Perry's Report Card: Solid start to season for Patriots
By Phil Perry
There were all kinds of excuses in place for the Patriots to lean on if they wanted them in Thursday night's season-opener against the Steelers. A championship banner was being unveiled and had the potential to sap some of their focus. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman didn't play a single preseason snap. Interior offensive linemen Bryan Stork and Ryan Wendell were inactive, leaving the three spots on the inside as green as they've been in years. And quarterback Tom Brady spent a good deal of the offseason wondering if he'd be eligible to play in the regular-season's first month. Despite all that, the Patriots played a solid all-around game, working efficiently on offense, and preventing any back-breaking plays on defense. However you slice it, a 28-21 win over the Steelers was a solid start to a new year.
If you needed a reminder that the preseason means nothing when it comes to regular-season success, this game was it. The Patriots offense was leaps and bounds ahead of where it appeared to be in August. Brady and his top targets were on the same page all night, working quickly and effectively between the 20s. And in terms of capitalizing with touchdowns in the red zone, the Patriots offense was 4-for-4. It was a very good night against a defense that was clearly confused at some points and just physically overmatched at others. The only thing dropping their grade was the play of the offensive line, which was better than many expected given the personnel on the interior, but still -- as the players and coaching staff have admitted -- far from perfect.
When you set a team record for consecutive completions in a game (19), odds are you're going to make the honor roll. Brady was zeroed-in on the task at hand after a tumultuous offseason and a relatively erratic preseason. On the night, he completed 78 percent of his passes (25-for-32) for 288 yards, which gave him a mark of 9.0 yards-per-attempt. That was almost a full two yards better than his YPA last season (7.06). (For reference, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo led the league in YPA in 2014 at 8.52.) Brady missed a pair of throws that could have been big-gainers -- one to receiver Danny Amendola in the first quarter and one to running back Dion Lewis in the fourth -- and, according to Dan Koppen on Monday Night Football, Brady was responsible for the sack he took in the third quarter after making an incorrect call at the line. Still, the 16-year veteran was in sync with three rookie interior linemen protecting him for much of the night, and he performed well under pressure. He was blitzed on 11 drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus, and on those plays he went 8-for-10 with four touchdowns.
TIGHT ENDS: A
The Steelers defense can be blamed for losing Gronkowski in coverage, making the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder's job much easier, but even when they found him, they didn't have much luck in stopping him. Fully healthy to start a season for the first time in a long, Gronkowski proved why he should be considered the most versatile offensive weapon in football. His size, speed and hands speak for themselves, but it's how the Patriots use him that make him such a force. He scored a touchdown in-line. He scored two lined up wide, where his route-running and set-ups off the line are as polished as they've ever been. He ran rub routes to free up teammates, including fellow tight end Scott Chandler on his one-yard score. He helped spring Lewis for a 13-yard run in the third quarter as a run blocker. He does just about everything but throw it, and everything he does, he does very well. Thursday's opener was just another example of that.
The Patriots were rewarded for applying to Edelman the same preseason approach that they've taken with Gronkowski over the last few years. Edelman dealt with an injury early in camp, and rather than push him to play in games that didn't matter, they saved him, got him healthy, and received an energetic performance in return. As is usually the case with Brady's No. 1 receiver, he was where he needed to be and when he needed to be there, and he bailed out his offense on a few occasions when needed. On one of Brady's rare inaccurate throws, Edelman reached to his back shoulder, made a bobbling catch, and took a hard hit but held on for a first down. On a jet sweep in the third quarter, Edelman set up his defender beautifully by changing speeds midway through his motion across the line and juking past him for another first down. He also used some veteran savvy to set up a pass interference call in the third quarter that helped set up Chandler's score. Clearly he is vital in making the offense go and, as Brady suggested on WEEI this week, should make an effort to limit some of the big hits he sustains. Amendola finished with two catches for 24 yards but could have had more had Brady hit him on his first target. Aaron Dobson played in 31 snaps with Brandon LaFell out, but he finished with just one catch on one target for nine yards.
