David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE
The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski on Sunday but not before they blew out the overmatched Colts and their star rookie quarterback.
And that's just what they got. The Pats cut the up-and-coming Indianapolis Colts down to size with a thoroughly delightful, 59-24 beatdown at Gillette Stadium, quieting critics of their defense and worshipers of rookie QB Andrew Luck in the process.
After a rocky start that felt like leftovers from the Buffalo game, the Pats turned into a different team defensively, squashing Luck and the Colts' offense in as exacting a way as the fans had hoped. Luck put up numbers, but the important part of them came on the Colts' first two possessions of the game. After that, he looked like a rookie.
The Pats blitzed him, disguised coverages, moved guys around and forced him into mistakes, four to be exact. Luck lost a fumble and threw three picks, two of which were run back for TDs, a first for the Pats since 2002. And while the big showing by the D was tempered somewhat by the early loss of Chandler Jones to an ankle injury which may keep him out of Thursday night's rematch against the Jets, there is still plenty of reason to believe that Bill Belichick and his defensive staff has finally come up with a formula with which they can consistently win.
The biggest story of this one besides the win, of course, is the injury suffered by Rob Gronkowski, who will be out 4-8 weeks with a broken arm. It's a tough loss and it will test the resolve of the team, especially on offense. It's safe to assume that the Pats have enough weapons on that side of the ball to withstand Gronk's absence for a couple of weeks (and yes, a couple. He'll be back sooner than the timetable suggests, bank on it) despite how freakishly prolific he is. Just imagine the offense when he's back in December at 100 percent along with Aaron Hernandez.
Gronk's injury aside, Sunday was a tremendous day for the Pats, who now have a four-game winning streak and a nice, three-game cushion in the AFC East. So with that, let's get at this week's report card.
So there was Brady, having to listen to all the noise all week about Luck, going out there to play without his two starting guards and barely breaking a sweat. He had as ho-hum a brilliant game as can be, completing just under 70 percent of his passes for 331 yards, three TDs and a passer rating of 127.2. The Colts came in with a mediocre defense but Brady made them look worse, making all the throws as usual and doing it with surgical precision. The pass protection was just about flawless, even without Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly and even with old nemeses Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on the other side. Brady used the time afforded him to pick the Colts' banged up secondary apart. None of his throws were particularly noteworthy. He did thread a couple of missiles to Gronk or Wes Welker in close coverage. But he had so much time to throw all day that there were stretches in which he looked like he was leading a 7-on-7 drill. Brady was fantastic in this one in about as low-key a manner as is possible. Nothing flashy, nothing spectacular. Just vintage stuff. Wonder if Luck was paying attention.
Running Backs: 3
A curiously quiet day for the running game, which looked to be a huge advantage for the Pats given Indy's major struggles (ranked 31st out of 32 teams) against the run. Perhaps this is where the absence of Mankins and Connolly came into play. Stevan Ridley never really got going. He scored his seventh TD of the year and did break one nice 11-yard burst behind Nick McDonald and Nate Solder on the left side. But other than that, his 28 yards and 2.2 YPA represented his lowest marks of the season in those categories. Shane Vereen ran relatively well in garbage time, showing off his soft shoe talents on a couple of decent runs, a well executed screen pass and a late TD. Not much else to say about this group, though. It's never a good thing when your leading rusher is a wide receiver on just one attempt and it's not even close. Just chalk it up to a less than stellar day and hope to see an improvement on Thursday night, particularly if Mankins and Connolly are back in the lineup.
Wide Receivers: 4.5
Raise your hand if you had Julian Edelman as the offensive MVP in this one. You're forgiven if you wouldn't have even had him in the top 5. Edelman produced the best game of his career by far. He caught five passes for 58 yards and a TD, took a reverse for 47 yards (the Pats' longest running play of the season) and nearly scored on that too, and had an electric punt return for another score. What was more impressive than anything was Edelman's ability to make people miss and pick up yards after the catch. Most of his plays were screens or short passes on which he was able to run with the ball. Another striking aspect of this game regarding Edelman was his snap count. He played 52 snaps, fewer than only Wes Welker and a whopping 18 more than Brandon Lloyd, whose softness has knocked him down to No. 3 on the depth chart. Lloyd had a decent day, catching four of the seven passes thrown his way and even picking up a few yards after the catch before hitting the deck after being barely touched. But it was clear that Lloyd, who other than a couple of highlight reel acrobatic catches, has not been the answer he was expected to be when the team brought him in and the coaches know it. As for the constant, Welker has a typical Welker game, grabbing seven more catches for 80 more yards. Steady as she goes for Welker, who will be asked to do even more than usual with the injury to Gronk. Which leads us back to Edelman, whose breakout game couldn't have come at a better time. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to replicate Sunday's performance with any regularity. It's now safe to assume he's capable.
