By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Well, here we are again, class. We’re faced with the usual conundrum. How do we judge the latest Patriots victory, a 34-27 win over the Washington Redskins which was their fifth straight and 10th of the year (the ninth straight time they’ve accomplished this feat, and 10th in 11 seasons)? Do we look at it as solely what it is, a win? Or do we nitpick? Because if we want to do the latter, there’s plenty of material to work with, starting with yet another barely JV performance by the league’s worst defense, which allowed season-highs to a mediocre offense up and down the stat sheet for what seems like the umpteenth time this season while making still another mostly incompetent quarterback look like some sort of mutant hybrid of Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas and Otto Graham.
But instead, this week, we’re going to stick to what the script should be, which is that the Pats won the game. They didn’t do it flawlessly but they won it anyway, and nothing else, at least for now, is important. Oh don’t worry. We’ll get to the defense and its overall inability to get better, regardless of the weekly litany of personnel changes in the secondary and the regular alterations of scheme and look. And there is no reason to ignore some of the issues of the offense, which posted more than enough points to win and rolled up well over 400 yards but still featured some problems that must be solved headed into the playoffs. But in the end, it’s another win and that, as they say, is why you play the game. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, still winning your hearts week in and week out.
This was not Tom Brady’s best game. He’d probably tell you that it ranks among his worst of the year. In the first half, he was uncharacteristically wild, completing less than 50 percent of his passes. and seemed to have a hard time getting on the same page as his targets on and off throughout the afternoon. He picked things up and then some in third quarter when he was 9-of-11 for 148 yards and two TDs, but even though he led a very proficient fourth quarter drive that should have sewed up the game, he threw a horrible pick in the end zone to close that one out (perhaps you recall that play; it resulted in the sideline screaming match between him and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien that resulted in O’Brien needing to be restrained, Bill Belichick to intervene and sports media folks across the region leading their coverage of the game with it). But still, he made plays when they needed to be made, was on target enough and showed once again that there are few QBs as dangerous in the pocket as he is. Brady finished with 357 yards, threw three more TDs (giving him 33 on the year and 294 on his career, good for sixth most all-time) and averaged nearly 10 yards per attempt. The Redskins hadn’t allowed a 300-yard passer all year until Sunday and Brady, with the help of his offensive line, was able to avoid the pressure of a Redskins pass rush that’s been excellent all season, perhaps the strongest aspect of their team. Time and again, especially in the second half, Brady stepped up, waited, maneuvered, dodged, slide-stepped and finagled his way out of certain trouble to make throws that didn’t seem possible. The best of them all was probably his third TD pass, a 24-yarder to Wes Welker on which he waited and waited and waited and pump faked and waited and glided forward while Welker got free running across the field, hauled in the pass, shed a tackle and ran it home. The interception was unfortunate (although, surely much to the consternation of Pats haters, the aftermath wasn’t so bad, especially considering both Brady and O’Brien’s subsequent reactions to it) and the lack of accuracy and failure to communicate properly with his receivers, particularly in the red zone (he missed on at least three open throws in or near the end zone by unofficial count) was slightly alarming. But if a day like Sunday for a guy like Brady still nets 34 points and a victory, Those things, even sideline fights with coaches, are OK.
Running Backs: C
The Patriots are not committed to running the ball. They have four, sometimes five backs who all get carries but none of get too many. They lose sight of the fact that their most successful offensive days occur when they balance their offense instead of throw twice as many times as run (or, like last week against the Colts, keep chucking it despite a four-TD, fourth quarter lead). So with that in mind, it’s tough to grade out this group. They managed to gain four yards per rushing attempt on the day and that’s pretty good. Danny Woodhead, who led the way with eight whole carries, averaged five yards every time he got the ball in his hands. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who has been buried since his huge game against the Jets back in Week 5, particularly over the past three weeks (25 total carries), managed 19 yards on his five attempts, including a failure to make a first down on a third-and-1 early in the fourth quarter (though in his defense, the play call – an off-tackle to the left – was absurd and he was probably ice cold given that it was his first carry since early in the second quarter). Kevin Faulk saw a handful of snaps and looked old. And while we’re here, why is Faulk, regardless of his status as a highly respected elder statesman, getting reps over rookie Stevan Ridley? Has Ridley really fallen that far since his September/early October breakout? The rookie didn’t play a single down on Sunday which makes little sense if he’s healthy. The Redskins have been linked to an age-old football proverb this season which states that if you have two QBs, you really don’t have any. I think we can tweak that one just a little bit to include the Pats; if you have five running backs, you don’t really have any. Maybe they know that and that’s why they won’t run the ball more, even when the situation practically screams for it.
