Phil Perry's Report Card: Brady aces first test back
He is who we thought he was
This game was always going to be about Tom Brady. As soon as the Patriots quarterback accepted his four-game league-imposed suspension, this was the game that was marked on calendars as the official start of the Double Barrel Bird Tour of 2016.
The assumption was that Brady would be ready. Despite not having access to coaches or the team's facilities, the 39-year-old would do whatever he needed to do in order to prepare himself for his first game, a soft re-entry against the Browns.
But did anyone expect him to be this good? This comfortable? This well in-tune with weapons he hadn't seen in a month? Some of whom he had never played with in a competitive game situation?
The grades for the Patriots after their 33-13 win in Cleveland were impressive across the board, but none were better than what Brady earned in his first game back.
Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels toyed with a young and aggressive Browns defense throughout the course of this one. From the jump, it was clear that the Patriots were going to be running a more sophisticated version of their offense than the one deployed with rookie Jacoby Brissett behind center, and it had a Cleveland defense rife with first- and second-year players off balance all afternoon. The Browns were out-schemed -- McDaniels cooked up beautiful play designs on Rob Gronkowski's rumbling 34-yard catch-and-run, Martellus Bennett's 37-yard score and a 37-yard completion to Gronkowski in the fourth quarter -- as often as they were out-muscled by New England's two-tight-end sets. With Brady back and Gronkowski and Bennett looking healthy, the Patriots have personnel that will be difficult for any team to match up. Unfortunately for the Browns, they happened to be the opponent for the trial run of this year's version of the New England offense.
Brady hit seven different receivers for 406 yards and three touchdowns, posting a quarterback rating of 127.7. Just as noteworthy as anything in the box score was that Brady's temperament was steady throughout what had to have been a day when keeping emotions in check was a challenge. From the game's first snap, though, when Brady called an "alert" at the line and used the silent snap count, he was in control. Outside of a deep ball to Julian Edelman that was slightly overthrown in the third quarter and a drive near the end of the third when he was nearly picked off twice on consecutive attempts, Brady was nearly flawless when throwing the football. He was accurate to his big tight ends, and he used good touch to hit on 4-of-6 passes that traveled 20 yards or more in the air for a whopping 180 yards. The Patriots could not have asked for more from their future Hall of Famer in this one.
RUNNING BACK: B
Predictably, with Brady back in the mix, "big back" LeGarrette Blount saw his role reduced. He still found the end zone and led the team in carries, racking up 18 attempts by the time it was all said and done, several of those coming with the game in hand and the Patriots looking to bleed the clock. He finished with just 37 yards, however, and had difficulty building any momentum as he played through the hip injury that limited him in practice throughout the week leading up to the game. It was "sub back" James White, though, who made the biggest impact. He was effective as a receiver, recording a crafty 36-yard gain on a screen, catching four passes for 63 yards in all. He also showed up in pass protection, and he ran effectively between the hashes. That's an aspect of White's game the team has focused on improving, and Sunday may have been his most effective game in that regard, running for 26 yards on five carries, finishing those runs with good effort. Rookie runner DJ Foster saw six carries for 17 yards with Brandon Bolden out with an injured knee.
Have the Patriots found the deep threat for whom their fans so often clamor? Let's not go there quite yet, but Chris Hogan put up a career-high in receiving yardage by reeling in four catches for 114 yards, and he showed impressive closing speed on his first explosive play with Brady behind center, a 43-yard diving grab that saw him run all the way across the field to track down the football. He also had a 63-yarder that burned the Browns, but he made an equally-impressive catch went for only three yards. The quick one was an example of just how comfortable he and Brady are with one another. On a third-and-one play, with what looked like a running play called at the line of scrimmage, Brady gave Hogan a hand signal and then nodded Hogan's way before taking the snap and quickly firing to Hogan wth the Browns playing off coverage. Hogan was ready and picked up a first down to keep alive a drive that eventually resulted in Bennett's second score of the game. The Patriots saw both Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell have passes bounce off of their hands, and Danny Amendola was targeted just twice as he continues to be used sparingly early in the season. Edelman was solid as a blocker in this one, though, taking out two defenders to spring White's long catch-and-run.
