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Patriots' second-quarter review: Full-house backfield, constricting the D

Picked-up pieces from second-quarter review of the Patriots’ 51-23 win over the Bears:

1. The Patriots used a full-house backfield for the first time this season, aligning tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, fullback James Develin and running back James White behind Tom Brady to open their third drive (13:36). Brady executed a nice play-fake to White and quickly hit receiver Brandon LaFell across the middle for 17 yards. What that does is constrict the base defense, manipulate the linebackers with play-action, and allow the Patriots to exploit the outside and middle of the field in the passing game. That seemed to be a significant part of the game-plan and this highlights the growing confidence the Patriots have in LaFell, and of course, Gronkowski (3:45, 2:34, 1:11 other plays where constricting the defense with compact formations/play-action and then working down the field showed up).

2. When the Patriots play with three receivers, it’s usually complemented with a tight end and running back. But there have been times this year when fullback James Develin replaces a tight end in that grouping (utilized 12 times entering Sunday’s game), and we saw his presence make a difference on Shane Vereen’s 11-yard run (12:35). The Bears matched the 3-WR/1-FB/1-RB grouping with a nickel defense and right guard Ryan Wendell crashed down on the nose tackle to create the initial hole against the lighter box and Develin cleaned it up by blocking linebacker Christian Jones. This was an example of power football out of a passing-based personnel grouping, with Develin’s presence notable.

3. Underrated play of the game: Running back James White’s heads-up awareness to pounce on a fumble when Bryan Stork’s snap wasn’t handled by Tom Brady (10:09). White was the only Patriots player in the neighborhood to make a play on the ball, while it looked like several Bears defenders were ready to pounce. If the Bears recover there, maybe the game never makes it to a blowout.

4. There aren’t many good play-calls for third-and-18, but as Tom Brady noted earlier in the week, sometimes a quarterback’s ability to keep the play alive with his feet can be the difference-maker. That was a big part of his 21-yard hookup with tight end Rob Gronkowski (9:05). The pocket collapsed on him as the Bears rushed four, but he scrambled to his right and delivered a strike on the run. Brady was close to being over the line of scrimmage (I don’t think he was), but smartly ran up to the line of scrimmage to snap the ball on the next play so there was limited time for the Bears to challenge.

5. Bill Belichick cited cornerback Brandon Browner’s tackling as one of his strong suits and it showed up on third-and-4, when he squared up running back Matt Forte in the left flat and dropped him for a 1-yard loss. Textbook. That’s not an easy tackle against in space against an elusive player like Forte. It showed up again on third-and-18 with another tackle on Forte (1:32).

6. One of the main issues that came up in this quarter was coverage struggles for linebackers against running back Matt Forte. That’s a tough matchup, but it looked like some type of miscommunication or blown assignment on Forte’s 18-yard catch-and-run (8:03), as linebacker Jamie Collins was carrying receiver Alshon Jeffery to the middle of the field before peeling off late to account for Forte. Then Forte capped off the drive with a beautiful 25-yard touchdown catch over Collins. That was great execution by the Bears as it was a terrific route by Forte, while cornerback Darrelle Revis jumped the underneath route by Martellus Bennett to leave the entire side open for Forte.

7. Another concern: Run defense when in sub, as Forte raced for 19 yards rather easily (7:34) when defensive tackle Casey Walker and linebacker Dont’a Hightower didn’t get off blocks, and safety Patrick Chung’s took his run blitz out wide despite the run coming inside. Some of rookie end Zach Moore’s inexperience might have shown up as well, as he seemed to hesitate based on the flow of the blocking scheme in front of him. The Bears had a compact alignment and just powered through.

8. Of Tom Brady’s five incompletions, the only pass that was off the mark was the throw to the right sideline (4:38) with Julian Edelman in the area on second-and-14.

9. A lot of talk, and rightfully so, about Rob Gronkowski’s impact in the passing game. But his blocking has improved too, as evidenced by his effective kickout of cornerback Tim Jennings on Jonas Gray’s 17-yard run (4:34). Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, aligned next to Gronkowski in a YY wing, had another solid block on the play.

10. Good special teams play from running backs Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray (draws a hold) in the game.

11. On the two sacks of quarterback Jay Cutler, disguise was part of it. At 1:42, seven defenders were at the line of scrimmage and the Patriots dropped three of them out, then added cornerback Logan Ryan to the rush to augment the five-man rush with a sixth defender. A good inside rush by linebacker Jamie Collins was the key to setting up Akeem Ayers' clean-up sack. Then at 1:07, on the play Rob Ninkovich, scooped up the fumble and raced 15 yards for a score, it was an effective delayed blitz by Hightower (the fifth rusher) that forced the issue, with some ball disruption from Dominique Easley and Zach Moore.