By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Nice to see things return to almost normal, eh? The Pats played a game on American soil for the first time in three weeks. The game was competitive and interesting, as opposed to the team’s two previous,pre-bye week matchups . The stakes were high given the time of year and the opponent, division rival Miami. And the Pats did what they always do following a week off which is win, this time getting it done to the tune of 27-17. It wasn’t the prettiest game they will play – there were a number of plays left out on the field on offense and defensively, the secondary will need to get better in all facets with explosive passing attacks like the Colts and Saints on the upcoming docket. But there were plenty of top shelf performances all around, starting with the incomparable Randy Moss and his one-handed catching powers and coursing throughout the active roster as evidenced by the play of everyone from SebastianVollmer to Tully Banta-Cain, to Stephen Gostkowski to (yep!!) Adalius Thomas. About the only thing unusual about Sunday’s win was the weather, again completely unseasonable (a snowstorm in mid-October is strange enough, but 70 and sunny in November?) But who cares – it was gorgeous, and so was the final outcome. So with that in mind, let’s open up the classroom windows here at Patriots Daily University and get on with this week’s report card.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B
So many things worked for Pats offensively that it’s hard to figure why things got so bogged down when they got in the red zone. To be sure, the biggest problem the offense had was finding a way to score touchdowns from in close as opposed to settling for field goals. Three first half drives that lasted seven or more plays ended in three points, including the two-minute march at the end of the second quarter that traveled 70 yards in 10 plays. These sort of problems creep up on teams from time to time, especially against a tough defense like Miami’s (the Colts, for example, were held to four field goals in the first three quarters at home last week against the 49ers). But while its nice to say that it will be up to the defense to make plays in upcoming games at Indy and New Orleans, the truth of the matter is that both teams are so explosive offensively that it’s very likely the Pats will have to match them point for point. And that means punching the ball into the end zone with a little more frequency. Still, we can’t go any further without recognizing that the Pats rolled up 432 total yards, averaged 4.5 YPA on the ground and got two more big pass plays than the Dolphins did, both to Moss.
Tom Brady’s second throw, a bomb to Moss, was about a yard underthrown and resulted in a fantastic interception by Miami’s rookie corner Vontae Davis. After that, he led scoring drives on five of the next six possessions. He finished up with a tidy 25-of-37 for 332 yards with one TD pass along with the INT, a sterling 9.0YPA and a passer rating of 93.5 Best of all, he looked as smooth and comfortable in the pocket as he has at any point this season. He took a couple of sacks but both were of the coverage variety and for the most part, whenever there was any pressure even on the fringes of his comfort zone, he felt it, slid away from it with ease and still had himself in perfect position to make pretty much every throw. His sideline strike to Moss that resulted in the terrific, one-handed catch was an absolutely perfect pass and he routinely put just the proper amount of zing on every one of his nine completions to Wes Welker . Brady said after the game that he still doesn’t feel as though he’s at 100 percent in his comeback from the knee injury and maybe he won’t get there until next year. But his play Sunday was a fine tuneup for this week’s showdown with the Colts. Oh and by the way, Brady is now 20-0 in his last 20 starts at home. Not bad.
Running Backs: B
While watching the game, more than one of my viewing associates and I reacted with shock upon seeing Laurence Maroney continuously put his head down and barrel into the line of scrimmage or blast through open creases like an actual, NFL running back.Maroney ran hard all day, probably with the most frequency that he has yet this year and the result was a nifty 82-yard game with a TD on 20 carries. He wasn’t flashy, his longest run of the day going for just 10 yards. And there seemed to be a few plays where the Dolphins knew he was coming and collapsed any and all running lanes before he even had a chance to get going/dancing. But all day long, when he had the ball and there was room to run, he found it. It was an encouraging, important performance by Maroney, who will likely get one more week as the featured guy before Sammy Morris returns and gets hurt again. BenJarvus Green-Ellis saw his most playing time as a lead fullback and responded with some solid blocking and one seven-yard carry. And Kevin Faulk had yet another typical Kevin Faulk game, blocking well out of shotgun formations, carrying twice on draw plays for 15 yards and catching four passes, mostly screens or checkdowns, for 35 yards, one of which was an 11-yarder to convert a third and long that was an ankle breaker. There was less balance between run and pass than in the past couple of games, but when the backs, particularly Maroney, got the call, they mostly delivered.
