by Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
September 15, 2009

There are close games and there are escapes. Make no mistake about it; last night’s Patriots 25-24 win over the snakebit Buffalo Bills in the 2009 season opener was the latter. Trailing by 11 points with just over five minutes to play and looking positively beaten, the Pats got off their asses and roared back to send the Bills to a hugely demoralizing loss. The performance of the offense during the length of the comeback was vintage. Its performance prior to those heroics ran the gamut from confusing to uneasy to frustrating, adjectives that perfectly encapsulate the performance of the defense (which might euphemistically be referred to as an, ahem, work in progress) as well. No one ever said you have to win pretty, though, and all that matters is that the Pats shook off nearly 55 minutes of doldrums, took advantage of a huge break and did what they had to do when it counted most. So, without further ado, here’s the first of what will be at least 16 report cards compiled and delivered by us, the illustrious staff of Patriots Daily University, grading the Pats on all phases of the game, both overall and by each individual position group.

OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B

Amazing what five minutes can do, eh? The offense as a whole was careening toward a solid C before Tom Brady led his two fourth quarter scoring drives.

Quarterbacks: B+

By the looks of it, Brady went out there for his first real action in a year and put forth a classic performance, reminiscent of some of most magnificent moments at the helm of the Pats ship. 39-53 for 378 yards and two touchdowns and a passer rating of 97.8 is a stat line to behold and Brady, exhibiting his trademarked cool under duress with his team down by double digits in the waning moments, was as big a factor in the win as anyone. But it must be pointed out that it took him awhile to settle in. He missed several throws over the first three quarters that he made in his sleep prior to all of his forced time off. He looked tentative at times in the first half and based on his play over the course of quarters 1-3, it would not have been out of the ordinary to wonder if he could bring his team back in the end if needs be, regardless of his past exploits. Granted, his offensive line did not do him many favors in the face of the tough Buffalo front seven, and it would be crazy to think that there would be no rust to shake off after all the time he missed. Still, the fact that he pushed all of that aside and finished off looking like the ’07 version of himself proved a huge comfort to any Pats fan worried about what the post-injury Brady would look like (and didn’t hurt his grade that much either).

Running Backs: C+

While Brady and the passing game got stronger as the game went on, the running game got worse. Laurence Maroney, at the top of the MSP list (that’s Most Scrutinized Pats for all you beginners), looked like the same guy who bulldozed his way through defenses in the later stages of 2007 in the first half, to the tune of almost six yards per attempt, morphed into the objectionable (and more familiar) Incredible Dancing Maroney after halftime, carrying five times for -3 lousy yards. Newcomer Fred Taylor managed just 25 yards on nine rushes but did get the goal line reps and responded with a 1-yard TD in the second quarter. Sammy Morris wasn’t out there much, though he did seem to be the intended receiver on the screen pass that turned into a pick-six by Bills defensive lineman Aaron Schoebel. Only Kevin Faulk really distinguished himself, naturally being the go-to guy on several third downs, converting three of them and submitting a nifty six catches for 51 yards.

Wide Receivers: B+

The Pats dressed only four receivers. Two of them didn’t catch a single pass. The other two caught 24 for 234 yards. Raise your hand if you know which two those are. Randy Moss: 12 catches for 141 yards. Wes Welker: 12 catches for 93 yards. Lather, rinse, repeat. After a couple of first quarter drops, the Pats most dynamic duo did what they do best,synching up with Brady to lead the offense. You can’t get much better than that. Pretty disappointing to see Joey Galloway, who at this point in his career would seem to be the perfect guy to play the role of third receiver continue to appear as though he’s not even active, just as he did throughout the preseason. Galloway will probably make some sort of an impact at some point this season; he’s too good and too experienced not to.

