Phil Perry's Midseason Report Card: Patriots protection has been better than you think
Go ahead and ask the players in the Patriots locker room as to whether or not they appreciated the timing of this season's bye week. They'll tell you it was just about perfect.
Seven games left. As many as 11 games total remaining, if you include the postseason. It's midseason. Almost exactly midseason. If you include the preseason, when many of the rostered players played three games, this break comes 12 games in.
It's just about the perfect time for players and coaches to rest. It's just about the perfect time to make improvements. And it's just about the perfect time for us to take a big-picture look at how each of the team's position groups are performing.
Here are our cumulative Patriots grades for Weeks 1-9...
Tom Brady has compiled plenty of numbers this season that would tell you he's no longer a top-10 quarterback. He's 15th in completion percentage (64.8), 18th in yards per attempt (7.1) and 17th in rating (93.1). Despite being protected by a backup left tackle, he's carried a pedestrian offense that's had one dependable wideout on a week-to-week basis, one pass-catching running back, and nothing resembling a consistent receiving option at tight end. He hits on over 80 percent of his throws from a clean pocket and is in the middle of his second-best season in that regard. When he has time, he's still one of the best in the league.
RUNNING BACK: B
The Patriots are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry this season, but that's not all on this group. Could Sony Michel and his fellow backs make reads with the football that would've more effectively maximized their yardage? Certainly. But they've had issues getting started behind the Patriots offensive line (and tight ends). The one back who has had reasonable success has been Rex Burkhead (4.3 yards per carry), who when healthy has shown the ability to make people miss in tight spaces at the line of scrimmage and then plunge forward for positive yards. Keeping this grade in the "B" range is what James White (and even Brandon Bolden) have done in the passing game.
This group will undoubtedly have a more productive second half of the season with Mohamed Sanu getting caught up to speed and N'Keal Harry (we assume) becoming a cog in the offense. And it was a productive first half for Julian Edelman. Despite dealing with a rib injury for weeks, he's second in the league in targets (88), third in catches (63), 12th in catch percentage (71.6) despite a league-high seven drops and 12th in yards. The next-busiest receiver for the Patriots this season has been Phillip Dorsett (38 targets), with Josh Gordon (36 targets) trailing closely behind. They've combined to provide solid production (7.92 yards per attempt), but it hasn't been there on a week-to-week basis, and now Gordon is no longer in the picture. Jakobi Meyers and even Gunner Olszewski have stepped up when called upon, but there's plenty of room for growth here.
TIGHT END: C-
Retirement. Injuries. Suspension. This group hasn't been right all season. Even as they've seen some receiving production from Ben Watson since his return off a PED suspension, he's had just eight catches on 11 targets for 72 yards in three games, putting him 25th among tight ends in receiving yardage Weeks 7-9. The blocking from this group has been one of the biggest reasons for their struggles overall in the running game. Ryan Izzo, who has more snaps than any Patriots tight end, has graded out as Pro Football Focus' 108th run-blocking tight end. Matt LaCosse (limited to 70 snaps due to injury) is No. 64 in that category, while Watson is No. 69. Eric Tomlinson might've been the team's best blocker at the position, but he's no longer on the roster after two games with the team.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
It hasn't been all bad. It really hasn't. Only four offensive lines in football have allowed their quarterbacks to be pressured less often. Tom Brady has been under duress on just 29.7 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. And when Isaiah Wynn returns from injured reserve, that number should go down. Marshall Newhouse, Wynn's replacement, has been responsible for 25 pressures, which is ninth-most among NFL tackles. The run-blocking could be better, of course, but they've shown some improvement in that regard of late. In Baltimore, the hurry-up helped this group run by an exhausted Ravens front. Even outside zone runs, which had been devastatingly ineffective early in the season, looked good the other night with James White running behind this unit.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
This grade should tell you how well most of the kicking-game units have performed this season when the place-kicking situation looks the way it's looked through two months. As Stephen Gostkowski kicked his way through injury, the team left points on the board. The Mike Nugent Era was forgettable. And yet, with two blocked punts returned for touchdowns, with a rookie booming punts, and with the kick coverage getting Pro Bowl-caliber reinforcements over the course of the last few weeks, these units have been rock solid -- and game-changing, at times. Jake Bailey is second in the league in punts downed inside the 20 (20) and sixth in return percentage. He's graded out as PFF's No. 5 punter in the league this season. Matthew Slater, Terrence Brooks and newcomer Justin Bethel have been dependable in coverage, and even rookie punt-returner Gunner Olszewski has given them something. He's 11th in the league in average yards per return (9.0), ahead of Darren Sproles (7.8), Desmond King (7.0) and Adam Humphries (6.0).
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
The yards per carry allowed figure for the Patriots (4.7, 24th in NFL) is going to fall largely on this group -- even if that's a team number to which all three levels of the Patriots defense have contributed. Adam Butler has been a revelation this season as perhaps the team's most versatile defensive lineman. He's played more snaps than any other lineman and has been a real factor in the passing game as an "assist" man, clearing space for linebackers to penetrate and get after quarterbacks. He's also had 4.5 sacks of his own. Lawrence Guy has been stout against the run (and submitted maybe the funniest play of the season by picking off Baker Mayfield), and Danny Shelton has contributed both in the run and passing games. The Ravens loss was a tough night for this group, but for the balance of the season to this point, they've been very good.
Now we're getting into some Pro Bowl-level performances. Maybe even an All-Pro performance is mixed in here. Jamie Collins has three picks and has been in on five sacks through nine games. He's played all over the field -- over the center, off the line, on the edge -- and was a signal-caller when Dont'a Hightower has missed time. Kyle Van Noy, into a full-time edge-defender role, has thrived in New England's 3-4 scheme. He has 33 total pressures and has also been in on five sacks, winning off the end of the line of scrimmage with a variety of moves. Hightower, meanwhile, continues to be the nerve center of the defense while making plays in the backfield, at the line of scrimmage in the running game, and on backs in the short passing game. Hightower, Van Noy and Collins all have touchdowns off of turnovers this year. John Simon has been a steady presence on the edge -- a veteran on a veteran unit with a sky-high collective football IQ -- and third-round rookie Chase Winovich has provided some fresh legs and burst off the edge by getting in on six sacks so far.
Rattling off the personnel is one thing. Stephon Gilmore is the best corner in football, who's allowed this defense to adopt the identity it's adopted as an aggressive man-to-man coverage unit that plays to that strength. Devin McCourty has five picks and plays a vital role in the overall communication of the league's top secondary. Jason McCourty has the No. 2 Pro Football Focus coverage grade among all NFL corners. Jonathan Jones has turned himself into one of the most dependable slot corners in the league. JC Jackson would start as a member of most other secondaries, and Patrick Chung remains a versatile queen-on-the-chess-board type despite dealing with injury. But consider what they've done as a group. They lead the league in success rate allowed to receivers (34 percent) and they allow a full yard on average fewer than the No. 2 team when looking at yards per attempt allowed to wideouts (5.1). (The second-place team is Buffalo at 6.2 yards allowed per attempt to receivers.) They're almost 20 points better than the No. 2 team (Niners) when it comes to quarterback rating allowed (45.8). They're primarily responsible for New England's league-leading 19 picks. In a league where the prevailing wisdom seems to state that impact coverage players are more valuable than pass-rushers, the Patriots have the best collection of cover men in the league.