By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
OK, it may be five days later but really, was anyone even remotely surprised at the outcome of the Patriots Turkey Day visit to the Motor City? There may have been a little bit of worry and stress, a smidgen of hemming and hawing about their prospects during the short week leading up to the Thanksgiving Day game, especially coming off the gigantic win over the Colts last Sunday. And given their sluggish, lethargic first half against the Lions, those worries were certainly justifiable. But, as predictably as the sun rising or sliding into a perpetual, multi-day food coma beginning sometime last Thursday afternoon, the Pats rose to the top and Detroit sunk to the bottom when it mattered most with the culmination of the day’s events being a 45-24 beatdown in which the visiting team used a 35-7 second half run to blow the doors off of Ford Field and run out of there with a 9-2 record, still good for the highest mark in the league. For the most part, it was the Tom Brady show, again, with the Pats QB skying for 341 yards, four TDs and a perfect passer rating. The defense, porous as ever, did it’s usual not-quite-horrid-enough to lose job, providing a couple more smartly timed turnovers after halftime to contribute to what was a close game for 30-plus minutes becoming an absolute laugher in what seemed like about 30-plus seconds. The Pats dodged the trap game bullet they couldn’t avoid a few weeks ago in Cleveland with the win and are now sitting pretty and with a few extra days of rest to boot as they await and prepare for next Monday night’s be all, end all bloodbath with the Jets at Gillette Stadium. So with that, let’s get at some leftovers, Patriots Daily University styles, and bang out this week’s report card.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: A-
Another banner day for the offense though that banner didn’t fully fly until the second half. The energy and urgency didn’t seem to be there in the early going, perhaps due to the short week, perhaps because the Lions came out as if they were collectively shot from a giant cannon, perhaps a combination of the two. Either way, the Pats overcame their sluggishness (particularly the O-line) and the Lions pass rush, rebounded from three punts in their first five possessions and exploded to the tune of five straight TD drives, or a trip into the end zone the final five times they had the ball. They rolled up 284 total yards to go with those five scores and it seemed like everyone got into the act. Wes Welker and Deion Branch each scored two TDs, as did the Law Firm, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The tight end trio of Crumpler, Gronkowski and Hernandez (sounds like a pretty bad ass law firm in it’s own right, eh?) contributed with seven catches and of course, Rudy 2, the incredible Danny Woodhead made a couple more plays, possibly in celebration of his shiny, new contract extension through 2012. Since the Cleveland loss, the Pats have scored 39, 31 and 45 points over three straight wins, and are the highest scoring team in the league at 304 PPG. I’m not a doctor, but that sounds like the offense is doing pretty well.
What more can be said about Brady and his utter and complete greatness? 21-of-27 for those 341 yards. It’s hard to determine what’s more impressive, the fact that he only threw six incompletions (one of which was a perfect strike that bounced off of Brandon Tate’s number and hands) or the fact that her averaged 12.6 yards per pass attempt, an enormous number. And as good as he was, if his line hadn’t been half asleep through the Pats first three possessions, he could have been even better. Devin McCourty’s first interception on the Lions opening drive of the second half got the ball rolling but Brady’s first TD pass gave it speed. On the play, after a play fake to BJGE, Brady looked over the middle where both Branch and Gronkowski were working to get open, didn’t see anything he liked, took a step left and saw Welker, his outlet, standing pretty much alone in the flat. He delivered the ball perfectly and watched his favorite receiver do the rest. It was an outstanding display of awareness and overall control of an offense and it sent the entire offense on its way. Then, less than two minutes after the defense gave the score right back, he saw Branch streaking down the far sideline, eschewed a dump-off to Woodhead that would have likely garnered a first down and went for it all, hitting Branch in stride for a 79-yard score, the Pats longest play of the season. Branch’s subsequent undressing of Detroit corner (and live turkey) Alphonso Smith wound up the story of the play but Brady’s ability to see the play unfold, adjust and throw a perfect deep ball were sights to behold. He would throw two more scoring passes before the end of the day (the next one to Branch may as well have been a teaching diagram on how to run a perfect timing play on a quick in-cut) before hitting the showers and getting himself out of Detroit and into a film room to get started on figuring out how to dissect the Jets in similar fashion to the way he’s dissected the Steelers, Colts and Lions these past three weeks. And oh yeah, did I mention he didn’t practice a single time leading up to the game? Naturally, I’m biased, but anyone who doesn’t think Brady is the MVP of the league this year (66 percent completions, 105.8 passer rating, 23 TDs against four picks with 13 against none in his last six games) isn’t playing attention. Or at least didn’t watch his virtuoso mastery of the game last Thursday.
