Phil Perry's Report Card: Patriots defensive front earns honors
By beating the Rams 26-10 on Sunday the Patriots did what they were expected to do: They beat up on a vastly inferior opponent. But in so doing they broke out the unexpected. Defensively they created pressure by disguising which defenders were rushing quarterback Jared Goff and which ones were dropping into coverage. Offensively they moved forward without Rob Gronkowski by heaping more work onto the shoulders of their receivers and running backs -- not Martellus Bennet. Let's dive deeper into how each position performed on Sunday with this week's grades.
This was nothing new for Josh McDaniels. He's gone without Gronkowski before, and he was never truly able to utilize the two-tight end sets he probably envisioned before the season since Gronkowski and Bennett were simultaneously at full strength for all of one game (Week 5 against the Browns). That didn't mean Sunday came without its hiccups, though. The Patriots were 4-for-16 on third down and were held to four field goals in the second half due in large part to some serious difficulties on first and second down, leading to third-and-longs. The screen game was heavily deployed against the Rams' aggressive front, but it gave them next to nothing and helped kill more drives than it sparked. They ran seven that went for a total of 26 yards . . . and until Julian Edelman picked up 10 yards on their final screen attempt of the game, they averaged 2.6 yards per screen attempt. They ran six negative plays, all on first and second down, and they had 10 plays that went for between zero and two yards. For a sense of how personnel was deployed without Gronkowski, and with Bennett injured, consider this: The Patriots used two-tight ends (with either Bennett and Cameron Fleming or Matt Lengel) on 14 plays of 79 plays; they went without a tight end on 18 snaps; their most widely-used grouping was 11-personnel, with one back, one tight end and three receivers, which they broke out for 32 plays.
On the day that Brady set the all-time record for quarterback victories, he was not his sharpest, but it wasn't all his fault. There were a few occasions during which there seemed to be some miscommunication between Brady and his receivers -- Chris Hogan in the first quarter, Danny Amendola in the third -- but the blame for those likely falls on the shoulders of the guys who haven't been running the offense for 16 years. He missed a third-and-10 throw to Edelman at the start of the third quarter, and he forced one into double-coverage of Edelman deep down the field later in the quarter. Otherwise? His final line was hurt by three drops, one well-executed pass breakup on Bennett in the end zone, and a series of pressures allowed by his offensive line that led to incompletions. Brady's 32-yard completion to Edelman in the third was a thing of beauty as he opted not to throw to Edelman in the seam on a fake screen to Bennett, side-stepped pressure, and heaved a pass down the sideline with defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks all over him. His back-shoulder touchdown to Hogan, and his third-down completion to Malcolm Mitchell with Aaron Donald bearing down on him in the fourth quarter were also ones to file away for the year-end highlight reel.
RUNNING BACK: B+
LeGarrette Blount's 43-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter showed just how special he can be in the open field. No one wants to tackle him, as evidenced by Maurice Alexander running away from him and spinning aimlessly as he tried, and failed, to cut Blount off. Take away that one long jaunt, and Blount averaged just 2.6 yards on 17 carries, but he oftentimes had nowhere to go. Bill Belichick has said it many times: When he was room to run, he's a different player. Two runners who do did well even when the holes were minuscule or hard-to-find? Dion Lewis (5.4 yards per carry on five attempts) and James White (5.7 yard average on three attempts). The Patriots used their "Pony" set with Lewis and White on five occasions, including one when White served as a lead-blocker for Lewis, who continues to look explosive with the football in his hands as a runner or receiver. White saved an interception by leaping for a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage. It could have easily been picked, but somehow the 5-foot-10 came up with the rebound.
The Patriots would probably like to find a way to manage Edelman's workload, but it may not be possible now with Gronkowski out and Amendola dealing with an ankle injury. Brady's No. 1 target has seen 40 passes go his way over the last three weeks, and while he's looked healthy, he needs to be preserved somehow for the stretch run. He finished Sunday with eight grabs for 101 yards, and he absorbed his share of big shots: He was crunched twice on a nine-yard gain in the fourth; he took another blow that knocked his helmet askew on a screen pass later on the same drive; and on the final Patriots series he was walloped by defensive back Mike Jordan. The team would probably like to have him avoid those in a 26-3 game. Hogan, aside from his touchdown grab, was off for much of the day. He whiffed on blocks on screens to Lewis and White, he wasn't where Brady expected on a deep attempt, he bobbled a pass that should've gone for more than a one-yard gain, and he got out of bounds twice on catches late in the fourth quarter when the Patriots were trying to drain the clock. Not his best game. Mitchell wasn't perfect, either, dropping two passes (including one that earned him a relatively one-sided conversation with Brady on the bench) and missing one block that held a Bennett catch to two yards. But the rookie had a season-high in targets in targets (10) and catches (eight). Brady trusts him, and he'll have to. Mitchell's the third of three healthy receivers on a team that leans on its three-receiver sets.
