Perry's Report Card: Brady needed more from line in loss to Eagles
Brady needed more from line in loss to Eagles
Listen to Tom Brady long enough, especially after a loss, and you'll often hear him talk about getting back to "winning football." The Patriots are familiar with that kind of thing given the way they've played over the last 15 years, but Sunday's loss to the Eagles was one of those rare occasions in which it appeared as though everything was a struggle. Offensively they were out of sync, and defensively big stops eluded them. On special teams they came a long way from resembling the kicking-game units that helped the Patriots win their first 10 games of the season. This game was as ugly as it has been for Bill Belichick's team since Week 4 in Kansas City last season, and that's reflected in this edition of the grades.
When it comes to the effectiveness of any pass rush, Belichick will tell you, it comes down to a dual effort between the coverage and whoever is pursuing the quarterback. To flip that logic and adjust it for an offensive perspective, the responsibilities of protecting a quarterback fall to the offensive line as well as the receivers who are working to get open. If the targets in the passing game can't
uncover, the quarterback can't get rid of the ball, making him a sitting duck. Of course, if the line can't block, then the quarterback really has no chance. This was the case throughout the course of the late afternoon and early evening for New England. When its attack sputtered, Tom Brady could not find open targets quickly, and even when there were opportunities for completions, his offensive line often couldn't win one-on-one battles or hold up long enough to give him an opportunity to make a throw. The Patriots were 7-for-17 on third down, bringing their third-down totals without Julian Edelman to 15-for-52, and they allowed 13 quarterback hits. Of those hits, I charted eight as primarily protection issues, three as "coverage" hits, and two where both the protection and the receivers seemed equally responsible. Brady's targets need to get healthy, and his line needs to find some semblance of consistency. Without it, playing against any talented pass rush may put Brady's health -- and the long-term goals for this Patriots team -- at risk.
For the Patriots to succeed without Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, Brady had to be on point, and he simply was not. It may not have been his fault -- he was working without his most trusted weapons, and he was consistently pressured and hit -- but his two interceptions were back-breakers. He's admitted that those fall on his shoulders, even if he's not 100 percent to blame. The interception that was returned for a touchdown was a poor throw that seemed to be almost out of frustration. He forced it to Danny Amendola, who was clearly double-teamed, perhaps because he felt as though a doubled Amendola -- one of his most dependable pass-catchers this season -- was still a better option than anything else presented. Tight end Scott Chandler may have been open on the play, but throwing across the field with a defender trailing Chandler at the goal line would have been a difficult throw. Brady never looked at him. The second pick was another questionable decision. Brandon LaFell appeared to have an open lane for a deep touchdown, but he broke his route off to the sideline as Brady's pass floated to the back corner of the end zone and was picked off easily. The play took so long to develop that it looked as though LaFell altered his route because the timing was not right. Brady did a good job of looking off the Eagles deep safety, and had he thrown as soon as he turned back to LaFell, the Patriots may have scored. Instead, he took a split second to side-step pressure to his left, and then made his heave. Perhaps assuming Brady had initiated the scramble drill, as he had been forced to do for much of the game to that point, LaFell changed course and was nowhere near where Brady expected him. Brady made several impressive throws under duress. He hit a floating 30-yarder to Chandler in the first quarter and zipped one over the middle to LaFell that set up his quarterback-sneak touchdown. And let's not forget his well designed and executed 36-yard catch-and-run. But the costly interceptions helped his team's undoing.
OFFENSIVE LINE: D
What may have been most alarming about the performance of the Patriots offensive line on Sunday was that it found difficulty in slowing down Philadelphia's three and four-man rushes. Fletcher Cox, who Belichick has called one of the best defensive linemen in the league, had his way with the interior of New England's offensive line. Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham all won more than their share of matchups as well. Of the 21 quarterback hurries in the game, many were created just about as soon as the ball was snapped. On some occasions, it may have taken Brady three or four seconds to be hit or sacked, but that wasn't because the line kept him protected for that long. Several times the offensive play was blown up before it ever had a chance to develop. Brady bought himself time by feeling the rush and working to avoid it, but the Eagles were winning one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage and ruining any opportunity Brady had to go through his progressions. Particularly in third-and-long situations, when receivers had to be given a chance to reach the sticks with their routes, the offensive line seemed unable to hold up all too frequently. Belichick said before the game that the Patriots hoped to settle on a five-man combination as the season nears its end, but they may still be searching -- especially since guard Josh Kline suffered a shoulder injury late in the game that could limit him going forward.
At something less than 100 percent, Amendola provided the majority of the plays from this position group. The route on his second-quarter touchdown catch was just plain unkind as he beat Walter Thurmond off the line, then faked a move to the post before breaking off to the corner for a wide open score. The pair of drops he submitted, including one on the team's final drive in the fourth quarter, were his first of the season. But he was still clearly Brady's most trusted option in the passing game. LaFell and Keshawn Martin each had drops on that same fourth-quarter drive and likely did little to improve their standing in Brady's eyes. Without the ability to uncover early, especially against the double-teams sprung on LaFell at times, Brady had a hard time leaning on anyone other than Amendola.
RUNNING BACKS: B-
James White's 10 catches for 115 yards, 82 of which came in the fourth quarter as the Patriots mounted their comeback attempt, salvaged the day for this group. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if Brady now views White as one of his more dependable options. He certainly treated the second-year back as such when he needed to move the chains. White adjust his route nicely on a fourth-and-12 play for a first down that eventually led to Brady's rushing score. He also made a first-down catch on a third-and-10 play on New England's final drive while taking a monster hit over the middle. White looked faster and more explosive than he did in Denver, making three would-be tacklers miss. LeGarrette Blount had his moments rushing the ball and finished with 4.2 yards per carry. He made two savvy cutbacks on one second-quarter 10-yard run. Other times, using him on stretch running plays, it looked like Blount had trouble finding the correct lane. One run went for a loss of two yards when he and Brady collided before the hand-off. Brandon Bolden ran for 22 yards on three carries, showing some explosiveness at the end of the first half, but he dropped two of his four targets in the passing game.
