CINCINNATI -- Picked-up pieces from first-half review of the Patriots’ 13-6 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium:
1. The tone-setting sack of quarterback Tom Brady on the second play never had a chance because the offensive line was sliding to the right and Bengals defenders didn’t bite on the play-action. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, lined up over guard Logan Mankins’ outside shoulder, had a wide open lane to penetrate as Mankins slid to his right and left tackle Nate Solder couldn’t possibly get there in the time that Atkins shot through. As Mankins said after the game, that’s a play where the offense is banking on the defense playing the pass, and if it isn't, it’s probably going to be blown up. In retrospect, one could question if that was the best call for the second snap of the game, at that point of the field (17-yard line).
2. Linebacker Brandon Spikes was sent into the middle of the line multiple times on run blitzes, including on the Bengals’ first offensive play, a 13-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. While Spikes was generally solid on those plays (e.g. second quarter, 7:21 remaining), and was a big part of the Patriots’ plans in accounting for the loss of injured defensive tackle Vince Wilfork in the running game, he did overrun the first play. In that sense, it didn’t take long for the trickle-down effect of Wilfork’s absence to be felt.
3. On the second sack of Brady, which ended the Patriots’ second drive on a third-and-2 situation, it was another situation in which the play call never had a chance based on how the Bengals countered. The Patriots had left guard Logan Mankins pull to his right at the snap, but the issue was that linebacker Vontaze Burfict was showing a blitz at the time of the snap, directly over Mankins. You could almost see Solder look inside for a moment, realizing he was outnumbered between Burfict and defensive end Wallace Gilberry. It was Gilberry who got around Solder for the sack. Again, this was a play-action call by the Patriots and the Bengals were basically selling out on the pass.
4. Defensive end Chandler Jones is one of a handful of every-down players for the Patriots’ defense, which reflects his growth as both a pass-rusher and edge-setter. His first-quarter sack on second-and-12, which was split between him and Rob Ninkovich, was one of his best rushes of the season. Jones lined up in a wide split, on the outside shoulder of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and he set Whitworth up nicely with solid footwork and a slight move to the outside, before beating him with quickness to the inside. Whitworth had to haul Jones down (he was flagged for holding), but Jones was still able to reach out and bring down quarterback Andy Dalton. When you draw a clear-cut holding penalty and still get the sack, that's solid work.
5. Play-action passing once again hurt the Patriots, on their third drive, but this time it wasn’t that the Bengals had the perfect counter. Instead, it was a dropped pass. Running back Brandon Bolden had a lot of room in front of him if he could have hauled in a first-and-10 pass from Brady on a double play-action -- first to Bolden up the middle, then to receiver Danny Amendola on an end-around. So while the first two play-action breakdowns were a case of the Bengals having what appeared to be the perfect counter to the play-action call, this was a case of the Patriots shooting themselves in the foot. It was also the type of play where the Patriots missed the presence of a Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead type.
6. LeGarrette Blount’s second-quarter fumble was an excellent hustle play by Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who never stopped playing even as the player blocking him, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, seemed to pull up before Blount had finished his run (Vollmer did make a crucial tackle of safety Reggie Nelson, who could have returned the fumble for a touchdown if not for Vollmer’s tackle). Blount didn’t have the football tucked to his body, which is the first no-no. But overall it was a play that reflected how the Bengals seemed to be playing in a different gear -- and more through the whistle -- than the Patriots.
7. On defensive tackle Chris Jones’ second-quarter sack, it was a combination of good coverage, good rush and an offensive-line breakdown. The Patriots were in a 4-2-5 sub defense, with end Ninkovich standing up in a linebacker-type look on the end of the left side of the line. Jones was the end to his right and he was initially double teamed by right tackle Andre Smith and right guard Kevin Zeitler, before Zeitler passed him off to help on surging tackle Joe Vellano. That left Jones in a one-on-one matchup with Smith, and he beat him with quickness as Dalton had held the ball, unable to find an open target. While Vellano gets no credit on the stat sheet, his strong initial rush, which drew Zeitler away from Jones, is one of those easy-to-overlook things that shows up on the film.
8. Solid special-teams work by linebacker Dane Fletcher in punt coverage (two tackles in the first half). Random thought: While special-teams coverage doesn’t always translate to defense, perhaps Fletcher will be part of some sub packages in the coming weeks as the Patriots' coaching staff works to figure out how to best utilize its personnel. Fletcher, who runs well, has played sparingly on defense this year but he is certainly showing up on special teams.
9. Decision-making by the Patriots’ returners was questionable, starting with Leon Washington taking the opening kickoff out after receiving it 6 yards deep into the end zone, and then with punt returner Julian Edelman fielding a first-quarter punt at the Patriots’ 5 and then racing up and muffing a second-quarter punt before recovering the loose football. There is an element of risk-taking with any returner, and maybe this is nitpicking, but we wonder what special teams coach Scott O'Brien had to say about those decisions.