It's a landmark day in the history of the Report Card. We've done it. We got a player (OK a retired player, but a recently-retired player) to sign off on the grades. Every single one.
What a day. What a moment. What a time to be alive.
That's right. Eleven-year veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion Rob Ninkovich said it live on Monday Night Patriots: No issues with the grades this week . . . not a one.
Just keep that in mind as you inevitably scroll through saying to yourself, "WHAT DOES THIS GUY KNOW? HE EVER PLAY IN THE LEAGUE?!?!?"
Believe it or not, no. But Ninkovich did. And, for the first time, these grades are Ninkovich approved. Let me have my moment.
It wasn't as though Tom Brady played poorly. The Patriots put up 24 points and controlled the tempo of the game while having to work against one of the league's top defenses. That earns the quarterback points right there. It just felt like a game that wasn't exactly rife with grade-inflating throws -- which isn't often the case when Brady exceeds 300 yards passing as he did Sunday. The game plan early was all about getting as many players as possible involved, which he did, and getting the Minnesota defensive front off-balance. Short passes, edge runs, screens . . . they all did the trick as Brady was hit just once. Brady ran for a first down, he hit a third-down throw to James White in the flat (one that he's missed often this season), and he led Chris Hogan well on a short fourth-down throw to keep the chains moving. His pass to Josh Gordon that went for six was on the money as well. But missed throws -- like one to Julian Edelman at the end of the first quarter and Rob Gronkowski midway through the third -- prevented Brady from maximizing his chances for points.
RUNNING BACK: B
No surprise, but the running game simply was not what it was a week prior against the Jets. The Vikings came in as the No. 3 run defense for a reason. Though the Patriots averaged 4.1 yards per carry as a team, their backs checked in with 3.6 per attempt. In short-yardage, too, they had their issues. White couldn't convert a direct-snap third-and-one at the end of the first half and Sony Michel seemingly lost his gig as the team's goal-line back early in the game to James Develin (more on him in the tight ends section). White was a factor as a receiver, though, catching six passes for 50 yards and adding a 42-yarder at the end of the first half with the Vikes protecting against a score. On the second scoring drive of the game for the Patriots, White checked in with three consecutive chunk gains to keep things moving. Burkhead caught a screen for six, White converted a third down, Michel converted a third-and-one play (the first of two for him in the game).
Bill Belichick said the reason Josh Gordon wasn't being thrown to more often early in the game was because the Vikings were protecting against deep stuff with split-safety coverages. That, in turn, impacted where the Patriots threw for almost three full quarters. But late in the third, Gordon broke through with two 24-yard grabs back to back, including a score when he out-ran the Vikings secondary to the goal line. Gordon continues to run as hard as any skill position player the Patriots have with the ball in his hands. He picked up 36 of his 58 total yards after the catch, and he drew a pass-interference penalty for good measure. Cordarrelle Patterson ran hard as well, continuing to see time as a ball-carrier as the Patriots make use of the variety of weapons they have. It's not often you see a receiver hurt a linebacker on a play running the football, but that's what Patterson did to Eric Kendricks on his six-yard run. Patterson also caught the lone deep attempt of the day from Brady, reeling in a throw that looked a little short -- or did Patterson over-run his route? -- for 29 yards. Julian Edelman had one of his worst games of the season, catching just three of eight targets and dropping a pass on third down. He was strong as a runner, too, though. He picked up 35 yards on two end-around attempts.
