New England Patriots First Quarter Report Card
There was a lot of speculation after week one that Tom Brady had finally peaked with Super Bowl LI. 267 yards and no touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs at home did not inspire a lot of confidence. Through the next three weeks, Brady has silenced every notion of decline at age 40 or the “Madden Curse.” He leads the league in passing by 100+ yards and has tossed a league-leading ten touchdowns in the last three games. So far in 2017, Brady and Drew Brees are the only quarterbacks with more than a hundred completions without an interception.
Running Backs: B+
For a running back squad that has few names with national clout, New England is having success on the ground. The New England ground game is currently tied for fourth in the league with five rushing touchdowns. Four of those five touchdowns have been scored by Mike Gillislee, formerly of the Buffalo Bills. Gillislee’s scoring ranks behind only Atlanta Falcons star running back Devonta Freeman. Josh McDaniels’ offensive scheme has the running backs doing far more than taking handoffs. The Patriots have made excellent use of pass-catching backs in short-yardage scenarios. James White, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis have combined for more than 250 receiving yards through week four. The running back group’s avoidance of an A grading comes from its overall production on the ground, which ranks 20th in the league.
Wide Receivers: A-
The wide receiving corps has corralled seven touchdowns in four games. Chris Hogan has continued his touchdown streak. On Sunday, his score against the Carolina Panthers extended his streak to six touchdowns in his last six games. Brandin Cooks has emerged as a dazzling playmaker after being traded to New England by the New Orleans Saints. Keeping up with Brady is no easy task, but Hogan, Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Phillip Dorsett have been up to it, catching 63.5 percent of their collective targets.
Tight Ends: A
Rob Gronkowski continues to dominate as one of the top tight ends in the league. He leads the Patriots in receiving yards, even in competition with the star talent in the wide receiving corps. His yards after catch statistics are phenomal at 103, ranked at number 14 among all pass-catching players.
Coming into the season, Dwayne Allen had spoken out about how difficult the Patriots offense had been to learn, and news of Allen’s dropped passes in practice made headlines. Allen has failed to catch any of his few, rare targets this season. But Allen’s role was seemingly intended to be a blocking role from the start. Jacob Hollister, the rookie tight end out of Wyoming, has shown potential, but has made little contribution to offensive success.
Offensive Line: C
Stout play by the offensive line has allowed Brady the presence of mind enough to continue his terrific performance in his 18th season. However, inconsistency has been the story of the year. Brady has been sacked 13 times in four games, including five against the Houston Texans alone. The ground game’s 20th ranked performance on the ground can also be chalked up to the lack of running lanes created by the squad up front.
Defensive Line: D
The pass rush has been a consistent issue for the Patriots for years. Bill Belichick tried to address the issue before the season began. The team drafted Deatrich Wise Jr. and Derek Rivers in 2016 and obtained Kony Ealy from the Panthers in the off-season. Unfortunately, their season was doomed early on. Ealy departed the team before playing a single regular season snap. Rivers was diagnosed with a season-ending injury just before the Patriots left for a preseason game against the Texans. Wise and Trey Flowers have had to step up big in their absence with a combined five sacks, but two players cannot create a threatening pass rush by themselves. This defense is also allowing more than 100 yards per game on the ground.
The Patriots linebacking group was criticized over the summer for being one of their weaker groups, especially in comparison to the stellar-on-paper secondary. The absence of Dont’a Hightower has been noticeable early in the season, but in the meantime, Kyle Van Noy has cemented himself as a star. Van Noy leads the linebackers with 22 solo tackles, but the blame blankets the entire hemorrhaging defense.
If there were a grade lower than F, the 2017 secondary would receive it. Stephon Gilmore has been an incredibly expensive disappointment this season. Gilmore’s penalties against the Panthers on third downs allowed Cam Newton to continue stalled drives for eventual scores in the 33-30 New England loss at home. New England is ranked last in the league in yards allowed. The defense has currently allowed 324 yards per game through the air so far. On Sunday, the secondary sat back and watched Newton make first down after first down on numerous drives in the second half.
The offense’s incredible achievements have been severely muted by the dysfunction on defense. For now, any talk of Brady’s sixth Super Bowl ring has quieted, but a quick and dramatic turnaround by the secondary could revive New England into the playoff juggernaut everyone expected.