Perry's Report Card: Brady given little time to work vs. Jets
Perry's Report Card: Brady given little time to work vs. Jets
Bill Belichick's decision to kick off at the beginning of Sunday's overtime period between the Patriots and Jets has garnered the bulk of the attention since his team lost its third game of the year, 26-20. But a look at the game film shows that there were plenty of other points at which this one went wrong for the Patriots. Both offensively and defensively, injuries forced the team to play with the equivalent of an arm tied around its back. Not only did personnel issues affect the on-the-field play of both of those units, but it altered the way the coaching staff approached its game plan. Taking a look at the big picture in the aftermath of this one, there's both good news and bad for New England. The good? The Patriots were able to push Sunday's contest to overtime despite looking thoroughly outmatched for the majority of the afternoon, and had their healthy regulars been able to hit on a few more plays, they may have come away with an unlikely victory on the road against a playoff-caliber club. Plus, they remain the No. 1 seed in the AFC and control their own destiny in Week 17. A win in Miami, and they have homefield advantage throughout. The bad? They suffered yet another critical injury when starting left tackle Sebastian Vollmer was carted off the field in the first quarter. The argument could be made that after Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, given the overall state of the offensive line, Vollmer was the team's most indispensable player. How did his loss hurt the overall performance of the offense? We'll take a look at that and more in this week's grades.
The Patriots knew what they had coming into this game -- or rather, what they didn't have. No Julian Edelman. No Danny Amendola. A banged-up Brandon LaFell, who injured his foot against the Titans the week before. A young offensive line matched up with one of the best defensive fronts in the league. Even with Brady at the helm and Gronkowski at their disposal, the Patriots offense was not a dependable unit. When the pressure could be taken off of that group, it was: Belichick opted too kick off to begin overtime; with almost two minutes and two timeouts at the end of the first half, they uncharacteristically took their foot off of the gas to head into the locker room. And when the window of opportunity opened a sliver, they tried to take advantage in unusual ways: As soon as they crossed into Jets territory for the first time, during their third drive of the game, they tried three consecutive trick plays in order to break a long one. Re-watching the game, their motives in that situation were relatively clear. "This might be one of our few chances to score," the play-calling seemed to say. "If we don't seize this opportunity, we may not get another." They put together one touchdown drive when they really needed it, which tied the game late in the fourth quarter, but otherwise, as Brady noted later, they were a long way off from tracking up and down the field. The reality is they didn't earn the opportunity to receive at the beginning of overtime.
Even when the Jets brought only three or four-man rushes, it seemed to be pretty clear to Brady that he wouldn't have much time to throw in this one. He was in check-down mode from the very start, sending four of his first five passes to running backs Brandon Bolden and James White. He had two consecutive opportunities to go long in the second quarter, hitting on the first for 30 yards with a perfect bucket throw to Gronkowski, who was single-covered on the sideline. The very next play, he overthrew his big tight end on a flea-flicker that would have beaten Darrelle Revis for a touchdown had it connected. Brady made another impressive throw later in that drive off of his back foot to White for a first down. And his two fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter were obviously big ones that required as much in the way of confidence as they did accuracy. Brady was generally, as he usually is, on the mark. His one key mistake -- a third-quarter pick by Revis -- appeared to be a miscommunication with Gronkowski, who ran a post when Brady was expecting his 6-foot-6 target to cut off his route. Even on that error, though, it was pressure that seemed to disrupt the play. The Jets rush got to Brady when they brought five and overloaded the left side of the Patriots offensive line, anchored by substitute tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Sheldon Richardson got around the edge and into the backfield untouched. Revis kept his eyes on Brady as the play developed and saw his belated Christmas gift of an interception coming.
