The New England Patriots’ first half of the season was defined most by their fourth-quarter collapses, and the second half of the season started off the same way. The Patriots’ defense gave up plays throughout the game, and the Bills were on the verge of making one more big play for a game-winning touchdown, when the Patriots managed to escape thanks to an end-zone interception by safety Devin McCourty.
The Patriots won this game, but there’s plenty of reasons not to be impressed with their performance, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Which players stepped up to help them the get the win, and which players’ struggles could have cost them the game? Read on to find out.
Tom Brady: B
Tom Brady had a solid game overall on Sunday, but was not at his best. To his credit, Brady had to deal with a lot of pressure in the second half, and held up very well while he was mostly accurate throughout the day, but he did finish the game with 15 incompletions against him.
A few of those incompletions were drops by receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, but but he also had what should have been an easy interception dropped in the first quarter.
Overall, Brady completed 23-of-38 for 237 yards and two touchdowns. That is a solid stat line, but he did not come up with big plays in the fourth quarter when the Patriots needed them.
Stevan Ridley: A-
The Patriots had only 117 rushing yards on Sunday, less than half of the 247 they had in their first matchup with the Bills, but one running back had a strong day carrying the load, and that was Stevan Ridley. Ridley was the Patriots’ bell-cow back on Sunday, carrying the ball 22 yards for 98 yards and a touchdown.
Ridley was running with his usual power and speed in this game, and taking advantages of the creases that his blockers created for him. He was the most reliable source of yardage for the Patriots in this game.
Danny Woodhead: B+
Danny Woodhead only had five touches in this game, but he made the most of those opportunities. His touches included a 15-yard rushing touchdown, which came on his third consecutive touch to end a drive, and a 18-yard receiving touchdown.
Woodhead’s rushing touchdown was his only run of the day, but per usual, he was a valuable asset as a receiver out of the backfield thanks to his terrific route-running.
The Patriots relied on Woodhead in crucial situations, with two of his five touches coming on third down, both of which he converted for a first down and a touchdown.
Shane Vereen: C
Shane Vereen had only one play of significance in this game, a screen pass that he took 11 yards through contact and even drew a 15-yard penalty for a facemask. As a runner, however, Vereen was ineffective, with a net gain of only five yards on five carries.
Wes Welker: C
CBS play-by-play commentator Ian Eagle called Wes Welker’s first drop in this game “rare,” but the myth that Welker rarely drops the ball once again tested inaccurately in this contest. Welker had two drops in this game, with his first coming on what would have been an easy 34-yard touchdown off a perfect throw.
Welker ended up with six receptions for 74 yards, including one fantastic 23-yard play where he caught a screen pass on the right side of the field, then reversed all the way back around the left side to gain all of his yardage. His two drops, however, including one that would have been good for six points, really lower his grade.
Brandon Lloyd: B
Brandon Lloyd had a solid game, catching five passes for 45 yards, but there were no special plays in that mix. Lloyd may have been brought to the Patriots with the expectation of being a big-play deep threat, but on this day, he was instead a reliable intermediate receiver.
Deion Branch: B+
In his first six games since re-joining the New England Patriots in Week 3, Deion Branch had only five total receptions. Branch may have only gained 30 yards as a receiver on Sunday, but catching four receptions in one game was a big stride for him this season.
Branch also did a good job, as he usually does, contributing as a run blocker on the perimeter.
Julian Edelman: D
Julian Edelman only had one pass thrown his way in this game. It was a tremendous opportunity for Edelman, as it came on a perfectly-thrown deep ball, but Edelman dropped the pass.
The Patriots still gained a first down on that play for a defensive penalty away from Edelman, but had Edelman made the catch, the Patriots could have gained significantly more yardage.
Rob Gronkowski: B+
Three catches for 31 yards are unusually low numbers for Rob Gronkowski, but the statistics aren’t necessarily indicative of the strength of Gronkowski’s game on Sunday. Gronkowski was responsible for the Patriots’ longest offensive play of the day, a 24-yard catch over the middle, and he also made an impressive diving two-yard touchdown grab.
