After re-watching the first half of the Patriots' overtime victory over the Jets in Week 7 action, passing along some notes and observations:
1. In an unfamiliar sight, it was running back Shane Vereen on the field to start the game for the Patriots, who began the contest with an up-tempo offensive approach. Why was that the case? A number of possible explanations exist, but regardless of the "why", we saw in the first two plays part of the skill set that Vereen offers that makes him unique. On the opening play, Vereen took a play-fake on a middle handoff, sprinted through the line, and used a speed cut to dart towards the sideline to get open as a receiver. Quarterback Tom Brady found him for the catch, and Vereen jetted for a first down. On the next play, Vereen took the handoff on a subtle counter play, working to the offense's left side, and using an impressive jump-cut to get outside, gained the edge, and rushed for 14 yards. In a span of a mere two plays, we saw some of the highlights of what Vereen brings to the table: unique lateral ability as an athlete, very good acceleration and quickness, and strong catching ability. Sunday could be a confidence booster for the second-year running back.
2. With safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory out due to injury, the Patriots turned to cornerback Devin McCourty to serve as their defensive rearguard fill-in. After the game, Bill Belichick noted that he thought the secondary did a good job keeping the ball in front of them, avoiding big plays allowed. Some of that likely stems from McCourty's play, as he served as the deep safety on the Patriots' opening defensive drive and throughout the game. The requisite traits for a deep safety are instincts, reactive athleticism, and intelligence to read the progression of a play. While the secondary was far from perfect on Sunday, McCourty was a steadying presence. Another reason for his smooth transition to the position is his tackling, which he continues to do at a high level. That was evidenced throughout the half.
3. What was disconcerting for the Patriots on the Jets' opening drive was not just that it ended in seven points, but how it transpired. The secondary played quite a bit of man coverage, and it was a play that actually ended in a drop by Jets receiver Stephen Hill that remains difficult to figure out. Safety Tavon Wilson rolled down towards the line of scrimmage as the snap was taken, and McCourty rolled over the top to become what looked like the single deep safety. Wilson may have had responsiblity for one quarter of the field, or also man-to-man coverage on Hill (we'll need further review on this one when the "coaches film" becomes available on Wednesday), and yet somehow he was all too open. If it was a coverage bust, the Patriots were especially lucky that Hill dropped the pass. Beyond the secondary play, the Patriots were also beaten up along the line of scrimmage on the opening drive. The Jets adopted their favored "ground and pound" strategy, and rammed the ball down the throat of the Patriots' defense. It was a strong opening statement from the Jets, and one that paved the day for a balanced offensive afternoon from the Jets.
4. Lots to digest on the 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Devin McCourty. The return, in which he coasted down the left sideline, was actually designed (at least based off what we saw from his blockers) to head to the right side of the field. The key to the play, at least in this estimation, was a block from defensive back Marquice Cole, aligned at the "left tackle" spot on the front line of the return unit, as well as an early cut from McCourty to go away from his blocking and to the left side. Cole, who had to retreat deep into his own territory on the kickoff, made a solid block in "catching" a Jets' coverage player and turning him outside, giving McCourty a lane to run through. McCourty, with solid instincts, made an early cut to the left side, sensing the Jets' coverage team drifting right. Credit is due all around, because regardless of the fact that McCourty didn't follow the blocking path, those executed blocks opened up enough time and space for him to work to the opposite side of the field. Beyond that, Cole and McCourty get high-marks for their efforts. The Patriots have needed a big play in the kicking game all year, and finally got one.
5. The Patriots' first scoring drive of the afternoon was capped by a sensational reception by tight end Rob Gronkowski on a third down throw from Brady, and preceded by a drive's worth of up-tempo football. Of note on the drive was that the Patriots operated extensively using a three tight end set, which included Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Daniel Fells. That kept the Jets in their base defensive personnel, and appeared to open the door for the Patriots to spread the field and work the hurry-up attack. The fact that the Patriots can keep three tight ends on the field and subsequently spread a defense out makes them a personnel nightmare. That being said, an inability to consistently execute can deter that advantage.
6. Amongst the themes of the first half for the Patriots was missed opportunities, which would be highlighted by a failure to capitalize on short fields, turnovers, and unforced errors by the Jets. The ball got rolling towards the end of the first quarter, when linebacker Jerod Mayo forced a Shonn Greene fumble near midfield, and somehow the Patriots, who had a decided advantage in terms of proximity to the ball and number of players, failed to recover it. Though the drive ended for the Jets just a play later, the failure to recover the fumble cost the Patriots over 30 yards in field position. The difference between the team the Patriots want to be and what they were on Sunday involves making good on rich opportunities. On Sunday, too often they did not.
7. Much has been made of the Patriots' offense not being able to close out drives, but the same can be said of the defense at times. On a third-and-10 play in the second quarter, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez hit tight end Dustin Keller for what looked like a harmless gain that was well short of the first down, but a missed tackle from cornerback Ras-I Dowling allowed Keller to fall forward to move the chains. Dowling later left the game with an injury, continuing a frustrating start to his season. From a raw physical talent standpoint, Dowling appears to measure up. He has unique length, but has not consistently produced on the field. He isn't playing an abundance of defensive snaps, but needs to step up when he earns them. A missed tackle isn't the way to beef up your personal stock.
8. The Patriots attempted a flea-flicker with roughly five minutes remaining in the first half on Sunday, but Brady was forced out of the pocket and threw the ball away. They sent just two receivers out in the pattern, max protecting Brady with seven blockers plus the handoff to running back Stevan Ridley. Tight end Aaron Hernandez was open for a moment on the play, but Ridley looked a count slow in turning back and returning the football to Brady. Additionally, credit Jets cornerback Isaiah Trufant, who ably sniffed out the trick play, and squirted through a gap to apply pressure on Brady. That rushed the timing of the play, and prevented him from launching the ball down the field.
9. On multiple occasions this year, the Patriots have been in their hurry-up offensive pace before encountering a third-and-short situation, and turning to running back Danny Woodhead as the ball-carrier to move the chains. The advantage to rushing to the line and giving the ball to Woodhead is to keep the defense on its heels and unable to adjust its personnel. With just over four minutes to go in the first half, the Patriots rushed to the line and handed the ball off to Woodhead on a third-and-2, but he was stopped short and Zoltan Mesko took the field to punt. Though Woodhead has been effective this year, it brings up the question of whether or not the Patriots ought to slow things down for a moment, bring in a more conventional short yardage back (Ridley or Brandon Bolden when he's healthy), and run a power play. That is the give-and-take of implementing the up-tempo attack.
10. The Jets managed a field goal to creep within six points as time expired in the first half, and it was preceded by a drive in which they matriculated the ball down the field by attacking the middle of the Patriots' defense. In fact, every play on the drive worked through the middle of the field -- sort of a fitting end to the half, as going right at the Patriots' defense was a primary theme for the Jets. They were able to slow down the tempo of the game, and keep pressure off of quarterback Mark Sanchez, giving him enough time to drive the football to his receivers. The line also did well to pave lanes for Greene.