Phil Perry

Patriots Report Card: Defense flexes on Zach Wilson for first win

Matt Judon and Co. continued New England's dominance of the Jets QB.

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Oftentimes when the Patriots make their way to MetLife Stadium, the objective is to simply get out of Dodge with a win. No matter how it looks. 

The weather can be a bear. The opponent can be a pain (despite the 15 straight wins the Patriots have racked up against the Jets). So the goal is to win, of course, by any means necessary, and get to the next week.

That's how it fell on Sunday. It came down to a fourth-quarter safety and an oh-so-close Hail Mary attempt by Zach Wilson, but the Patriots left New Jersey with their first victory of the season, 15-10.

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"Down here it's always tough," Bill Belichick said after the game. "The Jets are a tough team. Do a good job. Defense is really, really good... Good to come out on the good end of it."

In coming out on the good end of things against the Jets, which position groups were best? Let's get to the grades.

Quarterback: B-

Not an easy day to throw the football. Rainy. Windy. And the wind at MetLife Stadium was such that it was one of those days, I was told after the game, where you have to overcompensate left or right on deep balls to allow for the fact that the wind will inevitably influence its direction. Jones completed just over 50 percent of his attempts (15-for-29) for 6.9 yards per attempt. 

Interestingly, despite the conditions, Jones tried to push the ball down the field frequently -- especially on third down.

He averaged 10.1 air yards per attempt, which will end up near the top of the list for all quarterbacks in Week 3. Still, he missed on deep throws to DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, JuJu Smith-Schuster (more on that later) and Demario "Pop" Douglas. There was a near-pick on a screen that was deflected, and he threw one dangerously into coverage to Hunter Henry on third down. Prior to Sunday Night Football, Jones ranked fourth-worst among quarterbacks in Week 3 with a completion percentage over expected of -8.6.

There was some good, though. He took care of the football and didn't turn it over. He got his passes out quickly (2.6 seconds on average) and was not sacked despite what seemed like steady pressure from a talented Jets defensive line.

He hit Parker for 18 yards along the sideline on an out route that showed good anticipation on third down early on. He hit another to Parker later when facing a third-and-15 situation. He had another third-down completion to Bourne that went for 18 yards. His seam pass to Pharaoh Brown that went for 58 yards was on the money. 

From what I was told, it sounds like the late third-and-3 throw on a seam route to Smith-Schuster was a "my guy or nobody" type of throw. The Jets showed man-to-man coverage initially. They switched responsibilities in the secondary, though, indicating they were in zone late. Jones opted to play it safe -- with a lead, and in conditions that would be tough for the Jets to drive the field -- and put the football in a spot where the defense wouldn't be able to get its hands on it.

Turns out Smith-Schuster couldn't get it, either. But it avoided a potential turnover resulting from a tricky defensive call by the Jets. The Patriots finished 8-for-19 on third down.

Running back: C+

Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott combined for 3.97 yards yards per carry on 35 attempts.

They weren't explosive, necessarily. They had six runs go for zero or negative yardage. And the longest run between them came on a 14-yard scamper by Elliott. But they were persistent. Stevenson and Elliott saw the conditions pregame and told one other that they'd be relied upon.

They ended up almost splitting their carries evenly, with Stevenson getting 19 for 59 yards and Elliott getting 16 for 80.

"I like that," Stevenson said of their combined hefty workload. "We need to keep that going... If it's split even, and that's how the cards fall, I'm totally with that. We both run the ball hard so it just makes it harder on defenses."

Stevenson's drop on third down early in the game hurt this grade and led to a glove change. (The team has leather gloves specific for the rain that he wasn't wearing initially, Stevenson said.)

He ended the game with one catch for three yards on four targets.

Wide receiver: C

Nice work by Bourne on his early third-down grab to carry a few would-be tacklers with him for extra yardage. The additional weight he put on in the offseason seemed to pay off for him there. But it was a quiet afternoon overall for this unit, which ended up with 85 total receiving yards.

Parker's 16-yard toe-tapper along the sideline was a highlight, as was the 15-yard deep over route to Douglas (his only catch of the game).

But Smith-Schuster was all but eliminated from the box score by Jets defenders, finishing with one catch for five yards on three targets. He also picked up a costly illegal blindside blocking penalty on a drive that included two additional Patriots penalties and traveled -8 yards on four plays. 

Smith-Schuster told me after the game that he'd been watching blocking highlights from former Steelers receiver Hines Ward before the game and got carried away trying out the peelback stuff he saw in those clips. In 2019, the league instituted a rule banning blindside blocks when offensive players move back toward their own goal line.

Smith-Schuster is a prideful blocker, he said, but he acknowledged he made a poor choice on that particular snap.

"I was just trying to make a play to help my boys," Smith-Schuster told me. "I wasn't thinking. I keep forgetting there's a new rule. ... It's funny, I was watching Hines Ward, his blocking videos, before the game today. I saw that, and I saw an opportunity, and I took advantage of it. Yeah, it wasn't smart by me to do that. Different era."

Tight end: A-

Credit where it's due: Pharaoh Brown may have been cut free by the Jets defense on his 58-yard touchdown -- his first catch as a member of the Patriots -- but he had to get on his horse in order to break the plane of the goal line. Safety Jordan Whitehead looked like the culprit on that one, allowing Brown into the secondary unguarded, but then Brown out-ran Whitehead and safety Adrian Amos' angle to score.

Brown also showed a nice stiff-arm on a 13-yard catch-and-run play later in the game. Add to that some fullback responsibilities and it was a busy day for the newest Patriots tight end, acquired just before the start of the season. The team ran 26 snaps with multiple tight ends on the field Sunday, and 15 of them came with three tight ends. 

