After re-watching the first half of the Patriots' win over the Houston Texans, passing along picked up notes and observations.
1. When the "All-22" coaches film from this game is released, we may be able to dissect the coverage issues the Patriots had on their kickoff team, as it's difficult to decipher what went wrong on the opening kickoff from the angles available on the television broadcast. There was a massive gap for Danieal Manning to run through between the Patriots "R3" and "R4" players (those players aligned on the right side, third and fourth from the sideline respectively), and some credit is due to the Texans' return unit, who put a hat on a hat in their blocking scheme. A general note on kick coverage teams, both punt and kickoffs: special teams coaches will sometimes use their three perimeter coverage players to either side in conjunction in what is called "alley, force and contain." One player runs down the field and his lane sets up the alley to keep the returner inside of, while a second player sets the edge to force the returner inside of that alley, and the final player is the contain man who hangs back just slightly to prevent any downfield returns. Again, without knowledge of the coverage the Patriots were in and better angles to break down the play, we don't know where things went awry. Nonetheless, the kickoff coverage teams need to be much better on Sunday.
2. Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones eventually left the game with an ankle injury, leaving his status for next Sunday in doubt. That could lead to more snaps for fellow rookie Justin Francis, who played well again this weekend. On a 3rd & 7 play on the Texans' opening drive, Francis showed very good power to drive left guard Wade Smith -- a standout lineman -- back in his anchor, nearly walking over Smith with good straight line force. Francis has been a player known for his quickness to get to the passer, but flashing power on the inside bodes well for him to continue to be used there going forward.
3. Cornerback Aqib Talib had perhaps his best game with the Patriots on Sunday, and showed no ill affects of a hip injury that had limited him until Friday. What was most impressive about Talib was the physicality he played with against Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson. The Patriots tabbed Talib to shadow Johnson for much of the game, and he performed well in a big spot. Talib's fluidity in his transitions was evident throughout the night, and a good sign that the hip was no longer a concern. He also showed a willingness to get in the face of Johnson and two-hand jam him to deter his stem at the line of scrimmage. The variety of wrinkles the Patriots can incorporate around Talib is such a plus for this defense, and he's been a good performer in a small sample as a Patriot.
4. There's not much to add to the play in which tight end Rob Gronkowski went down and re-broke his left forearm, costing him the rest of this season: he took an awkward bounce on an area that was probably more vulnerable given the recent injury, and it was literally a tough break for the team. On the play following Gronkowski's injury, the Patriots converted a 3rd & 11 from Tom Brady to Wes Welker on a route that was sort of emblematic of the early part of the game. Welker ran a "sticks" route, getting just enough yardage to earn a first down and then breaking the route off. Brady stuck the throw into a tight window, moving the chains in the process (Welker also made a phenomenal catch while being clobbered). In the early goings of the game, there seemed to be numerous times that the Texans ran routes on third down that came up short of the first down. You have to give yourself a chance to convert on third down, and there were too many times where a Texans receiver seemed to catch the ball five yards short and with no room to run.
5. 1st & 10, 5:26 in the first quarter, and the Texans try to run Arian Foster on one of their staple running plays off of the left side of the line. Safety Devin McCourty crept down towards the line of scrimmage to the strength of the formation (the defense's right), and as Foster took the handoff, the Patriots duo of Vince Wilfork and Brandon Deaderick helped shut down the running lane. Foster tried to cut back to open space on the other side of the play, but McCourty came flying across the field to wrap him up for a minimal gain. That's very good field awareness, instincts, and sure-fire tackling from McCourty.
6. Before the game we anticipated that the Patriots may test the Texans linebackers in pass coverage with their tight ends, but we should have added the running backs to that equation as well. Shane Vereen was a star on Sunday, taking over the role that the Patriots seem to have had in mind for Danny Woodhead prior to his injury. Vereen answered the bell, and couldn't be contained by a linebacker in coverage. Late in the first quarter, Vereen split out wide to the right of the formation and ran a basic stop route well short of the cushion given by Bradie James. Once he caught the ball it was a mismatch of athleticism in space, and Vereen turned a short throw into a big game with nifty footwork down the sideline. Scheming ways to get their athletes the ball in space is something the Patriots have done well all season.
7. We saw a new offensive wrinkle from the Patriots this week: 3rd & 2, 11:36 to go in the second quarter, two tight ends, two receivers and one back in the game. Brandon Lloyd was split out to the left, with Welker in the slot. Tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Aaron Hernandez aligned to the end of the right side of the line. Brady called for Welker to use "ZING" motion, in which he motions into the formation (the Z receiver going IN = ZING), and at the snap Brady faked a handoff to Welker on a sweep around the right side. Following the fake, Brady pitched the ball to Vereen on a toss to his left, with the offensive line leaving Connor Barwin unblocked. The hope on the fake is for Barwin to take the bait and crash down the line, but he showed good discipline to maintain his gap. Vereen used his quick feet to elude Barwin and pick up the important first down.
8. A running play called a linebacker trap is a staple in nearly every NFL offense, and it involves a backside guard pulling around to lead the way for a running back and picking up an unblocked linebacker. At least usually, as with just under five minutes to play in the first half, the Patriots ran a linebacker trap to the right side, with left tackle Nate Solder being the player responsible to pull around and pick up Barrett Ruud, who attempted to fill the hole. Ruud was quick to the diagnose the run, but Solder got just enough to carve a path for Stevan Ridley to run to and then cut off of for the first down.
9. On Vereen's first receiving score of the day, Bradie James and Danieal Manning looked to be accountable to cover Vereen and Hoomanawanui. "Hooman" ran a vertical pattern with James carrying him, while Vereen flared out into open space in the flat. Either it was Manning who was actually responsible for Hooman and James should have passed him on after jamming him, or Manning was simply too slow to see Vereen and had no chance to make a play -- at least that is what is seems. The Texans man coverage defense near the goal line was an issue in both games against the Patriots.
10. A follow-up thought on the Arian Foster touchdown: video replays suggest that if Foster did in fact cross the goal line, it was by just a hair. In that situation, the referee who is making the call is having to sort through a pile of big bodies and navigate for the football, which is hardly visible when tucked under the runner's arm. Because all scoring plays are reviewable, one could wonder if referees are more likely to call a close play a touchdown rather than not, knowing that video replay will be used to confirm the call after the fact. It's a question we probably won't get an answer to, but an interesting debate. This point isn't to suggest the referees did a poor job on Sunday -- they were solid from this point of view -- but just bringing up an area of discussion.