December 10, 2016

Making The Grades

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

We’re flummoxed here at PDU. You would be as well if your prized pupil became just another aimless, slacker kid in the span of three weeks. And that’s just what this year’s edition of the Patriots appears to have become through 12 games and 13 weeks – just another team. On Sunday afternoon in Miami, they snatched another brutal loss from the jaws of certain victory, falling 22-21 in a game in which all of their worst flaws of the season were on full display. The defense was again porous, especially against the pass, the offense was one-dimensional, predictable and again didn’t seem to be able to adjust at all to changes in coverages or scheme or philosophy on the part of its opponent and the coaching produced several more moves that ranged from bizarre to ill-timed to downright mystifying. Once again, they lost on the road, for the fifth time this year. Once again, they were almost entirely impotent in the second half (with just seven points after halftime, they have now scored just 24 total points in the second halves of their five defeats), which is perhaps the most inexplicable problem they have. And once again, with a chance to either salt the game away or make a comeback in the fourth quarter, once a hallmark of the team, the head coach and the quarterback, they failed to do so. Now having lost consecutive games for the first time in over three years, the question of whether or not they have what it takes to even win their division, a thought that would have drawn scoffs just three weeks ago, is completely pertinent. So with that in mind, let’s get to this week’s report card, now delivered in a more streamlined fashion if for no other reason than that it won’t hurt as much to write and/or read.

OFFENSE: Overall Grade: C

The first half performance gets an A-. The second half performance gets an F. For proof, just look at Tom Brady’s stat line: In the first half, he was 13-of-14 for 196 yards and a TD. In the second half, he was 6-of-15 for 156 yards (81 of which came on one play), a TD and two INTs. The Pats lone second half points came on that 81-yard pass, a TD to Sam Aiken, at 12:03 of the third quarter, which was also their only score after the first play of the second quarter. Two trips inside the Dolphins’ 10-yard line (the first of which came at the end of the first half) resulted in zero points and was symptomatic of their struggles in the red zone all year long. Randy Moss caught two balls in the first quarter, one for a 58-yard score, then wasn’t heard from again. Laurence Maroney, who again ran hard in the first half, barely saw the field in the second. And even the remarkable Wes Welker, who had another enormous game, was held without a catch in the game’s final 12 minutes, though that is likely attributable to the Dolphins changing up their coverages on him after being burned so badly through the first three quarters. It was another painful performance for this group, proving again that it is unable to roll with any adjustments made on it by opposing defenses. If he skids hadn’t yet been greased enough for Charlie Weis’ return to Foxboro, after Sunday, they should be.

Quarterbacks: B-

Brady’s numbers tell most of the story, but not all of it. After looking so sharp in the first half, he seemed unable to make several throws after halftime. Maybe it was the different looks shown by the Dolphins, maybe it was the bruised ring finger on his throwing hand acting up on him. But whatever the reason, he wasn’t the same guy. On two deep throws, he overthrew an open Aiken, who I guess you could say should have had both, but each would have been a spectacular catch. The ill-fated end zone INT in the fourth quarter on what looked like a fade route to Moss was underthrown, and although Moss did him no favors in not making a play to try to knock the ball down, a better, loftier pass may well have done the trick. And come the later stages of the fourth, he was trying too hard and too often to force the ball to Welker (as evidenced by the second INT), who by that point was being double and sometimes triple covered on every passing situation. Brady looks annoyed on the field lately, even when things are going well. Maybe it has to do with his performance, maybe it has to do with the randomness of the play-calling, which was again lousy on Sunday. Considering he looks fairly normal health-wise (with the possible exception of the finger) I’m not sure what else it could be.

Running Backs: C

Maroney and Sammy Morris basically split the duties right down the middle, with Maroney seeing the bulk of the action in the first half and Morris in the second. Both had their moments but neither did much to distinguish himself. Morris’s inability to gain half a yard from the fullback spot on that fourth and goal call at the end of the first half, whether it was the right decision or not, set the tone for the remainder of the game. Maroney didn’t dance all that much to his credit, but was spotty on a couple of outside runs in both halves, settling for short losses instead of putting his head down and trying to make something out of nothing. There was no rhythm or consistency to the running game, which allowed the Miami defense to sit back and wait for the Patriots to try to throw. This is less the fault of Maroney and Morris than it is the game plan/play-calling, but better efforts on both of their parts certainly would have helped. Kevin Faulk scored a TD on a nifty, nine-yard draw play out of a shotgun set in the second quarter and became the fifth leading rusher in team history, but was mostly invisible otherwise.

