Perry's Report Card: Belichick, Brady pass Colts unexpected test
Perry's Report Card: Belichick, Brady pass Colts unexpected test
It wasn't the kind of win that everyone was expecting, but it was the kind of win that Bill Belichick appreciates. The Patriots coach got timely performances from an offense whose best weapons weren't at their best, a defense that was without one of its leaders, and a special teams unit that proved itself to be one perhaps one of the most well-prepared in the league. That may not have been enough to satiate the bloodthirsty masses in New England who sought revenge for Deflategate. But it was the kind of game that may have taught the Patriots something about themselves, which Belichick values.
The Patriots had their share of success in both the running and the passing games, but it was their overall efficiency that was up-and-down. They scored on five of their first six possessions, and the outlier was an interception that was gifted to Colts safety Mike Adams. For all intents and purposes, they moved the ball at will. In the second half, it was a different story, particularly late. They continued to pile up the points with touchdown passes to Rob Gronkowski and LeGarrette Blount in the third and early-fourth quarters, but they ended up punting on five of their seven non-kneeldown drives. Still, given the injuries to their offensive line and running back Dion Lewis, 34 points on the road is nothing to sneeze at.
Tom Brady may not have been thrilled with his team's performance, but he had another stellar game. He posted his lowest completion percentage of the year to this point (62.2 percent), but he surpassed 300 yards for the third time this season on 23-of-37 passing and 8.4 yards per attempt. And although he threw his first interception of the year, that fell on the shoulders of receiver Julian Edelman, who bobbled the ball into the waiting arms of Colts safety Mike Adams in the second quarter. Brady completed three more deep passes (targeted 20 yards or more down the field) to Danny Amendola, Scott Chandler and Keshawn Martin, keeping his season percentage on those long tosses at 44 percent. (In 2007, he hit on 38 percent of those throws.) Brady also continued to show an ability to extend plays with his feet, something that has been a focus of his since last offseason. His touchdown pass to LeGarrette Blount in the fourth quarter came on a well-executed scramble drill. Rob Gronkowski and Dion Lewis combined for just 10 total touches on Sunday night, and yet, thanks in large part to Brady's work in the pocket, the Patriots still put up 34 points.
RUNNING BACK: B+
Dion Lewis was questionable to play at Lucas Oil Stadium due to an abdominal injury. While he was declared good to go, he did not appear to have quite the same explosiveness that he has had in recent weeks. Against linebackers who have struggled to cover in the passing game this season, Lewis had a relatively pedestrian day, catching three passes for 18 yards and rushing four times for 21 yards. As for the second half of New England's "Shake and Quake" running back duo, LeGarrette Blount was an impact player for the second consecutive game against the Colts run defense. He picked up 93 yards on 16 carries (a 5.8 yards-per-carry average), including 37 yards that came after contact. Blount's 38-yard touchdown run in the second quarter showed how dangerous he can be with a head of steam. Once he entered into the second level with some momentum, there wasn't a Colts defensive player that could catch him. Dwight Lowery almost did, but he gave a halfhearted attempt at a tackle near the goal line, perhaps understanding he would be dragged a ways if he clung too tightly. Blount also picked up his first receiving touchdown of his career to give the Patriots a 34-21 lead. That wasn't how the play was drawn up, but Blount gave Brady an option, and he capitalized when the ball came his way. While Blount was the more statistically-productive back, it was Lewis who still led the running back group in snaps Sunday, 39 snaps to 29.
