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Running backs (4 out of 5)
Thanks to some really nice work by the offensive line, the running backs didn’t have a high degree of difficulty and got what was blocked. Danny Woodhead only played 18 percent of the snaps. Most of his low snap counts have come against the worst defenses (Titans, Bills twice, Broncos). The bigger the game and defense, the more the Patriots like Woodhead.
Receivers (3.5 out of 5)
Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman (drop), despite a couple of miscues in the running game, were both terrific in the air and on the ground. Everyone else, including Wes Welker (two drops), was average. You could tell that Welker was not 100 percent. He just didn’t play with his usual confidence and precision. Edelman was so involved in the pass game because he appeared to be playing Aaron Hernandez’s spot in a scheme we hadn’t seen in weeks. Perhaps it was greasing the skids for Hernandez’s return. A guess as to why Brandon Lloyd played by far his lowest percentage of snaps (55 percent): The team realizes he’s not physical enough for the quick screens they run — he leaves yards on the field — so he’s going to split time with Edelman there.
Offensive line (4.5 out of 5)
This unit allowed just eight quarterback pressures (22 percent of the dropbacks) despite the Colts trying to bring pressure on a quarter of the snaps. No reason to put them in order of performance because besides Sebastian Vollmer once again being the standout, Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell, and Nick McDonald all played in the “very good” range. The left side of Solder, Thomas, and Wendell really did some work in the run game. McDonald had a sweet one-arm pancake of linebacker Nigel Bradham on the opening possession.
Defensive line (4 out of 5)
Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich played terrific from start to finish. Wilfork had two quarterback hurries (including the one that forced Luck’s terrible overthrow that Talib picked off and ran back), a half-knockdown, and a stuffed run (1 yard or less outside short yardage) and two shared stuffs. Wilfork also batted down two passes, and has now become the player that the Patriots are running more and more end stunts off of. He’s really freeing up guys such as Jermaine Cunningham (hurry, knockdown) to get after the quarterback. Ninkovich (sack/fumble, two half-knockdowns) factored into four of the Patriots’ nine stuffs of 23 Colts runs (39.1 percent was season high). Kyle Love’s pad level was way higher than normal and he was getting shoved around. Wonder if there’s an injury there or a little back tightness. Overall, neither Cunningham nor Trevor Scott impressed after Chandler Jones (half-stuff in 11 snaps) went out with a right foot injury. If he’s out, that’s a huge concern.
Linebackers (3.5 out of 5)
Combined, Brandon Spikes (three hurries, 1.5 knockdowns, two half-stuffs) and Jerod Mayo (knockdown, three half-stuffs, pass breakup) probably had their most impact of the season. They each had a few miscues, and Dont’a Hightower’s struggles continued. He’s still having problems reading his keys in the run game — he’s occasionally late or just missing from his gap — and making his proper drop against the pass, though he did get his hands on one. Hightower really misplayed Vick Ballard’s 5-yard run on the play before the Colts’ first touchdown. He ran into the back of Jones and got blocked himself, which allowed Ballard to easily bounce it outside. And then on the touchdown, Mayo guessed wrong and Delone Carter ran right through the exposed gap. Belichick made some tweaks after the second touchdown. It appeared that he took Hightower off the line against the tight end, and left the re-route responsibility to one of the ends. That would make the zone exchanges more effective, especially because the Colts’ backs were so poor in pass protection. And Belichick likely drew up some more stunts against an offensive line that was slow of foot.
Secondary (3 out of 5)
There were still a lot of issues in the back end, but there was more good play as well, which directly can be attributed to the Patriots getting pressure on 30.9 percent of dropbacks instead of the usual 21 percent when the secondary struggles. Kyle Arrington was demoted from starter to nickel corner after his pass interference against Donnie Avery down to the 6-yard line before the Colts’ first score. I have a hard time believing Arrington wasn’t supposed to get help there. It appeared the Patriots were in Cover 4 (the cornerbacks and safeties each responsible for a quarter of the field). Devin McCourty rightly jumped Wayne when he got inside Talib, but why did Steve Gregory also jump Wayne? Gregory likely should have run with Avery and defended the inside. Outside of a shared pass breakup with Mayo and his final block on Talib’s touchdown, Gregory continued to be ineffective, even as the Patriots allowed him to roam the middle of the field in a robber role. Outside of that penalty, Arrington played very well as he often drew underneath coverage against Wayne and was able to get more involved with the rush. Alfonzo Dennard had a big bounce-back game, and McCourty gets better with every game at free safety. If Talib wasn’t new and rusty from his suspension, he’d be criticized for a pedestrian performance in which he gave up two touchdowns and would have given up a third if McCourty hadn’t saved him. But Talib will get some rope, especially with a terrific touchdown.Continued...