Wide Receivers: B
It’s pretty much all Welker here. Surprise! There were a couple of throws on which he and Brady weren’t on the same page, an unusual development to be sure. But in the end, he had his requisite, excellent showing, finishing with seven catches for 86 yards and that score, and becoming just third receiver in league history to catch at least 100 passes in four seasons. The other two? Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison. Pretty decent company, ya think? Welker’s most appealing characteristic is his work ethic and man, can you see it on the field. One of the reasons Brady finds him on all those long wait in the pocket plays is because he’s constantly buzzing around the field, doing anything to get open. At least five seconds passed on his TD catch from when he broke into his route off the line of scrimmage until he made the grab but the play was there because he never gave up on it. At this rate, Welker will probably finish up with about 120 catches, around 1,600 yards and 11-12 TDs. Oh and did we mention he’s a free agent after the season? The Pats routinely don’t pay anyone who doesn’t play a core position (QB, offensive or defensive line) unless his name happens to be (gulp) Chad Ochocinco. But they’d be wise to pay Welker at least what Chad is getting. There is no one like him and the Pats wouldn’t be a 10-win team en route to another post-season berth without him. Deion Branch played 46 snaps, made no catches and looked lost both times Brady threw him the ball before missing the last two drives with an injury. The Pats can get away with Branch not showing up from time to time given their other weapons in the passing game. But as the No. 2 receiver, those instances need to be less frequent. High-top fade master Tiquan Underwood, the point man in the Brady/O’Brien fracas, got Branch’s reps on those two drives and made a catch while the previously mentioned Ochocinco crawled out of his hole to make one catch for 14 yards before retreating to his gigantic pile of money to resume his season-long hibernation. Chad played four snaps out of 59 on Sunday. Underwood played 11. Insert punchline here.
Tight Ends: A
If Rob Gronkowski wins the AFC Offensive Player of the Year award, will the trophy be remade into a miniature gold cyborg furiously spiking a football? Hearing Dan Dierdorf call him a monster on the CBS telecast on Sunday was pretty entertaining though not remotely as ebullient as Gronk’s first quarter diving catch after which he got up, broke a tackle, made his way toward the sideline, threw a couple of Redskins defensive backs off, almost fell out of bounds, tiptoed his way to getting his balance back, barely flinched as yet another DB flew into his knees and bounced off and stumbled, finally hitting the turf after a 50 yards gain. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said afterward his players were “embarrassed” that they couldn’t tackle Gronk, who was shedding everyone in his wake, including star defensive lineman Ryan Kerrigan, all day. Shanahan should tell his defense not to feel so bad since Gronk does this to everyone. Oh yeah, he also broke the all-time record for most TD catches in a season for a tight end, resetting the number at 16, while going for a career-high 160 yards receiving and diving into the stands after his second TD of the day, naturally, right into the lap of a fan wearing a Pats jersey. There doesn’t seem to be anything Cyborg Gronk can’t do (he played every down again on Sunday). He’s the best tight end in the league and there’s no reason to assume he’ll do anything going forward but keep getting better. And on this week’s episode of “The Forgotten Man,” Aaron Hernandez caught five passes for 84 yards, looked like his usual enormous wide receiver self on a couple of em but dropped a TD pass. Come on, A-Herb! Brady’s trying to get you one too. Catch the ball!
