|After Wes Welker caught a TD pass, he caught up with teammate Rob Gronkowski to celebrate. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press)|
Three cheers for this win
Patriots executed well in all phases
The Patriots had to feel good this week.
Seldom does an NFL team have as complete a victory as they did on the road over the Eagles.
Was it perfect? No. But the Patriots played and coached circles around the very talented Eagles in their 38-20 win. That reflects the current state of affairs in Philadelphia, but it shouldn’t take much away from what the Patriots did.
The Eagles played mediocre, but the Patriots were able to accomplish the main objective in all three phases.
And that’s a very good day at the office.
On offense, the Patriots wanted to limit the effectiveness of the Eagles’ primary pass rushers, ends Trent Cole and Jason Babin.
Defensively, the Patriots wanted to limit spectacular running back LeSean McCoy and make quarterback Vince Young beat them.
And they were not going to let receiver DeSean Jackson turn the game around with even one electrifying punt return on special teams.
Mission accomplished on all three points.
A look inside reveals some unsung but key performances that helped the Patriots do that.
■Matt Light, Sebastian Vollmer, and Nate Solder: All of the tackles have had their struggles this season, but the Patriots had to get top-flight performances from them against Cole and Babin to emerge with a victory.
The Patriots did not get off to a good start as they allowed four knockdowns of Tom Brady on their first six pass plays. Three were on Light, who battled an ankle injury all week, and two came from Cole, who is one of the best defensive players in the league, regardless of position. Cole and Babin would have one quarterback hurry each the rest of the game.
Light got better as the game went on, and didn’t get much help against Cole. He was asked to block Cole one-on-one 80 percent of the time and pitched a shutout on their final 10 battles.
Vollmer, who played about half the game before suffering a foot injury, and Solder combined to allow one pressure from Babin in 23 snaps. They received help 39 percent of the time.
The eight total quarterback pressures allowed by the Patriots were a season low.
■Defensive strategy: Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia came in with an excellent game plan to slow down McCoy and force the game into Young’s inaccurate hands.
They moved the sometimes-overused Rob Ninkovich full-time to end so he could set the edge against the run but also defend McCoy in the pass game. And when McCoy was in the backfield, safety James Ihedigbo was brought into the box to spy McCoy.
Ihedigbo has been up and down since entering the starting lineup against the Jets in Week 5, but he was most confident and effective against the Eagles. That’s because the way the Patriots used him was very similar to the “Dig package’’ (his nickname) that his former team, the Jets, designed for him against certain opponents.
Much to the Patriots’ delight, the Eagles’ overmatched offensive strategists, head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, decided to target the secondary at the expense of their greatest strength, McCoy. The good teams find a way to do both. As soon as the Patriots saw the Eagles’ game plan, they dumped out of base and went with all nickel and dime packages. McCoy touched the ball just 14 times for 61 yards.
■Zoltan Mesko: He isn’t often named among the league’s elite punters, but no one can doubt his effectiveness. He only had to put three times - twice to the explosive Jackson - but he got a perfect result all three times.
Jackson didn’t return either of his punts, and Chad Hall went out of bounds on a perfect sideline punt to the 10-yard line. Mesko averaged 48.3 yards and 4.67 seconds of hang time. His first punt to Jackson brought rain with 4.95 seconds and a fair catch.
Three top game plan points plus stellar execution equal one impressive victory.
Here are the positional ratings against the Eagles:
Quarterback Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Brady is back. Without the tennis-elbow band for the first time since the Cowboys game, Brady was in elite form. We counted 11 plus plays (eight throws) and just two minus throws. Brady hasn’t been that good since the first matchup against the Jets. Of course, it helped that the Eagles inexplicably played to the Patriots’ strength by going with almost entirely zone coverage and not getting much pressure after the first two series. The Eagles blitzed Brady on only 10.8 percent of his 37 dropbacks (including penalties). Good luck trying to defense Brady that way. His final throw, the 24-yard touchdown to Rob Gronkowski, was Brady’s best of the day, into an almost impossible spot.
Running backs Rating: 2.5 out of 5
The run-blocking unit continues to be a problem, but it’s not the fault of the backs. BenJarvus Green-Ellis earned a good portion of his 44 yards on 14 carries because there wasn’t much room to speak of. And the Eagles are mediocre against the run. Green-Ellis missed a chance for a big run on the first play of the second series when Logan Mankins pulled to the right and Green-Ellis cut inside of him. Outside, Gronkowski and Vollmer had paved a huge running lane on a play that went for 5 yards.
