Patriots Report Card: Defense aces the test, offense flops vs. Bills
It was ugly for the offense. We haven't said this much over the last decade or so -- outside of the aftermath of Super Bowl 53 -- but the defense and special teams carried that unit. No surprise, but this week's grades reflect that. Let's get right to 'em.
Tom Brady's interception, a pick by safety Micah Hyde in the end zone, can't happen. But that was a next-level play made by an extremely talented player. Hyde never took his eyes off of Brady. He might've heard somewhere along the line that Brady isn't all that fond of relying on young receivers and so he probably assumed that his coverage assignment, Jakobi Meyers, wasn't going to get the football. Hyde was ready to sag off Meyers, he did, and he made the play. Not many defensive backs in man coverage make the same move there. There were plenty of other plays that fell on Brady. He was called for intentional grounding once, and probably could've been called for the same penalty at least one other time. He missed a wide open Josh Gordon down the middle of the field when he threw a play-action pass that wasn't close to anyone. On a fourth-and-eight play, a Brady underthrow was wiped out by a defensive pass interference call. He had two play-action, spin-and-throw passes that were off the mark. He ended the game with a 45.9 rating, his lowest ever in a win. He did make one of the throws of the game, though, hitting James White on a wheel route on third down that helped set up the offense's lone score. Outside of that, understanding that he was working with a banged-up group of weapons, there wasn't much positive to point to.
RUNNING BACK: B-
Once again, there wasn't much room for these players to go on Sunday. Running to the outside was particularly difficult on plays that didn't include Brandon Bolden's four-yard, jet-sweep touchdown scamper. Rex Burkhead -- who was questionable with a foot issue -- clearly wasn't himself as he didn't see a carry and only had one target that went for seven yards. James White boosts this grade to where it is with his eight-catch (on 10 targets), 42-yard performance as a receiver. He was their best third-down option, converting on four of six third-down targets and/or handoffs. One of those was a 26-yard wheel route where he got a step on athletic linebacker Matt Milano that set up the Patriots for their lone score.
Josh Gordon (finger issue against the Jets, knee wrapped for second half against the Bills) was banged up. Julian Edelman (ribs) was banged up. They played like it. Both had drops, and they combined for seven catches on 13 targets. Phillip Dorsett caught two passes for 10 yards on nine targets. They need to get healthy here if they're going to move the ball because the running game hasn't been consistent enough to shoulder the load.
TIGHT END: D
The Patriots have not been able to create any positive momentum on their outside zone runs. The issue, oftentimes, appears to be what they have at tight end. When Bill Belichick and Tom Brady recently alluded to the fact that they might have to trim the playbook based on what they've showed they can do successfully through the season's first month, it would come as no surprise if stretch runs behind the tight end are among first to go. Matt LaCosse made a good play on a high-low crosser combination with Josh Gordon that freed him up for a 31-yard catch and run. Outside of that, it was hard to find much positive from this group's performance.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-
This group allowed Tom Brady to be hurried 10 times and hit once. It might've felt like more than that, but Brady bailed on a number of plays when it looked like he knew nothing would be available to him before the pressure really got home. The interior running game saw improvements -- as it should've against the 19th-ranked run defense through three weeks, a defense that was without its best interior defensive lineman Harrison Phillips -- but there wasn't much in the way of consistency there as the team averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry again. Even adding Jermaine Eluemunor as a jumbo tight end to the formation for three snaps in the early going yielded no results. Still a ways to go up front.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
This group had four missed tackles and played a big role in the Bills averaging 6.1 yards per carry. But they also were a significant part of the pressure packages that flustered Josh Allen (and later Matt Barkley) throughout the day. Lawrence Guy was particularly effective with power rushes, racking up six pressures. Adam Butler and Michael Bennett had a pair each. One of Butler's led to a Chase Winovich sack and one of Bennett's led to an ill-advised Allen throw and interception.
Even with a player picking off two passes in this one, Kyle Van Noy was the team's most valuable defender. He was in on two sacks and had three more quarterback pressures. He was also around the football all day, forcing fumbles and hitting Matt Barkley's arm on the game-ending interception. John Simon had five total pressures, including a sack, as did Jamie Collins. Collins' were particularly impressive in that he was tasked with spying Josh Allen for much of the day. Missed tackles were an issue here as well as Van Noy, Collins and Ja'Whaun Bentley all missed one.
Weird day Sunday for this defense in one respect: Missed tackles everywhere. It's normally a very good tackling group. JC Jackson and Devin McCourty both missed on Frank Gore's longest run of the day. Stephon Gilmore later added another. Didn't matter, though, thanks in part to the coverage this unit provided from start to finish. Jackson came up with two picks while McCourty secured his fourth in four games. Jason McCourty continued his stretch of strong play, allowing just 20 yards receiving on six targets. Jonathan Jones did much more than stop Josh Allen from picking up a fourth down late in the game with his hotly-debated hit. He allowed just two catches on six targets for 26 total yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Stephen Gostkowski may have missed another extra point, and that's a growing concern. Matthew Slater picked up yet another unsportsmanlike penalty for reasons he didn't quite understand. Those are things the Patriots will obviously try to avoid moving forward. But the plays they made on the positive end of the ledger -- mostly the blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown -- were so significant that this grade crept into the A-range. Jake Bailey had his best game as a pro with nine punts that averaged 48.1 yards, with a long of 61 yards. Only two landed inside the 20 because so many Patriots drives stalled quickly and in their own territory, but he was a field-position flipper all afternoon.