By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
OK, class. Raise your hands if you were confident, extremely confident, or perhaps even over-confident, regarding the Pats chances in Sunday night’s game against the Green Bay Packers. The way they’d been playing over their previous five games on both sides of the ball. The Packers running a former seventh-rounder out there to make his first career NFL start. A home game under the lights in prime time against a team that lost 7-3 to the, ahem… Detroit Lions, last week. It didn’t phase you in the slightest when yahoos like Scott Zolak cheerfully proclaimed things like, “Easy one, guys. 34-9. Mark it down,” during the pregame radio broadcast, did it? Shame shame shame. Because even though the Pats escaped the Pack with a 31-27 win of the gut-wrenching variety, it was as ugly as a win can be, maybe even more so than that stinkbomb planted out in San Diego in Week 7, and if you don’t believe that, just listen to Bill Belichick’s post-game press conference, in which he sounded almost as morose as he did after losing Super Bowl XLII. The Packers came up with a perfect game plan and that combined with a sluggish night on offense along with a brutal, hugely regressy evening for the injury/suspension-depleted defense made for a nail-biter that I’m certain few in these parts saw coming. If not for two returns, one an INT for a score by Kyle Arrington, the other a 71-yard kick return by O-lineman Dan Connolly of all people (arguably the play of the year) that led to a TD, this may well have been a far darker day of analysis and report cardage. Still, in the end, with the money on the table and the fourth quarter time winding down, plays were made and the game was won. Tom Brady didn’t play anything near his best game but still managed it beautifully down the stretch while the D, completely and totally worn out by the time Green Bay’s final handful of possessions came around, reached down as deep as it collectively could and ended the proceedings with a flourish, with a little help from some of the worst clock management by the Packers that I’ve ever seen. It just goes to show, yet again, that there are rarely any gimmes in this league, that each week is a whole different set of circumstances unto itself and that thankfully, as poorly as the Pats played, they still are the masters of closing out games when they need to. So with that, let’s cheer up a little bit and get to this week’s report card, now with free sample doses of Maalox for all.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B-
It’s tempting to grade higher here given that the Pats offense had the ball for less than 20 minutes and only 44 plays all night yet still managed to score 24 points. But they were off rhythm on that side of the ball almost all game and while much credit for that has to go to the Packers excellent defense, the Pats seemed to have a hard time adjusting to what Green Bay was throwing at them throughout the game. There were only two sustained drives in the game and while one of them was very well-timed (the fourth quarter game-winner), that’s normally not going to be enough to win, particularly in the playoffs. Brady avoided a couple of picks on poorly thrown passes to extend his string of attempts without an INT to 292, now a league record, but was typically excellent when it mattered most on the game-winning TD drive in the fourth quarter. He didn’t get a lot of help from his receiving corps this week thanks in large part to the Packers duo of star corners, but the tight ends, Aaron Hernandez especially, made up for that in a major way. And while the line deserves a round of applause for containing Defensive Player of the Year shoo-in Clay Matthews (most of which goes to Sebastian Vollmer), the guys up front had a much harder time with everyone else who came at them as Brady was sacked three times and never seemed to be able to stay on his spot comfortably with any consistency. Despite all this, there were still enough plays made to ensure the win, as opposed to the Cleveland game back in Week 9, when the offense couldn’t overcome a similar mediocre/inconsistent performance. It was a textbook example of a very good team overcoming a less than good performance and winning anyway. It may not have been pretty, but it’ll likely prove to be an important lesson going forward.
