Phil Perry's Patriots-Chargers report card: Quite the takedown
Safe to say the Patriots picked a good time to play their best game of the season. Against a team that had been among the league's stingiest defensively and most consistent offensively, the Patriots dominated all facets of the game for about three quarters. And that was more than enough.
Did the Patriots get a little help from Chargers mental lapses? Did they fade toward the end of the game, allowing the final score to make the game look much closer than it was? Yes and yes. But they so thoroughly pummeled their opponents for the vast majority of this one that the grades will be, for the most part, better than they've been all year. Imagine what they'd look like if we cut off the grading at halftime . . .
It wasn't a perfect game from Tom Brady. There were throws that fell incomplete as the result of miscommunication with his receivers. He strangled one pass and spiked it into the turf despite the fact that James White was available. He, for some reason, was unaware that the clock was running on Phillip Dorsett's catch at the end of the first half. And he seemed to believe for a brief instant that he was the quarterback his team will face next, throwing across his body and setting himself up to take a hard shot with the game in hand. Not wise. But he was downright surgical early on, taking what Gus Bradley's Cover 3 gave him, peppering James White and Julian Edelman with throws that allowed for yards after the catch. With a clean pocket from which to work -- we'll get to the offensive line later -- and a quick-hitting scheme that kept him clean, Brady was cool behind center and completed all but 10 of 44 attempts (and one of those was a drop).
RUNNING BACK: B+
That drop belonged to White but this was still a well-above-average day for this group. White broke his own record for receptions in a playoff game with 15, and despite the fact the Chargers used mainly defensive backs at the second level, they still weren't equipped to cover New England's primary receiving back. And they weren't equipped to stick with White even though they had to know what was coming. While the Patriots have used him more as a runner this season than ever before, he was on the field for a whopping one running play. Sony Michel, meanwhile, was only on the field for six passing plays, catching one himself. He showed good vision on his 40-yard jaunt and that set up Rex Burkhead's touchdown and on a 12-yarder earlier in the game that required an immediate cutback on his part. His three scores, of course, helped this grade as well. The goal-line touchdown shouldn't be overlooked as that's been an issue for this team at points in 2018. His 14-yarder showed good speed to the corner and the awareness not to extend the ball for the goal line -- something the Patriots teach, since they don't want anyone fumbling out of bounds. As a group, 83 of their 140 yards came after contact.
Any questions about Julian Edelman's health any more? He's spent much of this season shaking off jarring hits or checking his feet and ankles on seemingly a weekly basis. But he showed no signs of slowing down against the Chargers, seeking out contact and then running through it for critical yardage. His first-quarter first-down catch-and-run, where he broke two tackles in the process, set a tone on a bone-chilling day that the Patriots were ready to go. Edelman had one drop, he picked up a penalty, and he seemed to sit back and wait as opposed to coming back for a Brady quick pass, but otherwise he was Mr. Dependable. Many of his 151 yards came off play-action and 61 of those yards came after the catch. Phillip Dorsett does nothing but continue to catch everything thrown his way, and his touchdown grab came off of a well-run route and clever scheming from Josh McDaniels. Chris Hogan picked up a penalty and seemed to have a route botched because of miscommunication as well.
