Perry's Report Card: Patriots defensive front dominates on Titans film
Perry's Report Card: Patriots defensive front dominates on Titans film
Once again, the Patriots spent a game day having to battle through injuries, but against one of the most hapless teams in the league, they did more than enough to earn their 12th win of the season. The pressure they were able to apply on Titans quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Zach Mettenberger allowed New England's defense to set a physical and aggressive tone despite losing one of their best players -- linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- in the third quarter. And the offense executed well enough early to build up a cushion, that the Titans would never really threaten. Let's get to the grades.
The Patriots appeared to have their choice as to what they wanted to do offensively in this one: Pick apart Tennessee's depleted secondary or run it against their generally porous front. Despite some hiccups in the second half, including a couple of uncharacteristic drops by tight end Rob Gronkowski, they did just that. They hit the 30-point mark for the seventh time this season and for the first time since Week 8.
* Tom Brady was perfect on his first drive, using lots of quick-hitting throws. That's exactly what he's done when the Patriots has churned along like one of the best in the league. He hit five receivers during the series, and the Gronkowski touchdown pass was a good one. Good route. Good read by Brady. Fading away from the line of scrimmage, Brady put the throw on the money in the front corner of the end zone.
* Brady had trouble finding his targets early in the second half. First, he fired incomplete to Rob Gronkowski, potentially in an effort to keep the tight end out of harm's way over the middle of the field. He threw low and in front of Gronkowski, perhaps hoping that he could make a diving grab. It looked as though if he had hit Gronkowski in stride, Gronkowski would have been vulnerable to a big hit. Then Brady missed Brandon LaFell, who was covered tightly. On New England's second drive of the second half, he threw high and behind Gronkowski, which almost resulted in a ridiculous one-handed catch, but it fell to the turf incomplete. One play later, Brady made a perfect 20-yard throw to Gronkowski that hit his target in the numbers. Gronkowski was open, but he dropped it as he headed out of bounds. The ball may have been deflected by safety Daimion Stafford before it reached Gronkowski.
* With Julian Edelman still out, and with Danny Amendola getting injured during the game, Brady should be credited for continuing to help New England's skill position players -- specifically new receiver Leonard Hankerson -- line up correctly.
TIGHT END: B+
* Rob Gronkowski's block on the right edge of the Patriots formation helped Brandon Bolden turn a third-and-one carry into a 10-yard gain in the first quarter. Back to a full workload in this matchup with the Titans, Gronkowski showed up in various facets of the game. He didn't catch everything thrown his way -- he reeled in five of 11 targets -- but he had an impact in other areas.
* The Patriots have found something with the motions they've used that have been initiated just before the snap. They sent Gronkowski in motion with 9:12 left in the first quarter. He caught the pass behind the line of scrimmage, but while running at full speed to pick up 13 yards. It seems as though in zone or man-to-man coverage, sticking with a moving target like that stresses opposing defenses. It's action that we see typically with someone like Julian Edelman, who has taken jet-sweep handoffs in the past. But with a 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end? It's a rare sight.
* Michael Williams allowed a pressure with 2:02 remaining because he stepped on Sebastian Vollmer's foot and tripped. Brian Orakpo almost got to Brady, but Brady threw it away. Because he was outside the pocket, it was not an intentional grounding penalty.
* After a drop near the sideline that erased a potential 20-yard gain, Brady went back to Gronkowski for the third consecutive pass play. On a low pass, away from defenders, Gronkowski reached down and plucked it for a first down. Brady explained this week that those are the types of catches that impress him the most. Somehow, Gronkowski's catch radius allows him to stay on his feet, reach down toward the ground and make awkward grabs time after time. Players that big shouldn't be that flexible.
* Gronkowski showed that he's working not to pick up any further offensive pass interference penalties in the fourth quarter. He made contact with a Titans defensive back about eight yards from the line of scrimmage at the top of his out-route. Without pushing off or extending his arms, he brokee to the sideline for a 15-yard gain.
* Williams made his third catch of the year, his first since Week 7, with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
* Brandon LaFell's catch across the middle was a big gainer to get the first drive of the game moving. Getting him on the run, as the Patriots did on that shallow cross that went for 29 yards, seems to be one of the best ways to utilize him. Two plays later, the Patriots got it to LaFell quickly again, hitting him on a short screen pass on second and 11.
