By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
OK, class, today’s lesson is a very important one so naturally, it starts with a very important question: At what point does it become OK to be worried/anxious/disappointed following a win? Because in the case of the Patriots, now just one game away from the start of the post-season, that time feels very, very near.
It’s hard to come to many other conclusions after Saturday’s 27-24 win over the Miami Dolphins, their seventh consecutive victory, yet another week in which the Pats failed to play a complete game and fell way behind before relying on their own experience and their opponent’s lack thereof to come back and take it. The Pats trailed the Dolphins 17-0 at halftime, had four three-and-outs and punted six times over that stretch while simultaneously allowing still one more journeyman, bottom-of-the-ladder QB carve them to shreds and look like a Hall-of-Famer in the process. Of course, everything changed at halftime. Adjustments were made to the offensive strategy, a couple of looks changed on defense and the Dolphins, who are better than their 5-10 record would indicate, remembered that they are a team chock full of mediocre players coached by mediocre coaches, allowed the Pats to score 27 straight points and escape with the three-point win, clinching a first-round playoff bye. But when those playoff games begin roughly three weeks from now, the competition is going to be far better than the Miami Dolphins and probably the Denver Broncos (who, if certain things fall into place, could well be the Pats Divisional Round opponent in Foxboro the weekend of January 14-15; and while we’re here, let’s hope they are). Can the Pats afford to fall behind by three scores against teams with defenses like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, regardless of where the game is played? Given the events of last year’s Divisional Round loss to the Jets, if the little brother team from New York somehow finds its way back into the tournament and winds up here again on that weekend, will the Pats be able to come back if they fall behind in that one? They couldn’t/didn’t last year.
And therein lies our dilemma. Of course, a win is a win and there’s nothing more important than getting out with that W next to your team’s name in the standings, no matter how it happened. It’s been written in this space pretty much ad nauseum, especially this season. But this team, with its rash of injuries all over the roster and its still abhorrent defense, has really been pushing its luck of late. It’s wonderful to continue to see the Pats overall mental toughness and character demonstrated in multiple ways on a weekly basis. Those intangibles most definitely separate this group from the ones that were dismissed from the playoffs so quickly and resolutely the past two seasons. But at this point, with the games that really count so close and without a win that was ever even remotely in doubt since before Thanksgiving, a good old-fashioned ass-whooping sure would be sweet, seven-game winning streak or not. Sorry to be nitpicky, but it’s true. If the Pats play the way they’ve played in any of their last four games – all against poor to middling competition – in the post-season, it’s going to be yet another long, cold, head-scratching winter in New England. But that’s a column for another day. For now, let’s just get to this week’s report card.
Someone down on the field was wearing a Tom Brady jersey in the first half on Saturday, it’s just hard to be certain whether or not it actually was Brady himself. It certainly didn’t help that not only did his left tackle, Matt Light, aggravate an ankle injury that caused him to be scratched from the active roster during pre-game warmups, his left guard, Logan Mankins, only the best lineman on the team, was felled by a knee injury filling in for Light at LT on the second series of the game forcing him to miss the rest of the afternoon. All of the shake-ups on the line resulted in some serious protection issues and communication problems in the first half and along with all of that, Brady simply wasn’t sharp, skipping throws to open receivers and coming up short or low on one pass after another. Prior to the Pats final drive of the half, which ended in a missed, 51-yard field goal attempt, Brady was 3-of-14 for 37 yards and the Pats ran 27 plays for 56 total yards with just three first downs. But on that final drive of such a miserable half, the Pats discovered that when they shifted to a complete spread formation with five receivers and no running backs on the field, the Dolphins, who’d been throwing one blitz after another at the Pats depleted offensive front all day long up to that point, sacked Brady three times before the half and got to him five other times. But Miami had no answer for the Pats adjustment and wound up surrendering the game’s next 27 points. The Pats scored on five of their six second half drives with Brady going 20-of-27 for 217 yards and a TD over that stretch. He looked to be forcing the ball to Wes Welker in the first half but after halftime, when he spread it around a little bit more, Welker got more room and wound up with one of his patented, double-digit reception days. And again, like in so many other games, he proved to be the master of the QB sneak, twice employing it for TDs while picking up a couple of crucial first downs on other occasions. Brady was a different guy after halftime, pretty much his usual self, and that was lucky for the Pats. What’s also lucky for the Pats is that they have Brady at all. This season, in which there’s been less room for error than any since Brady’s time here began, may well wind up being his best. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has appeared to be the sure-fire MVP all year long. But there have been whispers of late that Brady, given what he has to work with and how near perfect he’s had to have been all season given the shortcomings of his defense, may be a dark horse candidate. Rodgers is fantastic, a superstar in every sense who is having the best year of any QB for the league’s best team, just like Brady in 2007. But Brady’s doing similar stuff with less around him. Maybe there should be some steam to those whispers. Maybe Brady’s the MVP, again.