Offensive Line: A-
Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo are studs coming off the edges of Washington’s defensive line and between the two of them on Sunday, they had two tackles. So so much credit for this has to go to Matt Light on the left and Nate Solder on the right (with honorable mention to both Gronk and Marcus Cannon, each of whom saw a little bit of work against Kerrigan and Orakpo). Brady didn’t have to worry too much about pressure from either one of those guys which had ot have been a huge load off his mind. There were problems with pressure up the middle in the first half though, as newcomer Nick McDonald couldn’t sustain the great pace he set last week against the Colts. There was some credence given to the idea that some of the offense’s lack of cohesion in the first half was due to some mixed signals between him and Brady and when he was replaced by Ryan Wendell in the second half, the first half issues seemed to dissipate. This will be something to keep an eye on going forward, at least until Dan Connolly is healthy enough to play. Elsewhere, Logan Mankins was big in this one and also managed to escape yet another game penalty free. And Brian Waters continued to play like an All-Pro, calling most of the signals, and making the block of the day on Woodhead’s run the play before the end zone pick. As has been mentioned here before, along with Andre Carter, Waters is by far the most important, best free agent signing of the year.
Defensive Line: C-
All year long, the Pats strength on D has been up front. With the exception of the Albert Haynesworth debacle, everyone in this group who plays more than five snaps a game (hello, Shaun Ellis!) is having a good year, with Carter and Vince Wilfork playing at an exceptional level. This is why it was so bizarre to see this bunch get dominated the way it was on Sunday. The Redskins played without either of their starting tackles, yet managed to gash the Pats for 170 yards rushing at five yards a clip. That’s 170 yards on 34 attempts. That stat was written twice so that the next one would sink in a little quicker: The Redskins came into the game second to last in the league in rushing at 87.5 yards per game. Two dudes named Roy Helu and Evan Royster did all this damage, by the way. It’s not like the Skins still have Clinton Portis or even Earnest Byner, Terry Allen or even John Riggins for that matter. Carter did have a super strip sack in the first quarter and Wilfork fell on the loose ball in the end zone for his first career TD. And Brandon Deaderick had a sack too and looked very strong and agile in filling up the defensive stat sheet. But at the end of the day, this group must play better if for no other reason than when it plays as poorly as it did on Sunday, it exposes the secondary even further. If the opponent can run the ball with as much freedom as the Redskins ran it on Sunday, the defensive backs, already so limited in being able to defend the pass, are at an even further disadvantage, even against a QB like Washington’s Rex Grossman. Give these guys credit for holding Washington to just 2-for-5 in red zone opportunities and 1-for-3 on goal-to-go plays. They’ve held up very well inside the 20 all year. But the run defense must get better soon, especially with a game against Denver, which runs the ball more than anyone, on tap.
That’s two career interceptions in two weeks for Jerod Mayo and while both of ’em were big, the one on Sunday was immense. With the Redskins poised to tie the game in the waning seconds and the defense doing everything it could to not close out yet another game, Tracy White made a great play on receiver Santana Moss, who was streaking over the middle, drilling him just as Grossman’s pass hit his hands. The ball literally popped into the air and Mayo, who’d been cramping up all quarter long and had to be helped off the field, made a diving catch, just getting both hands underneath the ball before it hit the ground. He was swept away on a few of the Redskins running plays but he’s certainly not alone in that department. Mayo, who led the team in tackles, broke up another pass and just missed a sack on a perfectly executed delayed blitz, has been playing as well over the past three weeks as he has in the last two years and it’s a real credit to him how he’s raised his game. He’s becoming more than just a reactionary backer who makes a ton of tackles after medium to long gains. He’s becoming an impact player and lord knows the Pats need as many of those as they can get their hands on. More positives from the linebackers in this game than from any other level of the defense. Dane Fletcher returned from his long, injury induced absence and played a big role with eight tackles and another near sack while playing 49 of 75 defensive snaps. And Rob Ninkovich submitted another strong game with seven tackles including two for a loss while playing the whole game. But the real story here again is White, who has completely supplanted Gary Guyton in the lineup (altogether now… PHEW) and just keeps making plays. He not only made Mayo’s INT possible, he broke up another pass and had a handful of tackles. The Pats have had to do so much mixing and matching with personnel on defense this year that it’s particularly gratifying to see some of the special teams/free agents/scrubs make a consistent good impression. White is at the top of that list. Here’s hoping he still sees a good number of reps when Brandon Spikes returns.
