1. The tight end position hasn’t been as big a part of the Patriots’ offense from a pass-catching standpoint, but if opponents ignore it altogether, the Patriots have shown a willingness and ability to capitalize. Such was the case on the Patriots’ second offensive play, as Michael Hoomanawanui lined up between receivers Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola on the left side, and was simply uncovered as he ran up field. Tom Brady didn’t hesitate and the Patriots had a 16-yard gain. Later, on the final play of the first quarter, Hoomanawanui’s blitz pickup on linebacker David Hawthorne as he came across the formation from right to left was critical to give Brady the time to connect with Dobson on a 19-yard gain. Hoomanawanui might not be the fastest tight end, but he has reliable hands, is smart, and gives a team everything he has. On Sunday, he finished with four catches for 57 yards. Last season, he had five catches all season. Overall in 2013, Hoomanawanui has played 354 snaps through the first six games. He played 283 all last season.
2. The ability to beat man coverage is critical and receiver Julian Edelman did so on the Patriots’ initial third-down play. It was a big one given that the Patriots were coming off a 1-for-12 performance on third down the week before and needed to get off on the right foot. They did as Edelman came in motion from left to right, and was covered by safety Malcolm Jenkins, who got his hands on Edelman within the legal 5-yard zone. But Edelman fought through it, ran a short-in cut, then cut back outside as he absorbed more contact to his shoulder/helmet. As he cut out, Brady delivered a strike for a 15-yard gain. That’s the type of play we saw Wes Welker run with great success from 2007-2012. Same play, different player, same result.
3. We don’t talk often about Brady’s rushing "abilities," but his two scrambles on the first drive (5 yards, 11 yards) shouldn’t be overlooked. They were his only rushes of the game and came as a result of being forced out of the pocket (first by coverage, second by pressure). When you consider that Brady was able to elude the lunging swiping tackle by 6-foot-3, 288-pound defensive lineman Tom Johnson, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees had a similar play late in the game in which he was brought down by Chandler Jones, it warrants a mention. When Brady runs, it often seems as if the game is in slow motion. But it didn’t necessarily look that way on Sunday.
4. We’ve touched on the Patriots’ struggles in the red zone, in terms of turning opportunities into touchdowns, and all it often takes is one breakdown to set things back. We saw that on the team’s first drive, as on second-and-4 from the 9-yard line, left guard Logan Mankins pulled to his right and left tackle Nate Solder couldn’t get a hat on penetrating linebacker Junior Galette, who had initially lined up over Mankins and ended up dropping LeGarrette Blount for a 3-yard loss. That’s the second time in two weeks the Patriots haven’t executed a play in which Mankins pulls and Solder has to account for the player lined up over him. On the ensuing play, Brady was sacked on a three-man rush after having plenty of time to survey his options.
5. The Patriots value physicality and strong play against the run from cornerbacks, which is one reason why a prospect like 5-foot-11, 195-pound Logan Ryan (third round, Rutgers) appealed to them. On the Saints’ first offensive play, Ryan’s run force was textbook (and fearless) as he took on offensive lineman Bryce Harris (6-6, 300) and forced running back Darren Sproles back toward the pursuit of the defense (he was stopped for a 1-yard gain). We thought this was a good example of how a cornerback's ability and willingness to play the run is critical in the Patriots' scheme, and also how Ryan rose up to help the Patriots in an expanded role Sunday.
6. One of the Patriots’ forgettable plays was on their first punt return, when Edelman attempted a backwards lateral to Aqib Talib. It was a designed play and one the Patriots were fortunate didn’t hurt them. Edelman took accountability after the game, saying: “That was horrible football and I’m probably going to hear about that. I probably should have kept that. Thank God, Talib being the player he is, got on top of it and took me out of the doghouse a little bit.”
7. The Patriots got caught with just 10 defenders on the field on Benjamin Watson’s 25-yard catch in the first quarter, and here’s what appeared to happen: They were in their not-often-utilized three-cornerback base defense on the previous play, a beautifully executed 29-yard screen pass to running Pierre Thomas, which was a counter to the Saints’ 2 backs/2 tight ends package. In that defense, safety Steve Gregory comes off in favor of cornerback Kyle Arrington. Yet when Gregory came on to the field on the next play, he was replacing linebacker Dont’a Hightower because the Patriots were supposed to be their nickel defense against the Saints’ 1 back/2 tight ends/2 receivers grouping. Yet both Hightower and Arrington left the field, creating the short-handed situation. It was a little surprising that the coaching staff didn’t pick up on it beforehand, yet at the same time, it was somewhat understandable given the constant matchup game that was taking place. Also, on a day when the defense did its part with a rock-solid plan, the defensive coaching staff is well deserving of a mulligan.
8. A solid block by Mankins, coupled with hard-charging running by Stevan Ridley, produced an impressive 18-yard gain late in the first quarter. Blocking tight end Matthew Mulligan might have gotten away with a hold on the play, but created enough of an obstacle for Hawthorne to help open up the running lane for Ridley. When the Patriots can get the running game going, it settles things down, and it often takes a close look at players like Mankins and Mulligan to fully appreciate their work in that area. Mankins, despite showing up with with two penalties, is still playing at a very high level from what we've seen. His combination block on Ridley's 1-yard touchdown early in the second quarter further showed his effectiveness.