Report Card: Brady, Dillon and Linebackers Earn Top Grades
By John MacKenna
After going 14-2 for the second consecutive year, the New England Patriots earn consistently high grades for their work in the 2004 regular season. With the team finishing fourth in the NFL in scoring, the offense gets better grades than the defense.
Offensive Line: A-
As they have throughout the Bill Belichick era, the offensive linemen of the Patriots achieved far more in 2004 than pedigree would suggest. The team allowed only 26 sacks (fifth best in the NFL) and gained 2,134 rushing yards (7th best). Numbers like that indicate that the offensive line is doing a lot of things right.
Line coach Dante Scarnecchia gets the most out of his linemen. Of the seven linemen who played extensively this year, only RT Matt Light (2nd round, 2001) and C Dan Koppen (5th round, 2003) ever had their names called in the NFL draft. The line is also small by NFL standards: LG Joe Andruzzi is the heaviest at 312.
The Patriots began the season with the same line that played in Super Bowl XXXVIII, but Steven Neal replaced Russ Hochstein at right guard after a few games, and Brandon Gorin became a starter at right tackle after Tom Ashworth went on injured reserve with a back injury.
Neal and Gorin have been inconsistent, particularly in pass protection, and Neal has drawn more than his fair share of penalties. Meanwhile, Koppen, Andruzzi and Light have excelled all year.
Tight Ends: B
When the season started, tight end looked like an important position in the Patriots' offense. The team used the second of its two first-round picks on Georgia's Ben Watson, and third-year man Daniel Graham had an excellent preseason.
Things changed quickly. Watson caught two passes in the season opener but never played again after suffering a season-ending injury. Graham had 16 catches and five TDs through Game 5, but once RT Ashworth was injured, he became a fulltime blocker, and a very good one.
Graham, Fauria and Jed Weaver saw plenty of action this season, but it was mostly as blockers. Combined, they caught only 54 passes for 652 yards. Lack of production from the tight ends is a price the Patriots pay for investing so few draft picks in their offensive line.
It should be noted, however, that the tight ends caught 15 passes for 197 yards in the last two games of the regular season. Also, LB Mike Vrabel caught two TD passes as a tight end over the course of the season.
Wide Receivers: B
No Patriots wide receiver had a great season from beginning to end, but as a group, they got the job done all season long. Deion Branch was hot in Game 1, catching seven passes for 86 yards, but he was injured in Week 2 and missed seven games.
David Patten also started the season hot, catching 11 balls for 238 yards in the first three games. He stayed healthy all season but didn't exceed 58 receiving yards in a game again until Week 14.
The most consistent receiver was David Givens, but he had a dormant streak at the end of the season, with only 164 receiving yards in the team's last six games. Prior to that, though, he had had four 100-plus yard games.
Troy Brown and Bethel Johnson made small contributions. Brown was pressed into service as a defensive back, and made only 17 catches for 184 yards in limited time. Johnson simply has not developed as a receiver, and he caught only 10 balls for 174 yards.
Nearly every week, there was at least one receiver on a roll, and QB Tom Brady went over 200 yards passing 12 times.
Running Back: A
Corey Dillon, acquired from the Cincinnati Bengals for a second-round pick, was outstanding, finishing third in the NFL with 1,635 rushing yards and giving the Patriots a strong running game for the first time in the Belichick era.
With Dillon leading the way, the Patriots were seventh in the NFL in rushing with 133.4 yards per game. In 2003, the Pats had gained only 100.4 rushing yards per game, 27th in the NFL.
Dillon worked well with the offensive line, showing good patience as he followed his blocks. He also protected Brady nicely with his blitz pickups.
RB Kevin Faulk missed five games but was effective at times, rushing for 61 yards in the second Buffalo game and for 87 yards against Cleveland. Dillon's presence and the emergence of Patrick Pass forced Faulk into a smaller role, and he totaled only 503 yards from scrimmage, less than half his total last year.
Pass caught 28 passes for 215 yards and carried 39 times for 141 yards as Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis called his number far more often than in Pass's first four years with the team. Pass also contributed solid blocking in front of Dillon.
Statistics are a poor indicator of performance for QB Tom Brady, who tied a career high with 14 interceptions and finished only 17th in the NFL in completion percentage at 60.8. Brady cares only about wins, and the Patriots finished 14-2 for the second straight year.
Brady had carried New England for the previous two seasons, completing an average of 21.6 passes per game. This year he averaged only 18 completions a game, as New England let Dillon carry the load. The Patriots were fifth in the NFL with 524 rushing attempts this year, after rushing only 473 times in 2003 (27th).