Running Backs: B
The Pats don’t want to run the ball very often and when they do, they divvy up the attempts among three, four, sometimes five ball carriers (on Saturday, six players, including Welker and Aaron Hernandez, had at least one rushing attempt). But against the Dolphins, one of the many Pats runners made yet another case that he should be the man going forward. Rookie Stevan Ridley, who has averaged five yards every time he’s run the ball this year, had another big game, acting as the closer (20 of his 28 reps came in the second half) and ripping off 64 yards on 13 attempts, including a couple of back breakers in the final minutes. It’s been noted in this space before both that the Pats need to run the ball more and that Ridley is the man, but so what. Let’s say it again! The Pats are always, always, always at their best on offense when their rushing attempts and passing attempts line up. And Ridley, who has really come on the past two weeks after spending a good chunk of the middle of the season in mothballs, is, with all due respect to Danny Woodhead and the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, their best, strongest, quickest, shiftiest back. Keep giving him the snaps and the ball, please. As for the rest of the bunch, Woodhead made the most of his four touches in gaining 20 yards and Benny continued his slide down the depth chart, carrying just three times for 10 yards while playing the fewest snaps of any of the Pats runners. Going forward, how’s about Ridley getting 20 or so carries, Woody as the change of pace, third down guy and Benny in short yardage or at the goal line. Everybody wins.
Wide Receivers: B
Welker had six passes thrown his way in the first half an only caught one. This wasn’t really his fault; he’s Brady’s ultimate security blanket and Brady was under so much duress that he was forcing the ball mostly in an effort to just get rid of it. And it hardly helped that Welker was blanketed early by the Dolphins best corner, Vontae Davis, who was not only in his back pocket but was bumping and chucking him at the line of scrimmage before he could get into any of his routes. But after halftime, when the Pats spread it out, Welker came alive, catching every pass Brady threw his way but one and finishing with a ho-hum, 12 catches and 138 yards, the best of which saw him and Brady immediately recognize that somehow, a linebacker was singled up on him so he ran a streak down the far side seam, hauled in the pass and wound with a 42-yard gain. It says a lot about Welker that even when he’s silenced for long stretches of games, he still almost always has a major impact on them, whether it’s taking some of the coverage away from the Pats other pass catchers or just being patient enough to withstand a one-catch first half and have an 11-catch second half while becoming the all-time leading receiver in franchise history in the process. Please pay the man. Please? Elsewhere, Deion Branch returned from a one-game absence to catch three passes for 37 yards and a TD on which he broke his man’s ankles in cutting back across the end line to flash open just long enough for Brady to find him in the back of the end zone and cut the Miami lead to 17-10. And Chad Ochocinco provided his weekly catch, giving him 15 on the season, or one per game. Six million bucks very shrewdly spent.
Tight Ends: A-
Would you believe that Rob Gronkowski had another big game? He didn’t find the end zone for the second straight week but when the Pats spread it out and he stood and went wide, he blew up. Seven more catches, 78 more yards, a couple more broken tackles and one hysterical cut away in which he wished the CBS viewing audience a Merry Christmas while wearing both a very loud Santa hat and a very silly looking grin. Again, when playing a glorified wide receiver spot, Gronk was basically uncoverable, as was A-Herb, who had a much quiter game than last week in Denver (four catches, 36 yards) but sparked the offense with a 15-yard catch and run on the first play after the Pats opened up the formation and went spread late in the first half. These two, particularly Gronk, play more snaps on offense along with Welker than anyone. Makes sense considering they’re the three most important cogs in the passing game.
