Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Patriots Report Card: Unsung heroes on O-line, defense drive blowout Raiders


New England Patriots defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr., left, celebrates with teammates after he recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the second half of an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)



PUBLISHED: September 29, 2020 at 6:00 a.m. | UPDATED: September 29, 2020 at 8:12 a.m.


Prior to Sunday’s win, Rex Burkhead could fairly be described as an unsung hero of the Patriots.

He can play any down at running back and quietly logs starting snaps on special teams plays. He’s taken goal-line handoffs in championship games and caught passes on key third downs. Most of his efforts, because Burkhead is solid but unspectacular, went unnoticed.

That all changed this weekend, with three loud touchdowns and a team-high seven receptions. If you watched the game, you saw Burkhead and marveled. He was outstanding.

But you may have missed a few other unsung heroes in Burkhead’s shadow, who also drove the Pats’ 36-20 blowout win of the Raiders.

Here are the position-by-position grades from their latest win:

Quarterbacks: D+

Superman crashed to earth Sunday. Hard.

His interception was an early birthday gift to Raiders safety Jonathan Abram, who otherwise may have been the worst player on the field. Newton fired twice into triple coverage, both times endangering Julian Edelman’s health against a head-hunting Las Vegas secondary. He missed N’Keal Harry with two bad throws in the red zone and almost got picked on a screen to Burkhead.

Newton even made a rare questionable run read in the first quarter, keeping possession instead of ceding it to Burkhead, who was taking off around an open left end. His 21-yard scramble in the fourth quarter that preceded the offense’s final touchdown was his only highlight.

Running backs: A

It’s hard to ask much more of Burkhead than a career day and of Sony Michel his best game in two seasons.

They combined for 238 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. Michel’s vision was excellent, particularly on his 48-yarder, the longest rush of his career, where he slipped back to the middle in the face of a crowded edge and broke into the open. He also took no prisoners in pass protection, eviscerating any blitzing Raiders hunting for Newton. This may have been Michel’s best all-around game as a pro, including a first-quarter reception.

Undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor also provided a spark with 43 rushing yards sprinkled over the middle quarters. He proved particularly effective outside, taking two crack tosses for good gains, as the Pats ran on the edges of Las Vegas’ defense at will.

Wide receivers: C-

By himself, Burkhead had as many catches as Patriots wideouts Sunday.

N’Keal Harry and Edelman both finished with two, while Byrd silently led with three. Harry’s 27-yarder, where he shed two tacklers, was the best play made by any receiver. But the fact is, he’s still prone to inconsistencies as a pass catcher and ball carrier. His best work came as a blocker. Perhaps Harry’s ankle injury is bothering him more than he’s let on, but opportunity lay everywhere against a spotty Raiders secondary, and he couldn’t find many openings.

Practice-squad rookie Isaiah Zuber, who was promoted to the active roster Saturday, flashed his long speed on a 13-yard jet sweep in the first half.

Tight ends: D+

Two tight ends, one target, zero catches. That’s a bad day.

Ryan Izzo earned the one target, which Newton rifled to him from close distance during a broken play inside the red zone. It shot off his hands.

As blockers, Izzo and Devin Asiasi were responsible for one run-stuff apiece, though they generally competed in the run game. They played better over nine combined snaps of pass protection. Most notably, Asiasi’s snap count almost tripled, shooting up to 29, but he failed to generate many looks as a receiver. Fellow rookie Dalton Keene was a healthy scratch.

Offensive line: A

This group is bordering on special.

In his starting debut at center, Joe Thuney was the only lineman to post a clean sheet, yielding zero pressures or run-stuffs. Rookie Michael Onwenu pulled off an equally impressive performance, slotting in at left guard after a two-game, part-time stint at right tackle. Onwenu played left guard for most of training camp and was at fault for only a single hurry. He was unsung hero No. 1 on Sunday.

