By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
In his postgame press conference following the Patriots season-opening, 38-24 win over the Miami Dolphins on Monday night, coach Bill Belichick said, “That was no Rembrandt performance, but fortunately it was good enough.” You may be thinking that’s some pretty tough love, eh? 622 total yards on offense sure looks pretty nice. But of course, there are more aspects to a football game than just when your team has the ball and the Pats, for all of their firepower on offense, didn’t look a lot different on D against Miami than they have the past couple of years. This team has made a habit out of bending but not breaking on the defensive side of the ball for a good long stretch and that’s just what happened on Monday night. If it weren’t for Tom Brady’s record-setting performance in the passing game, the Pats might still be answering questions regarding how and why they continually make mediocre, stiff quarterbacks (in this case, Miami’s Chad Henne) look like some sort of freakish hybrid of Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas and Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. A lot has been made about the imports the Pats have made on defense this season and all of those new faces (Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter, Mark Anderson) were on display against the Dolphins. But even with the revamped front getting more pressure on an opposing QB than we’ve seen in some time around these parts, the linebacking corps was still inconsistent, the secondary play was still weak and the ability to make a play, big or otherwise, was still missing. The Pats offense, other than a few silly penalties, is already in mid-season form. It’s their defense that still remains a problem. So with that, let’s get to the inaugural report card of the 2011 season, Monday Night Football styles.
Move along folks, nothing to see here. Just Tom Brady, subject of multiple articles by multiple notorious Boston sports media party poopers as being borderline washed up (on the heels of a 36 TD, four INT, unanimous MVP season, by the way), setting multiple passing records while taking a metaphorical blowtorch to a Dolphins defense that I keep reading is “top-flight” and “vastly underrated” (so top-flight and vastly underrated, I might add, that Miami hasn’t made the playoffs in three years and won one game at home last season). Brady was only 32-of-48 f0r 517 yards and four TDs. Sure, he threw a deflected INT that was his first in 358 regular season pass attempts. But he also completed his 3000th career pass, entered the top 10 in league history in career TD passes, blew away the previous franchise record for passing yards in a game (426, Drew Bledsoe) and passed for the fifth most yards in a single game in NFL history. He shredded the Dolphins all night, easily commanding a fast, no-huddle attack that gassed the Miami defense all night long. He made every throw, the coup-de-grace being his perfect dart from his own end zone the dropped right into Wes Welker’s bread basket over the top of a chasing Dolphins defender and wound up tied for the longest play from scrimmage in league history 99 yards later. Brady may be close to being done according to some doomsday prognosticators. But if his performance on Monday night is an indication of that, I’ll take borderline washed up every weekend. He’s still the best there is.
Running Backs: A
It was so easy for Brady and the Pats to throw on the Miami D that running the ball Monday night was almost an afterthought. But since the Pats offense is awesome, they ran it more than effectively anyway. The Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis only carried the ball seven times but he did so at five yards a clip and continued to be nails on the goal line, scoring from a yard out for his 14th TD in his last 17 games. And the little engine that could, Danny Woodhead, added still more verses to his unending ballad with 69 tough yards on 14 carries, mostly racked up on draws and traps out of passing formations. Overall, the Pats rushed 22 times for 106 yards, a tidy 4.8 yards per attempt. The running game was a perfect complement to the passing game on Monday night while also looking strong enough to be relied upon down the road when it’s not as easy for Brady to sling the ball up and down the field as it was against the Dolphins.
