By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Man, does it smell something nasty in here. I can barely type without having to stop and hold my nose for fear of suffocating. That’s the lasting impression from the Pats fasten-your-seatbelts, 23-20 win over the Chargers on Sunday in San Diego. It’s pretty rare to see a team try as hard to give away a game as the Chargers did and even rarer to see the other team seem as unwilling to accept the gift as the Pats were. Four first half turnovers by San Diego should have equaled at least 21 Pats points; instead those miscues turned into just 10. The Pats kept getting the ball given back to them again and again, yet only managed to chalk up 38 total yards in the first half, good for just 1.2 yards per play and their fewest amount in a half since 2003. There was one total yard in the second quarter. But there the Pats were, up 10 at the break, 17 after three quarters and three when it mattered most, at the final gun, following the cherry on top of the San Diego suckberry sundae, a false start penalty that turned a potential 45-yard, game-tying field goal attempt into a 50-yard try. Naturally for the woeful Chargers, the kick drifted just right and hit the post, allowing the Pats to escape and laugh their way all the way back to the east coast. There were a multitude of issues for the visitors, from a miserable day for the offense (179 total yards) to some lousy coaching (running the same play already called twice in similar situations into a stacked defensive front on fourth-and-1 with the game on the line) to a few inexplicable moments on special teams. But a win is a win and you are what your record says and for the Pats, that’s 5-1, tied for not just the AFC East lead but the best record in the NFL. They’ll surely take it and as smelly as it is, so should we. So with that, let’s spray some Febreze all over the place and wade into this week’s report card.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: D+
Let’s see if the following information breaks it down fundamentally enough: In the first half, the Pats had the ball seven times. Those seven drives lasted four, three, four, three, four, three and eight plays, with the eight-play drive totalling six yards. Only their second half opening march, which lasted 17 plays, traveled 79 yards, took 8:35 off the clock and ended in a one-yard TD run by BenJarvis Green-Ellis, and the next possession, a nine-play, 59-yard move that netted them Stephen Gostkowski’s third field goal of the day (which turned out to be the game-winning points) saved the offense from a straight F, a point I doubt would be argued by many. When Tom Brady was asked to discuss the team’s offense in his postgame press conference, he responded with a question of his own, “What offense?” Good answer, Tom.
Maybe it was a bit of a letdown from last week’s big win over the Ravens. Maybe he’s still getting used to the offense without Randy Moss. Maybe, as with his increasingly bizarre looking haircut, Gisele was the reason. Regardless, Brady was bad on Sunday, as bad as he’s been all year, give or take the second half of the Jets game in Week 2. He finished the day a pedestrian 19-of-32 for 159 yards (a rather unattractive 5 yards per attempt) and a score, good for a ho-hum 82.7 passer rating. But the first half was so dreadful it must be rehashed, if only briefly. He was 6-for-16 for 35 yards. The Pats failed to convert a single third down in six tries. Decisions were questionable, throws ranged from flat, to wobbly to air mailed and even the TD pass, a perfectly executed play fake at the 1, required a twisting, acrobatic grab by Rob Gronkowski as the ball was off target and slightly overthrown. Brady was done no favors by his offensive line (more on them later) and the San Diego defense certainly came to play, confounding the Pats all day at nearly every turn. Like in the Baltimore game, the offense improved as the game wore on, with Deion Branch, Danny Woodhead and Wes Welker not doing anything impactful until after halftime. Brady did complete 10 straight passes at one point in the second half and led two massively important scoring marches when it mattered most. In the end, his direction of those two drives, which resulted in 10 points, was the difference in the game. Still, Sunday marked his second consecutive mediocre first half in a row. If that keeps happening and occurs against a competent team, something the Chargers most decidedly are not, there may be reason to worry.
Running Backs: C
No dice for the future Hall of Fame tandem of Green-Ellis and Woodhead this week. The good feelings engendered by the Pats running game the past three weeks disappeared with the rest of the offense on Sunday, marked by a dismal stat line of 22 rushes for 51 yards (2.3 YPA). Yes, the Law Firm scored from a yard out to cap that stellar third quarter drive and converted important one fourth-and-1 (though not the REALLY important one). But he looked shaky for the second straight week, especially on the late game fourth-and-1, on which he failed to see a small hole that opened up just next to the left guard and would have been reachable with a small cutback (though in his defense, the play call – not the decision to go for the first down – was borderline horrendous). If Fred Taylor ever gets over the toe injury that’s now robbed him of three and half games and can play a half of football without being forced to miss another two months, it will be interesting to see how the carries get divvied up. Obviously, Taylor can’t be counted on to carry anything near a full load but BJGE has tailed off since his huge Week 3 performance against Buffalo. As for Rudy 2, he may have added a couple of phrases to his ongoing ballad with a couple of big plays in the second half, the biggest a 16-yard catch and run for 16 yards on a second-and 17 from deep in Charger territory to set up a first-and-goal and BJGE’s eventual scoring plunge. But like everyone else on offense, his stats were modest at best – eight carries for 24 yards, three catches for 28 yards. The Pats running backs have acquitted themselves quite well in the absence of Taylor and Kevin Faulk. Hopefully, Sunday was just a blip on the radar.
