By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
I don’t know about any of the other professors here at Patriots Daily University, or any of the readers of our illustrious staff’s work, but I do know that I want Sunday’s 34-27, regular season finale loss to the Houston Texans to just go away. I wish it never happened. I’m going to pretend it didn’t, even when I don’t see Wes Welker out there churning out one first down after another during this weekend’s wild card game against the Ravens. There’s just no reason to think about it. It was a meaningless game that became surreally meaningful in about 15 minutes when Welker crumpled to the Reliant Stadium turf, then settled into a humdrum monotony before officially becoming meaningful again thanks to yet another fourth quarter el foldo by the defense. I will rehash the game only because as part of my job responsibilities here at PDU , I have to. But I will do it quickly so as to minimize nausea the game and any thoughts regarding it provoke(d). I think anyone who gives a rat’s ass about the Patriots is with me on this. And if you’re not, stay tuned for this time next week, when we will have a real, honest-to-goodness report card revolving around what should (and will – you heard it here first) be a solid win over the Ravens. So with that, let’s get this over with.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: C
Who knows how things would have gone had Welker stayed healthy? Maybe Tom Brady would have stayed out of the game in the second half instead of coming back in so as to get a feel for the running the offense going forward without his favorite target. Maybe with Brian Hoyer and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Matthew Slater playing big reps instead of Brady, Fred Taylor and Randy Moss, the defense’s pathetic, fourth quarter meltdown wouldn’t have been so hard to take, as there may not have been a lead to blow. Who knows? What is known is that for most of the afternoon, the offense was decidedly mediocre. Brady had a blah game, never looking comfortable after Welker left and throwing an inexcusable, wounded duck for a pick in the fourth quarter instead of taking a sack, a play which completely swung the game for Houston. The running game produced a few nice plays but was mostly ignored and was held under four yards per attempt. Julian Edelman shined in place of Welker but was mostly invisible in the fourth quarter. The offensive line was OK, but had major problems controlling Texans pass rusher extraordinaire/former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams, especially on pressure up the middle, in the second half. And when they needed to make a play the most, in that fourth quarter while the defense was cowering on the sideline, it went three-and-out, interception, turnover on downs on its final three possessions. Not much more to say than that other than the obvious, which is that a performance like that this week, especially if the game is close late, will spell the end of the season.
Again, Brady was nothing special. Seeing as how Welker, only the guy around whom the entire passing game is based, was gone after four plays, it’s not surprising. And he did manage to throw for 130 yards on 9-of-13 passing in the first half. But everything came to a crashing halt after that. There was one scoring drive in the second half, a nine-play, 72-yard march that featured five completions (four to Edelman ) before Taylor ran in his second score of the day, but that was it. The interception, which was a given the minute the ball left his hands, was preceded by a screen to Sammy Morris that netted -4 yards. He finished the day playing all but three series, with a 17-for-26, 186-yard, zero TD, one INT line, numbers that will only get it done against the Ravens if the Pats run the ball for at least 150 yards, which is no guarantee at all. Hoyer looked sharp in his limited time, like someone who would have a chance to win if forced to play, which is a lot more than can be said for most backup QBs in the NFL.
Running Backs: C
With Kevin Faulk inactive to rest and Laurence Maroney still benched most likely due to his fumble against the Jaguars last week, the running duties were charged exclusively to Morris and Taylor, with a little Green-Ellis sprinkled in. Morris was nowhere, gaining just nine yards on seven carries (six on one play) and limping off the field in the fourth quarter. Taylor had the two TDs and averaged nearly five yards per his seven attempts, but had a brutal fumble at the Pats 1 which was recovered by the Texans for a score and rendered the excellent goal line stand by the defense just seconds earlier completely moot. Green-Ellis looked solid both as a blocking back (his play to spring Taylor for his second TD was awesome) and on his four carries for 22 yards.Faulk will certainly be back this week and man will the Pats need him. They will need everyone, even Maroney, as the emphasis on the run became that much greater following Welker’s injury.
