By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Opening Day in the NFL is a joyous enough occasion in itself. When your favorite team comes out and lays a king-sized ass-whooping on its opponent, all of the sunshine and puppies that go along with the garden variety, Week 1 experience look that much sweeter.
Such was the case at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon with the Patriots stomping on the overmatched Cincinnati Bengals, racing out to a 31-3 lead before coasting home with a 38-24 win. As expected, the offense looked sharper than sharp, effortlessly shuttling personnel packages in and out of the game and not missing a beat while regularly keeping the Bengals defense on its heels. But the real surprise was the play of the defense, which stepped on Cincy’s collective throat early and didn’t let up at all until that lead reached a pretty much insurmountable 28 points early in the second half. The non-existent pass rush? Existent (sort of)! The inexperienced secondary? Aggressive, competitive and mostly up to the task of staying with a couple of big name receivers. There were even a couple of runbacks for scores. Everything worked on Sunday (including the microphone at Randy Moss’s post-game press conference, sadly), no one got hurt and the outlook appears rosy headed into Sunday’s showdown against the hated Jets. So with that, let’s sum it all up, report card-styles. Welcome back to another semester at Patriots Daily University!
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: A
Nearly 400 total yards. A rich balance between the run (23 attempts, 118 yards, 5.1 YPA) and pass (258 yards, three TDs). And perhaps most importantly, a nail in the coffin, spirit-killing drive that covered 14 plays, 76 yards and portions of both the third and fourth quarters, snuffing out any hope that the Bengals may have developed on the heels of two third quarter scoring drives that cut the Patriots lead to 14. The Pats didn’t turn the ball over and rookie punter (and awesome name Hall-of-Famer) Zoltan Mesko was called into service only once. The Jets will be a truer test of this offense on Sunday, but that’s another report card altogether. An all-around stellar outing for the O.
So Tom Brady spends his week diverting rumors about his contract, walking away from a potentially devastating car accident and signing the richest deal in the history of the NFL. And then, to top it all off, he submits a regal, dominant performance on Sunday, completing 25 of 35 passes for those 258 yards (and a tidy, 7.4 yards per attempt) and three scores, all good for a 120.9 passer rating. Brady was his typical spectacular self on Sunday, making pretty much every throw and seeing the field beautifully. His sideline strike to Kevin Faulk on a third-and-long in the second quarter, the perfectly executed screen to Wes Welker for the game’s first TD and the outstanding touch on his lob to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski that completed the day’s scoring were all sights to behold. But his performance on the game-clinching drive (7-for-7, 58 yards) was the cherry. Brady came out of the game saying he’s never felt better following a season-opener. Anyone care to argue with him?
Running Backs: A-
Having finally buried Laurence Maroney in the fifth-string spot where he belongs, the Pats came out on Sunday and moved the ball on the ground with purpose and force. The 5.1-yard average is all the more impressive when you consider that the primary ball-carriers (Fred Taylor with 14 for 71 yards, BenJarvus Green-Ellis with five for 22 yards and Kevin Faulk with three for 23 yards) all managed more than four yards per attempt, which is usually the line of demarcation when it comes to a good performance on the ground and a lousy one. Especially strong was Taylor, who could teach Maroney a thing or two about decisiveness as he routinely made one cut, hit his creases strong and went straight ahead without dancing, tip-toeing or fumbling. It’s only a matter of time before the 33-year old Taylor’s injury-prone body betrays him, but until then, he’s an easy guy in whom to have confidence.
Wide Receivers: A-
If you’re looking for any more commentary on Moss’s post-game theatrics, look elsewhere. This space is reserved for thoughts regarding what happened on the field and in that regard, Moss looked solid. He only had five catches for 59 yards and didn’t come up with a first quarter deep ball that he probably should have had. But he was very solid, making catches over the middle and executing a Welker-esque quick screen to perfection in the third quarter. As for the medical marvel Welker, it couldn’t have been a better day for him. He had his typical eight catches, picked up a handful of first downs and generally did most of the things he’s proven to be so adept at over the course of his time here. But man was it cool to see him in the end zone, not once but twice. He’s halfway to his TD total from last season (a season, don’t forget, in which he caught 123 passes in just 14+ games) already, but aside from that, just the mere fact that he was out there looking like his old self just a touch over seven months since major, reconstructive knee surgery is where the post-game focus should have been. Great stuff from a great player.
