- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' 45-7 victory over the Rams in London, passing along some notes and observations.
1. Stevan Ridley set a career-best for his longest run on Sunday (41 yards), but it wasn't his only big play. He notched 30 yards on the second play of the second half, and it was a textbook power play from the Patriots. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Daniel Fells were aligned in a "YY" formation, with Fells a step off the line of scrimmage and in a three-point stance just off the hip of Gronkowski. On the play, Gronkowski blocked down, Fells controlled the safety down in the box, left guard Donald Thomas pulled around to pick up a linebacker, and fullback/tight end Michael Hoomanawanui kicked out cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The massive gap allowed Ridley to squirt through to the second level, where he was eventually pushed out by safety Craig Dahl.
2. The Tom Brady-to-Brandon Lloyd connection was in full force on Sunday, as the receiver scored twice in a matchup with his former team. The second score came on a lethal slant route from Lloyd on the Patriots' first drive of the second half. Lloyd was matched up man-to-man with Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and used a hard outside jab step with his left foot to set up Jenkins. Lloyd's first step sold Jenkins on the idea that he was going to run a fade towards the end zone, but the receiver quickly came back underneath the corner to gain the inside leverage. Brady put the ball right on Lloyd's chest for the easy score. That kind of precise, savvy route-running is often most dangerous in the red zone, where the space on the field becomes limited.
3. In our first-half observations, we noted the ability of running back Shane Vereen to jump-cut to make defenders miss. That term typically refers to a cut in which a runner's two feet leave the ground simultaneously for just a split-second -- sort of a subtle move. Well, Ridley employed a more literal jump-cut on a third-quarter run with roughly 9:30 left in the frame in which he both leapt over a defender and re-directed his path at the same time. The move pushed him to the second level, where he later delivered a blow to safety Craig Dahl (which shook Dahl up), forcing a missed tackle and adding on a few yards to the end of the run. Ridley ran tough, hard, and decisively throughout the afternoon.
4. Don't see this one often: the Patriots, on a second-and-goal play, sent three receivers to one side and Gronkowski to the other. That alone isn't unusual, but the fact that Gronkowski was split out wide was. We normally see Gronkowski tight to the line of scrimmage, but this new wrinkle could be something that we see again down the line. Given Gronkowski's unique athleticism and frame, it would come as little surprise to see the Patriots attempt to throw a fade pattern from a near identical set at some point later in the season. If a defense chooses to put a cornerback or safety in man coverage on Gronkowski, consider that an edge for the Patriots.
5. It's been said that players make their greatest step in development between either their rookie and second seasons, or second and third seasons in the NFL. Defensive end Jermaine Cunningham has followed an unusual career path, regressing from a production standpoint in his second year after his rookie season, but surging back in his third NFL campaign. His bounce-back effort is highlighted by, in our estimation, a dramatic improvement in his overall game. Cunningham has become more than just an edge rusher on passing downs: he's an effective sub-defense player that can move in space and also pursue down the line of scrimmage. Bill Belichick lauded his offseason work, and it surely seems to be paying off in a big way thus far in 2012.
6. Speaking of defensive ends with major promise, Chandler Jones continues to dominate as a pass rusher, recording his sixth sack on Sunday. His third-quarter sack of Sam Bradford came in style, as he clipped the ankle of the quarterback on a lunging effort. Jones got a blazing start off the edge of the line, and showed closing burst to catch up to Bradford, as well as good awareness to make his move to take Bradford down before he could break the pocket. Jones and Rob Ninkovich are quietly becoming a dependable pass rushing force, getting it done in differing styles.
7. It wasn't all great from the Patriots in the second half, as on a second-and-10 with just over three minutes to play in the third quarter, receiver Julian Edelman appeared to whiff on a block on defensive end William Hayes, which resulted in a seven-yard loss for Vereen. Edelman was in a wing alignment adjacent to left tackle Nate Solder, who pulled around the receiver to lead the way for Vereen, leaving Hayes as the player for Edelman to block down on. A vertical push by Hayes up the field left the receiver unable to finish the move, and audible frustration from the Patriots' sideline was picked up by the television broadcast. The following play, Solder was called for a holding penalty, but it was declined.
8. The Patriots seemed to work the play-action passing game with extreme effectiveness on Sunday, and one offensive wrinkle that seemed to work well in tandem with that was pushing the seams. That started with Gronkowski, who scored his second touchdown of the day on a simple seam route off of play action. One reason that the seams would appear to be a vulnerable area for St. Louis was because they often played a safety rolled down in the box, leaving a single safety high. If a single-high safety is frozen for even a moment by the play-action, it forces him to have to make a delayed decision on which side to press laterally in his coverage. Gronkowski was a physical mismatch for the Rams, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also seemed to out-scheme the team he coached for last season.
9. Pressure from rookie defensive end Justin Francis forced a poor throw from Bradford with 8:30 to play in the fourth quarter, and fellow rookie Alfonzo Dennard went up to make a superb play for his second interception in as many weeks. The Patriots were in Cover 2 defense, and Dennard, sensing the vertical threat from receiver Brian Quick, dropped to gain depth in his back pedal, abandoning the vacated flat area. He anticipated the throw from Bradford and skied into the air, high-pointing the pass and coming down with the pick. The fundamental play should provide a confidence boost for the seventh-round choice who has really come on in recent weeks. With Kyle Arrington leaving Sunday's game with a head injury, Dennard may be called upon even more if the issue lingers.
10. A couple of thoughts to wrap-up the game: major kudos are in order for Patriots offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. The two have stood toe-to-toe with some fearsome pass rush duos this season, but perhaps no effort was finer than Sunday's against Chris Long and Robert Quinn. For the first time this season, the Rams' duo was held without a sack, and quarterback Tom Brady faced minimal pressure throughout the afternoon. Solder and Vollmer continue to answer the bell when called upon in 2012. ... The Patriots' rookie class continued it strong contributions on Sunday. How's this for a cumulative stat line? 15 tackles, 3 passes defended, 2 quarterback hits, a sack, and 2 interceptions. This group has played like anything but rookies.