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Welcome back to Sports of Boston’s weekly report card for your New England Patriots! The Patriots did what they always do the week after a loss: win. Specifically, they beat the Oakland Raiders, 31-19. And with losses by the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, the Patriots are once again tied atop the AFC East (though the Bills still have the tie-breaker). For one week, equilibrium is restored in Foxborough.
Tom Brady was not quite his usual, crisp self, completing just 53.3 percent of his passes after completing nearly 70 percent through the first three weeks. Brady seemed slightly out of sync with his receivers Sunday, always overthrowing them. Perhaps Oakland’s pass rush affected his timing more than normal. Still, Brady followed a four-interception game with a zero-interception game, throwing for 226 yards and two touchdowns. He did far, far more to help the team than to hinder it. How odd, however, to see Brady take a back seat to his running backs. Speaking of which…
Three Patriots running backs ran for 185 yards and two touchdowns, including the first ever by Stevan Ridley, who also led the team with 97 yards and 9.7 yards per carry. Ridley finally showed the full measure of his speed and athleticism, spinning, whirling and leaping his way to three first downs. The Patriots wanted to take the pressure off Brady, who defenses will focus on more and more as the season progresses, and the running backs stepped up. BenJarvus Green-Ellis did the lion’s share of the rushing with 16 carries, gaining 75 yards and a touchdown in the process. Ridley and Green-Ellis have the kind of complimentary skills that could finally rebuild the Patriots’ running game. Green-Ellis has the strength to chew up yards through the middle, whereas Ridley has the speed to get around the corner and up the sidelines.
Wes Welker keeps getting better and better. He caught nine balls for 158 yards and a touchdown: great numbers made even more impressive since the next best receiver – Chad Ochocinco – caught just two passes for 26 yards. The Raiders knew Brady wanted to go to Welker every time, and they still couldn’t stop him. Beyond Welker, however, Raiders cornerbacks completely contained the Patriots’ receiving corps, multiple times holding them up long enough for the pass-rushers to force an errant pass. While the Patriots don’t need 500 receiving yards every week, they’re still a pass-first team. But with the speed of the upcoming Jets’ secondary, the receivers may for the second straight week find it difficult getting open.
The Patriots could have done without two offensive holding penalties from the line, but beyond that they performed admirably against an above-average pass-rush. Though they allowed a sack and four quarterback hits, Patriots fans must remember this line is still trying to find its new identity with Dan Koppen lost for the season. The line’s improvement across the game became apparent in the second half, when bigger and bigger holes opened up for the running backs to burst through. By the end of the game, the line was asserting itself at will.
Defensive linemen recorded all three hits against Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell and held Darren McFadden – currently the best running back in the NFL – to just 75 yards and no touchdowns. More pressure on Campbell would have been nice, but Vince Wilfork‘s second career interception was entertaining enough to push this grade into the 90s. And give Wilfork credit: when he felt McFadden and the other Raiders closing in, he immediately wrapped two huge arms around the ball to prevent any chance of a strip. He also did this two weeks prior against the Chargers. Fun fact: With two picks, Wilfork is currently tied for fifth in the NFL.
Losing Jerod Mayo hurts. A lot. And without him, this linebacker corps loses a lot of its punch. The Patriots returned to a zone coverage after trying unsuccessfully to integrate a more aggressive 4-3 defense. The result? Linebackers who are neither fantastic pass-rushers nor pass-defenders – just kind of “middle of the road.” Someone needs to step into the leadership void left by Mayo’s absence, and soon. Two possibilities are Rob Ninkovich and Dane Fletcher.But neither of those two showed anything special Sunday.
Sunday’s game was arguably the best performance by the Patriots secondary this season. Only problem: Campbell still threw for 344 yards and a touchdown. So maybe Sunday wasn’t their “best” game so much as their “least terrible” game. And while 99 of those yards came in the waning “garbage time” minutes of the game, the Patriots secondary could have seized that time and sent a statement that they were better than their previous three weeks suggested. Instead, these defensive backs again showed they will only make the big plays when they absolutely have to. The Raiders went 8-for-13 on third down, six times converting via the pass. Patrick Chung picked off a brain-fart of an end zone pass by Campbell, but his unnecessary roughness penalty gave the Raiders a first down on an incomplete third-down pass in the fourth. The secondary must play better and smarter.
Stephen Gostkowski‘s kickoff out of bounds to open the game led to a Raiders field goal, but otherwise it was an error-free game for the special teams. Gostkowski nailed a 44-yard field goal and all four extra points, no one committed a block in the back, and the Raiders averaged slightly worse field position after punts or kickoffs than the Patriots (18.75- vs. 20.7-yard line). Solid effort all around.
Tags: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Chad Ochocinco, Dan Koppen, Dane Fletcher, Darren McFadden, Jason Campbell, Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots, NFL, Oakland Raiders, Patrick Chung, Rob Ninkovich, Stephen Gostkowski, Stevan Ridley, Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, week 4, Wes Welker