Perry's Report Card: Pats linebackers struggle in Week 8 loss to Bills


While it wasn't a complete failure like last week, the Patriots didn't really excel in any area in a must-win game Sunday in Buffalo. Our Phil Perry dishes out his fairly ugly report card.

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So! Moral victory, anybody?

Yeah. No. This one doesn't qualify. The Bills -- unlike previous Patriots opponents in Seattle and Kansas City -- have not been a very good team in 2020, despite their 6-2 record. Their quarterback play has been up and down. Their rushing attack has ranked near the bottom of the league. Defensively, they're a bottom-10 unit in rush yards allowed per carry as well as quarterback rating allowed.

That's what made Sunday's performance for Bill Belichick's club such a letdown. All they had to do to make a run at the division was beat a team that has not been very good. And they had their opportunities to do exactly that. 

As it stands, they still haven't been eliminated from playoff contention. But it's not looking good. And the issues they have -- on both sides of the ball -- are issues they've had. Can they be fixed? Will they? 

Let's break it all down in this week's edition of the Report Card...

Curran: Now's not the time for Pats to bail on Cam

Let's get the fumble conversation out of the way first. Cam Newton was loose with it. He was loose with it before that final carry, actually. That final carry just happened to be when the Bills took advantage.

Newton acknowledged his mistake. He was accountable after the fact. But it's hard to look at that fumble as an outlier. He's been turnover-prone for weeks. And if the Patriots are hoping to be built with players who play their best in the most critical situations, what must they think of that last play?

Newton remains the team's best option to win games moving forward, but if the Patriots had any kind of representative quarterback behind him, that wouldn't be the slam-dunk choice it appears to be in Foxboro at the moment.

Newton worked well with Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd, though they were often very much open and completions didn't require superhuman efforts from the quarterback. (It does look like it requires real effort for Newton to get the ball down the field, though.) His best throw of the day might've been to Byrd on a crosser near the right sideline. The two-point play to Meyers also required some accuracy in a tight spot.

His best decision of the day came down to either a) his check-down to James White for a long catch-and-run, where it looked like Newton cycled through his progression and landed with the safest option or b) his check at the line to call for an option pitch to Rex Burkhead for a first-down run. His running was a true game-changer as he ran nine times for 54 yards and a score.

But his decision-making remains slow at times. On a second-and-long call early, he had James White in the flat open but went to him late and inaccurately. He was called for a delay-of-game penalty at the line of scrimmage to throw the brakes on some early progress. On a third-and-long he held, held, held and eventually ate a sack.

Those plays are going to happen when Newton has the weapons he does. But he's their best player. They need him to be at his best all the time. Beginning of the game. (They haven't scored offensively in the first quarter in 2020.) End of the game. (They have had three fourth-quarter comeback opportunities this year and are 0-for-3.) If not, they're up against it. Newton wasn't consistent Sunday, and he made his worst play at the most inopportune time. The result? Familiar.



This group was the team's best of the day. Damien Harris ran hard and decisively. His vision seems to be excellent, and it was on display in the second half as he took bounce-out opportunities when they presented themselves but then was unafraid to cut back and create in open space. He racked up 6.4 yards per attempt and ran through contact for his long 22-yard touchdown. Sony Michel won't be getting his job back as long as Harris is healthy.

Rex Burkhead and James White both made good blitz pickups throughout the course of the game, and White's 28-yard catch-and-run sparked the team's first scoring drive in the second quarter. One stretch of play in the third from this group gave the Patriots a real jolt. Burkhead converted a third-and-10 play by forcing three missed tackles. Then Harris ran twice and the Patriots were in the end zone. As a unit, they averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Nice day all around.


Jakobi Meyers had one go off his hands. He was flagged for a penalty. Damiere Byrd picked one up as well. But this group greatly exceeded expectations -- and not necessarily because they were the beneficiaries of magic from their quarterback. They got open. They caught the ball. 

Meyers finished with six catches for 58 yards on 10 targets and was clearly Newton's go-to option through the air. He would've had an even better day on the stat sheet if not for penalties on Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney that wiped out positive plays.

Byrd was next on the target list (four), catching three for 39 yards -- all in the fourth quarter. Isaiah Zuber chipped in one catch for 13 and Gunner Olszewski ran once on a jet sweep for six yards. They could use more talent here, of course, but this unheralded group did enough to give the Patriots a chance against a defensive scheme that has given Josh McDaniels' offense fits in the past.  



Ryan Izzo was the lone tight end in uniform on Sunday. The Patriots could've used another. On the first third-down call of the game, he appeared to miss a block on Mario Addison which turned a third-and-12 run into a fourth-and-14. He later was asked to block Jerry Hughes one-on-one in pass protection and allowed a sack. 

