Report Card time and it's Myth Debunking Time when it comes to 4th-and-1.
Myth #1: "It's what Bill always does"
Well, not quite. Sure, he went for it in Indy last year but what I wonder is this: If it was the correct call why doesn’t Belichick always go for it on fourth and short from that area of the field? I’m pretty sure the situation has occurred 50 times in his coaching career with the Pats, but I count maybe a half-dozen times where he went for it in a situation anywhere close to that spot Sunday. The Colts and a Falcons game from 2009 jump out. So I guess he’s been wrong all the other times? The Pats were up 27-21 against the Ravens with 3:32 to go in the fourth quarter last year and they punted on 4th-and-3 from the Baltimore 39. Was he wrong then? Or was he wrong Sunday? Has to be one or the other, doesn’t it?
Myth #2: "He went for it knowing that if it failed it would be a big test for his young defense"
Heard this on 'EEI (and read it a couple of places) Monday. Sorry, he went for it because a first down would end the game. He wasn't sitting around thinking about how a failed attempt would be a nice test for Brandon Spikes. No time for that. He's trying to win games, not hand out life lessons. Belichick isn't Greg Evigan and this isn't an episode of "My Two Dads".
Myth #3: "Statistically speaking, it's actually the right call"
We heard this back after the Indy game, but I’m not sure I trust all the numbers I’ve seen. OK, I'll buy that a team is more likely to convert a fourth-and-1 than not. But is there enough of a sample size to really show that going for it on fourth-and-1 from will be successful 65 percent of the time, which is what I've seen? And do the odds change when you factor in that there is no chance the Pats are passing on the play? Or that the Chargers have the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL? Or that it's a road team attempting it? Or that the weather is perfect? Or that the offense has struggled in the game? Or that your running back is BenJarvus Green-Ellis and not, say, Adrian Peterson?
Myth #4: "Unlike last year, he did this because he believes in this defense"
See No. 2. If he believed that this defense was going to stop the Chargers he would have punted and taken his chances. And if they were in the same spot vs. the Browns or Panthers maybe he does that. But against guys like Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning he's going to do everything he can to keep the ball.
There you go. Breaking down the myths -- I'm a breathing Discovery Channel show. Was it the right call? I understand it way more than last year's call (could have made Colts use all their timeouts and go 70-75 yards needing a TD -- Chargers just needed a FG and had all three timeouts) but I still would have punted. Remember, until the Patriots dropped into that soft zone they had held the Chargers to six points in 53 minutes. Plus there might have been a small chance of a turnover or mental error from the Chargers, wouldn't you say?
To the report card we go (and feel free to email me at email@example.com if you want a spot in this week's mailbag) ...
QUARTERBACK -- C
Brady was terrible in the first half (6-for-16, 35 yards), under-throwing Deion Branch on that first-series double reverse and skipping a pair of passes to Wes Welker and Brandon Tate. True, there was pressure on Brady throughout the opening 30 minutes (three sacks and a couple of other hits, mostly from the blind side) and the receivers just could not separate from San Diego defenders, but that does not give him a total pass for his performance. Even his TD pass to Rob Gronkowski wasn't a good throw (sailed high). If he's able to make a couple of plays (example: threw behind an open Welker at the goal line at the end of the first half, drive ended with a field goal) this could have been a 24-3 game at halftime.
But just as he did last week, Brady got going in the second half, leading the Patriots on a 17-play, 79-yard TD drive and then a 9-play, 59-yard drive that ended with a field goal. Brady hit on 10 straight passes at one point in the second half, and was able to get Branch and Aaron Hernandez involved during the scoring drives.
Look, far from vintage Brady, but to his credit he did not turn the ball over against the league's top-ranked defense and did just enough to give the Pats a chance to win the game.
RUNNING BACKS -- C-
BenJarvus Green-Ellis did score a TD for the fourth straight game, but for the second week in a row he wasn't able to do much against a physical defensive line (11 carries, 24 yards). On the fourth-and-1 play, Green-Ellis did not follow Dan Connolly (lined up at fullback) and instead tried to go to the outside. Not sure if he would have converted had he followed the block, but he had no chance with the angle he took.