This was one of the toughest groups to grade this week, particularly because of Edelman's two drops, one of which, as we mentioned, led to an interception return for a touchdown. Mistakes don't get much bigger than that. Still Edelman was one of the team's most important offensive players, answering Indy's long first touchdown drive of the game with a hard-earned score of his own. Edelman also put together one of the most impressive individual efforts of the game when he ran for two yards during a 4th-and-1 play that eventually led to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal before the end of the first half. Danny Amendola had what was by far his most productive game of the season, hauling in seven passes for 105 yards. Amendola had two big plays erased last week against the Cowboys so this kind performance wasn't all that far off, but his previous receiving high this season was 39 yards in a Week 3 win over the Jaguars. Keshawn Martin has pretty firmly cemented himself as the No. 3 receiver of this group, ahead of Aaron Dobson, who was inactive. While Martin may not have some of the same physical talent that Dobson possesses, he has the versatility to play both inside and out, and he's caught almost everything thrown his way since joining the Patriots. He has six grabs on seven targets for 95 yards and a touchdown. It will be interesting to see how the receiver group is deployed on game days when Brandon LaFell returns off the physically unable to perform list, which he's eligible to do this week.
TIGHT END: B
Opposing defenses haven't solved the riddle that is Rob Gronkowski, but they have opted to cover him in recent weeks, which has helped. That's the part of the explanation for the dropoff from Gronkowski's other-worldly rate of production from early in the season when the Steelers and Bills left him wide open at times. Gronkowski is still a matchup nightmare due to his size and athleticism, and he proved as much in the second half when he caught his first passes of the game and quickly put up 50 yards and a touchdown -- the 60th of his career. But credit the Colts with mixing up their looks when defending New England's most dangerous offensive weapon. They jammed him at the line at times. On others, he received a free release. He saw one-on-one coverage and he saw doubles. He saw man and zone. And by taking away Brady's quick throws -- the Colts forced Brady into his longest average snap-to-throw time of the season, according to our pal Mike Giardi -- Indy made it hard for Gronkowski to get going early. For the second straight week, Michael Williams out-snapped Scott Chandler, which made sense. Given the Patriots issues at offensive tackle, it was wise for the Patriots to keep their blocking tight end in the game to provide some help to his teammates on the edge. He didn't only block, though. He ran 10 routes on the night, including during the first three plays of the game. Williams told me last week he's certain teams expect run just about every time he's out there, even when he's lined up wide, as he was at times against the Colts.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
Let's be honest. The Colts did not provide all that much resistance. They came into the game on Sunday night with just six sacks, and after recording two more against the Patriots, they still sit at 28th in the league in that category. But, given the circumstances, the Patriots offensive line put together an impressive performance in Indy, which raised their grade. The plan was to go with Marcus Cannon at left tackle and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle -- at least to start -- but that experiment ended after just 11 plays when Cannon left the game with a toe injury. Vollmer then slid over to the left side, opening up right tackle for Cameron Fleming, who has been on the practice squad for the majority of the year. The communication did not suffer to the point where Brady was consistently in danger, and the young interior of the line continued to hold up. Josh Kline allowed his first quarterback hit of the season, according to Pro Football Focus, but it was another sturdy performance from the third-year man who played all but nine snaps in the game as he rotates between guard spots. Undrafted rookie center David Andrews once again played in every offensive play, something he's done all year. Ryan Wendell was inactive for the Patriots though he practiced without limitation in the week leading up to the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
It wasn't all about how the Patriots handled the botched fake punt, but that was part of the reason for why the Bill Belichick's special teams units graded out so well. The head coach spent the majority of his nearly 30-minute conference call on Monday discussing a wide variety of important plays in the kicking game -- all of which benefited the Patriots. Whether it was Jamie Collins' ridiculously-athletic (and timely) blocked kick, Rob Gronkowski's onside kick return, or how special teams coach Joe Judge and assistant Ray Ventrone had players ready for "gadgets" from the Colts side, Belichick seemed pleased when it came to that phase of the game. He didn't even get to the hustle shown by Josh Kline to flop on a loose onside kick, which saved the Patriots a possession, the four punts Ryan Allen knocked inside the Indy 20-yard line, or the two special teams tackles by undrafted rookie Brandon King. Overall it was a strong night for the Patriots in the third phase of the game, though special teams captain Matthew Slater suffered a knee injury late in the contest that bears watching.