TIGHT END: A
This is what the Patriots envisioned when they dealt for Bennett in the offseason. For four weeks, Bennett had been used in a variety of roles as a run-blocker, pass-protector and receiver. On Sunday, when paired with Gronkowski -- finally healthy after suffering a hamstring injury back in mid-August -- Bennett scored three times and was able to further expand his horizons in the offense. On his first score, he may have taken advantage of what he'd shown on tape as a blocker through the first four weeks of the season as the Browns left him alone when they saw him start the play as a pass-blocker. Eventually, like the oft-forgotten snapper in a flag football game, he released into a pass pattern and waltzed into the end zone untouched. On his second score, he took advantage of double-coverage on Gronkowski, got inside leverage, then used his 275-pound frame to box out his defender at the goal line. On the third, he took advantage of the play design -- the Patriots ran two consecutive stretch-run plays to White, then faked a third that got Browns defensive backs to bite -- then made a hustle play after the catch to dive for the pylon. Gronkowski, of course, had a high-energy performance of his own, racking up 109 yards on just five catches. He'll continue to be one of Brady's most trusted targets as long as he stays healthy.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
Though the Patriots didn't run it as effectively as they might have liked -- particularly in the second quarter when they turned the ball over on downs at the goal line -- offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's unit was able to keep Brady relatively clean in his first game back. Rookie guard Joe Thuney almost allowed Brady to get sawed in half on the team's opening drive, David Andrews picked up a penalty and may have been to blame when Brady took a shot to the back of his legs on his first touchdown pass, and Shaq Mason appeared to be responsible for letting his man sack Brady as Brady tried to roll out of the pocket. Otherwise, though? Clean performance from this group. The tackles weren't often tested, but Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming -- who filled in for Marcus Cannon (inactive, calf) -- were solid all afternoon. Belichick praised Fleming for his dependability in a conference call on Monday.
All you can do is play whoever is out there. For defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's group, more than half of Sunday's game was spent playing against third-string rookie quarterback Cody Kessler's backup Charlie Whitehurst. Certainly not the sternest test the Patriots will face all year. Still, the Patriots defense did more than enough on a day when Brady was in complete control, and its grade won't be docked just because the quarterback they faced was looking for work a month ago. The quarterback in this one, whether it was Whitehurst, Kessler or Terrelle Pryor, was never truly New England's biggest concern anyway. The Browns came in to Week 5 with one of the most productive running attacks in the league, and the Patriots held them to 27 yards on 22 carries. It was the 17th time in franchise history that the Patriots held an opponent to fewer than 30 yards rushing, and the first time since 2005.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The Patriots went heavy to start in this one, using three defensive tackles on the field simultaneously in Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and undrafted rookie Woodrow Hamilton, who was recently promoted from the practice squad with Vincent Valentine dealing with a back injury. In so doing, Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick essentially announced to the Browns that they would have to find another way to attack other than with the inside runs that had worked so effectively through four weeks. Hamilton performed well in his first game as a pro, recording a pair of run stuffs to go along with the three recorded by Branch. On the edge, Jabaal Sheard continues to be the team's most productive pass-rusher. Though he didn't get in for a sack, he had four quarterback hurries and he was in on a pair of run stuffs himself. The only sacks of the day for New England were recorded by Brown, who used a powerful club move to get to Whitehurst the first time and showed a strong motor to chase Whitehurst down a second time. Rob Ninkovich returned to the field after serving his four-game suspension, playing 24 snaps, and often serving as an outside linebacker, dropping into coverage while defensive ends Chris Long, Trey Flowers and Sheard lined up on the edges. Such a concern was the Browns running game that Belichick acknowledged in a conference call Monday that the Patriots essentially went with a five-man front -- three interior linemen and two ends -- when using Branch, Brown and Hamilton together. That's a rarity in today's pass-happy NFL, but for this week, it worked.
