Six observations from the Patriots' 31-14 win over the Buccaneers on Thursday night:
1. Introducing the "pressure" Patriots. The Patriots started the game dialing up pressure calls and never looked back. They sent everything but the kitchen sink. Coach Bill Belichick sent the "Mike" linebacker (middle linebacker), the "Will" linebacker (weakside), the "Sam" linebacker (strongside), and even the corners got in on the action. These pressures were called with mostly man coverage concepts behind them.
When you do this, you find out a few things about your personnel during the game. First, who can get to the passer when his number is called? Second, who can cover man-to-man when there might be just a single high safety or maybe no safety at all?
There is also a read-blitzing element to it.
Read-blitzing is when you have linebackers who have coverage responsibilities on either a tight end or running back. They read the pass-protection responsibilities and the free man enters the rush. So when you look at it as it's happening, it can look like a max blitz at times. But it's really man coverage with linebackers reading coverage responsibilities. That's commonly referred to as a "book" technique.
Another aspect that stood out was the presence of Andre Carter at defensive end. The Patriots didn't need to call for pressure because of the huge game he had. It was an important showing for him, proving that he can set the edge in the running game and give an offensive tackle fits with a one-on-one rush. He did all that, forcing holding penalties against left tackle Donald Penn, at one point spinning him like a top in pass protection; Carter turned Penn around, and Penn tried to block with his behind. This is important for the entire defense. A presence like that will only make the interior defensive linemen better -- Albert Haynesworth, Vince Wilfork, Mike Wright, Gerard Warren, Myron Pryor and Co. If there is no presence at the defensive end spot, offensive lines will be able to pinch down and use protection schemes that can neutralize the interior linemen. With that type of production from Andre Carter at defensive end, this defense could be very successful.
Based on what we've seen in the first two preseason games, the old 3-4 days seem to be less of a priority. The best example was when Warren used a quick swim move for a tackle, with Pryor spinning and getting in on the tackle on the same play. That's not something you'd see in the base 3-4 system. When you think of the base 3-4, the idea would be to get your hands in the middle of the blocker, stand your guy up, make the read, shed and make the tackle. Now the Patriots are coming off the ball, doing anything to disregard blockers, and it was never more evident than on that play. While it's different, you're also seeing how the players are embracing it, finding their own way of interpreting what the coaches are looking for when it comes to getting in the backfield.
2. Early growing pains for Ochocinco. When you see QB Tom Brady connecting with WR Wes Welker on an option route in the middle of the field, it looks fluid. When you see rhythm throws to TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, it's the same thing. Brady's relationship with WR Deion Branch is easy to see, as is the chemistry he has with RB Kevin Faulk when Brady throws to Faulk out of the backfield. You achieve that only through countless hours of practice, reps and game situations.
Now consider what we saw Thursday night with Ochocinco. It looked forced.
The in-route that Ochocinco got blown up on looked like a play on which it was an effort to get him the ball. Not often do you see Brady hanging wide receivers out to dry. Those plays are usually run and completed in less time than it took for that connection to be made. That's why LB Mason Foster was able to almost decapitate Ochocinco.
I know Ochocinco had a touchdown reception. That pop pass is something the Patriots have run since the early 2000s, and against a Tampa defense that had atrocious coverage on the play, my 10-year-old son could have run that route and caught that pass against that coverage.
Ochocinco is an easy person to read when you watch him on TV. He's one of the easiest players in the NFL to read because he wears his emotion on his face; you can tell how badly he wants to get the chemistry going as he's constantly in Brady's ear and the other receivers' ears. It's a credit to him and the work he's put in.
These things just take time. As awkward as it looks now, he will get there eventually.
More game reps will benefit him. The Patriots have two capable backup QBs in Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, and it would benefit Ochocinco to play deeper into these games. It could help him get in this offense quicker.
3. Keeping an eye on Fletcher's momentum. There wasn't too much to be discouraged about defensively, but for me, the disappearance of LB Dane Fletcher was notable because he's had a great camp. He has shown that if you call his number, he can get to the quarterback. We saw it last week against the Jaguars, and I thought he made a great play on the second snap of the game against the Buccaneers, slipping a block and making a tackle.
He left with a thumb injury and didn't play another defensive snap after that play. Hopefully that won't hinder him the rest of the year, as he's made a strong push to be in the linebacker rotation.
4. No longer a big philosophical shift between base and sub. Watching a game like that, you could see everything going according to plan for the Patriots. The idea is that the 4-3 defense creates negative plays early that result in a couple of three-and-outs, and the offense puts together a couple of early scoring drives; then the opposing team feels it has to play catch up and pass the ball to score points.
With the resounding victory, and how everything was working in the first half, you can see the logic behind the defensive shift.
One of the things that stands out to me with the new 4-3 defense is that you don't have such a big philosophical shift between your base defense and subpackages, where you're trying to generate pressure with a four-man front. When the 3-4 was the Patriots' base defense, it's a two-gapping scheme that didn't produce many negative plays. When offenses brought out regular personnel, as a defender in the 3-4 you're thinking, "I have to be stout, physical and two-gap." Then, when the offense brings out more receivers, you're shifting to more of a penetrating player.
Now, with a shift to a 4-3, it's the same mentality for the players in the front seven regardless of whether you're in the base or subpackages. You don't have two different concepts to worry about during the game.
5. Buccaneers don't show up. I was extremely disappointed in the Buccaneers. Coming off a 10-6 season, we've heard a lot about their young talent -- QB Josh Freeman, RB LeGarrette Blount, DT Gerald McCoy, DE Adrian Clayborn, LB Mason Foster -- and how the offensive line is supposed to be a strength of their team. This is supposedly a team on the rise, and I would have thought the Bucs would look at this game as a huge early test for them. It was a chance to play against one of the best teams in the NFL.
Instead of rising to the occasion, they looked like a JV high school team. It was like the Patriots were moving up and down the field against air. The Buccaneers were missing tackles and blowing coverage assignments, and it looked like they didn't want to play. This is a team with something to prove, especially playing in a division with the Falcons and Saints, and what I saw didn't look anything like a playoff team at this point. It felt like they should've been wearing those old Creamsicle uniforms.
6. Kickoff impact and right guard. Last week, we talked about Bill Belichick consistently finding coachable moments from a game to make his team better. Two that stand out from this game were how the new kickoff rules affect younger players trying to make the roster, and a hiccup at the right guard position along the offensive line.
There were nine total kickoffs in the game, all nine carrying into the end zone, and seven resulted in touchbacks.
This highlights the NFL's new rule of moving the kickoff up to the 35, and how it takes away one of the most exciting plays of the game. It is also hurting young players because it's preventing them from getting a full-speed rep against NFL competition.
The lack of those plays is making it harder for young players to make a team. They are running down the field in hopes of making a play and showing what they can do, but really all they're doing is getting exercise.
This is an example of players losing out, and coaches also losing out on a chance to evaluate young players. There are fewer coachable moments on the play.
Another thing that stood out to me was that Brady absorbed a few hits in the second quarter. Specifically, it was the matchup of Bucs DT Gerald McCoy against RG Dan Connolly that proved problematic. McCoy clubbed Connolly to the right, had a direct path to Brady and got a good shot on the QB. Connolly has been solid, but he has to expect a team's best interior rusher to be aligned over him.
Looking ahead to the quality of interior defensive linemen the Pats will face, starting this week with the Lions and Ndamukong Suh, I think that's an area to highlight. I could see the Lions' coaching staff thinking that right guard would be the best area to target. From a defensive standpoint, the idea is to generate pressure from the middle of the pocket and get Brady off his spot.