By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
There aren’t too many occasions for a must-win game in the NFL’s first four weeks, particularly in the case of a consistently successful team like the Patriots. But Sunday’s matchup with the Raiders out in Oakland was close. Sure, if the Pats had lost and fallen to 2-2 on the year, the sky wouldn’t have fallen over Foxboro. But in the aftermath of last week in Buffalo, where the Pats tossed a 21-0 lead overboard and were run off the field by the upstart Bills, another defeat at the hands of a questionable opponent would have been cause for much hand-wringing around these parts.
Whether he was thinking in these terms or not (note: he probably wasn’t), coach Bill Belichick had to have felt at some sense of urgency last week after his Ferrari of an offense broke down and his Yugo of a defense blew every last gasket. Which is why in the aftermath of a 31-19 win, so many players up and down the line made reference to what a good, hard-working, disciplined week of practice the Pats had leading up to the trip out west. The offense needed to toughen and tighten up and the defense, needed to do something, anything, to stop the bleeding which spewed out of control last week in Buffalo. Both units were successful in doing so.
Offensively, Tom Brady rebounded nicely from his nightmare performance at the Bills and put up a solid if mundane line that featured no mistakes and just the right number of well-timed heroics. The Pats uncorked their running game in attempt to beat the Raiders at what they do best and came out on top in that department. And on defense, realizing that there isn’t anyone on that side of the ball who can handle the aggressive, 4-3 aligned, man coverage scheme that had failed so miserably over the first three weeks, Belichick went back to his old standby – the zone – taking a huge pile of pressure off his lousy defensive backfield. That worked too, and even though the Pats were scorched for another massive yardage output (504), the point total stayed down far enough for the offense to do its thing and provide enough of a cushion for everyone to take the Raiders final, garbage-time drive off. It’s a formula that will work against middling, mediocre teams that beat themselves like Oakland (nine penalties, two brutal turnovers); the question is, was and still remains, can it work against a really good team. We may not have to wait much longer for an answer with the Jets coming in to Gillette Stadium this week. But in the meanwhile, let’s get to this week’s report card, much more positive for your reading pleasure.
Brady played just fine and while that may seem like somewhat of a letdown after the fireworks of his first three games, on a day like Sunday, it’s was all the Pats needed. He only threw 30 passes and completed just 16, good for 226 yards, a pittance by Brady’s standards. But he threw two more TD passes, passing Joe Montana for ninth all-time, (his 13th straight game with two or more scores, tying Peyton Manning’s all-time record) and each of them were typically perfect throws. The first was that hitch/option route to the incomparable Wes Welker that seems to work every time they try it. It went for 15 yards and was yet another example of Brady and Welker being so hard-wired together, they may as well share the same brain. The second was a four-yard short post to Deion Branch to give the Pats a 24-13 lead at the end of the third quarter. The play looked simple enough but look closer; the pass couldn’t have been delivered more on time or in a better spot and it was nice to see Branch, who hadn’t had a catch since the fourth quarter in Week 2, get back on the same page with his QB. Brady didn’t even come close to throwing a pick a week after he had four, and stood up well to the Raiders pass rush, which was fast and pumped up all game long (particularly former Pat Richard Seymour, so fired up to face his old team that he single-handedly piled up 30 yards worth of penalties on the Pats first scoring drive). Brady’s 30 pass attempts equalled the Pats rushing attempts and it felt good to see that kind of balance and know that the team can be successful on that side of ball without him having to be a superhero. Nice and solid, nothing more, nothing less, for No. 12.
Running Backs: A
The Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and his rookie backfield mate Stevan Ridley combined to carry the ball 26 times for 172 yards and two TDs. Coming into the game, the Raiders led the NFL in rushing so the Pats simply beat them at their own game. BJGE had an excellent bounce back game after his virtual no-show in Buffalo, rolling up 75 yard on 16 carries (4.7 YPA) and a score. But the real story was Ridley, who followed up his eye-opening performance against the Bills with a far superior one. He ripped off 97 yards on just 10 attempts with the coup de grace being a 33-yard scamper on which he burst through a hole over right guard Brian Waters, shook a tackle on the second level, followed a block by Brach to the outside and exploded to the end zone for his first career TD. Ridley seems a nice hybrid of BJGE and Danny Woodhead (out with an ankle injury after two carries for 13 yards), powerful yet shifty. The most apparent difference between Ridley and the other two, though, is speed. Ridley is clearly the most explosive back the Pats have (unless fellow rookie Shane Vereen, who can’t get on the field, is faster). Woodhead’s injury opened it up for Ridley to have more opportunities in the game and judging by the results, that pattern should continue.
