After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' Week 11 win over the Colts, passing along some picked-up notes and observations.
1. Patriots rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard became the second defensive back to score on Sunday when he took Andrew Luck's first throw of the fourth quarter all the way back for a touchdown, and although it looked as though Luck and receiver Reggie Wayne had a miscommunication on the play, credit Dennard for seizing an opportunity. We saw Dennard swivel his hips and open up on the play when he sensed the throw, and he also showed just enough speed to outlast the Colts who were in pursuit of him as he returned the interception. That's three interceptions in his last four games for Dennard, who has come on strong since returning from an injury that slowed the start of his NFL career.
2. Just like there are two ways to view the performance of the secondary on Sunday (three interceptions forced, two of which were returned for touchdowns, balanced out by 334 yards allowed), the same can be said for the offensive line. Bill Belichick suggested as much after the game, saying that the group was probably better in pass protection than it was generating running lanes. And while Tom Brady was not sacked, left tackle Nate Solder endured some fits throughout the day. He was twice called for a holding penalty (one of which was declined), and struggled at times with the spin move of Dwight Freeney.
3. After the game, Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich drew a comparison between Luck and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It's possible that he had a 3rd & 12 play with just over 10 minutes to go in the third quarter in mind, as on that play Ninkovich seemed to have Luck firmly in his grasp for a near sack, but Luck managed to drag the defensive end and still make an accurate throw to T.Y. Hilton for the first down. That play was an impressive feat of strength and elusiveness. It wasn't Luck's best day at the office, but it also wasn't difficult to see why the Colts are so high on him and his promise for the future. He has all the makings of a long-time franchise quarterback.
4. Ninkovich eventually made Luck pay with a rush, as he forced his fifth fumble of the season on a third-quarter strip sack. Ninkovich was able to do so by initiating his pressure by bull-rushing Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo before eventually turning the corner and sliding past the six-foot-seven tackle. Ninkovich was working on the right side of the defense after Chandler Jones left the game with an ankle injury, and his back-and-forth with Castonzo was the typical chess match between an end and a tackle throughout a game. Ninkovich's sack was a long time coming, after the two had jousted for many plays prior to it. Credit the secondary on this play for forcing Luck to hold on to the football for longer than he wanted to.
5. Defensive end Trevor Scott had his best day as a Patriot from this estimation, and also saw increased playing time due to the Jones injury. Where Scott seemed to do a very nice job was in squeezing plays down from the end of the line. When Scott sniffed an inside running play, as he did with roughly two minutes left in the third quarter on a 2nd & 10, he pursued down the line of scrimmage, keeping his leverage on the outside while also helping to make the play. If Jones is unable to play on Thursday, look for Scott to remain in a third defensive end role.
6. Early in the fourth quarter, Hilton ran past Aqib Talib for his second touchdown of the afternoon, using a double move to deceive the new Patriots cornerback. On the play, Talib lost his eye discipline as Hilton throttled down in his route before eventually taking off down the field. When Hilton throttled, Talib let his eyes drift back toward the quarterback in order to look for the football, rather than keeping his attention on the receiver, who continued in his route. Talib was unable to recover in time to prevent the catch or score.
7. A lot went right on Julian Edelman's 47-yard reverse in the fourth quarter, which was the Patriots' longest run of the 2012 season to date. On the play, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was used in short motion and simulated a wham block over the center. That, along with the play fake to running back Stevan Ridley, caused a couple of Colts on the left side of their defense to pinch down and attempt to make a play on an inside run. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer sealed down on the strong side, and wide receiver Wes Welker opened the gate for Edelman to run through with a great block on the perimeter. Edelman gained his own yards down the field with strong running, and this play was a prime example of a complementary effort that involved all facets -- blocking, play fakes, and running -- to make it effective.
8. Perhaps it was a surprise to see running back Danny Woodhead play just 11 offensive snaps on Sunday, as he's been hot of late and very productive for the Patriots in recent games. We don’t read too much into the tactic, and note that the Patriots were a little bit more deliberate in their offensive tempo throughout the afternoon. Additionally, running back Shane Vereen impressed again in his 19 snaps. Vereen seems to be developing more comfort by the week, and has flashed a strong ability to find space and make tacklers miss.
9. Rather than focusing on whether Rob Gronkowski should have been in on the extra point in which he broke his forearm, we took a look at the play to see if anything stood out. Frankly, as Gronkowski walked off the field, there wasn't much to suggest a significant injury had occurred. Gronkowski did not grab his left arm or suggest any sort of obvious pain as he left the field.
10. Just a couple of general thoughts on the second half: the Patriots showed again that they are as equipped as any team in the NFL to make the requisite half-time adjustments and benefit because of them. Where I thought the Patriots improved most was in their run defense and in keeping Andrew Luck confined to the pocket. That limited the Colts' ability to effectively run play action and Luck's ability to extend plays and hurt the Patriots down the field. On offense, the Patriots showed they don't need to pose a heavy vertical threat on every play to be effective, and overwhelmed the Colts by chipping away on the ground and getting big runs after the catch.