Perry's Report Card: Offense key in statement win
Phil Perry's Report Card: Patriots offense key in statement win
This was a statement game. The Patriots defense, having settled since undergoing a mid-season upheaval, held down a Ravens offense with weapons in the passing game that seemed to be clicking headed into Gillette Stadium. The Patriots offense, operating without two of its top targets in red-zone and third-down situations, punctured the league's best defense with an effective passing game and a stubborn rushing attack. Their special teams let them down with two game-changing turnovers in the span of 14 seconds, yet they were able to weather that storm. Had it not been for those gaffes -- as well as a Tom Brady pick that cost the team three points -- New England's 11th victory of the season would have been even more decisive. Statement indeed. Let's get to the grades.
Nearly 500 yards of total offense against the No. 1 defense in the league? Thirty points against a team that had allowed about 17 per game coming in? Fifty percent (8-for-16) on third down with Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola out? Four yards per carry -- including a tone-setting goal-line score in the first quarter -- for LeGarrette Blount against the top run defense in football? The Patriots imposed their will against old friend Dean Pees and his defense. Had it not been for an inexcusable red-zone interception by Brady, who told WEEI he was trying to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone, this would have been a clear-cut 'A'. Still it was a momentum-building performance as the Patriots head into the final three games of their season. If Josh McDaniels continues to cobble together games like this one, it will come as no surprise if he's among the top candidates for any and all head-coaching gigs that become available in the coming weeks.
Aside from the ill-advised throw to Ravens safety Eric Weddle and an intentional-grounding penalty he picked up in the first quarter, Brady was on point. The touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett was well-placed, even though Ravens linebacker Zach Orr got an arm on it, and had to feel nice after trying to hit Bennett in the end zone on a similar throw that was broken up the week before. Malcolm Mitchell's score was whistled into a tight area despite pressure bearing down on Brady. And his throw down the seam to Chris Hogan had the perfect amount of touch on what was a harder-than-it-looked type of read. Brady understanding which way Hogan would break based on Weddle's decision to try to jump Julian Edelman's crossing route gave the Patriots the dagger they were looking for.
RUNNING BACK: B+
Blount surpasses 1,000 yards for the second time in his career on Monday night -- the first time since his rookie season -- yet none of them came easily. He carried 18 times for 72 yards, including 18 yards on the team's final drive that further established himself as the team's closer. How the team used it's sub backs was interesting in that James White saw 29 snaps to Dion Lewis' 17. Lewis was bowled over by Weddle, allowing the only sack of the game for the Patriots, and he had just four touches for 19 total yards. White, meanwhile, turned in one of the more explosive plays of the game, hitting the Ravens for a 61-yard gain on a slant where there was no safety in the deep middle part of the field because Edelman was doubled.
This was an impressive showing from a unit that featured just three players. Matthew Slater was the No. 4 man available to the team with Griff Whalen inactive, but he saw just four snaps late. (Although it appeared as though there was some miscommunication on the sideline when the team was looking for Slater because Hogan had to check in with trainers on the sidelines briefly. The Patriots opted to burn a timeout rather than risk a delay of game penalty and Hogan was re-inserted.) Edelman continues to see the lion's share of targets, getting 14 on Monday, putting his total for the last four games at a whopping 54. He had a drop, and he drew Brady's ire for not continuing to run full speed into the end zone on a deep attempt in the first quarter, but he's still Brady's most trusted option. They need to manage him as much as possible down the stretch, it seems, meaning a return to his role as full-time punt-returner looks unlikely.
