Perry's Report Card: A walk in the park for the Patriots
All points, no punts
By Phil Perry
During the week leading up to the Week 3 matchup between the Patriots and Jaguars, we wondered how a young and banged-up Jacksonville team might be able to keep it close. Would they hammer what had been an under-performing Patriots run defense on the ground with TJ Yeldon? Would they pepper the New England secondary with deep passes down the field to Allen Robinson? Would the strength of their defense -- its front -- be the first to take advantage of Tom Brady's young interior offensive line? No, no and no. This was a game that the Patriots should have handled with relative ease and they did. That they're able to head into the bye week with clean performance behind them and without any additional major injuries is a bonus. Let's get to the grades...
Every time the Patriots touch the ball, the goal is to score points -- even when they're up big in the fourth quarter. Much to the chagrin of the fans of punter Ryan Allen, the team scored on each of its possessions Sunday en route to its 51-17 win. Once again, the focus early on was to puncture the opposing defense through the air, and once again Brady and his receivers were synched up at a level that may be better than any other passing game in the league at the moment. After building up a lead with running back Dion Lewis as the primary back, LeGarrette Blount came in late to deal body blows and the Jaguars had no answer. Despite kicking three field goals when they would've liked to have touchdowns, this was as complete an offensive performance as the Patriots may have all year. Yes, it came against a defense that was lacking, especially in the secondary, but the offensive grade for Josh McDaniels and his group can't be dinged for that.
Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said it before the game on 98.5 The Sports Hub: Brady may be the best all-time when it comes to making decisions at the line of scrimmage. He made checks all afternoon -- many of which could be heard on the CBS broadcast if you listened closely -- and more often than not put his team in the correct position to pick up yardage. Of course, Brady was pretty good after the snap as well. He deftly looked off a safety for a 43-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski in the first quarter. In the third, he showed that he can still move inside the pocket with effectiveness, buying himself time, and buying time for his receivers in the middle of a scramble drill, eventually finding Keshawn Martin for a 13-yard score. For the second consecutive week, Brady completed passes to nine different receivers. His grade dropped to something less than perfect because a few of his throws were off the mark when he had solid protection. He threw one behind Aaron Dobson at the goal line that deflected off of Dobson's hands. He also ran Gronkowski and James White into big collisions with a pair of throws, but neither appeared all that worse for the wear after the fact.
TIGHT END: A-
Gronkowski continues to be the closest thing the league has to uncoverable in the passing game. Against Jacksonville's zone, he found room to operate in the seam, and at one point his speed forced safety James Sample to tackle him out of desperation well before the ball was within reach. The pass-interference call in the end zone led to one of New England's six touchdowns on the day. Gronkowski continued to show up as a blocker as well, helping clear the way for Lewis' eight-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and making a strong "wham" block on Jags defensive tackle Abry Jones to free up Lewis for a 10-yard gain. He's a weapon. Scott Chandler checked in with two catches, including one that put Brady over 300 yards for the 66th time in his career, which is third-most all time. Michael Williams didn't factor in as a receiver in this game like he did against the Bills, but he was effective in heavy packages, helping to clear space for Blount in short-yardage situations, including one in particular that went for 32 yards after a horse-collar penalty was tacked on to Blount's 15-yard scamper. Williams said last week that he may have lost some weight now that he's been on a tight end practice and conditioning regimen, but the once-300-pound tackle is still effective as a blocker. Michael Hoomanawanui was a healthy scratch for the game. Two pass-interference penalties by Gronkowski, one of which was relatively blatant, keep this group from bringing home the A.
