Grading Patriots' Positional Units at the First Quarter Mark
The New England Patriots are 4-0, but it's been a far-from-dominating first quarter to their 2013 season. For a team known as an offensive powerhouse and defensive poorhouse in recent seasons, this year has turned that old notion on top of its head.
While things have often looked inconsistent on the offensive side of the ball due to injuries and rookie receivers, the defense has suddenly emerged into what looks like a throwback to the days of last decade's dynasty defense that won three Super Bowls and came within two minutes of a perfect season.
Yes, the Pats are 4-0 for the first time since 2007, but there is plenty to improve on and a major injury to Vince Wilfork to overcome.
Let's hand out the grades to the Pats' positional units.
Stats courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).
Tom Brady might have the lowest completion percentage of his career (58.9), but considering the new targets and injuries to Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski that he's had to overcome, it's clear Brady is still on top of his game.
Learning on-the-fly with rookies Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce has been a bumpy process. It was never more ugly that it was against the New York Jets in Week 2, where Brady completed less that 50 percent of his passes for the first time since 2009.
Brady has missed his share of open receivers through four games, and his frustration often showed, but he has hung tough and delivered in the clutch moments like he's almost always done.
Things have gotten progressively better over the first quarter of the season, culminating in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons, with a vintage Brady performance that saw him finish with a quarterback rating of 119.8 and put up his first 300-plus passing game.
It should only get easier on Brady as Amendola and Gronkowski are expected to return to the lineup, and the rookies should only continue to get better.
It hasn't always been pretty, but Brady is still Brady.
After losing Shane Vereen, their best receiving threat from the backfield, in Week 1, the Pats have turned to a three-back system that has seen LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden all featured.
The carries since Week 2 have broken down as follows: Ridley—38 carries, 128 yards; Blount—27 carries, 140 yards; Bolden—nine carries, 68 yards. While Ridley and Blount have shared the main load, Bolden has been the closest thing to a the replacement for Vereen, catching six passes for 44 yards.
Overall, the Pats ground game is ranked 11th in yards per game, but they have just one rushing touchdown, the 47-yarder by Blount that blew open the game against the Falcons.
The Pats have done a solid job getting by without Vereen, who appeared poised for a monster season after his performance against the Buffalo Bills that saw him put up 159 yards of total offense.
Still, they have struggled finishing in the red zone, averaging just 2.24 yards per rush with zero touchdowns. There's room for improvement, and Vereen's return, sometime after Week 9, will provide a boost, but with all things considered with the injuries and new passing game, it's hard not to be pleased with the Pats' efforts on the ground so far.
There isn't a more interesting position on the Pats roster to evaluate than wide receiver. We knew coming into the season they were going with a full-on youth movement, and when Danny Amendola went down after Week 1, it only exacerbated the process.
The last three games have been all about Julian Edelman, who leads the NFL in receptions now, Kenbrell Thompkins, who has three touchdowns in the last two games, and Aaron Dobson, the second-round pick, who has chipped in with a touchdown of his own.
As expected, the rookies have been inconsistent. They struggle to consistently catch the ball with their hands and have combined to drop nine passes. Still, the Pats have had no choice but to stick with them, and that should pay off down the road.
Things have gotten progressively better after the low point against the Jets in Week 2, when the Pats went three-and-out seven times. Thompkins put up his first 100-yard game against the Falcons and looks to be steadily improving with each passing week.
Edelman has ably replaced Wes Welker (and Amendola) as the team's go-to slot receiver. He is already just three catches away from his career-high record of 37 that he set in his rookie year of 2009.
Once Amendola does return, and Dobson and Thompkins continue to develop, the Pats should have one of the best young receiver corps in the NFL.
For now, it remains a work in progress.
What a difference a year makes. Through four games in 2012, the Pats had 25 catches and four touchdowns from their tight-end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This year, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan have a combined four catches and one touchdown.
The Pats have weathered the storm, going 4-0 without Gronkowski, who is expected to return any week now. Hoomanwanui has been used as a blocker on 178 of 248 snaps he's played, going out into a pass route just 70 times. His overall grade from Pro Football Focus is just a minus-0.2.
