By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Week 8 is over and and so is the Patriots’ bye. Their season resumes Sunday against AFC East rival Miami with the Pats at 5-2 and in sole possession of first place and a one and a half game lead over the Jets. So what do we know at this point?
We know that they are in sole possession of first place with a one and a half game lead over the Jets.
Oh, we also know that the rest of the division isn’t all that, a notion reinforced after Sunday’s crapfest between the Jets and Dolphins at the Meadowlands. Miami may be 3-0 in the division but that’s without playing the Pats yet. The Bills are pretty lousy and the Jets, for all of their bluster and pomposity, are looking more and more like 8-8 every week. But after that, things get hazy. When the game starts this Sunday, the Pats will be rested and healthier with two wins by a combined score of 94-7 in their last two games under their belts. But those two wins were against Tennessee and Tampa, combined record: 1-13. The last time the Pats played a good team – three weeks ago against Denver – they got beat and looked awful on offense. It’s nice to get fat playing virtual scrimmages against inferior competition but playing at Indianapolis, at New Orleans and at Miami – all on national television – as the Pats must do this month is the truest way to get a real gauge on who and what they really are.
We’ll stop there with the looks into the future. The professors here at Patriots Daily University are brilliant football scholars, not psychic visionaries. So with that in mind, let’s take a look back at the first seven games with a first half report card.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B
Through seven games, the Pats rank third in total offense (406 YPG), second in passing (291 YPG), 14th in rushing (115 YPG) and fifth overall (28.3 PPG). Again, those numbers are inflated thanks to the two pre-bye week cupcakes, as they posted over 1,000 yards in addition to the 94 points. Both of their losses, in which they faced top 5 ranked defenses in Denver and the Jets, featured not only poor execution but failure to score a single point in the second half. Granted, both of those episodes came weeks ago when it seemed as if Tom Brady was still feeling his way through the comeback from last year’s knee injury. And again, playing their last two games against what basically amounted to scout teams gave them a chance to work through several kinks while exerting minimum energy. The offensive line has been here and there and the running game with a couple of exceptions has been nothing to write home about. All in all, it’s been a mostly steady improvement from week to week.
To break this grade down by month, Brady was roughly a C for September and an A (or at the very least, an A- thanks to the Denver game) in October, for which he was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month. Early on, as everyone who has ever watched television, read a newspaper or logged on to the internet knows, Brady was skittish, rusty, slow, nervous, not the same, etc. He was missing throws he used to make in his sleep, a fact that was exacerbated by the fact that he was called on to pass on practically every down through the first couple weeks and some of receivers (hello, Joey Galloway!) weren’t exactly helpful. Things got better with time, though, and now he sits comfortably with 15 TD passes against just four picks, two of which came in the Tampa game in London, and a 65.6 completion percentage. His passer rating is a nifty 99.9 and his yards per attempt is a very solid 7.4. Brady will likely never put forth the same kind of performance he did throughout the 2007 season. There will be no more 50 TD pass campaigns. But he’s healthy now and looking more and more like the championship-type guy he was even before that magical, ’07 year. If the offensive line keeps him upright, if another consistent pass catcher emerges to join Randy Moss and Wes Welker and if his health continues to improve, there’s no reason to think he can’t lead another potential Super Bowl run.
Running Backs: C+
It was nice to see the Pats go for depth at this position in the off-season. But when the depth is as injury-prone as Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris, you wind right back up with what you had the last couple years that caused you to look for depth in the first place and that’s Laurence Maroney. Taylor seemed like a great signing – a wily, accomplished veteran who could still produce in spurts and if preserved, would be a great option for late-season, cold weather games in which running the ball would be of the utmost importance. He had himself one great game in Week 3 against Atlanta before his inevitable injury happened the following week and now it’s questionable whether he will return at all. Morris, who excels at everything he’s asked to do when he can stay on the field, went down for the third straight year against Tennessee and doesn’t seem to be near returning. So Maroney, who was easily pushed down to third on the depth chart in training camp is now the man again and other than a great game against the Titans has done absolutely nothing but his signature behind the line of scrimmage shuffle. Kevin Faulk is the same as he’s always been to a point, but he has looked a bit older at times this year and whether it’s because of that or because of the amount of guys moving in and out of the backfield, hasn’t been asked to do as much as in past seasons, particularly in ’08. And BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who showed so much promise last year, has only recently gotten a chance to do anything. It was surprising to see that the Pats ranked in the top half of the league in rushing YPG – I’m guessing the 200+ performance against Tennessee went a long way toward that stat. Obviously, the O-line is as important to this equation as it is to Brady’s performance. But so is Maroney, who must be better.
