After rewatching the first half of Friday night's preseason win for the Patriots over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, passing along some picked-up notes and observations.
1. On the Patriots' third offensive play of the game, the team came out in "20" personnel (two running backs, no tight ends, three wide receivers), putting Tom Brady in shotgun with Shane Vereen on his left hip and Brandon Bolden to his right. On the right side of the formation, Kenbrell Thompkins, from a reduced alignment (closer to the offensive tackle than normal), ran a slant, taking his cornerback into the defender who was responsible for covering Bolden, who ran a flat route out of the backfield. On the left side, both Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola ran in-breaking routes, clearing the path for Vereen, who mirrored Bolden with a flat route of his own. A natural pick was set from Amendola and Edelman, clearing space for Vereen to pick up the third-down conversion. We rarely saw two-RB sets from the Patriots last season, but with adept pass-catchers like Vereen and Bolden, we could see more of it this season. Some coaches refer to offensive sets with two running backs on the field as "pony" groupings.
2. One of the noteworthy drills we keep an eye on during training camp practices are 2-on-2 pass rushing reps. The drill can often be a challenge for offensive linemen, as protection is much more than a one (or two) man job. On third-and-11 during the Patriots' opening drive, we saw a beautiful exchange from left guard Logan Mankins and left tackle Nate Solder. Each had a defender aligned over their outside eye, and each defender tried to push vertically off the snap. Both Solder and Mankins engaged their blocks, with defensive end Adrian Clayborn (aligned over Solder) trying to push Solder into Mankins. Gary Gibson (aligned over Mankins) then tried to slither outside and around Solder. Solder handed Clayborn off to Mankins, who stunted Clayborn's path, and then detached and pushed Gibson up the field and past the pocket. Great combination blocking.
3. A couple of thoughts on the Patriots' decision to go for the 2-point conversion following their opening drive score: Some have asked, "Why?" Belichick said after the game that it's as simple as a desire to work on situational football, a big emphasis for the team throughout camp. An offensive coordinator will specifically designate a handful of plays on his call sheet that are useful on 2-point attempts, and this was a chance to try one of them out. Furthermore, not to engage in too much hyperbole, but the throw from Brady to Zach Sudfeld was his best of the night. The Bucs deployed zone coverage, with Sudfeld creeping into the area between Bucs safety Mark Barron and linebacker Mason Foster. Imagine drawing a line between the designated zone for Barron and Foster, and Sudfeld had just crossed over it when he caught the football -- the window was tight, but Brady stuck it in.
4. How did Brandon Spikes get a near clear path to quarterback Josh Freeman on his opening-play sack? Well, with a little help from defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who was aligned as a "3" technique on the play (on the outside shoulder of the guard). Kelly swiveled to his right upon the snap, forcing the right guard to work to his left, clearing the "B" gap for Spikes to run through. The last layer of protection for Freeman was running back Doug Martin, but a poor play fake left Martin a step behind. Spikes subsequently ran through Martin and corralled Freeman for the sack. Good execution by both Spikes and Kelly.
5. Chandler Jones soon followed Spikes' sack with one of his own, wrapping up Freeman in a drop-back passing situation. Bucs left tackle Donald Penn is a massive body, and Jones did well to press up the field and then dig his hands underneath Penn's frame. That allowed him to walk Penn back and eventually reach around to grab hold of Freeman. In football, the low man often wins.
6. When we think of instincts in football, we often pinpoint linebackers or cornerbacks, but defensive lineman Vince Wilfork has rare instincts of his own. Late in the first quarter, Freeman took a shotgun snap and looked to set up a screen to his running back to the left side of the line. Wilfork, aligning in between the left guard and tackle, saw the two stand up straight, an indicator that a screen could be forthcoming, and he quickly worked toward the area where the screen was intended to run by. He had a chance to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage and didn't, but the ability to diagnose the play is uncanny. There are wrinkles to his game that don't deserve to be overlooked, but often are.
7. Earlier this week, Bill Belichick praised wide receiver Matthew Slater for his work as a gunner on the punt coverage team, and we saw what he was talking about Friday night. On the first punt of the second quarter, Slater, aligned as the right gunner, sprinted past his vice, eventually weaving around another player and into the open field. Zoltan Mesko struck a directional punt to the left, and Slater was the first player down the field and into the area of the returner, despite the fact that he was aligned to the side opposite the direction of the punt. He planted a firm tackle on the returner, preventing any positive yardage on the return. Slater may be the fastest player on the roster, has toughness and understands angles extremely well, all of which contribute to his special-teams proficiency.
8. As we wrote about last night, the evaluation process of Ryan Mallett extends beyond just what he does during preseason games. The Patriots see him every day in practice, in the weight room, meetings, etc. and remain encouraged by his progress. Nonetheless, the snaps in preseason are a part of the puzzle, and what stood out last night were the number of short-armed throws from Mallett. His arm strength is among his most valuable assets, yet he came up short on intermediate and underneath throws that he should be able to zip with relative ease. He needs to display a better balance of touch and power when he gets his reps in games.
9. Might have been a case of missed responsibility on a first-and-10 play for the Bucs with 6:20 to go in the first half, as running back Mike James picked up an all-too-easy 15 yards. James took a handoff and burst through a hole between his left guard and tackle, with no second level defender anywhere in sight. Defensive end Michael Buchanan got locked out by the left tackle, while linebacker Dont'a Hightower had run through the B gap, leaving the "C" gap totally vacated. It's unclear if there was supposed to be safety support or some other second-level presence, but it looked like someone may have erred in responsibility on that play.
10. Really difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong on the Bucs' lone touchdown of the first half, as receiver Kevin Ogletree broke free from two defenders and was wide open for an easy score. A trio of Patriots defensive backs was aligned to the left side of the defense, with both Logan Ryan and Marquice Cole on the inside. Cole carried Ogletree up the seam before passing him off, though Ryan did the same. It's not clear which defender was supposed to stick with Ogletree in this coverage. Often times in the red zone, with reduced space to work with, defenses will call for combination coverages where one defender will take the first in-breaking route, another will take the first out-breaking route, or other sort of unique wrinkles to account for route combinations. This blown coverage is, at the very least, a teaching point to work with.