by Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
September 29, 2009

Nearly three years have passed since the Patriots lost consecutive games. Naturally, it will happen again some day. Just not this week. Not when the offense piles up 445 yards, holds the ball for nearly 40 minutes and still doesn’t look completely in sync. Not when the defense plays its best, most complete game of the season against one of the more dangerous offenses in the NFL despite losing yet another of its anchors in Vince Wilfork. Not when the kind of pride the Pats still possess and the ability to generate enormous chips on their collective shoulders are still in play. All of these factors contributed to the Pats running their record to 2-1 with a 26-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons. There is still a long way to go, as evidenced primarily by Tom Brady’s continued rustiness. Four field goals in five red zone trips also won’t cut it many weeks and if Wilfork, who left late in the first half with an ankle injury, is sidelined for long, the consequences could be really tough. But the Pats will take it and so without further ado, here’s this week’s report card.

OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B-

It was a breakthrough day for the offensive line, which plowed the way for 168 yards rushing and allowed Brady time to throw all day. The backs obliged, led by Fred Taylor. But Brady, who did get better as the game went on, is still very much a work in progress.

Quarterbacks: C

Brady finished 25 of 42 for 277 and a touchdown, most of the yardage coming from about the midpoint of the third quarter on. Mostly, it was another tough day as the lack of accuracy from the first two weeks lingered. There were more overthrows on all kinds of passes; deep throws, crossing routes, sideline throws, an so on. Brady wasn’t aided by a few drops, the most glaring coming courtesy of whipping boy Joey Galloway at the goal line toward the end of the second quarter and had Brady barking at anyone in a 20-foot radius, including Bill Belichick. In a way, it was more frustrating than last week’s stinkbomb against the Jets as he was under constant pressure in that game. Sunday, he had all year to throw but even with that ample time to survey every option three times, he still was doing plenty of misfiring. Again, he did get more accurate as the game went on and he made some huge throws in the second half, none bigger than the perfect, fourth-and-3 fade to Randy Moss. As he continues to get re-acclimated to the speed of the game, Brady will keep getting better but while he goes through that process, the results aren’t that pretty.

Running Backs: A-

It was Taylor’s day, as he finished up with 105 yards on 21 carries and a TD. Good to see the veteran still has it and he really does given how forcefully he ran this week. He steamrolled the Falcons defense and set a tone for the rest of the running game (168 yards on 39 attempts) with how physical he was when he had the ball. Hopefully, Sunday’s performance will lead to him becoming the leader of the Pats back-by-committee set up. Sammy Morris, in his most extended time of the season, also played big, with multiple big short-yardage runs (including the fourth and inches from his own 24 in the third quarter, arguably the play of the game), and three catches for 46 yards out of the backfield. Kevin Faulk was solid as usual, making a couple plays in the passing game and doing his blitz pickup thing to a tee. The only reason there’s no straight A here is of course because of the endlessly disappointing Laurence Maroney, who after a few nice first quarter runs was injured yet again and missed the rest of the game. It’s just not meant to be for Maroney in these parts, I think it’s safe to say, don’t you?

Wide Receivers: C+

Don’t blame Randy Moss for the iffy grade, here. He showed up big after his out-of-nowhere, Friday practice back injury left him questionable, and was Brady’s saving grace with 10 more catches for 116 yards. Brady looked to him 16 times in all and if it weren’t for a couple of overthrows and one slight miscommunication in the end zone, it could have been close to a career day for No. 81. It was nice to hear some of the fawning over his amazing ability from Joe Buck and Troy Aikman that was so commonplace in 2007 after his stunning sideline catch in the third quarter converted an important third down. As for everyone else… Without Wes Welker again, Brady had to throw to Galloway more often and Galloway continued to bury himself with a couple more outrageously bad drops. Kind of hard to believe he has the kind of pedigree he does. As for Julian Edelman, well, he’s got a lot more learning to do and Sunday’s rough performance was ample evidence.

Tight Ends: B

Ben Watson and Chris Baker only combined for three catches and 65 yards, but all were pretty important. Watson’s one reception was a huge play on one of the Pats’ two third quarter scoring drives (the second of which resulted in a field goal five seconds into the fourth quarter) and sort of made up for a key, red zone drop later on. And Baker only caught the nail-in-the-coffin TD pass, which Brady said he and Belichick, “just kind of drew up on the sideline there.” Baker said he just kind of improvised it but really, who cares? It was a great play and it represented a huge step given the team’s inability to get the ball in the end zone the last couple of weeks. Brady now has three TD passes on the year, all to tight ends. And newcomer Michael Matthews saw his first action as a Patriot, contributing to the outstanding run blocking that was one of the marks of the day.

