After rewatching the first half of the Patriots' Week 8 throttling of the Rams, we pass along some notes and observations.
1. From the moment the game was over, it was clear that Sunday was a terrific all-around effort from the Patriots. The offense, defense and special teams all did more than enough to win. But it didn't start off pretty, as the Rams brought shades of Week 6 to the minds of Patriots' fans with a 50-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford to Chris Givens to open the scoring. The play was eerily similar to one on which Sidney Rice scored to give the Seahawks the win against the Patriots two weeks previous. The Rams used a play-action fake to temporarily freeze the defense and "max protected" Bradford, meaning just two receivers were sent out in the initial route. A running back later snuck out of the backfield as an outlet (just like in Seattle), and safety Tavon Wilson again was beaten on a double move route to the post. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was not physical near the line of scrimmage, and Wilson once again violated the golden rule of safety play of not letting an opponent behind him. Fortunately for the Patriots, it was the final big play allowed of the day. Wilson and Dennard both recorded interceptions later, but that first touchdown was not the secondary's best effort.
2. A popular offensive concept in football is what is known as a "rub" route, which involves two receivers working in tandem when facing man coverage. The adjacent players run criss-crossing routes, creating a natural pick on their defenders, hoping to spring free a target for the quarterback to hit. Facing a third-and-1 early in the first quarter, receiver Brandon Lloyd and running back Danny Woodhead ran something of a pick concept, as Lloyd, aligned as the single receiver to the right side of the formation, ran inward toward linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who had coverage on Woodhead out of the backfield. Woodhead wheeled around the mass of bodies that included Lloyd, Dunbar and cornerback Bradley Fletcher, finding himself wide open for a nice gain. From this vantage point, Lloyd got away with offensive pass interference, as he clearly looked like he was initiating contact on Dunbar, but the call was not made on the field. The design of the play was unique, and a crafty way to put a dynamic move-in-space runner in the open field.
3. Lloyd would finish the drive he helped prolong on a 19-yard throw from quarterback Tom Brady, and it looked like a coverage bust from the Rams on the play. The Patriots came out in a bunch formation to the right side, with Lloyd joined by Wes Welker and Deion Branch. The Rams countered with man-to-man pressure, including a single high safety in Craig Dahl. Upon the snap, the route combination of the trio of Patriots caused immediate confusion to St. Louis, leaving rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins nowhere near Lloyd, who generated separation on a pretty post-corner route. The danger of calling a man defensive concept is highlighted against clustered receivers, as defenders often have to work around each other to handle their assignments. In this instance, a timely play design left the Rams in poor position to defend it, and Lloyd capitalized.
4. It appeared that the Patriots employed a number of blitzes in the first quarter, and we even saw pressure from the secondary, something that is not typically seen from the team. Facing a second-and-6, the Patriots sent Wilson on a timing blitz from his left safety alignment, buzzing down to the line of scrimmage near the moment of the snap. The Patriots didn't generate a ton of pressure on Bradford, but seemed to strike at the right time on a number of blitzes. Wilson's blitz came on a run by Steven Jackson, and he was able to lend a hand in stopping the burly back for essentially no gain. On the following play, the Patriots sent linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes on a cross-stunt through the "A" gaps (in between the center and his two guards), which forced Bradford into an intentional grounding penalty. After the game, Bill Belichick said he didn't feel like his team incorporated more pressures than usual, but the first half seemed to feature a handful.
5. Tight end Rob Gronkowski finished with two touchdowns on the afternoon, but nearly had a third toward the close of the first quarter. On second and 1, Brady took a shotgun snap and faked a handoff to running back Stevan Ridley. That fake froze both safety Quinten Mikell, who was near the line of scrimmage and aligned over Gronk, as well as Dahl, the deep safety on the play. Gronkowski darted up the seam, hauling in Tom Brady's throw on an incredible over-the-shoulder catch. The sensational grab involved precise hand-eye coordination and a soft touch from both the quarterback and tight end. That set the Patriots up with a first-and-goal situation from the Rams' 1-yard line.
6. Four plays later, the Patriots cashed in for a touchdown, and it came from running back Shane Vereen. While we'd normally caution not to read too much into a single play, the fact that it was Vereen who was entrusted to handle the fourth-down carry strikes us as telling. After missing much of his rookie season due to injuries and suffering a setback this preseason, Vereen has come on in recent weeks to play a more prominent role. He would later add a smooth 14-yard run that highlighted his unique ability to shift his weight laterally and jump-cut to make defenders miss. The Patriots' young stable of running backs brings a diverse, comprehensive skill set to the offense.
7. There's no shortage of traits to admire about nose tackle Vince Wilfork's game, but we don't often discuss his instincts in pass coverage. Yes, his instincts in pass coverage. On a second-and-11 with just about 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Rams spread the field and sent running back Daryl Richardson out on a swing pattern from the backfield. Wilfork, in his normal tackle alignment, sniffed out Richardson's route and began working laterally. Bradford tossed the ball to Richardson, who is known for his quickness and elusiveness, and Wilfork surged toward the ball carrier. He eventually lunged at Richardson to tie him up for a loss of four yards on a play that, while perhaps overlooked in the game book, was truly amazing. Wilfork's athleticism must be appreciated.
8. We've previously written in this space about Gronkowski's ability to find soft spots in zone coverage. That's part of what makes him so dangerous as a receiver, as well as the fact that he needs just a narrow window to catch the football, as Brady has the accuracy and trust in Gronk to fit a tight throw into his frame. On Gronkowski's first touchdown, he used what looked like a fairly simple sit-down route in which he found the spot between two defenders in zone coverage. Brady saw the opening to hit Gronk appear and jammed the throw into his chest. If a defense isn't going to be physical and play man coverage on Gronkowski near the goal line, it must be prepared to close faster on him than the Rams did on that play.
9. Digging back into the preseason files, this scribe recalls seeing defensive end Chandler Jones being used in a zone blitz as a drop coverage player. That popped up again on Sunday, as Jones was sent backward on a second-and-22 situation late in the first half. The Patriots used an overload pressure package from the left side of their defense, with linebacker Dont'a Hightower as the blitzer off the edge. That sent Jones backpedaling to gain depth, and he eventually made a tackle on tight end Lance Kendricks some seven yards down the field. Jones has made his name as a pass rusher this season, but he's more than a one-trick pony, as he can defend the run and impact the game as a coverage player too.
10. Following a pass interference call against Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher, Brady arced a throw in the direction of Lloyd in end zone while he was being checked by Fletcher. Fletcher had a shot at the interception, but credit Lloyd for working back and draping himself over Fletcher to prevent the pick. It's not a play that will be credited to Lloyd as far as the stat book is concerned (and it was one of the few mistakes Brady made on the afternoon) but it's one that deserves recognition nonetheless, and can be classified as smart situational football. Should Lloyd have been flagged for offensive pass interference? Maybe, but it still would have been worth preventing the interception. All told, two potential interference calls on Lloyd added up to a positive difference for the Patriots in the first half.