* Amendola was knocked from the game after fielding a punt in the second quarter, but he didn't appear to tweak his injured left knee until he hit the sidelines following the play. Earlier in the game, he appeared to be moving normally, ducking under two potentially big hits late in the team's first drive.
* Hankerson saw 10 snaps after just two practices with the Patriots. At times he had to be directed where to go by Brady, which comes as no surprise. He said after the game that he had spent the second half of the week staying up late to study the Patriots playbook.
* LaFell's ability to hold onto the football after taking a helmet-to-helmet shot from safety Daimion Stafford was impressive. Thankfully for LaFell, he bounced back to his feet quickly and actually shook Stafford's hand despite the fact that Stafford was called for unnecessary roughness.
* On an end-around hand-off to LaFell that went for no gain in the fourth quarter, one has to wonder if the absences of Edelman and Amendola hurt the chances of the play. LaFell was squared up by a Titans linebacker while Martin lost his block on a Tennessee corner, snuffing out the play. Had it been a healthy Edelman taking the handoff and Amendola -- an effective blocker at the receiver position -- trying to clear some space, perhaps the result of the play would have been different.
* Martin's offensive pass interference penalty that wiped out James White's 70-yard catch and run, appeared to occur within one yard of the line of scrimmage, meaning the contact should have been deemed legal. Brady explained his frustration with that call on Monday morning during an interview with WEEI.
* LaFell's 31-yard catch with about five minutes left in the game showed that Brady trusts him to go and get the football on third down. Brady threw to open space and let his biggest wideout go get it. It was LeFell's first game without a drop since Week 11.
RUNNING BACK: B+
* On a third-and-one play in the first quarter, the Patriots used a little bit of power football with Joey Iosefa in the backfield as the lead back in their I-formation. Bolden picked up a big gain before Iosefa even had an opportunity to get his hands on someone. Had he held his lead block, Bolden may still be running. In the third quarter, Iosefa got another shot as a lead-blocker but fell as he tried to get through the hole, resulting in a two-yard gain for Bolden.
* Bolden ran hard, but often there were one-on-one matchups -- three times on New England's first drive he was in those types of situations -- and he couldn't make anyone miss. Later in the game, though, he did. With five minutes remaining in the second quarter, he side-stepped Jurrell Casey and turned a potential loss of yardage into an eight-yard gain.
* James White's first catch of the game looked very similar to the play in the fourth quarter that went for a 70-yard gain but was called back due to an offensive pass interference penalty called on Keshawn Martin. In the first quarter, Amendola was outside of White, not Martin. Heading straight at outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who was in coverage on White, Amendola avoided contact and continued with his route. White caught the pass and was pushed out of bounds by Orakpo. On the fourth-quarter play, Orakpo was late in getting to White -- likely because he was hit by Martin -- and White turned it up-field.
* Though the 70-yarder was erased, White continued to show his athleticism in the open field, spinning away from a tackler on the sideline to pick up an extra 53 yards.
* Iosefa didn't find a ton of running room but ran hard with his chances. He got five yards without really using what seemed to be a strong pulling block from Mason with 2:38 left in the second quarter. He also buried Coty Sensabaugh late in the second quarter. One play later, he almost knocked linebacker Avery Williamson off of his feet when he initiated contact.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
* On the first play from scrimmage, Shaq Mason pulled from left guard and wiped out linebacker Avery Williamson who was engaged with Marcus Cannon. The rookie from Georgia Tech continues to prove himself as an effective force when on the move, and Bill Belichick recently called him one of the most athletic offensive linemen he's ever coached.
* David Andrews and Sebastian Vollmer helped LaFell pick up 10 on a quick screen in the first quarter. Good athleticism on the line is allowing the Patriots to use this quick-hit passing game. Another benefit? It helps Tom Brady get the ball out of his hands quickly.
* Tre' Jackson gave up New England's first sack of the day. Couldn't handle Jurrell Casey on a strong move to the inside. If Casey didn't get him, David Bass (working on Marcus Cannon) might've.
* Josh Kline gave up a quarterback hit one play before James White's touchdown catch-and-run. He made up for it with one of the important blocks on the screen-pass score, which we detailed after the game.
