After re-watching the Patriots' 49-19 waxing of the New York Jets on Thursday night, passing along some picked-up notes and observations from the first half.
1. It's a far distant memory by now, but the Patriots actually opened the game up on the wrong foot, with quarterback Tom Brady being called for an intentional grounding penalty on the very first play of the game. Brady attempted to get rid of the football on his way down to the ground while under pressure, but running back Stevan Ridley was determined by the officials not to be in the area of the throw, causing the penalty. On the play, left guard Donald Thomas never was able to fully anchor in his pass set, with Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson using a nifty inside move to penetrate and cause pressure. It would be about as much pressure as the Jets could come up with all evening, as Brady was again not sacked throughout the entire game.
2. Second-year player Marcus Cannon was called upon to step into a big role on Thursday night, as stud right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was among the Patriots' seven inactive players. Cannon, who endured struggles during training camp, was largely solid on the evening, and one of his strengths came to light on the Patriots' opening drive. A wide receiver screen was called for Julian Edelman, and Cannon was among the convoy of blockers deployed to carve a path for the shifty wideout. The massive right tackle got out in front of the pack and pancaked a Jets defender, showing very good playing strength and enough athleticism to move in space. That strength is something that Cannon was known to have when the team drafted him, and it was a positive sign for him to display it in a spot start.
3. Despite the end result, it would be unfair to say that the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski was forgotten, as the behemoth third-year tight end is such a critical part to the Patriots offense. But it was a very good sign to see tight end Aaron Hernandez back in the mix, and though his production was not gaudy (just two catches for 36 yards), he showed again why he's such a difficult player to cover. On Hernandez's first catch of the evening, a sensational one-handed grab, the third-year tight end aligned as a wing in the YY formation (two tight ends to one side), and found space behind the zone of the Jets linebackers and in front of the secondary. He showed his typical soft hands in snaring the throw from Brady, and followed it up with a weaving run after catch that included his signature change of direction moves. Was he all the way back in terms of cutting ability? Tough to say, but the fact that he played 57 of 68 offensive snaps (in a blowout win no less) is a very good sign for Hernandez and the Patriots' offense.
4. The start of safety Steve Gregory's big night came with just about six minutes left in the first quarter, as the veteran hauled in his second interception of the season. The play itself is worth noting, as Gregory made a very strong read to come across the formation and intercept Mark Sanchez. Gregory started the play as the right side safety, and the Jets opened with a three man route combination plus a back out of the backfield. Gregory quickly hovered towards the middle of the field, and sensing the throw from Sanchez to an inwards breaking receiver, stepped in front and made the play. Gregory's big night deserves abundant praise (he left some plays out there as a tackler, however), and he showed why he seems to be at his best roaming in space as a pass defender.
5. From and X's and O's standpoint, one has to love the new wrinkle shown by the Patriots' offense on a 3rd-and-1 conversion with four and a half minutes to go in the opening quarter. The Patriots used two runnings backs on the play (a rarity in 2012), with Shane Vereen and Ridley in an I-Formation with Ridley as the fullback in a three point stance. They overloaded with two tight ends on the right side of the line, and split Edelman out wide left. The Jets were stacking the line and ready to bring pressure, and Brady took the snap, faked to Ridley on a short carry up the gut and then flipped a pitch to Vereen, who ran around the left side of the line for a first down. The fake to Ridley accomplished exactly what it was intended to, as linebacker David Harris, who was left unblocked on the right side of the Jets' defense, got sucked down the line of scrimmage and allowed Vereen to bounce outside of him. Tremendous play call, tremendous execution.
6. Where to begin on the insane sequence of 21 points scored in 52 seconds? We'll actually start with a 3rd-and-2 play from the Jets on their first drive of the second quarter, during which Shonn Greene would eventually fumble. On the third down play, nose tackle Vince Wilfork did what he normally does, and that's control the point of attack, take up two blockers, and free up space for linebacker Jerod Mayo to come down hill and make a play. Wilfork's superb ability to anchor and not be moved laterally or horizontally is nearly unparalleled and vital to the defense's success. On the following play (when Greene fumbled), Wilfork was able to penetrate a gap and cause disruption in the backfield with a host of teammates there to assist. While Greene looked to be stopped short on the play anyways, credit linebacker Brandon Spikes for jarring the football loose nonetheless. We've heard players and coaches talk about causing turnovers as a mentality, and no matter the circumstances, they count just the same. Spikes has been an x-factor for the Patriots in doing exactly that this season.
7. Second-year running back Shane Vereen has flashed promise on multiple occasions in 2012, but no play better demonstrated his skill set than the 83-yard receiving score he had in the second quarter on Thursday night. Vereen drew linebacker coverage on the play, and ran a simple wheel route from the backfield. Linebacker Bart Scott got caught in traffic trying to flank out towards Vereen, with the Jets carrying each of the Patriots' outside receivers, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, up the field in man coverage. Vereen continued to gain width and knew exactly what to do when the ball reached his hands: use his natural gift of speed to run past everyone. He's yet another weapon for the Patriots to employ going forward.
8. More Wilfork talk, because the veteran nose tackle was a force on Thursday night. After a busted backfield exchange between Sanchez and his running back on a second down play following the Vereen score, the quarterback attempted to pick up the pieces and make something out of nothing. He followed the path of right guard Brandon Moore and all-star center Nick Mangold, who were double-teaming Wilfork on the play. Wilfork kept his shoulders and frame square, planted his weight through his hips and failed to give ground on the play. As Sanchez approached, Wilfork thrusted Moore back into his quarterback in a tremendous feat of strength, actually forcing a fumble on the play, and allowing Gregory to scoop and score. Wilfork's play cannot go unnoticed.
9. One was probably wondering how Edelman was able to get so open on his 56-yard score, and upon reviewing the play, it looked like a combination of strong play design and poor defensive execution. Edelman, lined up as the perimeter receiver on the left side of the formation, ran a skinny post that attacked the zone of safety Laron Landry, who looked to have quarter-field coverage. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie had already passed Edelman off when he saw Hernandez break out and into his quarter of the field, but Landry was slow to recognize the exchange and pick up Edelman. The fourth-year receiver darted past Landry and came up with yet another big play.
10. A few general thoughts from the first half, which went by in a blitz after a bizarre series of events: good to see Patrick Chung back on the field, and he seemed comfortable in his return to action. At his best, Chung has been a difference-maker for the Patriots, but that was not the case earlier in 2012. It'll be interesting to see what role he absorbs going forward. ... Not to overshadow a dominant effort, but the Patriots run defense in the first quarter was not as tight as it was early in the season. The Jets attacked the middle of the defense, and were able to create lanes for Greene and others. All told, the Jets finished with 119 yards on the ground. ... Cornerback Marquice Cole was a healthy scratch last night, and it could be because the team feels Kyle Arrington provides similar value as a reserve defensive back and special teamer. Arrington was used as a gunner on the punt team, an area that Cole had previously excelled.