Perry's report card: Patriots just good enough against Bucs
Perry's report card
It was good enough. That was the sense inside the Patriots locker room after they beat the Bucs, 19-14. But they knew it wasn't always pretty. In fact, the ugly moments -- the penalties, The missed assignments, the unforced errors -- were frequent enough that even they acknowledged that kind of performance would not consistently yield wins over the course of the remainder of the season.
There were positives to be taken away, of course. The Patriots secondary, though not matched up in man-to-man defense for the direction, played competitively and did not have near the number of busted coverages it had just four days earlier against Carolina. And Stephen Gostkowski continues to be reliable in the kicking game.
But the mistakes made in the red zone, on third down and in securing the football all helped to dock the team a few grades on this weeks report card. Go ahead and click through for the marks for each position group.
Considering some of the pinpoint throws Tom Brady made -- one to Brandin Cooks for 34 yards with Cooks moving full speed from left to right, another to Cooks with a defender chasing Brady from his spot, a third to James White down the sideline on a wheel route -- this grade may be a bit harsh. But it's hard not to grade Brady on his own scale because of the standard he set for himself, and by turning it over twice his mark can't slot in for honors consideration. The interception was inexplicably high and behind Chris Hogan. His fumble came on a blitz that he never saw coming. He may have been occupied by the pressure Dwayne Allen allowed on his blindside, but Brady rarely completely misses a pressure as he did on that snap. Still, he got hot at times, hitting on 13 straight passes in the second and third quarters. Not his best night, but certainly not a bad one -- especially considering his top option in the passing game was taken away from him just before the game began. Credit to him (and Josh McDaniels) for making things work well enough without Rob Gronkowski.
RUNNING BACK: B
The more work Dion Lewis gets, the more he flashes his elusive running style, and the harder it may be for the Patriots to keep him off the field. In 18 snaps on Thursday, Lewis ran seven times for 53 yards, including 46 yards after contact. The highlight was a 31-yarder that saw him bounce off of a couple of tackles and then accelerate into the Tampa secondary. He makes something out of nothing better than any other Patriots back. James White didn't provide much as a runner, but that's not his game. He was targeted eight times and caught seven for 57 yards. Matched up with Ryan Russell, Brady hit White with a perfect wheel-route pass for 24 yards. White nearly dropped it, but he did well just to get in position to make the catch as it appeared initially as though Brady might've over-shot him. Mike Gillislee ran hard, as he always does, though he was up-and-down in terms of his ability to create yards on his own. Running out of the shadow of his own end zone midway through the first quarter, he couldn't make linebacker Kendall Beckwith miss in the hole. Other times (like, seconds later when Nate Solder missed his block on the left edge) he wasn't given much of a chance to get going. His nine-yard run later in the first quarter was sprung by a Solder kick-out block, but the Bucs needed four tacklers to bring Gillislee down -- one of which lost his helmet in the process. With 10:45 left in the third quarter, Gillislee's jump-cut to escape another run-stuff helped him pick up seven yards.
WIDE RECEIVER: B+
The Bucs helped Tom Brady get into a rhythm early by asking linebackers to cover Chris Hogan. Not a great idea. By the end of the night, Hogan saw 11 targets and caught 8 for 74 yards and a score. The trust Brady has in Hogan has become clear in the red zone as he's one of the most heavily-targeted red-zone receivers in the league. Going into Thursday night, he had the second-most red-zone targets of any player at his position. Danny Amendola continues to earn Brady's trust as well, catching all eight of his targets for 77 yards. We've covered his production extensively in this space. Amendola also did strong work as a blocker in this one, helping clear space for a Mike Gillislee six-yard run in the third quarter. Brandin Cooks once again led this group in receiving yardage (85) after connecting with Brady for a perfectly-placed 34-yard dime. He had a bad drop over the middle of the field that hurt this group's grade. They also combined for a couple of penalties that took them down a rung.