Defensive Backs: D-
It’s starting to become no fun to pick on Devin McCourty. He was so completely and utterly hopeless and simultaneously helpless in the first half on Sunday, it was sad. The Redskins, who again, start Rex Grossman at QB, had 463 total yards and while more than a good chunk of those came on the ground, the fact of the matter is that over 300 of them came through the air and guys like Donte’ Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney, the Nos. 3-4 receivers on the Pats in 2007, shredded this putrid group. Stallworth, who had his best game in four years, torched McCourty for a 51-yard bomb in the first quarter and Gaffney settled right in like so many other receivers underneath the Pats deep deep deep zones they were in for much of the game and finished with six catches for 92 yards. To McCourty’s credit, he bounced back from his miserable first half to make multiple big plays in the second, breaking up three passes, two of which would have been huge third down conversions and making his first pick of the season only to see it wiped out after a brutal, phantom roughing the passer call on Carter. And he did some of it with his previously separated shoulder dangling from his torso. It would be great to think that McCourty turned some sort of corner after playing so well in the second half, But there’s a long, long way to go before he’s anywhere near where he was last year. After that, take your pick who you want to criticize. Redskins receivers ran free pretty much all day. They scored a TD on a double reverse option pass from one receiver (Brandon Banks) to another (Moss), a ball that was underthrown by almost 10 yards but it didn’t matter because no one in a Pats jersey was within 40 yards of Moss, who’s only Washington’s leading receiver. James Ihedigbo, who only had to be helped off the field twice in this one, had as rough a game as he’s had in a while, Nate Jones had a robust one tackle while playing all but nine snaps at safety, and Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater looked like wide receivers trying to play new positions for most of the day. Look, it’s hard to imagine this getting much better. The bottom line is the talent and the Pats don’t have much of it in the defensive backfield. Guys aren’t getting cut and re-signed and cut and re-signed again for any reason other than that they can’t really play, only there’s no one out there better who can replace them even semi-permanently. Maybe McCourty figured something out. Maybe if Patrick Chung ever plays again, he’ll do something positive. Maybe the Pats will get through a game without some combo of their defensive backs wildly chasing/flailing after some wide open receiver having the game of his career at least five times. But seeing as how it happens with regularity pretty much every week and we’re now into the final quarter of the season, it’s hard to imagine any of those dreams coming true.
Special Teams: B+
Slater may be getting used to playing safety but he’s still a cracker jack special teamer. He downed a first quarter punt inside the Redskins 5, which led to the sack/fumble/TD three plays later. Excellent work. Our man Zoltan had another terrific day punting, booming three kicks for a 45 yard average while avoiding any of them being returned and placing that first quarter one in the perfect spot. Stephen Gostkowski hit all four extra points and both short field goal attempts. And the kick coverage team held the Redskins to minimal yards on six returns. Only the Pats return game, which was, is and probably will remain dismal, brings this grade down.
There were a few head-scratchers from the sidelines in this one, starting with the reluctance/refusal to run the ball more. And facing a QB like Grossman, who makes as many, if not more, bad decisions and stupid mistakes as any signal caller in the league, playing as far back as the Pats were for a lot of the afternoon seems odd even with the personnel shortcomings. Why not put more pressure on the guy and try to force him into screwing up rather than just roll out the same extra defensive backs and super conservative, vanilla deep zone coverages? This is hardly a suggestion that playing further up on the Redskins receivers and maybe incorporating more man coverage would have worked; it probably wouldn’t have. But nothing else has really worked all year either, especially the super deep zone looks, so against a disaster waiting to happen like Grossman, why not? On the plus side, the O’Brien/Brady spat was an impressive piece of coaching by the OC and the adjustments made on offense from the first half to the second changed the general tenor of the game for the Pats. Again, Belichick seems to be OK with getting gashed between the 20s as long as his defense holds up in the red zone, something it’s done all year. And, as has been mentioned here several times, giving up 463 yards, even to a team that averages just 320 per game, is OK as long as the point total is down. Given that the Redskins scored 10 points more than their season average, this philosophy is a little harder to stomach after Sunday. But a win is a win, no matter how it looks. And Belichick, O’Brien and the rest of the coaches will surely take it.