By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Sunday couldn’t have been a better day for football in Foxboro and the Patriots obliged their fans with another impressive win, a 35-21 beating of the San Diego Chargers in the 2011 home opener. The game unfolded like so many of the Pats previous regular season games from the last two seasons, with the offense rolling at nearly unstoppable speed while the defense had to scratch, grab and claw just to avoid getting blown off the field. Once again, Tom Brady had to come up with an otherworldly performance to pick up his D, which is no closer to being able to be considered good than its been in years. Luckily, yards don’t matter while points to which is why the Pats are 2-0 despite allowing an average of over 470 per game through two weeks. They bend and bend and bend and bend but they just don’t break and while that’s nice when a guy like Brady passes for 940 yards and seven TDs in two games, one of these weeks No. 12 may only pass for, say, 325 and a couple of scores. Plays were made when they needed to be though (four forced turnovers, another huge goal line stand), and it certainly helps that the Chargers are poorly coached by an overmatched coordinator type and shot themselves in the foot all afternoon. And since we like to stay positive here at Patriots Daily, we’ll try to focus on what’s good, not what’s worrisome. And what’s good revolves primarily around Brady and the offense, responsible for another 500+ yard output. There were a couple of hiccups (a penalty or two, a missed throw or assignment here and there) but to spend too much time on any of that would be nitpicking. The Pats are a juggernaut on offense – even Chad Ochocinco got into the act against the Chargers – and with its next two games against weaker defenses like Buffalo and Oakland on the schedule, there’s no reason to believe these videogame-esque, record pace type showings won’t go on. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, served with just the right amount of home cooking.
Ho hum. 31-of-40, 423 yards, 10.6 yards per attempt, three TDs, no picks, 135.7 passer rating. It’s old hat for Brady at this point. The Chargers came in supposedly having a top-level defense but if that’s true, they must have left their top-level cleats on the team bus or maybe even back in Southern California. Brady picked them apart routinely, sitting back in the pocket for most of the day and finding open man after open man in the middle of the zone coverages the San Diego D kept showing him. Seven different receivers caught passes from Brady, who if he didn’t, should have sent a bottle of champagne to Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky for calling off his pass rushers in favor of those zone looks over and over again. The only times Brady looked anything less than Superman were when the Chargers rushed more than four guys (when they did, he was sacked twice and hit five other times). But again, the Chargers, for all their talent, are coached by people not fit to be coaching (hence their woeful under achievement the past few years, but for more on that, come back Friday for Around The League!), so they stuck with what wasn’t working instead of what was. Brady had to have laughed at that while carving up the Chargers secondary. He operated the no-huddle at peak efficiency. He made every throw as usual, the best of which were TD tosses to Aaron Hernandez (high, back shoulder, out of everyone’s reach but A-Herb’s despite good coverage), two to Rob Gronkowski (both rifle shots over the middle that were perfectly timed) and a couple of sideline throws to Deion Branch at the end of the first half that allowed the Pats a field goal and a 13-point lead at the break. He led another 99-yard scoring drive (this one in 10 plays instead of just one, but who’s counting?). And he even made a couple plays with his supernaturally slow feet. Yet again, it seemed like there was nothing Brady can’t do. He’s still the best and showed no signs otherwise on Sunday.
Running Backs: B+
It was a quieter day for this group, though the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis did get stronger as the game wore on, throwing the knockout blow with a sweet, 16-yard TD scamper in the final two minutes, a power, off-tackle play to the left on which Gronk and Matt Light completely wiped out their men to clear the way. BJGE racked up 70 yards on 17 carries, good for just over four yards a pop and almost three-quarters of the team’s total rushing output (25 carries, 94 yards, 3.8 YPA). Danny Woodhead only had six touches in the running and passing games combined, good for just 27 total yards. Woodhead also had a couple of issues in blitz pickup/pass protection, not because he missed assignments or was in the wrong place, but because he’s so small, he got swallowed up by far bigger dudes a couple times. It’s not a major problem, but something perhaps on which to keep an eye. And rookie Stevan Ridley saw some second quarter action, showing pretty good shiftiness and awareness in picking up nine yards on two carries. At this point, there’s no doubt the running game is a supporting character to the passing game’s leading man. But through two weeks, those roles have worked out just fine.