Wide Receivers: C
The first reception of the game by a Pats wideout came at the 4:50 mark of the second quarter when Brady hit Welker for a three yard gain. Welker would later catch a 12 yard pass with just over a minute left in the half and that was it for the first half. He finished with four catches for 25 yards and Branch, who was targeted by Brady eight times, added four grabs for 39 yards, with a couple of those catches crucial to the two second half scoring drives. But that’s about it. Whether the Nos. 1 and 2 just couldn’t get open or if their lack of production stemmed from Brady running for his life most of the afternoon they were mostly non-factors in the game, neither really here nor really there. The real disappointment here, though, is Brandon Tate, who was thought to be ready to break out following the Moss trade but has one catch for three yards in the two games since. Brady may not be looking for him too much given Welker’s dependability and Branch’s bond with the QB. But it would really be nice to see a guy with the gifts Tate has do something, anything. Right now, thanks to his great productivity on kick returns and his invisibility on offense, he reminds me a lot of old friend Bethel Johnson. And we know how that turned out.
Tight Ends: B
The biggest strength of the Pats offense that doesn’t wear No. 12 showed well again on Sunday, about the only group that can make such a claim. ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss points out that the Pats utilized two or more tight ends on 48 of 61 offensive snaps and once again, Aaron Hernandez was a focal point. Even though he looked to be in a slight haze on a third quarter offensive pass interference penalty, he didn’t let his next opportunity go up in smoke. He found a seam in the middle of the Chargers defense and pulled in a 22-yard strike from Brady on the fourth quarter field goal drive, burning the linebacker assigned to cover him on the play with relative ease. Overall, he was the Pats top pass catcher again with five catches for 54 yards. Through his first six games in the NFL, he hardly looks burnt out, not in the slightest. Gronk, of course, caught that goal line pass for a TD and added another reception later on. He may only have nine catches all year but a third of them are for scores. Can’t argue with that. Not that any of you would argue with Gronk about anything, would you? I mean, look at him.
Offensive Line: F
What the hell is going on with Matt Light? Anyone have any ideas? I don’t. After a subpar game against Baltimore, Light was atrocious on Sunday, getting routinely spun around and tied into knots by someone who plays for the Chargers named Antwan Barnes. I’d never heard of him and apparently, neither had Light because the Pats left tackle had no idea how to stop him. Brady was sacked three times in the first half, four times overall and while not all of them were by Barnes (just two, and he drilled Brady a couple of other times for good measure) it spoke volumes that in the second half, left guard Dan Connolly, who for my money has been the Pats best O-lineman this season, was benched in favor of Ryan Wendell, seemingly to shore up the fact that most of the pressure from San Diego’s pass rush was coming from the left side and there really isn’t anyone who can fill in for Light. He really looked like he had no chance on several plays, even getting himself penalized for illegal hands to the face, likely a penalty borne out of frustration. Dan Koppen and Sebastian Vollmer gave up sacks as well and the line was never really able to make any room for a consistent set of running plays. There were multiple occasions in which a tight end, be it Hernandez, Gronk or Alge Crumpler were inserted on to the left side of the line to help out, including on the fateful, late game, fourth down failure – that’s how bad it was on that side of the line. Connolly did do his job well as the fullback while lead blocking for BJGE on the third quarter TD but it was strange to see him removed from the game in the second half especially considering his stellar season to this point. Still, the most alarming O-line factoid of all has to be the performance of Light the past two weeks. He looked to be slowing down somewhat last season and now has submitted a couple of weak showings two weeks in a row. Here’s hoping he figures it out. The line, which has allowed Brady to be sacked 10 times in the last three games after letting up just two in the first three games, really needs him.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: C+