It might make more sense to grade this area as incomplete, because if we look at just production, it's not pretty. Things will get markedly better once Gronk returns, as he is a historically good player at the Pats' offense's biggest points of weakness—red zone and third down.
Gronk's multiple surgeries and Aaron Hernandez's arrest put the Pats in a difficult position this summer. They've gotten by without much production from their tight ends, but won't have to do so for much longer.
There was no question entering the season that if Tom Brady was going to be able to get by with almost entirely new weapons, the Pats were going to need their offensive line to protect him and also spark the ground game.
So far, the Pats offensive line has been equal to the task with Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer leading the way. Solder and Vollmer rank second and fourth overall, respectively, by Pro Football Focus, and neither have allowed a sack yet this season.
Logan Mankins has returned to his mauling ways, now a full year removed from ACL surgery, ranking sixth overall for guards by Pro Football Focus.
Center Ryan Wendell has shown some inconsistency and is currently the 26th-rated center by Pro Football Focus. However, Wendell is coming off his best game of the season against the Falcons, where he scored a 2.6 ranking.
The biggest weak link up front for the Pats? Dan Connolly, who is ranked 51st by Pro Football Focus and has struggled mightily in pass protection (minus-6.4).
Overall, the offensive line has done their job, with the Pats ranking 11th in rushing and only allowing a just seven sacks, good enough for fifth-best in the league.
With Vince Wilfork done for the season, the landscape of the Patriots defensive tackle squad has rapidly changed over the course of one week. Wilfork wasn't the same player in the first three games of the season and played just 10 snaps against the Falcons before his Achilles gave way.
The Pats are left with Tommy Kelly, who has been an upgrade over Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick from last season, but is not the same player Wilfork was. Kelly has been solid, but the Pats were able to manage his snaps with Wilfork in the fold. Now, Kelly becomes the focal point in the middle of the Pats defense.
Behind Kelly are a pair of undrafted rookies in Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. Vellano has been surprisingly solid after making the team out of camp. He recorded his first sack of the season against the Falcons, and the Pats will need his upward trajectory to continue.
As for Jones, along with practice-squad players A.J. Francis and Marcus Forston, they'll have to join forces to replace Wilfork by committee. Armond Armstead could return from the PUP list as soon as Week 7, which would be a much-needed boost.
The place where Wilfork's absence hurts the most? Against the run, especially in the sub-defense, where his presence was a deterrent against offenses spreading out the defense only to hand the ball off.
The Patriots sit at a crossroads right now, and no one can tell for sure if they'll be able to adequately replace Wilfork. The signing of Kelly now looks like the best move of the offseason, but letting Deaderick and Love both go, thus being forced to use a rotation consisting of undrafted rookies, is not ideal.
Check back on this group at the halfway point.
In training camp, the Patriots had a loaded group of defensive ends, and it was difficult projecting who would stick on the roster. The answer was a simple one. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have played nearly every snap, and Michael Buchanan has been the designated pass-rusher. Everyone else was cut loose.
Ninkovich and Jones are off to strong starts, executing Bill Belichick's game plans perfectly in the first four games, often at the expense of stats. Still, they have combined for five sacks, eight QB hits and 27 QB hurries in four games.
Jones has also served as a interior rusher in the sub-package as well, using his length and athleticism to expose mismatches on interior offensive linemen.
Buchanan has been a surprise contributor as a seventh-round pick and has a respectable two sacks, one QB hurry and two QB hits so far.
The ends have done a good job in the run game, consistently setting the edge and even dropping into coverage at times. Ninkovich and Jones are two huge keys to the defense, even more so with Vince Wilfork lost for the season.
This group will need to be elite to carry the Pats defense, especially against high-octane passing offenses like the New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos. A solid start, but there's still room to grow.
Similar to the defensive ends, there were a lot of questions surrounding the linebacker corps in training camp, only to have it play out very simply. Brandon Spikes has essentially been reduced to a run-stopper, while Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower have become the primary linebackers.
After splitting sub-package time with Spikes in 2012, Hightower has taken over the role completely this season, playing 81 percent of the snaps. Pro Football Focus has graded Hightower out with just a minus-3.6 overall rating, including a minus-2.8 in pass coverage.