TIGHT END: D
Not much here to be thrilled about. The Patriots found out late they would be without Rob Gronkowski and, as Josh McDaniels explained it, it took an all-hands-on-deck approach to try to fill the void. But the tight ends behind Gronkowski weren't a big part of the solution. Tom Brady targeted a TE just once, a batted pass targeted for Jacob Hollister. Dwayne Allen had a pair of rough pass-blocking attempts that stood out. One in the first quarter, where he released into a route only to watch a linebacker rush by him. As Allen tried to recover, Brady scrambled and hit Brandin Cooks for 17 yards. The other whiff at the line came in the third quarter, when he lost off the snap to Noah Spence. Brady sensed the pressure and never saw Tampa's Adarius Glanton coming from his front side. The result? A strip-sack.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C+
Tom Brady's on pace to be sacked 51 times and hit 105 times this season, both of which would be career highs. He took three sacks on Thursday, and he was consistently under pressure from the left side. The Bucs had success up the middle as well, as David Andrews had a difficult reach block to make on Brady's first sack and gave up a pressure that helped lead to the second sack. (Andrews also helped stop a Dion Lewis run when he lost his helmet, stopped moving, and got in Lewis' way in the backfield.) The third sack came when Dwayne Allen, who was essentially an extra offensive lineman in this one, lost Noah Spence off the snap on the back side and forced Brady to miss the pressure coming from his front side. Allen also blew up a couple of Patriots run plays. He whiffed on his assignment at the Tampa 6-yard line, forcing Mike Gillislee to get stuffed for a yard. He also missed a defender, seemingly unsure of where to go, reached for another who was already blocked, fell down, and brought Nate Solder down with him. Gillislee was stopped for two. Shaq Mason and Nate Solder had impressive blocks in this one to help spring Gillislee runs, and as a unit they helped the backs average 4.9 yards per carry. Still, plenty of room for improvement here.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Stephen Gostkowski and one Danny Amendola punt-return salvaged this group's grade. Gostkowski made all four of his field goals and his lone extra-point attempt, his fourth consecutive clean game. He hasn't missed a kick since a wayward point-after in the season opener. Amendola's 40-yard return, meanwhile, was set up with some good blocking from Jonathan Jones, Patrick Chung, Matthew Slater and Jordan Richards. It would have gone for more had Brandon Bolden not taken Amendola out. Bolden was also called for an illegal block above the waist and a neutral-zone infraction that gave the Bucs five free yards and a first down. Rough one for him. Even Joe Cardona got into the mix with a penalty, committing a false start on a fourth-and-four when it looked like maybe he was trying to try to draw the return team offsides for the free first down. Slater was back in uniform for the first time this season, but his role was relatively limited. He only served as punt-team gunner on Ryan Allen's lone plus-50 punt of the day, and on kickoffs he was a safety option rather than one of the first down the field.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C
Patriots linebackers had issues at times stopping the run, but their teammates on the defensive line weren't able to do much to cover up for mistakes as the Bucs averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Lawrence Guy, using a nifty spin move, shared a run-stuff with Kyle Van Noy early in the game, but he was sealed off on one long Doug Martin run. Guy showed up as a pass-rusher with a big hit on Jameis Winston in the fourth. Malcom Brown has been the team's best tackle through the early part of the season, and he showed very good hustle to chase a run from behind to limit the gain to just four yards. He was easily neutralized during one pass-rush snap where it looked like he was waiting for Trey Flowers to come inside on a stunt. Flowers was otherwise solid as he split a sack with Van Noy, picked up a quarterback hit out of New England's diamond front, drew a hold on OJ Howard, and shed Howard for a run-stuff early on. Flowers even rushed the passer from the middle linebacker spot at one point in the third quarter. Adam Butler had a tackle for a loss on a first-quarter run, but was also part of the breakdown that led to Martin's 17-yarder. Penalties killed this group as Deatrich Wise picked up a hands-to-the-face penalty on third-and-20 that gave the Bucs a first down. He also committed a roughing-the-passer penalty that was followed up by a Cassius Marsh roughing-the-passer call that put the Bucs in range for a field goal at the end of the half. Wise did pick up an effort sack late to give him something positive to build on. Marsh, meanwhile, found himself rushing way up the field any time it felt like he was gaining ground on the Bucs offensive line. At one point in the second, he aligned offsides only to run up the field past Winston.