TIGHT END: B+
Gronkowski played all but one snap on Sunday, which was the closest he's been to playing in 100 percent of New England's offensive plays since a Week 11 win over the Bills. He saw a variety of different coverages that included matchups with Revis, linebacker David Harris, safety Calvin Pryor, corner Antonio Cromartie (who he beat for the 30-yard gain on the sideline), and corner Marcus Williams. Though Brady's third-quarter pick may have rested partially on his shoulders, Gronkowski made what was the most important -- and most difficult catch -- of the afternoon on a fourth-and-nine play in the fourth quarter. Over the middle of the field, Gronkowski took a huge shot from Pryor as he came down with Brady's pass. Pryor placed his shoulder pad square on the football, yet Gronkowski was able to hold on for a 26-yard gain that set up the game-tying score. Michael Williams had his issues as a run-blocker, but he was trusted to play in 37 of 57 snaps. Scott Chandler, who is dealing with a knee injury, saw just four offensive snaps, giving him just five total offensive plays in the last three weeks. (He was inactive against the Texans.)
No one saw this coming before the season: In a division rivalry game, on the road in Week 16, with homefield advantage throughout the playoffs on the line, Keshawn Martin was New England's most targeted wideout. He saw 11 throws and caught seven for 68 yards. Acquired in a trade back in Week 3, Martin has done well to earn Brady's trust, but he doesn't give the Patriots the same kind of separation or elusiveness after the catch that Edelman or Amendola provide. LaFell checked in with one catch for 19 yards that came on one of the Jets' few coverage breakdowns of the day. Revis appeared to have him in a man-to-man look and simply let him get open over the middle of the field. It's worth wondering if LaFell's left foot -- which kept him on the physically unable to perform list to start the season -- slowed him down.
RUNNING BACK: B
As a group -- including recently-released fullback Joey Iosefa -- this unit averaged just 2.57 yards per carry, but from what the tape showed, the offensive line had as much to do with that number as the guys with the football in their hands did. Bolden, the team's most trusted dual threat, saw the most snaps in this one, playing in 27. White got 23 snaps, while Steven Jackson saw nine plays and Iosefa played just three. Because Bolden and White are relatively known commodities, I tried to get a good look at what Jackson brought in his first game action in a year. I thought he ran hard and attacked the line of scrimmage decisively, something that shouldn't go unnoticed for a player coming into an offense mid-season. I also thought his first carry of the game, a five-yarder for a first down in the second quarter, showed what the Patriots are probably hoping they can get from him going forward. He was contacted about one yard beyond the line of scrimmage and plowed ahead for four more. He was fifth in the NFL in terms of yards after contact per carry last season, even at age 31. If he can provide that kind of power on a more consistent basis going forward, he could likely fit into the team's "big" back role for the final month of the season -- if it lasts that long. Jackson's two least-productive runs, of -1 and -3 yards, weren't his doing. On the first, center Bryan Stork got blown into the backfield, re-routing Waddle who was pulling to the right side of formation and in the process bumped into Jackson. On the second, right guard Tre' Jackson appeared to miss an on-coming linebacker who broke into the backfield untouched and dropped Jackson.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-
It's hard to dock this unit considering that it lost its best player on its fifth offensive play of the game, but it allowed 12 hurries, three quarterback hits and a sack on a day when Brady and his offensive weapons clearly could have used more time to find and create openings in the passing game. Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams all recorded quarterback hits, while Damon Harrison was a force on the interior in the running game. The Patriots were just 1-for-10 on third down in large part because they had trouble winning their matchups. Left guard Shaq Mason had a difficult time in pass protection and was pulled late in the game, with David Andrews coming in at center and Stork moving to left guard. We'll wait for Wednesday's injury report to see if Mason's removal was at all injury related. Both Waddle (three hurries) and Cameron Fleming (two hurries) also had issues in pass protection on Brady's blind side as the Patriots worked to come back.