Offensive Line: B-
It took a while to get going thanks to all of the personnel changes. No Light, then no Mankins meant two rookie tackles (Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon) along with Donald Thomas, signed 10 minutes ago, at guard and Dan Connolly, just back from an injury, at center. You could see how difficult it was to get everyone on the same page in the first half. But that simple adjustment to spread everything out made all the difference. Again, it helped that the Dolphins couldn’t adjust back, stopped blitzing and basically sat on their heels waiting to get picked apart by Brady. But these guys are so, so well coached that it’s not surprising they shook off some rust and unfamiliarity and wound up dominating. Solder played three positions on Saturday, both tackles spots and tight end, and played them all pretty damn well. The Pats have a real gem in him. And his fellow rookie Cannon continued to draw praise from the coaching staff following just his sixth game after his non-Hodgkins lymphoma went into remission. The Pats aren’t going anywhere if they can’t keep Brady upright and clean, a prospect that seems like it may be difficult if the injuries to Light and Mankins are at all serious. But at least they showed, after a rough beginning, that they can handle being without those two All-Pros if needs be.
Defensive Line: C
Another tale of two halves kind of thing for the defense as a whole, with the front four particularly complicit. Dolphins running back Reggie Bush gained 115 yards on 22 attempts, most of it in the first half, when the Pats D-line was getting pushed around. This week, in the absence of Andre Carter, the Pats came out heavy, moving Brandon Deaderick over to Carter’s side and inserting Shaun Ellis in at the other end. While Ellis played his most snaps since October and had by far his best game of the year (three tackles, a sack, a couple of hits on Dolphins QB Matt Moore) his playing didn’t do much for the Pats run defense, which for the second straight week was suspect at best. Among the interior group of Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Gerard Warren, there were only three solo tackles registered. That’s not going to cut it at all in most weeks. And whither Mark Anderson? After exploding in place of Carter against the Broncos, Anderson got in on only about a third of the defensive snaps (likely the result of the team’s decision to go really big up front) and while he got to Moore for a couple of hits, he was otherwise silent. The Pats pass defense is so susceptible to giving up plays, they need the run defense to step up in a major way and it just hasn’t been there the past two weeks. Wilfork did have a fumble recovery after a bad snap on the Dolphins first drive of the second half. And thanks to the Pats offense taking control of the game in the third and fourth quarters, there were fewer opportunities for the Dolphins to push the Pats around. But there’s reason for alarm up front and the best player in that group is out for the year.
While we all sit here and wonder if Brandon Spikes, out seven weeks now after establishing himself as the team’s best linebacker, will ever return, let’s take some time to give a heaping pile of credit to Dane Fletcher. Fletcher had a very nice game on Saturday, making a couple of solid stops, defending the pass well and making a perfect read of the Dolphins snap count to get into the backfield and disrupt the play. Fletcher is not nearly the player Spikes is from a skill level standpoint. But his work the past couple of weeks is probably making the decision to keep giving Spikes more time to heel for the post-season somewhat easier. Jerod Mayo, the $45 million man, looked more like his old self on Saturday than the playmaker he’s been over the past month. He seemed to be on top of a lot of piles rather than making tackles of his own and he was flailing in pass coverage on more than one occasion. But he did have two sacks and bounced back nicely from being one of the many who was getting bullied in the first half. And Rob Ninkovich continued his strong season with six tackles and another sack while playing both standing up and as a down lineman in pass rushing situations. It was a bit odd to not see Tracy White at all, even on special teams; maybe he’s injured and we don’t know. But this group looked pretty decent on Saturday, certainly the strongest of the three levels of the defense.
