Perry's Report Card: Brady whacked, but Patriots find answers
Brady whacked, but Patriots find answers
Were the Cowboys the most intimidating opponent the Patriots will see this year? Far from it. But, as it turned out, Sunday's 30-6 win provided much more insight on Bill Belichick's team than most anticipated. What we learned was that the Patriots offense can cast aside a week of preparation, draw up a game plan from scratch, get its quarterback sacked five times in the first half, and still put up 30 points. We learned that the Patriots defensive line runs deep, and that the team's front seven can contend with a top-end offensive line even after one of its best players -- perhaps its best player -- goes down injured. It was a strong all-around performance, one that had the term "complementary football" flying around the visitors locker room at AT&T Stadium after the game, and that's reflected in this week's grades.
The Patriots were confounded early by a Cowboys defensive scheme that was as intelligent as it was surprising. The return of defensive end Greg Hardy and linebacker Rolando McClain allowed Dallas to do what is often so hard for teams to pull off: They got after the passer without sacrificing coverage. Had McClain not been in good enough shape to play, and had linebacker Sean Lee still bee reeling from a concussion, the Cowboys defense would not have been able to run its 3-2-6 alignment. But with its most talented players on the field, the Cowboys remained sound up front while flooding the field with defensive backs to account for Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. What made the Patriots performance so impressive is that after a couple of series, they knew what they were seeing, they understood it was something they hadn't planned for, and they spun the wheel of their collective experience to come up with answers. They
went big with four tight ends. Then they upped the tempo to try to slow down the Dallas pass rush. Soon, the Patriots had built a double-digit lead and they were able to dictate the flow of the game. Yes, when it was all said and done, there was plenty of room to improve on the offensive side of the ball. But what Belichick, Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels did to overcome the Cowboys equivalent of guerrilla warfare -- and to do it as quickly as they did -- is something that probably only a few sidelines in the league could pull off.
Tom Brady's 275 yards passing was his lowest total thus far this season, but his yards per attempt hit a season-high at 10.2. Brady was sacked five times and hit three more, and while he tried to take some blame for setting himself up for those shots, I didn't see one that I could put on his shoulders. It is worth noting that Sunday's game was Brady's slowest in terms of snap-to-throw times. According to our buddy Mike Giardi, Brady averaged 2.06 seconds per dropback. Credit the Cowboys man coverage for making Brady wait longer than normal, but when there were big throws to be made -- especially in the second half -- Brady delivered. He hit Gronkowski when the coverage was tight, and he wasn't afraid to look to his rub routes even after getting hit for offensive pass interference. Edelman's 59-yard score off of an Amendola pick effectively sealed the game. No picks for Brady once again, putting his touchdown-to-interception ratio at 11-to-0 for the season. And don't forget about his one-yard touchdown run, his first since 2012. He's a legitimate weapon in that area of the field because the Patriots staff knows he'll take care of the football and find whatever space is given to him.
TIGHT END: B-
For the first time this season, Rob Gronkowski was relatively held in check. Of course he had his man-amongst-boys moment when he shook Byron Jones and handed JJ Wilcox a straight right. But he was prevented from breaking the game open thanks to some very strong man-to-man coverage by Jones, the athletic rookie out of UConn. While Gronkowski has been a zone shredder early this season, the Cowboys rolled the dice by sending their young but versatile defensive back at
him, and they were rewarded. Even though Gronkowski had four grabs for 67 yards, most of those catches were into tight coverage, and one came off of a rub route. Gronkowski also had what was perhaps his worst run-blocking game of the season, it appeared, losing ground on a third-and-one play early in the game that eventually led to a Patriots punt. Scott Chandler was used for just 10 snaps, while Michael Williams saw 20. The former tackle likely saw a bump in usage when the Patriots switched up their plan and went with heavier formations to combat the Dallas six-defensive-back sets.
RUNNING BACK: B
Dion Lewis is more than just a third-down back. He appears to have a firm grasp on the lead role for the Patriots, as his 43 snaps to LeGarrette Blount's 17 on Sunday would seem to indicate. (For the season, Lewis has seen 197 snaps in four games to Blount's 55 in three games.) There could be games -- like this week's against the Colts -- where Blount sees more time against lighter run defenses, but Lewis' wide-ranging skill set allows him to be a more-than-viable option in just about any situation. He can catch the ball as well as any passing-down back the Patriots have had in recent seasons, the team lauds his ability to run between the tackles and through contact, and he makes defenders miss at an incredible rate. According to Pro Football Focus, he has forced 28 missed tackles this season, tied with 49ers back Carlos Hyde for the league lead . . . and Hyde has five games under his belt. Blount appeared to have some trouble finding open lanes in short-yardage situations, but that looked like it was more a product of what was happening on the line. Once he's in the open field, Blount is a bear, but he has to get some help to get himself going.
