Patriots Report Card: Terrence Brooks helps 'D' get back on honor roll
Despite the personnel Carson Wentz had to work with, Patriots defenders knew they had their work cut out for themselves. They were going against one of the league's best young quarterbacks. They were going against a creative play-caller in head coach Doug Pederson, whose script for the start of the game would be well-crafted after a bye week. They were going against an offensive line that had paved the way for 364 yards rushing in Philly's two previous games against good defenses from Chicago and Buffalo.
The script worked early. On the first snap of the game, the Eagles ran a two-back package they'd run on all of eight plays all season. They ran a snap with center Jason Kelce aligned wide as an ineligible receiver. They identified zone and man coverages and reacted with appropriate concepts that helped extend their never-ending 9:33 drive.
But after that? Nothing. Punt. Fumble. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Punt. Turnover on downs. Game over.
It was an honor-roll worthy performance, even if Wentz's receiving corps was injury-riddled. As for the rest of the team? Here are the grades . . .
Shades of Buffalo. Down in the red zone, where the Patriots have been abysmal (now 25th in the NFL, scoring on 48.4 percent of red-zone trips), Brady was not as sharp as the Patriots needed him to be. During one sequence late in the second quarter, the Patriots had a fresh set of downs from the Eagles' four-yard line.
He was nearly picked in the end zone on first down. On second down, Julian Edelman dropped a touchdown pass that wasn't particularly well-placed by Brady since he had about 15 yards of open end zone to lead Edelman and instead threw it a touch behind his target. On third down, he sent a hurried, flat-footed pass — with no real pressure on him — wide of James White. He made tremendous strikes to Edelman on an over-route on New England's first scoring drive, and to Watson to get the Patriots to the four-yard line on that failed goal-to-go sequence. And he didn't turn it over.
But there were pretty clearly plays left out on the field he'd like back.
RUNNING BACK: C+
Sony Michel finished with 10 carries for 33 yards, including one 12-yard carry. He also had a drop as a receiver, allowing a pass to get to his chest plate, bounce off, and nearly get intercepted. The Patriots appear to be at their best running the football when they go hurry-up with smaller backs — taking advantage of lighter defensive personnel, tired defenders, or both. James White carried five times for 20 yards. Rex Burkhead ended up making perhaps the offensive play of the game — outside of the double-pass touchdown — by breaking a tackle on a screen and taking it up the field for 30 yards.
That sparked the Patriots' only touchdown drive of the day. It was surprising that against an aggressive, downhill linebacker corps in Philly, the Patriots couldn't take advantage with their short passing game to their backs. They tried, running eight screens — and a potential ninth on the double-pass (that was the second option on the play) — but had little success outside Burkhead's catch-and-run and a 12-yarder to start the game from Michel.
Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett helped raise this grade to where it ended up, based strictly off of their execution on the only touchdown pass of the night for New England. Edelman made an accurate throw, leading Dorsett with pressure bearing down on him, and Dorsett finished the play despite taking a hellacious hit soon after the football arrived. Edelman's drop in the end zone was a killer — even if the throw wasn't perfect. Two other passes weren't true drops — a seam pass on the team's first drive and a deflection deep down the right side — but hit his hands and would've provided a stuck-in-the-mud offense with some life. Mohamed Sanu looked limited after suffering what looked like an ankle injury on a punt-return. He was targeted just four times and had four yards receiving after catching 10 passes in Baltimore in Week 9.
N'Keal Harry was thrown into the deep end and held his own, aligning correctly and in multiple positions. Worth cleaning up? He didn't fight back to the football on either slant sent his way — one caught, one broken up — and will likely hear from his coaches that he'll have to work back to the football and catch it with his hands moving forward. On both plays he left his feet, trying to shield the defender off with his body when his body is already large enough to keep defenders on his back if he stays grounded. Jakobi Meyers appeared to run the wrong route on one play, but he also had a third-down conversion that went for seven yards. He looks like the No. 5 option when everyone is healthy.
