Perry's Report Card: Brady walloped despite easy-does-it game plan
Brady walloped despite easy-does-it game plan
What can possibly be gleaned from re-watching this game? The Patriots loss to the Dolphins on Sunday was one in which Bill Belichick’s team used an odd offensive game plan and fielded personnel groupings that likely won't resemble the ones the Patriots deploy for the Divisional Round a week from Saturday. Still, it's worth a second look. First of all, the oddities of that game help highlight just how much the Patriots miss players that they're expected to have back for the postseason. In addition, there were individual performances both good and bad that weren't entirely dependent on having players like Julian Edelman and Sebastian Vollmer on the field. Having those two players on the offensive side of the ball -- like having Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones on the defensive side of the ball -- could work wonders in terms of transforming the team's overall performance. But many of Sunday's performances could be judged on their own merits, and they were in this week's edition of the Report Card.
The Patriots wanted to keep it close, keep their best players healthy, and try to win the game at the end. That seems to be the most logical way to try to explain what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels tried to do with his offensive game plan in Miami. Tom Brady attempted just five passes -- including a shovel pass -- in the first half, and the first 18 plays of the game were geared toward the team's running backs. In the second half, with the Patriots trailing, the script was flipped. Brady attempted 16 passes and got whacked fairly regularly. He was hit six times total on 23 drop-backs and left the game late in the fourth quarter with a high ankle sprain. The plan was fine in theory, but it didn't work. Brady got hurt. They lost. The only things keeping this grade from being a complete failure was that a) Rob Gronkowski did not suffer a major injury and b) the team appears to have found its "big" back for the postseason in Steven Jackson, who ran hard and was one of the lone bright spots for the Patriots on the day.
Brady wasn't given many opportunities, and he wasn't given much to work with both in terms of weapons and route combinations, but he did have a few uncharacteristically inaccurate throws that could be attributed to his ankle injury. With his ability to drive off of his right leg potentially compromised, his passes may have been affected even when his pocket was clean. When forced to move, as he often was, the effects of the injury were likely exacerbated as he had to re-set, plant and throw on a base that was less than 100 percent healthy. On his pass to Scott Chandler in the second quarter, which turned into a 24-yard gain thanks to a defensive pass interference penalty, he appeared to wait a beat too long before throwing it over the 6-foot-7 tight end's head and out of bounds. He also overthrew Danny Amendola out of a very clean pocket for what could have been a big gain with just over 11 minutes left in the third quarter. Despite a few misses, Brady showed toughness on multiple attempts, standing in and shots upon his release. He completed a four-yarder in the fourth quarter with Olivier Vernon hitting him dangerously near the right knee. James White's 68-yard catch-and-run in the third came on a sharp and well-placed throw over the middle that allowed White to do his damage after the catch.
TIGHT END: C-
Rob Gronkowski was clearly limited in this game. Not by his health -- though the bone bruise/sprain he suffered in Wee 12 may still be lingering. But by the game plan. Whether it was a conscious choice or dictated by coverage, Gronkowski appeared to steer clear of the middle of the field and the seams, where he typically does a great deal of his damage. Those areas are also where he's most at risk, though, so keeping him near the edges and away from the teeth of the Miami defense may have been the wise choice. He caught two of five targets for 18 yards and was not targeted in the first half -- another indication that the Patriots tried to make this a 30-minute game as opposed to a 60-minute one. Chandler was once again a non-factor in the passing game, seeing just two targets. This may be in part related to his knee injury, but he's played just 20 total snaps in the last three games for which he's been active. Michael Williams played 11 more snaps than Chandler did on Sunday. He continues to be the team's No. 2 tight end, though he had what was probably his worst game of the season in Miami. Typically very dependable in the running game, he had difficulty executing his assignments in that area. Gronkowski, also normally one of the team's best run blockers, had a hard time sustaining his blocks in the running game and was beaten on three occasions for losses or minimal gains.
