After taking time to review the tape of the second half of the Patriots' 34-13 victory over the Titans, passing along some observations.
1. On the third offensive snap of the half, running back Stevan Ridley churned out a seven-yard gain on a left-side run, managing to keep his balance after drawing early contact. Ridley's contact strength was apparent throughout the afternoon: he runs hard, unafraid to initiate contact and lower his center of gravity into a defender, but has very good strength and balance to keep himself upright. It was one of many facets in which he impressed on Sunday, as well as ball security. Ridley kept the football high and tight in his right arm throughout the afternoon.
2. As noted by Mike Reiss this morning, three offensive players took every snap on Sunday: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Based off of that and in watching the game, it was evident that the Patriots' offense was predicated upon the two tight ends on Sunday, a theme that we could continue to see going forward. Brady turned to Gronkowski on consecutive third-down throws on the Patriots' second drive of the half, and a 3rd & 9 situation highlighted one of Gronkowski's strengths. Aligned flexed-out in the slot, Gronk ran a simple hook route, planting his feet just beyond the first down marker and in between a pair of Titans' defenders. Third-down passing offense often revolves around what coaches sometimes call "just enough" routes, as in, getting beyond the yardage needed for a first down. Brady hooked up with Gronkowski for 9 and a half yards after the burly tight end, who diagnosed the zone coverage, found space between two defenders beyond the first down sticks.
3. Tough to tell on the television copy, but it looked like the Patriots were in Cover 4 defense on the near-interception by cornerback Devin McCourty. The throw was well over the head of Darius Reynaud, the intended target who was extending to the sideline with linebacker Dont'a Hightower on his hip. McCourty, who was gaining depth in his quarter of the field, broke on the ball, but missed what should've been an interception - and potentially a score.
4. After a holding penalty backed the Titans up to their own 5-yard line, Ras-I Dowling stopped rookie receiver Kendall Wright for a loss on 3rd & 15. Solid overall effort on the play by Dowling, who read the quick screen pass, surged passed the receiver attempting to wall him off and create lane for Wright, and then brought him down with an effective, forceful tackle (in which he also made a good attempt to dislodge the football). Dowling had some early struggles, but bounced back in the second half.
5. Building off that thought, the Patriots' speed on defense was visible throughout the afternoon. It was certainly clear up front in players such as Chandler Jones and Jermaine Cunningham, who flew around to make plays at or near the line of scrimmage, as well as on the back two levels of the defense. The Titans were not able to gouge the Patriots at all on the ground, and although they connected on a couple of longer passes, there wasn't an instance of the Patriots' secondary being cleanly beat over the top. It's just one game, but it appears that the speed on defense is set to make an impact in 2012.
6. While punter Zoltan Mesko wasn't at his best on Sunday afternoon, he did have a couple of punts that helped to pin the Titans deep in their own territory. In fact, the Patriots were effective in the field position battle throughout the day. Tennessee's best starting field position was its own 21-yard line. The Patriots won the field position, time of possession, and turnover battle on Sunday. Those are all part of a winning recipe.
7. Found it interesting that on the first play that veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was in, a 3rd & 1 situation, the Patriots blitzed. This could be a situation where they wanted to test Hasselbeck immediately, or also as a result of the down and distance. The Patriots did not appear to blitz much throughout the game.
8. Hard to overstate the importance of the goal line stop from the Patriots' defense early in the fourth quarter. It kicked off with a 1st & goal from the one yard line, when Vince Wilfork penetrated to smother Chris Johnson for a five-yard loss, followed by an overthrow from Hasselbeck to the corner of the end zone, and was capped by an incompletion due to tight coverage from Patrick Chung. While the Patriots defense allowed a ton of yards in 2011, its bend-but-don't-break calling card helped to keep it within the middle of the pack in terms of points allowed. On Sunday, it was once again effective in the red zone.
9. One oft-talked about topic this preseason was the rapport developing between Tom Brady and Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd debuted with five catches on Sunday, a positive start for the veteran wideout. One throw and catch stood out from this vantage point, and it came on a 2nd & 7 situation with 8:30 to play in the game. Lloyd took off down the field on a go route, and Brady lofted a throw in his direction, towards Lloyd's back shoulder. The receiver made an adjustment and hauled the pass in, one that was thrown to a spot that only he could get his hands on. That's an early sign of chemistry -- a quarterback and receiver knowing how to adjust within the construct of a play
10. The Patriots are a heavy screen team, using a number of bubble and wide receiver tear screens throughout a given game. On Sunday, it looked as though the team was more reliant on the screens to the left side, operating behind the trio of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Logan Mankins, and center Ryan Wendell. Those three bring a combination of strong athleticism and the ability to track defenders in space. With the Patriots shuffling the right side of the line on Sunday, it's possible that the team will develop a dependance on the left side as its go-to side in "gotta-have-it" situations.