I suppose this is a compliment, but the defense didn’t look nearly as hideous as it has in almost every previous week until late in the third quarter and throughout the fourth. In fact, they looked pretty good to that point, stifling any run game the Chargers tried to get going and holding their own against a star QB like Philip Rivers. Much of the reasons for the drop off later in the game is certainly on Bill Belichick and his defensive staff, who for whatever reason put the Pats into a straight prevent look following the 17-play TD drive. The idea of the move is to not give up the big play and San Diego came into the game leading the league in plays for 20+ yards. I suppose that makes the decision somewhat defensible. But the Pats have enough trouble making plays in their base defense. Why subject them to allowing huge, giant, enormous swaths of turf to be open in the middle of the field? Seriously, any play run by the Chargers while the Pats were in this ultra conservative formation that happened between the numbers and spanned from five yards beyond the line of scrimmage to 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage was totally, utterly and completely wide open and San Diego took advantage. The Chargers got back into the game and had a chance to tie in the end not because of the fourth-and-1 call, not because of their successful onside kick in the fourth quarter and not because the Pats offense sucked for most of the day. They did it because that’s what the Pats defense allowed them. It doesn’t help that guys like Gary Guyton, who was staggeringly bad down the stretch, is a part of this defensive package, or that the Pats were thin at safety following the first half injury suffered by Patrick Chung. But until the fourth quarter, the Pats D had held the league’s No. 1 ranked offense (proof that those kinds of stats aren’t always that important, what with the Chargers now 2-5 and all) to three points and forced four turnovers. When they shifted what they’d been doing all game long, they were shredded, almost to the point of blowing the game. Sure guys could have made more plays, but that’s the case in every game. I hope these guys remember that when they get their final GPAs for the year.
Defensive Line: B-
Once again, the D-line held its own and then some. How else to explain the Chargers managing just 38 yards rushing on 19 attempts? Vince Wilfork (or again, as Jim Nantz continually calls him, Wilferk) started at the left end again and although he registered just one official tackle, he effectively eliminated the Chargers ability to run to their right. Frequently taking up multiple blockers on running plays, Wilfork’s massive presence allowed Jerod Mayo to come in and make a multitude of stops, as well as giving more opportunities to fellow linemen Myron Pryor (three tackles), rookie Brandon Deaderick (two tackles, one for a loss, a sack and another shot at Rivers) and Mike Wright (the same line as Deaderick). This group also put pressure on Rivers throughout the first three quarters, not allowing him the time to wait for his receivers to get open down the field which in turn helped the secondary have its best collective game of the season (at least until the fourth quarter). About the only disappointment was the inactive status of Ron Brace, the second rounder from last season who seemed to have figured it out earlier in the year but has since lost his job to Deaderick (a seventh-round pick). When veteran defensive end Ty Warren went down for the season during training camp it seemed that the D-line would be a potential weak spot. But their collective performance all season has ranged from solid to excellent and Sunday was no exception.
Don’t blame Mayo. No, it wasn’t his best game and yes, he was out there for the fourth quarter carnage. But he excelled in the stuffing of the Chargers run game, recovered the first of the three Chargers fumbles and produced another 10 solo tackles, nothing to sneeze at. On the opposite side of the coin stands Guyton, who has but one role on this defense and that’s to cover, spy and make plays in obvious passing situations. And although he had eight tackles including one for a loss, he was scorched time after time after time by multiple San Diego pass catchers in the fourth quarter. Whether he was waving at tight end Antonio Gates while getting beat by three strides on the Chargers first TD or having running back Darren Sproles pinned near the sideline for a loss only to be faked out of his jock as Sproles turned the play into a nine-yard gain, Guyton was fleeced enough times to make even the most casual of observers notice. Rookie Dane Fletcher saw a good deal of time again and fared well for the second straight week, coming up with four tackles and along with Kyle Arriington, forcing the the first Chargers fumble. Rob Ninkovich had what is now become his customary solid game, running back the third Chargers fumble 63 yards to the San Diego 8. The two Florida rookies, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes, didn’t do much and neither did forgotten man Tully Banta-Cain. The linebacking corps started out well and played consistently enough until they were put in a no-win situation thanks to the fourth quarter alignment shift. Still, it would have been nice to see one of them make a play during that stretch, especially Guyton.
