After rewatching the first half of the Patriots' Week 6 loss to the Seahawks, we pass along some observations and notes:
1. We saw tight end Aaron Hernandez early, and truth be told, fairly often on Sunday, making his first appearance in game action since suffering a Week 2 ankle injury. On the Patriots' opening drive, which spanned just five plays, Hernandez aligned in the backfield as part of a "12" personnel package (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers on the field). It's a look we've seen from the Patriots before, as Hernandez has even been used from the backfield as a runner in previous games. The Patriots could have deployed Hernandez from the backfield for a number of reasons, but one line of thinking is that separating him from the line of scrimmage or press coverage would prevent him from exposing his ankle to more contact. In releasing him from the backfield, Hernandez often was met with a linebacker who had a poor angle to be physical with him within the legal limits of the contact zone. It could be that the Patriots were intent on managing Hernandez's workload not just from a play-count standpoint, but also spatially on the field. Limited or not, Hernandez was still a difference maker as a receiver, catching his second touchdown of the season.
2. With linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Tracy White out due to injuries, the Patriots were forced to shuffle their front seven. There was some talk prior to the game of Bobby Carpenter stepping into a starting role, but the Patriots opted to play a sufficient dose of three-man defensive fronts, with Rob Ninkovich sliding to an outside linebacker role. The team used Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love along the front, and also placed either Chandler Jones or Jermaine Cunningham in a three-point stance as an end. It was shades of 2011 and other seasons past, when the Patriots relied upon a 3-4 front as their "base" defense. Within those three-man fronts, the Patriots appeared to offer a number of different looks, with Wilfork and Love shading various gaps and the end-of-the-line looks also being mixed up. It's a testament to the personnel the Patriots have on defense in their front seven to be able to mix and match their looks from one week to the next. The run defense was strong again on Sunday, yielding just 85 yards on 26 carries, an average of 3.3 yards per carry.
3. It's not the same thing as a fumble, but Stevan Ridley's first-quarter drop of a would-be first-down pass was an untimely error, and the start of a nondescript day for the second-year back. In recalling the successful backs for the Patriots under Bill Belichick, the common thread is dependability. Be it a player like Kevin Faulk who always knew where to be and what his assignment was or the work-horse talent of Corey Dillon to carry the football 300-plus times in a season or the never-turn-it-over offering from BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Belichick has favored dependable running backs. The ceiling on Ridley is high -- he's a talented player in many of the vital categories for a back -- but consistency unquestionably is the key to his continued long-term success. That stretches not just to holding on to the football as a running back, but catching it as a receiver and executing his assignment on an every-down basis.
4. A popular topic among quarterback evaluation is eye-discipline. The eyes of a quarterback can be a dangerous weapon, and it looked as though Tom Brady baited the Seahawks' secondary on his 46-yard throw to a streaking Wes Welker. Working out of a spread, shotgun formation, Brady took the snap and allowed his route combinations to develop. He entered a holding pattern as tight end Rob Gronkowski ran a sit-down route in the middle of the field, in which he essentially worked to a zone and ate up space. Brady detached his focus from Gronkowski, deviating toward Welker, and hardly a moment later the ball was in the air and falling into the hands of the streaking slot receiver. Seattle, who was working in a basic Cover 2 defense, drew itself closer to the line of scrimmage, and safety Earl Thomas, who was in deep coverage toward Welker's side of the field, appeared to track the eyes of Brady toward Gronkowski. That allowed Welker to sneak past Thomas and head for open field, where he made a beautiful catch and burst in for the score. The offensive line deserves credit for producing a solid pocket, as does Welker for his stellar effort, but Brady's arm and eyes were key.
5. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was honest in his assessment of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson this week, saying he was particularly effective at using his feet to buy time, and also that he had a very strong arm and was able to drive the football down the field. With just less than four minutes to play in the first quarter, Wilson showed both of those traits, breaking the pocket on a third-and-9 play, and hooking up with receiver Doug Baldwin for a huge gain down the field. The Patriots lost contain on the play, as defensive end Jermaine Cunningham got caught inside as a rusher, allowing Wilson to float left and uncork the long ball. Later in the drive, Wilson eluded multiple Patriots for a scramble of third and 4 to extend the drive, which eventually ended in a throw from Wilson to Baldwin for a touchdown. The Patriots were unable to defend the assets of Wilson's game that they had highlighted, and it ended up costing them early -- and late.
6. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman checks in at 6-foot-3 inches and took a somewhat unconventional path to his role as a prominent NFL defensive back. He was a wide receiver throughout much of his collegiate career at Stanford, before transitioning to the other side of the football before his senior season. The move appears to have paid off, as he was an important player on Sunday for Seattle. In watching him match up with the Patriots' wideouts, it stood out that while Sherman's transitions in his movements weren't particularly smooth -- which is to say he has just sufficient hip fluidity -- he is a sound technician who makes effective use of his length. Sherman showed good catch-up speed to recover after he was beaten off the line, and he seemed to pick up on route cues from the receiver he was covering, which allowed him to turn back for the football at the right moment. Given his frame and ball skills, Sherman is a tough player to throw the ball around. He showed up on Sunday.
7. We referenced Hernandez's touchdown earlier, but let's revisit the play to dissect it more. Hernandez split out to the right side of the formation as a single receiver, drawing man-to-man coverage from a Seahawks defensive back, who played what amounted to press coverage with a slight cushion. Hernandez, aligned with his right foot back, took a single step forward, and then in one swift step managed to fake an inside move and replant off of his left foot to break outside. The goal of a receiver running a fade route is to close the cushion on his defender and get on top of his toes so as to deter him from smoothly turning his hips to the outside. Hernandez quickly got on top, shimmied inside as if he were going to run a slant and broke back out, immediately gaining the upper hand in his route. He then had ample time to locate Brady and the arcing spiral, followed up by a high-pointed catch before falling to the ground. The Patriots have been solid in punching the ball in the end zone on the ground, but that was wonderful work on the fade route.
8. As Chandler Jones continues to establish himself as a pass-rushing threat in the NFL, teams will likely direct additional attention his way, which could include multiple blockers per play. Opposing tackles also will begin to familiarize themselves with his game, which means he'll need to continue to flower as a player and continue on his impressive arc of improvement. But in the rare instance in which a team elects to attempt to block Jones with just a single tight end, which the Seahawks did during the second quarter on Sunday, he will be able to fall back on his natural physical skills as a rusher. Jones used nothing fancy to dart around Zach Miller for his first of two sacks on the day, which also forced a fumble of Wilson, relying on his speed and quickness to pick us what was his fourth sack of the season. His spectacular start continued on Sunday.
9. A theme of the past week was offensive tempo, and specifically, how fast the Patriots were moving against the Denver Broncos last Sunday. There were some questions as to whether the crowd noise in Seattle would deter the Patriots from moving up-tempo again this week, and though they didn't operate as quickly as a week ago, my suspicion is that it was not a result of the volume of the stadium. The Patriots were able to run the football effectively in the past two weeks and did so from various personnel groups and formations. Doing that, while also keeping the threat of a passing attack on the field, kept defenses guessing and unsure of how to attack. This week, the Seahawks were able to neutralize the running game, which seemed to play a part in the offense's more deliberate approach. The offense didn't struggle in the first half, as it managed 17 points (and should have had at least 20), but it was simply a shift in the method in which they accomplished their work. The Patriots are a game-plan offense and what they do -- as well as how they do it -- can change each week.
10. It's already been a hot topic of conversation, and likely will continue to be in the coming days, so here's one scribe's assessment of the Patriots' clock management to close the first half. The Patriots began the drive at the 24-yard line with two timeouts and 40 seconds on the clock and opened it up with a pass to Wes Welker that took them to the 8-yard line. At that point, with 35 seconds remaining, they should have called a timeout. It would have afforded the team a goal-to-go situation with ample time to run up to four plays, and it would have been able to stop the clock at least once more if they decided to run the ball on one of those plays. Instead, the offense shuffled to the line and eventually called a timeout with 17 seconds to play. That squashed the window down to three plays to run, while unnecessarily running off 18 seconds of game clock. As for the decision to go for the touchdown with six seconds remaining, I have no issue with the decision. The previous play, the Patriots took six seconds off the game clock on a play in which Brady stood tall in the pocket for several seconds. Point is, six seconds is more than enough time to run one play. The Patriots had enough time to take a quick-fire throw at the end zone, with two caveats for Brady to follow: no interception and no mental breakdown. Brady's intentional grounding penalty qualified as the latter, and the Patriots entered nearly worst-case-scenario zone. That being said, from this view, the call by Belichick to go for it was not incorrect.