Tight Ends: 5
Say this for Gronk - if he's going to be out for a while, he went out with a bang. Gronk caught seven more passes for 137 more yards and two more TDs. He now has 37 TDs in 42 career games and became the first tight end in league history to register three consecutive seasons with 10 or more touchdowns. That he did it in his first three seasons in the league makes the accomplishment that much more remarkable. The Colts came up with a novel concept for dealing with Gronk for this game which was to let him get off the line unencumbered then bring a safety giving up 7-10 inches and 75-80 pounds from the back to take him on down the field. The Pats likely won't ever see such mind-numbingly dumb defensive game planning ever again once Gronk returns to health so big ups to them for taking advantage. Gronk's TDs both came on seam throws which are the Pats favorite places to get him the ball (the second of which featured a Colts' DB amazingly choosing to cover Visanthe Shiancoe instead of him) and he was also able to glide across the formation with ease on a couple of crossing routes and run away from defenders after catching the ball. He will be sorely missed while he's out. Luckily for the Pats, Shiancoe is a fairly accomplished fill-in. And all signs point to Hernandez returning on Thursday night. The injury is a bummer, but not the end of the world.
Offensive Line: 3.5
A real mixed bag up front. Again, the pass protection was borderline perfect. Brady wasn't sacked and was hit just twice, one each by Freeney and Mathis. And while each of those two terrors managed to get some pressure on Brady (especially Freeney, who had Solder tied in knots more than once), both were rendered largely non-factors when it was over. The Colts got no pressure up the middle and that's a testament to McDonald and Donald Thomas, the two substitute guards, as well as center Ryan Wendell. The run blocking just wasn't there though. Both Ridley and Vereen were stuffed on more than one occasion and the Colts may well have made stopping the run in an attempt to make the Pats' offense one-dimensional their game plan for the week. That may work if you have linebackers or defensive backs who can cover or if you're facing a passing game that's not the most diverse in the league. So it worked, but it didn't work at the same time, you follow? Anyway, the line play was uneven, but it was enough and it's always a huge relief when things work out OK without Mankins in there. Big ups to Sebastian Vollmer for getting out on one of those screens to Wekler and vaporizing the Colts' DB who came up to try making a play. On TV, it looked like the poor guy just disappeared into thin air when Vollmer got to him. Very cool.
Defensive Line: 4
Another so-so showing against the run for the D-line but give this group credit for adjusting to the early loss of Chandler Jones. Guys like Vick Ballard, Delone Carter and Donald Brown got a lot of what they wanted both up the middle and to the right, Jones's side, on the Colts' impressive first two drives. There was one fake reverse that fooled the Pats completely, resulting in a 20-yard pickup for Ballard, and that can't happen. But after Jones, who had a terrible time against the run last week against Buffalo, left the game and Rob Ninkovich flipped over to his side with Jermaine Cunningham coming in at left end, the situation settled down a bit. It's still too soon to tell if Jones will miss any time but even though he's been fantastic up to this point, a small break probably won't hurt the rookie. Ninkovich had another high-impact game, forcing yet another fumble on a text book edge rush and strip sack. He was in the backfield a great deal and in a perfect world, with the season he's having, he'll get some pretty serious All-Pro consideration. Cunningham, who seems to just miss at least two sacks per week, was active and caused some trouble in the pocket for Luck. Reserve Trevor Scott saw some significant time in place of Jones and was particularly effective in run support. And of course, Vince Wilfork led the way. Big Vince knocked down a couple of passes and got close enough to the rookie QB on his first pick that he caused the overthrow. Whether there's something up with the run defense is up for debate. But this group got pressure on Luck and when that happens on a consistent basis, it opens things up for the rest of the D big time, just as it did on Sunday.
There are still coverage problems, some issues with tackling and angles and a couple of other nitpicky things. But this was a very nice day for the linebackers, who reaped the benefits of Belichick's decision to scrap the conservative, vanilla stuff that's been getting the Pats torched after the Colts' first two drive. Brandon Spikes was the focal point, attacking the line of scrimmage with zeal. He was anticipating snap counts and getting in the backfield and just generally causing havoc once the switch was flipped and while the stat line may not reflect it, his impact on the proceedings was enormous. Spikes isn't very fast and he has a tendency to get lost in coverage. But when he gets turned loose, his power and instincts along with his hitting ability and nose for the ball are major pluses for this group. Dont'a Hightower looks tired and a step slow, as if the rookie wall and his hamstring injury from earlier in the season are conspiring against him. But he did make a couple of nice plays after that first quarter, one of which was a big pass breakup in coverage. As for Jerod Mayo, he was sort of invisible save for a roughing the passer penalty on which he led with his helmet. Pats fans will certainly take an average, non-noteworthy sort of performance from him over the lousy one he gave against the Bills.