* Vollmer was beaten to the inside by Casey twice on back-to-back plays late in the second quarter. Brandon Bolden made Casey miss on the first play, leading to an eight-yard carry. On the second, Joey Iosefa couldn't do the same, and Casey blew the play up for a loss of a yard.
* Seems as though we don't see Tre' Jackson on the move quite as often as Mason, but he pulled around the left edge to help clear space for Bolden's six-yard gain on the first play of the second half.
* Mason played well in the running game even when he wasn't pulling. Combining for an effective double-team block with Vollmer, he moved to the second level and helped Iosefa pick up five yards on a first-down play with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.
* Cannon allowed a sack early in the fourth quarter when Titans defensive lineman Angelo Blackson bull-rushed as part of Tennessee's three-man rush. Karl Klug also got to Brady and wrapped up his ankle.
This was yet another dominant performance from New England's front as it racked up five sacks and 18 quarterback hurries in the win. Though it wasn't a perfect game on the back end -- rookie receiver Dorial Green-Beckham proved to be a difficult physical matchup at 6-foot-5 -- the pressure created up front never allowed the Titans to find anything that resembled an offensive rhythm. Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, Akiem Hicks and Jamie Collins all were disruptive in their own right, forcing negative plays and turnovers.
* Patrick Chung showed up in run support early in this one, which comes as no surprise. He has been good in that area all season. If he misses time due to the hip injury he suffered in the fourth quarter, this part of his game will be missed. He ended up with seven tackles, including one for no gain on a Titans fourth-down attempt with 5:00 left in the first half.
* On a first-and-10 play with 5:48 left in the first quarter, Ryan chased Green-Beckham across the width of the field and never caught up. Marcus Mariota made a great throw on the run for 19 yards. With 7:16 remaining in the second, Ryan had good coverage on Green-Beckham but he didn't realize when the ball was going to arrive. Green-Beckham made the catch for 29 yards. Mettenberger hit Green-Beckham with Ryan in coverage for another 30-yarder early in the third quarter. Ryan was in lockstep with his assignment, but the 6-foot-5, 237-pounder went up and over Ryan for the catch.
* On Delanie Walker's touchdown catch in the third quarter, it looked as though the Patriots tried to have him double covered. He motioned from the right side of the Titans line to the left, and Chung followed, showing he had Walker in man-to-man coverage. Safety Duron Harmon, filling in for Devin McCourty, also shaded that way. On the snap, Harmon took a step to the inside, but Walker cut across his face over the middle and ended up being open at the goal line. Chung, having to fight through traffic in the middle of the field, wasn't able to catch up in time.
* Malcolm Butler appeared to have his second pick of the season when Mettenberger rolled to his left and threw to the sideline. The play was wiped out, however, when Leonard Johnson was penalized for an illegal hold. Butler eventually got that second pick with 9:34 remaining in the fourth quarter. His make-up speed shined again when he caught up to Harry Douglas down the right sideline, jumped, and secured Mettenberger's underthrown attempt.
* Jordan Richards played 30 snaps in the game and appeared frustrated on a couple of different occasions when he had potential interceptions slip from his hands. He also may have had a chance to bring down Walker during Walker's long catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter but was stiff-armed about 10 yards from the goal line.
* Dont'a Hightower drew an obvious hold on third down when he looped around from the defensive right side of the formation and ended up trying to break through the middle of the Titans line. He did not look like a player who had to talk himself into the game, showing good burst while getting up the field.
* Jamie Collins appeared to spy Mariota early in the game after faking a rush on a third down in the first quarter. It speaks to his athleticism that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia trusted him to shadow the speedy rookie quarterback.
* Jerod Mayo appeared to be moving well once again. The further he is removed from last year's season-ending knee injury, the stronger he appears to be. He reacted quickly on runs up the gut and got from his spot on the middle of the field to the sideline to make plays. With 12 minutes left in the third quarter, he helped clean up a rare missed tackle by Collins near the boundary.
* In the third quarter, Hightower's knee continued to look strong. Overpowering a Titans tight end, he set the edge alongside Rob Ninkovich on the left side of the Patriots defensive line and helped limit Antonio Andrews to no gain.
* The number of plays during which Collins totally avoided being blocked in this game was impressive. He appears to be fully over the illness that kept him out for about a month, showing good quickness to avoid being caught up in the wash. Still, the Titans may have wanted to focus a little harder on getting a hat on one of New England's best defensive players. He nearly had his second sack of the game with about four minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Mettenberger somehow escaped his grasp.