Wide Receivers: A-
Why no A? Because Chad Ochocinco still doesn’t get it. But we’ll get to him. First, let’s focus on Welker and Deion Branch, the rocks of this receiving corps. The two combined on 15 catches for 253 yards and two TDs (both to Welker). All of the preseason hemming and hawing about Branch not having any catches in exhibition games has to have been forgotten after Monday, a night on which he made catch after catch after catch; at one point it looked like Brady was throwing to him on every play. It’s safe to say that if anything was ailing him in the preseason, it’s gone by the wayside. And Welker, the absolute man, continues to amaze. One of his TDs was a perfectly quick out on which he took a couple quick steps, threw a jerk move on his man and turned left at the goal line to find Brady’s pass sitting right between the numbers 8 and 3 on his jersey. The other was the 99-yarder, on which he proved capable of being a deep threat, streaking up the seam and past his man, hauling in the throw, shedding a weak attempt at a tackle and taking off to paydirt. It’s been said that there’s too much overlap between Branch and Welker in terms of skill sets and in last year’s playoff loss to the Jets, that may well have been the case. But both are so dependable, so sure-handed and so well-versed in not just the offense but what makes Brady tick, it’s a delight to watch As for Ochocinco, he played just 18 snaps, caught one pass (though it was a very nice grab) and had a brutal, illegal formation penalty that cost the Pats a big gain. It’s safe to assume that this guy will figure it out before too much longer; he’s too talented and experienced not to. But watching him first in the preseason and again Monday night is tough. Bonus points to special teams ace Matthew Slater for his first career catch, a perfectly executed, first quarter deep-in on which he dove to haul in a perfectly tossed bomb by Brady for a 46-yard pickup. He narrowly missed another deep ball in the second half, but that’s OK. It’s nice to know he can be used as a spot threat now that Brandon Tate is gone and Taylor Price can’t get on the field.
Tight Ends: A+
80 offensive snaps. 51 with both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on the field. 75 total for Gronk, 66 total for A-Herb. Think the Pats still absolutely love what they have in these two beasts? I’d say yep, they sure as shit do. What a nightmare these two are for opposing pass defenses. They combined for 189 yards on 13 catches and two scores and looked like wide receivers in doing so. If they’re heads are in the game and Brady is finding them, how can they be covered? Jon Gruden, who called the game for ESPN, sounded like he was going to pass out a couple of times when discussing how great both Gronk and A-Herb were on Monday night. A-Herb, who hilariously mocked making it rain after his third quarter TD, smoked the Dolphins, lighting up a defender who drilled him over the middle then collapsed as the Former Florida standout bounced away and kept going, and earlier, burning excellent coverage with a leaping, outstretched grab on a sideline route. And Gronk, as he did throughout last season, created matchup havoc over the middle, in the red zone and from the slot all night. Even Gronk’s brother, the recently signed Dan Gronkowski (Gronk 2!) got into the act, playing 21 snaps (or, three more than Ochocinco) despite being signed off the street five minutes ago. The tight end talent is so vast on this team, it’s no wonder the position has taken on such a major role in the offense. They just keep humming right along.
Offensive Line: A
So Dan Koppen gets his ankle broke in particularly gruesome fashion. The Pats, already thin up front thanks to injuries to Sebastian Vollmer and Ryan Wendell, slide Dan Connolly to center and give newly acquired veteran Brian Waters more snaps. Does the offense miss a beat? Nope. Brady was sacked once and hit twice. Not too shabby. Rookie Nate Solder, filling in for Vollmer on the right side, was as enormous as he looks, shutting down Miami pass rushing specialist Cameron Wake (Wake had the sack, but it was of the coverage variety; Solder held him up perfectly on the play before the play broke down). Waters was solid in his Pats debut, stalwarts Matt Light and Logan Mankins, with the exception of one holding call on Light, were their usual, powerful selves. And Connolly shined in Koppen’s absence, not disrupting a thing in the offense’s rhythm. There are still depth issues here; it doesn’t look like Koppen will go on injured reserve but if Connolly is going to play center, the Pats still need help at guard even after Wendell gets healthy. But on Monday, any questions regarding this group were answered and answered resoundingly.
Defensive Line: B
Here’s where the Pats shined brightest on D. Four sacks, all by D-linemen (one for Carter, one for Mike Wright, one for Anderson and a split for Myron Pryor and Vince Wilfork). Stout play in the red zone, particularly inside the five, with two goal line stands (one leading to the 99-yard TD from Brady to Welker) highlighted. Seven of the unit’s 10 hits on Henne were by members of this group. And Haynesworth, who was spotted frequently and only played 32 of 76 total snaps, had one monstrous play on which he shed a double team and clotheslined a full speed ahead Reggie Bush with a certain amount of panache, while also drawing two holds from his counterpart on the Dolphins O-Line, Richie Incognito. There was pressure on Henne for most of the night – he was able to navigate it and find holes in the Pats porous secondary more often than one might have imagined he’s capable of, but that’s not on this group. It will be fun to see the cohesion continue to develop among these guys, as well watch the rotations throughout the year (Pryor, Wright, Anderson and Kyle Love all saw significant time despite not starting). Definitely a good start for the new look defensive line.