Brady this year competed his evolution from a short-pass artist to a bomb thrower, attempting 203 passes of 10 yards or more, including 74 of 20 yards or more. The threat of the long pass combined with the strong run game made it very difficult for the league's defensive coordinators to game-plan for the Patriots.
Despite throwing fewer passes, Brady tied a career high with 28 touchdown passes.
Defensive Line: B+
The defensive line entered the season looking like a weak link. Star NT Ted Washington had left as a free agent, replaced by a rookie, Vince Wilfork, and a 12-year veteran, Keith Traylor, who hadn't played much nose tackle. Also, DE Ty Warren was coming off an unimpressive rookie season and free agent DE Rodney Bailey had suffered a season-ending injury in preseason.
The line struggled early in the season but came together after the Pittsburgh game in Week 8. With CB Ty Law sidelined by a foot injury, the line stepped up its play, putting excellent pressure opposing quarterbacks and shutting down opposing rushers. The Patriots logged 45 sacks, tied for third in the NFL.
DE Richard Seymour is going to his third straight Pro Bowl after another impressive season. His numbers (40 tackles, 5 sacks) were down, but he drew a lot of attention from blockers and freed up his teammates to make plays.
At left end, Warren made great progress in his second season. He registered only 3.5 sacks but spent a lot of time in opposing backfields getting after quarterbacks.
Wilfork was outstanding for a rookie, starting six games and logging 42 tackles, two sacks and three pass deflections. Traylor and reserve DE Jarvis Green also contributed nicely.
The Patriots' veteran linebacking crew held the defense together during a difficult season in which the defensive backfield was decimated by injuries. None of these guys is going to the Pro Bowl, but as a group they are as good as any.
The starters have an average of 9.5 years' NFL experience. Bruschi, Johnson and McGinest have been playing together since 1996.
Starting outside backers Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel had another great year. McGinest led the team with 9.5 sacks, his highest total since 1995. Vrabel added 5.5 sacks and 67 tackles. Along with Rosevelt Colvin, who improved steadily all year in his return from a broken hip, this pair sealed the outside and forced opposing rushers inside all season long.
Inside, Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson clobbered opposing rushers and shut down short passing routes. The ever-active Bruschi logged 120 tackles, three interceptions, 3.5 sacks and six passes defensed. Johnson enjoyed a rebirth in his 10th season, starting 15 games and making 78 tackles.
Roman Phifer, the league's oldest linebacker at 36, saw his role reduced and missed three games due to injury. Second-year man Tully Banta-Cain contributed 1.5 sacks and an interception in limited time.
Defensive Backs: C
The defensive backfield gets the worst grade on the team because it had to depend so heavily on untested reserve players, including WR Troy Brown and LB Don Davis, who filled in at new positions once the injury toll got out of hand.
It was the starting safeties, Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson, who held the backfield together. Harrison played every game and led the team with 129 tackles. He also made three sacks, picked off two passes and deflected eight more, and forced three fumbles. Wilson played 15 games, logging 65 tackles, four interceptions, seven pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Meanwhile, New England's cornerback crew couldn't stay healthy. Both starters, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, were gone for the season by Week 8. Replacements Asante Samuel and Randall Gay both appeared in most of the remaining games, but Samuel had an injured shoulder and Gay battled an elbow injury.
The Patriots wound up relying heavily on Brown and practice squad player Earthwind Moreland, and they became targets for opposing quarterbacks. Brown picked off three passes but gave up a lot of costly receptions. Moreland just gave up costly receptions.
The Patriots stepped up their pass rush to protect the backfield, but New England still allowed an average of 231.9 passing yards a game, 19th in the NFL.
Special Teams: B
Kicker Adam Vinatieri had his best season, leading the NFL with 141 points and making 31 off 33 field goal attempts. Punter Josh Miller, signed as a free agent in the offseason, averaged 42.0 yards a punt and was perfect as Vinatieri's holder.
Second-year kick returner Bethel Johnson was mediocre for the first half of the season but improved in the second half and finished with a return average of 24.8 yards, eighth best in the NFL. There was no good news on punt returns, however. Brown and Faulk handled most of the returns, combining for a paltry average of 5.8 yards, fourth worst in the NFL.
The Patriots were uncharacteristically bad on coverage, allowing 23.2 yards
on kick returns and 11.8 yards on punt returns. Both averages were fifth worst
in the NFL.
John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"
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