This Patriots season has been filled with nothing but turmoil, setbacks, and drama. Wes Welker walked away. Aaron Hernandez went away. Rob Gronkowski returned to practice, but wouldn’t return for games. Some of the team’s top players suffered significant injuries, including season-enders for indestructible defensive leaders Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo.
And yet, somehow, they haven’t missed a beat.
There’s a new cast of characters, but the Patriots are 7-2 after taking their bye week. Tom Brady has been uncharacteristically inconsistent, but he still manages to get the job done when the game is on the line, with three game-tying or game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots have been devastated by injuries, yet unheralded players such as Chris Jones, Aaron Dobson, and Logan Ryan have filled in admirably.
The bye came at the perfect time for the Patriots — after 15 consecutive weeks of football since the end of July, and with key players such as Aqib Talib and Shane Vereen on the verge of returning from injuries.
“It’s been a long haul here since July,” said coach Bill Belichick. “We’ve been playing a lot of football and hopefully we’ll get a chance to get a little breath of fresh air and come back, be ready to go. We have a lot of football left, a lot of big games.”
The Patriots still have some crucial games ahead — an upcoming “Monday Night Football” battle against a surprisingly strong Panthers team, a Sunday night showdown against the Broncos the following week, and potentially tricky games against the Ravens, Bills, Dolphins, Browns, and Texans.
But before looking ahead to the final seven games, let’s take a thorough look back at how the players did in the first nine games with our midseason review.
Brady gets graded on a tougher scale than most players, and his grade is only that high because of his last performance against the Steelers, which was phenomenal. Otherwise, Brady has been surprisingly pedestrian.
He is averaging about 250 passing yards per game (down from 314 the past two years), is on pace for his lowest touchdown total since 2003 (23), is 28th in the league with a 57.1 completion percentage, and is 27th in yards per completion (6.6).
Some of his woes can be attributed to having a new cast of receivers (including three rookies), not having Gronkowski for six games, inconsistent line play, and 32 drops from his receivers, the most in the NFL.
But Brady’s decision-making and accuracy have been off at times, and before the win against the Steelers, he hadn’t completed a pass over 30 yards in the air all season. But Brady has been money when it matters most, with four touchdowns and two interceptions in the fourth quarter and comeback drives against the Bills, Saints, and Jets.
RUNNING BACK: A-minus
None of the four running backs (including Vereen) is on course to make it to Hawaii this year. And they have only two individual 100-yard games so far — Vereen with 101 yards in Week 1 against the Bills, and Stevan Ridley with 115 against the Steelers.
But as a group, the running backs have been the backbone of the team, and the running backs are having excellent individual seasons despite their opportunities getting split. The Patriots are 10th in rushing yards per game (129) and have cracked 130 as a team in six of nine games.
Ridley has 514 yards and six touchdowns in eight games, and is averaging a healthy 4.4 yards per carry as the primary rusher. He officially has only two fumbles (a third against Buffalo was overturned), but ball protection is still an issue, as his fumble against Pittsburgh demonstrated.
LeGarrette Blount has 312 yards and two touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry and has been a sledgehammer in the fourth quarter. Brandon Bolden has filled in admirably for Vereen as the third-down back, averaging 5.4 yards per carry with two touchdowns and adding 17 catches for 107 yards while providing solid pass protection and playing through a knee injury. Fullback James Develin is holding his own as a lead blocker and special teams contributor.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B-minus
The run blocking has been solid, with the Patriots scoring 10 touchdowns on the ground (fifth in the NFL) and averaging 4.4 yards per carry (11th-best). The unit has been flagged just 18 times in nine games, only seven times for holding.
Nate Solder has been fantastic and is developing into one of the best young left tackles in the NFL. Sebastian Vollmer was solid in his eight games (no penalties) before breaking his leg, Logan Mankins is still a road-grader in the run game, and Marcus Cannon has done fairly well in limited fill-in action at several positions.
But the pass protection has been surprisingly inconsistent, particularly up the middle with Mankins, Ryan Wendell, and Dan Connolly. The Patriots have allowed 26 sacks through nine games, almost equaling their total from last year (27).