Give Kessler this: He was able to move the football on the Patriots during Cleveland's second drive. In nine plays, he marched 75 yards, finding running back Isaiah Crowell and then Pryor for key third-down conversions before hitting Andrew Hawkins with an easy touchdown pass over corner Cyrus Jones. As soon as linebacker and captain Dont'a Hightower drove Kessler into the ground, knocking Kessler from the game, it seemed any chance for a shootout evaporated. Hightower's hit forced a safety and was set up by the play that immediately preceded it. Fellow 'backer Jamie Collins knifed through the Browns line to blow up a Crowell run. Before the following snap, as Hightower and Collins lurked near the line of scrimmage, Cleveland's offensive line's attention was on Collins, the previous play fresh in their minds. When Hightower broke, he made it to Kessler untouched and made the hit that altered the game. Though Hightower played just 29 snaps, he looked to be moving well in his second game back off of a knee injury that kept him out in Weeks 2 and 3. In the snaps he didn't play, the Patriots turned to sixth-round rookie Elandon Roberts, whose nose for the football and affinity for coming downhill were apparent as he made a team-high seven tackles in his second game as a pro. Roberts had one tackle in particular that went for no gain in the second quarter -- when he caved in All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas and shoved Thomas back into Crowell -- that was an eye-opener. Roberts packs a punch with his 6-foot, 230-pound frame.
With so many players dedicated to stopping the run -- there were times when safety Patrick Chung was in the box, giving the Patriots eight players crowding the line of scrimmage -- there was some pressure on Patriots defensive backs to succeed in one-on-one situations. For the most part, they were able to do that, but there were some early conversions that kept the game close in the first quarter, including Hawkins' score on Jones. Given the opportunity to seize the No. 3 corner role, Jones had a difficult day. Not only did he give up a score on the only target sent his way, but he was later ejected for landing a punch on Hawkins. The start to Jones' rookie season has not been without its share of frustration. He's had issues in the return game and he hasn't contributed as often as he'd hoped defensively. Though he's been getting more and more comfortable defensively, he'll have to earn his time if he's to be New England's nickel corner. Sunday's performance, particularly when he was booted and forced undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones into action, didn't help him in that regard. On the positive side, Patriots safeties played well in this one. Patrick Chung was targeted six times and allowed three catches but made one interception on a pass that deflected off of the hands of running back Duke Johnson. Devin McCourty was typically solid and made his presence felt in the running game with a tackle for a loss. Both Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan saw time on Pryor and kept him from making any explosive plays down the field, though Butler was tagged with a pass interference penalty.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Let's not lose sight of what occurred Sunday for Stephen Gostkowski. He missed a 50-yarder. It was not a chip shot, though given his track record, it was a kick he expected to make. Gostkowski's misses, even in warmups, have appeared to drift to the right so perhaps there's a fix that will have him looking more like the First-Team All-Pro he was in 2015. Gostkowski followed up the miss with a made 31-yarder that made him 7-for-10 on the year. He missed just three kicks through all of last season. Gostkowski's kickoffs are still well-placed, adjusting appropriately depending on whether or not the team is looking for a touchback or a short return. In coverage, Chung, Nate Ebner and Barkevious Mingo continue to stand out. As far as punter Ryan Allen was concerned, he averaged 36.8 net yards per punt, a drop from the previous two weeks when that number was over 47 yards against both the Texans and Bills. In place of Cyrus Jones, Foster got an opportunity to return kicks for the Patriots with Matthew Slater continuing to serve as the short returner and traffic cop on those plays. McCourty handled one kickoff return late in the game when the Patriots were apparently expecting an onside kick.