Defensive Backs: C-
Is it even worth discussing Devin McCourty anymore? You know what’s going to be said/written. “McCourty looked helpless and overmatched once again, giving up a handful of enormous pass plays for whatever reason, blah blah blah.” That pretty much sums it up. McCourty gave up a 39-yard pass play, a 47-yard pass play and a 41-yard pass play while also getting a pass interference penalty on what was basically a throwaway by Moore that wiped out a third down stop in the first half. He did make a couple of nice tackles against the run and did record his first pick of the season (though it must be noted that he was beaten by two steps on that play and made the pick because Moore’s pass was woefully underthrown and he actually turned back to look for the ball, which he didn’t do on any of those long completions). But it’s gotten so bad for McCourty that these scrub/second stringers who light up the Pats secondary every week are looking to target him from their first dropback of the game and are bascially ignoring Kyle Arrington, himself no great shakes, like he’s Deion Sanders. There’s no rhyme or reason to it I’ve never seen any player in any sport go from being as good as McCourty was last year to being as bad as he’s been this year. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Beyond the misery that is McCourty, it should tell you all you need to know that Patrick Chung’s return, if it ever happens, will be an enormous plus for this secondary and Chung isn’t even that good. That’s how bad the safeties have been. James Ihedigbo, when he’s not getting hurt and helped off at least twice per game, has been exposed over the past few weeks as a special teams player forced to play in the regular defense while Sergio Brown has been just that all year but is still getting regular reps with the regular defense and sucking as badly as anyone who’s ever played the position. The Pats have gotten away with this monstrosity of a secondary for 15 games now. Can they get away with it for as many as four more? Let’s hope so. Because it’s not getting any better.
Special Teams: B-
What a weird day for Stephen Gostkowski. First, he misses a 51-yard field goal that would have put the Pats on the board at the end of the first half by about 20 feet. Then, after he hits from 45 to get the Pats on the board about three minutes into the third quarter, he makes a fingertip tackle on the ensuing kick return that saved a TD and wound up representing a 14-point swing after the Pats turned a Dolphins fumble three plays later into a TD of their own. He would go on to make another kick but it was that tackle on the kick return that highlighted his day. Our man Zoltan was called on six times in the first half alone and of course, he was up to the challenge, averaging 52.3 yards per kick and mixing a 65-yarder in there. Thankfully, he wasn’t needed in the second half (no offense, Zoltan) but on Saturday, he proved once again that he’s worthy of All-Pro honors. Where the Pats struggled on special teams was in the kicking game going both ways. Gostkowski shouldn’t have to make a shoestring tackle after a 38-yard kickoff return. And the team should have more going on in their own return game. Even with Woodhead breaking a 37-yard return at one point, the average kick return was 27.7 yards per. Not good. This is a problem that’s been there all year so it’s likely not going away. But man, wouldn’t it be fun to see someone run back a kickoff? Where’s Ellis Hobbs or Bethel Johnson when you need them?
Clearly, the plans drawn up by Bill Belichick and his staff going into the game didn’t work. The lack of continuity on the offensive line can’t have helped but the Dolphins took away everything the Pats wanted to do on offense with their blitz packages in the first half while their offensive line completely dominated the Pats up front, leading to that 17-0 lead. Still, once again, Belichick and his coaches wound up with the last laugh, turning the Dolphins D inside out with their adjustments on offense, which subsequently changed Miami’s approach and play-calling on offense. The biggest props should go to line coach Dante Scarnecchia for having his reserves (Solder, Cannon, Thomas) not only ready to play but, after the early hiccups, capable of looking like the regular starting bunch was out there. And on defense, although Belichick and de facto coordinator Matt Patricia have yet to figure out how to stem the tide constantly overwhelming the secondary, the defense overall has been far more aggressive in recent weeks and it’s paying some dividends, particularly in the turnover department, where the Pats are +14 over their seven-game winning streak. Clearly, given the shortcomings in the talent department on this roster, the players have completely bought into what Belichick is selling, unlike in 2009 when the Adalius Thomas’s and Derrick Burgess’s of the world roamed around the locker room. Look at what has happened to the only two dissenting voices, Leigh Bodden and Albert Haynesworth, this season. Gone post haste, both of them. The Pats togetherness and mental toughness, both qualities that come directly from up top, have played a big role in carrying them to this point. We’ll see how much further that can go. The guess here, especially if the injury situation clears itself up somewhat by Divisional Round weekend, is pretty far.