Wide Receivers: A
Moss continues to be a sight to behold. Forget about the one-hander for a moment, as utterly amazing a play it was. On his touchdown, which started out as just a little crossing pattern underneath, he got a couple of steps on Davis and when the young corner seemed to be closing in, Moss unleashed a furious stiff arm right into the middle of Davis’s mug, neutralizing him and clearing the way for a leisurely, 71-yard Sunday afternoon stroll into the end zone. When he wasn’t busy putting up highlights, he was drawing double coverage routinely and still Brady almost connected with him on another go for broke throw or two. Never mind Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy’s trademarked, mail-it-in column from Monday in which he rips a player to shreds for having the temerity to not want to say much to him or the rest of the media regardless of how great said player is. Moss is awesome, and invaluable to the Pats. He could not say another word for the rest of his career and it wouldn’t matter. What matters is that he a great player and does nothing but make the Pats a better team. Who gives a shit that he doesn’t say much in press conferences? My guess is no one but Shaughnessy. Anyway, in other receiver related matters, Welker had another fabulous day, catching nine of the 10 passes thrown his way for 84 yards. He continues to be as slippery and hard to cover as ever and on top of that he is remarkably consistent. One of my notes from watching the game says simply, “Welker, of course.” He now has three straight 50+ catch seasons with the Pats, still leads the NFL in receptions and is en route to yet another 100+ catch final result. Sam Aiken had another nice game with two important grabs and drew a big pass interference flag in the third quarter. And while Brandon Tate didn’t have any effect on the passing game before leaving with a leg injury, he did do some damage on a couple kick returns. The Pats were down to three healthy, active receivers by midway through the second quarter but still didn’t miss a beat.
Tight Ends: A-
Ben Watson just keeps on proving his doubters (hello, me!) wrong. Watson, playing through back pain, had another plus performance with four catches for 49 yards. Brady looked for him five times and made the four stick, the best being a second quarter seam route on which Watson went up and over his man to snare the ball. It was another athletic play by one of the more athletic guys on the team and I’m here to report that there will be no more wondering where this solid play was over the past four years but just reveling in and appreciating it. Chris Baker played the fourth most snaps of anyone on offense according to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston and even though he made no catches, he was a big part of the running game and the blocking schemes that allowed the Pats to post 4.5YPA as a group. And Mark Levoir saw some time at the spot as well, particularly in three tight end sets. Watson and Baker provide a superior combination of size, speed, athleticism and football smarts at the tight end position. The Pats are lucky to have them.
Offensive Line: A-
This week marked the most compelling evidence yet that Vollmer is ready for the big time. Facing off with the insufferable Joey Porter, Vollmer smothered him, not allowing the Dolphins biggest fraud anywhere near Brady, or pretty much anyone else for that matter. Porter didn’t register a single stat and Vollmer played as big a role in that factor as anyone. Matt Light may well be back in the next couple of weeks but Vollmer has performed so well in his absence, it may be Light’s last hurrah in Foxboro, given his impending free agent status. Dan Koppen went down with a knee injury in the second quarter and if he’s out long-term it could be a big deal. But not only did his departure preclude him from scoring his weekly false start penalty, it allowed rookie Dan Connolly to get some reps in the middle of the line. Connolly performed admirably, keeping his spot solidified and drawing high praise from Brady and Bill Belichick after the game. Logan Mankins bounced back from his tough game in London with a tough, solid performance and Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur didn’t seem to have any issues on the right side. Given Brady’s being kept relatively clean, the run game’s strong showing and the ability to diversify when needed, it’s safe to say these guys had themselves a very nice day in the sun.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B
A bit of a role reversal took place with the defense on Sunday. The linebackers, clearly the red-headed stepchild of the unit prior to the bye, had a big game while the secondary,which has been a huge strength all year seemed on its heels for some stretches. One game after breaking out in a big way against Tampa, Brandon Meriweather was clearly off his game while Thomas, easily the most disappointing player on the entire team over the first half, provided his best performance of the season. The D allowed three long scoring drives and didn’t force any turnovers but made adjustments to all of the Miami offensive gimmicks and held firm when it mattered most in the fourth quarter and the later stages of the third. It wasn’t the defense’s best game of the year but the group managed to bend without breaking and managed to hold yet another opponent to less than 20 points.
Defensive Line: A-
Of course, the highlight of this unit has to be the shifting of mammoth nose man Vince Wilfork to right end. Facing Miami’s mountainous left tackle Jake Long and playing without Jarvis Green, the Pats had Wilfork and Mike Wright swap spots multiple times as a counter measure and Wilfork, as usual, delivered. Displaying the athleticism that makes him so much different and more versatile than most traditional interior linemen,Wilfork stayed in the game on most third downs/passing situations and with a couple of exceptions, rewarded the coaching staff for making the move. As good as Ty Warren is, as much attention as he draws from the opponent week in and week out,Wilfork proved Sunday that he is the best defensive lineman on the team. It’s a real shame that he probably won’t be back next year thanks to his free agent status and the fact that unless he takes what the team offers, he won’t get nothing. But we’ll worry about that later. For now, let’s give more props to Warren, who played despite suffering an ankle injury in London and had four tackles while providing a bit of pressure on Miami quarterback Chad Henne . And rookie Myron Pryor, a sixth-round pick, did more to help his raise his stock, pitching in three tackles and looking solid against the Wildcat or Pistol or whatever trick plays the Dolphins ran from time to time. There were a couple of plays when backup quarterback Pat White was in the game on which the Dolphins line managed to get the Pats D-line backpedaling. But not enough for them to win.
