After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' Week 15 loss to the 49ers, passing along some quick hit notes and observations:
1. The Patriots' defense did what it had to do on the opening drive of the third quarter, as defensive back Devin McCourty came up with an interception in the end zone. If McCourty hadn't made the play, fellow safety Steve Gregory may have, as 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick forced a throw to Randy Moss into double coverage. The Patriots dialed up a Cover 4 look, with the deep part of the field well covered. With just two 49ers receivers out in the route, there was little trouble putting together blanket coverage. The forced throw was arguably Kaepernick's biggest error of the night.
2. Breaking down the touchdown throw to Michael Crabtree, which put the 49ers up 31-3: Crabtree was among three receivers to the right side of the San Francisco formation, along with tight ends Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis. At the snap, Walker (the outside receiver) took a couple steps upfield before turning back toward the ball. That kept cornerback Kyle Arrington, playing the flat in Cover 2, near the line of scrimmage. Davis, the middle receiver, ran an out breaking route down the field, which Gregory had to keep an eye on. Crabtree, meanwhile, ran a vertical skinny post to the inside shoulder of Gregory. It looked as though Kaepernick was able to hold Gregory with his eyes just long enough to open a window to throw to Crabtree, and neither Gregory nor McCourty was able to converge quickly enough. The play wasn't bad defense, just good offensive execution.
3. The Patriots finally scored with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, and there was a play call that stood out upon further review. Facing a third and 9 from the 21-yard line, the Patriots ran a draw play to Danny Woodhead. That's not necessarily a play one associates with picking up nine yards (although Woodhead actually gained 15), but consider the circumstances: down 28 points, less than 19 minutes left in regulation, the play call was likely made knowing that they would have two downs to get nine yards if needed. At that point of the game, the Patriots could not afford to settle for a field goal, and were effectively in four-down territory. Nice job by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to dial up a run with the 49ers in sub defense and playing their safeties 10-11 yards off the line of scrimmage.
4. Left tackle Nate Solder was added to the injury report on Friday with an abdomen issue that left him questionable to play. He played, of course, and was solid overall on the evening. Solder did well to mix up the elements of strength in his game, which included using his unique reach and length to push rushers past the pocket. That was the case on a first and 10 with 3:06 to go in the third quarter, as Solder rode Justin Smith up the field off the snap, and then managed to keep Smith off of Brady by walling him off with his right arm and pushing him past the pocket. Brady did a nice job to step up, while Solder earns praise for taking advantage of his physical gifts to counter the quickness of Smith off the edge.
5. What an outstanding throw and catch by Brady to Michael Hoomanawanui for his lone reception of the evening, a 41-yarder. It actually looked as though "Hooman" was Brady's fifth and final read on the play, as he was sent down the field on a vertical route that may have been as much about clearing space for underneath receivers as anything else. On Monday morning, Brady quipped that throwing the ball down the field to his tight end isn't how the team had practiced that play, but both Brady and Hoomanawanui deserve credit for staying with the play and executing a difficult connection.
6. Neat play design of the night: Facing a "gotta have it" scenario on a fourth and 2 from their own 43, the Patriots brought out their "12" personnel, with both tight ends aligned to the left in what is known as a "YY" set. Brandon Lloyd was the split end to the opposite side of the formation, and Wes Welker was in a wing alignment off the hip of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. At the snap, Welker held for a second as if to sell run action, and Brady play faked a handoff to Woodhead. He quickly pivoted 180 degrees and floated a throw to Welker, who, after hesitating, darted toward the sidelines where he was all alone. The play was a wrinkle we've yet to see in 2012, and was very good situational execution.
7. Another week, and another red zone score from Hernandez in which he beat man coverage. Recalling training camp, it was clear that few defensive players were able to handle the slippery third-year tight end in man-to-man coverage, and he got a bit of help from a play design on his third score in two weeks. Hernandez and Lloyd were aligned to the left side of the formation, with Lloyd the outside target. Lloyd's in-breaking route intersected with Hernandez's out-breaking route, leaving safety Donte Whitner in no position to make a play on the ball. The Patriots, like most NFL teams, rely on those natural picks -- known as a rub concept -- near the goal line.
8. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich shares a number and similar role with former Patriot Mike Vrabel, and he took a page out of Vrabel's book for his fourth-quarter sack. Ninkovich set up left tackle Joe Staley with a hesitation move upon the snap, and eventually used a nifty swim move to get over the top of Staley and corral Kaepernick for the sack. Vrabel was a solid technician as a pass rusher, and Ninkovich has shown similar ability to make his move as much with his arms and hands as his feet.
9. Breaking down the touchdown throw to Crabtree, part two: After seizing momentum and tying the game at 31, poor kickoff coverage and pass coverage left the Patriots once again playing from behind. On a first and 10 from the Patriots' 38, the 49ers sent four receivers into a pattern that was defended by Cover 0 -- man coverage with no safety help. The Patriots brought seven rushers on the play, and cornerback Kyle Arrington was simply beat on a comeback route by Crabtree. While the Patriots don't want their defensive backs to be beat in man coverage, those kinds of things happen. Crabtree ran a solid route, Kaepernick put a good ball on his frame. What is likely a tougher pill to swallow for the Patriots is that Arrington took a poor angle in attempting to tackle Crabtree. Crabtree ran a comeback that hooked back inside, not out. Arrington drove to Crabtree's outside shoulder (toward the sideline), not his inside shoulder. Based on the momentum and direction of the route, Arrington would have helped himself to push toward the other shoulder to ensure a tackle. That's the part that stings most about the play.
10. There's been some discussion as to whether or not the Patriots were right to go for it on fourth and 2 from deep in their own territory late in the game. The argument against going for it was that the Patriots had two timeouts plus the two-minute warning to stop the clock if they had elected to punt and give the football back to San Francisco. On the other hand, there was no guarantee that the Patriots would get the football back if they had punted, and even if they did, it would have likely been deep in their own territory with no timeouts and short time on the clock. Going for it on fourth and 2 made sense. What could have paid dividends for the Patriots is, assuming they were committed to going for it on fourth down prior to the third and 2 play, running the football on third down. The 49ers were playing the pass, and likely content to let the Patriots gain a couple of yards instead of a big play down the field. Given how the Patriots were able to spread the field and run the football with Woodhead, an argument could have been made to hand him the football on third down to convert. Hindsight is always 20/20 in these situations. It's easy to say what the team should have done, but ultimately execution is what matters.