Perry's Report Card: Plenty of room for improvement
'THAT WAS TOUGH, MAN'
The Patriots covered one of the most lopsided spreads in NFL playoff history. Their 34-16 defeat of the Texans in the Divisional Round was no narrow victory. Still, it was far from a pretty one.
So how did the Texans do it? How did they frustrate Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to the point where Brady's body language -- particularly his tantrum after he was hit by Jadeveon Clowney in the middle of the third quarter -- would have been easily interpreted by any toddler in the region?
They mixed things up. They blitzed 15 times. At different points they dropped seven or eight into coverage. They even pulled back nine on one snap by the goal line, highlighting their insistence on taking away Brady's quick reads in the short-to-intermediate passing range. They schemed up one-on-one matchups for their talented pass-rushers, and they forced Brady into more chuck-and-duck situations than he would've liked.
"That was tough, man," an exhausted Brady told Patriots owner Robert Kraft in the locker room after the game. "They did a good job."
Luckily for Brady, his defense performed well against an overmatched Texans offense, and what felt like a down day was still more than enough to send the Patriots to their sixth consecutive conference title game.
Let's get to the grades . . .
The Patriots touted the Texans as the league's No. 1 defense all week leading up to the game, and Romeo Crennel's group lived up to that billing. They stifled a Patriots rushing attack that featured Dion Lewis, allowing him just 3.2 yards on 13 carries. They also hit Brady eight times, sacked him twice and picked him off twice -- the same number of times he'd been intercepted all regular season. It was a dominant effort up front by the Texans, not just from Clowney and fellow Second-Team All-Pro Whitney Mercilus, but from the entire group, which included Vince Wilfork and rookie Wilfork clone DJ Reader. They gummed up the gears of Josh McDaniels' offensive machine, and when combined with self-inflicted errors on the part of the Patriots, the result was one of their uglier performances of the season.
Brady completed less than half of his passes and at points was as inaccurate as he's been all season. Even if you take away one of his two picks -- it looked as though Michael Floyd did Brady no favors as he ran an inward breaking route that was intercepted -- Brady seemed to never see linebacker Bernardrick McKinney on his second. Another throw over the middle to Julian Edelman should have resulted in a first down in the fourth quarter, but he threw it well behind his intended target. He made accurate, tough throws when facing pressure -- particularly a 26-yarder to Edelman near the visitor's sideline with Mercilus bearing down on him -- and his "prayers," as Bill Belichick called them, were answered often enough that it ended up being one of his best deep-passing performances of the year; he completed 6-of-11 throws that traveled 20 yards or more in the air for 181 yards and a touchdown. But by taking away his running game, getting him off his spot, and taking away his bread-and-butter short passing game, the Texans forced Brady into his worst game of the season.
RUNNING BACK: B-
Lewis has been slowly worked into the team's No. 1 back in almost any situation. His three touchdowns -- one receiving, one rushing, one on a kick return -- were a first in Super Bowl era postseason history, and his hesitation move on McKinney in the flat on his first score was a thing of beauty. He even got a goal-line carry and converted, in that instance taking what has usually been LeGarrette Blount's role. Given the pressure Houston's front was generating, it made sense to make Lewis the guy. He has an ability to turn a one-yard loss into a four-yard gain, which he did again on Saturday, that Blount simply doesn't. When the offensive line can move people, Blount may be the team's best option as he's a nightmare to tackle at the second level. When it can't, Lewis is the one who can create something from nothing. Blount finished with just eight carries, including a failed goal-line attempt that was blown up when Reader pushed David Andrews into the backfield off the snap. James White saw only 12 snaps but made a contested catch in the end zone, beating McKinney one-on-one with a stutter-step move.
Julian Edelman continues to climb the postseason record books and now sits at seventh all-time, tied with Thurman Thomas, for playoff receptions. He had another monster day -- which has been a weekly occurrence since Rob Gronkowski has been out of the lineup -- reeling in eight of 13 targets for 137 yards. On a day like the one Brady had, Edelman is the clear emergency valve, and that was highlighted even further after Chris Hogan came out of the game with a thigh injury. During one scramble drill, of which there were many when the Texans opted to play coverage, Brady looked like a school-yard quarterback pointing to Edelman to go long, beyond where Houston defensive backs had convened, and he nabbed a 48-yarder. Hogan's injury was significant -- it looked like the inside of his left leg took an awkward hit during Houston's goal-line stand at the end of the first half -- in that it took away Brady's best deep-ball threat with the Texans playing underneath. Before he went out he caught four passes for 95 yards. This was a step back for Floyd, who seemed to either stop short or try to turn up-field too quickly on consecutive targets. One was picked. The other was nearly picked. He was also called for offensive pass interference. Given that the receiving group is not exactly experiencing perfect health at the moment -- Malcolm Mitchell missed the game with a knee injury -- Brady may not be able to afford to freeze him out. Danny Amendola dropped a would-be first down but looked like he had fresh legs in his first game back from an ankle injury as he ran for 15 yards on an end-around in the fourth.
