Perry's Super Bowl report card: An epic fail for the defense
Perry's Super Bowl report card
It wasn't that Malcolm Butler would've swatted away Alshon Jeffery's 34-yard touchdown in the first quarter. It's not that Butler would've had his mitts all over Torrey Smith's helmet catch on third-and-12. Butler is two inches shorter than the player who replaced him in the starting lineup, Eric Rowe, and Butler's jump-ball judgement was off at times in 2017.
It was the trickle-down effect that Butler's absence had on the rest of the Patriots defense. With Butler on the outside, opposite Stephon Gilmore, and Eric Rowe in the slot the Patriots would have been freed up to use Patrick Chung on tight end Zach Ertz and Devin McCourty as a deep safety (or a lurking safety in dime coverages) more often. For much of the season, those roles had been deemed what was best for Belichick's secondary.
Would going back to that well have been enough to keep the Eagles from doing as they liked offensively in Super Bowl LII, putting up 41 points and 538 yards of total offense? Maybe not. But in hindsight having a little more continuity, and keeping Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi in their regular roles as special teamers, maybe the Patriots would have been able to come up with the one defensive stop they needed to give them a shot at a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
We never anticipated a week of grades this season that Butler would not factor into, but here we are. Click through for the final set of 2017 game-day marks. We'll have a year-end Patriots report card next week.
Hard to find much fault in the performance of a passer who puts up 505 yards through the air and a rating of 115. And to do it when you're No. 1 receiver Brandin Cooks leaves the game early in the second quarter, eliminating the team's top outside-the-numbers deep threat? Against one of the four best defenses in football? Impressive. Brady only had a handful of off-the-mark throws, including an incomplete screen pass to Cooks on his first throw of the game, Brady's forced throw near the goal line to Rob Gronkowski that was almost picked, and a miss to Gronkowski up the seam in the third quarter. Brady made a few questionable choices late -- there was a throwaway on second-and-six in the third quarter where he may have been able to hit Chris Hogan for a short gain, and he may have been better off looking for shorter gains sooner on the team's final drive. He also might've hit Amendola for a 79-yard touchdown had he not been pressured and flushed from the pocket by the Eagles pass rush. He still completed it, though, for 50 yards. By and large, he was on point. His 43-yard strike to Hogan deep down the field was a dime, and his connection with Gronkowski early in the third-quarter was unstoppable. Brady's dropped pass from Danny Amendola was the perfect call at the perfect time, the quarterback just couldn't reel it in.
RUNNING BACK: B
Patriots backs carried 22 times for 113 yards (a 5.1 yards-per-carry average), and they combined to catch three passes for 67 yards. That's a strong effort against the No. 1 run defense in the league and the 10th-best defense when it comes to defending pass-catching running backs, according to Football Outsiders. Would the Patriots have liked to use their backs more through the air? Perhaps. But Philly opted to use safety Malcolm Jenkins in coverage, leaving Rob Gronkowski on corner Ronald Darby for large chunks of the game. In choosing to use their best safety on Patriots running backs -- probably because they didn't want their linebackers in coverage on Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead -- the Eagles allowed Gronkowski to get his. Hard to say the plan "worked" when Tom Brady threw for 500 yards, but it worked well enough. The single most impressive effort from this group came on James White's 26-yard touchdown run. He broke three tackles, using strong blocks from David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Phillip Dorsett to get into the end zone. Burkhead carried on three consecutive plays for 18 yards and seemed to have plenty of juice. He also had a 46-yard catch-and-run on a screen. Looking fully healthy for the first time in a long time, it's a wonder the Patriots didn't try to incorporate him earlier in the game.
WIDE RECEIVER: A
Whatever the Patriots wanted to do with their receivers schematically seemed to work. Did they want to stress Eagles defensive backs with "high-low" concepts, forcing specific defenders to make a difficult choice? That resulted in yardage. Did they want to use pre-snap shifting to identify zone defenses and then take advantage of Philly's poor awareness on the back end? That yielded results. Did they want to go with double moves to exploit the aggressiveness of Eagles corners? That also proved to be effective. In the end, Patriots wideouts -- despite losing Brandin Cooks in the second quarter with a concussion -- ended up with 322 yards on 16 catches. The receivers even performed their non-receiving duties well. Danny Amendola put his pass right on the money to Brady, but it was dropped, and Amendola and Hogan (on Rex Burkhead's 46-yard screen play) as well as Phillip Dorsett (on James White's 26-yard touchdown) all laid solid downfield blocks. Cooks' approach on a third-down reverse to start the second quarter was a less-than-ideal method to pick up a yard, but what this group did in the grand scheme of things was worth of an "A."
