Phil Perry's Report Card: Brady doing things he has no business doing
Always information to be gleaned
There is a popular take that emerges after games like Sunday's between the Patriots and 49ers. When the double-digit favorite comes away with the anticipated double-digit victory, the reaction is: Well how could we possibly glean anything from that one?
It's true that the Niners (1-9) are not a good football team. They rank last in the league in points allowed per game, rush yards allowed per game and total yards allowed per game. Offensively, they rank 31st in pass yards per game and 30th in total yards per game. Safe to say that the Patrots, in all likelihood, learned more about themselves against a team like Seattle the week prior.
Still, that doesn't mean a look at the film from what went down in Santa Clara can't provide us with some valuable information. Among the things we learned?
The Patriots have someone who appears to be a legitimate home-grown receiver not named Julian Edelman. One of their best offensive weapons is finally healthy and getting his legs under him. Their quarterback is doing things at 39 years old that he has no business being able to do, both with his legs and his arm. Their sub defense may have found some pass-rush help in a discarded player they acquired mid-season. Their base defense has some issues to fix in the running game that won't be made any easier by the suspension of one of their best players. Their top options for the No. 2 and 3 corner spots seem to be gaining traction, while the top options for the No. 2 and 3 linebacker spots appear to be in flux and may remain that way.
Good or bad, it's all information. It's all useful in determining what this Patriots team is at the moment and what it may become, which is why we roll up our sleeves and get into it elbow deep with this week's Report Card.
There was a stretch of the game -- from about 9:30 left in the second quarter to about 4:15 left in the third -- during which the Patriots offense ran aground. A holding penalty on Nate Solder wiped out a long LeGarrette Blount touchdown run, and a Tom Brady intentional grounding penalty one play later killed a promising drive. After that, for a period of time that lasted longer than a quarter of the game, pass-protection issues slowed Brady and his teammates, as did missed throws to Brady's security blanket Julian Edelman, who saw 17 targets with Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan out injured. Outside of that dry spell, though, it was an at times brilliant performance offensively against an overmatched opponent. Against San Francisco's anemic run defense, the Patriots pounded the rock to the tune of 171 yards on 30 carries. They were creative in getting touches for Dion Lewis in his return from injury (five carries, three catches in 21 snaps), and when they needed plays from their Hall of Fame quarterback during his homecoming, he provided them. On a day when heavy downpours may have been an equalizer, the Patriots didn't turn over the football -- something their coach harped on after the game both in the locker room and in his press conference -- and finished strong.
Brady appeared to focus a little too heavily on Edelman at times, but it wasn't because the pair wanted to show their hometown team what they were missing in the "Alameda de las Pulgas Connection." (That's what Edelman called the duo after the game since Alameda de las Pulgas is a road that connects the areas in which he and Brady grew up: Redwood City and San Mateo.) The 49ers elected to focus extra attention on Martellus Bennett at times, leaving Edelman in one-on-one coverage. For example, San Fran double-covered Bennett at the goal line on New England's first touchdown of the day, leaving Edelman with one defender that he shook easily with a well-run route to the back corner. That's an option Brady will take almost every time, and he did, making a perfect throw to the boundary where only Edelman could snag it. Had Brady been able to make more accurate throws on some of his attempts down the field, Edelman might have ended up with a much bigger day than the eight catches for 77 yards he posted. When Brady began to spread the ball around more later in the game, the floodgates opened. His 21-yard strike to Malcolm Mitchell on third-and-nine in the third quarter was a dart, and his fadeaway touchdown throw to Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone on a scramble play later on that drive showed just how quick on his feet he has become. He flashed good initial quickness in the pocket again later in the fourth quarter when he manipulated a safety and a linebacker with a subtle shoulder turn, avoided pressure, and hit Mitchell down the seam on another scramble-drill throw for a 56-yard score. In the wet conditions, and without his two best deep threats, that play to Mitchell was Brady's only completion on a throw that went 20 yards or more. Still, on the season, he's completing 46 percent of those throws for 498 yards, five touchdowns and one pick. For reference, in 2007, Brady completed 38 percent of his deep passes and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 16-to-5.