Tight Ends: A-

How about that Ben Watson? I always knew he had it in him. Quite a night for a guy who has been arguably the biggest disappointment of the last few years. Brady targeted him seven times and he produced six catches for 77 yards, two of those catches and 34 of those yards giving the Pats the win. Brady said after the game that Watson’s second touchdown, the winner, was the best catch he’s ever made and it would be hard to argue that point. Watson was covered on the play but Brady made a perfect, back shoulder throw and the catch, a diving, twisting job, was an excellent example of the freaky athleticism Watson has always possessed. New guy Chris Baker didn’t do much with just one catch, but it did convert a medium third down.

Offensive Line: C

Fairly tough night for the guys down in the trenches, especially Matt Light. Light was abused by Schoebel, a long-time nemesis of his. The Pats stalwart left tackle looked old and slow, was beaten multiple times and committed a couple of unsightly penalties. Dan Koppen didn’t have the best night either, chipping in a couple penalties of his own. Brady didn’t have a lot of time in the first half which certainly contributed to his shakiness pre -fourth quarter. Buffalo spent a long stretches dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, doing so against the Pats o-line in some troubling ways. The Bills pass rush wasn’t as simple as the Giants’ was in Super BowlXLII – it wasn’t just a four man rush running circles around Light, Koppen, Stephen Neal, Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins. There was pressure coming from all over the place and until the Pats went hurry-up (which of course coincided with the Bills dropping seven or eight guys into zone coverage and thus not being nearly as aggressive up front), Brady didn’t have a lot of time to get comfortable. Hopefully, with tougher, faster and more skilled defenses like the Jets and the Ravens on the docket, the line will gel quickly.

DEFENSE: Overall Grade: C

It may be easy to forget thanks to the late game heroics of Brady and the offense and the fact that during their last minute, desperation drive, the Bills were completely stifled. But there is no way to say the Pats defense played any better than mediocre all night.

Defensive Line: C+

In its first appearance of the post-Richard Seymour era, the line acquitted itself decently. Ty Warren assumed the mantle of being constantly double-teamed in the absence of Seymour and was subsequently quiet, accumulating zero solo tackles. Vince Wilfork , who would seem to be on tap to reap the biggest financial benefit of Seymour’s departure, was also fairly shadowy, save for the sorry, shamefully bad roughing the passer call he picked up for apparently going low on a third quarter sack of Bill quarterback Trent Edwards, even though he had the guy around the waist. It was one of a handful of putrid calls by an overzealous officiating crew. Jarvis Green, who started at Seymour’s old spot, showed that there’s more to his game than just being the ferocious pass rusher he’s been, making a couple of plays against the run. If Mike Wright or touted local rookie Ron Brace even played (they did) you wouldn’t know it. The line failed to generate any pressure on Edwards at all until that last drive. Thumbs up to them for accomplishing it then, thumbs down for not doing it any sooner.

Linebackers: C

This grade may involve somewhat of an asterisk considering that Jerod Mayo, only the best and most important member of this group, left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury and did not return (and by the way, fans, I hope you’re keeping multiple fingers crossed that this isn’t that big of a deal because if it is, the Pats may be cooked). But we grade what we see here at PDU, no matter who plays, and what we saw wasn’t pretty. Adalius Thomas had a nice night, making a few solid stops and wreaking some havoc in the backfield while also being victimized by another overprotective roughing the passer call that helped sustain the Bills’ fourth quarter touchdown drive. Youngster Gary Guyton, who stepped into the middle after Mayo’s departure, may be a pretty good player but he sure as hell wasn’t last night. Guyton was slow to the point of attack and seemed lost for long stretches. The Bills screen passed the Pats nearly to death and Guyton , who would/should be the point man in defending that play from his spot in the middle, looked like he’d never seen one before. Pierre Woods and Tully Banta-Cain were OK, both coming up with big plays down the stretch, particularly Banta -Cain, who was the only Patriot able to get close to Edwards on at least a semi-consistent basis all night. Newly acquired Derrick Burgess was brought in to rush the passer from the edge, both from a linebacker spot and as a down lineman and he did get some pressure and a sack for his efforts. I’m grouping him with the linebackers because he was wearing No. 55, making him look like past Pats linebacking greats Willie McGinest and Junior Seau (at least on the surface). As for rookie Rob Ninkovich, the only notable item was that for some reason, he is wearing Mike Vrabel’s No. 50. Thanks for the memories, Vrabes . All in all, the middle of the field was wide open for Edwards to throw into all night and maybe that was reflective of the Pats defensive game plan (try to get pressure up front, don’t let Buffalo receivers beat us deep, or something like that). But on the whole, the level of the defense that had me most worried headed into the season, didn’t exactly offer up any sighs of relief.

