Some thoughts and observations after reviewing the television copy from the second quarter of Friday night's preseason loss in Tampa:
1. Stevan Ridley may have moved closer towards securing the Patriots' top running back job, and did so with runs like a 29-yard scamper with 13:12 remaining in the second quarter. With the football on the right hash, the Patriots lined up with three wide receivers, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and Ridley in the game, and the 2nd & 9 play call was for a strong side play action run towards the boundary (if the ball is on the right hash, the area to the right of it is called the boundary. The remaining area to the left is noted as the field. If the ball was on the left hash, those terms would be re-assigned. Left side, boundary; right side, field). Tom Brady's strong play fake sent Bucs middle linebacker Adam Hayward retreating into pass coverage, and froze the remainder of their second level defenders temporarily. Left guard Donald Thomas, who moved well in space throughout the evening, pulled to the lead the way, and laid a smothering block on linebacker Lavonte David. Gronkowski was able to seal the end of the line, and Thomas' kick-out block gave Ridley room to room, and he impressively burst through the hole for a big gain.
2. Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham earned playing time in a sub defense package as an interior rusher, aligning alongside Vince Wilfork. It's an opportunity for Cunningham to continue to increase his role within this defense, and for the Patriots' sake, it's an opportunity to insert a unique skill into their sub package, and a move that could especially pay off against mobile quarterbacks. With Jake Locker slated as the first opposing starting quarterback, the Patriots will face a task of an athletic player who can break the pocket and do damage. Having Cunningham on the field adds a player who can pursue the quarterback not only as he stands in the pocket, but also if he scrambles out of it.
3. Center Ryan Wendell is amongst the candidates to start at the position, although the competition looks to be far from settled. He started the drive with 9:29 remaining in the second quarter, and the first play exposed the concern that exists in his game. Immediately upon the snap, Wendell was driven backwards several yards from a Bucs interior linemen, failing to establish any sort of base or anchor. Wendell is a smaller guy - he's listed at 300 pounds but doesn't look even that - and although a solid technician, he's had his issues against power players. He needs to be able to hold up against these types of players in passing situations, or Brady will be forced into quick throws like he was on that particular play, a check down to running back Danny Woodhead.
4. It's not often that Gronkowski is overpowered at the point of attack, but credit goes to Bucs defensive end George Johnson for locking him out and making a play on the fourth and short situation in which the Patriots attempted a strong side run off the hip of Gronkowski. Johnson worked up the field and stopped Stevan Ridley in his tracks, short of a first down.
5. Without knowing the specific scheme called, we don't know with certainty which Patriots' blocker was primarily responsible for the missed pick-up of a Bucs blitz on the first play a possession that began with roughly 6:12 to play in the second quarter. Here's what we do know from the film though: the pressure came from the left side of the Patriots line by linebacker Adam Heyward. Defensively, the Bucs had nose tackle Roy Miller shaded over the left shoulder of center Ryan Wendell, with defensive end George Johnson reduced down over the outside shoulder of guard Donald Thomas. Heyward was crouched over Nate Solder's left shoulder, with cornerback Eric Wright coming off the edge too. Wendell stepped to the play side (to the right) and picked up Miller, while Thomas also slid right to pick up Johnson. Solder fanned to his left to take on Wright, creating an alley for Heyward to penetrate, however running back Stevan Ridley whiffed on his attempt to block him. Again, without knowing the protection scheme, we don't know who was to blame for this blown play, but the execution needs to improve.
6. Tom Brady helped his own cause with a great ball fake on a screen pass to Ridley with just under four minutes to play in the half. Bucs cornerback Myron Lewis was on a designed blitz coming off of the left side of the Patriots line, right in the area where Brady was looking to set up his screen. Brady's play action fake accomplished two things: first, it squeezed Lewis down the line, as he bit on the fake and prepared to make a play on the run, and second it forced him to hesitate on his pursuit of Brady. The quarterback swiftly released the football to Ridley for a good gain. It was a subtle move from Brady, and not one that will make a highlight reel, but another detail of his game that should not go unnoticed.
7. First half players of note: highlighting four players who had a strong first half. Left tackle Nate Solder was very good, in both pass and run blocking. He bounced back after last week's more difficult outing. ... Running back Stevan Ridley looked like a starting running back, and finished the evening with 87 yards and a 5.4 average per carry. ... Vince Wilfork's dominance doesn't exactly translate to statistical output, but he was a rock in the middle. ... Good work from Ron Brace, who penetrated the middle of the Bucs' offensive line to wreak havoc in the running game.