Additionally, Gronkowski was outstanding in this game as a run blocker, making multiple big blocks to set up some of the day’s biggest gains out of the backfield.
Gronkowski didn’t put up big numbers in this game, but he was still one of the best players on the offensive side of the ball for New England.
Visanthe Shiancoe and Daniel Fells: N/A
With Aaron Hernandez out of this game as he continues to struggle back from an ankle injury, it seemed like an opportunity for Visanthe Shiancoe, who was just added to the 53-man roster from eight-week injured reserve on Saturday, to make an impact. Instead, he barely even saw the field.
The same was the case for Daniel Fells, who has not made hardly any impact this season, and really could have used a chance to make some plays to increase his chances of staying on the roster now that Shiancoe is on the roster.
If these two can’t even get on the field and contribute when Hernandez is out, it is hard to see them making any impact when Hernandez is finally fully healthy. Shiancoe has not really had a chance to prove himself yet, but it would come as no surprise if Fells is the player who loses his roster spot to clear a spot for Aqib Talib, who will be activated this week from the suspension list.
Nate Solder: B
The New England Patriots gave up significantly more pressure to the Buffalo Bills this time than they did in their matchup earlier this season. In part responsible for that was Nate Solder, who had more trouble working against Bills defensive ends Mario Williams and Kyle Moore than he had fending off pressure in the first contest.
Solder had another strong day leading the run blocking effort to the left side, and he did not give up any sacks, but he has had strong performances this season.
Sebastian Vollmer: B+
As was the case in the first matchup, Sebastian Vollmer was often matched up against Bills defensive end Mario Williams, and he won the matchup for the most part. While he gave up a little more pressure and wasn’t quite as dominant in the run game as he was in Week 4, he was the most solid of the Patriots’ offensive linemen in this contest.
Ryan Wendell: B
In getting overpowered by Marcell Dareus, who combined with Kyle Williams for the lone sack of the day against Tom Brady, Wendell was partially responsible for giving up that sack.
For the most part, however, Wendell had a very good performance. He had a good day in run blocking up the middle, and although the offensive line gave up considerable interior pressure in the second half, Wendell did a steady job with two backup guards alongside of him.
Logan Mankins: B
In the first half of the game, left guard Logan Mankins was the Patriots’ best run blocker. Early in the second half, however, Mankins was beaten by Kyle Williams to allow the team’s only sack of the day, and he was injured on the play as well, which ended his day early.
Unfortunately for Mankins, who has struggled with injuries all season after recovering from surgery on his torn ACL following the Super Bowl, he may be in line to miss more time. Jeff Howe on the Boston Herald reported that Mankins left Gillette Stadium in a walking boot following Sunday’s win.
Dan Connolly: C+
Starting right guard Dan Connolly was steady but unspectacular in the first half, and did not play at all in the second half due to a back injury. He did not give up any big tackles for loss when he was in the game, but still had his share of trouble working against Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
Donald Thomas: B-
Donald Thomas stepped in at right guard for Dan Connolly following his departure from the game. Thomas was steady as a fill-in, although the Patriots gave up significantly more pressure on his side of the line in the second half of the game.
Nick McDonald: C+
When Logan Mankins left the game, Nick McDonald replaced him at left guard. McDonald did a good job as a run blocker upon his entrance into the game, but struggled against Kyle Williams in pass protection. He did not give up any sacks, but did give up a hit on the quarterback.
Vince Wilfork: B+
The first of the Patriots’ three defensive takeaways came in the first quarter, and it was a fantastic effort by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork which made that happen. Wilfork drew a double-team, but managed to blow through both blockers and hit Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick straight on for a sack, forcing a fumble in the process which the Patriots recovered.
It wasn’t a very good day for the Patriots’ defensive line in regards to bringing pressure, and Wilfork did get called for a costly 15-yard facemask penalty early in the second quarter, but overall, he was the Patriots’ best defensive lineman in this game. He did a good job of holding his gap and bringing interior pressure, and made one of the game’s biggest plays, which set up the Patriots’ first touchdown.