As injured as the Patriots are at the moment, there may not be a position group more in need of a spark than this one. Brandon LaFell, dealing with an injured foot, looks hurt. He's not visibly hobbled, but on one pass attempt deep down the middle of the field in the third quarter, he did no fight for the ball. He also dropped a Jimmy Garoppolo pass in the fourth quarter. LaFell continues to be a non-factor since re-injuring his foot against the Titans. He's played all but four snaps against the Jets and Dolphins, but he's caught just three passes on five targets for 26 yards. He should be credited for playing through an injury when the team has needed as many capable bodies as possible, but his production has suffered. Keshawn Martin's performance as a run-blocker showed that the Patriots miss Julian Edelman for more than his abilities as a receiver. He was blown back or beaten on the edge to help blow up multiple Patriots rush attempts. Danny Amendola was used as a No. 3 wideout and appeared to be moving well in a game when his workload was clearly being managed. That he didn't appear to suffer any setbacks should be a positive sign that he's eligible to be used more regularly in the postseason.
RUNNING BACK: B-
This group was very busy early on and was one of the units that put together a representative effort Sunday afternoon. Though Jackson's yards-per-carry average sat at a meager 2.5, his yards after contact were impressive. Of his 35 rushing yards, 32 came after contact, indicating that the line wasn't able to open up much in the way of holes for him to run through. Those self-made yards, though, are what make the 6-foot-2, 240-pound back an intriguing option for New England. He appears to have the team's "big" back role locked up for the postseason if he can continue to improve his football conditioning after a year away from the game. White saw just five touches in the game, and continues to be used sparingly. He is productive, though, when given opportunities. He averages 7.5 yards per touch this season on 22 carries and 40 receptions. Brandon Bolden saw 18 offensive snaps and carried nine times. As Jackson's role is increased, those numbers could continue to decrease, allowing Bolden to focus on his role as a core special teamer, which is how he was used on Sunday.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-
The Patriots offensive line was consistently shaky. It wasn't as though the entire line failed on play-to-play basis though. Far from it. Looking at the big picture for each individual player, they weren't atrocious in the running game. Williams and Martin were more consistently the parties responsible for short gains or negative plays in that area. But in the passing game, there were missed one-on-one blocks up front and communication problems that contributed greatly to the lack of overall offensive consistency. Josh Kline had difficult time with Derrick Shelby, allowed a strip sack (that Brady recovered), and was flagged for a holding penalty. Starting left tackle Cameron Fleming looked overwhelmed by speed rushes at times. On the play when Brady was injured, Tre' Jackson and Marcus Cannon appeared to have a communication issue. When the Dolphins didn't send one of their middle linebackers to pressure, Jackson blocked to the outside. Cannon, however, blocked the same man, allowing Ndamukong Suh to rush almost unimpeded. By the time Cannon recovered, he was too late. Brady's final play of the game in the fourth quarter was the exclamation point on what was a uniquely rough day for New England's pass protection. The Dolphins showed eight players at the line of scrimmage but brought only five. The Patriots kept seven players in to block, but Fleming, Cannon, Kline and running back James White all appeared to get beat simultaneously, leading to a sack. Since playing 100 percent of the team's snaps in Houston, Shaq Mason's playing time has dwindled. He's played 51, 45 and 30 snaps in the last three games. Weeks ago, Belichick said the team would like to have five players to settle on up front. It will get one of its regulars, Vollmer, back for the playoffs, which should solidify the tackle spots. The interior still seems to be in flux however, with Stork, Kline and Jackson as the top three players, and Mason and center David Andrews getting time periodically.
The Patriots continued to be bitten by big plays against the Dolphins, but their defense was the most consistent of its three units. Their run defense was particularly strong in that it gave up just 96 yards on 34 carries for a 2.8 yards per carry average. If one were to exclude Lamar Miller's 29-yard in the first quarter, the Patriots would have held Dolphins ball-carriers to a 2.03 average. To put up those numbers with both Hightower and Jones out, and with Rob Ninkovich, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty at less than 100 percent was impressive.
