Perry’s Report Card: Acing test after short week of cramming
Acing test after short week of cramming
What the Patriots did on Thursday night against the Texans may rank as one of the best regular-season coaching performances that Bill Belichick and his staff have ever put together.
Just look at the circumstances: On a short week, with nothing but a couple of walk-throughs to plan, with a rookie quarterback who missed out on reps in training camp while the two passers ahead of him got the bulk of the attention, against a playoff team with one of the best defensive players of this generation, the Patriots dominated.
The result was a 27-0 victory that put them at 3-0, and thanks to a Jets loss on Sunday, guaranteed them to be in first place in the AFC East when Tom Brady returned from his suspension.
Let's get to the grades . . .
The fact that the Patriots were able to execute newly-installed plays and execute those plays without any real practice time is a credit to Patriots players. Jacoby Brissett ran the counter option out of the pistol -- looking a little bit like a Navy quarterback in so doing -- and his 27-yard score came off of a naked boot. Those were plays the team had not run before, but the timing on them was picture perfect. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also got creative in handing the ball to receiver Julian Edelman (three attempts) and tight end Martellus Bennett (one). The Patriots gave punter Ryan Allen more work than they would typically like, and they were 0-for-2 on third down in the red zone, but with the flow of the game such that it was, they didn't need points on every drive so long as they took care of the football. They did, winning the turnover battle, 3-0.
Brissett was just 1-for-7 on passes that traveled beyond 10 yards in the air, completing 11-of-19 total for 103 yards. His biggest contributions came with his legs (six rushes for 50 yards, not including two kneeldowns) and as a decision-maker. Running back James White put it perfectly after the game: "He went out there and tried not to do anything amazing. Just did what he had to do and moved the chains for the offense." Brissett was not nearly as accurate as the two quarterbacks who will be ahead of him on the depth chart starting Week 5, and he was actually less effective when he was not pressured than when he was, but he got his teammates in and out of the huddle, executed the conservative game plan, and didn't give the football away -- other than when he gave it to Belichick on the sidelines following his touchdown scamper. All in all, it was a memorable day for the 23-year-old.
RUNNING BACK: A
LeGarrette Blount has been a workhorse back through three weeks, and the Patriots have needed him to be. He carried 24 times for 105 yards after a career-high 29 attempts just four days prior against the Dolphins. Not bad for an almost-30-year-old-back who suffered a season-ending hip injury in 2015. A whopping 84 of his yards came after contact, according to Pro Football Focus, including the majority of his 41-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that helped seal the game. At 250 pounds, he is a punishing runner when he gets to the second level, and it's rare for him to lose a one-on-one battle with a defensive back after he's built some momentum.
There were only 13 catchable passes thrown by Brissett in this one so there wasn't much of an opportunity for Patriots wideouts to impact the game. Still, it was clear who Brissett felt most comfortable throwing to. Edelman saw six targets and was the intended receiver on a pass-interference penalty, while Bennett saw three targets and was the intended receiver on two separate interference calls. Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell each had drops in the game, but they also turned in receptions of grreater than 20 yards. And though Danny Amendola played just 13 snaps as the Patriots continue to manage his workload, he caught both of his targets, and both went for first downs.
TIGHT END: B
Rob Gronkowski saw just 14 snaps in his first game action since suffering a hamstring injury back in August. He ran one route and saw one target, but Brissett's pass to the All-Pro in the end zone sailed over his head and out of bounds. Despite his limited workload, Gronkowski did make an impact as a blocker. He was in on Blount's one-yard touchdown run, and he even took a turn sealing off Texans defensive lineman JJ Watt. Bennett was once again one of the team's best run-blockers, and he got some work in on Watt as well. Though there were only two catches for 10 yards out of this group -- both courtesy of Bennett -- it was a good showing. And don't forget about fullback James Develin, who played in 23 of 62 snaps and continued to be a factor in New England's power running game as a lead blocker.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
To render JJ Watt a non-factor is no easy task, but this group was able to do it by throwing a variety of different looks his way. The Patriots generally stayed away from the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, but he saw a variety of single and double-teams. He even saw one triple-team. Had Watt been further removed from back surgery, he may have racked up more than the one hurry he generated, but give credit where it's due: offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia had his guys ready to go. Shaq Mason played the entirety of the game, and though he allowed the lone sack of the game, he also helped spring the play of the game but cutting linebacker Bernardrick McKinney on Brissett's 27-yard score. Marcus Cannon and Joe Thuney both picked up penalties, but all in all, this was another solid showing, both in the running game and pass protection, against a very good front. Nate Solder's return continues to be perhaps one of the underrated storylines for this offense in 2016. He has been flawless in pass protection through the last two weeks after missing Week 1 with a hamstring injury.
