Curran: Patriots first-half report card
After nine games, the Patriots are 7-2. So taking stock of this team and handing out grades, what has to be underscored are the results for THIS season. Tom Brady was unanimous NFL MVP in 2010. He’s thrown 109 touchdowns and 24 picks this decade. Hold Brady’s performance so far -- 13 TDs and six picks -- to what Brady usually does and it’s a D. But looking at the team’s results, Brady’s role in it -- fourth-quarter comebacks against Buffalo and New Orleans, wiping out a 17-3 deficit after halftime against Miami -- and the fact that he’s working with a new set of targets bumps his grade up. Think about it, even when the Patriots looked awful and lost against the Jets and Bengals, the team was still driving to win or tie in both games. For Brady to be more than 2-to-1 in TD-INT ratio shows that he hasn’t allowed his irritation to allow him to just whip the ball anywhere and force it. Brady is positioned to have an historic second-half to this season because of the return and development of the receivers he got thrown into the pool with at the start of training camp.
RUNNING BACKS: B+
Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden have combined for 1,030 yards and are averaging 4.6 yards per carry between them. Throw in Shane Vereen’s 14-carry, 101-yard show against the Bills in Week 1 before he broke his wrist and the numbers swell. Production-wise, they have been excellent. Where they’ve lacked is in the nuances of blitz-pickup and protection and in being consistent threats out of the backfield. Since Vereen’s injury, Bolden became the de facto third-down back. He can’t catch too well. When Vereen returns (he had seven catches on 10 targets Week 1), so should the Patriots third-down potency out of the backfield.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B-
Julian Edelman drags this group’s grade up. He gets an A for his performance taking up the Welker slack after Danny Amendola went down. Consider the Week 2 games against the Jets. Edelman was targeted 18 times because Brady couldn’t risk going anywhere else. And Edelman caught 13 of them. Wasn’t pretty but the Patriots won because of Edelman as much as any player. Aaron Dobson was trending toward a D but his progress in recent weeks gets him to a C-plus. Kenbrell Thompkins was trending to a solid B but his decline drops him to a C. Amendola was an A-plus after Week 1 but getting the job done that day cost him his groin and the next few games. He checks in with a C on production despite his willingness to play hurt.
TIGHT ENDS: C
Can one realistically blame Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld and Matthew Mulligan for the lack of production over the first six games? Tight end was to be the hub around which the Patriots offense revolved. Then one tight end winds up in jail and the other has back surgery, an arm that won’t heal and business interests to cultivate and doesn’t play for the first six weeks. No wonder the offense stagnated and the tight end position gave the Patriots nine catches in the first six games. Rob Gronkowski has come back to lift the grade up to the C.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
Brady has been sacked 26 times so far. He’s taken more than 30 sacks just once since 2004 (32 in 2011). All of them aren’t on the offensive line. Coverage sacks are mixed in there. Breakdowns in protection by running backs are mixed in. But there have been some jailbreaks as well and they’ve come from every corner of the offensive line – Nate Solder (abused in Cincinnati), Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer. The early returns of Marcus Cannon filling in for Vollmer (broken leg, on IR) were encouraging. But consistency has been his weak spot, not ability. As run blockers, the group has been very good. And, as the season turns into November and December, that run-blocking ability will be even more important.
Stephen Gostkowski is probably having his best season. He’s made 22 of 23, he’s 2-of-2 from outside 50 yards, 38 of his 54 kickoffs have been touchbacks (70.4 percent when his career touchback percentage is well under 30 percent) and he’s made a field goal of 44 or more yards in every game but two. He also had game-winners against the Bills and Falcons and a game-tying field goal against the Jets forcing overtime.
The most-improved Patriot through nine games is Steve Gregory. The best Patriots defender so far is Devin McCourty. Between the two, there’s been a stabilization on the back end of the defense and a consistency that was lacking for much of the past three seasons. The free safety spot was a major question mark coming into the season but Gregory won out. Duron Harmon showed he was a capable and smart rookie replacement after Gregory’s thumb injury. Tavon Wilson’s fallen off the map.
Aqib Talib played at an A level until his hip injury. The group has slipped some since he’s been gone because players like Kyle Arrington -- who’s best off in the slot -- has been called on to play outside and Alfonzo Dennard is finding himself having to cover bigger, faster wideouts that Talib would often be deployed on. Arrington -- for all the crap that gets rained on him when a completion is made in his area -- is a very good all-around player. He was the man in coverage, though, on the worst defensive play of the first half and that was the third-and-23 completion to Marvin Jones in Cincinnati. And he sometimes has to be replaced by the more nimble Marquice Cole when Arrington’s hip-tightness and lack of makeup speed get exposed. Logan Ryan shows a lot of promise as a rookie. The return of Talib, hopefully for the Broncos, is going to make it fascinating to see how the Patriots can do against that explosive offense.
Jerod Mayo, after a slow start, was playing his best football after Vince Wilfork went down with an Achilles and teams tried to attack the middle of the defense. In pass coverage and as run-support, Mayo was let loose a little bit and was devastating until he blew out a pectoral against the Saints. Since then, Mayo’s contributions have been missed. Hightower may one day be able to juggle everything Mayo did but he proved in a short time that he isn’t ready quite yet. He’s a real liability against tight ends in coverage but he can get upfield and is helping the undermanned defensive line. Spikes continues to be a hit-or-miss run stopper who -- when he guesses right -- blows plays up. When he guesses wrong, he gets walled-off and caught behind plays. Having heard Phil Simms call Spikes the best run-stopper in the NFL, I could only surmise Simms must have seen a string of plays when Spikes guessed right. The combo of Dane Fletcher and Jamie Collins is still developing. I like Collins’ progress so far and he could open some eyes during crunch time this season.
DEFENSIVE ENDS: A-
We’ve seen Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones lose contain at a few costly junctures -- the Jets being a primary one -- but the two are the best bookend pair combining pass rush and playmaking skill the Patriots have had in a loooooong time. Jones’ sack of Drew Brees that helped get the ball back to the Patriots for their game-winning drive was the big play of the first half. Ninkovich is just a steady, versatile player who is becoming less like a poor man’s Mike Vrabel and is almost Vrabel 2.0 at this point.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES: B
Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork went down for the season in consecutive weeks and the Patriots have been up against it ever since. Kelly’s work early in the year was worthy of an A. Wilfork was -- for him -- pedestrian. Since they’ve been replaced by Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and -- as of last game -- Isaac Sopoaga, the rushing numbers for the opposition have skyrocketed but when it's come down to critical plays, those plays have often been made. This group might just make it through. And if they can, the Patriots can consider New York in February.
One can now see why the Patriots pulled the plug on Zoltan. The 46.4 gross average for Allen is very good and -- until the past couple of games -- his net had been very good. It currently stands at 39.9 which is still 2 yards better than Mesko’s net in 2012. Mesko punted 60 times last season and put 28 inside the opponent’s 20. Allen’s already punted 48 times and put far fewer inside the 20 percentage-wise (18 of 48). But the potency of the Patriots offense in 2012 and the field position Mesko was punting from had something to do with that.
RETURN GAME: B-
LeGarrette Blount is, incrementally, improving on kickoff returns. Personally, I don’t mind him at all back there and he’s starting to get a nice rhythm. Julian Edelman is always a dangerous return man and an X-factor in every game. His gambling makes me edgy at times, but overall he’ll make the team more plays than he will cost them.