The only significant news from the Houston game was the Wes Welker injury. Other than that, what did we learn from this game?
The offense still has trouble on the road in the second half. The defense still struggles against good quarterbacks. And as a team, the Patriots cannot put other teams away on the road.
New England used the game as a situational practice opportunity. Tom Brady was not supposed to play that much. The injury to Welker forced Bill Belichick to play Brady and Randy Moss more than he may have wanted. The idea was to get Julian Edelman as much “real” time as was feasible. The Texans would have to cooperate because they needed to win. Moss had to be in the game to give Edelman and Brady the truest possible look.
The Patriots believed the Houston game was inconsequential. I completely agree. My grades would be useless. I will grade the units for the entire season and look forward to what the Pats need for the playoffs — besides a little luck.
This grade might seem a little harsh given that the New England offense was near the top of a number of important offensive categories. The Patriots had maybe the second-best passing year of the Belichick-Brady era. They scored plenty of points. This seemingly low grade is based on what the Pats could not do more than on their statistical success.
The offense was unable to finish games. Too many times, it failed to do some relatively easy things. Had the offense managed even a couple of first downs in at least three games — Miami, Indy and Denver — the Patriots would be looking at a first-round bye. New England's inability to make the plays that the team has been converting for years is the reason for this grade.
Tom Brady had the second-best year of his career according to the numbers, but there was something missing from what he has treated us to for years. It is a tribute to his incredible talent that he could put up those numbers yet still not be as sharp and effective as before. He was off on too many of his deep balls. Brady had many more mid-range throws that were not as precise as what we have been accustomed to.
I understand he came back from a huge injury. I know he was banged up for parts of the season. Such is life in the NFL. I promise you that Tom Brady is not satisfied with his year. He was good this year, better than all but four, maybe five, other QBs in the league. But Brady and Peyton Manning are judged by higher standards than any others.
As a group, the receivers performed very well. Welker deserves to be first team All-Pro. Moss was very good most of the time. His numbers were very solid even with a bad back and some questionable effort on some plays. Edelman was the surprise of the '09 draft. The former college QB was very effective when he was in the game and may be one of the keys to whatever success the Patriots have in the playoffs. Sam Aiken chipped in with a few big plays. The one glaring exception was Joey Galloway. I put that on the player personnel group of the Pats more than anything. It was obvious he did not want to do what it took to be a receiver for the Patriots.
The offensive line was very good for most of the year. Its main job was protecting Brady. The line did that very well (with the notable exception of the New Orleans game), giving up only 18 sacks all year. This group was dinged up all year, but that allowed for the emergence of Sebastian Vollmer, who played exceptionally well. Vollmer's highlight game was against Indy, when he owned Dwight Freeney. He played very well on either the left or right side, which is no small task for a rookie. While the focus was on the tackles, where it usually belongs, Logan Mankins played very well at left guard and earned a well-deserved spot in the Pro Bowl. Dan Koppen was very solid at center all year. Stephen Neal played well when he was healthy. Nick Kaczur struggled for most of the year before being replaced by Vollmer.
The running backs were adequate. Laurence Maroney's struggles were well-documented, resulting in his benching for the last seven quarters of the season. When he ran harder, he tended to fumble. When he danced, he was not good. Fred Taylor ran well when healthy. Sammy Morris was good in both the run and pass games. Kevin Faulk is invaluable to this offense. He has been one of the best third-down backs in the league for years now. Show me a more complete third-down guy — someone who runs, catches and blocks as well as Faulk.
The tight ends are an afterthought in this pass offense. Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker had a few big plays this season but were not featured in any way. Both guys were good in the run and pass blocking.
For this offense to be successful in the playoffs, it has to finish games much better than it has done to date. The offense cannot have the second-half problems we have witnessed. The offense has to make the plays that can either seal the victory or win the game. It cannot go into a conservative mode. Brady has to play close to how he played against Jacksonville. Edelman has to be a factor. The offensive line has to continue to protect Brady. It would be nice but it is not imperative for the tight ends to get more involved in the passing game.
The defense played better than anyone expected. Despite some frustrating outings against the better passing teams, this group still managed some decent numbers. More importantly, the defense put the team in position to win more than 10 games. This younger, faster defense gave the offense the chance to win the Denver, Indy and Miami games, and maybe even the Houston game. It was not, however, without its faults.
The secondary was the focal point of most of the defensive issues. There were too many open receivers and at times, particularly in the Broncos game, the defensive backs were too soft in coverage. Still, there were enough bright spots to give the fans some hope for the playoffs and the future.
Brandon Meriweather could be hot and cold. He is an aggressive player and at times that puts him out of position. At other times he is a punishing defender who is capable of some big plays. With experience, he can become an above-average to very good safety. James Sanders had his moments of good play and was a consistent hitter. Brandon McGowan brought the heat early on but fizzled somewhat as the year unfolded. Patrick Chung had an acceptable rookie season.
Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden had similar years. Both guys looked shaky early in the year but played better as the season progressed, the New Orleans debacle notwithstanding. Darius Butler played well in his rookie season. He was susceptible to the normal rookie learning curve at cornerback but showed flashes that would make any fan pay attention. Jonathan Wilhite had one great game but was a liability the rest of the time.
In defense of the secondary, it was victimized to a degree by the lack of a consistent pass rush.
The linebackers were average throughout the year. There were very few forced fumbles and no interceptions. That is very poor big-play production. Their overall pass coverage was pretty good. The run defense could have been better.
Tully Banta-Cain was the surprise star of the linebacker corps. His pass rushing was consistent and productive all year. He was also solid against the run. The Patriots saw this early on and extended his contract halfway through the year. Derrick Burgess and Adalius Thomas played better later in the season. Neither was terribly productive, but Burgess was the better of the two. There are signs that locker room peer pressure may be bringing Thomas back into the fold after his hissy fit about being sent home for showing up late one day.
Gary Guyton played well when he filled in for the injured Jerod Mayo — so well, in fact, that he earned a spot when Mayo returned. Guyton faded somewhat as the season wore him down, but I believe he has a future in the league. He will have to play a more physical style if he wants to remain on the inside.
Mayo put up good numbers but seemed to hit a sophomore slump after his tremendous rookie year. He made plays on sheer athletic ability but was not as physical as last year. He may have been hampered by his early season injury, but that is part of the game. He still has plenty of upside.
One of the best things the linebackers did all year was the moving front that was utilized late in the year. The scheme appeared to free up what is a very athletic group to rush the passer better than the standard fronts.
The defensive line was pretty good against the run, but the pass-rushing was below par all year. The D-line managed only seven sacks and did not deliver much pressure at all. It was solid against the run and overcame some late injuries.
Vince Wilfork was arguably the best nose tackle in the league. His run defense was exceptional and he was the best defensive player on the team. The Patriots will be forced into a big decision as Wilfork becomes a free agent. I foresee a franchise tag in his future.
Ty Warren was solid but I expected him to play better. He was hampered some by injuries. He still can be a force in the league but this year was not a step forward for him.
Jarvis Green was expected to step up with the departure of Richard Seymour but was not a major presence on the defensive line. It may be the case that he is more suited to his previous role. He seemed to make more of an impact when he was platooned in certain situations. He was not bad by any means, but similar to Warren, I expected more.
Mike Wright filled the role that Green had served in previous years. He came in and provided some instant energy and pass rush. Wright was the best pass rusher on the line. He is also capable of playing multiple roles. He even filled in adequately at some nose tackle when Wilfork went down.
Myron Pryor and Ron Brace both showed they can play in the league. Both had reasonable rookie campaigns.
For the Patriots defense, the sum was greater than the parts. There was nothing great about the individual play other than Wilfork, but together the defensive players performed well enough to help their team win. They came up with enough late stops; it was the offense that failed to finish the games.
To better compete in the playoffs, the defense will need to make more big plays. In particular, it will need to put more pressure on the quarterback. New England will be facing better passing offenses (unless the Patriots somehow meet the Jets), so the secondary will need help. The pressure most likely will have to come from a scheme as there are no dominant pass rushers on this squad.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
This grade was inflated because of two people: Stephen Gostkowski and Welker. Other than those two, there was not much help in the special teams.
Gostkowski was very good on the scoring plays. His kickoffs faltered slightly for four or five games but came back the last few games of the year.
Welker averaged 12.5 yards per punt return, which is more than acceptable. He is very smart and aggressive when he is returning kicks.
Chris Hanson, on the other end of the spectrum, was terrible. He was last in the league in both total and net punting. Look for the Patriots to upgrade the position in the offseason.
Coverage teams were only adequate. Same for the kickoff returns. There were no TDs on returns.
The highlight for the special teams came early in the season, when the unit forced a Buffalo fumble on an ill-advised kickoff return.
The poor play of the offense late in games was due in some part to the coaching. The play-calling seemed less aggressive at times in the second half. The play selection is a collaborative effort of the offensive staff during the week, but most of the game-day play-calling was handled by quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien. There were uncharacteristic problems in communication with Brady, resulting in some obvious problems. The Indy game stands out for the problems the offense had right before the infamous fourth-and-2 call.
The best pressure the Patriots got on the QB came when they used the moving linebacker front late in the season. They should have used it earlier.
Dante Scarnecchia deserves a lot of credit for the solid play of the offensive line. Scar had to constantly juggle the lineup and much more often than not his group responded very well. He prepared Vollmer for one of the tougher jobs in the NFL. Vollmer's solid play at left tackle was due in part to Scarnecchia.
Bill Belichick needed to find a way to help the offense with its second-half woes. There seemed to be little variation in what was obviously not working. I had no problem with going for the first down against Indy.
On the whole, we have seen better coaching in previous years.