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Patriots Take 2: How can the offense cure self-inflicted wounds?

Posted by Erik Frenz  September 10, 2013 07:30 AM

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The New England Patriots escaped Buffalo with a win over the Bills.

It didn't look good, but it was good enough.

It would be easy to focus on the negative after such a close win over a team the Patriots have dominated recently, but the margin of victory doesn't matter in the win-loss columns, and such a narrow triumph can often build character for a team.

Let's take a look at what went right and what went wrong in our weekly film review.

1. Exotic pressure packages lead to tough start

The Patriots weren't blindsided by the Bills exotic use of blitzes and sending rushers from different directions. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knew it was coming.

"I would imagine that whatever the Jets did, Buffalo is certainly capable of doing from a scheme standpoint, whether they’ve shown it or not," Belichick said on Sept. 3. "We have to be aware of some of those things. Again, I think that’s part of the whole unknown of opening day."

Talk about "unknown," the Patriots looked like they didn't know who was rushing and who was dropping into coverage for periods of time on Sunday.

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The Patriots had started to move the ball in the second quarter when the Bills would mix it up with interesting rushes on back-to-back plays. The Bills rushed four defenders on 2nd-and-9, but defensive tackle Marcell Dareus started rush and then dropped into coverage on the play.

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As a result, he found himself in the right place at the right time to knock down a Brady pass intended for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.

Brady didn't see the 6'3", 319-pound Dareus in coverage because the defender did a good job of faking the rush.

blitz 1.png

On the next play, the Bills rushed five defenders, but once again dropped a defensive linemen into coverage — this time, Mario Williams.

The Patriots offensive line missed safety Da'Norris Searcy creeping up to the line of scrimmage and allowed him to come free. He split the B-gap between right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and right guard Dan Connolly.

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Tight end Zach Sudfeld and running back Shane Vereen were both lined up on the strong side of the formation, so perhaps the offensive line thought one of those two players would stay at home to chip the blitzing defensive back.

No matter who was to blame, the Patriots offense got off to a slow start in part because Brady was under constant pressure from the Bills defense.

2. Vintage Tom Brady in the fourth quarter

It's important to be able to execute a two-minute offense, but a four-minute offense is a different animal. You want to score, but not too quickly to give the other team a chance to tie or win the game.

So, when the Patriots got the ball with 4:31 left in the game and kicked the game-winning field goal with 0:05 remaining, you could call that nearly flawless execution of the four-minute offense.

Brady dropped back to throw seven times, completing all of his attempts, and was pressured just once — on the most important pitch-and-catch of the game.

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The Bills didn't try to get cute with their pressure, but defensive end Alex Carrington got within arms reach. Still, Brady fired a strike down the seam for 10 yards to Danny Amendola on 3rd-and-9. With the pass delivered on-target despite the pressure, Amendola returned the favor with a dazzling reception.

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With a defender draped all over him, he secured the catch and took it with him all the way to the ground, capping off the beginning of the Amendola era in New England with his seventh third-down conversion on the day.

3. Shane Vereen the Patriots X receiver?

The Patriots have gone to great lengths in their search for an X receiver to line up on the outside and win one-on-one matchups while threatening an opponent on vertical routes. A 5'10", 205-pound running back is probably not what most people had in mind.

Yet, we saw Vereen line up as an X receiver on several occasions on Sunday. He finished the game with seven catches for 58 yards, but there were opportunities left on the field.

vereen x 1.png

On 1st-and-10 in the second quarter, Brady had Vereen open down the sideline when the running back ran a curl-and-go route in which he stopped five yards into his route, giving the illusion of a curl route, before breaking behind the defensive back.

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Brady's overshot his receiver by a good five yards, or else this pass could have gone for big yards.

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The Patriots were backed up inside their own end zone on another play, where Vereen ran a slant route through the middle of the Bills defense.

Once again, Vereen got open, and once again, Brady targeted the running back.

vereen x 4.png

This time, the pass was too far behind Vereen, who couldn't reach for the ball in time. If Brady put the pass a bit more on the inside, Vereen might still be running.

This is another instance of a lack of chemistry between the quarterback and the new weapons — although Vereen isn't a new weapon, his presence in the role as wide receiver is relatively new. With time, these kinks should work themselves out.

4. Where was the pass rush?

It seems like we've been asking this question for years, yet the Patriots' pass-rush rarely seems to improve. Sunday was another frustrating example of a quarterback having all day to throw in the pocket.

There were multiple reasons for the lack of pressure.

