Perry's Report Card: Patriots grades reflect sloppy outing vs. Bills
All three phases...
Players were almost in a daze. They tried to come up with answers but looked through the crowds of reporters standing in front of them and came up with very little.
The Patriots 16-0 loss to the Bills on Sunday, their first shutout loss at home since 1993, was permeated by ugliness, and there was no easy explanation in the home locker room at Gillette Stadium afterward. All three phases, as coach Bill Belichick often says, were afflicted. And the coaching staff would lump itself in there among the guilty parties as well.
Fortunately for them, they'll have quarterback Tom Brady back in the fold for their Week 5 game in Cleveland and beyond. But before we move on from this past weekend, here are this week's grades.
One could argue that a shutout at home should earn the Patriots offense a failing grade. But the fact that the Patriots were forced to use rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett, and therefore a dialed-back version of their offense, should be taken into account. Plus, Rex Ryan's defense wasn't exactly a wet paper towel. It deserves credit for stifling offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' plan to run with LeGarrette Blount, use the play-action passing game, show misdirection looks, and even deploy receiver Julian Edelman in the Wildcat on a pair of occasions. None of it worked. The Patriots never found a rhythm and struggled on all three downs. Penalties and an inability to execute on first and second down led to the team going 1-for-12 on their third-down opportunities. Of those 12 third downs, nine were third-and-five or more. It was notable that the Patriots didn't make use of Brissett's legs in quite the same way they did against the Texans in Week 3. Though he scrambled when pressured, the designed roll-out, naked-boot and option-pitch plays seemed to be de-emphasized in favor of the read option
Did the game plan help Brissett hide some of his warts, or did it keep him from impacting the game in a more positive way for his team? He threw just three passes in the first half, completing them all for 75 yards. His one down-field through in the game's first 30 minutes resulted in a 58-yard completion to tight end Martellus Bennett. With a thumb injury that limited him in practice all week, Brissett went 17-for-26 for 205 yards with no touchdowns and no picks. Brissett did fumble after scrambling and taking a hard hit from linebacker Zach Brown, all of which may have been avoided had he been able to see Brown sooner and slide. Though Brissett's performance looked like a rookie's, his teammates were impressed by his mettle. "I’ll tell you one thing: No. 7, he’s a tough kid, and he came out there and had a gutsy performance," Edelman said. "I gained a lot of respect for that young man and how poised he was to overcome the obstacles that he had to." Had three plays gone differently -- the fumble, an overthrow of Danny Amendola on third down in the first quarter, and a ball that glanced off of Brandon Bolden's hands in the third -- Brissett's day might've looked much differently. He has a long way to go in the Patriots offense, but even after a difficult day, the Patriots sounded encouraged by what they saw from Brissett in the way of mental fortitude. "You’ve got to give hats off to Jacoby today going out there," tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "Much respect to him going out there and doing what he did today as a rookie, so hats off to our quarterbacks. They did a tremendous job the first four weeks and obviously it’s exciting to get Tom back [Monday]." Brissett also had several players stand up for him in the media after he was bumped in pregame warmups by Bills safety Robert Blanton. Malcolm Mitchell, of course, stood up for Brissett on the field.
Running Back: B-
The final numbers for Blount were not bad. He had just 13 attempts and he turned them into 54 yards for an average of 4.2 yards per carry. Thirty-nine of his yards came after contact, and he had a long run of 11 yards. Due in part to Buffalo's focus on thwarting New England's running game, Blount had little room to run for much of the night, however, and five of his attempts went for zero yards or less. As Belichick has admitted this year, if the Patriots can't create room to help Blount get going, he is going to have a difficult time making big gains where his size and momentum make him a terror for linebackers and defensive backs. They weren't able to do that on Sunday. James White gave this group's grade a bit of a bump by catching all five of his targets (one of which he caught twice after a bobble) for 50 yards. It will be worth keeping an eye on Bolden's health this week after he had to leave Sunday's game with an apparent knee injury. A core special-teamer, Bolden has played 10 total offensive snaps this season.
Edelman, Amendola, Mitchell and Chris Hogan combined for one reception for 16 yards on six targets. Thanks to the game plan as well as sound coverage from the Bills, this group was completely nullified. The most noteworthy play that came from the foursome was on the team's first snap from scrimmage when Hogan was called for offensive pass interference as well as holding, wiping out a 90-yard catch-and-run play by Edelman. Edelman was also flagged for two penalties. In all, the Patriots offense was whistled for nine infractions.