Wide Receivers: B+
All hail Welker. Brady referred to him as the “heart and soul” of the Pats and right now, it’s hard to imagine a better description. In another virtuoso performance, Welker caught nine more passes for 158 more yards and another TD. He now has 40 catches for 616 yards and five scores though four games and to say he’s Brady’s favorite target would be the understatement to end all understatements. 14 of Brady’s 30 passes went his way. No other pass catcher had more than two receptions. It’s Welker or bust, something that Jets coach Rex Ryan has to be aware of when he prepares for this week’s game. Expect Darrelle Revis, not only the Jets best corner but probably the best corner in the league, to shadow Welker wherever he goes. Elsewhere, Branch finally got involved again with that second half TD. Brady did throw in his direction four times so it’s not like he’s the forgotten man. But to see him actually get back in the stat column was a relief. He’ll be a major point of emphasis against the Jets given all the attention Welker gets. Chad Ochocinco again only caught two passes and is now getting reps taken from him by Julian Edelman and (ahem) Matthew Slater (21 snaps for Slater, 18 for Ochocinco and 17 for Edelman). But he caught both passes Brady threw him, didn’t have any stupid penalties, ran crisp, clean routes and looked like he may be moving out of the Joey Galloway memorial doghouse. Again, more will be needed of him down the line, particularly this week against the Jets.
Tight Ends: B
It’s Gronk’s world, we all just live in it. Again without Aaron Hernandez, Gronk was the tight end, playing 66 of 66 offensive snaps. His stats were way down (one catch, 15 yards) mostly due to a combination of the Pats commitment to the run, the preponderance of throws to Welker and the fact that he is now getting double and even triple covered both on the goal line and on that deep seam route he and Brady mastered over the course of last season and the first two and half games of this one. Still, he was crucial in getting the running game going thanks to his blocking ability and getting Hernandez back should open things back up for Gronk in the passing game; he’s been blanketed for the past week and half. And in brief, practice squad lineman Thomas Welch saw a good deal of time as a second tight end, essentially as another piece of the running game, and acquitted himself nicely. Both BJGE and Ridley’s long runs of the day came with Welch on the field as a sixth blocker.
Offensive Line: A
Bravo to these guys. If Brady, Welker and the BJGE/Ridley combo are going to get the majority of the credit for this one, let’s hope they all remember to single out the O-line. Brady was barely touched, taking just one sack on a delayed safety blitz, and was only hit four times (not including when Seymour body slammed him well after the whistle in the first quarter to earn a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty). The Raiders are fast, physical and tough up front and the Pats took their best shot and didn’t flinch. And in the running game, the O-line dominated. The Pats averaged 6.1 yards per rushing attempt, pushing the Raiders around in the process. Ridley remarked that the holes he saw in front of him were some of the biggest he’d ever seen. Waters in particular was a beast, as was Nate Solder. Ridley ran for six first downs in his 10 carries and they al went to the right side where Waters and Solder set up shop. This group has been solid all year, despite losing both Dan Koppen for the year and Sebastian Vollmer for what feels like it. Its truest test yet comes Sunday against the Jets.
Defensive Line: B
Still not even a sniff of pass rushing ability here as the Pats have now not had a sack in over eight quarters. Once again, Albert Haynesworth did not play due to an achy back and at this point, given his history, it’s not unfair to wonder whether he has any interest in playing football. Early on, Haynesworth’s replacement Kyle Love went down with an injury and given how this the Pats are on the D-line thanks to injuries and guys on the PUP list, his absence was a real concern. Luckily, Love came back just in time to see Vince Wilfork record his second interception in three weeks, an attempt by Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell to dump the ball off to one of his backs only to practically hand the ball to Big Vince. Campbell said he, “didn’t see” Wilfork, but come on. Who can’t see that guy??? Anyway, watching Vince run the ball back as multiple Raiders bounced right off him was one of the highlights of the day. Wilfork was also a huge factor in the Pats containment of the Raiders running game, which still managed 160 yards but 59 of those came from a 30-yard reverse (on which the invisible Shaun Ellis, who is making Ryan and the Jets look like geniuses for letting him go, completely whiffed with a chance at causing a big loss) and four Campbell scrambles. Darren McFadden, the league’s leading rusher headed into the game, had 75 yards on 14 carries but 40 of them came on one play. Take away the reverse and that one 40-yarder for McFadden and the Raiders had 90 yards on 25 attempts. Not too shabby. No wonder Belichick said afterward, “We stood up to a real physical team today.” Now if they could only figure out some way, shape or form to ever get anywhere near the opposing quarterback, we may really be on to something.
