmage late in the fourth quarter on Gillislee's run and he did step on Brady on a stretch-run in the second quarter, but he made an impressive reach block, cutting Kawaan Short to open a hole for Gillislee. Shaq Mason, who had been the team's most consistent lineman this season through three weeks, had a down day for him.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Stephen Gostkowski helped keep the Patriots in it with three field-goals, including a franchise-record 58-yarder. He also continued to be effective in the kickoff game, finding the goal-line area consistently to encourage returns. Christian McCaffrey had a pair of sizable returns, which Joe Judge will want to get cleaned up before Thursday, and Jonathan Jones was called for fair-catch interference. He's one of their best special-teamers (if not the best on the team in Matthew Slater's absence), but that's one he'd like to avoid going forward.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C+
Not much this group could do about receivers and running backs sprinting through the secondary unchecked, but they weren't without problems. Cam Newton's designed runs were real issues for the entirety of the Patriots front seven, starting on the line. On a first-down run midway through the third, Cassius Marsh got lost coming off the edge and Alan Branch was thrown to the ground by Trai Turner (injuring Elandon Roberts in the process). Later, Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown were both blocked easily on a Newton draw up the middle, and were non-factors again on Newton's fourth-quarter score. They were both stout against traditional runs, and Trey Flowers gets credit for a pair of hits, a pair of hurries (including one that might've saved a touchdown when Malcolm Butler fell down in the secondary) and a forced fumble. Deatrich Wise continues to look the part as a pass-rusher. But on a day when the back end of the defense was as porous as it was, the Patriots needed a herculean effort up front.
First, the good. Kyle Van Noy played with some noticeable energy early on. Elandon Roberts was also pretty strong against the run. Dont'a Hightower certainly looked healthy when he followed up his inside move with a spin to the outside to free himself and sack Newton in the fourth quarter. But in coverage, there were issues -- both in zone and man. Van Noy watched Ed Dickson catch a pass that sailed over his head early. He also lost McCaffrey on a screen. Roberts may have been one of several at fault on the Fozzy Whitaker 28-yard score. Newton's designed runs gave this group fits as well. Van Noy blitzed up the middle and allowed Newton a clear lane up the middle for 13 yards in the third. Van Noy also over-pursued on Newton's touchdown run in the fourth. On Jonathan Stewart's 15-yard run during Carolina's game-winning drive, Hightower provided little resistance on the edge, Flowers (playing because of the injury to Roberts) was blocked one-on-one by McCaffrey, and Van Noy got caught in the wash. It was a critical play on the game's final drive, and the second level of the Patriots defense was missing.
Bunch and stack formations continue to baffle Patriots defensive backs, and teams will without a doubt test them with those formations until they prove they can get them figured out. Newton completed 10 of 12 throws with receivers working out of a bunch formation, racking up 160 yards and a touchdown. Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore couldn't get things straightened out on bunch sets during the same series. One led to leaving Kelvin Benjamin wide open, the next allowed Devin Funchess to break free for an easy 10-yard score. Even when there was no bunch -- like on Fozzy Whitaker's touchdown -- the communication was lacking. Gilmore was, for some reason, late to align on that particular play. When he finally got to his spot, he and Devin McCourty had little time to figure out their assignments, which meant when Christian McCaffrey went in motion all hell broke loose. To add insult to injury, the tackling out of this group was not usually where it is, either. It won't get any easier against Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and the Bucs on Thursday.