Jermaine Cunningham: B+
It was Jermaine Cunningham who was coming on a rush and was in position to recover the fumble forced by Wilfork, and that was not his only big play of the day. Later in the game, the Patriots used Cunningham in a surprising scheme by lining him up at defensive tackle, and he took advantage by running through Eric Wood on an inside rush and taking down Fitzpatrick for a 6-yard sack.
The rest of Cunningham’s game, however, was less impressive. He did not bring consistent pressure, was called for a five-yard encroachment penalty at one point and missed multiple tackles. Cunningham’s two big plays in this game, however, both played a big role in setting up the offense for touchdowns, so he still grades out highly.
Chandler Jones: C-
Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones has consistently graded out as highly as any player on the Patriots’ defense all season, but today was not one of his better days. As the team’s premier pass-rusher, his lack of production was evident on Sunday as the Patriots really struggled with bringing pressure in the second half of the game.
Jones’ pressure on one play did help set up a Rob Ninkovich sack, but for the most part, he was kept very quiet in this game. Jones was mostly a non-factor in the run game, and was credited with just one tackle while he missed a number of tackles he could have made.
Kyle Love: C+
Kyle Love has not been a big playmaker at defensive tackle this season, and that continued to be the case on Sunday. Love was credited with one tackle and brought interior pressure that forced one throw-away from Fitzpatrick, but for the most part, his presence was relatively weak which enabled the Bills to have a big day running the football.
Rob Ninkovich: B-
Rob Ninkovich has been one of the Patriots’ biggest defensive playmakers in recent weeks, and he did have a sack in this game, but even he struggled against the Bills. Ninkovich was unable to bring pressure with any consistency, and while he did finish the game with four tackles, he also took some bad angles on tackles he could have made, and struggled when he dropped back in coverage in this contest.
Justin Francis: C+
With the Patriots using some 3-4 defensive alignments in this game, and even at times when they did not, the Patriots rotated rookie defensive end Justin Francis into the game more often than usual.
Francis made an impact early in the game, with a terrific rush to hit Ryan Fitzpatrick at the Bills’ own goal line that forced an incompletion and was nearly a huge sack. For the rest of the game, however, he was held quiet.
Brandon Spikes with his illegal hit that drew a 15-yard penalty
Jerod Mayo: B-
Jerod Mayo led the Patriots with 12 tackles on Sunday, even though he made some very uncharacteristic mistakes.
Mayo made some big tackles and a big hit to break up a pass, but he also missed multiple tackles, took some poor angles and was called for a bad penalty for a late hit out of bounds during one of the Bills’ fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
Mayo is known for making plays all over the field and not making mistakes, but while he accomplished the first part of that, mistakes crept into his game on Sunday.
Brandon Spikes: B
Like Mayo, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes made tackles all over the field in this game, finishing the game with 11, but he also made mistakes.
In addition to his many tackles, Spikes swatted a pass down in the end zone, and forced a fumble that the Patriots should have been able to recover, but failed to. Spikes did not make many big-impact tackles, however, and he was also called for two penalties, including a very dumb 15-yard penalty for hitting Ryan Fitzpatrick above the shoulders when there was no need to.
Dont’a Hightower: D
Outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower has had some impressive moments in his rookie season, but he truly looked like a rookie on Sunday. Hightower had a very poor performance, struggling in every facet of the game.
Hightower struggled in pass coverage, getting beaten badly by Bills tight end Scott Chandler on multiple occasions. Hightower did finish the game with four tackles, but he had numerous missed tackles and took some very bad angles in this game.
Since injuring his hamstring in Week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens, Hightower hasn’t been as effective on the Patriots’ defense, but Sunday was his worst game of the very thus far.
Devin McCourty: A
The Patriots’ defense was mostly horrendous in the fourth quarter of the game, with the exception of two big plays that saved the game for the home team. Devin McCourty was responsible for both of those plays.
On a play where Fred Jackson was gashing the Patriots’ defense and running straight toward the goal line early in the fourth quarter, McCourty made a terrific strip of the football on the 1-yard line, knocking the ball free for a fumble recovered by Kyle Arrington. McCourty later sealed the game with an end-zone interception in the final minute.
