After re-watching the second half of the Patriots’ Week 4 win over the Bills, passing along some notes and observations.
1. Pivotal second-half play: The Patriots got it rolling offensively in the second half, scoring touchdowns on six straight possessions, starting with their second drive. The play of the drive, at least in this estimation, was its final play, in which Tom Brady hooked up with Danny Woodhead on a third & 9, and the running back scampered to the end zone. Brady, although not fleet of foot, swiftly alluded pressure in the pocket, as he does so precisely, and bought himself an extra second, which allowed Woodhead to disengage from his coverage and find open space. That drive, and that play, really seemed to set the wheels in motion.
2. Perfect setup: In our first-half observations, we made note of the Patriots using the pass to set up the run. They did more of that in the second half, as the Patriots started five of their six touchdown drives with a pass, with the lone exception being a short drive that began from the Bills’ 12-yard line after Devin McCourty’s second interception of the game. With Brady locked in and the Bills struggling to adjust to the Patriots’ personnel, it was an impressive display of offensive efficiency, and strong starts to almost every drive played a pivotal role in the massive output.
3. Unsung star: Defensive end Rob Ninkovich brings so much to the Patriots’ defense, and certainly more than the numbers may suggest. He was effective on Sunday in a number of facets, including setting the edge, rushing the passer, and aligning in various spots around the defense. Ninkovich is a tough, durable, strong and savvy player who is integral to the Patriots’ defensive success. His old-school game and style on the field really made an impact on Sunday.
4. Wes is back: Wes Welker has reassumed a starring role in the Patriots’ offense after a quiet Week 1, and on Sunday the Bills had no answer for him, as he racked up 9 catches for 129 yards. What worked for Welker? A lot, but not necessarily anything overly-complicated. A prime example was the success Brady and Welker experienced on a basic out route, which they used on multiple occasions on first down. Welker’s slippery ability and strong footwork in his routes make him a tough matchup, and Brady knows it’s often “easy money” when he has man-to-man coverage ahead of him.
5. Passing and running games: Balance on offense is invaluable, and the Patriots achieved it on Sunday. One of the benefits of a balanced attack is the ability to run play action passes. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Brady stuck a pass right on tight end Rob Gronkowski, who marched in for an easy touchdown. The play was aided by a strong play fake from Brady that forced Bills safety/linebacker Bryan Scott to bite hard, vacating the middle of the field for Gronk to roam free. In establishing a balanced run and pass attack, the Patriots were able to dictate tempo in the second half.
6. Making them pay: In the first half, the Patriots were unable to capitalize on short fields and turnovers, instead settling for field-goal attempts, and a pair of misses. That all changed in the second half, and it took just two plays for the Patriots to turn a McCourty interception into seven points. Running back Brandon Bolden ran behind a well-blocked power counter play for his second NFL touchdown, and simply bowled over cornerback Stephon Gilmore along the way. Bolden packs a heavy punch for a player of his stature (5-foot-11, 220 pounds), and likely left quite the impression on Gilmore.
7. Special effort: It’s often the details and execution that separate the great teams from just the good ones, and hats off to the Patriots “hands” team during the Bills’ attempt at an onside kick on Sunday. Buffalo showed like they were planning to kick to the right, but turned back for a kick to the left, where the Patriots had deployed four players. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Tracy White admirably performed their task of creating a wall for Gronkowski, who fell on the football to give the Patriots the ball in great field position. The Patriots’ special teams have left something to be desired in 2012, but kudos were earned on that play.
8. Welker's big catch: On the drive following Gronkowski’s recovery, the Patriots (once again) marched in for a score. But the drive was nearly halted as they faced a third and 9, and Brady rifled a throw over the middle to Welker. Welker contorted his body and reached outside of his frame to make the spectacular catch and move the chains. Welker’s lack of consistency catching the football outside of his frame has been noted in this space before, but that catch was a spectacular effort and critical play.
9. Hey, Mr. Wilson!: Tavon Wilson’s second career interception didn’t come with a great degree of difficulty, but it’s hard to ignore his presence around the football with regularity through four games. Wilson is not a star athlete, but he is a good one, and has toughness, tackling ability and instincts to go along with it. He may continue to earn more and more playing time as the season progresses.
10. Gaining control: A general thought related to the Patriots’ resurgent second half: Both the offense and defense excelled in controlling the tempo, and that starts up front with the lines. The offensive line’s dominance is well demonstrated in the impressive running and passing yardage totals, while the defensive line was able to create pressure and force Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on the run in the second half. The Patriots are strong from the inside out on each side of the line, and are seemingly becoming an increasingly physical team by the week. That helps them set the tempo of the game, and control an opponent like they did Buffalo on Sunday in the second half.