By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
OK class, move along. Nothing to see here. You didn’t actually witness the Patriots getting stomped, whupped, waxed, bombed, crushed, destroyed, clobbered and lambasted every which way by the (gulp) Cleveland Browns on Sunday. As far as we’re concerned here at Patriots Daily University, the game may as well have not even happened. The Pats didn’t really give up 404 yards of offense to a team starting a rookie quarterback named Colt McCoy, who in just his third career game, posted a better quarterback rating (101.6) than Tom Brady (90.5). They didn’t really allow 230 yards rushing, the most they’ve let up in a game since December, 2002. Most of those yards weren’t actually racked up by a former seventh-round pick named Peyton Hillis, a guy who averaged just over a carry per game last season but on Sunday looked like a combination of Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and some super, extra enhanced mutant from “X-Men.” The Browns didn’t really convert more than half of their third downs, outscore the Pats 17-7 in each half and make the Pats coaching staff look like a bunch of Wade Phillips/Brad Childress/Norv Turner wannabes. And the game wasn’t really over in the third quarter. It all didn’t truly happen. OK, I’m lying – it did. And we will analyze it, albeit quickly, as we can already taste the collective chunks beginning to circulate in the old gullet, because that’s our job as professors at this esteemed institute of higher football learning. And then, we will forget this disaster on the shores of Lake Erie even happened and let the Browns, the city of Cleveland and their hope-deprived fans continue to think they just won the Super Bowl and not a midseason game that improved their record to 3-5. And we will sit back and wait for the Pats, surely embarrassed by taking all of last week’s “best team in football” hype a little too seriously, as evidenced by their tidal wave of shitty play on Sunday, get back to basics before invading Pittsburgh for a primetime matchup with the Steelers on Sunday Night Football. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, sponsored by the letters B for Blowout, and S for Suckfest.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: C-
Let’s see here… Another slow start and a handful more throws ranging from inaccurate to head-scratchingly bad for the quarterback? Check. A wildly inconsistent performance in the running game? Check. A complete and total disappearing act on the part of the wide receivers? Check. One of the great rookie tight ends having the worst game of his life? Check. Put all of those check together and you get a pretty lousy grade. Fewer thank 300 total yards? Check. Sure Danny Woodhead and Aaron Hernandez shined once again. But that’s all there was. It was the Pats worst day on offense all year and that includes two weeks ago in San Diego.
On the surface, Brady’s numbers look OK – 19-for-36, 224 yards, two TDs and that 90.5 passer rating. But he was never able to get into a rhythm all day even though for the most part the O-line again gave him ample time to throw. He only led three of nine drives for more than six plays and even though he was victimized by the Browns defense playing the game of its collective life, when he did have open receivers, he wasn’t hitting them the way he needs to or has in the past. More often than not, passes were short, overthrown or at least slightly off the mark. On the Pats first drive of the game, he had Rob Gronkowski open with daylight ahead of him on consecutive plays but threw the ball at Gronk’s shoes on the first one and tried to lead him too far on the second one. The result was the first of five punts and several missed opportunities. It wasn’t a total loss for Brady. His second TD pass, also Hernandez’s second TD reception, was a perfect touch throw to the back corner of the end zone. He hit Wes Welker with a couple of perfectly placed bullets over the middle to convert some big first downs. And if it weren’t for multiple drops (most of them by Gronk and Brandon Tate), those numbers would have been a lot better and the game’s outcome almost certainly would have been different. Regardless, it was not Brady’s best game by a long shot nor was it the first time this season that he’s struggled for a long stretch of play. With the Steelers, Colts and Jets on tap in three of the next four weeks, he’d better get it out of his system.
Running Backs: C
Woodhead’s total brainfart on a second half draw call on which he took off while Brady stood helplessly holding the ball out for no one notwithstanding, he had another solid game. Rudy 2 kept up his good work with another 92 total yards, consistently making guys miss in the open field and looking far tougher on inside runs than anyone his size has any right to look. It’s safe to say that Kevin Faulk, as important a cog in the Pats machine as he’s always been, isn’t nearly as missed as we were all afraid he would be following his Week 2 knee injury and Woodhead, ballad and all, is the key reason why. Elsewhere, it was slim pickins. BenJarvus Green-Ellis followed up his gigantic performance last week against the Vikings with a total el floppo against the Browns. In his defense, the Pats were down 10 points in the first four minutes of the game and trailed handily all which may have meant that any semblance of trying to establish the run went out the window. But unlike last week, he ran without conviction or decisiveness, mustering just 14 yards on nine carries. On one carry in particular, he got into some open space off left tackle and had his choice of hitting the edge and running for daylight outside or cutting it back toward the middle of the field, where there was also a bunch of open space. Instead, he literally ran right into Matt Light’s back while Light was blocking the only Browns defender anywhere near the play. Naturally, he slowed down, Light lost his leverage and Law Firm was dropped for a two-yard gain. If memory serves, it was his last carry of the game.