Rookie Jamie Collins has been slowly worked in on clear passing situations, playing 36 total snaps in the first four games.
Defensive captain Jerod Mayo has not graded out well by ProFootballFocus.com so far this season, with a horrendous minus-5.2 rating in run defense. Despite a respectable 1.6 rating in pass coverage, he has still had his struggles winning on contested balls.
Spikes should have a more significant role with Wilfork gone, but it appears he is no longer in the running to prove himself to be a three-down linebacker.
Mayo and Hightower are Pro Football Focus' lowest-ranked players on the Patriots defense, and things will only get tougher for them without Vince Wilfork taking up blockers in front of them. If there is one area the Pats really need to be better on it's defense, it starts with these two primary linebackers. They are both talented and can do the job; they just have to play better.
Aqib Talib's trickle-down effect on the Patriots defense was a huge improvement in 2012. Not necessarily because Talib himself was playing so well, but it allowed other Patriots defenders to better play to their strengths.
This year, however, Talib has been playing like a No. 1 shutdown corner, and the Pats defense has entered the ranks of the elite through four games. Talib's win-sealing pass breakup in the end zone against the Falcons was the perfect exclamation point to his start this season.
Just like last year, Talib's presence has allowed Kyle Arrington to shift inside to the slot, where he is best suited, while Alfonzo Dennard has manned the right cornerback spot on the outside.
After seeing just three snaps combined in the first two games, rookie Logan Ryan has played 28 and 26 snaps, respectively, in the last two games.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons might've been the only established passing threat the Pats have faced this season, but regardless of competition, they have delivered, and that hasn't always been the case in recent years.
The Pats are giving up an average of just 241.1 passing yards per game and have given up the sixth fewest points.
Perhaps most telling is the Pats have given up just 14 plays of 20-plus yards, four of which came in the soft-zone fourth quarter vs. the Falcons, after giving up five per game in 2012, including 21 in their first four games.
Things will only get harder for the cornerbacks, with upcoming matchups against A.J. Green, the Saints and the Broncos, but so far, it's hard to remember the Pats getting better cornerback play.
Perhaps the biggest bonus of the Aqib Talib trickledown is that it allowed Devin McCourty to move to safety full-time. So far this season, McCourty has landed on Pro Football Focus' Team of the Month for September.
PFF did not have McCourty with a single negative grade against the run or pass in the first month of the season.
Steve Gregory was thought to be on the roster bubble this summer, but emerged from camp as the unquestioned starter next to McCourty and has played 93 percent of the snaps this season. Gregory has looked solid in the strong-safety role, with excellent tackling.
Rookie Duron Harmon has served as the third safety, but has played just 20 snaps on the season.
McCourty and Gregory have finally secured the back-end of a defense that has been lit up early and often the last three seasons. The stability that they've provided in the first three games has been a welcome change.
Gregory has had some moments of inconsistency, but nothing like he did last year. He and McCourty look like a solid tandem the Pats can rely on down the road.
Stephen Gostkowski is off to one of the best starts of his career this season, missing just one field goal while connecting on 11, including five of six from 40-plus yards. Gostkowski has also had just one kickoff returned this season.
After a somewhat of a down year, Gostkowski is looking like a Pro Bowler this season.
Ryan Allen was the surprise winner of the punter competition this summer, and so far, he's looked like a rookie at times, which should be expected. But Allen has shown steady improvement, and his game against the Falcons was his best of the year, garnering a 2.2 rating from Pro Football Focus.
The NFL's all-time punt-return average leader, Julian Edelman, is off to another great start this season, averaging 12.1 yards per return, including a long of 17 yards.
The kickoff return game has had a surprising returner in LeGarrette Blount, who, at 250 pounds, might be the heaviest kickoff returner in NFL history. Still, in today's NFL, the kickoff return game has been marginalized, and Blount has returned just four kicks on the year. His average is a respectable 21.0 yards per return.
Overall, the Patriots have had strong special teams performances this season, and once Allen gets a little more experience under his belt, they could be even better.