Danny Woodhead (eight carries, 24 yards) had three carries for 15 yards and two catches for 25 yards on the TD drive to open the second half, including a 16-yarder on a screen on 2nd-and-17 that moved the ball to the San Diego six-yard line that was straight out of the Kevin Faulk School. Woodhead also contributed on that short first-half TD drive, catching a quick out from Brady at the Chargers' five-yard line and running over Eric Weddle to move the ball inside the one.
(Oh, and this week's winner of the "Wish Faulk were here" moment? On the drive after the Hester fumble, Green-Ellis missed a blitz pickup on Philipps that turned a second-and-goal at the five-yard line into 3rd-and-goal from the 12.)
Sammy Morris had just one rush for two yards, but it was his block that allowed Green-Ellis to convert the fourth-and-1 play in the third-quarter TD drive (not sure why he wasn't on the field when they ran the exact same play in the fourth quarter).
RECEIVERS -- C
Absolutely fair to suggest that the Patriots missed Randy Moss in this game, just as it was absolutely fair to claim that they didn't miss him in the Baltimore game. And I'm sure that's how it will work the rest of the year, some games the offense will be able to move the ball with the run and with short stuff and some games it'll be a struggle to put together any kind of consistent performance. But to me this group (the offense as a whole, not just the receivers) looked bunched, not able to get any room to breathe (especially in the first half-- 1.4 yards per play). And I know a lot of that is the Chargers defense, but just having Moss around to stretch things out a little would have helped.
Deion Branch did nothing in the first half (and really struggled to get separation from the San Diego secondary) but once again dug in and stepped up when it was needed, catching four passes for 39 yards in the second half.
I'm thinking we can probably hold off on the idea that just because he's really fast Brandon Tate might be able to replace Randy Moss. One catch for three yards on Sunday, which means he has produced a grand total of one catch for three yards in the two weeks without Moss.
Wes Welker (four catches, 25 yards) was as close to a non-factor as Wes Welker is going to be. He's now at eight yards a catch this season, a full three yards a grab behind his 2009 total. Got to wonder if the pre-ACL Welker is able to turn the edge and convert a first down on the third-down play before the 4th-and-1 failure.
The rookie tight ends continued to produce, as Rob Gronkowski caught his third TD of the season in the first quarter and later hauled in another red-zone catch, and Aaron Hernandez led all Pats receivers with five catches and 54 yards. And Hernandez had the biggest catch of the third-quarter TD drive -- a 16-yarder on 3rd-and-8 that moved the ball to the San Diego 44 -- and the other second half scoring drive -- a 25-yard catch that brought the Pats to the Chargers' 20-yard line.
(Quick detour to Things Maybe No One But Me Care About: Hernandez is on pace for 72 catches and 950 yards -- Rookie of the Year? -- but still does not have a TD catch. Gronkowski has just nine catches but three TDs. There are 42 players in the NFL this season with at least 27 catches, and only four -- Hernandez, LeSean McCoy, Mike Thomas and Kellen Winslow -- don't have a TD.)
OFFENSIVE LINE -- D
Antwan Barnes had played in 44 NFL games before Sunday, with five career sacks. He was traded by the Ravens to the Eagles for a seventh-round pick in September and was released a month later before signing with the Chargers. Long story short we aren't talking about Lawrence Taylor. But he has speed, which as all know means trouble for Matt Light. Barnes destroyed Light Sunday, picking up a pair of sacks and pressuring Brady on several other plays. Remember the missed Green-Ellis block on Phillips? The very next play, Barnes beat Light and sacked Brady, which meant a second-and-goal from the five turned into a 40-yard field goal attempt. Not often you see a four-play, -14-yard scoring drive. Two terrible games in a row for Light, and it's hard to imagine that Sebastian Vollmer won't be taking over left tackle spot after this season.
Dan Connolly had his worst game of the season, failing to give Light help on Barnes and allowing Travis Johnson to break through and give Brady the hardest hit he took all game. He was benched at halftime for Ryan Wendell (who was out on front on the Woodhead screen) and Logan Mankins has never looked so good.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- B+
First career start for Brandon Deaderick, and he was really productive, helping stuff the run (Chargers finished with 38 yards on 19 carries) and picking up a red-zone sack on Rivers that was key in holding the Chargers to a third-quarter field goal. Vince Wilfork at end and Gerard Warren on the nose worked for the second straight week, and as Phil Simms noted Wilfork seems freed by the move. Not a lot of pressure on Philip Rivers (who was sacked seven times the week before in St. Louis), but Mike Wright got some on Rivers on the opening play of the second quarter and later picked up a sack.
