Patriots Report Card: Defense bails out Brady & Co.
Defense bails out Brady & Co.
Embrace the ugliness. That's what the Patriots may be forced to do as they grow accustomed to life without some of their top offensive weapons. With Dion Lewis out for the year, Julian Edelman potentially gone for the remainder of the regular season, and Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson dealing with new ailments, wins like Monday night's over the Bills -- where a scattershot offensive performance was bailed out by a dominant defensive one -- may be more of the rule rather than the exception. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense executed well enough that they moved into the No. 1 spot in terms of points allowed in the NFL (18.2). Offensively, the team seemed to go in the opposite direction, and Tom Brady was fortunate to leave with his good health in tact. This week's grades reflect the very different tales of these two sides of the ball.
The injuries have piled up, certainly, and there's a temptation to bump this grade up to account for the fact that it was an offense without some of its best pieces. But this is the new reality for this unit, and they understand they're going to have to adapt. With a focus on shutting down Rob Gronkowski -- something Belichick surely would have done had he been on the other side -- Bills coach Rex Ryan was able to thwart New England's clear-cut No. 1 option in the passing game. Amendola made strong contributions in key moments, particularly his 41-yard catch-and-run that set up a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, but he lasted just three quarters after taking on an increased workload, further stressing an already banged-up group. The running game performed right at its level for the season against Buffalo's stout front (3.9 yards per carry), but that's good for just the 23rd best average in the league. With Brady's protection hampered by miscommunication issues at times, it was difficult for the team to establish any kind of consistent offensive momentum. But by limiting their turnovers and capitalizing in key situational moments -- James White's touchdown at the end of the second quarter, and his second score that came as a result of a savvy hurry-up play -- Josh McDaniels' group did enough for win No. 10.
There were more than a few moments when Brady simply didn't have an opportunity to make a play. On several occasions, Brady determined rather quickly that his best option on a given passing play was to spike the ball into the turf at a receiver's feet. Live to see another down, was the thinking. With moving pieces all around him, he completed a season-low 51.3 percent of his passes and averaged a season-low 7.1 yards per attempt. His interception, a deep attempt to undrafted rookie Chris Harper, was an ill-advised decision, but otherwise he took care of the ball and absorbed big hits in order to try to move the ball with any kind of effectiveness. Though the numbers did not look good, considering who he had to work with and how much time he had to work, Brady's ability to not allow the game to get out of control deserves credit.
TIGHT END: C+
The Bills, specifically corner Stephon Gilmore, said last week they had a plan to slow down Gronkowski. He wasn't wrong. Throwing a variety of looks at the All-Pro tight end, including variations of double-teams, they held him to two catches for just 37 yards. Linebacker Nigel Bradham, corner Ronald Darby and defensive end Jerry Hughes all had shots at Gronkowski, with a 27-yard completion on Bradham serving as the one significant blow the Patriots dealt the Bills in that regard. Gronkowski lined up wide on Darby in the first quarter and boxed him out for a 10-yard completion, but that look was not a factor for the Patriots as the game went on. Despite his lack of production in the passing game, Gronkowski's importance to the offense overall was reflected in that he played 100 percent of the snaps for just the second time this season. In a sign of just how real the need is for the Patriots to find other viable targets in the passing game, Scott Chandler out-snapped Michael Williams, 35-to-24, for the first time since Week 2. Chandler caught one pass for three yards and was used as a blocker just under 50 percent of the time he was on the field.
Amendola carried this group with his nine-catch, 117-yard performance. He worked deftly over the middle, using his quickness to create separation and his speed to run by linebackers waiting for him in the second level when the Bills turned to their zone defense. He left in the fourth quarter with a knee injury, but according to Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran, it's not expected to be a long-term issue. That's good news for the Patriots, who could ill afford to lose the player who at the moment is their best slot option. Aaron Dobson figured to have a bigger role after McDaniels was able to game plan knowing Edelman would be out, but he left with an ankle injury after 22 snaps and an impressive 17-yard grab. Brandon LaFell's usage was relatively curious in this one, as he appeared to be leaned on more heavily after Dobson's departure. He played 48 snaps by game's end and tallied four grabs for 66 yards. He once again used his strength with the ball in his hands to pick up a total of 42 of his receiving yards after the catch. In an interview with WEEI on Tuesday, Brady explained that he liked the way Chris Harper performed in his first game since Week 1. The undrafted rookie had a long gain negated by a holding penalty, but more time with Brady could result in more targets. If receiver Keshawn Martin (hamstring) is able to get healthy before Sunday's game in Denver, he could be leaned on if Amendola and Dobson are forced to miss any time.
