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Perry's Report Card: Backup O-line shines bright in front of Mac Jones

/ by Phil Perry
Presented By Mass School of Law
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Ignore the noise, right?

That wasn’t the case this past week at Gillette Stadium.

The offensive line heard the criticism. The quarterback heard the criticism of the offensive line. David Andrews admitted Sunday it was deserved. Mac Jones sounded a little more irked by the fact there was buzz about the offensive line’s play out there at all.

Bottom line: They heard it.

“I think the offensive line did a great job and I think it all starts with them,” Jones said. “They were doubted all week and there was this and that, and all the noise around that, and they came out and they played really hard and they played together. I think I only got hit one time the whole game. So just shoutout to those guys and they are a big reason why [the comeback] happened."

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And after performing below their standard, Jones’ blockers had the tall task of going to work against the Texans without four starters.

Bill Belichick said after the game he couldn’t remember a game from his entire coaching career when so many replacements up front were needed. Three practice-squad linemen were called up for the Houston game. One, James Ferentz, started.

They ended up being one of the top-performing position groups on the team. Jones was sacked just once and hit twice more. Rushers ran for over four yards per carry. And there wasn’t a single drive-killing penalty called on the unit all game.

 

This week’s Report Card is certainly fridge-worthy for the Patriots, who grinded away in the trenches offensively. Before we get to their mark, let’s take a look at the rest of the offense.

Quarterback: B

"No. 10," David Andrews said of his quarterback, "he’s a tough son of a gun."

Mac Jones didn’t have to put his toughness on display Sunday by taking a dozen shots and continuing to get up, as he did a week earlier against Tampa Bay. It wasn’t totally clean, there were swallow-hard-and-press-on moments, but his poise and mental toughness shined through at the end of the game and the end of the first half to help the Patriots put points on the board in critical situations.

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At the end of the half he found Hunter Henry and Kendrick Bourne for drive-starting gains. Good. He was nearly picked when it looked like he and Henry didn’t see the coverage similarly, which led to a wayward throw. Not so good. But he later hit Henry for a chunk and managed the clock well the rest of the way. Jones made a good decision once within field-goal range, throwing the ball away with 10 seconds left and no timeouts as opposed to taking an unnecessary risk.

Jones hit Henry twice more on the game-tying drive, including a touchdown on third-and-six on a well-placed throw to the back corner for the big tight end. Jones hasn’t always been willing to pull the trigger on deeper attempts, but the Patriots needed him to there and he came through. That was more a playmaker’s throw than a game-manager’s. Good. Definitely good.

On the game-winning drive, Jones began with a big play-action shot -- the Texans could not help themselves but to bite on the fake -- to Jakobi Meyers. Good. But then he was sacked. Less so. Then Jones got a gift (though it couldn’t have felt like one, physically) when he took a shot to the chin from Maliek Collins on third-and-18. Jones was nearly picked off deep down the field on the play, but the penalty kept things moving. From there the roller coaster continued. Jones stepped up to find Henry on third down, avoiding edge pressure and ripping a strike on the move. Good. Then he was nearly picked by dropping linebacker Zach Cunningham. Not so much. The running game got the Patriots into range for Nick Folk from there.

He ended up being sacked just once and he was picked on one throw down the field to Nelson Agholor when he was hit.

Jones both made plays that needed to be made and narrowly avoided a crucial error or two. That’s life with a rookie quarterback. But for Jones to be as effective as he was (7.7 yards per attempt, 76 percent completions) behind a patchwork offensive line and with a would-be touchdown wiped off the board because of the fumble, this would qualify as another step in the right direction for the young signal-caller’s development.

 

Running back: C-

Damien Harris’ fumble at the goal line was a killer. If he held on for six more inches, the complexion of the game changes. There’s no clear answer as to why the Patriots can’t consistently secure the football -- particularly in critical situations -- but it clearly has to change.

Josh McDaniels looked miffed once the Harris score was overturned, saying something to the running back group on the bench before going back to his spot to review the overhead pictures of his offense. Outside of that one horribly-timed gaffe, Patriots backs ran hard -- best illustrated by Harris’ Wildcat touchdown run when he bowled over a defensive back to cross the goal line.

They finished with 106 yards on 27 carries. A Brandon Bolden crack toss run on the game-winning drive went for 24 yards and was the highlight of the afternoon for this unit. Still plenty to be concerned about here, though. Harris left with a rib injury. Rhamondre Stevenson averaged 2.1 yards per carry.

Bolden doesn’t appear to add much pass-catching value as James White’s replacement on passing downs (he finished with four catches for six yards). If Harris can’t go in Week 6, the team will likely have to activate JJ Taylor, who was a healthy scratch in Houston after fumbling last week against the Bucs.

Wide receiver: C+

Kendrick Bourne was flagged for a hold. Jakobi Meyers didn’t wait long enough for Jonnu Smith to get set on a fourth-quarter red-zone snap, leading to an illegal shift penalty. Nelson Agholor had just three catches. Meyers had a pass clang off his hands when he was wide open along the Patriots sideline for an explosive gain.

It was far from a perfect day.

But Agholor and Meyers were both able to attack the open middle of the field on play-action throws, and Bourne chipped in with a nice end-around run when he deftly weaved between Texans defenders. The group finished with 11 catches for 123 yards.

Tight end: B

Hunter Henry and Mac Jones had a mid-route moment of miscommunication that nearly led to a pick. Jonnu Smith fought a couple of targets that led to bobbled catches. But for the most part, this group was solid.

