Phil Perry's Report Card: Patriots run defense gets high marks
NOT ALWAYS PRETTY, BUT MAKING PROGRESS
Bill Belichick is going to be a happy camper when the Patriots play their best in the most important moments. If those moments happen to come on the road against the Jets, as they did in Week 12, all the better. One of the first things Belichick did inside the MetLife Stadium visitor's locker room following the win was laud his players for what they did in the game's final seven minutes. They forced a punt, drove 83 yards for a score, pounced on a strip-sack, and salted away the clock with their running game. Game over. Patriots fans may not be thrilled with how it looked from start to finish, and there are certainly areas to criticize. But this late in the season, with an offense that's banged-up and a defense that's still finding itself, a well-executed plan with the game on the line will lead to solid grades more often than not. Let's get to them...
When Rob Gronkowski went out with a back injury in the first quarter, so too did a chunk of the Patriots game plan. As a result, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady had to get crafty. The results were mixed, but they executed in critical moments to beat the Jets and their dominant defensive front. Among the slip-ups? On three separate occasions, the Patriots ran play-fakes hoping that slight-of-hand would be enough to slow an unblocked defender. It wasn't, and on two of those plays Brady ended up on his back. Motion was featured heavily by McDaniels, as it often is, with the Patriots running a jet-sweep to Martellus Bennett, using a quick shovel pass that mimicked jet-sweep action to James White on the two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, and moving Chris Hogan pre-snap on multiple occasions, including on his tricky double-pass to Malcolm Mitchell to help spark the scoreless Patriots offense in the second quarter. Forced to adjust on the fly with its No. 1 weapon out, the offense improved as the game went along. Given the circumstances, they'll take 22 points on the road.
Before Tom Brady did what he so often does in the fourth quarter, he looked like a guy playing on a bad leg. He made a number of unforced errors with his throws, over-shooting James White with his first attempt of the game. It was an issue for much of the afternoon as he sailed a pass just out of reach of Rob Gronkowski deep down the middle of the field in the first quarter, put one out of reach of Julian Edelman early in the second, missed White again in the third on third down, and overthrew Chris Hogan in the fourth. Brady just barely missed a touchdown to Malcolm Mitchell -- one the rookie thought he should've had -- in the end zone after Mitchell hit another gear and burned Jets corner Darryl Roberts with the ball in the air. With a healthy knee, who knows how many of those he hits. Brady settled in, however, making accurate throws to Edelman, White and Hogan for crucial gains on the game-winning 87-yard drive. Brady may have gotten away with too much of a head-bob in the third quarter when he got the Jets to jump offsides on fourth down, and his lead-block attempt (while comical) wasn't the brightest idea, but he did enough to win (30-for-50 for 286 yards and two scores) and appeared to come away from the game without further exacerbating his balky knee. Call it a success.
RUNNING BACK: B-
Given the talent on the Jets defensive line, this was never going to be a game for the Patriots to try to pound the rock with LeGarrette Blount. He finished with 67 yards on 11 carries, but 23 of those came on his final attempt as the Patriots worked to salt away the clock. Eight Patriots runs were stuffed for two yards or less, but there was no single culprit ruining things at the point of attack on a down-in and down-out basis, and it wasn't exactly on the Patriots backs, either. They had nowhere to go. One of the most impressive runs of the day for the Patriots was a Dion Lewis three-yard gain, during which he made Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson miss tackles in tight space. It was that kind of day. Lewis used good vision to pick up a 15-yard gain in the second quarter that helped set up Malcolm Mitchell's first score of the game, and he finished with four catches for 34 yards. He had 10 total touches -- two more than his Week 11 debut -- as the Patriots continue to work him back into the offense. White was hard on himself for not being aware enough to get the football into the end zone on the teams failed two-point try, but he came up with a game-saving fourth-down conversion earlier on the drive that gave this grade a bump.
