Picked-up pieces from first-quarter review of the Patriots' 34-31 win over the Texans:
1. On the opening kickoff, which Texans second-year returner Keshawn Martin brought back 50 yards, spacing and getting off blocks seemed to be the issue. The kickoff was a good one, high and about 5 yards into the end zone. The Texans’ wedge took care of Matthew Slater and Michael Buchanan, as the return came to the right. Jamie Collins had beaten his block but overran the play, while Brandon Bolden couldn’t disengage and make the diving tackle. At that point, Martin broke through the first wave of coverage and Marquice Cole and Devin McCourty were the two primary “safeties” remaining. Cole played outside leverage to force Martin back inside, and that looked to be the key to limiting the damage as it allowed the Patriots’ coverage to recover. Underrated "technique" play by Cole on an overall poor play by the coverage unit.
2. Against the Texans’ three-receiver package when tight end Garrett Graham was in the game, the Patriots stayed in their base package but utilized a third corner (Kyle Arrington) over a second safety (Duron Harmon/Steve Gregory) for more of a coverage element. That’s the same concept they used against the Buccaneers on Sept. 22.
3. Overall, a lot more of a pure 3-4 look on defense, which has started to become more prevalent in recent weeks. Chandler Jones was in a two-point stance as an outside linebacker quite a bit, which is different than what we saw at the start of the season.
4. Also in the different category: We’re seeing more of tight end Rob Gronkowski split out wide as receiver in recent weeks, such as on the first offensive play and on his 6-yard catch (3:58 remaining). A good example of how Gronkowski is a chess piece of sorts moving all over the formation.
5. Hard to tell on the Patriots’ initial third-down stop if it was just a misfire by Case Keenum to wide-open running back Dennis Johnson (Patriots linebackers Dane Fletcher and Jamie Collins might have a coverage mix-up), or if Rob Ninkovich’s pressure off the left edge was a factor in slightly altering Keenum’s throw. Ninkovich had some strong rushes in the game against right tackle Derek Newton.
6. It was more of a zone-coverage plan for the Patriots in the first half, with Texans players noting after the game that they saw man in the second half. Cornerback Aqib Talib always lined up across from receiver Andre Johnson, even though the Patriots played more zone and seemed to have some communication/exchange issues (e.g. 29-yard catch by Johnson at 10:13). In particular, when the Texans ran crossing patterns, it seemed to exploit the Patriots’ bigger linebackers in coverage.
7. On Ben Tate’s 8-yard touchdown run, it was nothing fancy from the Texans. Outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich was double-teamed by tight ends Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin, and defensive end Joe Vellano was handled by right tackle Derek Newton as the run came to the strong side of the formation between the right tackle and multiple tight ends aligned to the right side of the line. With linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower playing downhill, they both overran the play, leaving a wide gap between the first level of the defense and the secondary. Easy score. Well blocked from a Texans’ perspective and poorly executed by the Patriots.
8. On Tom Brady’s first-quarter interception, it looked like the combination of pressure up the middle, and off the edge, didn’t allow him to fully step into the throw to tight end Rob Gronkowski. It didn’t seem like a bad decision -- Gronkowski had some separation on cornerback Johnathan Joseph -- as much as a bad throw as a result of the pocket closing in front of him and to his blindside.
9. Josh Boyce’s 41-yard kickoff return, the longest of the season for the Patriots, showed his explosiveness. Also, some credit to safety Tavon Wilson for one of the key backside blocks against rookie linebacker Justin Tuggle. While Tuggle could have taken a better angle, if Wilson doesn’t hold the block, it’s possible Boyce doesn’t get outside for the final 20 yards or so. Wilson is not a factor on defense for the Patriots, but this was an example of how he’s contributing on special teams.
10. Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins’s hip injury appeared to come on his leaping 16-yard grab. He immediately grabbed for his hip after the catch, even though he stayed in the game for the next play before taking himself off. Thompkins route, in which he widened out briefly to back cornerback Kareem Jackson off before cutting in, showcased how he often sets up defensive backs well. He’s a good route-runner, and this was a solid route that found the opening in the zone coverage off play-action.
11. As Tom Brady noted after the game, Rob Gronkowski's 23-yard touchdown catch was a terrific adjustment by Gronkowski, who aligned to the right of the formation and ran a crossing route before turning it upfield as Texans linebacker Jeff Tarpinian was in man coverage. Great catch by Gronkowski on the lower throw. Also, for a play like that to work, it takes excellent pass protection, which the Patriots had against the four-man rush (with JJ Watt double-teamed by Dan Connolly and Will Svitek).