Perry's Report Card: Patriots already in midseason form?
Perry's Report Card: Patriots already in midseason form?
The Patriots say it every year: The goal is to be playing their best football once they hit Thanksgiving. After their 40-32 win over Rex Ryan's Bills in Week 2, though, it appears as if they've expedited the annual process of slowly rounding into form. Yes, there were about 10 minutes in Sunday's win that Patriots coach Bill Belichick would like to have back, where the Bills made it game in the fourth quarter. But If there's much room for his team grow from what we saw in a sound performance in a hostile environment, the AFC could be a pile of rubble by the time President Obama pardons a turkey. Let's go to the grades, which for the second consecutive week should make their way onto the fridges of Patriots moms everywhere.
The game plan was to chuck it, and chuck it they did. With Tom Brady behind center, that's rarely a bad way to go, and against Buffalo's talented -- and highly-paid, as Belichick reminded us this week -- defensive front, it was clearly the wise decision. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels used a solid combination of quick-hitting tosses, occasional deeper tries and well-timed runs to keep Ryan's group guessing, and after a rocky opening drive to start the game the offense found its rhythm and maintained it. Better execution late would have kept this one from turning into a knee-rattling finish, but overall this appears to be a group that has already found its groove through two weeks. Credit should go to the guys up front -- especially the young ones on the interior -- for allowing their teammates at the skill positions to get to this point as quickly as they have.
We don't hand out A+ marks here. This isn't elementary school. That said, if we did, Brady deserved one. His 59 attempts were the second-most of his career, and he completed 38 of them for 466 yards. At 38 years old, this is as effective of a start to the season as we've seen from him. The scary thing? He left yards on the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Everyone remembers the fourth-and-one incompletion to Edelman deep down the middle of the field that would have had him sniffing 500 yards, but there were two passes thrown behind Gronkowski over the middle that could have been more accurate. His teammates also dropped six passes on the day, including one that appeared to be purposefully dropped by Edelman to save him from being drilled over the middle by Jerry Hughes. Through two games this season, Brady is completing 69 percent of his passes and he's averaging 8.29 yards per attempt, which extended out over 16 games would have been good enough for third-best in the league over the course of the 2014 season. The ball is flying out of his hand quickly, and it seems as though he has yet to make a poor decision. Seven touchdowns to zero interceptions through 120 minutes of football is tremendous. Even for him. This is peak Brady.
TIGHT END: A-
I want to be a tougher grader. I really do. But when Gronkowski is healthy, it's unlikely that this group is going to drop all that much lower than this. He was the reason the air was let out of the stadium in the first quarter when he ran down the seam during New England's second drive and snatched a perfectly-thrown ball for a 36-yard gain, and his touchdown was yet another example of the kind of anxiety he inflicts on defenses near the goal line. I was surprised Ryan didn't throw more Gronkowski's way after a week of talking about him like he was some kind of super hero. The All-Pro was rarely doubled -- save for at the goal line, which the Bills screwed up the first time around -- and he didn't see his first jam at the line of scrimmage until five minutes into the second quarter. Even after that, the jams were infrequent and ineffective. At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, I understand that bodying up on him is often a losing proposition, but to let him run free into the secondary is a surefire way to get bludgeoned. Buffalo tried linebackers, safeties, corners and defensive ends on him, and they all were equally unsuccessful. The takeaway here: He's just about uncoverable. And though the Patriots didn't run it all that often, Gronkowski was a dominating run blocker as well. He's always been good, but through two games that aspect of his game seems to be even better than it's been over the last few seasons when he's dealt with injuries. On Dion Lewis' six-yard touchdown run, Gronkowski easily sealed off Mario Williams, no small feat, to clear the way. The only thing knocking this group down a smidge in the grade book was Scott Chandler's inability to snag either of Brady's attempts at the goal line. They weren't easy grabs, but the former Bills tight end made those types of catches throughout training camp and probably believes he should have had both.
Edelman was an absolute menace to the Bills defense in this one. His quickness in and out of breaks makes him incredibly difficult to stop in tight spaces, as we saw on the first touchdown of the game when he shook two defenders with a joint-stressing stop-and-start whip route. But he beat them with speed as well, which he showed on his second score of the game when he out-ran the Bills secondary across the field and dove for the pylon. He also could have had a third touchdown had he and Brady connected on a fourth-and-one attempt in the fourth quarter. This wasn't just the Edelman Show, though. Danny Amendola had one catch, but it was a mind-boggling one, and it helped set up Stephen Gostkowski's late field goal, turning a tenuous five-point lead into a more secure eight-point advantage. Aaron Dobson made his presence felt in this one as well. He played a whopping 70 snaps, and caught seven passes for 87 yards. The Patriots have used tight ends, running backs and receivers on the outside with Brandon LaFell out, but Dobson's size and speed gives the team a unique option there. This group's number of drops, they had four in all, lowers their grade a bit.