Julian Edelman continues to be the Patriots' version of old reliable in the passing game. He was targeted a team-high 11 times and came down with eight. It was a better game for Edelman's hands this week as well after perhaps losing concentration on a couple of drops in Buffalo. Danny Amendola continues to be involved and dependable in the passing game, grabbing Brady's 400th touchdown pass in the back of the end zone and later picking up a first down in the fourth quarter over the middle despite a monster hit from linebacker Paul Posluszny. (We won't dock him for giving away No. 400 to a fan. They got it back, after all.) It was also a nice day for Martin, who made his Patriots debut after being acquired in a trade just before the Bills game. He caught all three of his targets and showed good awareness during the scramble drill to turn it into a score. You don't think Brady appreciated that? The quarterback found Martin in the end zone immediately for a big hug. It's not always easy to earn Brady's trust in the passing game, but Martin appears to be well on his way. He could be valuable depth in the event that Edelman or Amendola have to miss time. Dobson showed up as a blocker once again, helping keep defenders off of Amendola on a slip screen in the fourth quarter. Had he reeled in a deep ball from Brady that resulted in a pass-interference call or Brady's off-the-mark throw at the goal line, that would've earned this group honors.
RUNNING BACK: A
The combination of Lewis and Blount was a devastating one for the Jaguars. Not only did both players seem to pick up what was blocked for them, but they made yards on their own as well. That's an attribute that Patriots coach Bill Belichick touts often when describing good runners, and he appears to have two in that regard. Blount ran for three scores, converting effectively in his goal-line chances, but Lewis is still the No. 1 guy, it appears. It will be interesting to see how both are used when the passing game isn't quite as emphasized against a team whose defensive front isn't its strength. (Don't be surprised if the Patriots turn to Blount early and often against Indianapolis again in Week 6.) Don't confuse Lewis for a scatback, though. He showed on his touchdown run, and then again later in the first quarter that he can create yards on his own between the tackles. On both plays, after being nearly stopped at the line of scrimmage, he made Posluszny whiff. Late in the game provided James White a good opportunity to see some game action. Lewis is a special talent athletically, but if he were to go down, White looks plenty capable of stepping into the old Shane Vereen role in the Patriots offense. He's not going to drag defenders for all kinds of extra yardage, but he clearly possesses soft hands and good vision. He always appeared to be in the right place at the right time on Sunday as well. Travaris Cadet was inactive and appears to be the fourth or fifth (behind Brandon Bolden) option in the group.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
If the Jaguars were going to have any chance of keeping this game close, they needed a massively productive game from their defensive line, and the Patriots just didn't allow it. Despite a couple of hiccups, including a very nit-picky false start near the goal line late in the game, it was another very strong game for rookie center David Andrews, who is now the only player to play every offensive snap for the Patriots through three games this season. (Brady came out late in the fourth quarter for Jimmy Garoppolo to kneel.) It's an athletic group led by left tackle Nate Solder, who was sound on the edge and devastating as a lead blocker in space. The Patriots allowed a sack when the Jaguars ran a game between Solder and Mason -- with the end picking Mason, allowing the inside rusher to loop around for the hit -- but the pair appear to be gaining confidence in one another and will have to continue to do so as Solder gets accustomed to his third (and fourth, if you include Josh Kline) left guard in as many seasons. Mason also showed up as a lead-blocking fullback, helping spring Blount for nine yards and a first down in the third quarter. Mason had a tough time in that role through the season's first two weeks, but he's extremely athletic for his size, and he seems to be a natural in that spot with James Develin out for the season. To watch him pull and attack linebackers -- as he did on Blount's third touchdown of the day -- is something else.