Here’s where things start to get a little dicey. Rob Ninkovich played very well. Dane Fletcher, broken hand and all, made a few things happen both against the run and in pass rushing situations. And that’s about it. Gary Guyton, pressed into every down action thanks to Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham being inactive with injuries, proved for at least the 322nd time in the last three years that he is not, nor will ever be, an every down player. He has no chance against the run, particularly when the surge is coming right at him, and although he is pretty good in coverage/passing situations, he was beaten time and again by Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano on Monday (a couple of his arms flailing, no clue where the ball is chasedowns may have been a tribute to former teammate Darius Butler). And Jerod Mayo did not have his best night as a pro. There were missed tackles, there were wildly swings and misses on a couple of open field opportunities, there were stretches of complete invisibility. Mayo is a very good, very tough, very talented player and his locker room presence and leadership ability have made him a shoo-in for a nice contract extension. But it seems odd that he’s still having games like Monday night now into his fourth year. No one is expecting him to be Ray Lewis but a player of his supposed caliber should not have as many no-shows as he’s had over the past two-plus years, even if that number isn’t too terribly high. In anticipation of seeing what the defense would look like on Monday after all the changes since the lockout ended, watching Mayo was high on the list. It’s safe to say he disappointed.
Defensive Backs: C-
So here we are again, ripping the secondary. It felt like this wouldn’t be as regular an occurrence as the past two seasons, especially now that Butler and the awful Brandon Meriweather are gone. But even without those two around, this group managed to mostly stink up the joint, with most of the stinking coming from a strange place. Before we go any further, it’s important to point out that a) Miami was just 2-of-14 on third down, b) 211 of their 488 total yards came on their final three possessions and were down by three TDs, c) as good as Henne’s numbers were (30-of-49, 416 yards, two TDs), there were multiple sensational catches made by Miami receivers (one each by Fasano and Brandon Marshall instantly come to mind), and d) part of the reason Henne ran for 59 yards and was the Dolphins leading rusher was due to good coverage downfield that prompted him to tuck the ball away and take off. That being said, it was not a good night for newly minted captain Devin McCourty. Subtract one excellent pass breakup in the end zone on a quick throw to Marshall and he had one of his worst nights as a Patriot. Marshall, who was McCourty’s primary responsibility, caught seven passes for 139 yards. Ouch. And while Leigh Bodden (in his first game since 2009) and Ras-I Dowling (in his first game ever) were OK, Henne picked on McCourty all night long. When a QB like Henne (not even in the top 20 of all NFL QBs) does that to you, that’s disrespect. McCourty didn’t have much of an answer. I’m sure he’ll bounce back; he’s an outstanding corner as proven all through last season. And Marshall is a fantastic receiver, big, strong, fast, a matchup nightmare. So let’s hope he forgets Monday night right quick.
Special Teams: C+
Could have been much much better if not for Stephen Gostkowski’s brutal, first half miss. It was a 48-yarder which is no gimme at all. But it wasn’t even close. The ball was wide right by a mile from the minute it left his foot. Maybe he’s rusty after going on IR with a month and a half left last season. Elsewhere, Julian Edelman made a big boo-boo when he decided to field a punt on his own 1. But other than that, things were OK. Our man Zoltan opened his season reasonably well, the highlight being a late game pooch that was downed inside the Miami 5. And Sergio Brown, looking like Meriweather both because he now wears No. 31 and because he was woofing a lot, made three tackles. Nothing too good or bad here, just average.
Well, what did you expect? First game of the season (e.g. the most unpredictable) on the road, against a division rival in hot, oppressive conditions and what happens? Only a few offensive records and a virtual blowout, that’s all. Belichick was right: it wasn’t a Rembrandt, not at all, and with a much better team like San Diego coming in on a short week this Sunday, there is a lot of work to be done. But the game plan couldn’t have been any better on Monday night under the circumstances. No huddle, fast pace on offense to confuse and wear out the Miami D (check) and constantly rotate guys in and out of the defensive front seven to keep them fresh in the heat and humidity of South Florida in early September (check). The last time we saw Belichick in a meaningful game, he was getting his ass handed to him by Rex Ryan of all people. It’s great to see the real Bill back in action.