RUNNING BACKS: B+
It was unclear who would secure the role of third-down back coming out of the preseason, but the answer became pretty clear after one regular-season game. Not only did Lewis see the bulk of the passing-down plays, he was the team's feature back with LeGarrette Blount suspended for the week. As he did in the preseason, Lewis continued to show good explosion and impressive quickness in space. He ran between the tackles, where he admitted his size (5-foot-8, 195 pounds) may have helped him get lost in the trees, and he shined in blitz pickup with a pair of blocks that helped spring Edelman for first-down receptions. Though Blount will be back against the Bills, Lewis appeared to establish for himself a role in the offense with his 120 total yards on 19 touches (15 carries, four receptions). On the night, he averaged 3.3 yards after contact for every rush and 8.5 yards after the catch for every reception. He fumbled near the goal line in the fourth quarter, which he realizes he has to clean up, but overall it was quite the coming-out party for the player who missed the entire 2013 season with a broken leg and was out of football last year. Brandon Bolden finished with just one yard on five carries, but that lack of production wasn't all on him. The offensive line struggled to create running lanes with the 220-pounder on the field.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B-
The Patriots trotted out three rookies on their interior line over the course of the game and came away with just two sacks -- one of which appears to have fallen on the quarterback's shoulders -- allowed. That's about all you can ask for from that kind of youth on the interior. Undrafted rookie center David Andrews played the entire game and appeared to be overpowered at times, but he flashed his athleticism and intelligence to help spring the Patriots for big plays. He helped out fellow rookie Shaq Mason and left tackle Nate Solder on the left side of the line in order to pick up an overload blitz on a play that resulted in Gronkowski's 52-yard catch-and-run. And Andrews didn't appear to have any issues with the quarterback-center exchange. He may not be as physically ready for the pro game as Stork was last season, but it's easy to see why the Patriots like him. Belichick told WEEI on Monday that the trio of Andrews, Mason and Tre' Jackson have taken almost a season's worth of snaps already in their young careers because they were worked in so frequently during OTAs, minicamp and training camp. It showed as there were no major breakdowns. Josh Kline, who played at both right and left guard, continues to be a valuable member of the offensive line. The Patriots are 6-1 in games he has started in his three-year career, losing only a meaningless Week 17 game to the Bills last season. On the outside, Sebastian Vollmer was solid as usual on the right side. Solder, a newly-minted captain, had a tough first quarter with a pair of penalties, including an uncharacteristic unsportsmanlike call, but he appeared to get stronger as the game wore on, flashing his athleticism while pulling to clear a lane for a nine-yard run by Lewis in the third quarter. For a group that dealt with serious turnover at the start of last season after Logan Mankins was traded, the start to this season is much more natural by comparison. Instead of having just a few days to get used to a new group, the Patriots have been preparing with this new-look line all summer. The results should only continue to get better as Wendell -- and later in the season -- Stork get healthy.
The Steelers were without a pair of their best offensive weapons in running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Martavis Bryant so it was up to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown to shoulder the load. While Pittsburgh racked up 464 total yards, they only scored three times, and one of those came in the game's closing seconds with the Patriots win all but official. Belichick's defense was aided by a pair of missed field goals courtesy of kicker Josh Scobee, but it put the clamps on in critical situations.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-
It appeared to be somewhat of an up-and-down outing for the Patriots defensive front. Newcomer Jabaal Sheard showed up in a big way in the fourth quarter, highlighted by a third-down stop of running back D'Angelo Williams that forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal after having a first-and-goal opportunity from the one. He finished the game with a sack and four quarterback hurries. Sealver Siliga only saw 22 of a possible 73 defensive snaps, but he made the most of his chances, providing a forceful presence on the interior. As is to be expected, rookies Malcom Brown and Geneo Grissom had their good and bad moments. Brown picked up his first career sack when he hit Antonio Brown behind the line of scrimmage on a pass attempt, and Grissom showed impressive strength on the interior as he helped fill in for Dominique Easley, who left with a hip injury in the first quarter. Brown appeared to get too high out of his stance at times, however, and Grissom was a non-factor on Pittsburgh's goal-line score though it looked like he may have been dealing with an injury and Pittsburgh's pace wouldn't let him off the field. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were among the group's leaders in snaps -- 69 and 71, respectively -- but both appeared to have some difficulty setting the edge as well as they typically do. That may be a point of focus for the team this week as they prepare to face a running quarterback in Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor. As a unit, one of the line's best plays may have been one that they never had to make. By shifting in unison on the goal line, something the team practices frequently, they were able to bait the Steelers into a false-start penalty which pushed them back and eventually helped force a field-goal try in the fourth quarter.
