Patriots report card: Brady gets high grade in homecoming
Patriots report card: Brady gets high mark in homecoming
When the Patriots got back to the locker room after Sunday's 35-17 win over the Bengals, there were plenty of acknowledgements that things hadn't gone quite as smoothly as they'd hoped.
"Still a lot of things we've gotta clean up," said coach Bill Belichick.
"Took us a little time to get going," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels told Tom Brady.
It wasn't perfect, certainly not in the first half. But once the Patriots were able to settle in offensively, and once they found the right game plan defensively, they separated themselves from what was an inferior opponent in terms of talent.
This week's grades help tell the story.
The Patriots had three drives that didn't result in points. There were issues up front as they allowed Brady to be sacked three times, and they averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. But when Brady was as accurate as he was on Sunday, the rest of the offense looks pretty good as a result. Brady completed 29-of-35 passes, and his first three incompletions were thrown away to avoid sacks. That means on passes he was looking to complete, he hit on 90 percent. The Bengals had no answer to New England's short-to-intermediate passing game with Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett and James White, particularly in the red zone, and so it made sense for McDaniels to keep going back to it. Had the offensive line gotten out to a better start, this might've been the team's second consecutive 'A' effort.
What is there to say about Tom Brady that hasn't been said? His accuracy was remarkable against Cincinnati, highlighted by his touchdown throw -- low and away from the defender -- to Gronkowski. What was also staggering was just how well he capitalized on favorable situations presented to him by Cincinnati's defense. Brady completed 88.5 percent of his passes when not pressured, per Pro Football Focus, and he completed 21 of his 22 attempts that were targeted anywhere from behind the line of scrimmage to nine yards down the field. During the game, he became No. 4 on the NFL's all-time list of completions, behind Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. He was very good, once again, and through two weeks of play coming off of his four-game suspension, he looks as dialed-in as ever.
RUNNING BACK: B+
White's two scores came on what was the exact same concept, the Bengals just couldn't stop it. On the first score, Gronkowski lined up on White's side, and his presence forced linebacker Karlos Dansby to hesitate briefly before chasing after White. On the second, the Bengals were more ready for it; Dansby simply wasn't fast enough to keep up. White may not be the athletic specimen that Dion Lewis was at his height last season, but White has dependable hands -- he caught all eight targets sent his way on Sunday -- and he's normally reliable in blitz-pickup. One of Brady's three sacks on the day came when White almost whiffed on a block in pass protection, but for the most part, he continued to solidify himself as the team's top "sub" back with Lewis out. As a runner, which White's worked on a great deal since last season, he left something to be desired (seven carries, 19 yards). LeGarrette Blount carried 13 times for 50 yards and over 80 percent of his yards came after contact. When the Patriots get Blount some running room, he can be as punishing as any back in the league, but this marked the second straight week in which Blount has averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry. Normally, Blount's unnecessary roughness penalty late in the game would warrant a downgrade, but Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict stomped on the back of Blount's leg, prompting a shove from Blount, which earned a flag. But in that situation, it's hard to blame Blount for reacting in the way that he did.
Chris Hogan checked in with the lone explosive play from this group on Sunday. He saw one target on the day -- it came on the same kind of over route that Gronkowski killed Cincinnati with -- and turned it into a 39-yard gain after being led perfectly by Brady. Hogan also picked up a penalty, however, as did Julian Edelman. The overall numbers may be a little down for this group (seven catches for 99 yards versus the Bengals) as two tight end sets have transformed the offense over the last two weeks. There will be days -- like the one Hogan had against the Browns -- where this unit has more production, but Sunday wasn't one of them. Danny Amendola continues to be used sparingly, as he caught two passes for 30 yards in 26 snaps. One wonders if the team may eventually try to do something similar with Edelman, though to a lesser extent. He played 58 snaps against Cinci and caught four of his seven targets for 30 yards. Having both Edelman and Amendola healthy and available for the stretch run of the regular season and playoffs would figure to be a priority.
TIGHT END: A-
It was a career day for Gronkowski, who pulled down 162 yards receiving. His first catch of the day was one of his most impressive in that when saw Brady extend the play, he simply got up the field. The scramble drill resulted in a 32-yard gain and helped set up Stephen Gostkowski's 46-yarder. The Bengals had difficulty keeping track of Gronkowski for a good chunk of the afternoon for some reason. He ran freely through their secondary and found openings on their zone defenses for gains of 38 (twice) and 29, and he made an impressive catch at the goal line for his first score of the season. Martellus Bennett wasn't quite as dynamic, but he was effective in the short area of the field catching all five targets sent his way for 48 yards. This grade comes down a bit due to the fact that it wasn't the dominating run-blocking performance we've come to expect from these two. Also, Gronkowski's taunting penalty at the end of the game wasn't ideal. Belichick and his staff always want players to play penalty-free, regardless of any chippiness that may start with the opponents.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
The Bengals gave this unit all kinds of trouble early in the game. They got pressure off the edge, they bull-rushed up the gut, and they brought the occasional blitz that worked in their favor. Shaq Mason got beat for one of Brady's sacks, and the other came when Nate Solder appeared to be expecting some help from Joe Thuney on the inside. Thuney was a little late to look back to his left, and by then it was too late. David Andrews' man was responsible for a pair of hits on Brady, and he was beat on an outside run play that went nowhere. Credit Dante Scarnecchia and his group for getting things straightened out in the second half.
