94-7. That’s the combined score of the last two Pats games after Sunday’s London Bowl romp over the utterly awful, 0-7 Tampa Bay Bucs . It was another rout, not as dramatic but nearly as dominant as last week’s whitewashing of the Titans. But the conclusions are a bit murkier this time around. It’s hard to say exactly what the game tells us about the Patriots given the near complete lack of competition. Watching the game was like watching a scrimmage between the Pats and some Eastern Mass. high school team like Brockton or Xaverian (though likely not as good as either of those two teams). There were times when it was so easy for the Pats that they clearly looked bored and on top of that, between the lack of a real threat and the fact that some players had to have been super jet-lagged, the performance as a whole was nothing to write home about. Obviously, guys like Wes Welker, Brandon Meriweather, Vince Wilfork, Tully Banta-Cain and Jerod Mayo need to be singled out, as all of them were tremendous in their own ways. Other individuals looked great, too. But there was a sense all through the game that if the Pats had been playing a decent/real team the same way, they’d have been in trouble. Still, a win is undoubtedly a win, especially headed into a bye week so without further ado, let’s get to this week’s report card, now served hot with a side of bangers and mash and a pint of room temperature Fuller’s Vintage Ale.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B
A mixed bag here, big time. Welker and the other receivers? Fantastic. The running game? Lousy. Tom Brady? Except for a couple of rather ugly looking hiccups, very good. The O-Line? Dreadful. Again, the lack of competition from Tampa, which was outclassed pretty much everywhere on the field, means that such discrepancies, including four three-and-outs, can be tolerated. But they can’t be forgotten, especially with a division game against Miami, this year’s edition of prime time in Indianapolis, a rematch with the Jets and a trip to New Orleans for a Monday nighter against the Saints making up the Pats’ November docket.
Brady got himself another early shower thanks to a ho-hum, 23-of-32, 308-yard, three TD day. At times it appeared that he was toying with the hapless Bucs secondary, frequently going to his third and sometimes fourth read with little drop off (see the TD pass to Sam Aiken). He faced a little more pressure than I’m sure either he or the coaching staff would have liked, mostly due to an unusually weak showing from his line. And on his two picks, which equaled his previous total, both times he looked like he was just trying to mess around, perhaps out of sheer boredom, especially on the play in the end zone when he tried to throw an alley-oop to Randy Moss over double coverage. Regardless of the circumstances of the game, though, the fact remains that Brady is looking more and more like his record-setting, pre-injury, 2007 self each week. It was the first time since ’07 he went for 300+ yards and he now has nine of his 15 TD passes in his last two games, appearances which total just over six quarters of action. He’s making all of the throws, looks comfortable seeing the entire field and is improvising as well as possible when needs be, showing some added fluidity when sliding away from pressure. It’s not going to be as easy for him in the coming weeks as it’s been against scrub teams like Tennessee and Tampa, but the progress he’s made even in just the time since the second half of the Denver game has to make both fans and Brady himself feel good about the future.
Running Backs: C
Last week, the Bucs allowed the disappointing Panthers 267 yards on the ground. On Sunday, they allowed the Pats just 107 on 28 carries (3.8 YPA). Whether it was in the game plan to eschew the run until the game was out of hand in the second half or not, the first game with Laurence Maroney as the lead back generated mediocre results. Maroney carried just 13 times but he managed only 43 yards in those attempts, barely three yards per. Again, it was not the line’s best day by any stretch. But Maroney, who seemed to run with some purpose against the Titans, reverted back to his dancing fool self on many of his rushes, tiptoeing his way to one two-yard gain after another. He did find the end zone in the fourth quarter after the game was already over, giving him two touchdowns in his last two games. But it was not a terribly strong performance and if Sammy Morris misses significant time after the bye and Maroney has to keep being the main man, I’m not sure how balanced the Pats will be able to be against some of their tougher upcoming foes. In Maroney’s defense, BenJarvus Green-Ellis didn’t do much either, managing only six yards on seven carries. And of course, on a 2nd-and-long, Kevin Faulk took a draw play 13 yards which led to a very manageable, third-and-short conversion.
