by Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
October 6, 2009
Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky and good. It certainly was for the Patriots on Sunday when the high-flying, previously unbeaten Baltimore Ravens came to Foxboro only to be dispatched, 27-21. The Patriots put on their best, most balanced performance of the young season in getting the win and had a few big breaks go their way too in moving to 3-1 at the quarter pole of the year. There were big plays on both sides of the ball, a couple of jaw-droppingly bad mistakes courtesy of the Ravens and naturally, a bit of controversy over the officiating, which if you didn’t already know, was summed up by dear friend of Patriots Daily University, CBS Sports columnist Mike Freeman, who continued his quest to examine everything he can possibly come up with when covering the Patriots except of course, the actual results of the game. But I digress. The real story here is that the Pats got big games from all corners in beating Baltimore, with Tom Brady leading the way with by far his best game of ’09, and the defense continuing to forge its new identity as a younger, faster, deeper unit. The game came down to the nail-biting final minute with the Patriots escaping thanks to a hideous fourth down drop by Ravens receiver Mark Clayton on a pass that would have given his team first and goal with about 30 seconds left. So without further ado, here’s this week’s report card.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B
A solid outing for the guys paid to score the points, with Brady, Sammy Morris, Randy Moss and Wes Welker and most of the offensive line stepping up and playing crucial roles in the win. It would have been nice to see a little more production down the stretch, particularly after the defense stopped the Ravens on fourth and short near midfield late in the fourth quarter, when Brady and Co. went three-and-out quickly, setting the stage for the final Baltimore drive. But given the Ravens strong, powerful defense, the Pats struggles in the passing game coming into the game and the huge improvements in the red zone (three TDs in five trips) the results were both welcome and a relief.
Brady’s best game of the season was also the one I personally had felt the worst about going in. I thought that it would be at least another week before we would see the kind of progress Brady showed yesterday, mostly because of the Ravens defense and how much havoc it can create for the sharpest quarterbacks, let alone ones working their way back to form following an injury. I guess I overestimated the Ravens D because other than the three-play drive following Baltimore’s opening kickoff fumble and the strip sack and subsequent touchdown courtesy of Terrell Suggs in the third quarter, Brady had few problems with it. He was 21-for-32 for 258 yards and a touchdown and also scored on the ground on a one-yard plunge that caused his knee brace to snap. He made all the throws – to nine different receivers – and looked mobile and comfortable making them. On the scoring pass, he immediately and perfectly read the all-out blitz that was coming and applied the perfect touch on the ball in finding Moss for the TD. I sort of wish he hadn’t lobbied for one of the roughing the passer flags that he got the way he did, but I’m not nearly as apoplectic about it than some others. The way Brady has played both yesterday and in the second half against Atlanta last week would appear to portend that even better stuff is yet to come from the guy who is now 90-25 as a starter and 73-1 when leading after three quarters.
Running Backs: B
It may seem odd to give a group that produced just 85 yards on 30 attempts for an ugly 2.8 YPA such a good grade. But it was the parts that were so much more valuable than the whole. Sammy Morris only touched the ball 11 times, but produced six first downs, blasted in for a 12-yard TD, continues to be an absolute ace in short yardage situations and was fantastic in the passing game, both catching balls out of the backfield and when split wide in four and five-receiver sets. Fred Taylor, who strangely didn’t play much, still managed to pick up a few key gains and Kevin Faulk submitted his typical solid game, making a couple big third down plays and sparkling in blitz pickup as usual. The Pats also pinned the Ravens with the first two rushing TDs they’ve allowed all year by Brady and Morris. Everyone contributed except, of course, our boy Laurence Maroney, who still doesn’t seem to realize, even with the other three active backs showing him time and again, that a running back is supposed to hit the line hard, head down and move forward, even if there’s not much there. Maroney would still rather just dance three yards behind the line of scrimmage when he gets the ball as evidenced by his seven carries for six yards, including four for negative yardage. It is painful to watch Maroney, who becomes a bigger bust every week. Hopefully, he will be put out of our misery soon.
Wide Receivers: B+
Wes Welker was back and if you think that was a HUGE reason why Brady looked so much more comfortable out there then well, you win. Playing at less than 100 percent, Welker led the team in catches with six (Brady targeted him 10 times, five more than anyone else) and showed a couple of flashes of the Welker we all know and love with some slithery moves after the catch. Moss, facing double teams for most of the day, came up bug a couple of times, none more so than on the TD in which he half-stepped outside then turned in to be in perfect position to grab Brady’s heave withe the blitz coming (and he even blocked on a couple running plays!). Julian Edelman actually had no drops and made a nice catch and run for a first down in the opening quarter. And Sam Aiken, lined up as the third receiver due to the healthy scratch of the lost Joey Galloway (another reason Brady looked so much more at ease), after a couple of lousy efforts in the first quarter, broke loose for a big gainer in the third quarter. Brady needed these guys and they delivered.
Tight Ends: B
It was a quiet day for Pats tight ends, though Ben Watson made both of his catches count in a big way. One was a twisting grab on the sideline and the other was a tremendous, leaping snag of a rocket by Brady right down the seam for a 34-yard pickup, the longest reception of his career. Watson, who’s future with the team was questioned by some during training camp (hello, me!) is having an excellent season both blocking and receiving. He’s answering his critics.
