Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Midseason Report: New England Patriots
By Mike Reiss
How are they doing it?
That has been a common question from out-of-town media members in recent weeks when it comes to the New England Patriots and their 7-2 record. Many teams that sustain similar injuries to key players usually struggle, but the Patriots have persevered with depth players meeting the challenge in expanded roles and the club finding a way to come through in the few crucial plays that often determine the outcome of games.
It hasn't always looked pretty -- and that might explain why some grades are a bit lower than one might expect from a first-place team. Feel free to grade the “grader” in the comments section and let us know if we were too easy, too harsh or just right.
GRADING THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
The accuracy and decision-making that have been the trademarks of Tom Brady's play have been more inconsistent than the norm, in part due to all the changes around him. Still, he is making throws in the crucial situations that few others in the NFL could, such as the game-winning TD pass to Kenbrell Thompkins with 5 seconds remaining against the Saints to cap off a dramatic comeback. Sunday's 55-31 win over the Steelers was easily his best performance.
This group has missed Shane Vereen, who has been out with a broken wrist after starring in the season opener, in what has been an up-and-down first half of the season running the ball and in pass protection. Lead back Stevan Ridley was benched in the opener due to ball-security issues, but he has responded well when given the opportunity for extended work. He was a top performer in Sunday's victory over the Steelers.
It's been a struggle for a unit that has been almost completely revamped from 2012, with rookies being forced into front-line roles earlier than the norm. Danny Amendola has missed four of nine games, first with a groin injury and then with a concussion, which stunted his early momentum. Rookie Aaron Dobson has come on strong the past two weeks.
If grades were based solely on expectations, this group would qualify for an A based on holding the fort until Rob Gronkowski returned on Oct. 20. Michael Hoomanawanui has been one of the club's unsung performers. Accounting for a general lack of production in the passing game is how we ended up with the final mark, as Gronkowski has only played in three games.
With the five starters from 2012 returning, expectations were high for this group, but there have been too many uncharacteristic breakdowns, such as the Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals and the Oct. 20 loss to the Jets. There have been some solid performances (e.g. Sept. 29 versus Atlanta) and credit is due for depth players like Marcus Cannon who have stepped in and performed well -- but overall, more was expected from this unit in pass protection.
Can't ask for much more from the unit, as ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have been two of the best players up front and the defensive-tackle spot has been ravaged by injuries, with Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly lost for the season. Rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have performed admirably after being thrust into a top spot, but the run defense has taken a bit of a hit. Maybe trade-deadline acquisition Isaac Sopoaga helps change that.
Struggles in coverage have shown up consistently and the loss of signal-caller Jerod Mayo has cut deep. Without Wilfork at defensive tackle, Brandon Spikes' playing time has increased and we're seeing more of rookie Jamie Collins and four-year veteran Dane Fletcher. Dont'a Hightower has also shown he can take on more responsibility as a player who seems more mature than his second-year status.
Safety Devin McCourty is playing at a Pro Bowl level and cornerback Aqib Talib, prior to sustaining a hip injury Oct. 13, was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL in answering a variety of challenges from Vincent Jackson to A.J. Green to Jimmy Graham. Second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard has also been excellent. The group is being asked to play a lot of man coverage, which is a challenge.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski helped the Patriots in the field-position game through the first eight games with a booming leg on kickoffs, and is also having his best season on field goals. Rookie punter Ryan Allen has proved to be the right choice over incumbent Zoltan Mesko, and Fletcher has been the best coverage player, but the grade is brought down by a recent increase in penalties and some coverage struggles.
One could make the case that this is Bill Belichick's best head-coaching job since 2008, when the Patriots lost Brady on the 15th offensive play of the season. It's a credit to Belichick and the entire staff that the Patriots are 7-2. Game management remains a strong point, such as Belichick's decision to use a timeout late in the third quarter against the Dolphins with the wind in mind.