Wide Receivers: A
In the eye-popping, amazing factoid of the week category, Welker, who caught 10 passes for the second straight week, now leads the NFL with 46 catches even though he missed two games. Welker, who was a perfect 10-for-10 (Brady targeted him 10 times) and posted 107 yards and a score on those 10 grabs, continues to be the most valuable, important member of the Pats offense not named Brady, and that includes the amazing Moss. he is now on pace for 105 catches, down a tick from the 111 and 112 of the past two seasons, but excellent nonetheless. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of play he can’t make, whether it’s the way he runs every type of screen to perfection, to his innate ability to always get to the first down marker, to the way he almost always picks up significant yards after the catch.Welker , who reminds me of Troy Brown more and more every time I watch him play, is magnificent. Elsewhere, it was nice to see Aiken, the special teams ace who seemed to have such a hard time with wide receiver duties earlier in the year, break through and score his first career TD, especially the way he did it. Aiken stayed moving as Brady was forced to scramble out of the pocket and consulted all of his secondary reads before dumping it off. Aiken took the short throw and was off, shedding a couple of tackles and showing good speed in sprinting to the end zone for the Pats longest play of the season (54 yards). Brandon Tate got some reps as after coming off the PUP list in the wake of Julian Edelman’s broken arm and got on the stat sheet with a pretty, 11-yard end around run early on. And Moss, who looked banged up, contributed 69 yards on five catches, one of them a classic catch and run that went for 39 yards. It was arguably this group’s best day of the year, pretty much entirely due to Welker.
Tight Ends: A
In the second quarter, I turned to one of my viewing partners and asked point blank if Ben Watson was even playing. Was he ever. Watson only had one catch, but it was a thing of beauty that it went a long way toward this grade. Matched up one on one against a Tampa linebacker, Watson, lined up wide in a five-receiver set, ran a flag route, easily got a step and a half on his man, roped in a perfectly feathered Brady pass over his outside shoulder and practically glided into the end zone. It was another reminder of how immensely talented Watson is and what he’s capable of doing when he is freed from his blocking responsibilities, at which he’s become exceptional. Chris Baker, also a great blocker, made three solid receptions as well, one of which a tightrope, sideline grab on which he absorbed a crushing hit yet held on to the ball. Going forward, the Pats have to feel good about their situation at the tight end position.
Offensive Line: C-
It’s kind of hard to fathom such a lousy grade for anyone after such a resounding win. But yesterday’s shoddy performance by the offensive line was worrisome in that it came against a bad defensive front and was the second sub-standard game for this group in its last three games. Let’s start on the left side, where Logan Mankins , who I thought got his crappy game of the year out of his system in Denver two weeks ago, was even worse on Sunday. He had four penalties – three, count ’em three false starts, and a hold – two of which led to stalled drives. Next to him, rookie Sebastian Vollmer, who was so good against Tennessee and got off to a great start against against the Bucs , seemed to get dinged up in the second quarter and was not the same afterward with his two holds on the second half’s opening drive showed. Both Stephen Neal and Dan Koppen had penalties too (Koppen’s his weekly false start) meaning that the line accounted for eight of the Pats 10 penalties on the day. That sucks, folks. What compounded the suck factor was the fact that Brady was on the move a little more than what’s comfortable, even from the shotgun, and that there were few holes to be found on run plays. Once again, these are fixable things and Matt Light may well be back after the bye to stabilize things. But by no means can this group play this poorly against a good team and get away with it the way it did on Sunday.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: A-
Big day for Meriweather, who made two interceptions, returning one 39 yards for a touchdown, the Pats first of the kind since December, ’07. Meriweather’s performance highlighted a very good day for the D, which was faced with a completely inept Tampa offense and barely broke a sweat. The Bucs managed just 240 total yards and one scoring drive. Their best skill players – Cadillac Williams, Kellen Winslow, Antonio Bryant,et al – were pretty much neutralized. Their inexperienced quarterback, Josh Johnson, was a mess, completing just nine of 26 passes for 156 yards and three picks. All because they were taken advantage of by the Pats D, which was opportunistic and aggressive. Even Derrick Burgess had a sack! And although Ty Warren was carted off with an apparent ankle injury (which could prove incredibly costly later on) and Adalius Thomas’s return barely registered, it’s hard to be less than thrilled with the fact that the defense laid down the hammer.
Defensive Line: A-
Other than a couple of early runs by Williams, the line was practically impenetrable. Wilfork saw some extra blocking but handled it well and then some, leading the defense’s forcing of the Tampa running game to a paltry 3.4YPA . Mike Wright had another sack and was in on some key stops. Rookie Myron Pryor got more reps in several sub packages and responded with three more tackles including one for a loss, and a hit on Johnson. And Warren, before he left, led the unit with six tackles, all while facing the usual array of double teams. But as a group, perhaps the most important thing these guys did was contain Johnson and keep him in the pocket. Johnson had run for 126 yards on just 21 carries in his previous three games, making him a real threat if/when he got outside (his 33-yard TD pass to Bryant in which he scrambled away from pressure was an example of how dangerous he could be under those circumstances). But on Sunday, he had one rush for seven yards, another credit to the D-line.