The Patriots have been called for five offensive pass interference penalties in four games, the most in the league, but they continue to go back to that well. It produced results in the fourth quarter when Amendola created some traffic, baiting a Cowboys corner to run into him to look for a flag, but Edelman ran free into the secondary for an eventual 59-yard touchdown and nothing was called. The nature of the penalty is a fickle one, and while Belichick said on Monday that the officials have been consistent in how it's been called, it seems as though the receivers are still trying to figure it out. Until they do, we have to dock them for the times their picks don't work. Edelman's touchdown run was a tremendous individual effort, and he raised the group's grade with a ridiculous move off of the line that made Morris Claiborne fall over without contact. Keshawn Martin's game will only build the all-important trust factor between him and Brady. That Martin was active on Sunday and Dobson was not was a notable move, but it made sense. Martin may not be the same downfield threat, but he's a veteran who has experience at all receiver spots, giving him more versatility. He already has five catches on five targets this season. He had six catches all of last year in Houston.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
They got their quarterback folded in two on a handful of occasions, but they get points here for eventually righting the ship. Brady wasn't sacked in the second half -- though he took a vicious shot from Hardy on the touchdown pass to Edelman -- with left tackle Nate Solder out and Marcus Cannon in. Many wondered why the Patriots would use a rotation with their tackles through the early part of the season. In my opinion, a situation like this one is the answer. Had Cannon not been filling in regularly for Solder and Sebastian Vollmer before Sunday, it's possible he would not have been as ready as he was when his number was called out of necessity. Belichick gave Cannon plenty of credit immediately after the game and in a conference call with reporters on Monday for the job he did filling in. It was far from a flawless performance on his part, but that kind of thing doesn't go unnoticed. Solder's injury bears watching. It was perhaps a good sign that he remained on the sidelines during the game and spoke to the media afterwards. We learned about Solder's toughness last season, and if there's any chance he can play against the Colts on Sunday, I'd expect him to be out there. Credit to Josh Kline, who to my eyes had another strong game as a pass-protector. In his third season, he's turned himself into a reliable piece -- one who may not see his playing time fade even if Ryan Wendell works himself back into the rotation on the interior.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Stephen Gostkowski is the highest-paid kicker in the league, and he earned his game check on Sunday. Not only did he continue to be perfect on extra points (3-for-3), but he walloped a 57-yard field goal, which was a career-long for him. (Imagine the numbers he might have put up for his career in a dome?) It was a strong day for punter Ryan Allen as well after he essentially had the week off against the Jaguars in Week 3. His 60-yarder was majestic and helped give him a net average of 42.3 yards on the day. Kudos to rookie specialist Brandon King, who led the team in special teams tackles with two. He was promoted to the 53-man roster on Saturday and made an immediate impact.
You can only play against the team that is lined up against you, and the Patriots thoroughly dominated the Cowboys just about every time they lined up on Sunday. The matchup that seemed to favor Dallas -- its offensive line against the Patriots defensive line -- never really allowed running backs Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden to get going. That Dont'a Hightower went out in the first quarter and the unit remained as effective as it was with Jerod Mayo and Jonathan Freeny. To squeeze off Brandon Weeden's favorite targets -- Jason Witten and Cole Beasley -- made it impossible for the Cowboys to move the football with any kind of consistency. It wouldn't come as any surprise if Jason Garrett turned to backup Matt Cassel to take over behind center until Tony Romo is healthy enough to play.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Against an offensive line that includes three All-Pros from last year, the Patriots front held its own thanks in part to the number of fresh bodies they were able to throw at the problem. Throughout this season, the Patriots have used a steady rotation of interior defensive linemen, and Sealver Siliga told me last week that it has helped keep everyone fresh late into games. Sunday's game plan was a perfect example of that as Siliga, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Dominique Easley, Akiem Hicks all played between 18 and 24 snaps. Brown played his best game as a pro in his return to Texas, serving as a consistently disruptive force against the Cowboys talented interior. On the edge, Jabaal Sheard and Chandler Jones did an effective job of not letting plays bounce to the outside, especially when the ball was in the hands of Randle, who's showed an ability to pick up big chunks of yards on cut-back runs this season. Sheard's two sacks are a nice feather in his cap, but his work against the run was equally impressive.
Even taking Hightower's loss out of the equation, it was a strong game for this group due in large part to the play of Jamie Collins. He played 100 percent of the snaps for the third time this season, and his performance earned immediate compliments from Belichick following the game, which are sometimes hard to come by before the coach has had a chance to review the game tape. Both Collins and Hightower provided effective pressure early in the game, and later, Collins made his mark in helping to stop the run. Early last season, that appeared to be one of the aspects of his job that Collins struggled with. There were times when he was washed out of running lanes or wasn't able to defeat run blocks with much consistency, but he's seemed to improve in that area, particularly in the last two Patriots games of this season. It's unclear how much time Hightower will be forced to miss, if any, but Mayo and Freeny filled in effectively. The team could also call upon newly acquired linebacker Jonathan Bostic if Hightower is out. Bostic was inactive against the Colts.
The Patriots matched up well with the Cowboys personnel in the passing game, making an already skittish Weeden even more unsure of himself when targeting passes outside of the short and middle portions of the field. Witten was kept quiet thanks to a variety of defensive looks that included Devin McCourty one-on-one, double teams with McCourty and Jordan Richards, checks from Patrick Chung, Logan Ryan and Jerod Mayo. Even Chandler Jones dropped into coverage to help limit one of the game's best tight ends. Credit the development of Duron Harmon, who patrolled the deep portion of the field at times, for freeing up McCourty to play down in the box without compromising things. Malcolm Butler saw deep threat Terrence Williams for the majority of the game and played very well, planting Williams on his rear during an early run play to let Williams know it was going to be a physical afternoon. On four targets, he allowed Williams just one catch for 17 yards.