None of this Offensive Player of the Week business for Brady this week. It was a far cry from the 350-plus yard, four TDs per week stuff he’s been posting like it’s as easy as changing his and Gisele’s kids diapers the past few games. But it wasn’t ordinary. On the contrary, Brady was as ruthlessly efficient as he’s always capable of being when he needed to be. Those long scoring drives he engineered may have been few and far between but look at the timing of them both – in the first quarter as a direct response to the Packers game-opening onside kick and in the fourth quarter after Green Bay left the door open a crack by kicking a 19-yard field goal to make its lead six points instead of go for a TD on fourth-and 1 to potentially make the lead 10 points (a decision by coach Mike McCarthy, i might add, that I foolishly agreed with at the time, even while being derided for it by my viewing mates). It seemed surreal to watch NBC’s graphic noting that with two minutes left in the third quarter, a Brady led team had just 129 total yards and held the ball for a jaw-dropping 1:14 seconds for that entire period. But following the Packers field goal, Brady got everyone in the no-huddle and went 54 yards in seven plays, starting with a 35 yard strike to Wes Welker, and culminating in a field goal by Shayne Graham. Then, after a surprising three-and-out by the defense and with a little momentum in hand, he went to work again, leading a six-play, 63-yard TD march to give the Pats a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The piece de resistance on that drive on that drive was naturally the TD, on which Brady, seeing Hernandez singled up out wide on a nickel corner, checked the play from an inside run to a quick out, easily getting Hernandez his second score of the night. It was vintage Brady, seeing the mismatch then taking advantage of it. Again, the numbers were down in a big way from the past five weeks (15-of-24, 163 yards, 6.8 YPA). But there was nothing to complain about regarding the two TD passes and 110.2 passer rating. Extrapolate that out to a more normal number as far as time of possession and number of plays are concerned and maybe we’re discussing that Offensive Player of the Week business again.
Running Backs: A-
Danny Woodhead missed a blitz pickup. The Law Firm known as BenJarvus Green-Ellis was trapped for no gain or a loss a couple of times. Other than that, it was aces for the Pats running game. They only ran the ball 16 times all night due to the limited time on the field, but man, did they make the most of it. Law Firm and Rudy 2 (along with a 16-yard reverse by Hernandez) racked up 113 yards and a TD, good for a 7.1 average. On the scoring run, a fantastic, 33-yarder by BJGE (his 12th of the season), he waited behind perfect blocks inside by Vollmer and on the edge by Welker and Alge Crumpler, got into the open field, got behind a crushing, downfield block by Deion Branch and coasted home. Woodhead had 34 yards on five carries on the Pats two fourth quarter scoring drives and also inserted a huge, 12-yard catch and run to open the TD march. The superior balance on offense shown by the Pats all year was on full display and represented yet another chapter in the stunning, out-of-nowhere success stories that Law Firm and Woody have been penning since September. And they went a long way toward saving the Pats from what would have been an ugly loss.
Wide Receivers: C+
Sort of a supporting role at best kind of night for this group. Welker had that huge, 35-yard grab and big block on BJGE’s scoring run, and that’s about it. Branch had two catches and while both were immense (a 17-yarder on third-and 17 to sustain the first quarter TD drive and a 16-yarder on the fourth quarter TD drive that he stayed with and caught despite Brady’s arm being hit as he threw), that was pretty much it. Again, the Packers corner tandem – Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams – are stars and they effectively blanketed Welker and Branch all night to the point that they were rendered borderline obsolete. Last year, if Welker and Randy Moss had been taken away from Brady the way Welker and Branch were on Sunday night, it would have been curtains. But this year’s offense is so much more diverse and spread out and Brady is operating so much more fluidly, that the team can survive his top two receivers combining for just five catches and 75 yards. No need to worry too much here.
Tight Ends: A
Another week, another win, another stellar showing by at least one of the Pats fledgling superstars at the tight end position. This week it was Hernandez, who burned whomever had the misfortune of having to cover him pretty much every time Brady called his number. Displaying the wide receiver-type skills that make him nearly impossible to cover with a linebacker or a safety, and taking advantage. Hernandez pulled two TDs out of his bag on the night, the first one a wide open grab in the flat three plays after Connolly’s stunning kick return and the second that audible on which he smoked rookie corner Sam Shields with a picture perfect out cut, then shed Shields’ weak tackle attempt as he high-stepped into the end zone. When Hernandez gets a little more seasoning, a little more consistency, a little more experience, he could be one of the top tight ends in the league given his size alongside how skilled and talented he is. He’s a major weapon and he showed it on Sunday night. Rob Gronkowski only had one catch for 25 yards but was big in the running game as he gets better and better each week as a blocker. Spending as much time as he does with Alge Crumpler, one of the best blocking tight ends there is, has to help.