Offensive Line: A

I’m guessing these guys were a little pissed off all week. After a weak performance on opening night followed by getting pushed around by the Jets last week, the line really came to play this week and it was arguably the biggest key to the Pats win. Not only did this unit pave the way for Taylor and the rest of the backs, they assured Brady would stay upright yet again, neutralizing Atlanta’s pass rushing demon John Abraham as well as everyone else in their path. Brady has now not been sacked in his last 134 pass attempts and a stat like that gets the utmost praise from the folks here at Patriots Daily U.

DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B+

Big day for the D, playing its best, most complete game yet. Atlanta converted just two of nine third downs, Matt Ryan was held to under 200 yards passing, super stud running back Michael Turner had just 56 yards and a costly fumble, big-time wideout Roddy White looked like Joey Galloway with all of his drops and then of course, there’s Tony Gonzalez. Belichick talked about him all week then the defense showed why, holding the future hall-of-famer to one harmless, fourth quarter catch (though to be fair, the Falcons inexplicably only targeted him twice all day). To top it all off, the Falcons scored exactly zero points and ran just 15 plays with four punts on four possessions in the second half. And a lot of this was done without Wilfork, which says a lot.

Defensive Line: B+

Big ups to this group, not only for its huge contribution to holding the explosive Turner in check, but for perhaps playing even better after Wilfork’s departure. Ty Warren continued to be the new Richard Seymour, drawing one double team after another but still causing havoc (his trip up of Turner on a first quarter run in which his arm was the only thing separating the Atlanta back from a big gain was hugely impressive). Wilfork was immense as usual until leaving but when he did,  Myron Pryor saw some meaningful time and along with Mike Wright kept a great big plug in the middle. Jarvis Green also nicely continued his metamorphosis from pass rushing specialist to every down lineman. There was even some pressure up the middle on Ryan. All in all, a very nice day for the D-Line.

Linebackers: B

Who is this Gary Guyton guy, anyway? I’ve said it all along, the kid’s a player. Seriously, though, Guyton continued to reward the coaching staff’s faith in him while making dopes like me look, well, dopey. He had 10 tackles on the day which, along with Adalius Thomas’ nine and another solid game from Pierre Woods, made for an almost excellent day for the Pats backers. I say almost because once again, recent import Derrick Burgess was absolutely nowhere to be found. I wonder whether Burgess will soon be allowed to simply rush the quarterback, his supposed specialty. Because whatever he’s being asked to do, he’s not looking like he’s able to do it and since he was acquired for two draft picks, it would be nice to see him do something, anything.

Secondary: A-

Defensive game balls to this group for playing short-handed (Jonathan Wilhite and rookie Darius Butler were out) and still showing up big. For the third straight week, safety Brandon McGowan was probably the Pats best DB, forcing Turner’s fumble, adding 10 tackles and earning huge praise from Belichick, who singled him out for his stellar play in the coach’s postgame news conference. Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden showed more of the veteran savvy they were brought in to provide, each contributing mightily to the shutting down of White and Gonzalez. James Sanders recovered the Turner fumble and Brandon Meriweather led the team in tackles despite a couple of plays on which he looked bad being dragged for extra yardage by Turner. And second-year man Terrence Wheatley made his season debut and played soundly in coverage. It was a great day for this unit with no one looking better than the unheralded McGowan.

Special Teams: B

Good on Stephen Gostkowski for being able to convert all of the offense’s red zone foibles into points in the form of four field goals. Not as good on the kickoff team allowing Atlanta runback specialist Eric Weems a nearly 28-yard average on his five returns. Chris Hanson had one boomer of 51 yards and wasn’t asked to do much more and the rest of the punt team didn’t have much to do as neither of Hanson’s kicks were returned.

Coaching: A

If the players bounced back big-time from their lousy day in the Jersey swamps last week, so did Belichick and his staff. For starters, identifying that the Pats could run the ball all day on the porous Atlanta front seven worked wonders, not only allowing for a huge time of possession advantage (thus keeping the ball away from Ryan and all his weapons) but forcing the Falcons to key on the threat of the run, which in turn gave Brady even more time to look for the open guy on pass plays than his line was already allowing him. Secondly, the defensive game plan of doubling Gonzalez, putting some heat on Ryan up the middle and pretty much taking away the middle of the field proved to be top-notch. If you care to match Belichick’s job up against that of Atlanta’s Mike Smith, the reigning NFL Coach of the Year, it was a blowout. Ultimately, kind of like the game itself.