Defensive Backs: C+
Yeah, it’s true – these guys were better than average on Sunday! Will wonders never cease? Big props to rookie Devin McCourty who had his best day as a pro, the highlight of which was a leaping, super athletic interception of a deep sideline pass by Rivers. McCourty covered the play to perfection, showed outstanding technique and timed his leap just right to make the play. He’s struggled from time to time this year, sometimes a great deal. But he’s shown flashes of brilliance and looks like if he stays on the right course and doesn’t regress, he could be really, really good. Arrington also played well with his forced fumble and six tackles and at safety, veteran James Sanders led the way with a sack and fumble recovery as well as a pretty pass break up. Patrick Chung left with a knee injury in the second quarter but still managed to make his weekly impact with a big tackle for negative yards on a first quarter running play. The injury appears to not be terribly serious though if it is, the Pats certainly have themselves a player in backup Sergio Brown. Promoted from the practice squad on Saturday to fill in for the injured Jarrad Page, Brown not only was big on special teams, he made four tackles on defense, none bigger than his huge, open-field stop of Gates two yards shy of a first down on third-and-10 in the final minute, a play that forced the Chargers into their ill-fated, last second field goal attempt. sooner than they would have liked. And of course, we’d be remiss to not discuss Brandon Meriweather, who earned praise from all corners, including the NFL head office, for learning from his spearing of Baltimore’s Todd Heap last week and subsequently laying out Chargers receiver Patrick Crayton with a perfectly executed shoulder to shoulder smash in the first quarter. It wasn’t nearly as impressive to see Meriweather stand and salute the crowd immediately following the play even though he’d given up a first down but hey, baby steps. Again, this group gets a lower grade than it might have thanks to the ease with which the Chargers carved it up late. But they still have to be commended for continuing to improve every week.
Special Teams: C
One of the Pats biggest strengths throughout the first six weeks of the season turned into one of their biggest weaknesses on Sunday. Four penalties, a litany of bad snaps on punts and worst of all, not being prepared for the Chargers fourth quarter onside kick all combined to make Sunday the worst of the year for these guys. Like the defense, the special teamers were done no favors on that onside kick by the coaching staff, at least as far as we know. Maybe their coordinator Scott O’Brien or Belichick did tell them to be ready even though there were still over seven minutes left on the clock and the Chargers still trailed by 10. Yet upon examining the actions of those on the field as Chargers kicker Kris Brown approached the ball (pretty much in full retreat mode across the board), that seems highly unlikely. Maybe the Pats thought that since the Chargers had already tried it once in the first quarter and failed, there was no way they’d dare try it again. Whatever the reason, they should have at least been prepared for the possibility it was coming. They weren’t, and it cost them. Stephen Gotskowski’s 3-for-3 performance on field goals and our man Zoltan’s handling of all those bad snaps from long snapper Jake Ingram prop this grade up as does Julian Edelman’s sick punt return in the third quarter that looked like it would lose yards but wound up gaining 34. Given how well this phase of the game has gone for the Pats all year up to this week, it’s safe to assume Sunday was just one of those days.
Not remotely Belichick’s best day and I write that without even considering the fourth-and-1 decision in the fourth quarter. Going for it there was the right call; the object of the game is to win, and you have to play that way. When you start playing not to lose, which punting at that point would have signified, you become Chargers coach Norv Turner. Belichick believed his team could gain a yard, as well he should. If they do it, the game is over and they win. So what if not converting gives the Chargers a short field on which to try tying the game? Needing just a yard makes it worth the risk. The problem was the play call. Everyone in the stadium knew the Pats would be running a power set off-tackle to the left. They’d already done it twice in the game with just a yard to gain for either a first down or touchdown. I guess you could argue if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if Green-Ellis cuts the ball back as he approaches the line of scrimmage, there’s no discussion. But why not sneak the ball there? Brady is 6-5. He takes the snap, the interior of his line pushes forward and all he does is take a couple steps then fall forward, arms slightly extended. Seems to have a much lesser degree of difficulty. It’s also a play the Pats run frequently and almost always seems to work. Good decision to go for it there, bad decision on how to do it. Again, the special teams problems, particularly the failure on that onside kick, fall at the feet of O’Brien and Belichick. And the shift in the defensive look with a 17-point lead must be mentioned again, especially considering the fact that it not only got the Chargers right back in the game but in position to tie. Belichick has worked wonders this season in getting a team with as much youth and inexperience, especially on defense, to win five of its first six games. He has avoided the Randy Moss trade coming back to bite him thus far and has managed to succeed with a running game that features two undrafted free agents. His team had no turnovers on Sunday while the other one had four and the Pats are tied for fifth in the league in turnover differential at +6. That’s all coaching. He’s still as good as it gets. Just not on Sunday.