Offensive Line: B
Would have been a better grade for this group if not for Matt Light being hoodwinked out of his jock by Suggs on the Brady fumble that resulted in a Baltimore TD that got the Ravens back in the game down 17-7 and their offense going nowhere. There were a couple of penalties as well, one a holding call that wiped out a sweet piece of improvising in which Brady avoided pressure, side stepped a sack and dumped off to Maroney who picked up some big yardage. But all in all, the line held fast against against the Baltimore D, keeping Brady almost completely safe and getting the necessary push for Morris every time the Pats needed to convert a short yardage situation. After the first two weeks, these guys looked slightly questionable. Now, they look like one of the most consistent, unbreakable position groups on the team.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B+
The newfangled D impressed again, especially up front and in the backfield. It wasn’t perfect in the least; there were three long drives allowed, two of which resulted in touchdowns. And there are still some problems getting off the field on third down (Ravens QB Joe Flacco was 8-for-11 for 85 yards and two TDs in such instances). After the Ravens first scoring drive, the adjustments made were spot-on as they only got into Pats territory once their next five times with the ball. Mike Wright, Leigh Bodden, Gary Guyton and the two Brandons shined the brightest in a classic bend-don’t-break performance that came complete with more big plays than in any other game yet this year.
Defensive Line: A-
What a game for Mike Wright. I’ve never really seen him as anything more than a backup who might be out there for a few snaps a game and that’s pretty much all he’s been. But this season, with the trade of Richard Seymour and the use of more four man fronts by the coaching staff, Wright has been given more responsibility. He produced big-time against the Ravens, racking up three tackles, two sacks and a lot of chaos caused. Wright was the point man in the d-line’s excellent all-around performance, bringing plenty of pressure on Flacco, mostly up the middle. Ty Warren also had a stout game, shaking off the constant double teams and registering a couple of tackles and two hits on Flacco. Vince Wilfork played despite his bum ankle and didn’t have his best game – he got wiped out on Ray Rice’s 50-yard run at the end of the third quarter and missed a couple of other tackles. The colossal newcomer Terdell Sands got some valuable time and played well and Jarvis Green continued to emerge as a tough, every down lineman with four tackles, one for a loss. It was Wright, though, who shined brightest among this group.
This group wasn’t really that bad. Guyton played another terrific game, looking his most polished and comfortable yet, looking strong in coverage of backs and tight ends and stuffing Willis McGahee on a huge fourth down play in the fourth quarter. But after that, there wasn’t much. Adalius Thomas was practically invisible which isn’t going to cut it most weeks, especially with Jerod Mayo still on the mend. Pierre Woods is still a better special teamer. And the Derrick Burgess mystery reached its fourth week, still without many answers. The stat sheet says he had four tackles, but only one was solo and with the exception of one play oon the Ravens first quarter scoring drive, again got nowhere near the quarterback. I understand that Burgess arrived during training camp and that put him at a disadvantage in regards to knowing every facet and intricacy of the system. But in four games he has now not come even close to making a play. Not one. Maybe when Junior Seau arrives later this week and reclaims his No. 55 while making some fiery, motivational speech, something will click and Burgess will do something, anything.
Leigh Bodden recorded the Pats first interception of the season and it was a thing of beauty, as he didn’t fall for a Flacco fake, snagged the ball out of the air deep in Pats territory and came down at the sideline on his tiptoes, wide receiver styles. It was a great play to be sure, but the star of the secondary – and arguably of the entire defense – was Brandon Meriweather. Meriweather was all over the field, literally – his sprint from one side of the play to the other to break up what would have been a long touchdown pass in the second quarter was one of the plays of the game. He had nine tackles too and while you don’t always want your safeties racking up big tackle totals, he played as physically as a linebacker in some instances, throwing a few big hits in the direction of Rice and McGahee. The other Brandon – Brandon McGowan – also had another nice game, overshadowing the longer tenured James Sanders at strong safety. And rookie Darius Butler returned from last week’s injury and contributed mightily, breaking up a couple of second half passes, the biggest of which was Flacco’s throw to Derrick Mason that would have been a first down one play before Clayton’s drop. Considering the amount of changes in the secondary, easily the most overhauled position group on the team, the production and continued improvement are pretty remarkable.
Special Teams: B
Still trying to figure out what happened on that fake field goal try in the fourth quarter. It looked like it could have been a nice little play but I’m not quite sure, a) what was supposed to happen and b) why it was called in the first place. Regardless, it led to Stephen Gostkowski nailing another kick, his second of the day and ninth in a row since that push against Buffalo on opening night. Gostkowski is money. Also, major ups to McGowan and Eric Alexander for forcing the opening kickoff fumble by Ravens return man Chris Carr that set up the first Gostkowski field goal. The only bone to pick is with punter Chris Hanson, who twice couldn’t drop short kicks deep into Baltimore territory, settling for touchbacks and ugly net yardages both times. Hanson has to be better but when one of the biggest gripes is with the punter, things are probably going OK.
Bill Belichick is tough to quibble with most of the time but on Sunday, there were a couple of head scratchers. After coming out playing soft in coverage on the Ravens first drive, the Pats adjusted by bringing safety help over the top, effectively neutralizing Mason after he caught six passes and a score on that opening scoring march. But in the fourth quarter, when the Ravens put together two more long drives, one of which resulted in a TD and the other the near miss thanks to Clayton’s drop, the aggressiveness was missing in favor of similar looks to that first quarter drive. The fear of giving up the big play was likely the reason for this thinking but it was the kind of conservative approach we don’t often see from Belichick defenses. And staying on the topic of conservative approaches, when the Pats got the ball back after Guyton’s stop of McGahee near midfield with 5:09 left, instead of going for the kill up by six, they tried to run the clock. Two running plays and a short pass that was incomplete took just 1:37 and after Hanson’s lousy punt, Flacco and the Ravens had three and a half minutes with which to try win the game. If Clayton hadn’t dropped that pass on the last play of the subsequent 13-play drive, they well might have. Again, its awfully tough to argue with pretty much any in-game decision Belichick ever makes. Sunday, it wasn’t that tough, a couple of times. But who cares? They won anyway and of course, that’s all that matters.