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Welcome to Sports of Boston’s weekly report card for your New England Patriots! Each week we’ll analyze every Patriots position group, identifying particularly noteworthy performances from the previous week’s game.
In their 38-24 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football, the Patriots answered many of the questions fans had about the offense entering Week 1. Between 622 total offensive yards, 38 points, and 27 first downs on 8-for-13 third-down efficiency, few can still worry about this team’s ability to score points. Their ability to prevent points is another question, but for now all is well in New England.
So let’s play teacher and hand out some grades!
Tom Brady set both a Patriots and Monday Night Football record with 517 passing yards. Only four other quarterbacks have ever racked up more passing yards in a game, and none since 1996. Coupled with a 66.7 completion percentage and four touchdown passes, it’s impossible to give Brady anything other than a straight A. His third-quarter interception allowed Miami to tie the game, but even that couldn’t keep him from a 121.6 QB rating. Although one game is too early to tell, Brady certainly looks poised for another big year, able to throw the ball short and deep, over the middle and to the sidelines.
Danny Woodhead’s and BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ combined numbers – 102 yards and a Green-Ellis rushing TD to tie the game 7-7 – merit just a B+ grade on their own. The Patriots, however, like to run in non-ideal situations to keep defenses honest and keep the play-action pass viable. The Patriots successfully executed the play-action at least three times, none more evident than on their first drive, when Brady hit Matthew Slater on 46-yard bomb down middle of the field that gave the Patriots first-and-10 on the Miami 24. A worse running game would not have made plays like that possible.
The wide receivers get an A-, but the tight ends get an A+, so let’s round it out to an A to match Brady’s. The Dolphins simply could not handle Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The two combined for 13 receptions, 189 yards and two touchdowns. Hernandez was too fast, easily pulling away from linebackers and safeties like he did on his 30-yard breakaway reception in the third quarter that set-up his 1-yard touchdown reception. Gronkowski was too strong, out-muscling linebackers like he did on his 23-yard reception in the second quarter.
For the receivers, Wes Welker led the team with eight catches, 160 yards and two TDs, and Deion Branch kicked in seven for 93. Ninety-nine of Welker’s yards came on one play when, following a Patriots’ goal-line stand, Brady hit Welker near the New England 20 after Welker had sprinted past corner Benny Sapp. Brady spotted the ball so perfectly that Welker neither had to slow nor change direction in the slightest, just bringing his hands to his numbers to cradle the ball and keep sprinting. A strong stiff-arm was all it took for Welker to knock down Sapp and take it all the way.
One sack, just two QB hits and a 100-yard rushing game? That’s an A performance by the offensive line. Even losing center Dan Koppen to a broken ankle couldn’t disrupt the front five, because Dan Connolly took over and did not miss a beat. Making his NFL debut, Nate Solder played competently, committing one holding penalty and allowing a sack by pass-rush phenom Cameron Wake.
The defensive line sacked Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne three times and hit him six times. They played a big role in holding Miami’s running backs to 39 yards and three yards per carry. They were more vulnerable to QB draws, however, allowing Henne to rush for 59 yards and a touchdown. In his first game with the Patriots, Albert Haynesworth made two tackles in an incident-free game. Haynesworth looks like he could at least contribute to this defense this season, though calling him a defensive savior is a stretch at this point. Newcomers Andre Carter and Mark Anderson (one sack each) also look like potential stoppers at the line.
A tackle behind the line and three QB hits from the linebackers is OK, but Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano torched the Patriots for 82 total yards and 16.4 yards a reception while working almost exclusively over the middle of the field. If the New England defensive line can rush the quarterback the way they did Monday, that should free up some linebackers to drop into coverage. But given that responsibility, the linebackers will need to step up and handle their business in the field. Dane Fletcher continues to quietly impress, hitting the quarterback twice and filling in at fullback on two red-zone offensive plays.
Henne threw for 416 yards, mostly to Dolphins wide receivers torching the Patriots cornerbacks. No defensive back’s game could be called “strong,” despite Patrick Chung’s game-ending interception. The corners looked out-of-position and turned around on numerous passing plays, with Dolphins receivers making receptions before the corners were even aware of the throw. And starting safety Josh Barrett had an utterly forgettable game, making just four tackles. Three factors kept this grade from dropping to the “C” range: the Patriots won, the Dolphins went 2-for-14 on third-down conversion (a huge problem last year), and Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling each made a key goal-line play that turned two Miami first-and-goal situations into just three combined points.
Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal right before halftime but connected on 20-yarder early in the fourth that pushed the Patriots’ lead to two touchdowns. He also went 5-for-5 on extra points. Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko kicked well enough to hold the Dolphins to an average starting spot behind their 20-yard line. James Ihedgibo’s illegal block above the waist on a second-quarter Miami punt cost the Patriots 10 yards on a drive that ended with a three-and-out.