RUNNING BACK: A
Though there's plenty of room for Lewis to grow now that he's seen his first game action, and though he'll likely see his role in the offense expand over time, as a group, this was about as strong a performance as anyone could ask for. Lewis flashed his signature change-of-direction quickness on his twice surgically-repaired knee, forcing three missed tackles on eight touches. On his first catch of the day, and on a 12-yard carry near the end of the first half -- both of which went for first downs -- he showed he had no trouble making someone miss in the open field one-on-one. The Patriots made use of some two-back sets with both Lewis and White in the backfield. Both were on the field for Mitchell's touchdown, and it'll be interesting to see how those looks continue to be deployed. White has shown enough in his third season that he can be a valuable weapon even with Lewis back and looking healthy. His touchdown grab off a screen to start the second quarter showed that he's added a power element to his game. Though the play was perfectly executed -- Brady's pump fake to Edelman on the right side of the formation caused several defenders to jump that way -- White had one man to beat to cross the goal line, and he punished him with a lowered shoulder for six. He ran over another defender early in the fourth quarter on a swing pass for a first down, though the play was wiped out due to an accepted defensive penalty. Blount continues to look strong despite already having matched his career-high for attempts (201), which he set back in his rookie season of 2010. He ran for 124 yards on 19 carries and did it against some stacked San Francisco fronts that featured eight or nine defenders at times. Credit goes to the Patriots offensive line for opening up some Callahan Tunnel-sized holes for Blount to plow through.
It wasn't Mitchell's breakaway speed. It wasn't necessarily his route-running. It wasn't his hands, though teammates say those have been as impressive as anyone's. It was that Brady trusted the rookie to be where he was expected to be that made Mitchell's day feel like a breakout performance. On a critical third-and-nine play in the third quarter with the Patriots up only three points, Brady went to Mitchell for the conversion. While scrambling in the fourth, Brady looked for his locker mate again, resulting in a 56-yard score. It was the second consecutive week that Brady looked for Mitchell in that type of situation. Against the Seahawks, Brady threw a wobbler to Mitchell deep down the field that was picked off. But it spoke volumes that he trusted the rookie enough to attempt the pass. Had he made a better throw, they might've had another long score. Though Mitchell likely won't top Hogan or Edelman on the depth chart this season, he's given the team valuable depth that it can depend upon as a receiver and a blocker. He was rag-dolled at times by defenders in training camp when asked to hold his ground, but he vowed to improve the physical aspect of his game back then, and it looks like he's been able to do just that. His downfield block helped spring Blount's 44-yarder, and he got just enough of his assignment on White's touchdown, leaving the back with only one man to beat. Four catches, 98 yards and a score didn't tell the whole story of Mitchell's strong performance. Edelman's foot looked healthy during a very crisp route in the end zone that led to his touchdown. He also ran like a mad man with the ball in his hands and even took two carries for 12 yards on back-to-back plays. All good signs when it comes to his health. He also had his leg whipped wildly on an incompletion over the middle that could have been worse had San Fran's safety not been more careful about hitting a defenseless receiver. Luckily for the Patriots, Edelman appeared no worse for the wear after the collision. Amendola saw just three targets, but he was used in critical situations down in the red zone. The Patriots have done well to manage his reps thus far this season, and it'll bear watching to see how he's used coming down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs. Talk about trust: That Brady was willing to float a pass to open space in the end zone while falling down -- knowing Amendola would run under it -- showed just how strong a bond those two continue to have despite Amendola's scaled-back role.