Secondary: B

The Pats revamped defensive backfield was pretty good and that was probably the plan. The Bills biggest weapons are receivers Owens and Lee Evans (though I’d bet running back Fred Jackson might have something to say about that after his great performance last night) so the Pats decided to make them the focal point. With the exception of the couple of times second-year man JonathanWilhite got trapped covering T.O. in the slot, the DBs did their jobs, holding Buffalo’s receiving tandem to a combined five catches for 71 yards. Veteran free agents Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs both played well, particularly Bodden , who was right in the middle of a few important stops including a big hit on Evans on an important third down in the second quarter. James Sanders, now the captain of the secondary in the aftermath of Rodney Harrison’s retirement (as an aside, if you get a chance to watch Rodney on TV at all this year, do it – he’s awesome and he doesn’t give a fuck!), was solid with four tackles. Brandon Meriweather made his presence felt more on special teams last night, but was good in coverage too, and rookie Darius Butler, who didn’t play much, still managed to make an impact with a couple of solid fourth quarter hits. The Bills had more success in the passing game than one might have expected, but it was almost entirely due to the screen pass, the linebackers inability to defend it and Jackson’s star-like game (five catches, 83 yards and a score). Last year the secondary was the defense’s weak link. This year, it stands to be much better.

Special Teams: A-

The only thing keeping this from being a straight A is Stephen Gostkowski’s pushed 41-yard field goal attempt at the end of a really nice, 13 play drive in the first quarter. The Pats were better than solid returning kicks, with Maroney’s 52-yarder in the first quarter being the highlight. But it was the coverage that counted most, with the fourth quarter strip and fumble recovery of Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin’s boneheaded return that led to the winning score obviously the key. McKelvin led the league in kick return average last season which may explain a) why he chose to run back the fateful fourth quarter kick despite his momentum going backwards and being three yards deep in the end zone, and b) failing to go down and trying to fight for a couple of extra, meaningless yards following Meriweather’s earth-shaking hit, which of course led to his being stripped by Meriweather and Woods and Brady’s subsequent heroics. This is the first season since the start of the Pete Carroll regime in which the Pats special teams has had a coach other than the venerable Brad Seely. The job now belongs to long-time Bill Belichick associate Bill Scott O’Brien and it looks like he and his unit will be just fine.

Coaching: B+

If the Pats had lost, there would be scuttlebutt today that Belichick was outcoached by Swampscott’s own Dick Jauron and his staff. The Bills, who fired their offensive coordinator barely over a week ago, had an exquisite game plan with all of the screens and intermediate throws designed to attack the Pats weakest link, the linebackers. It almost worked. A lot of credit must be given to Buffalo as well for the play of its offensive line, which featured three members who’s never before played a snap in the NFL. That’s coaching. But in the end, the Pats win this battle too. Belichick seemed to be fine with giving away the middle of the field all night in exchange for not allowing T.O. and Evans to get loose which they didn’t. And offensively, where the play calling may have been a bit stale in the first half, particularly on the two failed fourth down tries and in the red zone, it became a moot point when the hurry-up stuff was necessitated late and Brady was able to do his thing. It may have looked like the Pats had the short end of the coaching stick for a while there but trust us, Belichick doesn’t have an honorary degree from this institute of higher learning for nothing.

Jeremy Gottlieb’s “Making the Grades” will be featured weekly as part of PD’s post-game coverage.