Henry got into the end zone for the second straight week on a well-run corner route. Seems as though that corner-route connection has been weeks in the making, with Henry not always getting a chance to make a play down the field on those. Jones found him this time though, saying later he’s known Henry has had a good feel for that route going all the way back to the offseason when Jones watched Henry’s highlights from his time with the Chargers.

 

Both Henry and Smith were the beneficiaries of some soft intermediate coverage by Houston that led to chunk gains over the middle. Smith took a carry and was used as a lead-blocker out of the backfield more than he has been.

Even Jakob Johnson helped this grade out by being an impact lead-blocker on a day when the running game needed to be the driver. His block on Damien Harris' second-quarter touchdown run absolutely caved in the left side of the Texans line. Johnson ended up getting more run later in the game as the Patriots went with heavier two-back groupings to pound the Texans -- and to help sell some play-action shots.

Offensive line: A-

Are we grading on a curve here?

Maybe.

But when four-fifths of the starting offensive line isn't available, all an offensive line group can try to do is survive and advance. This group did more than that, though. They helped their backs and receivers carve out 4.2 yards per carry. They didn’t commit a single penalty. They only allowed Mac Jones to be sacked once. And though Jones took a couple shots on the day, it wasn't an afternoon-long beating the likes of which he'd taken multiple times through the first month of the season.

One hit -- when James Ferentz was bulled back into the backfield -- led to Jones' lone interception on the day. Jones was pressured and hit again when trying a long-distance shot on third-and-long late in the game, but the hit landed on Jones' chin, a flag was thrown, and New England's drive survived.

The line was helped by a steady diet of screen plays and spread-game quick-hitters, but the fact Ferentz, Yodny Cajuste (starting at right tackle for his first snaps as a pro), Ted Karras and Justin Herron had as little on-camera face time as they did was a very good sign for the fill-ins on this unit. Credit to them for being ready to go, credit to David Andrews for anchoring the group, and credit to offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo for helping them prepare to win.

Special teams: B+

Missing an extra point at the end of a well-executed first drive hurts.

But the Patriots kicking-game unit picked things up after that. Nick Folk drilled two 52-yard field goals and one 32-yarder. Of course, he also drilled the chip-shot game-winner. Jake Bailey smashed a 58-yard punt that helped flip field position. Chase Winovich had a pair of tackles on kickoffs that helped pin the Texans relatively deep in their own territory.

Plus, this group gets some credit for the abomination of a punt try in the third quarter. Some. More on that below ...

Defensive line: B

Hard to crush this group when the Texans were still averaging less than three yards per carry well into the third quarter. Christian Barmore and Davon Godchaux checked in with run-stuffs early. Lawrence Guy put a hit on Davis Mills. Barmore drew a hands-to-the-face penalty with some good burst off the line of scrimmage. And this group should also get some credit for the botched punt attempt by the Texans late in the third.

 

Failure of epic proportions on Houston's end, but with more space to get that punt off... maybe it gets off. The front held its ground and got the equivalent of a big return for its efforts.

Linebacker: B+

Matt Judon has been a revelation and the team's best player through five weeks.

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His two sacks helped snuff out a Texans drive deep into Patriots territory, forcing a field goal near the end of the first half. He also had a hit and a pressure on Davis Mills that helped force incompletions.

Kyle Van Noy had a stuff, as did Dont'a Hightower. Hightower also recorded a pressure on third down in the fourth quarter that helped lead to an incompletion. Ja'Whaun Bentley had a hit of his own on a delayed blitz that helped create an incompletion. Bentley also broke up a pass.

Chase Winovich earned a pressure early on. Good mix of pass-rush and run-stopping ability here, as the yards-per-carry number would indicate.

Secondary: D

Davis Mills was, by several metrics, the worst quarterback in football headed into Sunday. He'd thrown more picks than anyone other than Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson -- fellow rookie quarterbacks with more than twice Mills' number of snaps under their belts.

Only Jacoby Brissett had a lower yards-per-attempt average. Mills had the highest turnover-worthy play percentage in football, per Pro Football Focus. And yet, the Patriots secondary made him look like John Elway for the first half.

They gambled and lost twice for huge gains. Once on Chris Moore's long touchdown catch-and-run when JC Jackson tried to stop and make a play on the football, missed as safety Devin McCourty overran the play, and allowed Moore to run into the end zone unimpeded.

Later, McCourty tried to undercut a throw to Chris Conley, missed, and Conley turned and ran for 40 yards. Jackson helped allow a fourth-and-one conversion by playing off and trying to funnel his assignment to his help in the middle of the field. But that help was in no position to help on a slant, which Mills hit easily for a first down.

Jackson also finished the first half with two penalties. And when the Patriots dialed up pressure, there was no resistance on the back end. Twice New England called for Cover 0 -- an all-out blitz -- on the first Houston drive. Twice they failed. Once on a slant to David Johnson with McCourty in coverage. Once for a touchdown down near the goal line. The Texans were 8-for-11 on third and fourth down in the first 30 minutes and they went into the half with a six-point lead.

Soon after hitting the field to start the second half, the Texans dialed up a perfect play to test Joejuan Williams -- in for Jalen Mills -- on the outside. Flea flicker. Leaning forward to play the run, Williams lost Chris Conley. Touchdown.

Later, after the Patriots had cut Houston's lead to seven, the Texans converted yet another third down when Mills found Moore -- a practice-squad call-up -- for 27 yards when he broke away from Myles Bryant in coverage.