TIGHT END: C
Rob Gronkowski was rendered a non-factor for the vast majority of this one, and the grade is as high as it is only because James Develin's work is included in this group (as it is every week). Develin ran four times for just five yards but scored two goal-line touchdowns and could be the go-to runner near the end zone for the foreseeable future since Michel has had issues in that area. Gronkowski, meanwhile played all but one snap for the second consecutive week. (The one he missed? Gordon's touchdown, which came two plays after he took a hard shot from Harrison Smith and had to come off.) For as much as Gronkowski impacted coverage against the Jets -- often having the attention of multiple defenders or getting their best defender (Jamal Adams) one-on-one -- it was a different story against the Vikings. Different scheme. The Vikings played a lot of zone. But they didn't pay Gronkowski the same level of respect. He saw a variety of different defenders and was typically checked by just one at a time. He softened up the Vikings breifly late in the game, opening up some space for others. He ran off two defensive backs from a flexed-out position, allowing Edelman to be wide open for a seven-yard catch in the fourth quarter. Three plays after that, he dragged a Vikings linebacker deep to let Michel catch a seven-yard pass underneath. There just weren't many examples like that. As a run-blocker, Gronkowski was as ineffective as he's been all season. To top it off, he picked up a false start and two holding penalties. This felt like one of the rockiest outings Gronkowski has had in years.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
First things first: Against one of the league's best pass-rushing fronts, the Patriots offensive line limited the Vikings to just one quarterback hit. That's worth all kinds of points here. They were helped by a quick-hitting passing game and a crafty running game -- both of which took advantage of Minnesota's over-aggressiveness up front -- but they moved the ball with both and kept Brady (mostly) clean all the while. Trent Brown's miss on Smith in the fourth quarter, which led to a bad throw and Brady's lone pick of the day, was a gaffe. (Rex Burkhead was leaking out of the backfield, running by Smith as Smith rushed, but Brown took the blame for the pressure.) Joe Thuney and David Andrews picked up penalties, but there weren't many obvious black eyes associated with this group Sunday.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
Bill Belichick lauded the Patriots kicking game in the locker room following the win. Ryan Allen pinned the Vikings at their own 10 with an early punt, and his boot to the sideline later in the game resulted in just a four-yard return. Patterson returned one kick 34 yards, and Edelman brought back one punt 23 yards. All good plays to give the Patriots some hidden yardage. (So too was Jonathan Jones' leap over the line that may have disrupted Dan Bailey's missed field goal.) But it wasn't perfect. Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal. the Patriots gave up a total of 61 yards on two kick returns. Brandon King was also called for a holding penalty on one punt.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
Don't try to tell Patriots defensive linemen that Lawrence Guy didn't make a one-handed stop on fourth down with 8:52 left in the fourth quarter. That play to them was somewhat indicative of their night -- even if the official spot said that Guy didn't make the stop before the line to gain. They imposed their will. Guy, in particular, was tremendous, picking up multiple quarterback hits and multiple run stuffs. His plays don't always show up in the box score, but he's been as consistent as anyone on the Patriots defensive line this season. At 300 pounds, he plays with more power and leverage than most at 320. Adam Butler had a strong game as well, notching a sack and helping create another for Trey Flowers on a flush left call, which allowed Flowers to loop around his teammates for a clear shot on Kirk Cousins. Flowers and Butler were both disruptive as the lone down-linemen at times in New England's muddled front looks.
Consider what Belichick had to say about Dont'a Hightower, who played 59 of 61 snaps on Monday, for an idea of his value in the Patriots defense. "Anytime High is on the field, our communication, certainly at his position and with the people that he works with, is always good, whether that’s in pass rush or pass coverage or formation adjustments and checks and so forth. It doesn’t matter if he’s on the end of the line or off the line or up in the line in pass rush situations, but his communication and experience and overall instinctiveness as a football player and in our system is extremely valuable." For a game plan like Sunday's, where pieces were changing assignments in the moment and relying on communication from one player to the next, Hightower seemed to have another strong game in that regard. He also hit the quarterback and hurried Cousins twice. Kyle Van Noy was perhaps the best of the bunch this week, particularly in coverage. Dalvin Cook caught three passes with Van Noy in his area, but he was held to just eight yards and very little after contact. Elandon Roberts was effective in coverage on first and second downs as well, though that's not typically his strong suit. His strong suit is setting a tone physically -- which is exactly what he did when he dropped Cook on an incomplete pass on the first play of the game. The only reason the grades for the linebackers and linemen aren't a tick higher is that the Vikings were able to run almost at will on the Patriots (7.3 yards per rush). They simply opted not to (13 attempts).
Whether or not Stefon Diggs was a full go is up for debate. He was a game-time decision and ended up playing 47 snaps. With Stephon Gilmore on him for most of the night, hurt or not, he was largely kept quiet (three catches on four targets with Gilmore on him for 21 yards). What JC Jackson did opposite Gilmore -- which we detailed here -- allowed the Patriots to get creative on third and fourth downs in the passing game. Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Obi Melifonwu don't all share the same skill set, but they can share jobs because of their versatility. That's why when they packed the box opposite Cousins in gotta-have-it situations, it was hard for Cousins to decipher what was happening. The one thing Cousins could count on were doubles for Adam Thielen, which were largely effective. Oftentimes it was the McCourty twins checking Thielen on third down or in the red zone. But Kyle Van Noy helped on Thielen, Jackson got a few looks, and so did Gilmore. Jason McCourty was the primary option for Thielen, though, and he only added to what has been one of his best seasons as a pro. His ability to bump inside to play the slot, allowing Jackson more playing time outside, could be key as the Patriots come down the stretch. His debut as the starting "star" for Belichick couldn't have gone much better.
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