Running Backs: A-
BJGE is getting better and better every week. He’s running with true purpose, he never dances or stops going forward (he’s the anti-Maroney that way) and lately, he’s been looking to take guys on more and more. On his first TD in Detroit, a 15-yard run, he absorbed the initial hit just inside the 10, bounced away, saw Smith closing in around the five, put his head down and ran him over, then barreled into the end zone. It was power running at it’s finest, something Law Firm seems to be understanding and executing on a weekly basis. He finished with 59 yards on just 12 carries to go with those two scores (his eighth and ninth of the year), pretty much a five-yard average and his third straight game (and fourth in five weeks) in which he’s managed at least 4.5 YPA. All of this, plus his emergence had enabled the Pats to use much more play action in the passing game and Brady was only 8-of-8 for 173 yards and two TDs on such plays in this game. Fred Taylor was actually active for this game, though he didn’t play, but with the way BJGE has played and given the improvement and ongoing understanding he’s shown as the season has worn on, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to have to play him save for a couple of snaps here and there as a possible change of pace, thus eliminating the certainty that he’ll get hurt yet again and miss another two months. As for Benny’s counterpart, Woody, it was a much quieter week on the field than last week against the Colts. The biggest play he made in the game was probably the pass interference call he drew on a big third down in the second quarter that kept a drive alive and eventually led to the first of BJGE’s scoring runs. The Pats didn’t need Rudy 2 to make any plays against the Lions. It’s safe to say that the next time they do, he will.
Wide Receivers: A-
Not quite the easy A it seems it should be thanks to Tate’s hideous drop of that Brady missile in the second quarter. It was the same pattern he ran to perfection in Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago, a deep post, and like in that game, he beat his man rather easily to get open right where he was supposed to. In Pittsburgh, he hauled it in. In Detroit he didn’t, hence the slightly lesser grade. Other than that, it was all sunshine and puppies. Branch and Welker combined for 11 catches, 203 yards and four TDs. It’s hard for a receiving tandem to do much more. Branch provided the highlight of the day on the 79-yarder mostly thanks to the way he abused the turkey Smith after making the grab, cutting, spinning, juking and breaking away from him all the way into the end zone. I got a text from a buddy right after that play that called it, “the most hilarious yards after the catch ever.” I would tend to agree. But in addition to being hilarious, it was also massively important given the timing (coming 1:38 after the Lions had taken a 24-17 lead) and what followed (it amounted to the first of the Pats 28 unanswered points avalanche). On his second score, he quickly lost his man on a fake jab step to the outside before cutting in to grab that perfectly timed Brady pass after which he could have walked in from 22 yards out. He sure fits in with this team well, doesn’t he? It’s been like he never even left after the ‘05 season. As for Welker, we all know what we’ve got in him but he showed us again anyway. On that first score, he dragged a would-be tackler a few yards into the end zone (and if you guessed that would-be tackler was poor Smith, you’re the big winner). And on the second, a classic, quick slip screen on which he followed a crushing block by Julian Edelman to score untouched. It was typical Welker – always in the right place at the right time, tougher than nails and reliable as ever. These two will have a huge challenge in facing the Jets great cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie next week. If anyone can live up to that kind pressure, though, it’s Branch and Welker.
