Patriots Report Card: Numbers be damned, Brady looked strong in win
It was wet. It was cold. It was hard to hold onto the football. It was hard to tackle. "It's what we are," Bill Belichick told his team after beating the Cowboys, 13-9. It wasn't pretty, but some of the grades are solid despite what the numbers might suggest. The quarterback's mark would be the foremost example of that. His statistics were forgettable, but his pass placement and movement in the pocket were exemplary at times. Let's start there as we dive into the grades.
Tom Brady was clearly better than the numbers showed Sunday. He threw away three passes. One was batted at the line. Five were dropped. Those were nine of his 16 incompletions on Sunday. Remove them from the equation, and his stats -- 17-for-37, 190 yards, one touchdown -- are markedly better. He showed good movement in the pocket to avoid one of the best pass-rush units in football, including an especially deft move to give himself an extra blink on a third-and-20 completion to Julian Edelman. That was one of his best throws of the season. His back-shoulder touchdown to N'Keal Harry was perfectly placed, and he had a second back-shoulder throw to the first-round rookie later in the game that would've put the Patriots on the goal line had it been caught. His third-and-seven conversion to Meyers late was a strike, as was his deep-over route to Meyers in the second quarter. Brady had a dangerous throwaway while being hit that could've been picked, and he made an awkward first-and-20 attempt to Meyers with his feet unsettled . . . But there was a reason Brady sounded confident Monday when he told WEEI about his right elbow, which was on the injury report late last week. "How'd it look yesterday?" he said. He knew he played well in terrible passing conditions, even if the numbers were down.
RUNNING BACK: B
This was Sony Michel's best game of the season, I thought. He racked up 85 yards after contact and forced a whopping six missed tackles. The missed-tackle number ties his career-high (six against the Jets in Week 12 last season). More impressive than the number of missed tackles -- which saw a bump thanks to Michel getting to the second level more frequently behind a group of blockers that included Isaiah Wynn and Matt LaCosse -- was the manner in which Michel forced the misses. On two occasions, he forced tacklers to miss well behind the line of scrimmage to create big gains. That's not usually his game. If he can keep that up, the Patriots run game should see a second-half boost. This grade would've been higher but Michel didn't get much help from his fellow backs. James White was targeted three times and caught one pass for a loss of six. Rex Burkhead was targeted five times, dropped one, and recorded 14 yards receiving. That pair also combined for just eight yards on four carries. Brandon Bolden continues to flash in the little work he gets, taking an end-around carry for 11 yards.
Drops. N'Keal Harry had two, one of which would've put the Patriots on the goal line had it been caught. Jakobi Meyers dropped the first Patriots pass of the game, and then let another bounce off his pads when he knew a big hit was coming deep down the middle of the field. Julian Edelman had one as he deals with an injured left shoulder. Give credit where it's due to all three. They combined for 177 of Brady's passing yards and his only touchdown. They were the passing offense. But the passing offense could've used more, and they left yards on the table.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B-
It certainly wasn't perfect, but Isaiah Wynn helped keep things under control on the left side of the offensive line. He didn't have an easy test, going against Robert Quinn most of the night, but he held his own. The sack he allowed -- a strip-sack in the middle of the field -- came more than three seconds into the play. Of course, he'd like to have held his block longer, but that's a situation in which the Dallas pass-rush has been winning all year. Wynn was better as a run-blocker, his athleticism showing up as he moved quickly to the second level and reacted to penetrating linebackers with good instincts. His block on Sean Lee at the end of the game, where he caught just enough of the veteran at the last possible second, allowed Michel to pick up what was essentially the game-winning first down. Joe Thuney and Ted Karras were solid on the interior -- perhaps thanks in part to the trickle-down effect of having a starting-caliber player at left tackle -- and Marcus Cannon would've been in the "solid" category as well even if it hadn't been for the illness he played through. Shaq Mason still might be dealing with something physically -- he was banged-up earlier in the year -- as he had a difficult time keeping rushers out of the backfield.