TIGHT END: A-
The Eagles ran seven defenders at Rob Gronkowski at different points in the game, but they could've used more. The All-Pro's performance on New England's first drive of the third quarter was as dominant as he's had this season, and should be ranked right up there with what he did in the fourth quarter against the Steelers in Week 15. His first touchdown of the game was set up beautifully by his release at the line of scrimmage when he set up Ronald Darby with a move to the back corner before breaking it off and going inside. Later, with the inside move likely on Darby's mind, Gronkowski went to the back corner and made an acrobatic grab for the go-ahead touchdown. If the concussion he suffered in the AFC title game allowed any rust to accumulate at all it lasted through two quarters when he had just one catch on five targets and was flagged for a false start. Dwayne Allen saw just two snaps and ran one route. James Develin, who we include with this group since he meets with the tight ends on a daily basis, played 23 snaps and contributed to an eight-yard Dion Lewis run in the first quarter and a five-yard scamper in the second. He was often used as an indentifier for Brady, it seemed. When aligned out wide, Brady knew it was man-to-man with a linebacker across from Develin. If it was a corner out there, it was zone.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B+
That the Patriots offensive line ended up being on the wrong end of what was perhaps the play of the game -- Brandon Graham's fourth-quarter strip sack -- was not an indication of how this group played over the course of the game. Against one of the deepest and most talented fronts in football, Dante Scarnecchia's unit was for the most part very good. Tom Brady was pressured on 20 of his 50 dropbacks, but he was hit just four times and sacked just once. Shaq Mason, who Graham beat for the strip sack, had the tall task of going toe-to-toe with Fletcher Cox for chunks of the game and held his own. On the left side, Joe Thuney didn't allow Brady to be touched. Cam Fleming -- getting the start over LaAdrian Waddle -- stood up to the challenge, and Nate Solder was once again solid on the left side. Brady did well to avoid pressure by maneuvering in the pocket as he often does, but some of Brady's deeper completions down the field would not have been possible without the proper protection, which is what he got for the majority of the game. On screens, a big part of the game plan, they were also effective. Solder, Thuney and David Andrews all threw key blocks on Rex Burkhead's 46-yard scamper. The running game was also a positive for this unit. They helped their backs average over five yards per carry against the top run defense in the league, with a highlight coming on James White's 26-yard touchdown run, when Andrews and Mason walled off Eagles defenders to help get their teammate into open space.
SPECIAL TEAMS: F
One of the team's most consistent units all year had terrible time generating anything positive against the Eagles. The kicking operation was thrown off early. First a low snap and a bobbled hold ruined a chance at a 26-yard field goal. Then Stephen Gostkowski hooked a point-after attempt. Gostkowski's first kickoff of the night also appeared to be a mis-hit; it was a low liner, which is usually an indication that he's looking to hit one out of the back of the end zone, but the ball landed right into the arms of Philly's return man Corey Clement and was taken to the 26-yard line. Later in the first half, Gostkowski had a kick land at the 3 and the Patriots allowed a return to the Eagles 30. For the remainder of the game, the Patriots hit touchbacks, apparently not all that confident in their ability to keep the Eagles pinned deep in their own territory. Their return game didn't generate much, either. They had one kickoff returned to their own 18. Another went to their 25. And their final return went for a total of two yards when Dion Lewis flipped a lateral to Rex Burkhead to try to surprise the Eagles. Philly was all over it, forcing the Patriots to start a desperation drive at their own 9-yard line.
DEFENSIVE LINE: D
The book on Nick Foles has long been that if you're able to get him off his spot, if you can muddy the pocket, you'll have a very mediocre quarterback on your hands. The Patriots struggled to break through Philadelphia's protection all game, though, and Foles put up an MVP performance. Trey Flowers (one hit, four hurries) and Malcom Brown (one hurry) were the only two defensive linemen to create pressure, per Pro Football Focus. That put the Patriots secondary in some precarious positions down the field throughout. And against the run, things weren't any better. The Patriots allowed over six yards per carry thanks to some massive holes along their front. Lawrence Guy and Eric Lee were moved easily on LeGarrette Blount's 36-yard run in the first quarter. On Jay Ajayi's nine-yard run in the third, Brown tried to shed Jason Kelce too early and ended up washing himself out of the play.