Offensive Line: B-
It was a banner night for Vollmer, who bore most of the responsibility in keeping Matthews bottled up. The Packers star had two tackles, period. He didn’t get to Brady a single time. It was his most ineffective performance since Week 7 against Minneota which came one week after he missed a game against Miami with a concussion. There were problems up the middle though, as Brady was pushed from the pocket fairly routinely by pressure from nose tackle B.J. Raji and middle linebacker Desmond Bishop. Those two combined for all three of the Packers sacks as well as a couple more hits on Brady. Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen and Connolly, before he left with a concussion, were a step slow on several occasions when the Packers brought that heat over center. Ultimately, it didn’t hurt too too badly as the Packers pressure let up in the fourth quarter when the Pats were in hurry-up mode. And the run blocking was excellent, as evidenced by the lofty, 7.1 yard rushing average. It wasn’t the O-line’s best night by any stretch, but collectively, they did enough to win. Kind of like the whole team.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: C
It felt a lot like September/October all over again, watching the defense run around in circles, crashing into each other, missing tackles and just generally looking inept. Here are a few raw numbers if you don’t believe it: Through three quarters, the Packers, held the ball for 31:26 of 45 minutes. They were 9-for-13 on third down. They had four drives of 11 plays or more, all of which resulted in points and all of which took at least six minutes off the clock. Their 24th ranked rushing attack rolled up 143 yards rushing at four yards a pop. And their quarterback, the one with one half of regular season NFL experience, was 24-of-37 for 251 yards, three TDs, just one pick and a 100.2 passer rating. It could have been worse; the Packers were only 2-of-5 in the red zone. The converted just two of their six third downs in the fourth quarter while allowing two of the Pats five sacks down the stretch. And the fact that they gained only one yard on three plays from the Pats three-yard line before eventually settling for that field goal, speaks volumes. The D was mostly shredded but was able to not entirely break after being bent that far back. The Pats made plays when they needed to make them the most and were able to overcome some massive deficiencies. Some of it was a byproduct of the offense not dominating the game and giving the D a huge early lead as it has the past couple weeks. Some of it was that they are thin thanks to injuries, especially on the line. Some of it is that they are still not that good. But they survived on Sunday night. That may not be so easy come playoff time.
Defensive Line: C
You gotta hand it to Vince Wilfork. The guy played pretty much the whole game thanks to the injuries to Mike Wright, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace (and the one suffered in game by Brandon Deaderick). He had a couple of costly penalties and there was a second half stretch when the Packers actually ran at him behind some double teams and had success. But he still managed six tackles and had a hand in a few others while seemingly everyone else around him was missing them left and right. After the game, Belichick praised Wilfork effusively, calling his effort, “oustanding,” and labeling the game, “one of the best games he’s played. And he’s played a lot of them.” Who am I to argue with that? Otherwise, it was slim pickins. Some props to Eric Moore, a linebacker who was forced to line up down in passing situations for most of his time in the game due to all the injuries and responded with his second sack in as many games. But Packers running back Brandon Jackson was allowed his second best game of the year, running for 99 yards on 22 attempts while fullback John Kuhn brought back memories of the Browns Peyton Hillis bulldozing over Pats defenders six weeks ago in Cleveland. Given the deficiencies of the pass defense, it’s imperative that the Pats at least contain their opponents running games. Perhaps if/when Pryor and Wright and Brace are back to good health and Brandon Spikes suspension is up, this will be a slightly easier task than it was on Sunday.
This group probably provided the best collective performance of any level of the Pats D. Jerod Mayo had as good a game as he’s had in several weeks, looking quicker and more agile than he has over the past few games and rolling up another 10 tackles as a result. And Dane Fletcher had one of the defensive plays of the night with his sack of Flynn on the Packers final drive, a killer, 8-yard loss that forced the Packers to use their final timeout with 53 seconds left to play. Jermaine Cunningham also had a nice game, getting in on Flynn a few times. He couldn’t quite close the deal, only getting one QB hit on the stat sheet, but he was quick and aggressive and again, showed some skill in holding the edge on outside runs. Rob Ninkovich also had another strong showing, sacking Flynn once and getting to him another time while also making a few big sticks on Jackson. He fell down on a TD flip to Kuhn when he was the only thing between the Packers fullback and the end zone, but his play the rest of the night made up for it. Tully Banta-Cain ended the game with his strip sack of Flynn which was lucky for him given his atrocious, hands-to-the-face penalty a few plays earlier that wiped out an INT that would have buried the Packers. It was some sweet redemption for Tully. And Gary Guyton, our boy, was overwhelmed by a lot of the Packers inside runs. He’s just not big or strong enough to be an every down middle linebacker, which is why when Spikes plays, he only comes in for obvious passing situations. It was sort of sad to see him miss tackles and get wiped out several times after his huge game last week in Chicago in which it seemed he’d turned the proverbial corner. Hopefully, for him and the entire Pats D, opposing offenses won’t be as proficient or capable of running straight at him as the Packers were over the next two weeks.
