Curran and Perry’s Patriots’ mid-season awards
Curran and Perry’s Patriots’ mid-season awards
With the bye week at the halfway point of the Patriots’ regular season, it’s a good time to take stock of the first half and even to peek ahead.
HOW CONCERNED ARE YOU? AWARD
Tom: The linebacker depth is a major concern. Outstanding as Dont’a Hightower is, he’s a player that incurs injuries on a regular basis because of the position he plays and the playing style. Elandon Roberts plays with the gas pedal pinned to the floor at all times and flings his stout little body everywhere. That leaves slim-line Barkevious Mingo, unknown quantity Kyle Van Noy and the so-far unimpressive Shea McClellin at the second level. A couple of years ago, I sniffed at the potentials of Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas and both were real good in their roles. In other words, unknown or unproven doesn’t mean incapable. But the injury to Jonathan Freeny and trade of Jamie Collins has the Pats low on experience.
Phil: The Patriots’ pass rush. They are in the top half of the league (12th) when it comes to sacks. Pretty good. But they just traded away one of their most effective blitzers, and outside of Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long they don't have a player -- inside or outside -- who has generated consistent pressure. Dont'a Hightower has been effective when asked to get into opposing backfield, but his role may now change with Collins gone. Is their perceived lack of rush a scheme thing? Or is it personnel? At some point, one would think, they'll want to knock a passer off his spot. Will they be able to?
FIRST-HALF OPPONENT ALL-STARS
Tom: 1) Cardinals RB David Johnson. Sixteen carries, 89 yards and four catches for 43 yards. The guy helped keep the Cardinals in the game (along with Carson Palmer and especially Larry Fitz at the end).
2) Bills LB Zach Brown. He had 17 combined tackles in the meeting that resulted in a Patriots shutout at Gillette.
3) Bengals QB Andy Dalton. As big a deal as we made about Landry Jones and the Steelers, the young fella still threw an end-zone pick. Dalton actually had the Bengals ahead in the third quarter at Gillette.
4) Steelers' WR Antonio Brown/RB LeVeon Bell. They combined for 268 yards from scrimmage and kept the Steelers game interesting.
Phil: 1) Bills LB Zach Brown: He was going against a shorthanded Patriots offense, but Brown put together a freaky performance as he led the Bills to a shutout win in Week 4. He finished with 17 tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble. There may not be many standout defense performances against the Patriots this year, but this was one of them.
2) Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald: Very nearly the reason the Patriots began their season with a loss, Fitzgerald came on strong at the end and finished with eight catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns, including one ridiculously-coordinated score with Logan Ryan in tight coverage.
3) Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry: The Dolphins made their Week 2 matchup at Gillette Stadium a competitive one for two reasons: They knocked Jimmy Garoppolo out of the game and the Patriots had no answer for Landry, who caught 10 of 11 targets for 135 yards and forced three missed tackles. Against Malcolm Butler, who is having another Pro Bowl-level season, Landry caught all five of his targets for 101 yards.
BIGGEST SECOND-HALF POTHOLE
Tom: The success malaise. The Patriots are practically competing against themselves at this point. Since Brady’s been back they haven’t had less than a double-digit win. The competition is out there and the road won’t be this easy. They need to get in a street fight at some point.
Phil: Injuries. In a remarkable reversal from last season, the Patriots have had a long run of good health to start the year. It's a credit to their people behind the scenes as they are as advanced as any team in the league when it comes to their nutritional and training practices. But there is only so much they can control. Luck has been a factor as well. If an injury were to strike at one or more of their thinner positions -- offensive tackle, linebacker, receiver, tight end -- that looks like one of the only things that could derail their season.
Tom: Stephen Gostkowski. There are a couple of candidates aside from the Pro Bowl kicker – Jamie Collins who was such a disappointment they traded him and Cyrus Jones being unable to carve a niche is another – but Gostkowski’s early-season accuracy travails are the most foreboding. Not loving Jabaal Sheard’s work either.
Phil: Jamie Collins. This isn't so much because of his play. He was good in coverage, and as mentioned above, he's a highly-effective pass-rusher. This is because, for a multitude of reasons, he did not make himself indispensable to their run at a Super Bowl. For anyone watching the Patriots on a weekly basis, knowing that one of its best playmakers and more unique athletes is now in Cleveland has to qualify as a monster disappointment.