Wide Receivers: B-
This will be the quickest section yet, don’t you worry. Moss made a couple nice plays, especially his 41-yard catch and run in the second quarter, but was completely bottled up in the second half. Edelman looks the part of Welker , but he managed just one catch on six targets in the fourth quarter and anyone who thinks he can make up for the loss is clinically insane. Sam Aiken got hurt again. Look for the back and tight ends to be as heavily involved in the passing game as at any point all year this coming week – that’s how much help this position group will need, even if Moss has a big game. The end.
Tight Ends: B
Again, they were targeted a few times and again, Ben Watson and Chris Baker each made a couple of plays. Watson had three catches for 32 yards and looked good making them, but he also didn’t come up with a couple catchable balls. It’s highly likely that he will be counted on to come up with everything in his general vicinity this week as well as do his customary good blocking job in the running game. Let’s hope he’s up to it. Baker has shown flashes of being a very capable receiver this season and his one catch on Sunday was a nice one. Given the certain, all hands on deck, mentality of this Sunday, he may be looked at more often.
Offensive Line: C
A lot has been made of how clean Brady has been courtesy of his line the previous four weeks, and rightly so. Along with the emergence of the running game over that same stretch, the O-Line deserves ample credit. But on Sunday, with the speedy, incredibly strong pass rushing demon Williams shifted all over the line of scrimmage and some other solid, young Houston linemen and linebackers running around, they didn’t do too much. There was a lot of shifting of personnel throughout and maybe that had something to do with the protection difficulties, most of which surfaced in the second half (this is a recording). Brady was sacked once, was hit multiple times after the half (including by Williams on the INT) and felt more pressure than he has in some time. Stephen Neal’s enormous holding penalty on the final drive of the game hurt pretty badly. Again, not having Welker meant a number of in-game adjustments, even for the line in regard to its protection schemes. A week of practice should shore most of that up, especially given the success this group has had of late. But Sunday in Houston was not one of its better days.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: C-
First three quarters: A-. Fourth quarter: F. Everything the Pats did well on defense until the final frame – pressure Houston QB Matt Schaub, pin down the running game, hold all-world receiver Andre Johnson in check – went up in smoke the minute the Texans started their first drive of the fourth. Houston rolled up 21 points and 130 yards in that quarter and while they did have the advantage of a short field on two of their three scoring marches thanks to the Brady pick prior to one and a 31-yard punt return by Jacoby Jones on the other, the Pats still offered little resistance. Schaub hit nearly every throw and running back Arian Foster, on the practice squad a little over a month ago, suddenly looked like a cross between Edgerrin James and Earl Campbell. It didn’t help that Leigh Bodden missed the game and that Shawn Springs sat out most of the fourth to rest and was replaced by Jonathan Wilhite , who had probably the worst of his litany of awful games. Or that whatever run stopping elixir the linemen had taken in the absence of Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren over the past three weeks totally wore off about a minute into the fourth quarter. Or that once again, Jerod Mayo was mediocre at the absolute best and Gary Guyton (one solo tackle) continued to look like he’s regressing. Bodden, Wilfork and Warren will likely be back this week and hopefully, Wilhite will again be restricted in his duties (if not barred from any of them). Maybe coordinator Dean Pees falling ill and having to go to the hospital during the second half had something to do with the collapse, maybe not (I don’t recall Pees having to leave any other game in which his players rolled over in the fourth quarter due to shortness of breath, though that doesn’t mean he didn’t want to). But again, like pretty much everything else about the game, it’s a total performance best forgotten, and fast.
Defensive Line: C-
Credit this group for playing about as well as one might imagine given that its two most talented, important members – Warren and Wilfork – have combined for six snaps in the last three games. But it all came apart, like everything else, in the later stages on Sunday, when Foster and the Texans offensive line started to beat their chests and the response barely registered a whimper. When Schaub grew tired of torturing the helpless Wilhite , he simply turned and gave the ball to the heretofore unknown Foster then sat back and watched. Foster gouged the Pats for 119 yards on just 20 carries good for an overwhelming six yards per attempt. The game-winning TD drive following the Brady pick was all Foster – four carries for 6, 12, 7 and 3 yards, respectively, the final two featuring anyone in a Pats uniform showing the least bit of resistance being pushed back and run over in a most embarrassing fashion. There were no bigger culprits than any others, as Jarvis Green, Mike Wright, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace all chipped in with efforts that were middling at best. With Wilfork and Warren back in the fold, not as much will be asked of guys like Pryor and Brace, but the Ravens run the ball as well as anyone in the league, especially recently, which means much, much more will be required than the lousy display put forth in Houston.