Say this for Brandon Spikes – he must have really heard it from Belichick and the defensive coaching staff after his putrid showing in Buffalo because he played arguably his best game as a Patriot on Sunday. Spikes was fearsome in the middle of the Pats run defense, registering multiple monstrous hits. The bulk of Oakland’s luck running the ball came when they took it outside (the reverse, McFadden’s long run). When the Raiders tried to take it up the gut, it seemed like Spikes was there far more than he wasn’t. Spikes is so big and strong and so obviously talented as a run stopper, it’s crucial that he play like he played on Sunday every week. He’s lost in pass coverage, a real problem considering the pass-heavy nature of today’s NFL. But when you need him to be tough, aggressive and threatening in the middle of the defense, he can do it and he proved it on Sunday. In other news, Jerod Mayo went down with a knee injury in the second quarter after another stretch of inconsequential play. It’s being said and written that he could miss six weeks with a sprained MCL and that’s a massive loss due to how indispensable he is. In response, I’d like to know when was the last time Mayo did anything of real import? When was the last time he forced or recovered a fumble? Or intercepted a pass? Or did anything remotely resembling making a play? The Pats have the worst defense in the NFL with Mayo as its leader and captain; how much worse could it possibly be without him? Beyond that, three of the Raiders leading receivers were either backs or tight ends, another indictment of how poorly this group plays the pass. Rob Ninkovich was strangely invisible before leaving with a late knee injury. Dane Fletcher looked OK and drew some praise from Belichick in the aftermath. Gary Guyton will probably have to play a lot more with Mayo out and that’s really not good. Jermaine Cunningham barely played once again. And the depth has now been shaken to the point that career special teamer Tracy White saw time in the second half even before garbage time. A better showing than previous games, but still many, many issues.
Defensive Backs: D
For the fourth straight week, an opposing QB passed for well over 300 yards on this group and for the third time out of four, he was a middle of the road, journeyman at best. Campbell will never be confused with Ken Stabler or Rich Gannon or any other great Raider QB of the past but that sure didn’t matter to the Pats. If it weren’t for two utterly hideous INTs – the other was at the end of what looked to be a sure scoring drive before Campbell thought Patrick Chung had switched teams in mid-quarter and threw the ball right to him in the end zone – this one could have been a lot worse. To Belichick’s credit, he realized that his personnel in the defensive backfield couldn’t handle man coverage, especially since the front seven hadn’t caused one iota of trouble for anyone but themselves through the first three games, so he went back to the conservative, all zone all the time approach he’s predominantly used over the past three seasons. It sort of worked, or at least worked better. There was only one truly big play; a 58-yard bomb to Darius Heyward-Bey which was a sensational catch in double coverage. But there were still nine more plays of 20 yards or more. Josh Barrett continues to make the terrible Brandon Meriweather look like Ronnie Lott or Darren Sharper or any safety with even basic ball and tackling skills. Kyle Arrington received a huge break when an obvious pass interference call in the end zone was overturned (and when’s the last time you saw that happen?) but was otherwise not terribly notable in place of the injured Leigh Bodden. Devin McCourty finally had a decent game, probably because he didn’t have to stay with anyone one-on-one. He looked solid in coverage and made several nice tackles (although when your two corners lead your team in tackles as McCourty and Arrington did on Sunday, something’s wrong). Maybe getting back to the scheme in which he played last year will bring him out of his early season doldrums. Chung added four tackles and the Pats only pass break up (and while we’re at it, yes, there was one pass broken up all day by this group out of 39 pass attempts by Campbell) in his return from a one week absence while providing good support in the middle (except when Michael Bush literally ran him over on a second quarter TD run). The bottom line is the bend-don’t-break pass defense of the past three years was back and it was good enough to beat a lackluster offense. But every number associated with this pass defense was once again horrifying. There’s still so so much work left to be done.
Special Teams: B
Other than Stephen Gostkowski’s opening kickoff that went out of bounds, nothing happened here worth more than a cursory mention. Our man Zoltan looked great punting the ball again; now there’s a draft pick the Pats have hit on in the past four years! And the next time Julian Edelman breaks a kick or punt return will be the first of the season. Not much else to see here and that’s OK.
When the even-keeled Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston writes, “This is not a defense that inspires much confidence right now,” after the game, you know things are still pretty bad on that side of the ball. The defense is now allowing an average of 450 yards per game and opponents are converting third downs at a 62 percent clip after the Raiders were 8-of-13 in that department. These numbers will kill the Patriots eventually if they stay anywhere near this level. But Belichick and his staff deserve credit for the way they handled this game. There are a multitude of injuries on this team, particularly on defense (Bodden, Haynesworth, Ras-I Dowling, Mike Wright, etc.) yet the Pats were still able to contain the Raiders biggest strength and not get too overwhelmed in any other area. Additionally, the plan to balance out the offense and run the ball more while controlling the clock instead of trying to run a track meet for 60 minutes worked out splendidly. But we know how adept the offense at just about anything regardless of opponent, personnel, what have you. The real issue, of course, still revolves around the D. Now that Mayo will be out a while, it will be even more of a challenge to come up with ways to get these players in position to suck less. You’d like to think Belichick is up to it. Sunday was a pretty good start.