Tom: Jimmy Garoppolo playing like an absolute beast in his six quarters of football. The first-half performance against the Dolphins until he got his shoulder crushed was high-level “Are you s****** me?!” stuff. His 496 yards and four touchdown passes in his brief tour of duty kindled a million fiery takes. Martellus Bennett being the best Martellus Bennett anyone could have hoped for is also a pleasant development if you like the Patriots.
Phil: Stephen Gostkowski. To see the best kicker in football over the last three seasons go through what he did took the entire region aback. His 7-for-7 performance in difficult conditions last weekend was a positive sign that he's figured things out.
Tom: Marcus Cannon. Now seemingly entrenched at right tackle even if Sebastian Vollmer comes back, Cannon deserves a nod for perseverance, getting himself in outstanding shape and blocking out the criticism that truly bothers him when he hears of it.
Phil: Marcus Cannon. There is no close second. He lost weight, used his length to his advantage, and turned himself into one of the team's best blockers -- in the passing game or the running game.
QUOTE OF THE HALF YEAR
Tom: “One more and I got 69. Only you know what I mean, baby." – Rob Gronkowski speaking to ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss when he approached the Patriots touchdown record.
Phil: ”I do like outer space a lot, and after watching ‘The Martian’ I’m trying to science the [expletive] out of this game plan." - Martellus Bennett, discussing his appreciation for NASA and his off-the-field work habits
PLAY OF THE HALF YEAR
Tom: Tom Brady’s cloud-scraping, Jeff Blake-channeling, 53-yard bomb on third-and-13 to deflate and defeat the Bills in Buffalo.
Phil: Rob Gronkowski broke five tackles on a 34-yard catch in the first quarter of New England's Week 5 win over the Browns. He was stopped short of the end zone, but after doing very little in the way of receiving before that play, it was an indication that he was feeling like himself again.
Tom: Patrick Chung. Consideration also given to Donta Hightower who came up with sack-safeties in back-to-back weeks and Malcolm Butler who just fights every week like a pit bull against the best athletes on the planet, but Chung’s versatility, attitude and production to me has been so steady and consistently high that he’s my guy.
Phil: Dont’a Hightower. He missed Week 2 and 3, but when he's been on the field and healthy, he's consistently changed games with his play. Rushing the passer (he forced two safeties in two weeks), setting the edge, filling running lanes, in coverage -- he's done it all, and he's done it all well.
Tom: Nate Solder. Certainly, this past week there was pressure from his side against the Bills. Not all of that was Solder’s fault, but it wasn’t a great game. Still, really good bounce-back from him from the biceps injury in 2015 and at times he’s been dominant.
Phil: Nate Solder. Back after missing most of last season, Solder has been a force on the left side. He has some down moments in protecting Brady's blind side at times in the last two weeks, but the large majority of his games have been clean performances highlighted by dominating blocks in the running game. He's done it all while helping rookie left guard Joe Thuney get adjusted to the pro game.
COACH OF THE HALF YEAR
Tom: Dante Scarnecchia. The offensive line coach has returned and so has the Patriots running game. Meanwhile, the fact the offense hasn’t yet thrown a pick has to trace back in large part to protection as well.
Phil: Dante Scarnecchia. He's taken a rookie, two second-year players (David Andrews and Shaq Mason) and a backup tackle and turned them into one of the team's strongest position groups. They were able to clear running room when the team needed it early in the season, and since Brady's return, they've provided him enough time to perform as the best quarterback in the league. Not bad for a guy who's just out of retirement. While he's mellowed somewhat, according to players, he's still incredibly demanding - and it's working.
WHY ISN'T ANYONE TALKING ABOUT.... AWARD
Tom: At the halfway point, the Patriots have not one but two players averaging better than 20 yards per catch – Gronk (22.0) and Chris Hogan (20.6). Five players have finished the season with more than 20 yards per catch since 2010. None were tight ends. Two were DeSean Jackson.
Phil: Devin McCourty is playing as arguably the best safety in the league through eight games. Typically asked to play the deep part of the field, he does more than defend against deep passes and line up his teammates -- though those duties are critical to the Patriots defense. He's covered receivers and tight ends when needed, allowing just eight catches in 338 snaps in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. He's also one of the most dependable tacklers at his position, having missed just one all season in 43 chances. Minnesota's Harrison Smith, Arizona's Tony Jefferson and Baltimore's Eric Weddle all are in the conversation for best safety in the NFL, but McCourty is certainly in that category and may be No. 1.