Wide Receivers: D
Tate took the Law Firm approach, building on his big game against Minnesota with an utter and complete dog of an afternoon. He had two of those costly drops, one of which hit him right between the 1 and the 9 on his jersey and would have gone for a much needed first down. One catch for 12 yards just isn’t gonna cut it, especially with Welker still at less than 100 percent and Deion Branch hobbled with a hamstring injury. More consistency out of Tate would be nice. Speaking of Branch, he’s kind of disappeared since that magical first game back against Baltimore a few weeks ago. Obviously, he’s playing hurt and is to be commended. But whether he can’t get open due to the hamstring or the Pats just aren’t going to him enough, there needs to be more production. Brady had him open on a deep in route in the third quarter and threw the ball 10 feet over his head, which of course isn’t his fault. But Branch has had exactly zero effect on any the past three games, not even matching his reception or yardage total from the Baltimore game in each of them combined. If he’s hurt, sit him out. It’s not doing anyone any good to have him out there and unable to contribute. As for Welker, it has to be hard enough for him to be trying to do the things he’s great at while still coming back to full strength from the knee surgery. When adding in the fact that the Pats can’t get the ball downfield which in turn leads to him being bracketed almost all the time, well, you figure it out. He performed admirably on Sunday, making his four catches and racking up those couple of first downs. But he can’t be expected to do it all even if he’s completely healthy and not being constantly double teamed.
Tight Ends: C-
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Rookies have games like Gronk had on Sunday fairly routinely. He and Hernandez have been so good, such positive forces all year so far, it was easy to forget they’re both just in their first year. But Gronk came crashing back to earth with a game that he probably needs to forget faster than anyone. Starting with the fair catch call on that first quarter kickoff that he then ran away from, continuing to a couple of brutal drops and a horrendous holding penalty that wiped out a third quarter drive at midfield when the Pats were still technically in the game and capped by his fumble at the Cleveland 2, it was a total horror show for the big guy. The fumble, which came on the ninth play of a perfectly executed two-minute drive at the 14:30 mark of the second quarter and with the Pats still in possession of two timeouts, was the play of the game. Gronk was simply trying to make something happen, fighting for the end zone so that his team would head into halftime down by just three points and set to receive the second half kickoff. But he has to know what the situation is there. If it’s fourth down, maybe he fights the way he fought. But it was first down. And the Pats had those 30 seconds and the two time outs. That’s an eternity to punch the ball in. It’s the kind of situational football that Belichick-coached teams play better than anyone. Not on Sunday though. Brady made a point after the game of saying that one play does not a loss make. But that fumble by Gronk was pretty close. He’ll bounce back – he appears to be too talented not to. And he did make a couple of decent plays in the game. But Sunday’s performance should be placed in the trash can, if it hasn’t already. As for Hernandez, it was nice to see him register his first two career TDs and put up his weekly, long seam route catch on which he vaporizes a defender and hauls in a pass right on his hip on the fly. Other than Woodhead, he was the only guy able to spark up the Pats offense. And the only reason this position group doesn’t get an F.
Offensive Line: B
The Pats welcomed back Logan Mankins on Sunday and he looked OK. He started, played the first couple of series, then rotated in and out with Dan Connolly for the remainder of the game (Connolly also spelled Stephen Neal for a stretch here and there). And while the alterations may have adversely affected the running game, they certainly didn’t factor into the pass protection. Brady was sacked just once (by the immortal Ahtyba Rubin) and hit just two other times. Light continued his strong play after hitting rock bottom in San Diego and outside of Neal getting fleeced by Rubin on the sack, there was nothing to complain about in regards to the line in the passing game. Still, the lack of a running game bears watching. The Pats dominated the Vikings defensive front last week and that group is far more heralded than the Browns. Should be interesting to see how the line looks against the Steelers this Sunday night They are first in the league against the run, allowing just 59 yards per game on the ground, or nine fewer than the Pats managed in Cleveland.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: D-
Well, that was quick. Just when it looked like the Pats defense had turned a corner, along came Sunday. Getting gashed for over 400 yards by the Cleveland Browns represents a slight regression, don’t you think? It wasn’t just Hillis rolling for the third most rushing yards allowed by the Pats since the first Super Bowl season (184 on 29 carries with two TDs). It was the inability to stop McCoy, who looked like he was at his alma mater, Texas, carving up Baylor or Colorado or some other Big 12 scrub school. Even when the Browns ran a couple trick plays, which the D had to have been drilled on given their reliance on such gadgets on previous games, the reactions were late and confused looking All that needs to be said to further get this point across is that Jonathan Wilhite was the best player on D for the Pats on Sunday. Consider that for a moment… OK, now we can get on with dredging up the carnage.