TIGHT END: B
Three catches on four targets for 52 yards for Ben Watson? Take it. Take it. Take it. His grab to get the Patriots down to the four-yard line was stellar, as Brady led him perfectly low and away from a potential jarring hit. He dove and finished the play that had a significant degree of difficulty.
Matt LaCosse was back and healthy, playing 21 snaps, but he was a non-factor in the passing game. He didn't have any major hiccups as a blocker, though, playing 12 of his snaps in that role.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-
Tom Brady was hurried a dozen times and hit four more. On the bright side, he was only sacked once against a front that included Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. But the quick incompletions, the failed screens, the 3.4 yards per carry for running backs . . . that largely falls on this group. Isaiah Wynn's addition should make a world of difference.
The guards, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, were solid. In particular, the bye appeared to do Mason (who's been banged up) some good. With Wynn back and Marcus Cannon providing a sturdy presence, they have a chance to look much better for the season's final half-dozen games.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Jake Bailey has been "exceptional," according to Tom Brady. "I think we're doing a pretty good job," Matthew Slater said after the game Sunday. "We're never satisfied. There's always room for improvement. But we have a young fella (Bailey) that's doing a heckuva job kicking the ball for us and he's giving our coverage a chance."
Bailey punted eight times and had six downed inside the 20. He also had five kickoffs, with only two touchbacks, that led to a starting field position of the 25-yard line — not bad for someone who just picked up that job when Stephen Gostkowski went down injured. Brandon Bolden had a 25-yard return, Mohamed Sanu had a 14-yard punt-return, and Nick Folk made all four of his kicks. Hard to get much better than this.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton played what might've been their best games of the season, limiting a productive run game by overpowering what had been a powerful offensive line coming into the game. Shelton had seven tackles, including a sack and a forced fumble that was recovered by . . . Guy. Guy had three run stops of his own and a quarterback hurry.
Adam Butler was also stout, though his role came primarily in passing situations. He recorded another sack — giving him 5.5 on the season — and helped Dont'a Hightower get one of his own with a subtle head-fake that forced the Eagles' protection scheme to hesitate for an instant as it likely anticipated a stunt that never came. This would've been an "A" had it not been for a pair of illegal hands-to-the-face calls on Shelton and Deatrich Wise.
Hightower's speed-rush sack around Philly's backup right tackle was key — and nearly caused a turnover. That was the exclamation point on a huge pass-rush night for the captain, who finished with two additional quarterback hits and four hurries. Kyle Van Noy was equally active, notching a sack of his own, as well as a hit and three hurries.
John Simon and Hightower were key as "butch" defenders, jamming Wentz's favorite option — Zach Ertz — at the line of scrimmage before passing him off to defensive backs in coverage. As the glue between the front and the back end, the linebackers were big all game in limiting both the run and pass games from the Eagles.
The plan was varied, and it included Stephon Gilmore as well as Devin McCourty, Jonathan Jones, Duron Harmon and Terrence Brooks. Whatever they did, it limited Zach Ertz in crucial spots. He had 94 yards receiving, but he didn't have a catch on third down and he didn't have a catch in Patriots territory. The rest of Philly's receiving group was mostly overwhelmed by superior coverage.
Nelson Agholor, Mack Hollins and off-the-street Jordan Matthews had little chance against what's been a statistically-historic pass defense. (It spoke to where the Eagles passing-game weapons were, and how much Wentz trusted them, when Carson Wentz's first third-down throw went to Matthews — who just re-joined the team after being away all season — when he was covered one-on-one by Gilmore, the best cover corner in football.) For Brooks to contribute the way he did in Patrick Chung's absence shows the depth and ability level of this unit. Brooks was often entrusted to be the man to stick with Ertz on early downs, and he was rock solid. His 35 snaps were second-most for him this season.