When your defense allows over six yards per carry, and when the holes that opened during those carries are as wide as they were for the Eagles, then you need more from your linebackers. James Harrison was impactful as a pass rusher, coming up with a pair of quarterback hits and a handful of hurries, but he was spun around by the Eagles offensive line on LeGarrette Blount's long second-quarter touchdown run, and he missed a pair of tackles. Kyle Van Noy had just one pressure in the game, got lost on a screen to Corey Clement in the first quarter, and looked as though he could have been the one to try to pick up Nick Foles on the "Philly Special." He or Eric Lee needed to do something differently on that play. On Philadelphia's first drive of the second half, Marquis Flowers was a step behind Clement and was victimized by a perfectly-placed Foles pass. Flowers remained down and looked injured following a kick return in the first quarter, which may have slowed him briefly on Clement's score later in the game. Elandon Roberts missed a pair of tackles and was caught overrunning Clement's screen catch-and-run and Blount's 21-yard touchdown. On a night when the Patriots defense needed a critical play in a critical moment, this group wasn't able to offer much. The closest they got? Harrison getting a hand on Torrey Smith to slow him up on a fourth-quarter third-and-one play that went for zero. The Eagles converted the subsequent fourth-and-one, though, and went on score the game-winner.
Eric Rowe didn't do much early on to make Patriots fans forget that Malcolm Butler was on the sidelines. He lost Alshon Jeffery on a whip route out of a bunch formation for a third-and-four conversion. Three plays later, he allowed Torrey Smith to make like David Tyree and convert a third-and-12. And on the next drive, Rowe was in position to make a play on Jeffery's long touchdown, but couldn't. Rowe eventually got his feet under him and played well -- breaking up two passes, including a two-point conversion, and helping thwart a bomb in the fourth quarter with good coverage -- but those early completions were killers. Rowe was targeted a whopping nine times in all and allowed six catches for 79 yards. Patrick Chung gave a valiant effort in this one, but he dealt with a leg issue for most of the game that seemed to have him a step behind the speedy Nelson Agholor. Nick Foles looked Chung's way almost as often as he looked to Rowe. Agholor caught all three of his passes with Chung on him for 36 yards, including a 24-yarder in the third quarter when Chung was a tick late to attempt a breakup. Chung eventually left the game with a head injury. Chung's fellow safety Jordan Richards was pressed into action on Zach Ertz, an easy mismatch for Foles to pick at. He allowed the Eagles tight end to go for a 19-yard gain on third-and-seven, and he allowed a seven-yard gain on first down in the second quarter. With Chung on the field, it looked odd for Richards to be checking one of the best tight ends in the league, but that's where New England's defensive back rotations stood with Butler out of the mix. Richards also failed to correctly play a potential pick-play while in coverage on Corey Clement -- he would have been better served going over the top of the pick or asking his defensive end to jam Clement at the line -- and it went for 55 yards on third and three. Duron Harmon had one of the positive plays from this group when he picked off a Foles pass that Stephon Gilmore helped to dislodge from Jeffery, but he missed a tackle on Clement during that long catch-and-run that made it even more of a back-breaker. Patriots defensive backs missed six tackles in total in the game, and two of those belonged to one of the surest tacklers on the team: Devin McCourty. Early on, the longtime captain was solid in coverage, breaking up a pass to Smith and stopping a bunch set on third down deep in Patriots territory. But he was the victim of a pair of pick plays, one on fourth-and-one that occurred deeper down the field than one yard and could've been penalized, and he was disappointed in himself after the game for not having played Ertz's touchdown more effectively in that one-on-one situation. Johnson Bademosi's missed tackle on third down in the third quarter was one of the key plays in the game, as he allowed Agholor to pick up 14 yards after having him in his grasp for what should have been a drive-killer. Instead, eight plays later, the Eagles scored to take a 29-19 lead. Gilmore had the best game of any Patriots defensive back, locking down Jeffery in the second half and limiting Foles to just two grabs, 17 yards and a pick on five targets.