- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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At first glance, it was evident that the Patriots were prepared for their season-opener against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, controlling play for most of the contest and departing Nashville with a 34-13 win. After re-watching the film of the game, here are additional observations from the first half.
1. The Patriots faced a 3rd & 1 on their opening offensive drive, and displayed precisely what makes them such a difficult offense to defend against on Stevan Ridley's 17-yard scamper. The Patriots were in "12" personnel (one running back, two tight ends), the same set they opened the game with. Within the span of three plays, the Patriots showed both a spread formation and a "Y-F" look, in which Aaron Hernandez was lined up adjacent to Rob Gronkowski on the left side of the line of scrimmage. The Patriots rushed to the line of scrimmage (they were so expedient the television camera hardly caught the play in time), and were able to run a power run play with the same personnel that they earlier spread the field with. Credit Nate Solder and Gronkowski for sealing the inside, and Hernandez for walling off his defender to the perimeter, creating a massive lane for Ridley to run through. With dynamic offensive personnel, the Patriots force opposing defenses into difficult decisions on how to attack and what personnel they should use counter with.
2. On a 4th & inches early in the first quarter, the Titans elected to go for it while driving in Patriots territory. In fact, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer dialed up a spread set (two receivers to each side, quarterback in shotgun formation), and Jake Locker delivered a strike to receive Nate Washington, who streaked down the field and beat cornerback Kyle Arrington. The Patriots called for a blitz on the play, leaving Arrington to defend Washington without assistance, and Washington reached up and over Arrington for the catch. The coverage was sufficient by Arrington, who tried to reach through Washington's grasp for the breakup. Sometimes as a defender, you have to just give credit where it's due to an opponent, and such was the case on this play.
3. The Patriots are less reliant on the blitz than many defenses in the NFL, opting instead to play disciplined coverage and defensive principles. On Sunday, one defensive concept that they seemed to rely on for much of the game was having Jerod Mayo serve as a "spy" in pass coverage, holding the fort in the middle of the field, not far from the line of scrimmage. The reason behind this? Perhaps the scrambling ability of Jake Locker, who has proven he can hurt a defense with his feet. Mayo found himself hovering in the middle of the field, looking for work on crossing and in-breaking patterns, while also keeping an eye on the elusive Locker.
4. The debut of Brandon Lloyd will be remembered in part for a drop on a would-be long score, and some have wondered where the play went awry. Brady took the direct snap from center, play faked to Ridley and then again to Wes Welker before launching a dart to Lloyd, who was way behind the Titans' secondary. Tennessee was in Cover 2, with the corner opposite from Lloyd sitting in his zone, leaving Lloyd to safety Michael Griffin, who mistakenly bit on Brady's play fakes, allowing Lloyd to dash towards the end zone unimpeded. Brady's throw was on target with Lloyd's path, but Lloyd slowed up on his route, forcing himself into bad position for the catch. That's a play that Lloyd has to - and likely will - make going forward.
5. On Aaron Hernandez's touchdown reception, the Patriots were able to expose a problem defenses will face throughout the season. Tennessee was playing Cover 1 (man-to-man coverage with a safety roving over the top), and the Patriots attacked either seam with their two tight ends. That left Tennessee's free safety to make a choice between helping on Gronkowski or Hernandez, and he chose Gronkowski. Hernandez, who showed in preseason how difficult he is to defend 1-on-1, slipped past the man coverage, and Brady ably stepped up in the pocket to afford himself time to throw. Defenses forced to choose between Gronkowski and Hernandez will quickly learn that leaving one alone in man-to-man coverage is an advantage for the Patriots.
6. On Chandler Jones' sack and forced fumble of Locker, he broke out one of the many impressive pass rushing techniques we've seen from him in the early part of his career. Jones gave a slight hesitation move out of his stance before surging towards Titans' left tackle Michael Roos and swimming over his frame. He then closed in on Locker, dislodging the football and setting Hightower up to score. Big-time debuts for each player.
7. The focus of Tom Brady's post-game press conference was on his bandaged-nose, which may, or may not be, broken. The thought here is that regardless of whether or not it's broken, the issue will prove minor for Brady. The quarterback emphasized that notion in calling his own number for a quarterback sneak on 2nd & 1 with 6:39 remaining in the first half. Brady followed the trail of center Ryan Wendell for first-down yardage. Admirable toughness from the veteran signal-caller.
8. After wearing the Titans out with tough running from Stevan Ridley, the Patriots found themselves with a 1st & goal at the one yard line just prior to the two-minute warning. The Patriots loaded up with three tight ends on the field and guard Dan Connolly moving to fullback, showing a look that suggested they may continue to pound the ball with Ridley. Brady instead orchestrated a beautiful play fake to Ridley, which sucked a number of Titans' defenders up towards the line of scrimmage, while also freezing safety Jordan Babineaux long enough to allow Gronkowski to sneak towards the back corner of the end zone for the easy score.
9. With practice time, especially practice time in full pads, limited during training camp, one area that teams have scarce chances to focus on is live-tackling. During the first half, the Patriots not only were able to tackle well, but also made several Titans' tacklers miss in the open field. High marks go to Jerod Mayo (amongst many others) on defense, and Ridley, Gronkowski and Hernandez, who each welcomed contact and also eluded defenders.
10. A few thoughts on the offensive line, a group that has been a central focus in the preseason. Overall, the group gave Brady good time to throw, although he still faced pressure off the edge. Brady has such good feel and pocket presence that he doesn't often take many sacks, and he helped his own cause some in the first half. ... Right tackle Marcus Cannon, often beleaguered in the preseason, deserves credit for stepping in for Sebastian Vollmer and holding his own. ... Nate Solder was the guilty party on the sack that led to Brady's bloody nose, but was good overall from this view. Of note, he was very good in space, getting out on front on perimeter runs and in the screen game. ... There figures to be continued talk about Brian Waters until a decision is made about his future - one way or another. On Sunday, the Patriots interior line was not an issue in his absence.