TIGHT END: B-
Perhaps fearful that Brady would turn to Martellus Bennett early and often with Gronkowski out, the 49ers made sure they had the 6-foot-7 tight end locked down in the passing game. He saw three targets on the day, catching one for 14 yards at the end of the third quarter. One target was dropped, though the play was erased due to a 49ers penalty. Bennett didn't have quite the impact in the running game as has in weeks past, but he rarely came off the field, playing in 74 of a possible 77 snaps. No. 3 tight end Matt Lengel made his Patriots debut, seeing six snaps and showing up in the running game. He admitted when he arrived to the team that he was more of a blocking tight end, and he lived up to his own billing with a solid crack block on talented rookie defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to help spring Blount for a 20-yard run with just under nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. Fullback James Develin had another very effective game as a run-blocker, flattening one Niners defender at the line of scrimmage on Blount's 44-yard scamper. Develin also had back-to-back wipe-out blocks with less than two minutes left in the game on Blount runs of 18 and 11 yards. Blount may have been the team's closer Sunday, but Develin was in many ways his set-up man.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
This group didn't get out to the hottest of starts when it came to creating running room for Blount as Solder (asked to make a near-impossible reach block on Glenn Dorsey), David Andrews and Marcus Cannon all whiffed on their assignments resulting in no gain. Their next rush attempt came on the first snap of their next drive, and it was a thing of beauty. Andrews had the key block, pulling off of a double-team with Mason to pick up an attacking linebacker twisting down to the line of scrimmage from the opposite side of the defensive formation -- very good awareness by the second-year center. Mason then turned what was suddenly a one-on-one block back inside, while Joe Thuney and Solder turned their matchups to the sideline with ease. Blount made a jump-cut off of Develin's pancake in the middle of the line, broke a tackle 10-yards downfield, and turned it into a 44-yard pickup. Solder's holding penalty wiped out what would have been Blount's second-longest run of the day, and the left tackle picked up a false start on a later drive, but otherwise it was a clean performance from the guys up front. Brady's ability to elude pressure helped take some of the load off of their shoulders, but extended plays can be as difficult for linemen to keep track of the chaos as they can for corners in the secondary. Quick reactions and good vision from Brady's protectors helped limit the Niners to just one sack, when Buckner got the best of Andrews in a one-on-one situation. Cannon, once again, may have been the team's best blocker up front. For all the talk of Patriots not performing well in contract years, Cannon has to be considered right alongside Bennett and Dont'a Hightower as someone who is earning a bump in pay with his play this season.
Asked last week if the Patriots defense could do anything to play with more aggression, coach Bill Belichick replied by saying that they were trying to be aggressive despite how it may have looked. Well, it seems as though they tried a few -- perhaps more obvious -- techniques in order to come through with the kind of results they've been looking for. They brought pressure which resulted in two of their five sacks on the day, and on a third they disguised pressure to help them get to Colin Kaepernick. In the secondary, they matched up with man-to-man coverage, and though they were beaten at times -- particularly at the linebacker level -- they clamped down in the third and fourth quarters to make Colin Kaepernick look less like Aaron Rodgers and more like Tim Tebow. Credit Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia for trying some different things to get more production on this side of the football. They'll have two more weeks against below-average offenses to continue to experiment.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The news of Alan Banch's four-game suspension is a tough blow to a defense that could use all the positive momentum it can muster. He has been their best defensive tackle this season, and he had another strong game on Sunday. He notched a pair of run-stuffs and came up with four quarterback pressures, consistently causing problems for San Francisco's protection. There were missed tackles out of this group in the running game -- as a team, the Niners ran for 122 yards on 27 carries -- which is something that will have to get cleaned up, especially if Branch will be out for a month. Second-year man Malcom Brown continues to be OK but not spectacular after a very good rookie season. He'll be leaned upon more if Branch (who is appealing his suspension) is out, as will rookie Vincent Valentine, who checked in with two hurries and a tackle for a loss in 18 snaps. Both Valentine and Brown lost their rush lanes when Kaepernick took off for his longest run of the day, a 17-yarder. They'll have to be more disciplined moving forward. Chris Long still has just one sack on the season, but he's been one of the team's best pass-rushers. His effort was apparent in racking up seven quarterback pressures that altered plays Sunday. Though he's not finishing, it doesn't mean he's not having a positive impact. Trey Flowers continued to play well in Jabaal Sheard's absence -- head-scratching as that absence may be -- posting a half-sack, and getting in on three run-stuffs. Rob Ninkovich was in on a sack as well, and he forced one fumble.