TIGHT END: B+
When Rob Gronkowski sealed off Derwin James on back-to-back Michel runs that went for 11 and 5 yards (same call, opposite sides of the field), it felt like it could be a long day for Chargers defensive backs trying to hold their own against a tight end who is still one of the best at his position as a blocker. But Gronkowski didn't just beat up on lighter defenders. He got Melvin Ingram in pass protection. He got defensive tackle Damion Square when the Patriots faked a "wham" run and threw. He executed double-teams with both Patriots tackles, blowing Chargers off the line of scrimmage, before working his way up to the second level for more work. He was right there at the point of attack on all three of Michel's touchdown runs as well as Burkhead's, and on Michel's 14-yarder he occupied two defenders (one had him in coverage, one got blocked). As a receiver, Gronkowski did more than pick up a critical pass-interference penalty at the goal line on the game's opening drive. He did more than run through three defenders to pick up 25 yards on third down in the third quarter. He helped draw coverage deep for Brady to strike underneath, and he was used to create traffic on rub routes that opened things up for White and Edelman. Solid all-around day for him (as well as James Develin, who gets included here). Dwayne Allen allowed Brady to be hit on one dropback, but he had a tough draw: Ingram one-on-one, on the move, coming from a fullback position.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A
Tom Brady wasn't sacked. He was under pressure on just seven dropbacks. The Patriots ran for almost 5.0 yards per carry (they were actually up over that mark for most of the game until they started to bleed the clock in the fourth quarter). It was as devastating a performance as Dante Scarnecchia's line has had all year. They blew Chargers defensive linemen off the ball, then they were able to work to the second level against what were oftentimes dime packages to make good gains even better. For instance, David Andrews isn't the behemoth that Trent Brown or Marcus Cannon are. But when he's matched up with a 210-pound safety playing linebacker (as he was on Michel's 40-yard run), he's going to win that battle more often than not. Same thing in the screen game. They showed their combination of athleticism and power, just needing to get a piece of their assignments in the Chargers secondary to help spring White for long chunks. And in pass protection they used heavy hands to help limit Joey Bosa and Ingram to a combined five quarterback pressures after they racked up a combined 17 last year in the Pats-Chagers Week 8 meeting. Devastating.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
The Patriots made a huge play in the punt game when Albert McClellan recovered a muff following the first stalled drive of the game for the Patriots offense. Nate Ebner easily scooped up an onside kick, and Ryan Allen and Matthew Slater later combined to pin the Chargers down at the 1-yard line. Plus, Stephen Gostkowski made all of his kicks. There were a couple of gaffes that might've hurt the Patriots had the game been at all in question. Allen booted a couple into the end zone, though he is clearly in a zone right now as both touchbacks were almost perfectly coffin-cornered. (He may have been a little more aggressive than normal with the score being what it was.) Keion Crossen and Slater missed tackles leading to a 28-yard return by Desmond King, and Jonathan Jones ended up plowing into punter Donnie Jones to pick up a penalty.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
Too harsh? That's how impactful New England's front was on Sunday. They verged on an outright 'A' for the majority of this one. Aside from a couple of eight-yard runs early on and a roughing-the-passer penalty called on Trey Flowers when he might've shot a tad too low at Philip Rivers' leg, this group did what it wanted against an offense that was forced to pass, pass and pass some more. What they did on the interior with their games and stunts was remarkable. They flushed the Chargers line one way or another to open up clear rush lanes for linebackers. They created confusion with their amoeba fronts. And the combination of Flowers and Adam Butler -- running twists with one another all afternoon -- was something Rivers' offensive line simply could not figure out. Even when Patriots linemen were asked to simply win their one-on-ones, they could do that too. Adrian Clayborn, back after two games as a healthy scratch, had a sack and two hits. In the first half, Rivers was pressured on over 70 percent of his dropbacks. Wonder why he was so frustrated . . .
What a difference a lead makes. We've said that in this space before. And we'll keep saying it. Because by jumping out to the score as the Patriots did, and by making the Chargers one-dimensional, the Patriots front was able to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback. For someone like Dont'a Hightower, who was a force as a pass-rusher Sunday (eight hurries), that's the ideal scenario. Kyle Van Noy played a part in the Patriots pass-rush as well, opening up a lane for Hightower to power through when he took two Chargers blockers on a game as an interior rusher. Van Noy was also effective in coverage, on multiple occasions taking the attention of a Chargers lineman (and occupying that lineman) before bouncing out to stick with Rivers' check-down option. Elandon Roberts remains a force in the running game, playing about as effective a stretch as we've seen from him in his time as a pro.
Stephon Gilmore admitted to me after the game he got "a little too nosy" on Keenan Allen's long touchdown in the first quarter. He also picked up a penalty, as did JC Jackson. And the Patriots allowed a handful of long third-down conversions on the back end. But for the most part, this was a quietly successful day. Why? Some of the games up front that resulted in pressure for the Patriots were relatively long-developing, and they got home because Rivers had nowhere to throw the football. With tight man-to-man coverage, as the Patriots have played for much of the season (and against which Rivers has struggled over the course of the season), they gave their front all the time they needed. And when Rivers did get the ball out, the Patriots were often stride for stride with their assignments. Jackson ended up with only five catches allowed on 12 targets, and he ended up with two passes defended for yet another strong day. Gilmore batted a pass down himself and then high-pointed his pick when he knew he could undercut Allen's fourth-quarter route near the sideline because he had help over the top. Jason McCourty, Devin McCourty (two) and Duron Harmon all broke up passes as well.