Doesn't get much better than that for Matt Patricia's unit. Their first order of business was to limit big plays to receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, and they did just that. Quarterback Brock Osweiler attempted just four passes that traveled 20 yards or more from the line of scrimmage, and he completed none of them. The Patriots went with safety-heavy sub packages for much of the game, using Devin McCourty (71 of 71 snaps), Duron Harmon (69) and Patrick Chung (68) for nearly the entire game. With McCourty and Harmon providing corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan help over the top, the Texans were coaxed into checking down to tight ends and backs for minimal games. As is often the case against Belichick and Patricia's defenses, Houston's strength was taken away, and it wasn't able to make the Patriots pay by running the football effectively against those lighter, defensive-back-heavy looks. It wasn't until the third quarter that they made their way into Patriots territory.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The Patriots will have to go one more game without defensive end Rob Ninkovich as he serves the last week of his suspension, but Chris Long has done a more than adequate job filling in, earning himself a regular role even after Ninkovich returns. He didn't record a sack, but he hurried Osweiler on five separate occasions and continues to be a general nuisance for opposing offensive linemen. Jabaal Sheard recorded his first two sacks of the season and added another pressure. Against the run, both Alan Branch and Malcom Brown were each in on two stuffs, and rookie Vincent Valentine continues to show up in a reserve role as he made a couple of solo tackles at the line of scrimmage in 20 snaps. Trey Flowers saw a heavy workload as he played in a career-high 43 snaps and recorded two quarterback hits, two run stuffs and a pass defensed.
Jamie Collins may have been the most dominant player on the field against the Texans, yet he didn't impact the game whatsoever as a pass-rusher. That just goes to show the myriad ways in which he can make his mark, which is exactly what he did on Houston running backs for the entirety of the night. He played in every snap, made 11 solo tackles and was in on five separate run-stuffs. His interception of Osweiler came after he smoothly dropped into coverage in the middle of the field, read the quarterbacks eyes, and made his break. He is the rare inside linebacker whose instincts and athletic ability allow him to knife between blockers as opposed to smash into them at full speed in order to blow up a play. That skill to read-and-react as he does has helped allow him to be as durable as he's been. Outside of an illness last year, he's missed just one game in his career.
The defensive game plan hinged on the performance of New England's corners and safeties, and they were up to the challenge. Logan Ryan was targeted nine times and allowed six catches, but Hopkins -- Ryan's primary responsibility -- ended up with just four grabs for 56 yards. Malcolm Butler bounced back after what was his toughest game since Week 1 of 2015, essentially pitching a shutout. Any catch he did allow was on a quick check-down underneath. He broke up an Osweiler pass on fourth down in the fourth quarter that looked eerily similar to his Super Bowl interception. He said it was the exact same concept, only with Cyrus Jones issuing the jam and not Brandon Browner, and he couldn't believe Osweiler threw it. Butler was disappointed in himself for not picking it off -- he wanted to make a great play, not a good one -- but he was one of Belichick's best defenders in this one. It may have been because of the matchups, but Jones seems to have surpassed Coleman as the No. 3 corner as he saw 33 snaps to Coleman's zero. How the corner depth chart shakes out will be worth watching when the Patriots take on Buffalo in Week 4.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Not only was this performance nearly blemish-free, it was the reason why the Patriots win was as one-sided as it was. Punter Ryan Allen put together the best game of his career, punting seven times, dropping all seven inside the 20. (His fourth was marked at the 20, but it fell inches inside the yard-marker.) None of them were returned. On kickoffs, a play the NFL has tried to slowly phase out of the game, special teams coach Joe Judge's players were flying around and making plays. Brandon Bolden and Nate Ebner both caused fumbles -- recovered by Harmon and Jordan Richards, respectively -- that resulted in Patriots touchdowns. Stephen Gostkowski had three more kicks returned, but he continued his streak of not having a single return make it past the 25-yard line. Cyrus Jones muffed two of three punt-return opportunities, something that plagued him at times during training camp, knocking this overall grade down a hair. Amendola saw one return in the game, but that number could rise if the team feels like Jones needs more seasoning in that role before he's handed the reins.