After rewatching the second half of the Patriots' 23-21 win over the Bills on Sunday, passing along some picked-up notes and observations.
1. Playtime: 15:00, 3rd Quarter. C.J. Spiller's longest run of the game was just nine yards, a scamper that came on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. The Patriots were in their nickel personnel, with Dont'a Hightower out and Kyle Arrington in. Arrington aligned on the end of the line to the left side, with Rob Ninkovich kicked down into a "6" alignment (the inside shoulder of the tight end). Arrington ran up field on the snap, leaving Ninkovich to set the edge on the play. Bills right tackle Erik Pears was able to reach Ninkovich and control him back to the inside, giving Spiller a rushing lane and the space to find the perimeter, resulting in the near first down. The Patriots rely on their edge-setting to fortify their run defense, but Pears bested Ninkovich on this play. On the very next play, Ninkovich stopped Spiller short of a first down on a great rebound play.
2. Playtime: 11:16, 3rd Quarter. Pinpointing where the Patriots appeared to break down on EJ Manuel's touchdown throw to Steve Johnson. The Bills came with an empty set with two receivers to the defense's right. The Patriots had man coverage across the board with Devin McCourty as the single high safety, shaded to the right. Kyle Arrington had outside leverage, allowing Johnson to press inside on his stem, presumably with the belief that McCourty would provide help over the top. By the time McCourty recognized the route it was too late, as Manuel had released the football, which faded outside and beyond the radius McCourty could get to after a late break. McCourty has been very good at preventing over-the-top throws since his transition to safety, but it looks like he was a step behind on this score.
3. A prevailing theme from the game is that Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are going to be a nightmare for defenses to account for in two-man route concepts. Because of their quickness and suddenness in their route running, the Patriots can deploy them together in the middle of the field and find ways to make defenders have to react off of both. We saw it time and time again on Sunday, with one receiver's route opening space for the other's. The Patriots were able to accomplish this with Wes Welker and Edelman at times last season, but look for it plenty during this year's campaign, especially on third and manageable situations.
4. Playtime: 4:22, 3rd Quarter. As some astute followers on Twitter suggested, there seemed to be a number of low shotgun snaps from center Ryan Wendell on Sunday, an area he was exceptional in during the 2012 season. None cost the Patriots on Sunday, although there was a bobbled exchange between Wendell and Tom Brady that led to a fumble on the goal line. The Patriots looked ready to give LeGarrette Blount an off-tackle carry to try and polish off a drive on fourth and goal, but Brady appeared to retreat too fast from the snap, not grasping the football fully.
5. Playtime: 1:15, 3rd Quarter. A note that extends a bit beyond the X's and O's. The Patriots showed exceptional trust in their offensive line, as Brady took a full drop back on a play run from his own one-yard line. That's normally an area that teams are more inclined to push the line forward with a simple quarterback sneak or power running play. The Patriots ran two more passes on second and third down, both from the shotgun. They didn't get enough yardage for a first down, but the play calling spoke volumes about the offensive line.
6. Playtime: 14:20, 4th quarter. The Patriots didn't run a ton of maximum-protection passing plays on Sunday, but one that they did was particularly successful. With two backs in the backfield and two receivers in the game, the Patriots play-actioned with Blount faking a run. Blount, fullback James Develin and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui all stayed in to block on the play, with just Kenbrell Thompkins and Edelman going out for passes. Edelman ran what is known as a dig (a deep in cut), catching a throw in stride after the defense bit on Brady's play fake.
7. Playtime: 10:48, 4th quarter. Credit goes to kicker Stephen Gostkowski not just for making the game-winning kick, but also for virtually eliminating the Bills' kickoff-return game Sunday. The Bills managed just one kickoff return due to booming kickoffs from Gostkowski, and receiver T.J. Graham was unable to cleanly field the kick, leading to a delayed start. Former Bill and new Patriot Chris White flew down the field to make the tackle at the 12-yard line. Speedster Marquise Goodwin left the game for the Bills with a hand injury, but he would have been limited in his return chances anyways.
8. Playtime: 8:53, 4th quarter. We saw linebacker Dont'a Hightower take some occasional reps as an edge rusher during the preseason, something he also did at Alabama and talked about last month. He aligned on the edge as a rusher on at least one occasion Sunday, coming off the right side and attempting to work around Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn on a short third-down play. With the Patriots using Chandler Jones inside at times to make up for some depth issues, perhaps we'll see more of Hightower in this capacity. Rookie Michael Buchanan seemed to hold his own in his NFL debut, as well.
9. Playtime: 8:32, 4th quarter. The catch by Amendola on this play is what drew the attention -- and deservedly so -- but there was a pre-snap wrinkle of note as well. After seeing extensive pressure on first and second down, the Patriots brought in James Develin, who, along with running back Shane Vereen, provided split-backfield protection for Brady (each ran a delayed route after their protection duties). It was the first time we saw this look from the Patriots (Brady in the shotgun with a back to either side), but it was effective in neutralizng the pressure. Amendola's catch was just sensational.
10. Playtime: 1:20, 4th quarter. One more tip of the cap for Amendola, who made another terrific grab for a first down (he recorded nine first downs on Sunday). This was yet another route set up by his work intertwined with Edelman's, and he kept his poise after the ball was tipped mid-flight. It was one of the final plays during a drive that was beautifully managed from a game block standpoint by the Patriots.