TIGHT END: C-
Martellus Bennett said after the game that he felt a little nervous, like someone trying to make a good impression on a first date. It showed. His best contribution in the passing game was holding Houston's replacement safety Corey Moore in the middle of the field on White's touchdown grab. He caught just one pass for four yards on four targets and had a drop. He also had a tough go of it as a blocker, whiffing on Clowney on a third-and-one play on his team's first offensive drive that led to a punt. James Develin, who we lump in here, did strong work on Lewis' return for a touchdown, and he led the way for Lewis on his receiving score, but he had a tough day as a run-blocker as well. Against Houston's big front-seven, he generated little push, and he was denied a touchdown on a short Brady dump-off near the goal line, unable to power through safety Eddie Pleasant from a yard away.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-
What the Texans did to create pressure wasn't all that novel. On third downs, they did something they've been doing for some time now with Clowney and Mercilus playing at the tops of their games. In order to get them in one-on-one situations, the went into five-across alignments, with ends outside of the offensive tackles, two rushers in the B-gaps between the guards and tackles, and one rusher on the nose. With five defenders to account for, the offensive line knew those were hat-on-a-hat situations -- with the Texans dictating the matchups. For a 300-pounder like Andrews, handling an athletic edge rusher inside like Mercilus can be a chore . . . and it was. Both of Brady's sacks were due to Mercilus beating Andrews off the ball. Even for an athletic big man like Andrews, who is often tasked with facing Trey Flowers in practice one-on-one, it was probably the quickest rusher he's seen all year. Clowney recorded three hits and a pair of pressures himself, swatting aside Joe Thuney to ruin what was supposed to be a quick-hitting screen in the second quarter. Again, it wasn't necessarily the most complicated scheme, but when it's a man-to-man situation up front, the Texans had the athletes to win. Might the Steelers try the same tactics with players like James Harrison and Bud Dupree lined up inside?
Brock Osweiler tends to make defenses look good, but the Texans made it all the way to the AFC Divisional Round with sub-par quarterback play and opposing defenses were unable to take advantage. The Patriots, however, were sharp. Their play in the secondary was particularly strong as they coaxed Osweiler into three picks -- all by products of Rutgers University -- when he was too locked-on to his intended targets. Up front, Matt Patricia's unit continued its strong play against the run, making Bill O'Brien turn to a one-dimensional plan that allowed his quarterback too many opportunities to screw it up.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Alan Branch has been Mr. Consistency this season, and he was once again the team's best run defender. He was in on a whopping six run-stuffs and he even chased Osweiler from the pocket three times. When he's contributing as a pass-rusher, you know he's feeling strong. Trey Flowers was once again one of the team's most disruptive rushers, drawing one holding penalty and squirming into the backfield on another play when a hold probably should have been called. He finished with two hurries and a hit on Osweiler while also recording a pair of run-stuffs. His value to the defense is reflected in his snap count, as he played in a season-high 59 plays, 10 more than the next defensive lineman. Rob Ninkovich and Malcom Brown each chipped in with sacks, and Ninkovich nearly picked off an ill-advised Osweiler throw in the second. Brown was turned sideways on a 17-yard run by Lamar Miller, and Vincent Valentine picked up a hands-to-the-face penalty, but otherwise this was close to a flawless performance.
Elandon Roberts once again saw his playing-time get a boost after he was essentially benched in the middle of the season for a five-week stretch (28 total snaps). He started alongside Dont'a Hightower and played in 37 plays, helping stonewall Houston's running game for an average of 3.8 yards per Miller tote. After being beaten for a touchdown in the regular-season finale, Kyle Van Noy appeared most comfortable getting up-the-field and after Osweiler. He recorded two quarterback hits, both on third down, to help force punts. Shea McClellin played just seven defensive snaps, but he also notched a hit.
One blemish on this group's performance came when Eric Rowe seemed to forget that pulling a player off of a pile was a penalty. That kept a Houston drive alive in the first quarter and led to a field goal. Other than that? Hard to find many miscues by this group. Malcolm Butler was beaten deep by Will Fuller for what would've been a touchdown had Fuller not let the pass slip through his fingers. Otherwise, he was solid and continued to be one of the surest tacklers on the team. Patrick Chung was nearly beaten by CJ Fiedorowicz for a touchdown on one of Osweiler's few nice throws of the night, but it glanced off of the tight end's fingers. Duron Harmon got caught on an end-around fake that left Fiedorowicz open later in the game for a score. Harmon made up for it with a fourth-quarter pick, joining former college teammates Devin McCourty and Logan Ryan, who each had picks of their own. Ryan had what was, in my estimation, the best game of his career, breaking up two passes and adding a sack to his gaudy stat line.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
With a 98-yard touchdown from Lewis, six successful kicks from Stephen Gostkowski, and four of six Ryan Allen punts that landed inside the 20 one would think this grade might be their highest of the season. Lewis' return fumble -- which led to the Fiedorowicz score -- negated some of the strong work shown by Joe Judge's unit, and an illegal block by Matthew Slater pushed New England's starting position from the Houston 48 to the New England 33. Still some cleaning up to do here despite putting together the highlight-reel play of the season thus far.