First in a three-part series analyzing the Patriots’ season.
The Patriots embarked from training camp with talk of another Super Bowl title.
By the end of the season, they came up just short with a 21-17 loss to the New York Giants in Indianapolis.
The defense, originally a 4-3 scheme, fell apart early because of injuries up front and ineffectiveness in the secondary.
But over the course of 19 games, the Patriots were able to morph into a supremely opportunistic defensive unit (34 takeaways) and were able to execute the fundamentals to give their top-ranked offense, led by quarterback Tom Brady, a chance to run the opposition ragged.
Things weren’t perfect on the offensive side. Brady had accuracy problems because of an elbow injury, and the receivers ran into trouble against tough man coverage.
Once the schedule softened up, the Patriots got healthy as a whole and rolled into the playoffs.
The bottom line was the Patriots were but a few plays from being world champions, and that is a resounding success, no matter how it happened.
Here are the average positional ratings from each of the 19 games. The ratings are not about talent. They reflect only the overall execution at each position on a game-to-game basis on a 0 to 5 scale. Only five perfect ratings were given during the season: the receivers, linebackers, and special teams against the Broncos in the playoffs, and twice by the defensive line in the first two postseason games. Turnovers on offense are graded harshly, as are big plays allowed on defense.
Seasonal average rating: 3.7 out of 5 Brady was again at the top of his game for most of the season as he passed for 5,235 yards (second-most in league history). Amazingly, his 65.6 completion percentage was his lowest (by the slimmest of margins) since 2006. Brady’s 39 touchdowns were his most since 2007 (50), and he went from four interceptions a year ago to 12 this season, and he had four more in three post-season games. During the season, Brady had nine games that can be considered outstanding with ratings of four or more (Rating 4.5-At Miami, San Diego, at Oakland, Jets, at Philadelphia, at Denver and vs. Denver; rating 4.0-Colts, at Washington). Four times he was player of the game. Brady’s worst games came in both matchups with the Bills and the Giants. The regular-season game against the Giants in Week 9 was Brady’s roughest outing (1.5 rating), when he registered a regular-season low 75.4 rating. His rough patch during the regular season - starting at Pittsburgh and ending in the second half against the Chiefs - can almost directly be attributed to the bone bruise and subsequent tendonitis he developed. Brady just didn’t have his same accuracy during that stretch. Through eight games, Brady had 10 interceptions. He threw two the rest of the regular season.
Seasonal rating: 3.2 out of 5 This position is one of the best examples for how these ratings evaluate overall execution, and not talent or effectiveness. The running backs almost always hit the correct hole, did a solid job in blitz pickup and pass catching, and almost never fumbled (two, both by rookie Stevan Ridley, with one lost). They just didn’t do much if anything of the spectacular variety. Patriots had only five rushes over 20 yards, and all were by Ridley. Patriots had nine in 2010. The Patriots rushed for 10 or more yards on 8.9 percent of their carries, the lowest since 2002 (8.1 percent). They were at 10.8 in 2010 - most-ever under Bill Belichick. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 667 yards on 181 carries (3.7 average), a season after going for 1,008 on 224 (4.4). Ridley, the rookie third-round pick, assumed the lead back role late in the season by averaging 5.2 yards per carry in his final four games. But fumbles in back-to-back weeks (Buffalo to finish season, Denver in playoffs) sent him to the bench. Danny Woodhead came out like gangbusters (14 carries, 69 yards at Miami), but wasn’t wholly effective until after midseason. Kevin Faulk (ACL surgery) came off the PUP list to play 39 snaps at Pittsburgh, and played 51 total in the final 12 games, including the playoffs.
Rating: 3.8 out of 5 The best position on the team in terms of execution, but had some struggles against the Cowboys, Steelers and in the Super Bowl. Patriots receivers led the league by dropping just 5.2 percent of the 424 catchable passes thrown to them (22 total drops), according to STATS. That’s a marked improvement over 2010 when they ranked 30th at 10.5 percent (39 total drops in 370 catchable passes). Seven times a receiver was named to the top player in this space - three for tight end Rob Gronkowski, and two each for tight end Aaron Hernandez and receiver Wes Welker. This group often contributed to the running game, with the run blocks become better and more effective as the season went along. Welker led the league with 122 catches, was second with 1,569 yards and had nine touchdowns. Gronkowski set new standards for the position in touchdowns (18) and receiving yards (1,327), and his blocking was virtually without peer. Hernandez became a huge weapon down the stretch as he finished with 79 catches, 910 yards and seven touchdowns. He missed two games with a knee injury, and toughed it through a hand full more before becoming full healthy. Deion Branch still had his short-area quickness and route running to be a reliable target. Chad Ochocinco (15 receptions) was a major flop.