The Patriots knew they had to be ready against the long ball, and they were from the very first snap of the game. Jags quarterback Blake Bortles tested Malcolm Butler deep on the first play of the first drive of the first quarter, and the pass was nearly picked. Not only was Butler in good position, but safety Devin McCourty was there as well and probably should've had an interception. Butler missed a pick of his own, and was beaten for a touchdown to Allen Hurns in the third quarter. Butler stumbled as the ball approached, and he made a ridiculously athletic play to gather himself enough to try to challenge the pass as it approached. But he missed, and Hurns was off to the races. Logan Ryan played solidly with both Tarell Brown (active but no snaps) and Bradley Fletcher (inactive) out. And not a bad debut for Justin Coleman, who was playing in his first game as a pro. Coleman had the difficult assignment of matchup up with Robinson on a few occasions -- he was thrown to the ground by Robinson on one incompletion, and Robinson climbed the ladder over Coleman on a long completion -- but he didn't allow any game-breaking plays when the outcome was still in doubt. Against a big-play team, that was the goal. With Jacksonville's ability to hit on deep passes, and with good speed across the board, Coleman appeared to be the choice over Fletcher. With better size and good tackling ability, Fletcher may be the choice against a receiver group with different traits.
McCourty played what may have been his best game of the season, making a great read of Bortles to pick off a pass late in the second quarter that led to a Patriots score and changed the momentum of the game. (The Patriots scored again at the start of the second half to help put the game out of reach.) Even McCourty admitted, however, that he left plays on the field that he would've liked to have back. He could've scooped up a fumble on a strip sack by Jamie Collins, and he felt as though he could've intercepted Bortles to start the game. It was a good showing by rookie second-rounder Jordan Richards. he showed up in run support, and even when he was beat, he forced an incompletion by shoving Robinson out of bounds before he could get his feet down. Chung was once again a factor in the running game, playing in the box and using patience to drop Yeldon for a minimal gain in the third quarter, and he had good coverage on tight end Mercedes Lewis during McCourty's pick. Harmon wasn't able to pick off a pass for his third consecutive game, and he overran a potential tackle on the Hurns touchdown, which helped drop the group's grade.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
Another strong showing by Jabaal Sheard, who actually led Patriots defensive ends in snaps against the Jaguars. That's a significant change for the duo of Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, who have been used at every opportunity over the last two seasons. Sheard's presence -- and his productive play when he's on the field; he had a sack and a pass breakup on Sunday -- should help keep Ninkovich and Jones fresh throughout the season. In his welcome back to the field after missing Week 2, Dominique Easley was explosive early on, jumping the snap as he was projected to do as a freaky athlete with injury issues out of the University of Florida. If he can stay healthy, he gives the team a unique hybrid presence of a tackle with an end's quickness. The group didn't get great push at the end of the game, something defensive line coach Brendan Daly lamented on Monday, but they held the Jaguars to 2.8 yards per rush -- a significantly better showing that the 5.7 yards per rush they allowed through the first two weeks of the season.
Collins continues to flash in all aspects of the game. He was good in coverage and had a particularly good snap when he stayed with running back Bernard Pierce on a wheel route down the sideline in the third quarter. He also showed a great individual effort to get through the line and strip-sack Bortles on a play that could have ended the Jaguars drive had Jacksonville not recovered the ball for a first down. Dont'a Hightower was quiet in this game, recording just one tackle in 41 snaps. The bye week may come at a good time for him as he'll be provided time to rest his shoulder, which has had him listed on the injury report recently. Jerod Mayo appears to still be getting his legs underneath him as he played 17 snaps against the Jags. Special teamer Jonathan Freeny also saw some time in the defense on Sunday. The acquisition of Jonathan Bostic -- the Patriots traded a sixth-round pick to the Bears for the 'backer on Monday -- could help give this unit more depth going forward.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Stephen Gostkowski continues to be automatic on his extra points despite the increased distance -- not something every kicker in the league can say. His record for consecutive PATs made may never be broken if the extra points remain at 33 yards. A rare day of no punts for Ryan Allen. Can't dock the grade there. Nice work by special teams captain Matthew Slater to sniff out the fake punt run by the Jaguars in the third quarter. Certainly a questionable call on Jacksonville's part, but Slater was ready for it regardless. The punt return unit was beat on that play during the week when James White tucked and ran, but Sunday was a different story. With the amount of experience the Patriots have in the kicking game, it will be tough to catch them napping this season.