Wide Receivers: B

Welker, who is easily the best player the Patriots offense has (95 catches, 1.053 yards in 10 games), put up another 10 catches and another 167 yards despite being shut out during the later stages. He has added a downfield component to his game, coming up with a fantastic, 58-yard catch and run on a straight slant and go route down the middle of the field in the second quarter that preceded the failed fourth down call at the Miami six. As far as his getting taken away for that final 12 minutes, it’s not really on him. He does pretty much everything he can to get open and it’s the job of the coaches to figure out how to get him freed up when the double teams come. And also, it was more than refreshing to see him get so fired up on the sideline and at the podium in the aftermath. Hopefully some of his frustration will rub off on Moss, who seemed disinterested for stretches of the game. I’m not remotely going to call Moss out, not when he’s done so much for the team in so many ways over his two+ seasons here. But he didn’t do much to combat the Miami double-teams on Sunday and his effort on the end zone pick could have been better. It was not Moss’s best day as a Patriot, to be sure. Aiken, who made one of the plays of the year on his jump ball, leaping catch and run on the 81-yard TD is becoming a threat as a third receiver, just in time for the most crucial games of the season. If he had come down with either of those fourth quarter bombs on which Brady just missed him, the post-game chatter would have taken on a much different tone. Still, it’s nice to see him stepping up and getting better, although his offensive pass interference penalty on an apparent fourth down completion to Welker in a key third quarter situation was a killer. Given his improvement, it can be taken with a grain of salt.

Tight Ends: Incomplete

Once again, I’m not sure exactly how to handle Ben Watson and Chris Baker. The two of them combined for one catch, a checkdown dump off to Baker in the second quarter when all of Brady’s downfield options were covered. But according to Mike Reiss’s ESPN snap chart, both were on the field for about three-quarters of the Pats offensive plays. So why not use them? Watson was showing signs of results on his immense promise earlier in the year, but has been absolutely nowhere lately with not a single pass coming his way on Sunday. What’s wrong with trying to get him the ball? At the very least, it would diversify the offense somewhat beyond the ultra-predictable mess its become and force defenses to focus elsewhere than just on Moss and Welker. In past years, the Pats have thrived on tight end production, whether it was from Watson or Daniel Graham or Kyle Brady or even David Thomas. Now, the position has been rendered almost entirely obsolete save for acting like a sixth lineman and it’s hurting the team in a big way.

Offensive Line: C+

Again, a tale of two halves. In the first, they were mostly magnificent, despite Stephen Neal being injured again. They provided ample time for Brady on the deep ball to Moss (though he was crushed a split second after releasing the ball), which was off a fake double reverse. On a screen to Welker in the first quarter, Matt Light kicked out and ran roughshod over a couple of linebackers and did a good job on his nemesis Jason Taylor all day. Dan Koppen sealed off two guys beautifully on Faulk’s TD run and everything was going great. But when the unit couldn’t get enough push on Morris’ fourth an inches run, things started to turn. Logan Mankins had a tough holding penalty early in the third quarter. The group as a whole once again had a hard time keeping up with three and four man rushes when Miami started to drop more guys into coverage in the second half. Brady was under more pressure, some a result of the coverage on Moss and Welker but more a result of the line being in its heels in the second half. And on the final throw of the game, Nick Kaczur, still showing lingering effects of his schooling at the hands of Robert Mathis in Indy three weeks ago, was blown away by Cameron Wake, who corralled Brady by the legs, forcing the pass to be wobbly and well underthrown, for the game sealing pick. The game kind of summed up the whole season for this group in a nutshell. The lack of continuity thanks to all of the injuries suffered at one point or another by everyone but Mankins has left them inconsistent and even a bit slow, regardless of the fact that they’ve been a unit for so long now. They are still susceptible to speed and athleticism, evidenced by the continued issues with three and four man fronts. Simply put, they are not what they once were, which right now makes them no different from anyone else on the team.

DEFENSE: Overall Grade: C-

So the Pats held the Dolphins to 22 points. Big deal. Coming into the game ranked 30th in passing offense, Miami carved up their opponents to the tune of 328 yards through the air and 416 overall. Quarterback Chad Henne and his rubbery helmet face posted career highs in completions (29), pass attempts (52) and yards (328) in just his ninth career start, reaching the yardage mark halfway through the third quarter. He faced zero pressure all day long, getting sacked once by Tully Banta-Cain and Jerod Mayo once in the first quarter and knocked down just one other time. Receiver Davone Bess caught 10 balls for 117 yards and a TD and was made to look like Jerry Rice by the hideous Patriots secondary. Given the ease with which they threw the ball all day, it seemed odd that the Dolphins ran it at all. The Pats came up with a couple of big stops in the fourth quarter but the players barely had time to take their helmets off before having to hit the field again thanks to the continued three-and-outs committed by the offense, then couldn’t make one last play on a fourth-and-6 pass play late in the game which put the Dolphins in range to kick the winning field goal. If the Patriots want to go anywhere in January other than golfing, they best figure out a way to make plays on this side of the ball. They didn’t make nearly enough on Sunday.

Defensive Line: B-

The strongest portion of the D all year was the strongest again on Sunday, though that’s not saying much. The Miami running game, it’s greatest strength all year, was held mostly in check by big Vince Wilfork and his mates, who kept it to a 3.3 YPA. This is probably due to the fact that the Dolphins didn’t really need to run given the lack of resistance when they threw, but still, we’ll give the D-line some credit for this. Wilfork and Mike Wright each made a couple of nice stops on running plays while rookie Myron Pryor came up with a big tackle for a loss late. Jarvis Green played one of his best games of the year, active all day against the run and getting a couple of sniffs of Henne, as well as blowing up an option attempt in the first quarter along with Adalius Thomas. And Ty Warren, who has done nothing since injuring his ankle in London, came up with a big play in the fourth quarter on a third down pass attempt that gave the offense a chance to finish things off. It wasn’t a stellar day for these guys by any means. But in comparison with everyone else who plays defense for the Pats, it was tremendous.