This grade may look like I'm still sitting on the fence trying to figure out what they heck went on out there. Here's the thing: Do you dock the defense and coordinator Matt Patricia for going into the game with a plan that allowed Andy Dalton and AJ Green to thrive, or do you credit them for getting things solved in the second half? Adjustments may have been hard to implement given that the communications equipment was down, but with input from captains Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty, Patricia and Belichick eventually got changed what needed to get changed. We went into those game-plan alterations in detail Monday.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-
This wasn't a standout performance from this group in terms of pressure -- I had only Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long with quarterback pressures -- but it didn't need to be once the team shifted its coverage in the second half. For yet another week, the Patriots had a relatively mobile quarterback to keep in check, and for the most part they were able to keep their rush-lane integrity. Dalton was sacked 17 times coming into the game, however, and so it may be cause for some concern that he wasn't hurried more often than he was. The Patriots could've benefited from a little heat on Dalton as he picked apart their zones for two quarters and change. Their work against the run wasn't quite what it was against Cleveland the week prior, but Ninkovich, Malcom Brown and Alan Branch all came up with at least two run stuffs, and the combination of Branch, Long and Anthony Johnson helped earn a turnover on downs when the Bengals went for it on fourth-and-goal at the one. Long was particularly jacked up about the play, noting it had been a while since he had been in on a goal-line stand. That he tore up the field high-stepping after making the stop -- a bit like Willie McGinest after he drilled Edgerrin James back in the day -- was an indicator of just how excited he was.
Dont'a Hightower's all-around performance has been well-documented, but the timing of his blitz to pick up a safety was as good as it gets. To diagnose what he saw from the Bengals, see Elandon Roberts occupy the center, and then attack the open area was the kind of impressive-yet-expected type of play he can turn in two or three times a game when healthy. Roberts continued to flash his physicality at the goal line by stuffing a Gio Bernard run that forced him to the sidelines with an apparent injury. (He returned for the start of the second half.) With Collins out, the rookie sixth-rounder served as effective insurance, particularly in the run game. Barkevious Mingo saw some more significant time as a defender in this one. He was beaten on a double move from Bernard -- a difficult play for someone who has played sparingly on defense since joining the Patriots -- but he also recorded a run stuff.
This grade gets a boost due to the fact that safety Devin McCourty was partially responsible for the mid-game adjustments that helped the Patriots defense figure itself out in the third quarter. His ability to see the whole field, understand where the breakdowns were and relay that information back to the sideline was part of the reason the team opted to get a little more aggressive and use more man-to-man looks beginning in the third quarter. Malcolm Butler put to rest, in my opinion, any doubts as to how he's feeling by getting his hands on the football on four separate occasions. He allowed just two receptions on seven targets for 13 yards. He was matched up primarily on Brandon LaFell, and he was in coverage for LaFell's touchdown, but he played like a No. 1 corner. Eric Rowe had himself a nice day in his first game as a member of the Patriots. He got a little handsy with AJ Green in the red zone, but it wasn't called. The pass breakup, which he said came after he saw Green's eyes get big, ended up being an important play. With his size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), his strength at the line of scrimmage could be useful against bigger receivers like Brandon Marshall and DeVante Parker. Logan Ryan saw his share of Green as well, especially in the first half, but he checked rookie Tyler Boyd in the second. It wasn't Ryan's best day, but he was the victim of two very good throws from Dalton that landed in the arms of Green and Boyd with Ryan tight on them.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
The missed extra point is what many will take away from this one as far as the Patriots kicking game is concerned, and rightfully so. Stephen Gostkowski hasn't played up to his standards of late, he's admitted, and it's a stretch of which he knows he'll have to work his way out. We've seen him kicking frequently on the Gillette Stadium turf of late, and I'd expect that to continue as he looks to iron things out. Other than that kick, as concerning as it may be, this was a pretty good day from the "teams" units. The Bengals average starting field position was the 22.9, and that was bumped up due in part to touchbacks from Gostkowski once the Patriots began playing with a lead and had proven themselves to be more stout defensively. It wasn't until Gostkowski's final kick of the day that the Bengals brought a kickoff past the 25-yard line -- a rarity for the Patriots this season. The team got good returns from Edelman on punts (17 yards, 16 yards on a free kick, nine yards, 23 yards), and it picked up a 30-yard return from DJ Foster. Fans will remember this missed extra point, and while it shouldn't be discounted, it was actually a positive day for special teams coach Joe Judge's group across the board.