Some of that is on Brady holding onto the football, but Brady has been sacked three or more times in seven games as teams have consistently overwhelmed the interior of the offensive line. Mankins leads the team both in sacks allowed (seven, including five in his last two games) and penalties (six, including three holds and one clip). Connolly and Wendell have combined to allow six sacks to interior defenders that don’t often get sacks.
WIDE RECEIVER: C-plus
This heavily scrutinized group has been inconsistent and occasionally disappointing, but overall there have been seven individual 100-yard games among five receivers, and they could be dangerous come playoff time. The top four receivers have combined for far too many drops — 25, including a league-high nine by Dobson — but have shown a lot of potential when they’re all healthy.
Danny Amendola, the big free agent pickup, has upheld his reputation as injury-prone, missing four games with groin injuries and a concussion. But he has been productive when in the lineup, with two 100-yard games out of five.
Julian Edelman tailed off a bit after catching 34 passes in the first four games (15 in the five games since), but he has proven to be a dependable slot receiver, with 21 first downs.
After being inactive the first week and getting a shaky start with several drops, second-round pick Dobson has emerged as the primary outside threat in recent weeks, with three touchdowns in his last two games and a healthy 14.6-yard average per catch on the season.
Fourth-round rookie Josh Boyce has one catch for 24 yards, hasn’t been active since Week 5, and played two or fewer snaps in two other games.
Undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins has been one of the best rookie stories in the NFL, with 23 catches for 334 yards and four touchdowns, including a last-second, game-winning score against the Saints. He was the team’s No. 1 outside receiver through the first seven games, but has seemingly fallen out of favor the last two weeks, playing just 13 snaps against the Dolphins and being inactive against the Steelers.
Thompkins was briefly overtaken in the lineup by veteran journeyman Austin Collie, who was signed in Week 5 but released after suffering a knee injury last Sunday.
TIGHT END: Incomplete
We give this grade because of the significant and unexpected transition of the position following the sudden departure of Hernandez and the six-game absence of Gronkowski. The Patriots used two blocking tight ends for the majority of the first six games (Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan), and the two performed fairly well.
Hoomanawanui has played in 71.5 percent of the snaps, has added some good edge blocking in the run game, and has nine catches for 112 yards. Mulligan has been used only 14 percent of the time, and has one catch for 1 yard, a touchdown against Atlanta.
Gronkowski’s impact has already been felt. In three games, he has caught 19 of 32 passes thrown his way for 284 yards and a touchdown.
More important, the Patriots, the league’s worst red zone team through six games, have scored 10 touchdowns in 14 possessions in Gronk’s three games, improving to 18th in the red zone.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B-plus
Rob Ninkovich has been fantastic both against the run and in getting consistent pass rush despite having a low sack total (3). And Chandler Jones is emerging as one of the NFL’s best young pass rushers. But the run defense has been a bit leaky, ranked 30th in yards allowed (128.2) and 20th in yards per carry allowed (4.3), and the losses of Wilfork and Tommy Kelly may prove costly.
Ninkovich will likely get bypassed for the Pro Bowl because he isn’t a household name, but he has been a key piece, compiling 45 total tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and 27 quarterback hurries, most on the team.
Jones is seventh in the league with 8.5 sacks, and has been stout against the run, as well. He is second on the defense in snaps played (645 of 659), and Ninkovich had missed only eight all season, all against the Buccaneers, before suffering a minor injury last week.
Wilfork was a shell of his usual self in the three-plus games he played — nine tackles and no sacks — and it’s fair to wonder whether he was playing through an injury. Kelly had 2.5 sacks in five games.
The Patriots switched to a 3-4 base without Kelly and Wilfork, and undrafted rookie Joe Vellano and rookie waiver claim Chris Jones have played admirably in their place, with Jones leading all rookies with five sacks (22d in the NFL), an impressive total for an interior player. Vellano has a sack and a forced fumble while playing 65 percent of the snaps. But the two don’t always get off their blocks and are prone to be pushed around a bit in the run game.
Rookie Michael Buchanan has two sacks while playing 15 percent of the snaps, but he lost playing time to Andre Carter in the last two weeks, and Carter isn’t providing much pass rush help, either.
This unit has been solid but unspectacular, making some good plays in the run game but at times looking lost in coverage and not making many impact plays. Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez abused the linebackers for 149 yards and two touchdowns.