Malcolm Mitchell moved well past fill-in status and into play-maker territory with this game. He followed up his 98-yard performance in Week 11 (with Chris Hogan out) by submitting a five-catch, 42-yard game that may have been more impressive. His difficult first-down catch early in the second quarter with a defender draped all over him seemed to provide Tom Brady with an additional shot of confidence, and Brady did his best to continue to involve the rookie in important spots. He found Mitchell in the back of the end zone after fumbling a fake to Julian Edelman, and then he looked for Mitchell again on a well-designed play that used a short out-route to take advantage of Darrelle Revis' inside leverage. The two targets that didn't land in Mitchell's arms were near-touchdowns that hit his hands but didn't qualify as drops: one was broken up by former Patriots corner Darryl Roberts and one was a narrow overthrow. Edelman saw 11 targets, catching eight for 83 yards, and beating Revis for a clutch 24-yard gain on the game-winning drive. He had a drop and missed on two blocks in the running game but it was another hard-nosed performance by Brady's No. 1 target. Chris Hogan and Mitchell made sound blocks on an 18-yard pickup by LeGarrette Blount, and Hogan held onto a 25-yard gainer knowing he'd take a huge blow from safety Calvin Pryor in the game's final moments. He continues to be an explosive-play threat that Brady trusts. His pass wasn't perfect, but it got the job done by drawing a pass-interference penalty for a big gain. Joe Flacco would have been proud.
TIGHT END: B-
Rob Gronkowski just missed on picking up two monster gains before his back acted up and sent him off for the remainder of the day. In his place, Martellus Bennett saw 58 snaps and continued to play through pain. His physical limitations have kept him from being his dominant self in the running game, but he's far from a liability. He allowed one stuffed run. As a receiver, he caught three passes for 22 yards. He could have had a touchdown in the second quarter as he was wide open on the goal line, but Brady went to Malcolm Mitchell in the back of the end zone instead. James Develin was used in a variety of spots as the team's backup tight end, aligning wide and in the slot, and he caught one pass on two targets. He allowed a stuffed run as well when he got caught up behind guard Shaq Mason, but he helped open the hole for LeGarrette Blount's long run in the game's waning moments to close things out. Cameron Fleming saw 15 snaps as a blocking tight end with Gronkowski out.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
Against a defensive line as talented as the Jets', the Patriots offensive line put together an impressive effort. Tom Brady wasn't sacked on 50 attempts and of the five times he was hit, two were scheme-related and not due to any breakdown on the part of Brady's blockers. Marcus Cannon held his own yet again, often against Muhammad Wilkerson, and he was strong in the running game. His name deserves to be in the conversation of Patriots pending free agents that need extensions. Who would've thought that before the season? Nate Solder continues to be a force in the running game, and though Joe Thuney and David Andrews had difficulty inside with Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson -- who doesn't? -- they made blocks that led to long gainers as well. No penalties from this group on Sunday, which offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia certainly appreciated.
For the first time in a long time, the Patriots weren't facing a quarterback who posed a game-changing threat with his legs. Yet they still didn't pin their ears back and get after Ryan Fitzpatrick with an exotic blitz package. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia used primarily three and four-man rushes and dropped their sub defenders into coverage. With time to throw, and physical mismatches favoring his receivers, Fitzpatrick responded with what was his best game of the season since a Week 2 win over the Bills. The Patriots were, however, able to shut down what had been a potent Jets running attack in recent weeks -- they averaged 5.5 yards per carry over the course of three games leading up to Sunday -- and they turned the ball over twice. It wasn't always pretty, and they may have benefitted from Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey's refusal to get away from the run, but even on a day when the pass defense was porous they allowed just three scoring drives.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
The Patriots had difficulty getting to the quarterback, but when they did it won them the game. Credit Chris Long (30 snaps) for his persistence. A rotation with Jabaal Sheard (25), Rob Ninkovich (32) and Trey Flowers (36), helped keep him fresh, but his effort has been consistent throughout games on a weekly basis. Otherwise, this group didn't do much against the pass, though Malcom Brown did get his arms around Fitzpatrick to help force an intentional grounding penalty. Trey Flowers also drew a hold on a third-down pass play in the first quarter, but the penalty was declined. Sheard picked up one quarterback hurry and one run stuff in his return to the field. The running game was almost non-existent for the Jets as they accumulated just 2.8 yards on 23 carries. Brown had his best game of the season and was a force in the second half, stuffing three runs total. Branch was not his typically-dominant self against the Jets' ground attack, but his length helped clog things in the middle.
