Student assistant Mike Rodak takes a look at the television copy of Sunday’s game against the Bills and offers some of his first-quarter observations:
1. The Patriots opened the game in their base 3-4 defense, despite the Bills splitting five receivers wide on the first play. In order to generate pass rush, the Patriots closed the splits of the defensive ends, lining them up on the outside shoulders of the guards, instead of the tackles. ILB Brandon Spikes then blitzed up the middle, giving the Bills’ three interior offensive lineman four rushers to contend with. Without any backfield protection, Spikes was able to come in clean on the play, forcing QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to make a quick throw which still went for 7 yards because of the blitz from both Patriots OLBs on the play.
2. The Bills’ first third-down conversion of the game came early in the first quarter, on a third-and-3 situation. The Patriots rushed four on the play, including LB Gary Guyton, leaving CB Jonathan Wilhite, safety Patrick Chung, and LB Jerod Mayo in short zones. TE Jonathan Stupar drew both Wilhite and Chung on the left side with a vertical route, while Mayo was occupied on the right side with RB Marshawn Lynch in the flat. Slot WR Steve Johnson sat in the hole between the zones and Fitzpatrick had enough time to make the short, easy throw.
3. The first big gain on the ground for the Bills came on the next play, which came as a result of undisciplined run containment from the Patriots’ base 3-4 defense. On the play, OLB Jermaine Cunningham had both a TE and FB on his side of the field, with the responsibility of setting the edge against the run. When the TE blocked down on DE Gerard Warren, Cunningham hesitated and did not get far enough upfield to meet FB Corey McIntyre and keep Lynch inside. If that had happened, ILB Brandon Spikes should have been in position to fill the hole between Cunningham and Warren. Instead, Spikes shot the inside guard/center gap on the play, leaving outside containment (since Cunningham was sealed inside by McIntyre) to Chung, who was 20 yards downfield. RCB Kyle Arrington then could not get off his block, falling and having Chung trip over him. The tackle was made by backside defenders Mayo and safety James Sanders.
4. A few players later, on a second-and-9, OLB Rob Ninkovich demonstrated solid run-defense technique on a similarly-designed play. Ninkovich met the FB McIntyre two yards upfield, and even though Warren by was blocked down by the TE, and Spikes again could not stay back and fill the right hole, Ninkovich was able to shed his blocker and wrap Lynch up.
5. Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez continued to cause matchup problems for opposing defenses. On his 25-yard reception in the first quarter, Hernandez outran LB Keith Ellison in the open field. A few plays later, Hernandez put a spin move on Ellison after a short catch to add eight yards and a first down to the run. In addition to his end-around run and his blocking, Hernandez is proving an asset across all phases of the offensive attack, something which will pay dividends if used to keep the defense guessing.
6. The Patriots ran RB Fred Taylor four times in the first quarter, to some success (18 yards, including a run negated by a holding penalty). There was room for improvement though, as the Patriots had three tight ends on the field for half of the runs. The issues appeared to be in the run design, using more slow-developing pull blocks, traps, and outside runs instead of pounding Taylor up the middle. Some of this could be attributed to the Patriots’ lack of a true fullback, instead relying on tight ends, on the outside of the formation, to block. The runs and tight end formations, however, did set up the play-action touchdown pass to WR Randy Moss at the end of the Patriots’ first drive.
7. The Bills’ second third-down conversion of the quarter came on a third-and-18 where Cunningham generated edge pressure, causing Fitzpatrick to step up and make a hurried throw. It was caught by Steve Johnson short of the first down, and three defenders – safety Brandon Meriweather, Chung, and Guyton – all converged on Johnson. The three looked to be more concerned with avoiding contact with each other, allowing Johnson to break free without any substantial contact.