Receivers Rating: 4 out of 5
This group accounted for 14 plus plays, but there were three drops combined from Wes Welker, Deion Branch, and Tiquan Underwood, who flubbed a touchdown pass. Against zone coverage, Branch is still as good as anybody, as evidence by his six catches for 125 yards. He did, however, catch the ire of Brady when, like Chad Ochocinco last week, he did not break off his route when Brady faced a blitz up, 31-13. Branch, Aaron Hernandez, and Gronkowski all had standout blocks.
Offensive line Rating: 3 out of 5
As noted above, Light, Vollmer, and Solder pulled off the most important assignment for this unit against Cole and Babin, but the line had another rough go on the ground with 14 run stuffs allowed (runs of 1 yards or less outside of short yardage). That’s a season high. Mankins was eaten up, with two hurries allowed and 3.5 run stuffs. Most of Light’s struggles came early, and he ended with three knockdowns, one hurry, and a half run stuff. Right guard Brian Waters probably had his roughest game, with a half sack allowed and three run stuffs (includes two holding penalties). Ryan Wendell led the unit with three plus plays while allowing two stuffed runs. Because the Eagles are a 4-3 with wide splits, this was not a high degree of difficulty for the center. The teams that play 3-4 with a nose tackle over him will be the greater challenge, but Wendell looked comfortable and had a great block on Green-Ellis’s 4-yard run to open the scoring. Vollmer was having his best game of the season before leaving, but Solder more than picked up the slack.
Defensive line Rating: 4 out of 5
If there’s one thing to be concerned about, it’s how easily end Andre Carter was erased and the lack of pressure from the rest of the unit (10 quarterback pressures). A huge fear entering the postseason is that teams will double down on Vince Wilfork and shut down Carter with extra attention. That’s one of the few smart decisions the Eagles made (probably because incomparable line coach Howard Mudd is their tutor). Carter was left one-on-one with left tackle Jason Peters, who is having a Pro Bowl season, 21 times and generated one knockdown. Carter was doubled seven times, chipped by a running back four times, blocked by a tight end twice, and stunted once. He was invisible. The rest of the line had just three hurries (two from Mark Anderson) and two knockdowns. That’s not going to cut it in the postseason. Four of the Patriots’ 10 pressures came as a result of the eight blitzes called (14.8 percent).
Linebackers: Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Let it be known that Jerod Mayo is rounding back into form after dealing with his MCL sprain. He was much more effective and active against the Eagles. Mayo caused Ninkovich’s tackle for a loss on the first play of the Eagles’ fifth series when Mayo jumped into the hole and forced McCoy to bounce it outside. Mayo totaled 1.5 stuffed runs, two standout pass tackles, and one run tackles. Tracy White helped stop the Eagles’ second drive when on a first-down pass to Jackson, he did a great job dropping into coverage and making the zone throw difficult for Young. However, White wasn’t able to get off the block of the tight end and fill his gap on McCoy’s 22-yard run with six minutes left in the second quarter. How far has Gary Guyton fallen? His calling card used to be as a coverage linebacker. Now he is taken out of sub packages in favor of White. Guyton is now just a reserve linebacker, and he can’t blitz. Brandon Spikes can’t return quickly enough.
Secondary Rating: 3 out of 5
The group certainly didn’t get off to a good start, allowing Young to pass for 124 yards on his first four throws, but some of it was just good play by the Eagles. There really wasn’t much Kyle Arrington could do on Riley Cooper’s 58-yard reception on the third play of the game. Young made a perfect pass and Arrington didn’t have safety help because the Eagles smartly ran another vertical route at Ihedigbo. On the next big play, the 44-yarder to Jackson to start the next possession, again you have to credit the Eagles. They faked a run not only with play-action but with a guard pulling. The Patriots were in quarters coverage (the two corners and two safeties each are responsible for a quarter of the secondary). The safeties have run responsibility in quarters coverage, and Ihedigbo bit a little bit - and you couldn’t fault him. The only thing that would have helped either play was more pass rush. Julian Edelman showed some real talent playing defense and may have hastened the release of Phillip Adams. Jason Avant caught a 19-yard pass with 2:10 left in the third quarter despite good coverage from Edelman. This actually showed his potential because despite taking about five false steps - he is a receiver - Edelman recovered very well. Edelman was used in the dime early in the game, but when Adams got turned around twice on the drive that stalled at the 2-yard line, Edelman replaced Adams in the nickel. When Adams returned to the game, he missed two tackles and incurred a penalty. That lack of execution isn’t acceptable in Week 12. Sterling Moore should have intercepted the 25-yard pass to tight end Clay Harbor with 8:58 in the third quarter. There were no other vertical routes; Moore should have at least made a play on the ball.
Special teams Rating 4 out of 5
Stephen Gostkowski had another missed field goal, but he had perhaps his best kickoff game. Mesko was terrific punting. Niko Koutouvides continues to make plays on special teams, and Sergio Brown even got into the mix with two tackles.