Even though the overall numbers here aren't gaudy -- Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki combined for just three catches and 35 yards -- their work in the trenches gives them a boost.

Offensive line: B+

There certainly was good and bad here. But to come away from this game with just the finest of hairs under 4.0 yards per carry with their backs as well as no sacks? They'll take that against a defensive line like the one that resides in the Jets locker room.

Mac Jones and Bill O'Brien helped this unit by calling for as many runs as they did -- always better for the big bodies here to move forward rather than backward, if they're given the choice -- and the ball was out quickly on pass plays. But this was a good day for a line that continues to deal with pieces in and out. 

Trent Brown was back at left tackle, which served as a boost. That flipped Week 2 left tackle Vederian Lowe over to the right side. Meanwhile, Cole Strange had to come out late and was replaced by rookie Atonio Mafi while David Andrews and Mike Onwenu tried to hold things down on the interior. 

It wasn't perfect. Of the team's six runs for zero or negative yardage, you could likely point to quick losses by this unit up front. And Strange's holding penalty helped run one Patriots drive into the ground. But otherwise, this was a cleaner performance, with better production in the run game. It's something the Patriots may be able to build off of -- and build their identity around -- moving forward. 

Mac Jones commends both Ezekiel Elliott and Rhamondre Stevenson on being able to get the run game going for the Patriots.

Lowe was particularly impressive, given he was acquired via trade just before the start of the season. Now he's had two starts at both tackle spots, and he's allowed just one sack (in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins). He went from just hoping to get all the play calls right in the huddle in Week 2 to feeling more comfortable with his responsibilities in Week 3. He said he was told before the game on Sunday that he would, in fact, be starting. 

After almost a full season as an inactive player as a sixth-round pick out of Illinois last year, he's taught himself to try to be ready for anything. 

"I think, me personally, the mindset I've had going through everything is just constantly staying hungry," Lowe told me. "It's never enough is what I tell myself. Getting here isn't enough. Me playing two weeks in a row is not enough. There's more. There's more to be made. There's more to be done. There's more progress to come.

"It's never being satisfied. I think that's the mindset I've had this entire time, and I'm just going to keep that going."

Special teams: B

Toughest grade to come up with. Once again. Why? Rookie kicker Chad Ryland made a 48-yarder in tough conditions to start this one. Then he missed 48- and 57-yarders after high snaps from Joe Cardona. Then he drilled a 51-yarder. Up and down. Probably more up for the kicker himself, truthfully, especially when you factor in his experience level.

Then there was the rookie punter, Bryce Baringer, whose first punt was downed at the Jets' 6-yard line in the rain. Beauty. He also lifted one for Brenden Schooler to cover and stop for no return. He also dropped punts at the 13 and 10 after hitting a pair of not-so-hot low liners.

Tough to gauge, but with two rookies in critical gigs, in a game where field-position and the kicking game mattered, this was an impressive (if imperfect) performance.

Defensive line: A

The Patriots lost Davon Godchaux and Daniel Ekuale on back-to-back snaps, but it didn’t end up mattering. This group still helped hold the Jets to a measly 1.7 yards per carry thanks to some strong work done by Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise and Christian Barmore.

Wise was one of the team’s busiest defenders, coming up with multiple pressures — including one to force a throwaway on a third-down screen in the second quarter — and a hold drawn. Barmore was right there with him, notching a sack with Anfernee Jennings, as well as multiple pressures and a pass batted at the line.

Dominant day from this unit. And they did it shorthanded. Deserving of high marks here. 

Linebacker: A

Matthew Judon’s safety with just over two minutes sent the MetLife crowd home unhappy. Damn near emptied the stadium despite there being plenty of time left for a desperation comeback. But it makes sense that the home fans were frustrated with what their offense did against this linebacker group.

Judon was a menace. He generated multiple pressures, hit Zach Wilson multiple times, made a tackle in open space while functioning as a coverage player on third down and apparently spooked Wilson into sacking himself early on.

Meanwhile, Ja’Whaun Bentley was almost as disruptive but in a different way. He came up with two quarterback hits of his own to go along with two pressures. He also recorded a tackle for loss and helped break up two passes in coverage.

The Patriots also got contributions from this group in the form of Josh Uche pressures, a forced fumble from jumbo outside ‘backer-slash-end Keion White, and an early hit and tackle-for-loss from Jennings. Strong-to-quite-strong day for this unit. 

Secondary: B+

What more can you say about Christian Gonzalez at this point?

We’re only three weeks into his rookie season, but it was another strong day for the first-rounder who -- with the benefit of hindsight -- mistakenly fell to No. 17 overall during the draft. Seeing plenty of time on the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, Gonzalez (one pass breakup) helped hold Garrett Wilson to five catches for 48 yards on nine targets.

Gonzalez wasn’t the only defensive back who had himself a day, though. Jabrill Peppers was all over the field, coming up with an early tackle for loss. He also bench-pressed a receiver and made a tackle for minimal yardage on a screen, helping eventually force a punt. He made a forceful stop on the last play of the third quarter, as well, flashing his explosive hitting power throughout the day.

Kyle Dugger was right there with Peppers in making an impact from the safety spot, coming downhill as a violent blitzer at times but also coming up with a number of open-field tackles.

Myles Bryant had a tough drive during the one Jets series that resulted in a touchdown. He missed a tackle that helped the Jets land on the doorstep of the goal line. He was also flagged for a pass interference penalty in the end zone on third down that hurt. But outside of that drive, this group was rock solid.

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