The Patriots appear to be splitting the No. 2 linebacker role between Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy. McClellin led this group in snaps (32) behind Dont'a Hightower (57), who did not come off the field. In passing situations, Van Noy (28) got the nod, seeing time mostly in coverage. He was beaten on a wheel route -- in what seems to be a weekly occurance for this group since the Jamie Collins trade -- by CJ Spiller, but the pass was underthrown and Spiller dropped it. The former Lions 'backer did, however, pick up a pair of quarterback hurries. Elandon Roberts saw just four snaps, but he showed his instincts against the run by forcing a three-yard loss in the first quarter when he came downhill quickly and stopped the play before it could start. Hightower was sound in the running game and though there were check-downs completed in front of him, that was what this game plan called for. They did not want to give up the big play, and this unit wasn't burned for one.
It may be too simple to say this was a bad matchup for Patriots defensive backs, but this was a bad matchup for Patriots defensive backs. Particularly Malcolm Butler. He allowed completions on all six of the targets sent his way for 106 yards, but he was often in good position and his size betrayed him. A 13-yard catch on a back-shoulder throw to Brandon Marshall, Marshall's end-zone fade and Enunwa's "butt touchdown" were all plays in which Butler was where he should have been. He was just smaller than the other guy. And credit Fitzpatrick for making good throws in those situations. Butler wished he had done more after the game -- and he was beaten by a step on Enunwa's 40-yard gain -- but there wasn't much more for him to do on a handful of the plays he gave up. His strip of Robby Anderson was as quick a redemption as one could hope for after he lost Anderson during a scramble drill, and he contributed to the defense's second turnover when his coverage on Marshall forced Fitzpatrick to hesitate and look elsewhere. Eric Rowe played physically, as he always does, escaping an interference call, allowing one catch, and breaking up one pass on four targets. He also showed up in the running game, stuffing a pair of runs. Logan Ryan was the No. 3 corner and was solid against a variety of targets, breaking up one pass and allowing 39 yards on five grabs. By playing coverage and sacrificing bodies up front to generate a rush, the Patriots had to plaster for long periods of time, which was a lot to ask against bigger wideouts and a streaky quarterback who played confidently.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
After missing a 39-yard field goal at the end of the first half on Sunday, Stephen Gostkowski has now missed four field goals (16-for-20) to go along with three missed extra points (14-for-17) this season -- both career-highs. His miss Sunday wasn't because Gostkowski was rushed before the end of the first half; the team could have used a timeout but didn't need it as it was set and snapped the ball with three seconds left on the play clock. He has what seems to be a hash-mark issue. He made four kicks (three field goals, one extra point) from the left hash but missed his one attempt from the right hash. If he's become dependent on having a particular angle into his kicks, that could impact how the team makes its fourth-down decisions going forward. The Patriots opted to go for it on fourth down late in the fourth quarter rather than taking a potential game-winning field goal from 54 yards out. The Patriots got a key Alan Branch blocked field goal, and held the Jets return game in check without injured teams captain Matthew Slater. Special teams coordinator Joe Juge appeared to try to hide where his players were lined up during kickoffs, using four huddled players on each side of Gostkowski who didn't declare their positions to Jets blockers until the ball was kicked. With Cyrus Jones out sick, Danny Amendola got the call as the primary returner. James White replaced Slater as the short returner, and traffic cop, on kick-returns. Jonathan Jones and Brandon King served as the gunners with Slater sidelined. (Bookkeeping note: Devin McCourty was called for a hold before New England's game-winning drive. That penalty appeared to be called on Patrick Chung as he was the only outside blocker engaged when the flag was thrown.)