Phil Perry

Patriots-Bills Report Card: Pop Douglas flashes ‘dynamic' skill set

The Patriots desperately need playmaking, and the rookie rose to the occasion Sunday.

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It had been a long three weeks at One Patriot Place. And one win certainly doesn't constitute a saved season for the 2-5 Patriots.

But the Patriots showed important signs of life Sunday in their 29-25 upset of the Bills at Gillette Stadium -- starting with their quarterback, who delivered one of the most impressive performances of his young career.

Let's get to the grades...

Quarterback: A-

Call it belief. Call it buy-in. Call it confidence. Whatever you call it, Mac Jones is deserving of more after what he did on Sunday. 

With a new-look offensive line (more on that in a bit) and more snaps for the team's most dynamic offensive weapon, Jones carved up the Bills to the tune of an 83 percent completion mark and passer rating of 126.7. His QBR of 78.3 exceeded the season-long mark of the No. 1 passer in the league in that category (San Francisco's Brock Purdy at 77.6). Jones also posted the third-best completion percentage over expected mark in the NFL ahead of Monday Night Football (10.7).

One reason this mark gets into the honors range is because this performance was one of Jones' most consistently-accurate in recent memory. And he was an equal-opportunity distributor.

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Jones' bootleg pass early to Pharaoh Brown for 25 yards and a seam pass later in the game to Brown for 26 yards were key chunks that helped lead to points. (The second came with guard Cole Strange getting walked back into his lap.) Jones' 15-yard play-action strike to Hunter Henry in the third quarter and his third-down dart to Henry (while being hit) on the game-winning drive showed Jones' trust in his fellow captain. Then there was the well-placed, high-to-the-back-half-of-the-end-zone touchdown to Mike Gesicki to win it.

The tight ends were certainly his friends Sunday.

Jones looked happy to have Demario "Pop" Douglas, too, based on the key spots in which he went looking for the rookie. On third down in the first quarter, Jones hit Douglas -- who missed last week's loss in Las Vegas with a concussion -- with an accurate throw for 16 yards on a dig. Later, he found Douglas on a drilled-in post route for 19 yards to help set up a Kendrick Bourne score. 

It wasn't perfect. Jones was called for delay of game and probably should've been called for two in a row in the fourth quarter. He nearly lost the football on a two-point sneak attempt that failed. He turtled and took a sack when he noticed a third-quarter blitz with the Patriots on the edge of field-goal range.

He turfed a first-down receiver screen in the second quarter. He opted not to throw to Bourne on a shallow cross late in the first half that might've helped the Patriots get points going into the locker room. He missed Douglas for a touchdown on the play before the Gesicki touchdown.

But Jones also made subtle decisions that helped push this grade to where it ended up. He changed the play at the line and stepped up in the pocket to find Bourne for a 33-yard catch-and-run play. He saw two high safeties and alerted to a run play that went for 10 yards in the fourth quarter. He quickly checked down to Rhamondre Stevenson for 10 yards on the game-winning drive to keep the chains moving. He even scrambled up the middle and away from pressure on a few occasions.

For the majority of this one, he was accurate, decisive and -- perhaps most importantly -- poised. Add it all up and you get one of the best games of his career.

Running back: B-

The numbers weren't great in terms of their yards per attempt. Stevenson averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Ezekiel Elliott had a figure that came in even lower than that (2.8). But that doesn't tell the whole story of their day.

Stevenson, of course, had a big day as a pass-catcher. He hauled in six throws for 51 yards, including a rumbling 34-yard screen catch-and-run to spark the game-winning drive. His hands have been a bit of an issue at times this season, but he caught every target sent his way. 

Elliott ran hard to fight for his 2-yard score in the first quarter, getting contacted at the line but churning his legs to plow into the end zone. He also picked up a blitzer to help Jones find Bourne for a long catch-and-run play late in the second quarter.

There were a few miscues here. Elliott whiffed on a block that got Jones hit on his touchdown throw to Bourne. Stevenson appeared to miss a hole that would've led to a touchdown on the first drive of the game. But all in all, it was a solid day for this pair.

Wide receiver: B+

Douglas made a strong case for more playing time after what he did with his 37 snaps Sunday. The Patriots clearly wanted to get him involved early, throwing to him on first down in the flat for nine yards to kick-start their opening drive. On their following series, Douglas' fight through a pass-interference penalty to making a diving grab over the middle was one of the plays of the day -- and maybe one of the most impressive plays by a Patriots receiver all season. 

His 20-yard end-around featured an eyebrow-raising deke that forced a missed tackle and allowed him to extend the explosive gain. His 19-yard post reception was another impressive bit of route-running and understanding leverage to create some separation. He drew another penalty on the game-winning drive that got the team on the doorstep of the game-winning score. Just a dynamic start-to-finish performance for the rookie sixth-rounder.

Kendrick Bourne led the team in catches and yards (six for 63) in this one, doing his typical good work after the catch. His fumble in the fourth quarter, though, hurt this grade significantly. If not for the work of Jones and others on the game-winning drive, Bourne's fumble would've been the deciding play of the game. 

Interesting to see Jalen Reagor (25 snaps) cut into DeVante Parker's workload (35). Both players had one catch -- both slants -- but Reagor also stood out as a blocker on Douglas' end-around play.

Tyquan Thornton, meanwhile, played just three snaps and had one "catch" for two yards on an end-around flip.

Tight end: A-

Opposing defenses may need to start covering Pharaoh Brown as though he can hurt them. Just about every time he touches the football, good things seem to happen for the Patriots. He's a big body, he's hard-to-tackle, and when he's gotten his opportunities, he's made the most of them.

Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki combined for just four grabs and 32 yards, but there were several massive plays in there. 

