After re-watching the first half of the Patriots' season opener against the Bills, passing along some picked-up notes and observations.
1. With the Patriots down to just two healthy tight ends on the game-day roster, the offensive staff got creative in using left tackle Nate Solder as an extra tight end, much like he was used during his rookie season. The upside to using Solder as an eligible receiver/extra tight end is that he's athletic enough to move around the formation and gave the team a boost as a blocker (Marcus Cannon was pegged to slide into Solder's left tackle spot on these plays). The downside, as colleague Mike Reiss noted in his snap counts post this morning, is that the play following Solder declaring as an eligible receiver he is forced to sit out, per NFL rules. Nonetheless, rather than relying on Zach Sudfeld -- who had struggles holding up as a blocker on Sunday -- the Patriots turned to Solder as an extra tight end/lineman.
2. Playtime: 12:05, 1st Quarter. The backbone of the Patriots run defense has long been setting the edge with a defensive end or linebacker, as well as fundamental, two-gap play from the down linemen. The Bills tried to press off tackle to their right with C.J. Spiller, but veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly provided little room to run, as he was able to anchor in his base, lock out his arms on right guard Kraig Urbik and stunt his attempt to drive Kelly off the ball. By the time Spiller reached the hole, Ubrik was stood up straight by Kelly and a full-yard behind the line of scrimmage. Spiller was fortunate to fall forward for virtually no gain. On the next play, Kelly recovered his first fumble as a Patriot.
3. Playtime: 10:51, 1st Quarter. Breaking down Julian Edelman's first touchdown on Sunday, which accounted for the Patriots' first points of the season. The Patriots had three receivers on the field, using a "TRE" formation (three receivers to one side of the formation, one tight end aligned on the end of the line on the other). Edelman was the closest receiver to left tackle Marcus Cannon, with Danny Amendola adjacent to him and Kenbrell Thompkins as the widest receiver. The Patriots were on the right hash, giving those three plenty of space to work vertically across the field, as each ran an in-breaking route toward the end zone (the play was run from the 10-yard line). Defensively, the Bills gave a coverage look that essentially had five defensive backs accounting for the three receivers. Thompkins drew man coverage from Leodis McKelvin, with the Bills using two other pairs of defensive backs to cover Amendola and Edelman. It looked as though Buffalo was trying to use one defender to cover out-breaking routes and another to cover in-breaking routes. Edelman was passed off to safety Jim Leonhard at the top of his route (when he broke it inside) and Brady stuck a football on his back shoulder where Leonhard had no chance to make a play. Terrific execution and concept.
4. Playtime: 9:01, 1st Quarter. Sort of a double-edged sword play for Patriots second-year cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who matched up with Bills rookie wideout Robert Woods in man coverage. Neither player is known for his speed, but the Bills sent Woods vertical on a route down the sideline. Dennard ably flipped his hips at the line of scrimmage, turning and striding with Woods as the ball was thrown. Dennard got his head turned around and high-pointed the ball as it approached, nearly grasping an interception. The good news was Dennard's technical approach on the play and ability to get his hands on the ball, but the bad news was it was an interception he needs to make. On the whole, the Patriots' top trio of cornerbacks looked very good in the season opener.
5. Playtime: 1:11, 1st Quarter. Those who have read our picked-up pieces entries before may recall the term "rub concept" in which two receivers work off of each other, typically near the goal line. In its simplest form, the outside receiver runs in, the slot receiver runs out and a natural pick is formed. We expect the Patriots to use this concept extensively this season, but not just near the goal line. With two gifted slot targets in Amendola and Edelman, it'll be a staple of their underneath passing game, as was the case on a third and 5. The two were the inside receivers as part of a three-man bunch to Tom Brady's right side, with Edelman running roughly five yards before turning inside, while Amendola ran up the field for a couple of strides, stuttered and broke out, catching a pass just two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The direction of Edelman's route gave Amendola enough space to work with to grab the first down and move the chains. Those two will be a tough task for middle-of-the-field pass defenders.
6. Playtime: 13:36, 2nd quarter. In a way, the Patriots reinforced their belief in defensive tackle Joe Vellano by waiving A.J. Francis on Saturday, leaving Vellano as the lone true back-up at the position (Chandler Jones worked some as a defensive tackle on Sunday). Vellano totaled 13 first-half snaps, with some up-and-down moments. The Bills racked up good yardage on consecutive plays with running back Fred Jackson, the second of which was a trap play that Vellano got swallowed up on. Aligned over the inside eye of the right guard, Vellano got sealed to the inside by a double team, clearing a lane for Jackson to run through (aided by a kick-out block on Rob Ninkovich). It's not an easy chore for Vellano, but the Patriots will be counting on him and other interior defensive linemen to hold their ground against double teams. Getting washed away like that leaves the second layer of the defense vulnerable. Two plays later, he made up for it with a nice tackle-for-loss to force a punt.
7. Playtime: 9:36, 2nd quarter. Plenty stood out from running back Shane Vereen on Sunday, including his terrific route on a play that actually ended in an incompletion. Flexed wide to the right in an empty set, Vereen drew man coverage on the perimeter and ran a "curl and go" route, one we don't often see. Vereen ran five yards past the line of scrimmage, throttled and turn back inside, simulating a curl route. Safety Da'Norris Searcy bit hard and charged up to make a play on Vereen, who effortlessly spun outside and up the sidelines. Brady put too much air on the ball and missed the target, but Vereen may have had a touchdown if the ball were put in the right place. Vereen's crafty footwork in the route should not go unnoticed despite the incompletion.
8. Playtime: 8:25, 2nd Quarter. In real time, our first instinct on LeGarrette Blount's kickoff-return efforts was that he didn't provide a lot of dynamic spark. In re-watching his second return, which wound up at roughly the 26-yard line, he was a little better than we had believed, as he turned the corner when a kickoff coverage player had leverage on him. Blount's foot quickness and power make him an intriguing option as a returner, but we still believe the team can do better with a quicker, shiftier option. Perhaps veteran Leon Washington will resume that role when he gets back on the field.
9. Playtime: 6:02, 2nd Quarter. Earlier we dissected the Patriots' use of Nate Solder as an extra tight end, and until Rob Gronkowski returns, the team will need to find a way to get better blocking production from the unit. On a second and 5, Michael Hoomanawanui motioned right to left to serve as a lead blocker for Blount on an off tackle run. Bills defensive end/linebacker Manny Lawson was able to leverage Hooman, extend his arms and set the edge. Alan Branch gave Logan Mankins all he could handle on the inside, leaving the run little chance to reach the second level. One play doesn't define an outing, but the feeling here is the tight ends could have been much better on the whole.
10. The good and bad of sudden changes: Kyle Arrington forced his second fumble of the day, putting the Patriots deep in Buffalo's territory with just two minutes remaining in the first half. It was just a handful of plays later that Brady found Edelman for another score. The Patriots fell victim to the same fate soon thereafter, as Brady was picked off on a dropped pass by Sudfeld. EJ Manuel found Woods for a score two plays later. On the pass, it looked as though the Patriots were in Cover 6, meaning they were playing Cover 2 on one side of the field and Cover 4 on the other. It appeared as though safety Steve Gregory should have had over-the-top coverage on the play (he was aligned on the Cover 2 side), but he was too heavily influenced by a seam route from tight end Scott Chandler. The sign that the coverage was likely Cover 2 was linebacker Dont'a Hightower dropping into the middle of the field and trailing Chandler up the seam and cornerback Aqib Talib occupying the flat. Always tough to know for sure on these, but Gregory, who gestured in what looked like confusion before the snap, may have been out of place.