Defensive Backs: C-
Save for Kyle Arrington’s right-place-at-the-right-time pick 6 and another all-around game by Devin McCourty (10 tackles, two for a loss, one QB hit, a sack and a couple pass breakups), it was a dreary night for the secondary. Flynn had his way with them most of the night with none other than Brandon Meriweather providing the biggest gaffe. After Flynn completed a go-route pass to James Jones in the second quarter on a play where McCourty was beaten by a step, Meriweather turned a 15-17 yard play into a 66-yard TD thanks to, a) being late to help on his side of the field, b) taking as bad an angle on the play as I’ve seen since the last high school game I covered and c) subsequently smashing into McCourty’s sore ribs, knocking both of them out of the play while Jones strolled into the end zone. It was a pretty apt summation of Meriweather’s career; no discernable clue about how to properly do anything except try to level a guy with his shoulder or helmet only not even being able to do that either. When word got out prior to the game that his snaps had been reduced over the past couple weeks for being late to meetings (another example of his utter stupidity, along the lines of admitting earlier in the year that he’d lost time for ignoring coaching in favor of freelancing and doing what he felt like doing), it seemed to reflect a greater possibility than ever that he will be jettisoned after the season, a move that will do nothing but help the secondary and the entire defense in a major way. One can only hope. Arrington had a bit of a rough night other than the TD return but that was such a huge play and he looked so impressive in making it thanks to all of those shed tackles, it’s OK to look the other way. Patrick Chung made a giant play in stopping Jones short of a first down on third-and 11 late in the fourth which led to that burning away of the clock right before the final play of the game. And that’s mostly it. When a guy with an acumen as bereft of pretty much anything as Flynn’s can carve you up with such ease, you don’t deserve much better than that C-. Again, plays were made late and that’s certainly important. But they didn’t come without some serious nail-biting. The Pats have to get back to what they were doing at this level of the defense against the Steelers and Jets and Bears. As Belichick said, “their season won’t last much longer if they don’t.”
Special Teams: A
Zoltan Mesko had a pretty good night. The kick and punt coverage was fine. Shayne Graham didn’t miss any kicks. So why the A? Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly, Dan Connolly and Dan Connolly. That’s why. One of the best plays I’ve ever seen. How about that cutback around the Green Bay 20? Unbelievable.
Not going to be as hard on the coaches as Belichick was on himself. With the exception of needing to send more pressure at Flynn than they actually did, there wasn’t really too much wrong with the looks the defense was showing, the problems were with the execution of those schemes. It’s understandable why the Pats don’t rush the passer more than they do; the secondary, with the exception of McCourty, is so weak, Belichick and his defensive staff must be terrified of leaving the DBs alone in man coverage of pretty much any receiving corps. When they did bring the pressure though, they were mostly successful. It’s not Belichick’s fault that more than half the defensive line is hurt and Brandon Spikes is a knucklehead (it might be at least partially their fault that Meriweather, and to a lesser extent, Darius Butler are so bad at this point, but that’s another column). Offensively, there wasn’t much time to properly assess the game plan but it was quite impressive that when Bill O’Brien and Co. had their chance to take the game in the fourth quarter, they adjusted to the perfect counter to all of the Packers pressure in going no-huddle. Maybe Belichick was referring to how well or not well motivated the players were when he said over and over again after the game how much better a job he himself needs to do. If so, that’s also on the players; if you need your coach to motivate you when there’s as much at stake as there is for the Pats these next few weeks, you should find another job. This season has proven thus far to be Belichick’s best job since 2001, right up there with 2008, 2003 and 2004. It wasn’t him or his staff that was the issue on Sunday night against the Packers. He must know that and had to have said what he said to protect his guys. It’s a safe bet that those guys will find that out from him in no uncertain terms starting before practice tomorrow, if not sooner.