Tight Ends: A
If there was any lingering doubt regarding the Pats increasing the role of the tight end in their offense this season, it should probably be laid to rest after Sunday. Not only did rookies Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez contribute to the passing game (with Gronkowski’s perfectly executed, goal-line TD reception presciently called just before happening by one of the more astute football heads in my viewing party), but fellow newcomer Alge Crumpler made himself extremely useful too, springing Welker for his first TD with a great block to seal a corner off the in-cutting receiver. According to the always reliable Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, Gronkowski and Crumpler compiled the second and third most offensive snaps of the game for the Pats while 39 of 62 offensive plays featured multiple tight end sets. The Pats offensive versatility shined all day long thanks in no small part to the new look tight end corps.
Offensive Line: A-
“It’s as good an offensive line as we’ve ever had.” Those are the words of one Tom Brady, who probably knows a little bit about the topic. Other than a somewhat costly at the time holding penalty on Dan Koppen, this group, minus mainstays Logan Mankins and Nick Kazcur, stood up to anything and everything the Bengals defense had to offer. Brady didn’t get sacked and was only hit twice, his jersey looking as clean at the final whistle as it did during pre-game warmups. And somebody had to clear all that room out for Taylor and his boys to post such nice rushing stats. Matt Light, Dan Connolly, Koppen, Stephen Neal and the mammoth Sebastian Vollmer are as deserving of game balls as anyone.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B+
En route to a straight A, the defense took its foot off the gas in the third quarter, giving up consecutive 12-play scoring drives that gave the Bengals a modicum of hope. But the first half performance was so dominant, so out of the blue and so pleasantly surprising that the group as a whole may certainly be forgiven for flattening out somewhat with a four touchdown lead after doing everything right before halftime. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer was sacked, threw and interception that was run back for a score and completed only one pass for a first down in the first half and it was a 51-yard Hail Mary at the buzzer. As they have been so deft at doing in the past, the Pats threw one unique personnel look at the Bengals after another, disguising coverages and rush packages all day long, as well as bottling up leading rusher Cedric Benson to the tune of just 43 yards on 15 carries and a lost fumble. Palmer remarked afterward about what a good job the Pats did in creating mismatches and confusing he and his teammates before saying, “I haven’t played against anybody better,” at coming up with a defensive game plan as well as making adjustments in game that Bill Belichick. Again, especially after what went down on Sunday, who wants to argue?
Defensive Line: A-
Starting with the first drive of the game when Vince Wilfork pushed the entire pocket backwards and into Palmer allowing Myron Pryor and Tully Banta-Cain to swallow him up on a third down and short, the D-line showed it meant business. Missing Ty Warren and the departed Jarvis Green, longtime backup Mike Wright barely missed a beat at right defensive end while new guy Gerard Warren didn’t make any plays but didn’t do any damage either. The core of the Pats defensive philosophy on Sunday seemed to involve at least five defensive backs on the field at all times to deal with Cincy’s potentially explosive passing game while counting on no more than three down linemen, led by Wilfork, to control the lone of scrimmage, stop the run and force the Bengals to throw into a lot of heavy coverage. Given the Bengals amassing just 87 yards in the ground on 25 attempts, it looked like that plan worked.