RUNNING BACK: B+
It looks like the Patriots have struck gold with Dion Lewis. Through two games, he has more yards from scrimmage than any of his teammates, and he's shown a skill set that goes beyond that of the third-down role he seemed to be chasing in the preseason. His touchdown run featured some power running to carry two defenders into the end zone, and he flashed real toughness when he quickly popped off the ground after making a catch over the middle and absorbing a massive hit with his 5-foot-8, 195-pound frame. Lewis fumbled for the second time in two games, a problem he knows he has to solve. But he didn't miss an offensive snap after that gaffe. What that tells me is the Patriots coaching staff knows he has on-the-field abilities that aren't easily replaced. When it comes to this position, it's not often that they're willing to take the good in spite of the bad, and it speaks volumes when they are. LeGarrette Blount's two carries for four yards indicated how futile the Patriots believed a traditional power running game would be against the Bills front, even when the crowd noise made it difficult for Brady to communicate pass protection calls or route adjustments to his receivers. Travaris Cadet saw his first action of the season, playing in two offensive snaps and making one catch for two yards.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
Hard not to give high marks to a group that, on paper, was overmatched. The Bills defensive front four of Jerry Hughes, Aaron Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were kept from taking over the game. For that, Dave DeGuglielmo's group -- and particularly his young interior offensive linemen -- deserve kudos. For the second straight week, undrafted rookie center David Andrews played the entire game and looked seasoned. Third-year man Josh Kline also went wire-to-wire, shifting back and forth between right and left guard. He's now started eight games in his Patriots career, and the team is 7-1 in those contests. (The one loss was a meaningless Week 17 game against the Bills last season.) I thought this was a good performance from rookie Shaq Mason, who saw 57 snaps to Tre' Jackson's 27. Coming out of college he was seen as an athletic road grader, but raw in the passing game. He was far from perfect -- Dareus earned a sack when he got by Mason -- but he showed signs of progress in protection, picking up blitzers and combining with teammates for effective double-teams. Marcus Cannon performed solidly in 50 snaps, giving Sebastian Vollmer a breather at right tackle when the starter appeared to be dealing with a hand injury. Nate Solder, a captain with a fresh new deal, had a strong game, showing his above-average athleticism on a handful of occasions. Bills corner Stephon Gilmore is still looking for a license plate number after he was steam-rolled by the left tackle during a screen play to Julian Edelman.
When they were good, the Patriots were really good defensively. Aside from a blitzkreig opening drive from the Bills and a fourth quarter that had more than its share of breakdowns, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's group did what it wanted to do. It got after the quarterback (eight sacks), it turned the ball over (three picks), and it did so by keeping Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor inside the pocket for a large majority of the game.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
All week long, Patriots players pointed out what could happen if they allowed Taylor to extend plays. It was no secret that the odds of a big play shot through the roof if he was given ample amount of space with which to work. That played out early when he scampered past defensive end Rob Ninkovich and defensive tackle Sealver Siliga for a 23-yard gain. But as the game wore on, the Patriots executed better. Malcolm Butler's interception and Logan Ryan's game-sealing pick both came from inside the pocket, and all but one of the team's eight sacks came with Taylor on a tee behind center. On two of the three sacks by Chandler Jones, Taylor wanted to leave the pocket but couldn't in time. That's a credit to the big bodies up front. The Patriots used a handful of interesting combinations, showing their depth and varied talents along the line. We saw heavy sets with Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Siliga, and we saw lighter penetrating sets with Ninkovich, Jones, Jabaal Sheard and Rufus Johnson. It's worth noting it was a solid game for Branch, a former Bills defensive lineman, who finished with a strip sack and a handful of strong plays in the running game. He played 24 snaps, which is twice the number he saw against the Steelers in Week 1.
The Patriots appeared to turn to more zone schemes against the Bills than they did against the Steelers, potentially in part because they wanted eyes in the backfield to keep track of the scrambling quarterback. The interceptions by both Butler and Ryan were exceptionally athletic plays on passes that had been redirected by Taylor's intended targets. It was a strong game for Patriots corners in the running game as well, I thought. Butler has continuously showed up in that phase of the game this season, even going back to New England's preseason games. Some of the openings Taylor found when he broke the pocket are understandable. It's very hard to "plaster," as the Patriots like to say, receivers when plays are extended. But there were throws from inside the pocket that could have been better, including the fourth-quarter touchdown to Sammy Watkins and a 39-yard pass-interference call that came with Percy Harvin streaking down the sideline, both of which came with Bradley Fletcher in coverage.
take advantage of one throw after Taylor escaped late in the second quarter. Rolling to his left, Taylor made a sailing throw back toward the middle of the field. Reading Taylor's eyes, and breaking on the hanger, Duron Harmon cut it off for the interception. On Bills touchdown passes to Robert Woods and Charles Clay, it looked like the safety group could have done more in coverage. Their support in the run game in particular -- with Patrick Chung taking a bigger role with 61 snaps -- helped their grade.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Another good game from arguably the league's most reliable kicker. Stephen Gostkowski had seven touchbacks out of his nine kickoffs, and he made all four of his field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder and a 25-yarder that gave the Patriots a more secure eight-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Lewis appears to be the team's primary kick returner, though he didn't get a chance to return one. Danny Amendola returned three punts for 39 yards, including a 28-yarder that helped set up a two-play touchdown drive in the first quarter. It will be interesting to see if newly-acquired return man Keshawn Martin assumes that role when he's activated. Rufus Johnson's running-into-the kicker penalty in the second quarter could have been more costly, but because it came on a fourth-and-10 play, the free five yards didn't extend Buffalo's drive.