How about Tully Banta-Cain, eh? Dude gets cut for salary cap purposes, re-signs the next day then comes out in that week’s game and posts possibly the best game of his career.Banta-Cain. Normally used as an outside pass rusher, Banta -Cain has seen more time in run defense situations this season and has responded vigorously. On Sunday, he had five tackles, two for losses. One came when he shed a block and buried Williams behind the line of scrimmage and the other came when he read a screen to Derrick Ward and completely blew the play up, dropping Ward for negative yards. He led the linebacking corps, which mostly had great balance. Mayo was a force, coming up with a game-high eight tackles and Gary Guyton , who spent a good deal of time playing on the weak side in both 3-4 and 4-3 formations, added a full stat sheet performance with three tackles, one for a loss, a big hit on Johnson and a pass deflection. Junior Seau made an impact in limited time and Pierre Woods also made a couple of plays, though he had a bigger impact on special teams than in the regular defense. Burgess, who has clearly won the favor of his coaches given the amount of playing time he has gotten versus the minuscule amount of plays he’s made, must be getting assigned to do more menial work than he’s ever been used to. Regardless, he had an active game, possibly his best of the season, registering a couple of key tackles and, as mentioned before, a sack. Only Thomas kept this group from earning the A, thanks to another invisible performance. To Thomas’ credit, Bill Belichick made it a point to single him out for his role in a first half short yardage stop. And ESPN’s Mike Reiss noted in his blog that Thomas didn’t play a lot of snaps since he isn’t a part of too many sub packages and the Pats employed many of them all day due to the lopsided nature of the game. But despite these factors, the bottom line is production and Thomas, with just one tackle, had yet another game in which he was barely a footnote.
The sky is the limit for Meriweather, who looks more and more like the real deal as time passes. Now the leader of the DBs, he plastered his two picks on the Bucs early in the game, signaling that the Pats pass defense would be a force to be reckoned with all day. Brandon McGowan once again played practically the whole game and delivered, whether he was deep in coverage, up with the linebackers for run support, or staying with Winslow, a supposed good player who finished with a measly two catches for nine yards. Darius Butler, who was beaten on the TD pass to Bryant, probably deserves a mulligan after missing a lot of practice last week. Still, he bounced back strong, racking up the Pats third pick late in the second quarter, his second of the season. Jonathan Wilhite started again and didn’t have to do much thanks to Tampa’s anemic passing game and Leigh Bodden was again a primary player, seeing as much action as anyone in the defensive backfield and contributing a couple of tackles and pass deflections. Rookie Patrick Chung, on the heels of his most playing time of the year last week against Tennessee, followed that up with four tackles and his first career sack in filling in for James Sanders, who was playing for the first time since hurting his shoulder against Baltimore a few weeks ago. If there’s any down news to be found among this group, it’s about veteran Shawn Springs, who may well be done. After getting roasted in Denver and barely playing last week, Springs once again barely saw the field against the Bucs. The 15-year vet has been battling some injuries since training camp, looks to have become an afterthought.
Special Teams: B-
It’s all about punter Chris Hanson. Hanson had an awful day, and it wasn’t the first time that’s happened this season. On six kicks, Hanson averaged just 37.3 yards which doesn’t fly. He also had a punt blocked, which may well have been just as much the line’s fault as his, but he still must shoulder some of the blame. ON 24 punts this season, Hanson is averaging under 40 yards per kick while posting a net average of 33.3, down over five yards from his career mark. Again, that just doesn’t fly. Both coverage teams were fine and Steve Gostkowski didn’t need to do much more than kick multiple extra points. In the kick return game, Tate posted a healthy, 22-yard average and Welker added to his monster day with a solid 13.3-yard average on four punt runbacks.
I feel like at this point, any more analysis would just be a waste of time so I’ll leave you with this. One coach in this game has three Super Bowl rings and a team clearly on the road to yet another playoff berth. The other is 33 years old (also as old as I am – hello!), had never even been a coordinator prior to this season and reportedly had to call his GM to ask permission to insert his rookie, first-round quarterback in the fourth quarter when the game was well out of hand. Any guesses who’s who?