* Hightower left the game after nearly sacking Mettenberger in the third quarter. He pursued the quarterback with good speed and actually made a fully-extended leap to wrap up Mettenberger before Mettenberger made his pass. The pass was picked by Butler but was wiped away because of a penalty on Leonard Williams. It was difficult to tell when Hightower re-aggravated his injury. It may have been before, during, or after the leap when he hit the ground.
* The Patriots appeared to be in a Tampa-2 type of prevent zone defense late in the fourth quarter when Collins picked off Mettenberger. Collins dropped deep into the middle of the field, read Mettenberger's eyes to shade toward Walker, and then was in the perfect position when Walker deflected the pass up into the air for a gift interception.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A
* Alan Branch made a good play to stop a Titans run short on second down. Malcom Brown was in on that tackle as well. Big bodies on the interior started strong.
* Hicks snuffs out one Titans run. Tennessee is having a tough time blocking him one-on-one. He's out there early in some different fronts. The Patriots used a five-man front with Hicks, Malcom Brown, and Alan Branch with Jabaal Sheard and Chandler Jones on the edges during one play. On the next, it was Hicks, Brown and Jones on the inside with Jamie Collins and Sheard on the edges.
* Hicks comes off of a double-team on first down to make a stop. Brown fires through the line and trips up Antonio Andrews to slow him down before he lands in Hicks' arms.
* On the next play, Hicks destroys the Titans guard to get into the backfield. Hicks loses his angle at Mariota when Mariota steps up in the pocket, but Hicks then continues to work and eventually smothers Mariota for the sack. File that one under "effort play."
* On a third-and-long play during Tennessee's second series, the Patriots brought just three but still managed to get enough pressure on Mariota to force an errant throw. When Mariota tried to get outside the pocket, Ninkovich was right there with him.
* The strip sack by Chandler Jones was an impressive individual effort. He fought through Taylor Lewan and barely poked the ball away with his left hand. The only players who knew the ball were out were Jones, Lewan, Mariota and Hicks, and Hicks was the first one to get to it. It just so happens he got to it in the end zone, scoring New England's first defensive touchdown of the season.
* Jabaal Sheard continues to have himself quite an introductory season with the Patriots. Not only did he continue to show up as a run defender, crashing down on Titans backs from the edge, but he also was a productive pass rusher yet again. One example of the impact he's having on the Patriots defense? With 10:32 left in the first half, Sheard lined up as a middle linebacker and rushed Mariota. Three Titans -- two linemen and a running back -- teamed up to try to stop him, leaving Jamie Collins completely unblocked for an eight-yard sack. The hit knocked Mariota from the game.
* At the end of the first half, Sheard continued to make an impact, swatting aside the arms of Lewan and speeding past the left tackle to sack Mettenberger.
* On Jones' second sack of the game, with 2:33 remaining in the third quarter, he waded through bodies on the interior of the offensive line to get into Mettenberger's face. Credit the Patriots secondary for good zone coverage on the play that forced Mettenberger to hold onto the football.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
* Newly-acquired corner Leonard Johnson served as a vice on the New England punt return unit alongside Tavon Wilson. Corner Justin Coleman was alone on the opposite side of the field.
* Danny Amendola's fumbled punt was unusual, to say the least. It appeared as though Titans tight end Philip Supernaw hit directly on the football to jar it loose as Tennessee converged on the Patriots receiver. After the game, Slater called Amendola one of the best punt returners in the league and said that he'd be comfortable with Amendola out there for 100 out of 100 returns.
* On Keshawn Martin's 75-yard kick return, he got solid blocks fron Nate Ebner, Michael Williams, Jordan Richards, and a double-team block from Jon Bostic and Darius Fleming to create an alley that was enough to spring him for the longest kick return in the AFC this season.
* Stephen Gostkowski's missed 48-yarder at the end of the first half was his first miss since a Week 11 win over the Bills and just his second miss all season.
* Once Amendola was injured, it was Martin who was back to return punts for the Patriots.
* Ryan Allen prevented the Patriots from failing their fourth-quarter 42-yard field goal attempt when he scooped a low Joe Cardona snap off the turf and got it on end in time for Gostkowski to bank the kick in.