Finally, Adalius! After he picked up a loose ball and ran it in from 59 yards out (even though it wound up being ruled an incomplete pass), Thomas showed some of the speed and shiftiness that, when combined with his strength, made him look like the prototypical backer back in his early Pats days. After that play, all he did was fill up the stat sheet, with four tackles, two for a loss, with a pass blocked, a sack on that dreadful attempted double reverse pass out of the Wildcat and another hit on Henne . Whether Thomas can sustain the pace he set Sunday remains to be seen but it sure was nice to see him not only do something but do a lot of things. Then, there was Banta -Cain, who is playing brilliantly these days and has seen his role increase from pass rushing specialist to all-around player. He had nine tackles including one screamer in the third quarter in which he buried Ricky Williams in the backfield and also managed to knock around Henne a few times for good measure. These two performances made up for less than stellar days for both Jerod Mayo, who had 12 tackles but only made a couple plays of consequence (one of which was a stuffing of Ronnie Brown at the goal line on Miami’s second half opening drive) and Gary Guyton . And of course, we couldn’t go any further without mentioning yet another complete no-show by our man Derrick Burgess, who once again did diddely poo. It’s quite hard to imagine what Belichick saw/sees in this guy, but he is completely, utterly and totally useless and the next big play he makes will be his first as a Patriot.
Bless you, Brandon McGowan. Without you, our professors here at PDU would have had to hand out a really lousy grade which is never fun, especially following a win. McGowan continues to be one of this season’s most impressive players. He provided his customary high tackle total while dishing out a couple of punishing hits, making a textbook, cut down tackle of Brown on a sweep attempt from the two-yard line in the third quarter, forcing another fumble (it went out of bounds) and mostly taking Miami’s tight ends out of the passing game. Can’t wait to see if he can stay with the amazing Dallas Clark this week – if he plays the way he’s played all year against the Colts, he’ll definitely make Clark, only the best tight end in the game, earn his money. After that, though, the pickings get slim.Meriweather whiffed on a couple of tackles and was completely steamrolled on Williams’ second quarter TD run. Hopefully, he bounces back quick and plays more like the guy who did so much damage against Tampa and Tennessee because an effort like Sunday’s will get him torched against Peyton Manning and the Colts. Leigh Bodden and Darius Butler weren’t that great either, each getting burned by that all-world Miami receiving combo of Davone Bess and Greg Camarillo. Butler is just a rookie and will have growing pains like this from time to time. But Bodden absolutely must be better, both in coverage and with his tackling, especially if he’s covering Reggie Wayne this week. There were just too many missed tackles and a couple penalties too many as well. Finally, Patrick Chung continued to see his time increase and played most of the game like he’d been shot out of a cannon. His first quarter sack from right up the middle on an all-out blitz that was timed perfectly was a thing of beauty. He did pick up a roughing the passer penalty on a similar play on which he arrived a bit too late, but all in all, he played another solid , improved game and clearly has more of the coaches confidence than the missing in action James Sanders, who started the year as the starting strong safety but has been relegated to special teams duty thanks to the emergence of McGowan and Chung.
Special Teams: A
Gostkowski did it all on Sunday. He made four of four field goal attempts, booted a couple kickoffs out of the end zone, keeping them away from Miami return master Ted Ginn, Jr. and even made a big tackle of Ginn on the one return he looked like he might break. Chris Hanson’s 34.7 average on three punts was typically lousy, but it does include a 31-yarder from the Miami 42 in the first quarter that pinned the Dolphins deep and when was the last time you saw him do that and not boot the ball into the end zone? Tate looked good on his two returns, averaging over 30 yards per run back and will likely continue to hold down the role if his leg injury isn’t too serious. And practice squader Kyle Arrington acquitted himself nicely in his first game of the year, making two tackles and drawing praise from special teams captain Aiken. This unit did about as well as one could hope for.
Let’s see… Moving Wilfork to defensive end for multiple snaps? Check. Scheming the Wildcat to the tune of 10 plays for seven yards? Check. Attacking the Dolphins young secondary? Check. Adjusting to the Pistol look after White led the Dolphins second quarter scoring drive. Check – maybe even in all caps if you saw the way Belichick was lambasting his linebackers on the sideline afterward. About the only miscalculation was leaving the DBs on an island more than a few times in obvious passing situations, but again, that’s a non-issue if Bodden, Meriweather and Butler all play better. Having had two weeks to prepare, Belichick and his coaches put the team in position to be successful all day, which they do more often than not. I wonder what sort of stuff they’ll be cooking up for the Colts? Can’t wait to find out.