Dont'a Hightower helped contribute to the team's improved pass-rush by powering into the Niners backfield, destroying running back DuJuan Harris, and strip-sacking Kaepernick. Same went for Kyle Van Noy, who was used mostly in sub situations and picked up a sack of his own to go along with three pressures in 29 snaps. Perhaps a return to the up-the-field role that Van Noy excelled in while at the college level will help him carve a niche in Belichick and Patricia's defense. In coverage, though, this unit continues to have its issues. Hightower was beaten on a long wheel route where he was picked near the line of scrimmage, resulting in a gain of 26 yards. That may be as much on the front's communication pre-snap as it was on Hightower himself. Elandon Roberts, who saw his playing time drop off significantly from the Seahawks game, was beaten three times in coverage for a total of 44 yards. Shea McClellin seemed to be considered the steadier off-the-ball option for the Patriots, who are still looking to find the right mix in replacing Jamie Collins. McClellin wasn't targeted in coverage.
The Patriots got solid performances out of their No. 2 and 3 corners this week, which may serve as an indication that the revolving door at those spots is ready to stop spinning. Logan Ryan has perhaps his best game of the season matched up with perhaps the best of a bad lot of receivers in Jeremy Kerley. Ryan was targeted five times, allowed two catches for seven yards, and he broke up two passes. Regardless of the competition, that's certainly a step in the right direction. Eric Rowe got the start opposite Malcolm Butler after being inactive against Seattle, and he chipped in by allowing just one catch on five targets. Kaepernick helped this group with his inaccuracy, particularly in the second half, but coverage was tight, and aside from one flag on Ryan, the penalties were down. Butler was barely tested, probably a wise move on Kaepernick and coach Chip Kelly's part. New England's No. 1 corner also got credited with a sack after reacting quickly to a scrambling Kaepernick. In recent weeks, Butler has been one of the team's most aggressive players near the line of scrimmage, serving as reliable run support. The Patriots turned to their "big nickel" package often, using Devin McCourty down by the line of scrimmage along with Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon deep. Patriots safeties had some difficulty in coverage -- McCourty was uncharacteristically beaten by tight end Vance McDonald on a 24-yard touchdown -- allowing seven catches for 105 yards combined. Chung appeared to be fighting through some physical issues, waiving help back toward the sideline at one point, but he got in for a sack early in the game when he went unaccounted for. The running back in protection seemed more concerned with Hightower coming up the middle, leaving Chung unchecked, and Kaepernick didn't see him coming until it was too late.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
If captain Matthew Slater is lost for any amount of time with a foot injury, that's a significant blow. The play of New England's kick coverage units has been one of the team's strengths this season, helping their defense by providing opposing offenses with tough field position. If Slater is removed from those units for any length of time, there will be a ripple effect. The five-time Pro Bowler is third on the team in special teams tackles, and he's consistently one of the first to the ball. This group's grade saw a positive bump from a 30-yard punt return from Amendola to get the offense started in the first quarter. Rookie returner Cyrus Jones wasn't able to make quite the same dent in the field-position battle, but he held onto everything kicked his way, which was crucial in bad conditions. It was also an improvement for Jones in the ball-security department after he dropped a kick against the Seahawks in Week 10. Stephen Gostkowski missed his third extra point of the season, pushing it right from his spot in the middle of the field. However, he made his next three when aligned on the left hash. Perhaps he felt it was more prudent to play with the slice instead of fight it.