RUNNING BACK: B
White's two scores -- the first two of his career -- came in critical moments and showed that he may have improved his ability to run through contact since his rookie season. On both touchdowns he fought through would-be tacklers to get into the end zone. After the game he admitted he became stronger this offseason in order to make himself harder to tackle, though he did so without gaining any weight. He only had four touches in the win, but he made the most of them. LeGarrette Blount, who played a minimal role in Week 2 against the Bills, carried 16 times for 56 yards (3.5 yards per carry). Meanwhile Brandon Bolden ran four times for 15 yards, and showed some burst getting to the line of scrimmage on a night when running lanes were hard to come by.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-
Brady was hit 10 times on the night, and it felt as though that number could have been higher. Early in the game, on the team's first drive, he finished a handful of plays on his back. Cameron Fleming got the start at right tackle while David Andrews maintained his starting role at center. It didn't take long for either player to make his way to the sideline, however, as Sebastian Vollmer and Bryan Stork filled in, respectively. For Andrews, the 44 snaps he missed were the first he sat out all season. Eventually he came back in at center and Stork moved to guard as the team attempted to find its best combination. In hist first game back Marcus Cannon had a tough go, racking up three penalties (two were enforced) and looking out of sorts on several plays in pass protection. This was as healthy as the Patriots offensive line had been in some time -- with Vollmer, Cannon and Stork all on the field simultaneously -- but it appeared as though their lack of on-the-field time together thus far this season led to some communication issues and breakdowns in the passing game. As they continue to get experience alongside one another, one would think they would get their issues resolved as they have in the past after experiencing some difficulty.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Any time the Patriots can create a turnover that leads to points in the kicking game, that's going to boost this unit's grade. Those might be referred to as what Belichick sometimes calls "bonus points," and that's exactly what they got when 6-foot-2, 220-pound undrafted rookie Brandon King -- who played some defensive tackle at Auburn thanks to his athleticism and power -- stripped Bills returner Leodis McKelvin in the third quarter, leading to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Punter Ryan Allen had a difficult night getting distance on some of his kicks, and Gostkowski missed his first field-goal try of the season (a 54-yarder), but all in all, with the turnover and with a pair of field goals in what proved to be a one-possession game, it was a solid performance by Joe Judge's unit.
The Patriots defense has picked a pretty good time to be playing some of its best football of the season. Players admit it: Sometimes there are games where the offense will win it, other times the defense has to pick the team up. Monday night against the Bills was one of those other times. Against the No. 2 rushing offense in the league, Patricia's unit held Buffalo to 3.1 yards per carry and racked up several key negative plays in the fourth quarter to snuff out the Bills comeback attempt. Despite a few breakdowns in coverage, this was another rock-solid performance. Whenever linebacker Jamie Collins returns from his illness, expect the group to continue to take steps forward.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The goal was to keep quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the pocket to prevent him from a) picking up yards with his legs and b) extending plays and finding receivers who've been given inordinate amounts of time to uncover. For the most part, the Patriots front accomplished that goal while still generating pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, the team accumulated three sacks and 22 quarterback hurries on 43 drop-backs. Near the top of the league in sacks, Chandler Jones made his presence felt in the running game, and Jabaal Sheard appears to be back to full strength after missing three weeks with an ankle injury. After playing 25 snaps against the Giants, he got 48 snaps against the Bills and made the most of them while also providing quick breathers for Jones and Rob Ninkovich. The rotation on the interior once again got strong results with Akiem Hicks, Malcom Brown, Dominique Easley (one sack, one quarterback hit) and Alan Branch all turning in positive performances.
With Jamie Collins out, it was Jonathan Freeny who continued to get the bulk of the work next to Dont'a Hightower. Seemingly more comfortable in coverage with each passing week, Freeny allowed just two catches for 19 yards on four targets to running back LeSean McCoy and one target to tight end Charles Clay. He was beaten by McCoy on a rub route, but was helped by Devin McCourty who broke up a would-be touchdown. Jerod Mayo had what was his best game of the season in a well-defined role as part of the Patriots base defense. In 16 snaps, he had a handful of stand-out plays, including one where he helped blow up Buffalo's blocking on a stretch run to the right side of the field, allowing Freeny and safety Patrick Chung to finish the play off for a loss of yards. Hightower played every snap and finished with a pair of quarterback hurries.
Had Taylor not underthrown his targets on a handful of deep balls, this grade may have taken a bit more of a hit, but overall the results on Monday night spoke for themselves. Sammy Watkins was rendered largely useless in man-to-man coverage by Malcolm Butler, and Logan Ryan continued his consistent season by putting the clamps on No. 2 wideout Robert Woods. Even when Taylor was able to fight through arm tackles and extend plays, he simply couldn't find open targets. Tavon Wilson deserves a good deal of credit for his role as essentially the team's No. 3 corner with Justin Coleman out with a hand injury. He was targeted five times and allowed four receptions, but the Bills totaled just 22 yards on those plays as Wilson's strong tackling ability limited receivers to just nine yards total after the catch. He was involved in one breakdown in coverage where it appeared as though he and Malcolm Butler were not on the same page, but otherwise it was a strong night for the former second-round pick, who was also used effectively as a blitzer. McCourty's touchdown-saving play showed his unusual range in the deep middle portion of the field and may have been in the back of Taylor's mind when his deep throws came up short. What this unit has done in coverage with two corners and a mess of talented safeties has been nothing short of impressive.