TIGHT END: B+
What a difference one extra day of rest makes, I guess? Bennett said after the game that he felt as good as he'd felt in quite some time, and it showed. He was much more effective in all facets -- both as a blocker and a receiver -- than he was against the Rams, when he was oftentimes a hindrance to what the Patriots were trying to do offensively. He dominated his matchup with Orr, flattening him on Dion Lewis' eight-yard run, stopping him in his tracks in pass-protection, and wrestling the ball away from him on his touchdown. Cameron Fleming (19 snaps) and Matt Lengel (nine) were both effective in their limited work as run-blockers.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
When the game was over late Monday night, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia sought out his players at their lockers and congratulated them. They'd kept Brady relatively clean -- Lewis allowed the only sack -- and helped grind out 96 yards on 25 carries against a stout front. The 68-year-old assistant was fired up. He told them, "That's what we wanted to do, right?" David Andrews had his moments in the running game, and Shaq Mason made defenders pay when he pulled, as he usually does. Thuney and Mason each picked up holding penalties to hurt drives, but otherwise it was a solid all-around performance.
Had it not been for the two fumbles in the kicking game, the Patriots defense may have been able to keep the Ravens out of the end zone entirely in this one. Maybe it was because they were exhausted, but they did let down when Cyrus Jones and Matthew Slater put them in those unenviable spots. It appeared as though there was some miscommunication between Devin McCourty and Dont'a Hightower when running back Kenneth Dixon leaked out into the flat for a touchdown. McCourty was also beaten to the inside by tight end Darren Waller for Joe Flacco's other score when the Patriots opted to double Dennis Pitta. McCourty didn't have much in the way of help as Duron Harmon was a step slow getting to the middle of the end zone after lining up on the left side of the Patriots formation. Despite those red-zone breakdowns, Matt Patricia's unit appears to be made of of pieces who understand their roles as well as ever, allowing them to be deployed interchangeably.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The Patriots' 'defensive front book-ended their 11th win with two big plays. First came Malcom Brown's safety, which was made possible when Ravens guard Vlad Ducasse was apparently confused by the defensive line stem just before the snap, causing him to block Elandon Roberts and leaving the 320-pound Brown for 240-pound fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Even the Harvard grad couldn't figure out that physics problem. Then, with 6:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, Rob Ninkovich came up with a hugely important sack. It was one of the few six-man rushes of the night for Patricia, and the Ravens lost Ninkovich as he looped and stunted inside before wrapping himself around Flacco's ankles. The Patriots followed that up with the Hogan score, giving them all the breathing room they'd need. Trey Flowers also had a sack, and Brown finished with four total quarterback hurries, continuing his recent stretch of strong play.
It was another solid but not spectacular effort from this group of second-level defenders. Hightower is limited somewhat in his responsibilities by holding his ground in the middle of the field as the unit's primary communicator and traffic cop, but he's helped Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin develop as they've established themselves as the No. 2 and 3 options at the position since the Jamie Collins trade. Hightower finished with two quarterback hurries but found himself moved off of his spot in the running game on occasion. Van Noy (37 snaps) earned the playing-time edge over McClellin (33) and recorded a pass-breakup, but he has difficulty tackling in open space. Juszczyk;s 40-yard gain in the first quarter was sparked when Van Noy missed the initial hit.
Despite his involvement in both touchdowns and a missed tackle in the first quarter, McCourty was solid on the back end. He was responsible for defending Pitta -- one of Flacco's favorite targets in gotta-have-it situations -- at different points, and he allowed just two catches for five yards on three targets. He also picked a pass that fell into his lap that was intended for Mike Wallace, but he made an athletic play simply by not committing interference on the throw. Malcolm Butler continued to play as one of the game's best corners, allowing two grabs for 27 yards on three targets and recording one pass breakup. He also picked up a 15-yard penalty for letting Steve Smith get in his head in the first quarter, but he's not the first player who's fallen victim to Smith's between-the-whistle tactics.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D
Yes, Stephen Gostkowski made all of his kicks. Yes, Ryan Allen had himself a night with two punts pinned down at the Ravens goal line -- one of which led to a safety -- and one that should have been downed inside the 15-yard line but was booted into the end zone by McClellin. Yes, Patrick Chung made a good recovery on Justin Tucker's onside kick. Yes, McClellin did well to time the Ravens field-goal operation for his block. But what happened to Jones and Slater might have cost the Patriots the game on another night, and that is where this unit's grade slides. Griff Whalen was inactive for the game after being acquired later in the week, but don't be surprised if he factors into the team's plans as a returner for the final three games of the regular season.