Wide Receivers: B
Before we go any further, the professors wanted me to make sure I noted this grade has nothing, repeat, nothing to do with Wes Welker and Randy Moss. Welker has been magnificent, leading the league with 46 catches despite missing two games while Moss is right behind him with 43 grabs. Moss has amassed 565 yards, Welker 484 and both have four TDs. These are two of the best receivers in the league and as a tandem, one would be hard pressed to name anyone better. The Patriots are blessed to have these two stars at their disposal. The problem is that after them, there’s diddely poo. We all know how the Joey Galloway signing went. Another bargain veteran free agent, a la Taylor, Galloway was supposed to bring 15 years of experience to the aid of the passing game, providing a huge threat at the No. 3 spot. Instead, he spent three weeks running around aimlessly dropping passes and running the wrong routes while showing zero understanding of the offense. After hanging Brady out to dry multiple times in Week 3 against the Falcons, he was deactivated for the next three games before being unceremoniously released as one of the worst signings of the Bill Belichick era. The next problem is that no one has really stepped up in his place. Rookie Julian Edelman showed flashes, catching 21 balls for 188 yards before breaking his arm against the Titans and special teamer Sam Aiken has steadily improved each week since also having a tough day against Atlanta. The team is hoping rookie Brandon Tate, whom I read earlier has drawn some comparisons to Vikings rookie Percy Harvin (who by the way is AWESOME) can make an impact now that he’s active after six weeks on the PUP list. And practice squader Terrence Nunn showed some talent in the preseason. But these are pretty long shots. At the end of the day, as long as Moss and Welker stay healthy and produce, having a guy like Tate or Aiken make a couple catches per week may be enough. Still, a little more security here would be nice. I wonder if the team has any interest in Chris Chambers, who was cut by the Chargers yesterday and has been a big-time guy occasionally over the past four or five years.
Tight Ends: B
Ben Watson and free agent pickup Chris Baker have combined for 23 catches, 300 yards and five touchdowns which are pretty good numbers. Both are required to be almost as much, if not more a part of the offensive line in terms of run blocking and pass protection as they are to be productive in the passing game and both have excelled in this role. Watson especially, finally seems to get it after four season of living off his reputation as a great athlete. His two fourth quarter TDs against Buffalo on opening night were not only beautiful, they won that game and the fact that more than 25 percent of his receptions have resulted in scores is very impressive. Baker is another cagey veteran who’s been around a while and everything asked of him in a solid manner. That’s the best word to describe this duo – solid. As a brief aside, the Pats also had another veteran, Alex Smith, in camp to compete for time at tight end and must have thought highly of him given the money they shelled out for his services. But he was cut before opening night and the scuttlebutt said that he couldn’t grasp the offense. He came from Tampa Bay, the same place as Galloway. I guess former Bucs just aren’t smart/good enough to grasp the intricacies and complexities of that encyclopedic Pats offense.
Offensive Line: B-
Inconsistency plagues this crew. Whether it’s not knowing which Matt Light will show up from week to week (prior to his injury in the Denver game) to Logan Mankins having more lousy games in seven weeks than I can ever remember him having since he’s been here, to Dan Koppen’s weekly false start and holding penalties to rookie Sebastian Vollmer following up a masterpiece against Tennessee in his first career start with a stinkbomb a week later against Tampa. The right side, with Stephen Neal at guard and Nick Kaczur at tackle has been fine – a couple of blips here and there but nothing like the highs and lows of the left side. And the depth, other than Vollmer, hasn’t really been asked to do much which is a huge positive. With some of the pass rushes the Pats have on the upcoming schedule, it would be nice for these guys to shore things up a bit and that goes for the run blocking too. Maybe if Maroney sees a steady stream of holes big enough to drives cars through, he won’t feel as compelled to two-step until he gets tackled. This line is veteran and experienced and certainly knows what it needs to do going forward. The question is, can it?
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B+
The D has been the most pleasant surprise of the season so far. They are fifth against the pass (176.3 YPG), sixth in total defense (285.7 YPG) and third in points allowed (14 PPG), having given up 21 or less in every game but the first, in which the Bills scored 24. The defensive line, led by Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork has been mostly excellent and the secondary, which has seen the emergence of the two Brandons (Meriweather and McGowan) is no longer the weakness it was last year but rather the strength of this unit. Only the linebacking corps, which has been both underachieving and completely befuddling keeps the defense from an A.
