By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Like sands through the hourglass, these are the Days of Our Patriots Lives. Coming off the disaster that was last weekend in the new Meadowlands, the Pats returned home for a supposed cakewalk against the divisional doormat that hadn’t beaten them in eight years and had never won at Gillette Stadium. Instead, they played out a soap opera of highs and lows, wild emotional swings and near death experiences. OK, it wasn’t that melodramatic, but it was a roller coaster ride that really didn’t teach us anything beyond the fact that the game itself may be be extrapolated out to represent the entire season as a whole. The Patriots have a powerful, diverse, versatile offense capable of scoring a multitude of points in a variety of ways. The Patriots also have a weak, young, inexperienced defense loaded with players who are incapable of consistently doing the most rudimentary of football acts. It was all on display on Sunday, when the Pats, led by a vintage Tom Brady, kept seemingly putting the game out of reach only to have the defense and its band of mediocre, merry men do everything in its power to let the Bills and their previously 32nd-ranked offense post 374 total yards and stay in the game. Luckily, the Bills’ overall mediocrity got the best of them, with two brutal fourth quarter turnovers when the outcome was still in doubt saving the day for the Pats. But going forward, most of the Pats opponents won’t be as prone to beating themselves as the Bills were/are. Still, a win is a win, especially in the division and in the end, that matters a lot more than how the job was eventually done. So with that, let’s get into this week’s report card, which may appear a bit offensive.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: A-
Would have been a straight A if not for Brandon Tate’s terrible, open-field fumble and a late three-and-out that put the defense back on the field in a one possession game. Every lesson that one hoped would be learned from last week in the Jersey swamplands seemed to be just that, with the Pats cheerfully spreading the wealth on offense to the tune of 245 yards passing and 200 yards rushing. Everyone contributed, from Brady and Randy Moss to the two stud rookie tight ends to “who???” new guy Danny Woodhead, doing a solid Kevin Faulk impression. Better still, the Pats didn’t let up after halftime, scoring 21 of their 38 points in the third and fourth quarters. It was the kind of beginning-to-end performance that we’ve been expecting all along, and boy did they need each and every iota of it.
Brady had to have been sickened by his play last week against the Jets, with all the forced deep throws while moving away from keeping the offense balanced and utilizing all of its many weapons. His performance on Sunday couldn’t have been any different or any better. He was 21-of-27 for 252 yards (9.2 yards per attempt) with three TDs, no picks and a whopping passer rating of 142.6. Brady didn’t make a bad throw all game long and even when it looked like he may have made a bad decision, as on his second TD pass to Moss when he rifled the ball 35 yards over the middle into traffic, the throw was so good that it didn’t matter. His first TD pass, which was also to Moss, was textbook play-action, freezing the middle of the Bills defense just long enough to allow Moss to slant in and catch the ball in stride from seven yards out. The last of the three, a five-yarder to tight end Rob Gronkowski, was a perfect fade which followed an expert-like recognition of a mismatch at the line of scrimmage. In addition to making all the throws, Brady managed the clock with ease, moving the offense 42 yards in just three plays and 24 seconds right before the half, then exploding 74 yards in just five plays and less than two minutes to score a TD on the first drive of the second half, then engineering two, clock-eating, 13-play touchdown drives later on in the third and fourth quarters. Brady hadn’t looked himself since the first half of Week 1’s game against the Bengals. He was back with a vengeance on Sunday and not a moment too soon. The Pats needed him to be as close to perfect as can be, and he was.
Running Backs: A-
It’s necessary to mention Fred Taylor’s six carries for just 16 yards before he left with his weekly injury but that’s about all that keeps the backs from posting a perfect score. With the exception of the brittle as ever Taylor, the first week of post-Faulk action was a smashing success., good for 200 yards and 5.3 yards per attempt. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the primary beneficiary, racking up 98 yards on 16 carries (6.1 YPA) and a TD. Law firm, as he’s known to his teammates, was a true bruiser, taking on defenders and looking to hit guys all day and the Bills had no answer for him. Elsewhere, the little engine that could, newcomer Danny Woodhead, achieved folk hero status in just seven snaps. Signed after the Jets waived him prior to last week’s game, Woodhead took Laurence Maroney’s jersey, played the Faulk role a few times and shocked Pats fans everywhere with his gorgeous, 22-yard TD run off a misdirection draw play. My phone buzzed with multiple texts wondering who in the hell this little dude was after that score. He’s a two-time winner of the Harlon Hill trophy winner, given to the best player in Division II college football, that’s who. More Woodhead action!