His movement skills at 350 pounds are unbelievable, and his raw power will be a problem for any defender aligned across from him. To his left, Isaiah Wynn played a clean game for three quarters, then surrendered a QB hit and a hurry. Right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor dominated as a run-blocker, but yielded a sack and a hurry. Shaq Mason allowed two hurries and one run-stuff.

Defensive line: C+

From a run defense standpoint, production was scarce for this front. But in terms of pressure, the Patriots D-linemen did more than enough.

Deatrich Wise accounted for a half-sack, a hurry and one flag drawn en route to recovering a fumble for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. He dominated as a pass rusher in multiple alignments, which made up for being successfully targeted in run defense. Defensive tackle Lawrence Guy also added a QB hit, and Adam Butler mustered one hurry.

John Simon set a soft edge early in the game, then settled in and tackled as well as any other Patriot the rest of the game. The Pats allowed a survivable four yards per carry between the tackles.

Linebackers: B

Chase Winovich continued to rack up pressures at an elite level, totaling three with a sack, a QB hit, and a hurry. Shilique Calhoun forced two fumbles in his best game with New England, gaining a modicum of revenge on his old team that also yielded a half-sack, a hurry, and a QB hit at his hands. Derek Rivers added a pair of QB hits off the edge.

Inside, Ja’Whaun Bentley struggled mightily for the second straight game. His run defense was misplaced, and he got worked on the edge on a couple of snaps, while bringing little as a blitzer. It will be interesting to see how many snaps he takes at Kansas City, given their collective track speed and his lack of sideline-to-sideline range.

Defensive backs: B+

The Pats outright eliminated Darren Waller, Las Vegas’ top weapon, who wasn’t targeted in the first half. Waller finished with two harmless catches for nine yards against zone coverage. The combination of heady safety play and man-to-man coverage provided primarily by Joejuan Williams, Kyle Dugger and Jason McCourty took him out. In all, seven Patriots lined up on Waller.

Stephon Gilmore’s defensive pass interference penalty late in the first half was the secondary’s worst mistake. Jonathan Jones played the worst game, getting worked by Hunter Renfrow for five catches on six targets, though he was step for step with Renfrow on his near touchdown and batted away another sideline throw intended for him late. Adrian Phillips played his best game as a Patriot, another unsung hero, who covered Waller early, made a game-high seven tackles and provided enough resistance against the run playing inside the box.

Special teams: B+

Only one of Las Vegas’ 11 drives started outside the team’s 25-yard line: their first.

The Pats controlled field position through strong kick and punt coverage, plus their turnovers. On one of the day’s best plays, Justin Bethel drew a penalty while making a tackle at the Raiders’ 11 on the kickoff that preceded Wise’s touchdown. Matthew Slater was a magnet to Renfrow on punt returns, forcing him into two fair catches. Nick Folk missed a kick for the third straight week, and Kyle Dugger took the Patriots only punt return for 17 yards.

Coaching: A-

The Patriots were not whistled for a single offensive penalty for the third straight game and took only two penalties on defense. That’s outstanding coaching.

Schematically, they induced several check-downs from Raiders quarterback Derek Carr by dropping eight consistently in obvious passing situations and blanketing Waller downfield. The Pats caused him to hesitate with their pre-snap disguises and allowed only two touchdowns on five red-zone trips. On offense, Josh McDaniels caused an undisciplined Las Vegas front to self-detonate by calling a season-high seven screens, plus draws and other misdirection plays.

Head of the class

RB Rex Burkhead Three touchdowns? Enough said.

OL Michael Onwenu He may prove to be a special, special lineman, which will leave the rest of the NFL to wonder how the heck he was allowed to fall into the sixth round.

OL Joe Thuney There’s no position he can’t play at a high-level up front. Thuney, somehow, has become even more valuable to the Patriots.

Back of the pack

TE Ryan Izzo If Asiasi or Keene can’t pass him soon, the Pats may explore options on the trade market.

QB Cam Newton It would be surprising to see him play this poorly again.

CB Jon Jones If it weren’t for Renfrow’s success, the entire Vegas passing game would have been locked down.

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