After giving up 20 points to the Colts on Sunday night, the Patriots defense has now allowed just 26 points in the last two weeks. For the season, they are the No. 10 team in the NFL in terms of points allowed at 20.6. What made the performance of Matt Patricia's players so impressive in Indianapolis was that they were without key cogs at important positions. Dont'a Hightower missed the game with a rib injury, and corner Tarell Brown was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a foot injury before the game. The Colts deep receiving corps looked like it would be very difficult to matchup with due to the number of healthy corners currently on the Patriots roster, but New England's defense more than held its own against a banged-up Andrew Luck.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
The Patriots needed to get pressure from their front to help limit Indy's passing attack and they got it. Chandler Jones had his best game of the season, causing all kinds of havoc in the Colts backfield in the second half. He finished with 2.5 sacks, two more quarterback hits and two tackles for a loss often working against left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Dominique Easley, looking fully recovered from the hip injury he suffered in Week 1, also put together his best performance of the season with a half sack and five quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. Jabaal Sheard played just 15 snaps before leaving the game with an ankle injury, leaving most of the defensive end snaps to jones (74 snaps) and Rob Ninkovich (69 snaps), but the Patriots once again did their best to make the most of their depth up front. Sealver Siliga (35 snaps), Alan Branch (30), Malcom Brown (24) and Easley (27) all played significant roles. Akiem Hicks (15 snaps) recorded his first tackle as a member of the Patriots in this one, stuffing Frank Gore near the line of scrimmage.
Jamie Collins played all 80 defensive snaps for the Patriots and functioned as the signal-caller on defense. He had all kinds of responsibilities with Dont'a Hightower, but handled them well enough, finishing with five tackles, a pair of quarterback hurries, and a mind-bogglingly athletic extra point block in the fourth quarter. Collins has now played in all but 10 defensive snaps for the team this season. All 10 came in a blowout victory over the Jaguars. He has become an incredibly important chess piece for Belichick and Patricia's defense, and Hightower's absence on Sunday only further highlighted his value. In Hightower's place, it was Jonathan Freeny -- not Jerod Mayo or Jonathan Bostic -- who got the majority of reps at the second level. Freeny was in for 47 plays, compared to Mayo's 27. Bostic was a special teams contributor. (You may remember him as one of the two Patriots players lined up over Colts receiver Griff Whalen during Indy's failed fake punt attempt.)
The Colts had numbers that they could throw at the Patriots in the passing game. Between TY Hilton, Andre Johnson, Donte Moncrief, rookie first-round pick Phillip Dorsett and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, Luck had options. The Patriots, with just two corners who had significant experience in their system, opted to lean heavily on their safeties for a variety of jobs. Devin McCourty played in the deep part of the field, but he also lined up as a corner out wide. (He was called for a pass interference penalty on Dorsett at one point, a call he appeared to dispute.) Patrick Chung played his typical strong safety role, but he also covered Hilton near the line of scrimmage, earning praise from Belichick after the game for his work to limit Indy's No. 1. Malcolm Butler saw some time on Hilton, but he matched up with Moncrief, the Colts best deep threat, for the majority of the game and ended up tying his season-high with three pass breakups. He allowed a score to Moncrief on the Colts first drive of the game, but after that was solid. Logan Ryan played the whole game (80 snaps), joining Butler and McCourty, holding his own against Johnson and others. Credit Duron Harmon with allowing the Patriots some flexibility in their secondary. He played nearly the entire game (71 snaps), which allowed McCourty to at times perform duties other than roaming the deep part of the field. Justin Coleman, New England's third corner in this game, saw 18 snaps, and the former University of Tennessee slot man was not afraid to get physical with Hilton at times. Waiver-wire pickup Rashaan Melvin, who arrived to the Patriots on Wednesday of last week, was active but did not play defensively.