After watching the second half of the Patriots-Cardinals Week 2 tilt, passing along some additional observations.
1. Offensive game-plans are fluid, and the Patriots are capable to mix and match personnel throughout the course of the game. On the opening two plays of the second half, we saw something of a role mix-up from the Patriots on offense. The first play was a throw from Tom Brady to Wes Welker, who had pushed vertical up the seam and created space near the left hash. It's not that Welker hasn't run a seam pattern before, but rather this is something we've seen more typically out of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of late. On the following play, it was Brandon Lloyd, not Welker, on the receiving end of a wide receiver screen (with Welker as a wall-off blocker). Always interesting to see these sort of offensive wrinkles.
2. On second-and-6 with about 10:30 in the third quarter, the Patriots attempted to run the left side behind what looked like a zone blocking scheme. Stevan Ridley was buried in the backfield for a 3-yard loss by Daryl Washington, who slipped through an opening between left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins. In drawing up run-blocking schemes, there are situations in which an offense accounts for a defensive player by designing a run to hit the hole faster than when said defender would be able to reach the path of the play. Although we don't know for certain without more information on the exact play-call and scheme involved, this looked like a situation where Washington sniffed out the play faster than the scheme could account for him.
3. For those looking for an explanation on how the Patriots allowed a blocked punt on Sunday, there's not much more to say other than safety Nate Ebner, aligned in the left wing position, didn't get back fast enough in his kick step to deter Quinton Groves' rush off the edge. When a team is punting from deep in its own territory, it's absolutely imperative for blockers to be ready for a heavy rush from the return team. Groves bested Ebner on this one.
4. Few players are more difficult to defend in single coverage than Larry Fitzgerald, and Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty found himself on an island in a second-and-goal situation in the third quarter. The Cardinals were aiming to throw a fade to Fitzgerald in the end zone, but credit McCourty for not giving ground as Fitzgerald worked into his mini-stem. McCourty held firm at the line of scrimmage, worked to get his hands on Fitzgerald, and used the sideline as leverage to prevent the difficult catch. Two games into the season, McCourty has looked improved from where he was in 2011.
5. Brandon Lloyd is known more for his ability to get down the field, stretch a defense, and also work the perimeter of the field than he is as a run-after-catch receiver, but he had a few opportunities with the football in the open field on Sunday. One observation from Lloyd's run-after-catch plays: he needed to be more decisive. On one occasion, he chose to run inside a defender with space on the outside, which looked like an error in judgment, but there were other occasions where he moved too much laterally rather than darting up the field for positive yardage.
6. With roughly 3:30 remaining in the third quarter, the Patriots found themselves facing a third-and-6 situation and in fringe field-goal range. The team opted to run a toss sweep with Danny Woodhead out of a bunch right formation. Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett exploded through Patriots guard Donald Thomas, driving him up field and eventually swarming Woodhead for a big loss and pushing the Patriots out of field goal territory. This was one where we were led to question the decision to run the football, particularly given that Woodhead had had trouble chunking up yardage earlier in the game.
7. Building off the previous note: As a recurring theme throughout the game, the Cardinals' interior presence of Dockett and Calais Campbell, as well as their perimeter speed up front gave the Patriots' offensive line fits all day. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton said after the game that being disruptive in the interior of the line was part of the game-plan, “The guys up front, we challenged our guys up front to win the game for us. When you look at their team (Patriots) and their salary and their structure, their (Patriots) superstars are their outside guys and our guys are inside. So we said we needed another big week from our inside guys and they did. I almost didn’t blitz at all.” Dockett's and Campbell's unique combination of explosiveness and length make them a particularly tough duo to match up against.
8. Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb took a quarterback sneak for 5 yards and a score early in the fourth quarter on Sunday, on a play that mirrored a tactic Tom Brady sometimes employs for the Patriots. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo were both in bubble alignments at least a half gap away from the center, leaving a clear path to the end zone for Kolb to sneak behind center Lyle Sendlein. It looked as though Kolb called his own number on this play, communicating with Sendlein to plunge forward and lead his way. The guess here is that the play was originally designed to be a handoff to Ryan Williams, but Kolb ably adjusted for the score.
9. When the Patriots offense picked up the tempo (and production) late in the game, it was centered around a middle-of-the-field passing game. A year ago, it was believed by some that the Patriots lacked a perimeter element to their passing game, which was filled this offseason by Lloyd. Though Lloyd was not a primary target on the team's lone touchdown drive, it appears as though his presence on the field helped to create space in the area between the numbers, as the Cardinals were forced to account for him on the outside. Even with Hernandez down, the Patriots still have weapons that can control the middle of the field as receivers, led by Welker and Gronkowski.
10. It's fair to question the play call when the Cardinals tossed the football to running back Ryan Williams late in the game rather than taking a knee, but major credit is also due to Brandon Spikes, for forcefully driving the football out of Williams' arms with a helmet-to-football tackle.
11. You won't likely hear the Patriots make any excuses about the officiating from Sunday's loss, but certainly the holding penalty on Gronkowski late in the game was a play of note. From this vantage point, while it appears that Gronkowski had a hand outside and on the shoulder of safety Kerry Rhodes, there wasn't much obstruction of Rhodes' path. Again, the game didn't boil down to just that one play, but one wouldn't classify Gronkowski's hold as egregious by any stretch.