1. The Patriots opened the game with three straight snaps out of their 4 receiver/1 running back grouping. That set up a matchup against the Buccaneers' dime defense (6 defensive backs), which appeared to be what the Patriots, often operating out of the spread empty set, felt was their best chance at success. The Patriots had only run one play out the 4 receiver/1 running back grouping against the Jets, and five in the season opener against the Bills, so this was a good example of how the Patriots consider themselves a “game-plan” offense that tailors its attack on a weekly basis to take advantage of the matchups specific to each opponent. Ultimately, the plan was aborted and the Patriots found more success with a different matchup (3 receivers/1 tight end vs. nickel). A solid in-game adjustment.
2. It was interesting to hear Brady say this morning on WEEI that the Patriots didn't think this would be a big running game for them. In retrospect, this might have been a case where the coaching staff underestimated the team's ability to get things going on the ground. The first three runs, all coming on the team's second drive, were solid: Stevan Ridley for 6 (out of the shotgun and seemingly designed to counter the Buccaneers' pursuit), LeGarrette Blount for 4 and Brandon Bolden out of the shotgun for 3. There were solid running lanes and forward progress created on each play against a defense with a knack for creating the negative play. But it really wasn't until the fourth drive, when the Patriots settled into a 3 receiver/1 tight end grouping and the Buccaneers matched with their nickel defense (5 defensive backs), that the Patriots really stuck with the running game.
Lavonte David and Mark Barron combined for this sack of Tom Brady in the first quarter.
3. The importance of running backs in pass protection was highlighted on the third-and-2 play that ended the Patriots' first drive, as quarterback Tom Brady was sacked by linebacker Lavonte David and safety Mark Barron. Bolden was aligned to the right of Brady, who was in the shotgun, and couldn't hold his block on Barron. It was also excellent execution by the Buccaneers, who had six defenders at the line of scrimmage, showing blitz, but backed two defenders out at the snap. So they actually rushed just four, but their pre-snap look and then their quickness after the snap made it difficult for the offensive line and Bolden to know who was coming.
4. On the positive side of running-back blitz pickup, Ridley, aligned to the right of Brady in the shotgun on receiver Kenbrell Thompkins' 16-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the second quarter, did a solid job to come under Brady and pick up blitzing David off the left side by going low on him. Ridley's playing time was limited in the game (26 snaps, including penalties), but I thought he was effective in the time he was on the field -- as a runner, pass-catcher, and in pass protection.
5. This isn't specific as much to the first half as the overall game, but the feeling here is that it deserves mention. One way to measure if an on-field rapport between a quarterback and receiver is improving is results in “got-to-have-it” situations. Along those lines, it stood out that of receiver Aaron Dobson's seven catches, four went for first downs (two on third down, one on fourth down) and Dobson also produced another first down by drawing a 28-yard pass interference penalty. On one of the third-down catches (11:48 remaining, second quarter), the Buccaneers were in zone coverage and cornerback Darrelle Revis passed Dobson off. That's the type of play that makes one wonder if the Buccaneers are maximizing Revis' elite skill set.
6. On defense for the Patriots, it looked like a lot of man coverage. As noted Sunday, cornerback Aqib Talib matched up specifically against Vincent Jackson and the Buccaneers did a nice job moving Jackson all over the formation -- out wide, in the slot, in motion. That one-on-one battle in the first half was fun to watch, with each player getting a few victories.
7. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower's growth in the system has been showing up early this season, as he's playing more in sub packages (over Brandon Spikes) and his overall responsibilities have expanded. This was a game where he was seen in deep coverage on running back Doug Martin (incomplete pass down the left sideline), playing downhill against the run, playing off the line of scrimmage in the 4-3, on the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker in the 3-4, and split out wide where his powerful jam re-routed tight end Nate Byham (10:58 remaining in first quarter). He is becoming a bit of a Swiss-army knife for the Patriots.
8. On a similar note, the Patriots' defensive game-plan of keeping a strong seven-man box, even against the Buccaneers' three-receiver package, played to the strengths of middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. It's no newsflash, but when Spikes is playing downhill in the running game, he's a force (e.g. Martin 1-yard run with 3:19 remaining in first quarter).
9. On the Patriots' first sack, which came with 7:48 remaining in the first quarter and was split between Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, it was a rare first-down blitz with linebacker Jerod Mayo coming as a fifth rusher off the left side. Meanwhile, on the right side, Jones looped around Vince Wilfork (who drew two blockers) to get his share of the sack, while Ninkovich's leverage on right guard Davin Joseph helped him turn the corner as right tackle Demar Dotson kicked out to account for the blitzing Mayo. It happened quickly, with the rush getting there before Freeman had any available options. For those who would like to see the Patriots blitz more, this is the play to circle as one that produced the desired result.
10. On the 12-men-on-the-field penalty against the Patriots in the first quarter, that looked like a coaching miscue. The Buccaneers didn't substitute offensively, but when the Patriots attempted to get linebacker Brandon Spikes on the field and take safety Steve Gregory off, the quick tempo of the Buccaneers led to the penalty because Gregory wasn't able to get to the sideline in time. Unless we missed a Buccaneers substitution, that one looked more like a coaching breakdown than on the players involved.
11. From the random department: The Patriots have lost all three opening tosses this season and each opponent has deferred the choice to the second half. That means the Patriots have received the opening kickoff in all three games and the results have been punt, touchdown, punt.