Before passing along some of our picked-up pieces from the Monday night game against Houston, we'll throw the flag on ourselves for a delay of game. Unfortunately, as part of the Game Rewind package that we use to review each Patriots contest, Monday Night Football is not distributed until 24 hours following the conclusion of the game.
Though our focus has spun toward the San Francisco 49ers, this week's opponent, here's a quick look back at some picked-up pieces from the Patriots' 42-14 win over the Texans.
1. It's a distant memory now, but the Patriots actually started the game allowing two sizable runs on defense (one of which was negated due to a formation penalty on Houston). The Patriots couldn't seem to get their run fits in order on the play after coming out in a 3-4 defensive front. Trevor Scott joined Brandon Deaderick and Vince Wilfork along the line, with Rob Ninkovich and Dont'a Hightower flanking them as outside linebackers. Based on his body type and skill set, Scott, in the eyes of this scribe, seemed like more of a 3-4 outside linebacker than defensive end, but showed some versatility in playing with a hand in the turf when the Patriots started out in a 3-4 look on Monday night.
2. Kyle Arrington continued his strong play of late on Monday night, which kicked off with a pass breakup to end Houston's opening drive. The Patriots brought pressure with two linebackers blitzing and followed up with a single high safety (Steve Gregory) behind man converge in the secondary. The Texans motioned to build a bunch formation with tight end Owen Daniels, and playing man coverage against a bunch can be tricky. Bunches create natural traffic at the start of routes, which often throws defensive backs off their mark in man coverage. Arrington, Devin McCourty and Aqib Talib did well to sort through the route combination, tag their respective receivers and play blanket coverage. Arrington managed to get his head back before the ball arrived and put a hand up to prevent the catch.
3. We spent some time debating who might fill Julian Edelman's role as a punt returner, with Wes Welker as the leading candidate. Such proved to be the case, and Welker kickstarted his offense with a 31-yard return on his first attempt. The shifty receiver was quick, decisive and elusive on the play, and also the beneficiary of one heckuva block from Talib. Talib was charged with covering a Texans gunner up on his own (the Patriots used two players to cover the other Texans gunner), and did an outstanding job of matching the gunner down the field and creating a natural alley for Welker to run through. The skills used as a vise are similar in some ways to those in man coverage on defense. Talib, the Patriots top cover corner, displayed those skills on the return.
4. In previous reviews of games, one mismatch we've pointed to that the Patriots like to exploit is using tight end Aaron Hernandez out of the backfield, which often matches him up with a linebacker in man-to-man coverage. A play after falling on a Stevan Ridley fumble to preserve the Patriots' opening drive, they did exactly that, leaving Hernandez to be shadowed by Bradie James. Hernandez showed excellent quickness at the top of his route, setting James up with a false step inside before breaking back out. It's the closest we remember Hernandez looking like his old self since returning from his ankle injury, and a terrific play design by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
5. There wasn't a ton to criticize from Monday night, as much of the game was dominated by the Patriots. But one area where the team had some struggles was in pass coverage by their linebackers. The team looked to be playing a lot of defense from the inside out, and that did open up opportunities for Matt Schaub to hit running backs on swing passes into open space. Arian Foster and Justin Forsett, who both have good speed, were able to outflank the Patriots' linebackers on a couple of plays. On Houston's first scoring drive of the game, James Casey got past Brandon Spikes for a 30-yard completion.
6. Really tremendous play by McCourty to intercept Schaub on the goal line and give the Patriots the ball back, up 7-0. It wasn't any sort of exotic coverage scheme that tricked Schaub, just a strong read by McCourty, aligned in a single high safety look to support Talib and Alfonzo Dennard. Texans wide receiver Kevin Walter was sent on a skinny post in combination with an in/dig route from Daniels (who took an outside release at the snap). McCourty read the progression of Schaub, flipped his hips and snatched the ball in a textbook effort. He is quickly becoming the staple of this secondary.