On a few different levels, this seemed to be a game where this saying applied for Patriots fans: "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Patriots safety Devin McCourty is paid like one of the top free safeties in the league. There are stretches when his presence on the field may not necessarily translate into big plays defensively, but it certainly does translate into the absence of big plays offensively. In a game when the Jets hit on myriad "chunk plays" in the passing game, as Belichick called them earlier this week, McCourty's presence was missed. In the running game, the absence of the team's other starting safety Patrick Chung was significant. One of the top run defenders on New England's defense, and someone that Belichick has called one of the top tacklers he's ever coached, Chung could have helped limit the Jets, who put up 5.3 yards per carry on Sunday.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
If Patriots rookie Malcom Brown encountered the "rookie wall" at any point this season, he has apparently blown right through it. He pressured Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick three times and he stuffed three Jets runs on the afternoon. He played more snaps than any other interior defensive lineman (44 of 72), as he's done consistently through the second half of the season, and deservedly so. All 11 of New England's quarterback hurries, its two hits and its one sack came from the defensive line. The most notable of those came when Jabaal Sheard stripped Fitzpatrick, leading to Jamie Collins' scoop-and-score touchdown. Sheard had four hurries on the day, continuing to be a force from the interior. He now has 50 total quarterback pressures -- 38 hurries, four hits and eight sacks -- on the season despite missing three games with an ankle injury. Chandler Jones leads the team in that area with 62 total quarterback pressures.
Though he left New England's win over the Titans after aggravating the knee injury he initially suffered in Week 12 against Denver, Dont'a Hightower was back on the field Sunday and looked strong at certain points, stuffing four runs. Hightower was clearly affected by his knee at times, however, having to pull himself from the action on multiple occasions. He played a total of 49 snaps, which was the most he has played since being knocked out of the Broncos game. Collins went wire-to-wire and showed his athleticism on the scoop-and-score play, coming from the linebacker level, spotting the football on the ground and tracking it down before anyone else could while keeping his feet underneath him.
Because the Jets have the ability to deploy two tall and quality wideouts in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and because both McCourty and Chung were out, this unit had its hands full. In the first meeting between these two teams, Logan Ryan (with some help from McCourty over the top) was able to help limit Marshall to just four catches. But Marshall got the better of the matchup on Sunday, which Ryan admitted later. The Jets' new single-season record-holder for catches caught eight passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the game, including a 33-yard score when he beat Ryan and worked his way around Duron Harmon for the score. Harmon also ended up on Marshall when there was a miscommunication between Ryan and Malcolm Butler during overtime. Late in the play clock, on the third snap of the overtime, Ryan motioned to Butler that Decker would be his assignment. Butler had been tracking Decker for the majority of the afternoon and didn't appear to receive his teammate's signal. Both ended up following Decker into the flat, leaving Marshall to work one-on-one with Harmon to pick up 20 yards and help set up the game-winning score. Butler had a strong afternoon up until that miscommunication, and moments later, the one catch he allowed all day went for the game-winning score -- a six-yard perfectly-thrown pass from Fitzpatrick to Decker. Jordan Richards, helping to fill in for Chung while Harmon patrolled the deep part of the field, played well particularly against the run, making seven tackles. He came off the field after the first play of overtime to nurse an apparent injury, forcing safety Tavon Wilson into coverage. Wilson and Leonard Johnson "picked" each other while trying to check Kenbrell Thompkins and Quincy Enunwa. Fitzpatrick hit Enunwa in the flat as Wilson and Johnson collected themselves. The play ended up going for 48 yards and immediately put the Jets into field-goal range. Johnson appeared to have some difficulty guarding Thompkins, the former Patriots wideout, and he was relieved by rookie Justin Coleman at one point. Coleman, however, was forced from the game with a head injury, which brought Johnson back onto the field as one of the team's top three corners.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
The play of punter Ryan Allen was one of the bright spots for the Patriots on Sunday. He had one of his best games of the season as he pinned the Jets inside their 10-yard line on two separate occasions. In the first quarter, he hit one inside their nine-yard line. In the fourth, he knocked one out of bounds at the six. Matthew Slater, who was named to the Pro Bowl last week, added to his team lead with his 13th special teams tackle, and Stephen Gostkowski had another clean day with two made field goals and two made extra points. On a day when the Patriots offense could have used an explosive kick return -- like, perhaps, the one it got a week prior from Keshawn Martin to set up a James White touchdown catch-and-run -- there were none to be had. Martin returned kicks and punts for New England, with his best run back a 15-yard punt return in the fourth quarter.