Wide Receivers: A
Can you believe Branch didn’t play here for four-plus years? It looks like he never left, that’s how in sync he and Brady still are. Branch, lost for those years in Seattle, was exceptional once again on Sunday, catching eight passes for 119 yards. He was exactly where Brady expected him pretty much every time and while he didn’t score, he was just as important as anyone in the passing game. He found every crease underneath the Chargers’ zone looks and picked up crucial yards after the catch all day. Not to be outdone, Wes Welker piled up seven more grabs of his own and even though none were 99-yard TDs, he still made his presence felt as the Pats go-to guy on third down. Welker had 81 of Brady’s 423 yards and Chad Ochocinco, chastised all week for tweeting more about the Pats offense than seeming to actually know it, grabbed two balls for 45. Ocho got a huge ovation after his first catch, a beautiful, reaching grab on a super quick slant, then caught one of the two balls that got the Pats from the 1 to midfield on the 99-yard drive. He seemed more assured and confident this week and should see his role increase in the coming weeks, especially in light of the sprained knee suffered by A-Herb. Brady may look like an extra-terrestrial most of the time but someone has to catch all of his passes. This group is well-qualified.
Tight Ends: A
Gronk had a bad holding penalty and allowed one of the Chargers two sacks when trying to block Chargers pass rushing demon Shaun Phillips one-on-one. And the complaining portion of the section is now over. The Pats ran 65 of 80 plays against Miami in Week 1 with two or more tight ends on the field and followed that up on Sunday with multiple tight end packages on 60 of 71 snaps. Again, you think the Pats find this position important? Before that knee injury, A-Herb caught seven more balls for 62 yards and the first score, twisting to haul in a perfect back shoulder throw and burning Colts cast-off Bob Sanders in the process. And Gronk bounced back from his slow start to pick up four catches for 86 yards and the two scores, coming off the field just twice out of the 71 offensive plays. It’s hard to imagine how anyone can cover Gronk thanks to his size and skills; he boxes out defenders around the goal line like a low post player in basketball and, while not as quick and nimble as A-Herb, still seems faster than any linebacker or safety who comes near him. With A-Herb expected to miss the next couple of games, it should be fascinating to see how the Pats adapt on offense given how vital to their attack these two monsters have been.
Offensive Line: A-
Brady took a little heat when the Chargers coaches were smart enough to realize they could get pressure sending more than four rushers. Luckily, they aren’t that smart. In addition to the two sacks and five knockdowns on Brady, there were also a couple of holding penalties and a false start. But all in all, it was an excellent effort. Dan Koppen’s first full game away barely registered, as the incomparable, jack-of-all-trades Dan Connolly filled in flawlessly at center. Sebastian Vollmer returned and looked healthy and active all day. And Light handled the left side as well as he usually does, the highlight of his day coming on BJGE’s game-icing TD. And rookie Nate Solder got into the act and then some despite Vollmer’s return, lining up at tight end for 18 snaps. He wiped out two guys on the Law Firm TD and provided excellent insurance both in protection and the running game. Given his history playing the position in college, maybe we’ll see a red zone pass-catching opportunity for the first-rounder. We shall see.
Pluses and minuses here aplenty. The revamped group got next to no pressure on Chargers QB Philip Rivers all day; the one time anyone got near him before the last play of the game, Andre Carter was penalized 15 yards for roughing the passer (a brutal call, by the way; Carter wrapped up Rivers and tackled him, mid-section first but since his head made first contact with Rivers stomach, Carter was basically called for being built like a human being). Rivers had plenty of time to carve up the Pats weak, overmatched secondary, even without having star tight end Antonio Gates at his disposal (more on that coming up). Luckily, Vince Wilfork was there to save the day when he read a delayed swing pass intended for running back Mike Tolbert perfectly and deflected the ball to himself for his first career interception before rumbling for a 28-yard return that set up the Pats late first half field goal. Wilfork also held up Tolbert (nine carries, 10 yards) before Jerod Mayo forced a huge fumble that came on one of San Diego’s six drives through the first three quarters that reached Pats territory yet netted only seven points. And even though the biggest play was made by Mayo and Devin McCourty, the D’s showing on that goal line stand started up front. Out of all the D-liners, Wilfork and Carter saw the majority of the snaps and while Shaun Ellis, Albert Haynesworth and Myron Pryor mostly saw spot duty, more is needed out that trio going forward, particularly those first two names. Props to Mark Anderson for his sack of Rivers on the Chargers last gasp play and Kyle Love for recovering the subsequent fumble.