Mayo had 55 tackles in five-plus games before tearing his pectoral muscle, but he had few impact plays, with 1.5 sacks, one pass defended, and one fumble recovery.
Brandon Spikes has taken over as the primary run stuffer and had excellent games against the Bengals and Jets. Spikes has 53 total tackles, a pass defended, and an interception (against the Bengals), but otherwise has been slow and a liability in pass coverage.
Dont’a Hightower was given the green dot to communicate with the coaches when Mayo went down, but he quickly lost it with erratic play, especially in pass coverage, where he at times appears lost and a step slow. Hightower has only one sack and no other impact plays, while missing five tackles and allowing 154 yards after the catch.
Dane Fletcher has played 50 of his 54 snaps the last two weeks, and has been used mostly as a blitzer, coming up with two sacks.
This unit has played phenomenally well and is a major reason the Patriots are ranked No. 8 in points allowed. The pass defense is 13th in yards allowed (232.8 per game) and sixth in yards per attempt (5.6), and the secondary has 11 of the team’s 12 interceptions. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger are the only quarterbacks to throw for 300 yards against the Patriots, and both did so in losing efforts.
The Patriots hope to get Talib back for Carolina after he missed three games with a hip injury, and they hope he can return to form. Talib was superb in his six games, helping to keep A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Vincent Jackson in check and shutting out Jimmy Graham.
Talib is tied for the league lead with four interceptions despite missing three games, has been flagged for only one penalty (pass interference), and has allowed just 39.4 percent of passes to be caught against him, the third-lowest percentage among all cornerbacks.
Second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard began the year behind Kyle Arrington, and while Dennard still has too many whiffs in the run game, his coverage skills and ball skills on deep passes have been excellent. Only 50.9 percent of passes have been caught against Dennard, and he has been flagged for only three penalties in nine games, none for pass interference.
Arrington has done well in spots as the slot cornerback, but he has allowed four touchdowns and a completion percentage of 59.3. Ryan, a rookie, played sparingly through the first five weeks but has taken on a bigger role in Talib’s absence, and had an interception touchdown against the Jets, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble against the Dolphins, and has shown good coverage skills.
Free safety Devin McCourty leads the defense in snaps played (652 of 659) and has been one of the NFL’s best this season. He leads all safeties with five passes defended, has two forced fumbles and an interception, hasn’t committed a penalty, and his tip-drill assist on Marquice Cole’s interception against the Dolphins was unbelievably heady.
Steve Gregory has been a tackling machine with 52, but can be a liability in coverage and is occasionally replaced by rookie Duron Harmon, who has had interceptions the last two weeks and is starting to earn more playing time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus
The special teams units haven’t created many big plays, but haven’t given up any, either. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski is having a Pro Bowl-type season; he is No. 1 in the NFL in scoring (90 points), second in touchbacks (38), and 22 of 23 on field goals, including 9 of 10 from 40-plus and 2 of 2 from 50-plus.
Punter Ryan Allen is 16th in net average (39.9), but more importantly he’s had the fourth-most punts with 49 and only 17 have been returned. Edelman is eighth in the league with an 11.5-yard average on punt returns, but the coaches are strangely sticking with Blount as the kickoff returner despite his 23.3-yard average, 17th out of 19 qualifying returners.
The offense may have struggled for much of the first half, and the wins haven’t always been pretty, but for the team to be sitting at 7-2 after losing Welker and Hernandez, not having Gronkowski and Vereen for most of the season, losing Wilfork, Mayo, and Vollmer to season-ending injuries, and playing multiple games without Amendola and Talib is a testament to Belichick and the coaching staff.
Their schemes and game plans have been good enough to win each week, and they have done an excellent job coaching the backup players and creating roster depth.
The Patriots are ninth in points scored and eighth in points allowed. They are third in turnover margin (plus-9), ninth in red zone defense, and aren’t committing many penalties — fifth in penalties committed (41), 11th in yards (407).
They need to improve in red zone offense (18th) and on third-down conversions (27th). And they are getting outscored, 58-29, in the third quarter as they often come out flat after halftime. But they are also outscoring opponents, 80-37, in the fourth quarter, showing a propensity to get it done when the game is on the line.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.