Forced into a larger role with Hightower injured, Jerod Mayo looked quick and instinctive at times. He had one hard hit in the middle of the second quarter that served as a reminder of the presence he can be in the middle of the field when feeling healthy. He dissected quickly, didn't hesitate, and finished the play authoritatively. He finished the game with five run stuffs, and on Miller's long run in the first quarter, Mayo was actually too quick through the hole as Miller side-stepped him and took off. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it appeared as though Mayo continues to progress as he gets further and further away from last year's season-ending knee injury. Sunday was another big day for Jamie Collins, who has been one of the team's best defenders since returning from an illness in Week 13. He missed a tackle near the sideline on Damien Williams early in the game, but he broke up a pair of passes, including one when in coverage on Jarvis Landry. For a player his size to effectively match up with one of the top slot receivers in football is a rarity. If Hightower looks like he's anything close to healthy in the postseason, the Patriots will have one of the best linebacker units in the tournament.
The Patriots had difficulty when their No. 3 corner, Leonard Johnson, was targeted by Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He had a nice pass breakup in the second quarter deep down the field, but still had a tough day in coverage, allowing six catches on nine targets for 90 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots may be able to get back to relying on two corners if McCourty and Chung get healthy. With those two safeties at full strength, the Patriots may be able to go with three safeties (including Duron Harmon) and two corners in their nickel packages with Chung or McCourty in the slot. With both of those players hurting lately, it's put more on Johnson's shoulders, and he's looked inconsistent. Justin Coleman could also be an answer here, but he suffered a concussion against the Jets and hasn't practiced since. This was a relatively tough day for corner Logan Ryan, who was beaten by a nice double-move from rookie receiver DeVante Parker in the third quarter, and then allowed a back-breaking 46-yard catch to Parker on the right sideline in the fourth quarter despite deflecting the pass. The Patriots secondary played sides, zone, and man-to-man, but this was not a true man-to-man game, as many of theirs have been this season. Landry is tough to match up for that kind of game plan because he plays all over the field.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The Patriots got a good afternoon's work from Alan Branch, Akiem Hicks and rookie Malcom Brown with Sealver Siliga out due to a personal matter. All played season highs in snaps. Branch (47 snaps) and Hicks (51) hadn't cracked the 40-snap plateau for the Patriots this season, and Brown (55) continues to be a consistent force on the interior. It was interesting to see the Dolphins hurry up early in the game when Brown came off the field in a third-and-long situation in order run on New England's smaller front. On the edges, Geneo Grissom saw plenty of work with Jones out. He recorded his first NFL sack -- and helped the Patriots set a single-season record for sacks under Belichick (49) -- with an athletic inside move from the left edge. Jabaal Sheard was used on the inside on third downs with Grissom on the outside, and he had another disruptive day, recording a team-high four quarterback pressures. Ninkovich played hurt, but appeared to be moving without a limp as he was the week prior against the Jets. He finished with three tackles and one quarterback hit and has now played in 102 consecutive regular-season games -- 113 total games including playoffs -- since 2009.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C
The Patriots typically like to make sure that they're winning the battle of field position, but in a game that was close throughout, they lost their edge in that respect with a couple of key special teams miscues. Stephen Gostkowski's missed 46-yarder gave the Dolphins the football on their own 36-yard line. Eight plays later, they were in the end zone to take a 10-3 lead. At the start of the fourth quarter, Bolden was flagged for a running into the kicker penalty (that should have been a roughing the kicker penalty because he hit Matt Darr's plant leg) that wiped out a 21-yard return by Amendola to the Patriots 43-yard line. Darr got another opportunity and blasted one to the Patriots eight-yard line. Another penalty, this one a hold on Dekoda Watson, meant the Patriots were backed up to their four-yard line. With the game tied, 10-10, that 39-yard difference in field position was a key factor.