Defensive Line: B+
I wasn’t too sure what to expect when the Pats exiled Richard Seymour to Oakland a week before opening night. Would Jarvis Green be able to step up and be more than just a situational pass rusher? Would rookies Ron Brace and Myron Pryor be able to contribute? Was Mike Wright more than just a fill-in? Other than Brace barely seeing the field, the answer is yes. Everyone knows how good and how valuable both Warren and Wilfork are and they prove it every week (if the injury Warren suffered against the Bucs hinders him at all there might be some problems). But Green, Wright and Pryor have been near revelations. Wright leads the team with four of its 13 sacks and Green and Pryor have seamlessly taken up some of the Seymour slack as stout parts of the rotation. The run stopping could be better – the Pats are 15th, giving up 109.4 YPG. But with the way this unit has performed overall, especially in light of the Seymour trade, that’s almost quibbling.
OK, we’ll get it out of the way quick. Adalius Thomas is having a horrible season and Derrick Burgess has been such a non-factor that I’ve often been stunned to discover after games that he even played. This group, once the heart of the team going back to the days of Bruschi and Vrabel and McGinest and Johnson, is this year’s weak link. Jerod Mayo, still on the mend after his opening night knee injury, is a huge plus and Gary Guyton, who I worried was completely overmatched by the speed and strength of the game early on has developed into a crucial asset who can play effectively both outside and in the middle. And Tully Banta-Cain showed signs that he can be an every down player against Tennessee and Tampa. After that, bubkes. Rob Ninkovich is a nice player but he will never be someone to be relied on. Pierre Woods is better than he used to be but is still not much more than a special teamer. And Junior Seau seems to still be OK for 15 or so snaps per game but there is no doubt that if the team was even remotely satisfied with what it has here, he’d still be surfing and doing his bizarro reality show for Versus. Which brings us back to Thomas and Burgess. Thomas has 13 tackles and one sack which is pretty much unacceptable. The coaches obviously agreed since they benched him for the Titans game. It’s a mystery what’s wrong with him – maybe he’s over the hill. But given the lack of playmakers among this group, he needs to pick it up and do something, anything, not just to warrant his exorbitant contract but to solidify the middle of the defense. And Burgess, the supposed pass rushing specialist who has two sacks in seven games, one of which was practically a two-hand touch on Bucs QB Josh Freeman on the last play of the game last week, just needs to wake up.
Not everything has been sunshine and puppies for the last line of the defense. James Sanders has been hurt and has struggled without Rodney Harrison next to him, Shawn Springs is done and Jonathan Wilhite still has a ways to go. But that’s about it for the negatives. Meriweather has blasted through, justifying his first round selection from a couple years back with a bevy of big plays, capped off by his two picks, one for a TD, against Tampa last week. McGowan, a free agent off the street who could have been had by anyone, is the surprise of the year. He leads the team in tackles, has four passes defensed and two forced fumbles while filling multiple roles, and he’s sort of local, having gone to college at Maine. Leigh Bodden seems rejuvenated after spending the last two years in Cleveland and Detroit and is a solid corner. And rookie Darius Butler is getting plenty of run and seems to be getting it posting two picks which is tied with Meriweather for the team high. Even fellow rookie Patrick Chung, who seemed beyond lost early on, looks better, registering a couple of big plays the past two games. This group is young but there is a ton of talent there and multiple playmakers. Both the Colts and the Saints are on the docket this month and each will be measuring stick-type tests.
Special Teams: B
No major problems here. After missing his first kick of the year, Stephen Gostkowski hit 12 straight and is a legitimate 13-for-16 on the year. The kick and punt coverage has been strong, allowing 23.5 yards per kick return and just 8.6 yards per punt return with no TDs. Only punter Chris Hanson has disappointed, averaging under 40 yards per kick and seeming to be completely unable to keep the ball out of the end zone on punts in opponents territory. Overall, nothing really to worry about complain about here.
Belichick, who did his best job last season since 2001, is doing pretty damn well this year too. Other than in the Denver game, when he was out-adjusted by his former protege Josh McDaniels, he’s been great, routinely outmaneuvering his opposing number, never more so than in Weeks 3 and 4, when he made last year’s Coach of the Year and runner-up – Atlanta’s Mike Smith and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh – look foolish. Belichick the personnel guy may not have had his best year (see Galloway, Burgess, Springs, etc.), but he still has the uncanny knack of knowing exactly what he’s got and subsequently how to put those players in the best position to win on a week to week basis. No one is better at that. And once again, he has the troops in prime position to win the AFC East, which would be the Pats seventh division title in his 10 years at the helm. There are plenty of other good coaches in the NFL, even a few great ones. But I’d still take Coach Bill every single Sunday.