TIGHT ENDS: B-
Scott Chandler may not have been quite as involved as many expected with Gronkowski out. He saw seven targets and caught four for 61 yards and a touchdown. He did, however, play a season-high 61 snaps and chipped in with a pair of big plays. His 30-yard catch at the end of the first quarter showed how difficult his 6-foot-7 frame can be to cover when he goes up and high-points the football. His fourth-quarter touchdown catch was key of course, but he also helped create White's receiving score when he wiped out White's defender with a legal rub route. In the running game, the Patriots clearly missed Gronkowski, particularly when Chandler missed a block on New England's hurry-up goal line play that went for a loss of four yards. Michael Williams played 25 snaps to help deter Philly's rush as an edge blocker. Asante Cleveland saw 11 snaps and was used at times as a fullback.
The Patriots defense allowed just 14 points in the game, and one of their touchdown drives came on a relatively short field after Ebner's drop-kick kickoff. They had some issues in critical third-down situations, however. Both scores came on third-down plays in the red zone, and there were a pair of other third-down conversions they allowed -- one on a 20-yard completion to Jordan Matthews during Philly's first touchdown drive and another to Riley Cooper with under three minutes left -- that helped the Eagles sustain crucial drives. Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense seemed to avoid the meltdown moments that plagued New England's offense and special teams, but they left plenty of room for improvement against an Eagles offense that has shown to have very little in the way of viable offensive threats this season.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
Patriots first-round draft pick Malcom Brown continues to show improvement with each passing week. He embarrassed Eagles center Jason Kelce to tackle DeMarco Murray for a five-yard loss. He also showed an ability to set an edge, and his hustle late was noticeable. For someone accustomed to a shorter collegiate football schedule, Brown seems to have plenty of juice left in the tank for the season's stretch run. He's been used more this season (353 snaps) than any other pure interior defensive lineman for the Patriots. Chandler Jones was strong in run support but quiet as a pass rusher going up against seven-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters, who even after being called for a false start early in the game appeared to get a jump on his team's snaps at different points. The line held Philly to 3.9 yards per rush, but hurried quarterback Sam Bradford just three times and hit him just once. It was the first game this season that the line did not record a sack.
Jamie Collins was a force in his return, looking very healthy after an illness kept him out of game action for four weeks. He finished with eight tackles, a quarterback hit, a forced fumble, and he blew up five running plays by either making the tackle himself or slicing into the backfield to re-route an Eagles back. With Collins back in the mix, Patriots A-gap blitzes appear to have made a comeback as well. When the Patriots have trouble providing pressure, Collins attacking the middle of the line seems to be a reliable way to generate some disruption. His forced fumble in the fourth quarter gave the Patriots late life and demonstrated how they missed his game-changing ability while he was out. He also tipped two passes in the game, one of which might have negated a pass-interference penalty in the fourth quarter had it been spotted by officials. To have Collins back while Dont'a Hightower dealt with a knee injury was key to keeping some consistency in the middle of the Patriots defense. Jerod Mayo played sparingly (13 snaps) but had a tackle for a loss and a sack. He was also credited for a pass breakup, though he would have liked to make that one a pick. He seemed surprised when Bradford attempted a short throw that ricocheted off Mayo's shoulder pads. Jonathan Freeny played 49 snaps and had difficulty chasing Philly's smaller backs in pass coverage, allowing a pair of catches early for 23 yards.
For the second consecutive week, there were a handful of missed tackles turned in by Patriots defensive backs in the running game, allowing Sproles and Kenjon Barner to accumulate extra yardage. In coverage there were no major breakdowns. Matthews ran a tough route to free himself of Patrick Chung for a big first down in the second quarter, and tight end Zach Ertz ran a nifty stick-nod route to shake free of Devin McCourty for a touchdown. Malcolm Butler was in coverage for the Matthews touchdown in the fourth quarter, but his technique wasn't to blame. The roll-out play was well-executed and Bradford's throw was in a spot where only Matthews could get it. That's a tip-your-hat type of play. Chung was strong in run support and in the slot, finishing with six tackles. McCourty led the group with seven tackles. Nate Ebner saw eight snaps in the game and Tavon Wilson saw one. We'll be keeping an eye on the injury report to see if Wilson is dealing with anything that kept him from contributing more in New England's three or four-safety packages. McCourty saw a lot of time on the line of scrimmage in coverage with Duron Harmon taking the deep part of the field as the team's free safety. While it's a well-rounded group that's able to deploy multiple different combinations, if the Patriots can get No. 3 corner Justin Coleman back on the field in short order, it would provide them another layer of depth in coverage.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
It could have been worse, but not by much. For a unit that has experienced and heady players, the miscommunication that led to the blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown was uncharacteristic. Same goes for the Darren Sproles punt return for a touchdown when special teams aces Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner and Tavon Wilson were all erased from the play as soon as an opportunity for a tackle presented itself. The Stephen Gostkowski onside kick was well-played, and even Nate Ebner's onside attempt in the fourth quarter wasn't a bad boot. But the execution needed to be perfect and it wasn't. Whether it was by design or not, Bolden was the only player who appeared in position to make a potential recovery and he was blocked before he had a chance. Regardless of when it came -- that's a whole other discussion -- the drop kick could have been executed better as well, Ebner admitted after the game. Had he kicked it a touch farther, it perhaps would have bounced around and given the Patriots an opportunity for a recovery.