Pretty good day for these guys, particularly Mayo and Rob Ninkovich. Mayo bounced back from a couple of grisly missed tackles early on and played a solid game. He read Tolbert’s fourth-and-goal run perfectly, waited patiently for McCourty to sneak underneath and take his man then stuffed Tolbert to complete the goal line stand. he was just as responsible for Tolbert’s fumble as Wilfork as well; after Wilfork loosened up the ball, it was Mayo who poked the ball free. He had 11 tackles, eight solo, and looked quite comfortable playing outside in the Pats’ 4-3 alignment. Ninkovich recovered Tolbert’s fumble and also had the other sack on Rivers while playing more snaps than anyone but Mayo and McCourty. After that, not much. Brandon Spikes returned but didn’t do anything of consequence and was on the field less down the stretch than newcomer A.J. Edds. Spikes may just be getting his feet wet after missing most of the preseason and Week 1; we’ll see how much he plays and what he does next week at Buffalo. And Jermaine Cunningham was active but played one down, the fourth down stop of Tolbert at the Pats 1. Looks like last year’s two Florida draft picks have some work to do.
Defensive Backs: C-
Still by far the weak of weak points, the secondary was scorched again. Through two games, the Pats are allowing an average of 381 yards through the air and while there were things to like about some of the individual play by members of this group, there were far more that were awful, starting with all those yards allowed (Rivers completed 29-of-40 passes for 378 yards) and continuing with San Diego’s 10-of-12 conversion rate on third down. To its credit, the defensive backfield stymied Gates, who caught zero passes for just the second time since 2003 and was targeted by Rivers just once (a forced throw that was impressively picked off by Sergio Brown, who had his best game as a pro by far). McCourty made the play that led to the huge stop on the goal line stand but was thrown at and beaten all day by Rivers and Vincent Jackson, respectively. Jackson, another big, physical receiver (like Miami’s Brandon Marshall in Week 1) had a career day, catching 10 balls for 172 yards and two TDs. It may behoove the Pats to give McCourty a little help covering bigger, stronger receivers, something he’s been unable to do in the first two weeks of the season, Even when the coverage was there, McCourty still couldn’t make any plays if the ball was anywhere near catchable. It was painful to watch at times and is something that needs to be shored up. Patrick Chung played well mostly in run support but was one of a handful of DBs to leave, at least temporarily with injuries (along with Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling and James Ihedigbo). Higher marks to Josh Barrett for his work on Gates but both he and Arrington looked foolish on separate occasions trying catch passes that were caught a foot in front of them by Chargers receivers. The Pats lack of a pass rush contributed to the bad day of the DBs but there’s still reason for alarm here. Minus Brown’s INT, these guys haven’t made a single play through two games.
Special Teams: B
Good bounce back for Stephen Gostkowski, who atoned for his bad miss in Week 1 with a 47-yard blast at the first half buzzer. It would have been nice to see the Pats take some advantage of the Chargers notoriously atrocious kick coverage units but oh well. Bummer to see our man Zoltan Mesko go down with a knee injury in the second half; it forced the Pats to go for it on fourth-and-4 from near midfield in the third quarter with the game still in doubt. But that’s a more appropriate development for…
That fourth down call wasn’t Bill Belichick’s finest moment but it didn’t come back to bite anyone so it can be deemed as nothing more than a curious decision and forgotten. The game plan on both sides was mostly solid. Belichick could probably tell ahead of time that the Chargers coach Norv Turner (who might be overmatched coaching a high school game) wouldn’t be able to keep up with him (hence the refusal to attack the Pats one potential weak spot on offense and rush more than four guys) and therefore OK the calling of one underneath/over-the-middle pass after another. He also proved his superiority on the two-play field goal drive late in the first half. Turner didn’t recognize that anyone with an IQ over 60 would be throwing to the sidelines with less than 10 seconds left on the clock so naturally, Branch was wider than wide open on both plays. On defense, it’s clear Belichick and his staff have to do something. Hiding his secondary from giving up the inevitable big play by giving up huge swaths of the middle of the field only goes so far, especially when there is next to no push from the guys up front. But what can they do? The talent level, after McCourty and Chung, goes way, way down. And it’s not like McCourty is setting the world on fire right now. The move to a base 4-3 along with the importing of a bunch of linemen with pass rushing acumen was a good start. But now what? The Jets are coming up in three weeks. They have a great defense and know how to slow down the Pats offense (see the 2011 AFC Divisional Playoffs). So again, what happens if/when the offense isn’t up to par? Will the D be able to step it up? Belichick and company need to find out.