If not for Derrick Burgess, it would have been far worse, and who in their right mind would have ever imagined a scenario like that? Burgess continued to be one of the brightest lights of the entire defense, racking up eight tackles, another sack and three more shots on Schaub. Clearly, something clicked with Burgess right around when he got sent home on that snowy morning a few weeks ago along with Guyton, Moss and Adalius Thomas and the numbers (17 tackles, three sacks over that three game stretch) bear it out. Now if only everyone else in this much-maligned group will follow suit. Tully Banta-Cain finished up his career season with a dud, not making a single solo tackle or getting anywhere near Schaub, while the travails of Guyton and Mayo, who for the umpteenth time now is nowhere near the player he was last season. When Schaub hit tight end Joel Dreessen , running unabated right don the middle of the field with no Patriot within 15 yards of him on any side, with a 25-yard TD pass in the first quarter, the image of Mayo standing still and looking around about five yards off the line of scrimmage both during and after the play sticks out as clearly as any other on the day. Junior Seau and Rob Ninkovich – young and old – made a couple of nice contributions and Adalius Thomas made exactly none.
Playing without Bodden, the DBs held up well against the fantastic Johnson (at least until Wilhite got anywhere near him), who managed just six catches for 65 yards. It was nice to see Darius Butler come up with that deflected pass in the red zone and gallop 91 yards for a score but the fact that he was also flagged for an interference penalty that gave the Texans the ball at the Pats 3 was anything but. It was a microcosm of the rookie’s whole season and while he looks like the likeliest of the Pats stable of young corners to come around, he is still as much a work in progress as anyone else. Brandon Meriweather didn’t follow up his huge game last week against Jacksonville with anything special, but he did manage to not do anything stupid for the second straight week and for him, that’s a small victory. Springs and James Sanders remained solid since being called upon to do more a few weeks ago. And then there’s Wilhite . Without trying too hard to pile on, I will say this: he is completely helpless. This was becoming more and more evident as the season wore on, to the point where he was replaced by Springs as the No. 2 corner after the debacle in Miami a few weeks ago. But he seemed more comfortable in the ensuing weeks playing a more complementary role, until Sunday. Almost every second half throw seemed to go at him and he had no chance on any of them, surrendering one completion after another while offering little resistance. As was apparent earlier in the year, he has no ball skills, very little instinct and whatever technique he has gets him twisted in knots routinely. He will be active and he will play this week. Pats fans can only hope it’s not that much.
Special Teams: C+
Big ups again to Stephen Gostkowski, who drilled two long field goals, one from 51 yards, and was booting the ball deep into the end zone on kickoffs again. Not so much for the punt team, which was scorched by Jones for that 31-yarder on his only return of the day and set up the second of the three fourth quarter TDs. Kick returns again were not so hot as well, though Slater did manage a 35-yarder on one which is probably 15 yards longer than any other one he’s had this year.
The grade is poor not because Welker and the rest of the starters played. Bill Belichick did the right thing in letting guys who had nagging injuries (Wilfork, Warren, Bodden, Faulk) rest while having the starters start and play in a game that was meaningless yes, but important nonetheless given that keeping some sort of a rhythm going headed into the playoffs is necessary. The grade is poor because the latest in the long line of fourth quarter folds isn’t all just on the players. Maybe on Sunday it was the substitution patterns (it’s highly unlikely that Springs is out in favor of Wilhite late in a meaningful game) on both sides of the ball. But regardless, the Pats were a completely different team come the fourth quarter, as they’ve been in similar situations throughout the year, and again, the coaches seemed powerless to do anything about it. The offense’s second half stagnation had mostly to do with Welker being out, a situation the coaching staff hardly had the time for which to prepare. A week’s worth of planning should help with that situation at least a bit. Hopefully, it will also help finding the elusive answer as to why when the final quarter rolls around, the Pats continue to roll over.