All right people, I'm the substitute teacher this week, sitting in for Professor Minihane, and I have the daunting task of evaluating the Patriots performance against the Rams. You take a look at this report card, and you might think we’re grading on a curve. But Sunday represented the finest 60 minutes of the season for the Patriots, who played their most complete game of the year, and will head into the bye week on a decidedly up note.
Time for the grades...
Reason for grade: Not his best performance of the season -- we'd still go with the effort against the Broncos, where he was 22-for-36 for 340 yards and three touchdowns. But this one was probably his second best of the year. Tom Brady went 23-for-35 for 304 yards with four touchdowns and zero picks against a young and aggressive St. Louis defense.
Peak: Brady and the offense were able to take advantage of the missed opportunities early on that dogged them the week before against the Jets, particularly at the end of the first half and the start of the second half. That's when he engineered a nine-play, 56-yard drive that took 1:42 (aided by a pair of pass interference calls against St. Louis defensive back Bradley Fletcher) and ended with a touchdown just before the half to make it 28-7. He then put together another quick, impressive drive to start the second half, one that was punctuated with his second touchdown pass of the day to Brandon Lloyd to make it 35-7. Both series were efficient and ruthless as he and the New England offense closed the door on the Rams.
Number that stands out: Brady finished with a passer rating of 131.1, his best of the season.
RUNNING BACKS: A-
Reason for grade: Ninety-five percent of this grade goes to Ridley, who was spectacular at times in the third quarter, including one drive where he ran for 30 and 41 yards on separate plays. The LSU product finished with 15 carries for 127 yards and a touchdown, the fifth time in his career he broke the 100-yard mark. Shane Vereen had seven carries for 22 yards (and one catch for 17 yards), while Danny Woodhead added three yards rushing and 56 yards through the air.
Peak: Ridley's 41-yard run in the second-half was one of the best-executed plays of the season, as the back displayed great field vision on a toss play to the right side. He hit a wide-open hole (thanks to some great work by the offensive line) and showed great burst at the second level.
Valley: Ridley had three negative runs, while Shane Vereen had one.
Number that stands out: Halfway through the season, Ridley has four games where he's topped 100 yards rushing. The last Patriots player to have at least five 100-yard rushing days in a season was Corey Dillon with eight in 2004. The Patriots record for most 100-yard games in a season is nine by Curtis Martin in 1995.
Reason for grade: If we could grade Rob Gronkowski separately, we'd give him an A for an eight-catch, 146-yard, two-touchdown performance that seemed to wake up the echoes of last season. But as a group, a B seems about right. The wide receivers combined for eight catches (six from Wes Welker and two from Brandon Lloyd -- both of Lloyd's catches went for touchdowns). Meanwhile, Danny Woodhead delivered five catches for 56 yards, including a great 24-yard grab on a floater out of the backfield that looked for all the world like something Kevin Faulk had done a million times over the years.
Peak: Gronkowski's two touchdowns were impressive -- the result of defensive mismatches that were exploited by the quarterback and tight end -- but Gronkowski's tumbling, over-the-shoulder grab at the end of the first quarter that went for 25 yards and got the Patriots to the St. Louis one-yard line was the best of the day. New England would punch it in for its second touchdown of the game four plays later. Lloyd's sharply run routes on his two touchdown catches were probably a close second.
Number that stands out: Since he entered the NFL in 2010, Gronkowski has 35 total touchdowns (34 of them receiving touchdowns). The NFL record for most overall touchdowns in a player’s first three NFL seasons is 47 by Barry Sanders, and the record for most touchdown receptions in a player’s first three NFL seasons is 43 by Randy Moss.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A
Reason for grade: Brady wasn't touched all afternoon while facing one of the better young pass rush duos in the league in Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Even without Logan Mankins at left guard, the offensive line (Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer) allowed the New England offense to operate without much of a problem all afternoon.
Peak: The Patriots scored touchdowns on their first five drives of the afternoon, which went for 78, 83, 78, 56 and 80 yards, delivering good, sustained sequences that were fueled by an offensive line that continued to open up big holes for the running game and provide more than enough protection in the passing game for Brady.
Valley: We're nitpicking here, but Vollmer was called for an illegal formation early in the fourth quarter, likely the only blemish on an otherwise impressive day for the Patriots' offensive line.
Number that stands out: Zero -- the number of sacks and quarterback hits on Brady Sunday.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Reason for grade: In both the running game and the passing game, the Patriots defense was equal to the task. It stopped another elite running back in Steven Jackson, holding him to 23 yards on seven carries, and even though it only registered two sacks and three quarterback hits, the line generated good pressure on Sam Bradford.
Peak: On the Rams’ first drive of the second quarter, St. Louis faced a second-and-11 at its own 33-yard line. Quarterback Sam Bradford dropped back and hit running back Daryl Richardson with a short pass to the right side. But waiting for him was ... Vince Wilfork. It appeared the big defensive lineman was able to adroitly drop into coverage on the play, read it perfectly and shove Richardson out of bounds for a 4-yard loss. Two plays later, St. Louis was forced to punt. (A terrifically athletic third-quarter sack by rookie defensive end Chandler Jones was a close second.)