Sunday was his third consecutive game playing safety, and the move appears to be a success. McCourty had eight tackles on Sunday, gave up no big plays and certainly made his impact upon the game. If it were not for McCourty’s big plays, we’d likely be talking about a loss to the Bills.
McCourty was also in on the forced fumble in the fourth quarter along with Brandon Spikes, but that fumble was not recovered by the Patriots.
Steve Gregory: B-
In his first game back after missing four straight due to a hip injury, safety Steve Gregory had a solid performance. Gregory made five tackles in this game, including initial contact on the play where McCourty stripped Fred Jackson.
Gregory, however, should have had more than five tackles. He missed a number of tackles in this game, and was out of position on multiple occasions where should have been in place for safety help. He made some very solid plays in run support, but was afflicted by the missed-tackle epidemic that struck the majority of the Patriots’ defense on Sunday.
Kyle Arrington: B
Kyle Arrington continued to give up a good amount of receptions in the intermediate passing game, but the starting cornerback had possibly his most solid game of the season Sunday. He did not give up any big plays, and came up with some clutch plays late in the game.
It was Arrington who recovered the fumble forced by McCourty at the 1-yard line. Arrington also made a big pass deflection on a pass intended for Steve Johnson in the end zone in the fourth quarter, and he had a very solid day in run defense, making six tackles.
On a day where the Patriots’ defense really struggled, Arrington was surprisingly one of the unit’s better players.
Alfonzo Dennard: D+
In case you haven’t noticed the trend, it was a very bad day for the Patriots’ defensive rookies on Sunday. Seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard was no exception, making more than his fair share of rookie mistakes.
Dennard made his share of tackles with five, but he also missed numerous tackles. Dennard did make one nice play to push Steve Johnson out of the back of the end zone on a potential touchdown reception, but had blown coverages throughout the game.
Dennard had trouble with both Johnson, who beat him on multiple occasions including initially on that play, and Donald Jones, whose plays against Dennard included being left wide open for a touchdown and to convert a 4th and 4. Dennard was consistently out of position in this game, and made another crucial mistake on a second-quarter touchdown drive when he picked up a 15-yard penalty for a personal foul.
Dennard seemed to have the inside track on starting at cornerback even when Aqib Talib joins the lineup next week, but he may have dropped behind Arrington on Sunday.
Tavon Wilson: C
After starting the previous four games at safety, rookie Tavon Wilson moved back into a limited role with Steve Gregory back in the lineup.
He didn’t see the field much, but when he did, he wasn’t impressive. He was beaten on one occasion by Scott Chandler for a 14-yard catch, and had two tackles but both were downfield.
Marquice Cole: C-
Marquice Cole was impressive playing as the slot cornerback against the St. Louis Rams in London, but when he was called upon to play in that role for a full game on Sunday, he struggled. Cole took bad angles on run defense, while he was beaten badly by Donald Jones late in the fourth quarter on a play which would have set the Bills up in the red zone had Jones not dropped the ball.
Stephen Gostkowski: A
The New England Patriots’ kicker missed two field goals in the team’s first game against the Buffalo Bills, but Stephen Gostkowski was fantastic on Sunday. Gostkowski made three field goals, including two from more than 40 yards out, while six of his eight kickoffs were touchbacks.
Zoltan Mesko: C
Zoltan Mesko only had two chances to punt on Sunday, and neither was great.
His first punt was fair caught at the 13-yard line, but considering he was punting from the Bills’ 38-yard line, he should have been able to pin the Bills even deeper. His second punt from the Patriots’ 1-yard line was a decent but unspectacular 44-yard punt.
Julian Edelman: B
While Julian Edelman did not have a good day as a wide receiver, he had a solid day as a returner. His 33-yard kickoff return was the Patriots’ best of the day, and he also gained 10 combined yards on two punt returns.
Coaching Staff: D
It was quite obvious what the Patriots’ coaching staff had to fix during the team’s bye week. The defense had to stop giving up big plays and heavy yardage, and both the offense and defense had to learn how to close games out in the fourth quarter.
In their first post-bye test, the team failed in both regards and were lucky to escape with a win.
Dan Hope is the New England Patriots game day correspondent and an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For more coverage of the Patriots, follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.