Wide Receivers: B+
Moss caught two passes for 42 yards. They were both TDs. Can’t put up a much better success rate than that, right? It would have been nice to see him come up with Tate’s fumble, which he got a hand on, but that’s splitting hairs. Great game for him. Wes Welker had a couple of drops, very uncharacteristic of him, but still rolled up 45 yards on four catches while typically converting a couple of big third downs. Tate atoned for not putting the ball away while running in space with an stunning, acrobatic catch that went for 29 yards on the Pats quick, field goal drive at the end of the first half. Despite the supposed strength of the Bills defense being their defensive backs, Pats receivers didn’t have trouble with them at all at any point in the game.
Tight Ends: A
Man, are Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez good. Hernandez sparked up his second straight six-catch game and also rolled for 13 yards on a sick tight end reverse in the first quarter. He was quiet in the second half, likely because the Bills had a linebacker on him in the first half before switching to a safety later on, but he still made his presence felt in a big way for the third week in a row. Gronkowski, who will be known simply as “Gronk” from here on out, had already proven himself as a huge weapon in the red zone before his five-yard TD reception in the third quarter. But he also made a leaping, twisting catch while simultaneously roasting Bills safety Donte Whitner on the Pats second quarter scoring drive that netted 21 yards. Alge Crumpler pitched in yet again with his estimable blocking prowess, which was a big factor in the rushing statistics. Hard to do more than this group did on Sunday.
Offensive Line: A-
Sebastian Vollmer gave up a sack and Dan Koppen got whistled for his semi-regular false start but other than that, how could anyone quibble with these guys? For the third straight week, the O-line ripped off huge chunks of a game completely and totally dominating the line of scrimmage. As well as Green-Ellis, Woodhead and Sammy Morris played, none of them would have gotten anywhere without the O-Line, which opened up huge hole after huge hole all day. Woodhead’s TD run went through a opening about the same size as a four lane highway courtesy of Vollmer and Stephen Neal. Dan Connolly continued his uncanny Logan Mankins impression, easily holding his ground and making a couple of plays in which he pulled to the right look routine. Even when Vollmer was briefly out with a leg injury in the second half, the Pats were still able to run to the right behind Crumpler, who is such a good blocker, he seems like an extra lineman, and backup Mark Levoir. Oh yeah, and the sack was only the second one this group has given up all year. There doesn’t seem to be much these guys can’t do right now. Impressive stuff all around.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: D
The Patriots beat the Bills on Sunday in spite of their defense. Would anyone like to argue? If Bills kicker Rian Lindell doesn’t miss a 51-yard field goal in the third quarter and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t air mail a pass to a wide open receiver in the red zone in the fourth, the Pats probably lose the game. They forced just one Buffalo punt. They allowed 374 total yards against a team that had totaled 352 in its first two games combined, with quarterback Fitzpatrick, whose biggest games came at Harvard Stadium, had a career day (after last week’s Mark Sanchez masterpiece, you’re forgiven if you think this is a recording). Patrick Chung made a couple of nice plays, including the first of the Pats two picks, Ron Brace continued to look like he’s figuring it all out and Jerod Mayo showed a few flashes of his ‘08 Rookie of the Year self but other than that, it was one blown coverage/missed tackle/guy running around in circles like a chicken without a head after another. It’s astonishing that guys like Brandon Meriweather and Jonathan Wilhite, who’ve been here four and three years, respectively, still look so utterly clueless and incapable of even seeming like they know what they’re doing so much of the time. And Darius Butler, who lost his starting job to an undrafted free agent (Kyle Arrington), still managed to look atrocious in getting burned twice, first on a pass play and then on a running play, before mercifully being put out of his misery. Rookies like Devin McCourty, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes, each of whom was made to look foolish on more than one occasion, at least have the excuse that they’re all in their first year to fall back on. The rest of these guys, many of whom I’m very tempted to call scrubs, have no such luxury.
Defensive Line: D
Yes, Brace looked pretty good on his one tackle, splitting a double team to turn a running play into a loss. But what else was there? Nothing. The Bills ran for 134 yards at 5.6 yards a pop after managing 174 combined rushing yards in Weeks 1 and 2 combined. Gerard Warren, who was a factor against the Jets last week, was invisible. Even Big Vince Wilfork, the unquestioned leader both of the D-line and the defense as a whole, pulled a complete no show. The Bills do have three backs all of whom have either put up big numbers in the past or were high draft picks or both. Give them credit for getting their running game on track. But don’t give the Patriots any credit for stopping them at any point.