Rating: 3.2 out of 5 As with most NFL lines, the Patriots had to make do with some flux starting from the very first game when center Dan Koppen was lost for the season with a leg injury. Dan Connolly ably moved over from right guard and performed very well. He allowed 1.5 sacks, 11 hurries and 7.3 knockdowns (one was shared with three players) for 19.8 total quarterback pressures, although Connolly missed the better part of four games with a groin injury. Only right guard Brian Waters (12.5) was better among regulars. Waters was simply outstanding nearly the entire season. Left tackle Matt Light saw his sack total dwindle from 7.5 in 2010 to 2.5 this season, and he also cut his hurries from 30 to 18. Left guard Logan Mankins slumped in most categories. In 10 games last season, he allowed 0.75 pressures per game and was voted All-Pro. This season he allowed 1.35 in 18 games and was a surprise vote to the Pro Bowl. Mankins’ 16 run stuffs allowed (those of 1 yard or less outside short yardage including penalties drawn) was tied with Waters, who played one more game and is not known for his run blocking. The Patriots definitely took a step back at right tackle this season. Sebastian Vollmer allowed 37 total pressures last season (one sack). Combined this season Vollmer, who battled back and leg injuries) and rookie Nate Solder allowed 48.5 pressures and 10.5 sacks. The line allowed 32 sacks, most since 2003, and had some issues run blocking.
Rating: 3.6 out of 5 While there was much instability because of injuries at other positions, the line anchored the defense. And that was while going through a huge transformation in its own right. The Patriots departed camp with sights on a deep rotation with a four-man line. But injuries to promising Mike Wright (concussion) and Myron Pryor (shoulder) in the season opener, and the released of Albert Haynesworth after eight games left the unit short of players. When end Andre Carter was out for the season in Week 15, the unit had to go back to a three-man line. Even with missing the final five games, Carter still led the team with 41.5 total quarterback pressures (10.5 sacks) and his 13 stuffed runs was second only to Vince Wilfork (17.5). Losing Carter would have killed other teams, but the Patriots adjusted and kept going. Wilfork was outstanding playing more snaps than ever (86.6). He ranked fourth with 29.5 pressues, including six sacks, and had two interceptions. Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick played well in spurts. The unit was extremely well coached by Pepper Johnson and was fundamentally sound.
Rating: 3.1 out of 5 This unit had some rough patches because of injuries to Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, the overuse at times of Rob Ninkovich, and then the transition of Mark Anderson to weak outside linebacker once Carter was injured. Like the rest of the defense, the linebacker bottomed out in losses at Buffalo and Pittsburgh, but played much better by the end of the season when Mayo and Spikes were fully healthy. The unit’s rating the final three games was better than any other three-game stretch during the season. If you include Anderson with the linebackers, the unit accounted for 47 percent of the sacks (24), 40 percent of the pressures (95.5) and 35.4 of the stuffed runs (38.5). Mayo had nine pressures and nine run stuffs in 17 games. Spikes had six and 8.5 in 12 games. He was much more impactful. If there wasn’t pressure being generated on the quarterback, the linebackers had a tough time in coverage.
Rating: 2.4 out of 5 This unit was not good most of the season, and didn’t get the ship righted until the season finale against the Bills. The Patriots became the first team in the Super Bowl era to go to the championship game with a yards per attempt allowed over 7.68 (8.04) during the regular season. New England gave up an NFL-worst 89 pass plays of 20 yards or more (league average: 64) after giving up 61 last season. Things didn’t improve much as over the course of the final eight regular season game, the Patriots still ranked 31st with 44 allowed (31 average). Eight times a defensive back was the worst-rated player (Devin McCourty led with three). The decision to go with Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown at safety opposite Patrick Chung got things off to a bad start. McCourty’s inability to play the preferred man coverage didn’t help, and by the time rookie Ras-I Dowling (Oct. 29) and Leigh Bodden (Oct. 28), the Patriots were in full retreat mode back to soft zone coverage while they scrambled to find anyone who would not get beat deep, tackle and take decent angles. The coaches finally found a passable rotation by the end of the season - Kyle Arrington (seven interceptions) was a surprise and Sterling Moore showed a nose for the ball - and nearly pulled off a world title despite poor talent. Safety James Ihedigbo was solid in the box.
Rating 3.3 out of 5 Outside of one Julian Edelman punt return for a touchdown, both kick return units proved to be no threat to the opposition. However, the coverage units were terrific all season, and punter Zoltan Mesko performed near a Pro-Bowl level. He led the AFC and finished third in the NFL with a 41.5 net average. His 46.5 overall average broke Tom Tupa’s franchise record of 45.8 set in 1997. Of his 57 punts, 42.1 percent were inside the 20 and he only had three touchbacks. Stephen Gostkowski was solid all season (84.8 field goal percentage, highest since ’08), especially on kickoffs where he went from 35.6 percent touchbacks in 2010 (second in NFL) to 39.8 (18th) thanks to the new rule. Matthew Slater led with 17 tackles while being voted to the Pro Bowl.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.