Bill Belichick had an interesting observation to make when asked about Dont'a Hightower playing more in the middle of the field than he had all season. Because Hightower's 62 snaps were almost twice the number he played in Week 1 or Week 4, Belichick argued, that gave him more opportunity to play off the line. Whatever the reason, it seemed to work well, particularly against the run. Early in the third quarter, he single-handedly stuffed a run that eventually helped lead to a Bucs punt. It's harder to quantify just how much having Hightower in the middle helped Patriots communication defensively, but it couldn't have hurt. Off the edge, Hightower had some juice and made an impact rushing the QB as he recorded four hurries, tied with Trey Flowers for most total pressures. He also lined up on the interior occasionally, standing over the A-gaps to drop into coverage, and at one point he was a standing three-technique, working a tackle-end stunt in New England's diamond front. The healthier he gets, the more he could bounce around, which makes him the ultimate chess piece for Matt Patricia's defense. Elandon Roberts also looked healthy after suffering an ankle injury against the Panthers. He had a run-stuff on third-and-two that led to a missed Bucs field goal. He also hit Winston in the Tampa Bay end zone, forcing an errant throw well over the head of the nearest Tampa receiver on the sideline. Kyle Van Noy continues to be an every-down player, and he had an up-and-down showing. He moved well in Patriots zones, and he stuffed Jacquizz Rodgers for a gain of one in the first quarter. He also shared a sack with Flowers. But he had a tough time during the first Bucs drive of the first quarter. He was wiped out of the play for a long Doug Martin run. Later he ended up on his back for another Bucs run (on what could have been argued as a hold), and on Martin's near-score he was held egregiously by OJ Howard, but it wasn't called.
This was not a straight-up man-to-man from the Patriots secondary. Yes, Stephon Gilmore was almost always lined up across from Mike Evans. And yes, Malcolm Butler was almost always lined up across from DeSean Jackson. But from watching the tape again, they played plenty of zone coverages, even when lined up across from their man-to-man assignments for the evening. For every Cover 1 (man-to-man with a post safety) or Cover 5 (man-to-man with split safeties) call, there seemed to be a Cover 2 or Cover 3 call, where the corners had their zone responsibilities regardless of where Evans and Jackson ended up. Gilmore played competitively on Evans allowing three catches on four targets for 26 yards. Butler had tougher day with Jackson, allowing three grabs on six targets for 76 yards -- the longest being a 41-yard catch-and-run by Jackson when he was aligned opposite Tampa's bunch formation on the left side. Devin McCourty saved that play from going for more when he caught Jackson from behind on what Matt Patricia called an "extremely outstanding hustle play." Butler also would have been in coverage for a long touchdown had Jameis Winston hit Jackson down the right sideline in the third quarter. This might have been the best day from Patriots safeties across the board. Patrick Chung, who was back to being a full-time player, spent the day blanketing Cameron Brate and held him to 43 yards on six targets. (Chung did allow a touchdown to Brate on a perfectly-placed pass from Winston.) Duron Harmon had a near-pick in the second quarter. And McCourty was all over the field. Playing closer to the line of scrimmage, as he's done much of this season, he had 11 tackles, snuffed out a screen and recorded a run stuff at the end of the third quarter. The Patriots still allowed 319 yards passing, and they only faced a handful of the bunch formations that gave them fits in Week 4, but they'll take this kind of effort after what happened through the first month of the season.