TIGHT END: C
Matt LaCosse was a key part of the plan early on as the Patriots clearly wanted to get their running game going. How'd they do it, against an aggressive Cowboys defensive line? They used that Dallas' aggressiveness to their advantage. Wham plays, trap blocks -- where defensive players are blocked by players other than the ones aligned across from them -- worked well, and LaCosse was a part of that. The Patriots also got some solid work from Elandon Roberts at fullback, who was also on the field for that Michel game-winning run late in the fourth quarter. Bill Belichick called it one of the best blocks of the year, and he highlighted it again on his weekly segment with Scott Zolak for the team's website. He actually showed two Roberts blocks -- the other was a pancake block in Philadelphia the week prior on a similarly-designed play. If the Patriots have a legitimate fullback to use situationally in Roberts, that'd be a nice find. That position has been so vital to this offense, it makes sense as to why they kept two (James Develin, Jakob Johnson) around until both suffered season-ending injuries.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Lawrence Guy continues to maul people at the point of attack in order to slow down opposing running games. On a second-and-two play in the second quarter, he threw tackle La'el Collins aside with a shove and stuffed Ezekiel Elliott. On the next play, Stephon Gilmore recorded a pick. Those seemingly small plays -- something on first or second down that forces a pass attempt on third down against the best pass defense and best third-down defense in football -- end up being huge. And Guy has had a bunch this year. Adam Butler and Danny Shelton were relatively quiet, and Deatrich Wise picked up a costly roughing-the-passer penalty. But for this group to help hold Elliott to 86 yards on 21 carries is a solid evening. Hence the "B."
There's one play in the fourth quarter that helps show just how in-sync this linebacker group is in 2019. It was third down and seven. The Cowboys were in the red zone. They needed a touchdown to tie. Jamie Collins spotted something as Dallas got set. Maybe it was Elliott's placement in the backfield, since he was about a yard behind Dak Prescott, which might've indicated he was about to motion behind Prescott. Maybe it was the formation. Maybe it was the down and distance combined with all of the above. But Collins started to shout something to Kyle Van Noy, on the opposite side of the formation on the edge. Dont'a Hightower heard Collins, looked in the backfield, and then he started to shout to Van Noy and point to Elliott. When Elliott motioned behind Prescott, making it so that his man coverage defender (Collins) couldn't chase through second-level traffic, Van Noy was ready. He widened. Took Elliott, and Prescott had to go elsewhere. Incomplete. The instincts and communication level with this group this year is impressive every week. Same was true against the Cowboys. Collins finished with 10 tackles, while Hightower had six and Van Noy had five, including one first-down run-stuff that went for -3. Elandon Roberts notched a couple of quarterback hits for this group as well.
What more can be said about Stephon Gilmore? To shut out Amari Cooper -- the engine behind Prescott's statistical surge over the last calendar year -- is one of the most noteworthy performances of a two-season stretch that has been filled with them. His interception came on a play with the Cowboys running out of a bunch formation. It was fascinating to watch Gilmore play those -- the types of formations that gave this defense hell in early 2017. Tight to the line but patient, he allowed the player who was supposed to pick him to slide by. Even though it gave Cooper a step, Gilmore trusted his speed to make up the ground. He did just that (helped by a bad Cowboys snap) right before his interception. Often, the Patriots like to "combo" those types of routes with defensive backs reading releases at the line and determining their assignments then and there. On Sunday, it looked like Gilmore had Cooper no matter what. And why not? It worked. This is another unit where the communication seems to be off the charts effective right now. Jonathan Jones is looking like a seasoned vet alongside Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Gilmore. JC Jackson got the start in place of Jason McCourty (groin) and was flagged twice. But even those weren't enough to drop this mark. That was the most efficient passing offense in football coming into the game, and it was neutered by this secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
One of the toughest grades to hand out all year. How do you do it? On the one hand, the punt-block unit made the play of the game when Matthew Slater got his hand on the football late in the first quarter. That led to the only touchdown of the night. The kickoff unit was also on point. Jake Bailey used pop-up kicks effectively and the Cowboys returned three for just six total yards. But on the other hand, Nick Folk missed two field goals, one of which was preceded by a Danny Shelton false start penalty (he also made two and his lone extra-point try). Bailey punted six times and landed three inside the 20 . . . but he was off throughout the night. Give this group credit for having a clean operation -- something the Cowboys certainly couldn't cook up -- but there will be plenty for Belichick to harp on this week as they get ready for Houston.