7. The Patriots' second touchdown of the game looked all too easy if you're a Texans fan. The Patriots ushered out "13" personnel, with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui bookending the left side of the line and Daniel Fells opposite of him. Hernandez built a "YY" alignment on the right side with Fells, as he was in a three-point stance right off of his hip. Brandon Lloyd was in a "cut" split, reduced down from his normal width. Tom Brady used a hard sell on a stretch action running play, with his line stepping right in what looked almost like a zone-blocking scheme used on a running play. Lloyd pressed inwards on the snap, managing to burst past the linebackers and secondary into open space. The play fake by Brady left the safeties in no man's land, and Lloyd was several steps behind them by the time the throw was unloaded.
8. It's tough to do, but we'll try to encapsulate the excellence of Vince Wilfork in one play that was emblematic of his night. Before the game, Wilfork stressed the importance of fundamentals and technique. With just under six minutes to play in the first half, the Texans tried to run a trap play at Wilfork, in which he was left unblocked by the right guard and to be picked up by left tackle Duane Brown, who was pulling to block Wilfork. After being left unblocked, rather than sprinting through his gap (which would have been instinctual to do), Wilfork held steady, watched the play develop, and subsequently fitted Brown up at the point of attack. He used the overwhelming strength we're used to seeing to manhandle Brown and tackle Foster for a loss. Strong stuff from Wilfork all night.
9. An interesting wrinkle on the punt team on Monday night: The Patriots used a formation without a personal protector on one kick from Zoltan Mesko, splitting Patrick Chung out in the slot in between the right wing and gunner. Hard to tell what sprung this idea, and if it's something that we'll continue to see down the line. The Patriots weren't punting from deep in their own territory, so the threat of a heavy rush wasn't as prevalent.
10. Talib was forced to leave the game due to a hip injury late in the first half, although it's tough to tell what exactly happened. He nearly intercepted a pass on the play as well, in which he was playing man-to-man coverage on Andre Johnson with two safeties over the top to help in coverage. Talib showed really good bend, hip fluidity and technique on the play.
11. Tough to see receiver Donte' Stallworth go to injured reserve just after making a big play in his return to the Patriots. The touchdown catch is what many will remember of his 20-snap outing, but we'll point to a third-quarter block that also deserves praise. The Patriots faced a 3rd & 1 on their third play of the half, and the Texans crowded the line of scrimmage. Brady requested Stallworth to pinch in from his alignment of being split out wide, placing him just off the hip of tight end Aaron Hernandez on the left side of the line of scrimmage. The task Brady had in mind for Stallworth? Walling off outside linebacker Connor Barwin. Stallworth, some 50 pounds lighter than Barwin, did enough to create a lane for Shane Vereen to get the first down. Little things add up in football, and Stallworth's work on that play helped.
12. Speaking of Stallworth, there probably isn't a whole lot of analysis needed on his 63-yard score. The veteran used his most dangerous asset -- his speed -- to get a step on the secondary, coming up with a catch in a competitive situation and doing the rest on his own.
13. Bill Belichick pointed to his receivers as one of the reasons why Brady was able to get his throws off so quickly, as they were solid in beating man coverage. On a third-quarter sack of Brady, however, the Texans brought pressure off the edge from both sides, with linebacker Whitney Mercilus ringing up the sack. It was a slower developing route combination from the Patriots, which prevented Brady from getting a throw off quickly. Credit Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips for dialing up pressure at the right moment.
14. We talked about it last week, and we'll do it again: Matthew Slater was terrific down the field in punt coverage. He was credited with just one tackle for the game, but on two separate occasions Slater drew contact fouls that pushed the Texans back into poor field position. He continues to play at an extremely high level this season and has been a field-position flipper for his team.
15. Couple of quick-hit thoughts on the players who returned from injury: Chandler Jones looked like he was still finding his way as he returned from an ankle issue. He looked hesitant at times, but should continue to improve each week. Logan Mankins, meanwhile, was his usual tone-setting self. He played with very good force, attitude and physicality. No surprise to see the consistent veteran play at a high level.