After re-watching the first half of the Patriots' Week 11 throttling of the Colts, passing along some picked up notes and observations.
1. The Patriots were once again excellent in their third down offense on Sunday, finishing 8-of-12 on the day. That started with a third-and-6 conversion in which the Patriots took advantage of man coverage and executed a rub concept in the middle of the field. Receiver Wes Welker was sent in motion from right to left, building trips to the left side of the offense before the snap. He flanked receiver Julian Edelman, who at the snap pushed vertical before eventually breaking inwards. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was the lone receiver to the right side, and he too pushed vertical before breaking inwards. The Colts had man coverage on each (while appearing to double-team Welker), and Gronkowski and Edelman helped each other out by crossing paths. That rub action freed Edelman up for his first catch of the day, and would kickstart his massive afternoon.
2. The Patriots' run defense was not its typical stout self on Sunday, allowing the Colts to chunk up 119 yards of 24 carries. We saw one of the leaks in defense early on the game, with 13 minutes left in the first quarter. The Patriots countered the Colts' three wide receiver set with nickel defense, with cornerback Kyle Arrington in the slot. Upon the snap, Colts slot receiver T.Y. Hilton followed ghost motion, which entails faking a reverse handoff. Arrington, moving right to left, followed Hilton. Right defensive end Chandler Jones set the edge moving up the field, but linebacker Brandon Spikes attempted to undercut a Colts lineman to make a tackle. With Arrington chasing Hilton and Spikes taking a poor angle, the Patriots quickly left a wide gap for running back Vick Ballard to squirt through. The Colts were able to outmuscle the Patriots at time on Sunday, but also were aided by an occasional lack of gap control.
3. Undoubtedly, we'll continue to digest what the loss of Gronkowski means for the Patriots' offense, but one area where he'll clearly be missed is in the play-action passing game. The Patriots showed on Sunday that they don't need to be at their best running the football (which they weren't in the first half) to make a defense pay through play action. After the aforementioned Edelman catch, the Patriots dialed up a staple offensive concept in which quarterback Tom Brady drops back after a play fake and hooks up with Gronkowski down the seam. Brady's play-action holds a defense for a half second, which is typically long enough for Gronkowski to free release down the field. If a defense recognizes pass quickly enough and dedicates two defenders to Gronkowski, Brady can read off of that coverage. The more likely scenario usually involves single coverage against Gronkowski, in which he's a physical mismatch and a reliable target to throw to.
4. We'll stay Gronk-heavy on the observations, and point out that Gronkowski was used in a different way against Indianapolis than we often see him. The Patriots incorporated a steady dose of flexing Gronkowski out wide as a receiver, which could be due to a number of reasons. The first is that the team was already thin at wide receiver due to injuries, and Gronkowski simply has the skill set to run the routes and execute the plays from that spot on the field. The second is that flexing Gronkowski out allows Brady to more easily recognize what kind of coverage is forthcoming against the tight end. If a defense plans to double cover Gronkowski with a safety providing an umbrella for over-the-top help, a flexed alignment can more easily display that. The safety will have to cheat his coverage pre-snap, making Brady's read easier in a sense. Regardless of why the Patriots opted to flex Gronk, it paid dividends on Sunday.
5. It wasn't all perfect from cornerback Aqib Talib on Sunday (although we'll later touch on his interception return for a touchdown), as on the Colts' second drive of the day he was the primary coverage player on both a 25-yard throw and a 14-yard touchdown pass. On the 25-yarder, Talib simply didn't get his head around to anticipate a throw and make a play on the ball. That's something he's shown himself very capable of doing in his career, but didn't on this throw. On the touchdown pass, Talib was playing with outside leverage, which is a suggestion that he had safety help to his inside in case Hilton broke his route off that way. Safety Steve Gregory stepped up to help cover Colts wideout Reggie Wayne, leaving Talib effectively in man coverage. Truth be told, the throw from Andrew Luck to Hilton for the score was made with air-tight accuracy, and Talib nearly got a hand on the football. Chalk that play up to good offense, not bad defense.
6. Throughout the week leading up to the game, the Patriots offensive players routinely noted the speed of the Colts' defense. On Sunday, they showed that sometimes the best way to attack a defense is to attack its strengths, as New England ran a number of screens, both to running backs and receivers. That's a regular part of their offense, and New England forced the Colts to play in space and make plays on shifty targets such as Edelman, Welker and Shane Vereen. High marks are in order for Edelman, who reminded us of his outstanding training camp when he routinely made teammates miss in tackling drills. He was not only slippery as a run after catch player, but Edelman showed very good contact strength to take hits and keep his balance.
7. Speaking of Edelman, his 68-yard punt return for a touchdown was a sensational display of open-field running and decisiveness. Edelman did well to come up to catch the punt, which lacked big hang-time, and he made the most of a narrow lane to run. Defensive backs Marquice Cole and Derrick Martin were solid in sealing off the Colts' left gunner, Sergio Brown, and the Patriots had sufficient blocks elsewhere on the play, but Edelman really carried the load on this one. He was decisive in choosing his path to follow, nimble in tip-toeing down the sideline, and determined in running past last ditch efforts to bring him down.
8. With Chandler Jones down, the Patriots were without their full compliment of rushers for much of the game on Sunday, but others stepped up in his absence. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork did well to collapse the pocket and affect the integrity of it with his strong push up the middle. It was Wilfork who helped generate pressure on Luck when he threw his interception to Talib that he returned for a touchdown. Though the interception was not a difficult one for Talib to make, he showed dynamic athleticism in weaving 69-yards (he probably ran well over 100 in total) for a score. We noted in our analysis of the Talib trade that although he can't solve all of the Patriots' secondary woes on his own, he can provide difference-making plays. That's precisely what he did on Sunday.
9. To build off of the thought of generating pressure, the Patriots used linebacker Brandon Spikes on a healthy number of rushes on Sunday afternoon. Spikes was not able to record any sacks, but he was a presence in playing downhill with his solid instincts and power. The Patriots remain a relatively light-blitzing team, but mixed in some linebacker and cornerback pressures on Sunday. If Jones misses any more time due to his ankle issue, the team may turn to pressure packages with other pieces involved to fill his void.
10. Defensive back Devin McCourty isn't just a good safety, he's very good. He's reliable, smart, instinctive, athletic, and much more. McCourty has been the target of some criticism in 2012, some of which was merited, but he's been very good all over the field. One play particularly resonated from the first half on Sunday, and it came with roughly six minutes to play in the first half. McCourty was aligned as the safety to the left side of the field, and had deep half responsibilities in the Patriots' cover 2 scheme. Luck worked to fit a throw to receiver LaVonn Brazill down the right sideline, but McCourty glided to the sideline to break the play up. That throw is the most difficult for a cover 2 safety to defend, and it's a play that we've seen Patrick Chung struggle to make this season. McCourty's reliability cannot be overlooked.