Izzo picked up a couple of catches on back-to-back plays at the end of the second quarter -- which combined helped get the Patriots into field-goal range -- but he continues to have difficulty as both a blocker and a receiver. He recorded a drop, though the play likely wouldn't have gone far.

Even when open in the flats, Izzo might not be getting many looks because in those spots he'd be asked to go to work after the catch. He's a safety-valve option but the Patriots need more.


Joe Thuney's hold late in the first quarter cost the Patriots 27 yards. That drive resulted in a punt. Shaq Mason's illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty cost the Patriots 25 more yards. The Patriots still came back and scored on a 22-yard Damien Harris scamper. Still, that's two of your best players putting you in a hole if you're the Patriots. Uncharacteristic moments from both. 

Otherwise not a bad day from this unit. Newton was sacked twice -- one of which was a coverage sack, the other a blown block by Izzo -- and the team rushed for 5.5 yards per carry. The protection was good enough, and the team ran it well. Thuney's hold ended up being a real blow, but by and large this unit was fine. Another solid day for rookie Michael Onwenu, who played right tackle for the injured Jermaine Eluemunor.


Should they have done it? Shouldn't they have done it? The Patriots failed on an onside kick attempt, going for the surprise extra possession in the third quarter. Not a terrible idea! Particularly for a team that tends to have a difficult time scoring points.

But the nature of the onside kick? The classic high-bouncer? Seeing Jake Bailey roll one in front of him slowly -- to help his teammates get there at the same time as the receiving team since they no longer have running starts -- or blast one into a Bills player to create a live ball might've given the Patriots a better shot. Kevin Kelley, known as The Coach Who Never Punts, told us all about onside kick strategy on The Next Pats Podcast last offseason.  

Good work from Nick Folk, once again, making both field-goal attempts and one extra point. And Bailey was able to, on a windy day, knock one of his four punts inside the 20. Bailey booted his first touchback of the season too, though. Impressive as it is that it's taken this long, that has to knock this grade a tad. Olszewski had a dangerous punt-return opportunity where he made a sliding catch. That's the type of play that makes no difference in the box score but could eventually result in disaster.


The rush yards were what they were. They weren't good. (We'll get to them in more depth with the linebacker grade.) No doubt, this unit had a hand in that, which is why the grade lands where it does. Devin Singletary ran through a Lawrence Guy tackle attempt for six yards on the second play of the game for the Bills. (On the same play, Byron Cowart was blocked seven yards down the field.) On the same drive, Josh Allen scrambled for 19 yards in part because this unit left him a wide-open running lane. Cowart flew up the field and Guy couldn't wrap up on a third-quarter run for 18. 

It wasn't all bad. Cowart was in on multiple run-stuffs. Deatrich Wise had one. Adam Butler, Guy and Cowart all laid hits on Allen. But this performance left a lot to be desired.


The Bills, despite averaging just 3.9 yards per carry coming into the game, finished with 5.0 yards per carry and were closer to 6.0 after covering 75 yards in five plays -- four runs! -- during an early third-quarter TD drive. At the goal line with a chance to make a play was Ja'Whaun Bentley...who missed the tackle.   

There were plenty of those from this group, including one from Bentley where he appeared to injure himself leaving his feet to wrangle a Buffalo ball-carrier. There were other moments when Patriots linebackers were blocked too easily on the edge, there were moments when safety Adrian Phillips -- a linebacker this year -- was washed out of the play against a bigger lineman. On Josh Allen's fourth-quarter TD run, there was no 'backer to be found in the middle of the field.

One of this unit's biggest names, Chase Winovich, didn't get much action, which was perplexing. He's gone from Defensive MVP of the season's first month to a borderline scratch. This grade was only kept from sinking to the "F" range thanks in part to a couple nice plays getting after the quarterback from rookie Josh Uche. Otherwise? Rough one.


The Patriots defensive backfield will take some responsibility for what the Bills did on the ground, as well. On Allen's 19-yard scramble, Allen faked out both Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks in the open field to pick up about 15 extra yards. A few plays later, both McCourtys had a chance to slow down Zack Moss on a 21-yard run, but Jason McCourty couldn't shed a block, and Moss side-stepped Devin McCourty to keep chugging. Devin McCourty also picked up a neutral-zone infraction and the secondary had trouble wrangling both Stefon Diggs and John Brown on long catch-and-run plays. 

They helped hold Allen to just 154 yards through the air, but on only 18 throws, that meant Allen ended up with 8.6 yards per attempt. A pass breakup by Jason McCourty and a pick by JC Jackson (gifted by Allen) helped this grade to get where it did.

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