LINEBACKERS -- C+
Watching the Jacob Hester lateral again, it's not like Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes immediately recognized the situation, there was a pause before both beat Hester to the ball (Simms credited Pepper Johnson, who apparently screamed at the guys to get the ball). But there was no other Charger player in on the play, and give Spikes credit for blocking Hester, which allowed Ninkovich to pick up the ball for the 63-yard return.
Jerod Mayo finished with 11 tackles and recovered Kris Wilson's first-quarter fumble, which was forced by Dane Fletcher, another undrafted contributor. Spikes had just one tackle and struggled in pass coverage (wasn't on the field much in the second half). Gary Guyton had eight tackles but got beat by Antonio Gates for a touchdown and on the second San Diego TD drive (after onside kick) had a chance to hold Darren Sproles to no gain on a catch but was unable to make the tackle and Sproles picked up nine yards.
Jermaine Cunningham was in the backfield on the Deaderick sack and was able to get a couple of hits on Rivers.
SECONDARY -- C
We all kind of assumed that Sergio Brown would have the biggest tackle of the game, right? On the Chargers' final drive, it was Brown with a third-down tackle of Antonio Gates, stopping the tight end two yards short of the marker and forcing the field-goal attempt (good job by Tully Banta-Cain on that play, forcing Rivers out of the pocket). And while the Brown story was a nice one, the Pats are hoping it's a one-week guest spot with Pat Chung (knee) back in the strong safety spot vs. Minnesota. Could be a devastating injury if it's a worst-case job.
Doesn't it feel like Devin McCourty has been around longer than six games? He plays like he's been in the NFL for 10 years, not a month and a half. His first career INT (came on a 3rd-and-17, pretty much a punt for the Chargers but still) was a beauty and he chipped in on run coverage, picking up a pair of stops on Ryan Mathews. As great as Hernandez has been this is the most valuable rookie on the roster in 2010.
Hey, it's Brandon Meriweather growing up right in front of our eyes, leading with his shoulder while blasting Patrick Crayton! And hey, he's dancing and saluting after allowing the first down! Back to square one.
The most productive play Meriweather has made all year, ironically, was on a play where he avoided making contact, jumping over Richard Goodman before the rookie placed the ball on the field after his first NFL catch. James Sanders was alert and jumped on the ball, with Meriweather also ready to pounce.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- B
Credit Fletcher for being ready on the onside kick attempt in the first quarter, he didn't catch the ball but it wasn't a case of being fooled. But James Sanders wasn't prepared for the fourth-quarter onside kick, which doesn't make any sense. Is it a lock that the Chargers go for the onside down 10 points with 7:30 left in the game? Nope, but it's clearly in play and the Pats need to know that. Strange that they seemed more prepared for a first-quarter attempt.
Two lousy snaps and a holding call against Jake Ingram, who is having a rough season. Call it a hunch but I think the Red Fox Motel on Route 1 could be hosting some free-agent long snappers Tuesday night. And give Zoltan Mesko credit for not just handling the poor snaps but getting the punts off.
Stephen Gostkowski made all three field goals in a 23-20 game. Enough said.
COACHING -- B
I don't care if you have a Welker tattoo on one cheek, a Mayo on the other and have already made plans to have your ashes spread over Patriot Place, no one two months ago would have thought the Patriots would be 5-1 with no Mankins, no Kaczur, no Warren, no Bodden, just seven quarters from Kevin Faulk and almost nothing from Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney. Plus the whole Moss saga. Todd Haley or some guy that turns 4-12 into 8-8 will probably win it, but if the Patriots win 11 or 12 games Bill Belichick is Coach of the Year. You can agree or disagree with 4th-and-1 and prevent defense up 23-6 (I hate it too) but the truth is this: No one can coach a football team as well as Bill Belichick. X's and O's are almost the same everywhere, right? The old saying is that there's just six plays, and that's probably closer to the truth than we realize. But his teams chase after laterals, know when a play is dead and don't pick up false start penalties before trying to kick a game-tying field goal. For every Bill Belichick there are 5,000 Norv Turners, Chan Gailey's or Marvin Lewis'. Something to remember when the next guy is in charge.