After re-watching the first half of the Patriots' Week 16 victory over the Jaguars, passing along picked-up notes and observations.
1. The Patriots' defense got off to a slow start, allowing a Jacksonville touchdown on the opening drive. A couple of notes from the series: The Patriots appeared to play a decent amount of man coverage with various forms of safety help over the top. Man coverage sometimes means a defense is daring an opposing quarterback to beat it by making throws into tight windows, which Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne did. Of note, Jacksonville worked the middle of the field with horizontal crossing patterns, which work well against man coverage to create natural picks and confusion in the secondary. On one such crossing route, Cecil Shorts III took in a pass for a first down, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower appeared to pull up before the play was over. That was an odd lapse in effort. One more component to man coverage defense: It often allows an offense to single up on its blocking schemes, which is exactly what happened on a couple of chunk runs. The Jaguars were able to put a hat-on-a-hat and create space for Montell Owens. Overall, the drive was about Jacksonville executing in a deliberate manner -- there wasn't a big play, coverage bust, or costly penalty. It was just good offensive football, which has been a rarity for the Jaguars this season, and not very good defense from the Patriots.
2. The offense didn't start any better than the defense, as quarterback Tom Brady threw an interception on just the third play from scrimmage for the offense. Brady came out in a shotgun formation with running back Stevan Ridley on his left side. Ridley delayed for just one step before entering the passing route combination on a wheel route. He got a step on linebacker Russell Allen working down the sideline, and Brady had a window to throw to Ridley in between Allen and safety Chris Prosinski, who was patrolling the deep portion of the field. Brady simply missed his target, and the float of his ball allowed Allen to catch up to Ridley in enough time to get a hand on the pass, tip it into the air, and allow Prosinski to make the play. If placed accurately, Ridley could have had a shot to score.
3. A week ago in this space, we overviewed the effective use of a defensive end/defensive tackle rush game by the 49ers, in which the defensive tackle takes an outward path at the snap and the defensive end loops inside to fill his lane. On first and 10 with 6:50 to go in the first quarter, the Patriots came within inches of sacking Henne on a well-executed play by Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich. Wilfork worked outside at the snap, taking both the right guard and right tackle with him, freeing up space for Ninkovich to close in on Henne. Ninkovich showed good burst to nearly bring Henne down before his throw, but he was off-target anyway. End-tackle games are a staple for any NFL defense.
4. Blitzes are designed to generate quarterback pressure, but they often serve well to stop the run too. On the very next play following the Wilfork/Ninkovich play, slot cornerback Marquice Cole was on a designed blitz after showing man-coverage opposite of slot receiver Jordan Shipley. Cole timed Henne's snap count and came crashing down the line to make a tackle for a loss on a run. Though the defensive play call likely derived from a desire to pressure Henne, it worked out perfectly to defend the power run. Good timing, good execution.
5. Without tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots are down one of their best red zone/goal line targets (and one of their best players overall), and a sequence of two straight goal line throws did not go as planned after a nice drive toward the end of the first quarter. On second and goal from the seven, Brady tried to hook up with tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was running a corner route against Prosinski in man coverage. Hernandez wasn't able to generate separation at the top of his route, and Prosinski ran underneath the throw, which sailed past both players. On the following play, Brady was locked in on Brandon Lloyd, who worked inward on his stem, pressed vertical, and then tried to break his route back out against press man coverage by Derek Cox. Lloyd couldn't separate, and the throw had no chance. The Patriots are going to face man coverage in the red zone -- Brady is too sharp for opponents to play zone against him -- and being able to beat man coverage is essential. The Patriots struggled some with that in Week 13 against Miami, and again Sunday versus Jacksonville.
6. He later sealed the game with his second of two interceptions, but safety Patrick Chung had some difficult moments in the first half. On the first play of a drive with just over two minutes to play in the first quarter, Henne used play action to set up another deep crossing pattern to Shipley. Chung was completely frozen by the play fake, eventually retreating into his zone, where Shipley ran right across his face and into Patriots territory. Tough to dissect exactly what responsibility Chung had on the play, but based on his retreat, he was clearly out of position and may have been part of the reason why Shipley went for big yardage.
7. Brady threw two interceptions in the first half, the second of which came on a throw that was a 50-50 play between Lloyd and defensive back Cox. Brady set the play up with a nice play fake, and the Patriots deployed three receivers on the route (Hernandez looked to be wide open on the play). Lloyd was able to get Cox to turn his hips on an outside stem before eventually breaking his route off inside and coming across the middle. Cox made a nice play to turn his hips back around and get in a position to make a play on the ball, and he went up for the throw with more authority than Lloyd.
8. On the following play, the Patriots' defense was burned for a massive gain on a screen pass to Owens that was both tremendous design and substandard defense. The Jaguars built a three wide receiver set with motion to the left side of the formation, and on the snap, Justin Blackmon ran underneath the offensive line, Shipley faked a reverse, and Shorts ran a crossing pattern to clear out the left side of the field. The Patriots were in man coverage, so cornerback Aqib Talib followed Shorts across the field, leaving basically one coverage player, linebacker Jerod Mayo, in the area of the screen. Defensive end Justin Francis got drawn in by the fake and caught way up field, and Mayo was unable to get off a block by center Brad Meester. The Jaguars spaced the screen out beautifully, caught the Patriots in man coverage, and executed to near perfection.
9. While we're talking about play design, here are a couple of standout snapshots from the Patriots' lone touchdown drive of the first half: On a third and 1 from their own 43-yard line, Brady was once again flanked by Ridley in a shotgun formation. Ridley took a direct snap from center Ryan Wendell and swept around the right side of the line. The Patriots motioned tight end Michael Hoomanawanui across the formation to build an adjusted trips set to the right, using "Hooman," Daniel Fells and Wes Welker to block down and seal the edge, with Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer pulling around to lead Ridley's path. This play brings up memories of Kevin Faulk running a similar play in years past. On the touchdown, running back Danny Woodhead was left virtually uncovered on the play. It looked as though defensive end Jason Babin had some responsibility on Woodhead -- be it man coverage or to try to jam him from the backfield -- but Woodhead gained width and ran free for the score. On the play, the Patriots had routes from both Hernandez and Lloyd that influenced the coverage toward the middle of the field, further clearing space for Woodhead to run and score.
10. Some general thoughts: The Jaguars didn't look afraid to unleash their defensive ends off the edge to try to disrupt Brady with speed pressure, and they also seemed to mix in a number of linebacker pressures up the middle (sometimes on delayed stunts) to complement the edge rushes. ... Talib was clearly dealing with pain to his hip throughout the first half, and if the game had not been as tight, it might have been that he didn't see much of the field. ... Hoomanawanui has emerged as a pivotal piece on offense, giving the Patriots their best option as insurance for both Gronkowski and Hernandez. ... A lack of pressure on Henne stood out in the first half. ... Ridley ran hard, convincingly, and securely. The coaching staff showed confidence in Ridley in sticking with him after recent fumbling issues.