Tight End: B+
Bennett continued to perform as one of the team's best players through the first month of the regular season. After seeing 44 more snaps, he has now played in 92 percent of the team's offensive plays this year. Heavily involved as both a run-blocker and pass-catcher, Bennett was one of Brissett's favorite targets in the game, catching five passes for 109 yards, showing good speed and elusiveness to pick up 79 yards after the catch. Gronkowski's usage continues to raise eyebrows as he saw action in 70 percent of the team's plays but only saw two targets. His one catch for 11 yards was the team's only third-down conversion in the game. The Patriots could be working Gronkowski back slowly after he injured his hamstring on Aug. 15, but the team also may have wanted to keep his out of harm's way with a relatively inexperienced signal-caller behind center. Gronkowski's importance to the Patriots is such that rather than having him run routes in the middle of the field, where he's exposed to high-speed collisions, perhaps the coaching staff opted to use him more as a blocker. He's effective in the running game and as a pass-protector, but Gronkowski's the top pass-catching tight end in the league, and he should ease back into a more typical role for him as he approaches full strength with Brady throwing to him.
Offensive Line: C
The Bills defensive line and linebackers -- particularly linebacker Zach Brown -- played well, and many of their plus plays came at the expense of coach Dante Scarnecchia's group. They were unable to clear much in the way of running room for Blount, especially early, and they weren't able to consistently provide Brissett with steady pocket. The third-rounder out of NC State was sacked three times and hit five more times. Penalties were an issue for this unit as well. Left tackle Nate Solder was flagged twice and Joe Thuney, Marcus Cannon and David Andrews each picked up a penalty each. After difficult days against the Dolphins and Texans, Thuney had what seemed to be his best day as a pro, allowing just one hurry.
The game plan for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia seemed to be similar to the one that previous Bills opponents employed: Make quarterback Tyrod Taylor, well, a quarterback. By keeping him in the pocket, not only were the Patriots hoping to prevent Taylor from extending plays and hitting big-gainers deep down the field, but he'd also be forced to make make them pay with accurate throws. He did, completing 27 of 37 attempts for 246 yards and a score. Though the Patriots defense allowed just 16 points, players indicated after the game that they weren't thrilled by their performance. The Bills weren't electric on third down (7-for-15), but they were better than their counterparts in that area, they broke tackles, and they won the time-of-possession battle, 36:11 to 23:49. For the second time this season, the Patriots did not create any turnovers.
Defensive Line: B
This group was responsible for more missed tackles (five) than any other, with Jabaal Sheard missing a pair to lead the way. Sheard was able to chase Taylor out of bounds and behind the line of scrimmage once for a sack, but this game plan wasn't about generating pressure. It was about keepng Taylor in the pocket and containing running back LeSean McCoy. The Patriots did an acceptable job surrounding Taylor, but McCoy was a different story. Second-year man Trey Flowers picked up a quarterback hit, but he was also flagged for a neutral-zone infraction. Alan Branch (59 of 78 snaps) and Malcom Brown (64 snaps) were counted on to take over on most of the early-down work on the interior after Vincent Valentine left the game injured. The defensive tackle spot would be thinned significantly if Valentine was forced to miss any time going forward. Interior lineman John Hughes was released last week before playing in a game, and penetrating defensive tackle Anthony Johnson is currently on the practice squad after making the active roster out of camp.
After missing two games with a knee injury that he suffered in Week 1, Dont'a Hightower came back and put together a relatively strong showing. He was in on four separate run-stuffs -- including one as an edge-setter on the first drive of the game for the Bills -- and he picked up a hit on Taylor. Hightower was screened off by the Bills on McCoy's touchdown catch-and-run in the first quarter, but Hightower's knee was strong enough to take on a sizeable workload (70 snaps), which bodes well for him moving forward. Collins tied for the team lead with two missed tackles. Jonathan Freeny was another Patriots defender who was forced to leave early. A special-teams contributer first and foremost, Freeny is also the team's No. 3 linebacker and important depth should Hightower or Collins miss time. In his place came Shea McClellin, who performed well in limited work (26 snaps).
This may be another case where the game plan dictated the play of a certain position group. However, even if the Patriots were content to force Taylor into playing like an accurate quarterback, they likely realized relatively quickly that he wasn't going to be misfiring all too often. Logan Ryan was targeted early and often, and had difficulty in stopping Taylor's connections with receiver Robert Woods on inward-breaking routes. Ryan led the team with 17 tackles due in part to the number of times the ball was headed his way. At one point, rookie second-round pick Cyrus Jones briefly took over for Ryan as the team's No. 2 corner. Safety Devin McCourty was second on the team with seven solo tackles, and he helped hold Taylor to 1-of-4 passing on throws that traveled 20 yards or farther from the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus.
Special Teams: C-
Cyrus Jones and kickoff return traffic cop Matthew Slater, one would suspect, will grow more accustomed to working with each other as the weeks go by. When Jones nearly took a knee two yards from the end zone, however, may have been an indicatiom that Jones and the rest of the club need more seasoning. Stephen Gostkowski missed his only field goal try, and Jones and Amendola each fumbled once as returners. Ryan Allen punted six times for an averaged of 52.2 yards. He also dropped two inside the 20, boosting this group's grade.