Defensive Line: F
The strength of the Pats defense all year was its biggest weakness on Sunday. They just couldn’t handle Hillis at all at any point. This group was completely dominated all day long by the Browns O-line. From the first play of the game, when Hillis exploded through a hole the size of a planet then hurdled a would be tackler downfield like he was Edwin Moses or Carl Lewis, it was an ordeal for these guys. They just had no answer all day long. Both Ron Brace and Gerard Warren had a tackle for a loss but neither of them came on Hillis. The Browns simply wanted it more, worked hard to move Vince Wilfork out the way, which they seemed to do with ease, and subsequently beat the piss out of the Pats front. There really isn’t much more to say than that. If it had been a heavyweight fight, the Pats would have been done by way of the knockout sometime in the first round.
A couple of quotes from Browns players after the game read that the key to their running success and the focal point of their game plan was staying away from Jerod Mayo. They wanted to get Mayo out of position, keep him away from the line of scrimmage and limit his tackles to the downfield variety. Well, it worked. Mayo had 10 tackles but I’m hard pressed to remember any that came within seven yards of the line of scrimmage. He did force a fumble on Hillis, but it came after a 16 yard run and was just like the one Gronk had only it didn’t come at the 2-yard line. And on another play, the Browns even lined Hillis up wide and when Mayo ran over to cover him, Hillis got at least three steps wide open immediately and hauled in a 29-yard pass. Yikes. Mayo may want to join Gronk in putting this one in the old shredder, no? Brandon Spikes made a nice play to seal up the hole on Hillis’ first TD but when Hillis smashed into him, he barely moved while Spikes went flying backwards about five yards. That was the last time Spikes was heard from again all day. The same can be said for Jermaine Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich, neither of whom did anything but get pushed around. And on top of all this, McCoy wasn’t sacked or even hit a single time in the entire game. The domination wasn’t just of the D-line. It was of these guys, too.
Defensive Backs: D+
Let’s hear it for Wilhite! He actually sort of seem to maybe know how to play. Hallelujah! Wilhite broke up a pass, played some good coverage and even made a couple of nice tackles, one of them to stop a drive, kind of a big deal considering the ease with which the Browns converted third downs throughout the game. It’s nice to see the guy have a decent game after how bad he’s been. Way to go, Wilhite! And that’s it. No one else made a single play. Not one. James Sanders, who is the longest tenured veteran of this group and has played well in place of Patrick Chung the past couple weeks, was awful, routinely arriving at plays late and looking more lost than anyone on the Browns tricky, quick snap, end-around TD run by receiver Chansi Stuckey in the second quarter. It was a play on which no one seemed to know what was happening but Sanders, along with Kyle Arrington, looked more lost than anyone. And of course, we would be remiss to not mention our favorite DB, Brandon Meriweather. He did recover the Hillis fumble, to his credit. He also took such a bad angle on Hillis’s first run of the game, a play which he may have been able to slow down if he knew what he was doing, that I thought he was a fan who’d wildly run onto the field. Then, when McCoy rolled out and took off for the end zone on an eventual TD run in the third quarter, he was blown up by Browns receiver Josh Cribbs. It was an enormous hit and in a way, it was a little bit karma-y. Sorry, Brandon – if you’re gonna dish it out, you’d better be ready to take it.
Special Teams: D
No one gets out alive on this report card, class. It all started for the special teams on the first quarter kickoff that was botched by Gronk. Sammy Morris was nearby and maybe he called Gronk off after the fair catch call. We’ll never know. What we do know is that Morris couldn’t handle the ball, the Browns recovered, Hillis scored three plays later and they were off to the races. The Browns wouldn’t kick to Tate at all – every kickoff was short and thus needed to be fielded by an up man (Connolly had two returns for 19 yards) and it was a good strategy that worked in terms of field position. Our boy Zoltan didn’t have such a great day either with his best work coming when he somehow handled yet another ground ball by long snapper Clint Ingram. And Stephen Gostkowski somehow injured his thigh in the first half and will be out a few weeks. The injury allowed Welker to kick a late extra point which was sort of cool, I guess. But it’s a huge blow in the long run to this unit, which has looked average or worse every week since that explosion in Miami a few weeks ago.
Belichick may well have had warned his charges about trick plays and stopping the run and how so many of his former assistants, led by Cleveland head coach Eric Mangini, may feel like they have something to prove and it could show in their preparation. It didn’t take. Mangini, his ex-Pat assistants (O-coordinator Brian Daboll, D-coordinator Rob Ryan, special teams coach Brad Seely) ran circles around Belichick and his crew to embarrassing extremes. The Browns had a perfect game plan in all phases and did whatever they wanted all day long. The Pats had no answers. It was one of the most stunning aspects of the loss, how thoroughly outcoached the Pats were, especially considering how masterfully Belichick had navigated the season up to this point. It was likely more of an aberration than anything else – the fact that Mangini was doused with Gatorade in the late stages proved that it was more than just another regular season game to him, his staff and his team and while that’s no excuse for such an ass whupping, it’s unlikely the Pats will run up against a team treating a game in such a way again. Still, whatever mojo Belichick had working through the season’s first seven games, he had better find it quickly. The Steelers and Colts are a lot better than the Browns.