The game-winner was a nifty show of route-running by Gesicki, who widened his route and thought about looking for a back-shoulder throw. Instead, feeling where the defender was leaning, he bent back inside and high-pointed the football as he was expected to do when signed last offseason.

Henry's two over-the-middle catches were key, but his pick on three -- three! -- Bills defenders deep in the red zone to open things up for an easy Bourne touchdown was one of his best plays. There's an art to being able to pull that off without getting flagged.

Scott Zolak gives Bill O'Brien credit for his game plan vs. the Bills, including his decision to put in Mike Gesicki on final drive.

Offensive line: B

You can safely say this was a confidence-building win for Mac Jones, but the same is true for this unit. By bumping Mike Onwenu back out to right tackle, this group settled down, and appropriately so with newly-minted Patriots Hall of Famer Dante Scarnecchia in the house to be honored by fans one day after his induction. That allowed rookie Sidy Sow to play between a pair of Patriots staples in Onwenu and David Andrews, and the fourth-round pick held his own.

On the left side, Cole Strange was active in clearing holes for New England's up-the-gut-focused running game. Trent Brown was stout, dealt an with injury in the fourth quarter, missed just one drive and came back for the game-winning series. 

It wasn't anywhere close to immaculate. This group had 11 different runs (non-goal-line and non-short-yardage plays) that went for two yards or fewer. The running backs averaged just 3.3 yards per attempt. There was a penalty called on Vederian Lowe for an illegal man downfield on his first snap filling in for Brown. And Jones was pressured quite a bit, leading to a Week 7 league-low average release time of 2.19 seconds. 

But this was an improvement. A confidence-builder. And perhaps a sign that they finally have their five best players in the correct spots up front. 

Special teams: A-

Nice work from rookie kicker Chad Ryland inside a windy Gillette Stadium. He made all three of his kicks, including a 49-yarder toward the lighthouse after a third-down sack of Mac Jones. He also drilled his two point-after attempts. Talk about a confidence-boosting kind of day in what ended up being a one-possession game.

Rookie punter Bryce Baringer might have had an even better day. He only punted twice, but he blasted one 64 yards -- after a false-start penalty -- that pinned the Bills at their own 13-yard line. The other sailed 46 yards at the end of the first half and stuck the Bills at their own three-yard line. 

Then there was Douglas ... again. His 25-yard punt-return, helped by a late block from Mack Wilson, showed off his explosive athletic skill set and helped set up a field-goal drive. 

Couldn't bump this grade up to the straight "A" thanks to a false-start penalty on Brenden Schooler and a timeout that Bill Belichick had to burn to make sure the team had enough linemen on the field for a Ryland attempt in the second quarter.

That lost timeout didn't hurt them on the game-winning drive, but that substitution gaffe would've loomed large had the Patriots needed that extra clock-stoppage in their pocket late.

Defensive line: A-

In the first half, the Patriots were relentless getting after Josh Allen. And this unit played a huge part in that. Deatrich Wise had three pressures on Buffalo's first extended possession of the game and later added a hit on Allen.

Christian Barmore was a force at times, creating pressure on a second-quarter third down that led to an incompletion. He picked up a second-down sack at the end of the first half as well. Davon Godchaux recorded a hurry that forced a throwaway and picked up a pair of run stuffs. Lawrence Guy stuffed a run as well.

In the second half, the Patriots weren't able to get after Allen with quite the same consistency. And there were a couple of penalties that hurt them; Wise had a neutral-zone infraction penalty and Barmore was called for roughing the passer.

But this was a very good performance -- they allowed just 3.4 yards per carry -- that lands them in the "A" range.

Linebacker: B+

Ja'Whaun Bentley was in coverage on a 28-yard completion to James Cook on the fourth play of the game for Buffalo, so it wasn't the hottest of starts for this unit. But they quickly followed that explosive Bills gain with two Bentley pressures and a run stuff by Anfernee Jennings. To finish the drive, Bentley spied Allen and helped force him into an incompletion in a scramble-drill situation. Nice recovery.

Bentley didn't have a spotless day -- he might like to have a pair of tackle attempts back -- but it was still an impressive one. On top of his multiple pressures on Buffalo's second drive, the frequent blitzer added another hurry later as well as a run-stuff. He also had a critical fourth-down pass breakup early in the fourth quarter. 

Jennings had a pair of stops in the running game and Jahlani Tavai added one himself. Rock solid day for this unit.

Secondary: B-

J.C. Jackson was called for an odd illegal-contact penalty in the first quarter. That one actually doesn't count against this grade. 

On the other hand, the Jack Jones roughing-the-passer penalty bumped this mark down a bit. Jones showed his displeasure for the flag after the game, but he simply cut it too close getting near the head of one of the top quarterbacks in the game.

Allen is going to get that call. Every time. And it didn't have to happen that way as Jones had plenty of surface area closer to Allen's midsection to strike. Learning moment for the young defensive back.

Missed tackles were a factor throughout the course of the game for this position group. By my count, there were seven total. Those included two misses on Stefon Diggs on his fourth-quarter pop-off-the-ground-and-run touchdown. Kyle Dugger missed multiple shots apparently trying to make a big hit. Myles Bryant missed multiple tackle opportunities as well. Jabrill Peppers missed a third-down tackle that led to a Cook touchdown.

There were also a couple of moments in which Allen simply missed Diggs -- perhaps impacted by the wind -- including one deep down the field when Diggs got behind the Patriots defense and should've had a long touchdown.

Otherwise, though, Jackson and the rest of the Patriots corner group had a nice day in coverage. Allen averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt and his early pick thrown to Peppers led to a touchdown.

That's what bumped this mark up to where it landed, but plenty to clean up before a matchup with the Dolphins and their explosive passing offense.

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