TIGHT END: C-
Bennett is hurting. That much is obvious. It's earned him kudos on the Patriots locker room and among the Patriots coaching staff, but it's made him a shell of the player we saw earlier in the season who was perhaps the team's best run-blocker for a time. Bennett set the edge -- with the help of some ill-advised angles on the part of the Rams -- on Blount's two fourth-down conversions, but he had rocky day otherwise. He was called twice for holds that wiped out first-down runs, he was beaten cleanly on four other run plays, and he gave up what would have been a sack had Brady not spotted the pressure and thrown the ball away (in the direction of Bennett, who released into the flat) at the last second. Bennett nearly had a touchdown that would have helped boost his grade, but he ended up with just four yards on two catches. Fleming allowed one stuffed run but was OK in his dozen snaps. Lengel saw 10 plays and helped clear space on a 10-yard run by Blount in the fourth that was called back on Bennett's hold. James Develin was used in 22 plays on Sunday, often as a traditional fullback, not a tight end. He was right alongside Bennett with good blocks on Blount's two fourth-down runs, but he had a hard time creating space on four running plays, and he had a missed block on one of the team's failed screens.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
As was the case the previous week against the Jets, the young Patriots interior had their work cut out for them but got the job done. They helped their backs rush for 4.6 yards per carry, and they didn't allow Brady to be sacked. It may have been the toughest day of rookie guard Joe Thuney's young career, but Donald tends to do that to people. Thuney was beaten twice by Donald's quickness in pass protection in the fourth quarter, he allowed Brady to be hit in the second, and he picked up a hold on former Patriots tackle Dominique Easley in the first. He had his moments in the running game, pulling well in the second to open a hole and help Lewis pick up a gain of nine. Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder all had strong days in the running game, and they can rest easy knowing that the hard hit Brady took from safety TJ McDonald was not their fault. Brady knew all along he was a free rusher and would have to get rid of the ball quickly.
You can tell Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are getting comfortable with some of the defensive pieces that have been in flux over the last month or so. These past three games -- against the Niners, Jets and Rams -- were an opportunity for them to solidify roles and establish an identity, and the Patriots may have taken another step toward that goal with a strong all-around day against a putrid Rams offense. For weeks, observers wondered when the Patriots might dial up some pressure, and though they still were wary to throw too many bodies at Goff, the bodies they did throw at him came from all directions. Is that how they'll continue to play things moving forward, or was Sunday's performance simply a byproduct of facing an inexperienced signal-caller who was easily bothered? At the very least it was a sign that the Patriots have some versatility up front that can create confusion when it wants.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Stunts and coverage. Coverage and stunts. It was interesting to track just how Patricia and Belichick wanted to use their ends. Much in the same way they did with Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Akeem Ayers in 2014, they played with roles from drive-to-drive and snap-to-snap. Jabaal Sheard was a force both coming up the field (one hit that led to a pick, one pressure, two run-stuffs) and dropping (breaking up two passes and making two down-the-field tackles in the passing game). His hustle on a screen pass seven yards down the field, when he tripped up Pharoh Cooper from behind, was just one of many signs on Sunday that he is all-in after his benching two weeks ago. He gave consistent effort all afternoon. Rob Ninkovich may have had his best day coming off of the edge with two hurries, a hit and a sack, regularly working over second-year tackle Rob Havenstein. The rest of the defensive line feasted on LA's porous front: Chris Long (three hits, one hurry, one sack), Trey Flowers (four hurries and a hit), Malcolm Brown (three hurries) and Alan Branch (one hit, one run stuff) all finished with impactful days.
The Patriots seem to have found a working combination at the second level with Dont'a Hightower and either Kyle Van Noy or Shea McClellin alongside. This was Van Noy's breakout performance -- and probably the best game of his career -- as he stuffed three runs, hurried Goff and hit him once. He also made a ridiculously athletic interception following Sheard's hit: After stepping up on Goff's play-fake, Van Noy dropped into coverage, tracked the wobbling oblong and caught it at its highest point. The former Lions linebacker also ran the defensive huddle at times when the Patriots gave Hightower a breather. The versatility of all three 'backers -- Elandon Roberts didn't play defensively -- allowed Patricia to dial up A-gap blitzes (while dropping ends into coverage) or fake the inside pressures only to have those players drop into coverage. By rattling the quarterback and his protectors up front, those play-calls served their purpose.
Aside from a deep completion to Kenny Britt late in the fourth quarter -- Malcolm Butler admitted after that he got too aggressive near the sticks and bit on Britt's double-move -- this was as strong a performance as Belichick could have asked for from his defensive backs. Before that 66-yard completion, the Patriots had allowed a mere 95 yards of total offense to their guests. Part of the pressure generated by the front end was due to the coverage on the back end, which was made easier by the fact that Tavon Austin was out injured but impressive nonetheless. Malcolm Butler created another turnover by pouncing on Lance Kendrick drop before it hit the ground, and he broke up two attempts. Devin McCourty helped break up two passes himself by cracking Britt (his former college teammate) as soon as Goff's passes arrived. Logan Ryan continues to look comfortable in the slot, notching one sack and one pressure from that spot as a pass-rusher, and Eric Rowe played well until left the game late in the third quarter with a hamstring injury. Rowe's status bears watching as the Patriots seemed to just have their secondary roles in order.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Stephen Gostkowski's perfect day was a sign that he's headed in the right direction. "It's a start," he said. The issues here, docking this unit's grade from the A-range, were with the other units. With Amendola now injured, the team has to figure out what it will do at punt returner. Trust Jones despite his ball-security issues, or use Edelman who could use all the breaks he can get? The play may be to have Edelman run out there and either fair-catch or let the ball bounce behind him. Rams punter Johnny Hekker's kicks lead to muffs because they force returners to run such a great distance to field them, but Jones' latest miscue may have been his last. Ask Chris Harper about the importance of securing the football on punts. Jonathan Jones popped up with two late penalties in the kicking game. The game was well enough out of hand at that point that they were not critical errors, but they're something for the undrafted rookie to clean up moving forward -- especially if Matthew Slater continues to miss time injured. The margin for error for all coverage units has shrunk with their captain out.