Defensive Backs: 3.5
Aqib Talib, ladies and gentlemen. Your new No. 1 corner. Talib acquitted himself fairly well in his Pats' debut, putting up a staggering, 59-yard INT return for a score while also looking at times like all the other hapless corners who've been shuttled through Foxborough over the past five years. He had his moments and with some more time in the system along with another week or two to shake the rust of his four-game suspension off, he should be fine. He clearly has excellent ball skills and although he was burned more than once, he also played multiple throws in his direction very well. His presence also allows Devin McCourty to stay at safety and that's the best place for him by far. On one deep pass in the second quarter, with Talib beaten, McCourty smoothly and quickly came over from his spot and broke the play up, likely saving a TD. For most defenses, such a basic, fundamental play by a safety isn't grounds for celebration. But given that no safety has been capable of making such a play for the Patriots in god knows how long, we'll make note of it here. The DBs were also beneficiaries of the Pats' aggressive approach on defense. Not only did the ability of the front seven to generate pressure help the secondary in terms of not having to cover for as long, it freed guys up to make more plays on balls thrown in their direction and the result was eight pass breakups by defensive backs. Kyle Arrington was benched after two early penalties but came back later to play some in the slot and even managed a near sack on a well-timed corner blitz. And Alfonzo Dennard showed that he has the tools to be a solid pro corner down the road, adding an easy pick and subsequent 87-yard return for a score on a bad throw by Luck to a couple of those breakups and some very good coverage. Luck did pass for 334 yards and two scores. But he only completed 57 percent of his throws and after the first quarter, most of those yards were pretty empty. This secondary has a long, long way to go. But games like this one provide hope for the future.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 5
Edelman's punt return, an awesome display of body control, strength and speed as he ran an almost straight line down the sideline after reading the low liner perfectly in the air, was one play of the game. But he also did it in coverage, combining with Matthew Slater to force a fumble on a kickoff. The coverage units were great and our man Zoltan Mesko made the most of his two punting opportunities, booming both for well in excess of 50 yards. The overall special teams performance more than made up for a chip shot miss by Stephen Gostkowski.
As far as the coaching, give Belichick the gold star for this one. He recognized that the same stuff that's been getting the Pats shredded up and down the field for the majority of the season just wasn't going to fly anymore following the Colts' first two drives, which were like a continuation of the Buffalo game. The Pats then biltzed 17 times, a season high, while mixing things up in a way rarely seen around these parts of late. If the Pats are going to play seven or eight men back and not get any pressure on the QB in an attempt to not give up any big plays yet still give up more big plays than anyone else, why not take a few chances? Granted, it was against a rookie QB, but it worked and worked well. It would be great to see this defense play a little bit more loose and take some more chances like it did on Sunday. With Mark Sanchez and the Jets on tap, Thursday night would be a great time to keep the foot on the pedal.
Finally, the high score along with the play on which Gronk was injured being an extra point has given rise to all the expected, predictable outcry from pretty much every usual suspect in the media as well as a cadre of fans.
"Belichick is so ARROGANT for using his best player on special teams in a blowout!"
"That's just how they do things up there, RUNNING UP THE SCORE!."
"That injury to Gronk was KARMA!"
If you believe any of this or tend to fall in line with the Ron Borgeses, Gerry Callahans and Gregg Easterbrooks of the world, that's your prerogative. Just know that these theories are completely misguided, representative of nothing but the idea that hindsight is 20/20 and signal lazy, probably personally tinged thought processes. As Belichick said on Monday, football players play football. Gronkowski being on the field goal/extra point team is not arrogance or short-sightedness, it's part of his job regardless of the score (note: Gronk had been pulled prior to that play, as had most of the offensive starters). And, as was the case in 2007, to assume the Pats, or any team for that matter, will simply stop trying and take a knee or run every play straight ahead into the line having put up 52 points with nine minutes still left to play, is ridiculous. If the opponent wants the Pats to stop scoring, stop them from doing it. Make a play. Take responsibility for the situation. This isn't little league and there's no 10-run rule. Cries of poor sportsmanship do not apply. Again, these are football players and football coaches. They are doing their jobs. If the opponent wants to take offense to the approach and maybe use it is as motivation down the road, that's their business.
Thursday night's game against the Jets can't come soon enough.