Patriots Report Card: Tom Brady didn't look like himself vs. Bengals
Tom Brady's offensive struggles this season have been well documented, but even looking at Sunday's game in Cincinnati through that lens, something seemed off. A fifth straight game with a completion percentage of under 60 percent. A season-low 128 passing yards. A measly 4.4 yards per attempt.
Luckily for the Patriots, the team's ground game, defense, and special teams picked up the slack in a big way against the woeful Bengals with a season-high 175 rushing yards, four interceptions, and a +5 turnover margin.
So while there are plenty of high marks in this week's report card, let's start with the quarterback. . .
What has made Tom Brady the player he is for so long has not been his explosive play rate, it's been his mind-boggling consistency on the throws he should make. That consistency wasn't there Sunday.
The first throw of the game to Mohamed Sanu should've gone for a good gain yet fell incomplete. The seam route to Sanu that sailed over his head in the end zone was missed. Two of Tom Brady's misses should've been caught — the high throw to Sanu and the flat throw to Sony Michel near the goal line — but they were misses as well. I have no idea how much to put on Brady's elbow. His touchdown to N'Keal Harry was a dart, as were his back-to-back third-down throws (one erased due to penalty) to Harry earlier in the game.
But it wouldn't surprise me if Brady was hurting one week after taking a hit to his elbow. He was uncharacteristically off in this one.
RUNNING BACK: B+
Sony Michel averaged 4.7 yards per carry and picked up 70 of his 89 yards after contact. He also forced four missed tackles. Rex Burkhead checked in with the longest run of the season for the Patriots — a 33-yard touchdown — and made a man miss in the process. James White was money in the screen game, deftly scampering behind his blockers for a 23-yard touchdown. If not for Michel's drop (on a tough throw) and his fumble late, this grade would've landed in the "A" range.
First, the good. N'Keal Harry had a breakout game. Even with just four touches, he was used in a variety of roles — inside, outside, in motion, as a receiver, as a runner, in the red zone — which was a massive improvement over getting just two snaps the previous week. His size, run-after-the-catch ability and body control make him an intriguing third option for the Patriots in the passing game . . . if Julian Edelman is healthy. He wasn't Sunday. Mohamed Sanu, meanwhile, played 57 snaps, ran 34 snaps, saw six targets and only caught two passes for 13 yards. He had another drop on fourth down — his second in three weeks — and it's hard to see encouraging signs as far as his growth within the offense goes.
TIGHT END: D
Matt LaCosse caught all three targets sent his way, but he was open on each, and he picked up just five yards after contact by falling forward. It was the blocking grade for this group that landed it near failing. LaCosse was responsible for three of the five hits Brady absorbed.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
Marcus Cannon had a tough go, allowing a sack and another quarterback hit, but one of those was thanks to a defensive holding call that was never called. Hard to react to a stunting lineman when one of his teammates is pulling you in the opposite direction. Otherwise, this group was solid.
Outside of Brady kneeldowns, the team averaged almost 6.0 yards per carry and the pass protection was generally solid. The other four starters outside of Cannon only combined for two total pressures. After a tough day against the Chiefs in Week 14, Isaiah Wynn played every snap and had a clean slate.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Matthew Slater was Johnny On The Spot yet again with a well-timed paw on the football that forced a late first-half turnover leading to a field goal. That was a big play at the time. Momentum going into halftime. Points to break a 10-10 tie. And it was recovered by fellow special-teams ace Justin Bethel. They have an argument as the best gunner duo in football. Nick Folk made both of his kicks, and Jake Bailey continues to be solid. He had five punts, two of which were returned for a total of nine yards.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
This group was better than the team's rush defense would've indicated. Wasn't perfect, but Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton continue to be stout against the run with the latter racking up six tackles, including one that resulted in a turnover on downs. Deatrich Wise picked up a penalty for roughing the quarterback, but he had a half-dozen tackles himself, a hit on Andy Dalton and a hurry. Adam Butler was a force at times against the run as well, blowing up a second-quarter drive almost on his own by making back-to-back run stuffs on first and second down.
The run game issues — the Patriots allowed 5.1 yards per carry — appeared to crop up mostly at the second level. Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins had two missed tackles apiece. Ja'Whaun Bentley and Elandon Roberts were in the middle of things and couldn't wrap up at different points as well. There were plenty of positives, though. John Simon chased down a screen that set up third-and-short and fourth-and-short stops. Kyle Van Noy recorded five total pressures. Hightower picked up a quarterback hit and Collins had two pressures.
What more is there to say about this group? The Bengals came out wanting to run, run and run some more. It worked initially. Cincinnati didn't pass until Andy Dalton hit Cethan Carter for a touchdown nine plays in. But once the Patriots built a lead, once they forced Dalton to throw, it was over.
Stephon Gilmore continued to build his case for Defensive Player of the Year with two interceptions. J.C. Jackson put together his second two-pick game of the season. The one drawback of this game for this group was that Jonathan Jones — a critical piece as their starting slot or "star" defender — left with a groin injury.