With an apparent focus on stopping the Steelers passing game, the Patriots opted to go with two linebackers -- Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins -- for the majority of the game. Jerod Mayo saw just nine snaps in his first game back after suffering a season-ending knee injury last season, and safety Patrick Chung saw some time in somewhat of a linebacker role in three-safety sets that included Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. Both Hightower and Collins posted some explosive plays, none more so than Hightower's belly-to-back suplex sack of Roethlisberger in the first quarter. Hightower was also fearless in New England's goal line defense, torpedoing the line of scrimmage at full speed to help blow up a potential one-yard plunge in the fourth quarter. Collins appeared to be the defensive signal-caller for the Patriots and did an effective job getting his teammates organized with the help of Hightower, McCourty and Ninkovich from time to time.
Second-year man and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler appeared to have the best game of the bunch, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the numbers. Shadowing Pittsburgh's No. 1 option for the vast majority of the game, Butler covered Brown on eight of his nine receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown. Though Butler said on Friday that he had been humbled by Brown's performance, there were plenty of positive takeaways from the night. Butler was not physically overmatched against one of the quickest athletes and best route-runners in the league. He was beaten for a pair of long gains, but really only beaten badly on one throw where Brown used a double-move to free himself. Many of Browns catches came on short tosses, one in particular came after running Butler through a pair of picks, and a handful of others came on impressive throws from Roethlisberger with Butler in good position to make a play. There's only so much a corner can do when one of the best passers and one of the best receivers are in sync. That the Patriots coaching staff trusts Butler to match up with one of the game's best is a testament to Butler's ability. Bradley Fletcher was beaten for a 43-yard gain by Darius Heyward-Bey, and was targeted often by Roethlisberger early. Fletcher may have lucked out on another pass to Heyward-Bey when the receiver caught a would-be touchdown out of bounds, but there appeared to be some miscommunication between he and McCourty on the back end. Both Fletcher and Tarell Brown seemed to perform well in run support, which help their grades.
The Patriots have very good depth on the back end as rookie second-round pick Jordan Richards did not play a single defensive snap. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia went with McCourty, Harmon and Chung to start the game with McCourty and Harmon roaming deep. If the goal was to prevent explosive plays in the passing game, the trio helped do just that. Brown had a pair of long catches and Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton also got theirs, but by and large there were no real game-changers in that regard. By reading and reacting accordingly on the attempted receiver pass early in the game, Patriots safeties helped snuff out what was a promising Steelers drive to open the game. And in the fourth quarter, with Pittsburgh threatening, Harmon covered a great deal of ground -- from one hash to the opposite sideline -- to intercept Roethlisberger's attempt deep down the field to Heyward-Bey. The Patriots may go with a different play against Rex Ryan's ground-and-pound Bills offense next week, but to have three experienced safeties ready to go -- and one promising rookie waiting in the wings -- New England appears to be very sound at this spot. Aside from a pass-interference penalty committed by Chung in the end zone and a few apparent communication errors, it was a relatively clean performance from those manning the back end.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Four touchbacks on five attempts for Stephen Gostkowski is the type of performance we've come to expect from the talented Patriots kicker. He also handled the new 33-yard extra-point attempts with relative ease. There were no field goal attempts, but rookie snapper Joe Cardona did not appear to have any issues in his professional debut. Ryan Allen pinned the Steelers within the 20 with one of his four punts and boomed one 67 yards. Special teams ace Matthew Slater had a rare block-in-the-back penalty that he disagreed with, but other than that it was a strong showing from the team's kicking units. Amendola returned both Steelers punts in the game. Edelman and Amendola shared the punt-return duties last season with Edelman receiving the larger share.