Tight Ends: A
One of the greatest pleasures of this Pats season so far has been the ongoing evolution of the tight ends’ roles. From the veteran Crumpler to the rookies Gronkowski and Hernandez, each has contributed to the offense’s success in a variety of ways, with Thanksgiving the most recent example. Gronk had five catches for 65 yards and grabbed every throw Brady sent his way. Crumpler got the offense going early with a 27-yard catch and run on a quick hitch on the Pats first play from scrimmage, then provided his typical bruising blocking for the rest of the afternoon in helping the Pats to 109 yards rushing. And Hernandez, who has seen a bit of a diminished role of late, still managed to add some of his stuff to the salad, catching a perfectly executed Brady play-action pass on which he smoked the overmatched linebacker who couldn’t stay with him for an 18-yard play. The extra dimension this group adds to the offense has been invaluable all year long. Why should Monday night be any different?
Offensive Line: B
It looked like it may be a long day for these guys in the early going. They were getting flat out beat up in the first quarter and into the second, with the Lions pass rush, led by impressive, monstrous rookie Ndamukong Suh, coming out too fast and agile for the quintet of Light, Mankins, Koppen, Connolly and Vollmer. Suh was moving around all over the Detroit defense and the Pats couldn’t account for him. He only registered one sack, but he got to Brady a couple more times and victimized both Vollmer and Mankins in doing so. But when the O-line woke up, Suh disappeared, mostly thanks to Connolly, who had a big hand in keeping him away from Brady and the backs. Connolly had yet another great game and just keeps on doing that no matter where on the line he’s put. Maybe the Lions got tired after a while; it wouldn’t be surprising given the energy with which they came out. But the Pats dominated the line of scrimmage starting pretty much with the 10-play, 83-yard TD drive in the second quarter that ended in BJGE’s first score. In the second half, as he was carving up the porous Detroit secondary, Brady had all day to throw on play after play after play, thanks partly to the threat of the running game but mostly because the O-line was able to start taking it to their counterparts. It wasn’t a complete performance for this group, as the slow start and a couple of penalties will attest. But it wound up being more than fine.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: C
It’s getting to be somewhat boring, broken recordy, what have you. But the Pats defense is not good. It has certainly showed improvement from earlier in the season, it is opportunistic, and it most definitely won the Colts game in the end last week. But it was weak on Thanksgiving, borderline terrible. The fact that McCourty bailed the entire group out with his two huge INTs warrants mentioning and he, along with Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes and Patrick Chung all look like they have the makings of being very good players down the road. But as a unit, it is not good. The Pats D is last or second to last in the league in total defense, pass defense, red zone efficiency, first downs allowed, third down conversions allowed, fourth down conversions allowed and sacks and had problems in all of those areas against the Lions. In the first half, they allowed Shaun Hill, who is not even in the same universe as a guy like Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, to complete 15-of-22 passes, post a 98 passer rating, convert seven of eight third downs and make 15 first downs. Detroit ran 56 plays in the first three quarters (the Pats ran 53 in the whole game). That’s horrendous. Obviously, the D was better in the second half, with McCourty’s picks among the plays of the game. And once the offense seized the momentum, Detroit was forced to play catch-up, a scenario that would play into any defense’s hands when the team that has to do the catching up is as inexperienced and ill-equipped to do so as the Lions are. I’m sorry to have to do a little raining on the parade, dear readers. I know the Pats are 9-2 and I truly believe they are not only the best team in the league but can possibly even win the Super Bowl. Still, if this defense doesn’t get better soon, such a scenario will be made even more difficult. The turnovers are great, they really are. But everything else kind of sucks, even in the aftermath of a great win.
Defensive Line: C-
Another solid game from Vince Wilfork aside, this group struggled. The Lions ran for 127 yards as a team, led by a backup named Maurice Morris, who gashed them for 55 yards and two TDs on just nine rushes. Given how much trouble the Pats have defending the pass, particularly in the middle of the field, when they can’t stop the run either, it’s a potential recipe for disaster. No one except Wilfork from this group made any plays of note all day long. Luckily in the end, it didn’t matter.
