<
>

Hidden yardage adds up quickly in Patriots' favor

Bill Belichick and the Patriots finished plus-53 in "hidden yardage" on Sunday night. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Cleaning out the New England Patriots notebook from film review of the team's 23-21 season-opening win over the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium:

1. After some struggles in the preseason, this was a dominating performance by Patriots special teams units that contributed to winning the field-position battle. Bill Belichick talked about how critical the kickoff coverage unit was in pinning the Cardinals deep in their own territory on their final drive, with undrafted rookie Jonathan Jones drawing a holding penalty. Between kickoff coverage, punt coverage and the punt return game, I computed the Patriots to be plus-53 in "hidden yardage." Of that total, 31 yards came on two plays on kickoff coverage in which Stephen Gostkowski got things started with kicks that landed at the goal line and had to be returned, with the Cardinals starting those drives on their 11 and 8 yards lines. Compare that with a touchback at the 25-yard line and that's 31 "hidden yards" right there.

2. "Alert! Alert!" is what quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo called out as he touched his helmet at the line of scrimmage prior to connecting with receiver Chris Hogan on a 37-yard touchdown to cap off the opening drive. That looked like a good example of how Garoppolo made a pre-snap read, with the Patriots having "22 personnel" (2 backs, 2 tight ends) on the field in a run-based power look, and Garoppolo isolating the one-on-one man-to-man matchup to the wide left with Hogan on rookie cornerback Brandon Williams. That's manipulating the matchups.

3. Random note on Garoppolo: His passes to the sideline sailed at times, taking longer than desired to get there. He put receiver Julian Edelman in harm's way early in the third quarter, and that will likely be something he works on for improvement.

4. The excellence of cornerbacks is often associated with their coverage, but a complete corner has to be a willing and fundamentally sound tackler. Along those lines, I thought the missed tackle by Arizona perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson on LeGarrette Blount's 13-yard run on third-and-11 on the Patriots' go-ahead drive was a big play of the game. Something I'll remember come the end of the year when the discussion turns to the NFL's best players at their positions. When Blount picks up a head of steam in the open field, that's not an inviting situation for a defensive back.

5. Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan's tackling, on the other hand, stood out. His tackle of Larry Fitzgerald to end the opening drive was textbook, and a much harder-than-it-looked play with Fitzgerald catching the ball in stride and running away from him. Ryan's run force on the prior play, which helped drop David Johnson for a 2-yard loss, also caught my eye. There is appreciation for corners that are fearless in that area of the game at this address and Ryan has grown into a solid all-around player at the position.

6. Let's keep an eye on veteran defensive end Chris Long's health, as that has been the key to him regaining some of his old explosion after two years of declining production in 2014 and 2015. Long got banged up on the final play of the first half, but played through it in the second half and drew a key holding penalty on backup guard Earl Watford on the Cardinals' final drive. Also, Long's speed to power rush on his second-quarter sack, coupled with active hand usage to finish, was reflective of how he's still a disruptive presence at this stage of his career.

7. I'm also curious if some of second-year tight end AJ Derby's struggles -- a false start and then what appeared to be a pass-protection miscommunication while working alongside left tackle Cameron Fleming two plays later -- potentially affects his usage Sunday against Miami.

8. Belichick pointed to how the defense swarmed on a screen pass to running back Andre Ellington on the Cardinals' final drive (loss of 4 yards) as an example of the team's solid conditioning. Belichick seemed pleased with the team's conditioning overall.

9. On sports radio WEEI, Belichick also acknowledged that the Patriots could have double-teamed receiver Larry Fitzgerald more than they did. On a related note, he detailed how one thing the coaches wanted to make sure they avoided was having a linebacker in coverage on Johnson, which they felt worked out. Belichick also liked the team's field-goal rush on the Cardinals' final attempt, saying he thought safety Patrick Chung might have had a good chance to block it if the kick was straight.

10. Random note on Martellus Bennett: His effort as a run-blocker and pass-blocker was notable. However, he might have got away with a trip on Blount's impressive 8-yard power touchdown run.

11. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' play-calling was on point. Using Edelman on the jet sweep a couple of times was one example of how he kept the Cardinals' defense off balance. He seemed a step ahead for most of the night.