Valley: The Rams were able to generate some garbage-time yards in the fourth quarter before stalling out, but overall, it was minor.
Number that stands out: Jones registered his team-leading sixth sack of the season when he dropped Bradford for a 17-yard loss in the third quarter. If he reaches 10 sacks for the year, he will become the 15th player to reach a 10-sack season in Patriots history.
Reason for grade: Pretty much the same reason we gave the rest of the defense a B -- the group produced steady pressure and good containment when it came to stopping the run and preventing big plays from the opposing offense. The Patriots presented some different defensive looks, shifting into a 3-4 on occasion, and in the process appearing to rattle the St. Louis offense. There were solid performances across the board from Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes (eight tackles each) and Dont'a Hightower. They swung and missed on occasion, but more often than not, it was a good day for the New England linebackers.
Peak: The Patriots weren't able to generate a ton of pressure, but an occasional blitz seemed to throw the Rams for a loop. Late in the first quarter, the Patriots had back-to-back plays where pressure from unique spots seemed to unnerve the Rams. On a second-and-6, Tavon Wilson came flying up from the secondary on a blitz that allowed New England to hold Stevan Jackson to a 1-yard gain. On the following play, Mayo and Spikes were able to cross on a blitz, confusing the interior of the offensive line when it came to their blocking assignments and allowing other rushers like Jones and Jermaine Cunningham to break free. The pressure forced Bradford from phe locket and into an intentional grounding call, which led to a punt.
Valley: While Jackson was held to 23 yards on seven carries, Daryl Richardson (seven carries, 53 rushing yards) and Isaiah Pead (32 yards, three carries) got some garbage time yards that probably don't look good on the stat sheet. In addition, even though he came away with two passes defensed, Bradford was able to find Spikes in single coverage on a pass catcher early on, which is a bad matchup for New England.
Number that stands out: St. Louis ran 13 plays in New England territory all afternoon, including just five in the first half. That number is skewed slightly because the Rams' lone touchdown came on a pass play from the 50, but still, it attests to an impressive overall effort from the New England defense.
Reason for grade: It was the best game of the year for a beleaguered group of defensive backs, made all the better by the fact that they did it without starting safeties Pat Chung and Steve Gregory. (In addition, Kyle Arrington went down early in the contest with a head injury and did not return.) It was a group that included Devin McCourty and Tavon Wilson at safety and Alfonzo Dennard and Sterling Moore at corner for most of the game (as well as a healthy dose of Marquice Cole), and was physical and competitive throughout the afternoon. The only drawback was that Bradford was able to complete 73 percent of his throws -- not good, considering he has a career completion percentage of 58 percent.
Peak: They both came in garbage time, but the two picks -- one from Wilson and one from Dennard -- were the likely high point for the New England secondary. It was the second in the last two games for Dennard, while Wilson came away with his third of the year.
Valley: Right out of the gate, it looked like it was going to be the same old song for the New England secondary. With St. Louis sitting on first-and-10 at the 50 on its first drive of the day, Bradford dropped back and hit speedy wide receiver Chris Givens on a 50-yard touchdown pass down the middle that was almost identical to the deep ball that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson delivered two weeks ago to beat the Patriots, right down to the fact that it was Wilson who was beaten on both occasions. But that was the only big play of any consequence on the afternoon for the St. Louis offense.
Number that stands out: The Patriots had nine passes defensed on Sunday, with Moore, Dennard and Wilson finishing with one each and Cole adding two.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Reason for grade: As a group, the unit performed well on Sunday. Zoltan Mesko was only called upon to punt twice (both in the second half) and averaged 56.5 yards per punt. Stephen Gostkowski connected on his only field goal attempt (26 yards), successfully converted all six of his extra-point attempts and put five of his eight kickoffs into the end zone, with three going for touchbacks. While they didn’t break one, there were no fumbles from Julian Edelman (three punt returns) or Devin McCourty (one kick return).
Peak: With two minutes left in the first half, the Patriots special teamers were able to capitalize on a botched field goal from St. Louis. On a 54-yard field goal attempt, punter/holder Johnny Hekker couldn’t handle the high snap from Jake McQuaide, and was driven to the turf by the Patriots before he could get rid of the ball. New England cashed that in with a touchdown drive before the end of the first half to make it 28-7 at the break.
Valley: No real valleys, simply because they didn't get a whole lot of work. (If it wasn’t for Gostkowski’s eight kickoffs, they’d probably get an incomplete instead of a B.)
Number that stands out: The Patriots kicked off eight times, and the Rams managed just 18.6 yards per kick return on the five that were returned. In addition, St. Louis’ average starting field position was the 21.
The Patriots played three games in three time zones on two continents over the last three weeks, and the coaching staff was still able to have the roster ready to go and mentally prepared for a date with a Rams team that beat the Cards and Seahawks -- two clubs that also defeated the Patriots. There were a couple of red flags early, particularly on the play where Givens was able to get behind the defense, even after the speedy receiver was clearly a point of emphasis for the team in the week leading up to the game. But the substitution patterns (particularly in the secondary with Cole) worked, and the occasional well-timed blitz sprinkled in for good measure also kept the Rams off-balance.