I’m going to make this week’s diatribe regarding Gary Guyton as brief as possible since I’m getting tired of picking on him. He is awful. He can’t cover anyone, is always at least a step behind every play run in his direction and doesn’t seem to have any consistent awareness of where he is on the field. Given that he’s the Pats middle linebacker on passing plays, these factors are, shall we say, alarming? Every time an opposing receiver catches a ball in that constantly wide open, 10-30 yard swath of open space in the middle of the field, the chances are better than good that when you watch the replay, you will see Guyton chasing him. He makes the occasional play, but I’m beginning to believe it’s just by virtue of the amount of time he’s on the field given how often teams throw on the Pats, and it’s just the law of averages kicking in. OK, that’s it for this week’s Guyton bashing – apologies to his fans. Jerod Mayo wound up with his typical double digit tackle game but seemed slow and out of sorts for the most part. Cunningham and Spikes each had a couple of moments, particularly Spikes, who nicely broke up a pass at one point. Maybe he should see more time in the middle on passing downs, though his lack of speed might hurt him there. And no-name Dane Fletcher showed up to play, as did Pierre Woods, who got a few reps late in his first game back from landscaping at his alma mater and posted a garbage time sack. The Pats have got to get more out of this group than they did on Thanksgiving, a lot more. Especially on Monday night.
Defensive Backs: B-
Bless you, Devin McCourty. For I have no idea where this defense would be without you. Maybe face down in a gutter somewhere. McCourty set the winning events of the second half in motion with his first INT, jamming up Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson, aka Megatron, staying with him stride for stride, getting in front of him late in his route and making a leaping, acrobatic catch. It turned the game around, not just because it gave the Pats great field position that led to a score but because it somehow sparked the whole defense to stiffen up just enough to make the Lions offense, which was a juggernaut up to that point, slow down. McCourty is going to be a big star if he continues to develop at this pace – he’s already the best Pats corner since Ty Law, (and yes, that includes Asante Samuel). It’s impossible to overstate how important he has been and is to this team. Elsewhere, it was pretty slim pickins. Chung had a decent game but was unable to make a play on the Lions third quarter TD that gave them their last lead of the day. And Brandon Meriweather, who broke up a couple of passes, wasn’t that bad, which for him should be a moral victory. Only Kyle Arrington was really lousy, getting beaten badly on a Johnson TD catch as well as a couple of other throws. But he’s been so unexpectedly not that bad all season since replacing Darius Butler that he gets a pass for one shitty game. There’s a great deal of talent in this secondary, particularly in McCourty. It would do the Pats a world of good if it could all jell more a lot sooner than later.
Special Teams: C
An average grade for a pretty average performance. Save for a sweet, early punt return by Edelman that went for 28 yards, there wasn’t too much to praise. Tate, who has seemingly fallen off the map on kick returns since his highs of the first month of the season, managed an underwhelming 17.3 yards per return. Conversely, the Pats allowed Detroit 27.6 per runback. Shayne Graham made a 19-yard field goal, all of his six extra points and still can’t kick the ball off past the 10. And Zoltan, our boy, punted for a 51.3 yard average. Ho-hum.
Given how little time Bill Belichick and his staff had to prepare the team for this game, especially after all of the hard work that went into the Colts win, the end result on Thanksgiving had to be more than satisfying. The play-calling on offense was terrific, seamlessly mixing runs, passes, play action, empty backfields, power sets and shotgun. Hopefully, de facto offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien got a game ball because the offense made excellent use of all its weapons for almost the entirety of the game. Defensively, the game plan was typically conservative but given how hard it’s been for that group to get off the field all year, taking a lot of chances and gambling more may not be the best idea at this point in time. Belichick and his coaches have taken several big tests this year, the most recent being two weeks ago in Pittsburgh and last week against Indy, and passed most of them with flying colors. Their biggest one yet lies ahead of them, six days from now. It says here that they’re up to that one, too.