Linebackers: D

I’ve run out of things to say about these guys so we’ll make this brief. Mayo and Gary Guyton again piled up the tackles but with the exception of Mayo’s co-sack with Banta-Cain, none had any real impact. There were a couple of more plays on which Mayo was deked or blown off the ball as well, continuing a troubling trend, while Guyton was victimized in coverage more than once. Banta-Cain made that play early followed by Phil Simms remarking that he’s the Pats best pass rusher. Then, the Dolphins started paying attention to him and he did diddely-poo for the rest of the day. Adalius Thomas was in on that big option loss early on but continued to rack up the missed tackles and blown plays while also continuing to look old, slow and washed up. And of course, the weekly dunce cap wearer of Patriots Daily University, the immortal Derrick Burgess, made one meaningless tackle while keeping his campaign to go the entire season without doing a single thing of merit alive. These guys stink right now in a major way. There don’t seem to be any signs of improvement.

Secondary: D

Only not an F because of the couple of decent, second half plays made by Leigh Bodden and Brandon McGowan. This group was torched again, this time by someone who doesn’t even live in the same galaxy as the likes of Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. Darius Butler got his first career start and was subsequently picked on time and again, several times on outside throws to Bess or fellow no-name receivers Greg Camarillo and Brian Hartline, all of whom looked Hall-of-Fame-esque against the Pats lousy cadre of DBs. One hitch route after another worked to perfection – it was like watching a high school passing offense picking on an inferior opponent at times – and Butler, until making one nice stop in the fourth quarter, was powerless to do anything about it, including on Bess’s TD, on which his flat-footed misread of the play was compounded by two missed tackles. Jonathan Wilhite’s miserable stretch is clearly in his head – he was spun around and running aimlessly down the field all day long. He had no chance on any ball that came his way, a fact that was given full credence by his pathetic, 37-yard pass interference penalty late in the second quarter that led to a big Dolphins field goal. Bodden broke up a sure TD pass with a well-timed deflection but looked out of position on the play. He was also the closest man to a wide open Hartline on his third quarter TD. McGowan broke up a pass to tight end Anthony Fasano in a big spot late and had a couple of nice hits, but does not look like the same player as he did earlier in the year. And Brandon Meriweather, who had an INT on a terribly overthrown ball by Henne on a play in which he was playing center field 50 yards away from the line of scrimmage, had no tackles and submitted a couple of his customary brain farts in coverage. The one silver lining I can find in this group’s terrible play of late is that they are young and seem to possess at least a modicum of talent that, if they are allowed to grow together, could prove valuable down the line. But all they are doing now is getting the Pats beat, allowing one pass play to be completed after another, which in turn forces the rest of the defense to be stuck on the field. It’s dumbfounding that the veteran Shawn Springs isn’t deemed good enough to play given what else is out there. Maybe Sunday’s putrid performance will provide the opening he needs to return.

Special Teams: C

Other than punter Chris Hanson, who had another excellent game with a 50-yard average, nothing of consequence. Matthew Slater returned most of the kickoffs (Bulter and Welker chipped in too) and doesn’t seem capable of doing anything but running straight out to the 20 or 25-yard line and getting blasted, perhaps a contributing factor to the team’s kick return rank being 30th out of 32 teams. And Stephen Gostkowski, who did not attempt any field goals (even though he probably should have on that fourth-and-6 call) is now not able to kick the ball deep into the end zone anymore, something he did with ease time after time earlier in the year. Man, when it rains, it pours.

Coaching: C-

Until the play-calling gets better, until the defensive scheme is altered to the point where the linebackers and DBs have a chance to make plays (and given the alarming lack of production in these areas, that’s probably not all it will take) and until the short yardage decisions start to yield better results (and make more sense), these coaching grades will continue to hover around academic probation levels. It’s obvious that without Josh McDaniels (and Charlie Weis for that matter), the offense is not the same and QB coach/play-caller/de facto offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is on the hook. Why keep abandoning the run so quickly? Why not get the tight ends involved? Why keep failing to acknowledge simple factors like needing one first down to close out the game with a two-point lead on the Pats penultimate drive and then calling for a deep throw on third down instead of looking to exploit a matchup and get just the requisite yardage? Why bring back the run on a big third-and-six in the fourth quarter? There is no rhyme or reason to the offense, where plays are called seemingly at random. This is not just on O’Brien, it’s on Bill Belichick as well, and while no one really knows how many of his fingerprints are on this aspect of the game, he has to see that it’s just not working. And he needs to get more consistent, too. The call to punt on fourth-and-inches near midfield in the second quarter given the flow of the game at the time (Miami had just completed its first long scoring march but the Pats offense hadn’t short circuited yet) made no sense. Everything is out of whack with this team right now. And it was all on display on Sunday in Miami.

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