Of course, Guyton’s pick-6 must be noted again, as does the solid NFL debut of rookie/internet sensation Brandon Spikes and the outstanding stuff/strip/fumble recovery made by Mike Vrabel lookalike Rob Ninkovich. But how about Jerod Mayo, folks? He never looked right last year after suffering a knee injury on opening night against the Bills; at times he looked so overmatched, some folks wondered aloud if his ‘08 Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign was a fluke and if he was a bust (hello, me!). Well, the Mayo that came to play on Sunday looked very much like the ‘08 edition. He was all over the field and rarely came off it, registering 12 tackles, eight of them solo and one for a loss. In many ways Mayo is the key to this defense – he is playing the Tedy Bruschi role and we all know how important that is. It may have been a little much to expect Mayo to fulfill that role with any semblance of aplomb last season, his first without Bruschi here to tutor him while trying to fight off a nagging injury at the same time. Sunday, he looked healthy and ready to roll.
Life without Leigh Bodden began for rookie Devin McCourty and second-year man Darius Butler on Sunday and although Butler was torched by Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco in the second half, including being beaten by two full strides on a picture-perfect third quarter TD pass to the corner of the end zone, he made a couple nice plays (including a diving break-up of a sideline pass in the first quarter) and was able to stay with his guy for most of the first half before the game was in hand. McCourth, in his first NFL game, broke up a deep ball intended for Terrell Owens on the first play of the game and hardly looked back, helping to hold Owens to just 53 yards on seven catches. But the real story of the day (besides “Pro Bowler” Brandon Meriweather being passed on the depth chart by James Sanders) was Patrick Chung. The strong safety from Oregon who as last season’s top draft pick accumulated only 26 tackles all year, had 16 and was positively demonic in doing so. Chung was all over the place, making hits in run support, on mid-range passes and along each sideline. He looked a little but like Rodney Harrison out there and though it’s far, far too soon to make such comparisons, wouldn’t that be a pretty sweet development to watch unfold? Chung was as big a star for the defense as anyone on Sunday.
Special Teams: B+
Never mind Stephen Gostkowski’s mediocre day. Both of his missed field goals were bombs, one of them a 56-yarder. he looked mostly good on kickoffs and will most likely be just fine as the season moves along. Let’s talk about Brandon Tate, the second-year receiver who ran back the second half opening kickoff 97 yards for a TD. It was a short kick by Bengals kicker Mike Nugent and it bounced on or about the 10 and rolled down to the 3 before Tate picked it up. The Bengals kick coverage was a bit fractured thanks to the short kick and bounce leaving Tate a lot of real estate if he could make just one move. He made it. Tate, who also caught four passes for 36 yards, has electrifying speed and, based not just on Sunday’s return but also the 99-yarder he had in a preseason game, excellent instincts. It will be interesting to see what kind of effect Tate has on games as the season goes on if he can stay healthy after missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury.
A fair amount was made over the course of the off-season regarding Belichick’s eschewing of traditional coordinator roles/titles in the wake of Dean Pees, the D-coordinator the past four seasons, leaving as well as no official replacement having yet been made following Josh McDaniels’ departure for Denver following the ‘08 campaign (QB coach Bill O’Brien has been the de facto guy since McDaniels left, kind of the way McDaniels was in ‘05 after Charlie Weis left to run Notre Dame into the ground). Anyway, those who hate have jumped all over Belichick for this, citing his advanced age (did you know coach’s aged 58 or older have never, ever, ever won anything in the NFL???) along with the usual buzzwords like “arrogance “and “ego” as reasons being his own O and D-coordinator will lead the team down the road to ruin (even though he’s not really acting as his own O and D-coordinator, he just hasn’t given anyone else on his staff either of those titles). Well, whatever he’s doing, whatever anyone’s title is, whatever anything, he and his staff ran circles around the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis and company on Sunday. Cincinnati’s offense was completely flummoxed in the first half to the tune of three points to go with three punts and two turnovers before having some success against a prevent-like look when the game was a blowout. And the Bengals defense was steamrolled for 238 total yards and 24 points in the first two quarters. The schemes, the game plan, the personnel packages, the adjustments – they all worked to perfection. Not too shabby for a head coach whose also his own offensive and defensive coordinator, eh?