Props to Mayo for his circa 2008 performance, but let’s not get too crazy about it. Most of his damage was done over the course of two Bills drives in the second quarter; in the second half when the game needed to be salted away, he seemed to be in the parking lot with the rest of the hoity-toity Gillette crowd. Cunningham and Spikes each showed flashes of competence with Cunningham getting to Fitzpatrick just a split second late on one play, but nothing more. And Gary Guyton, by my unofficial count, had just two fewer missed tackles (three) than he did actual tackles (five). Other than Mayo, only Rob Ninkovich seemed to consistently know what he was supposed to be doing. Gone are the days of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest patrolling the middle of the field. Long, long gone.
Defensive Backs: D
I know, there were two picks which together were probably the difference in the game. But that’s why this grade isn’t an F. The Pats are as lucky as it gets that Chung was playing center field and Fitzpatrick overshot his man by 10 feet on the first one. The intended receiver was running alone in the middle of the field inside the 15 with the closest pursuer being poor Ninkovich. There was no one else within 15 yards of him. Just one of about 74 blown coverages. And even though Chung made that pick and also forced the missed field goal by stopping another wide open pass play three yards short of a first down on third and long, he was about five steps too late on helping a roasted Devin McCourty over the top on Fitzpatrick’s late game, 37-yard scoring toss to Steve Johnson. Meriweather’s pick sealed the game (and if you don’t believe it, watch a replay of his ridiculous, look at me celebration dance afterward). But it’s worth noting that the intended receiver was bracketed by two guys while Meriweather stood right behind him and the ball was overthrown (in other words, you could have made the play). It’s also worth noting that on the bubble screen pass to C.J. Spiller that resulted in a second quarter TD, Meriweather, who was in position to make a tackle, ran himself out of the play even though he was unblocked. It’s also worth noting that Wilfork of all people said on the radio yesterday morning something to the effect that Meriweather should be too far along to be making the kind of mistakes he still routinely makes. Kyle Arrington was less woeful than Butler has been which on this defense is high praise (he even broke up a TD pass with nice technique on a fade route throw to Bills veteran Lee Evans). Butler was beaten by five yards by Johnson on one of the handful of snaps he played and overpursued an eventual 19-yard run when all he had to do was stay home and contain, which most defensive players learn in high school if not sooner. If this guy ever had any confidence, I shudder to think where it is now. But my favorite part of the defense’s haplessness came when one the folks I watched the game with exclaimed, “Look at that guy, he’s running in circles!” when Wilhite was seen twisting himself into knots while simultaneously being nowhere near the receiver he was supposed to be covering on a fourth quarter pass play. It’s reached the point with some of these guys that I’m afraid they may be too stupid to get any better. In the case of guys like Meriweather and Wilhite, I got nothing else. Remember, this was Ryan Fitzpatrick going 20-of-28 for 247 yards and two TDs. Phew. Thank god I’m done with this section.
Special Teams: D
The good news is that Stephen Gostkowski finally made a field goal, a 43-yarder that would have been good from 53. The bad news is everything else. Zoltan Mesko, my boy, had an awful day, averaging just 38 yards on three punts and shanking two of them. And the kicking team gave the Pats roughly 17 seconds to celebrate the offense’s quick strike scoring drive to open the second half before allowing Spiller to run back the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a score, a play on which Guyton contributed perhaps the worst of his missed tackles (to be fair, replays showed that the Bills got away with a blocking in the back penalty on the play). With the defense as weak as it is, the last thing the Pats need is for their special teams to hurt them too.
Hard to pinpoint this one. Obviously, Bill Belichick and company realized that the offensive game plan needed to be made more diverse and varied after last week’s disaster and so it was, and then some. And again, there was no let up in the second half; if anything, the Pats looked even more dynamic offensively after the break than before it and they stuck to what was working early on. But there has to be some blame laid on the coaching staff for the hideousness of the defense, right? 82 points allowed in the first three games, the most over that stretch in the 11-year Belichick era, falls at the feet not just of the players but the coaches too, doesn’t it? Maybe things need to be simplified more so that the guys on defense can pick it all up more easily. Maybe they need to blitz more – it looked like the few times they did blitz on Sunday, Fitzpatrick looked rattled and made some bad throws. Who knows? It may just be a case of Belichick the GM failing Belichick the coach, evidenced by the alarmingly high number of draft picks from the past few years playing so poorly so consistently. Whatever is happening on defense, the players cannot be fired. They are pretty much all going to be here, for better or worse. Belichick made his name in the NFL as a defensive genius. If he can figure out how to get something, anything, out of this group, that moniker will certainly be reinforced.