For one, any time you are facing a mobile quarterback that can run like E.J. Manuel, there's a hesitancy to go full-bore with an up-field rush. Instead, the emphasis is on gap discipline and pocket containment. Pressure is great when it forces the issue, but not when it opens lanes for a running quarterback to exploit.

manuel scramble.png

That's exactly what happened on Manuel's one long run of the day, a 19-yard scamper on 2nd-and-6 in the third quarter. Defensive end Chandler Jones and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly both got in the area of Manuel, and Rob Ninkovich appeared to be the designated "spy" responsible for chasing Manuel if he broke the pocket.

Ninkovich got caught charging too hard to his right, and Manuel cut back across the offense to elude Ninkovich and get into the open field.

The Patriots learned the hard way about one of the drawbacks of man coverage. With their backs turned and/or their attention devoted fully to their assignment, the defense is vulnerable to being caught off-guard by scrambles when a quarterback can run like Manuel.

Beyond that, Manuel was simply getting the ball out of his hands too quickly for the Patriots defense to get pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, Manuel got the ball out of his hands in less than 2.5 seconds on 14 of his 30 drop-backs. A quick-hitting, timing offense like the West Coast offense run by the Bills will always cause problems for a defense trying to get pressure.

So, too, will an offensive line like the Bills' that rarely gives up pressure on its quarterback (former Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was pressured on just 26.7 percent of his drop-backs in 2012).

5. Kyle Arrington helped the Patriots stay in the game

The Patriots offense made one mistake after another. Cornerback Kyle Arrington countered that by forcing one mistake after another on the Bills offense.

arrington FF 1.png

His first came on the Bills' second offensive play of the game, a handoff to dynamic running back C.J. Spiller.

As you can see in the left frame, Spiller doesn't have two hands on the ball, and hasn't tucked it away in such a way that it would be difficult to knock out.

Arrington reached in, but then added the impact from his left hand on the back side, knocking the ball forward.

arrington FF 2.jpg

This is no ordinary back; Spiller averaged six yards per carry in 2012, the second-highest for any back behind the best running back in the game, Adrian Peterson of the Vikings. So, needless to say, the Bills were hoping for big things out of him by making him the focal point of the offense.

"We're going to give him the ball until he throws up," Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said on WGR 550 Sports Radio in August.

The Bills coaching staff might have thrown up a little in their mouth at that early gaffe, which set the tone for Spiller's day (17 carries, 41 yards; five catches, 14 yards).

But Arrington wasn't done.

arrinton FF 2.png

If the first fumble was forced by Arrington capitalizing on an error by Spiller, the second was him simply fighting tooth-and-nail with Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin.

Arrington continued to rip and pull at the ball even as he fell to the ground, and eventually pried it loose.

The Patriots forced 42 fumbles in 2012, and recovered 21 of them, ranking tops in the league in both categories. They picked up right where they left off thanks to Arrington.

6. Is Stevan Ridley's "fumble problem" here to stay?

Every fumble is different, but when a running back has fumbled eight times on 434 career handles of the football, it's become a problem.

The problem showed up in training camp, with Ridley fumbling several times over the course of the three weeks of practices open to the public. The problem has now carried over into the regular season, with Ridley fumbling the ball once and nearly another time had he not been ruled down by contact.

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The fumble that counted, however, was inexcusable.

Ridley went down untouched, and barely had one hand on the ball when he hit the ground.

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He then tried to pick the ball back up, but was knocked from behind by linebacker Kiko Alonso.

At least a few of Ridley's previous career fumbles were nearly unavoidable.

He fumbled on his 28th carry of the day against the Denver Broncos in Week 5 of the 2012 season. 49ers safety Donte Whitner planted a helmet square on a rain-soaked ball to knock it loose in a 2012 regular season game between the two teams. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard planted a helmet square on Ridley's helmet (or maybe it was vice versa) that knocked Ridley out cold.

On Monday, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels repeated a sentiment that's heard quite often at Gillette Stadium.

"Ultimately, we will try to play the best guys that give us the best chances to win," McDaniels said.

With Shane Vereen laid up for a few weeks with a wrist injury (according to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports), the Patriots need to decide whether shelving Ridley is a means to an end, or if it's a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

7. What the Patriots might miss with Vereen out

Ridley's benching may have sent a message to Ridley for his fumble, but it also sent a message to Vereen. Consider that message received.

vereen 2 hands 2.png

vereen 2 hands.png

The above two plays, for example, show Vereen covering the ball with two hands as a defender would draw close.

Now, what do the Patriots do if they put Ridley back out there and he continues to fumble?

The Patriots also have LeGarrette Blount they could turn to, but he fumbled nine times in a two-year span to start his career. Leon Washington hasn't had more than three fumbles in each of the past five years, but he hasn't had as many opportunities as of late (357 combined rushes, receptions, kickoff returns and punt returns since 2010). Brandon Bolden doesn't have a fumble in his NFL career, but fumbled eight times on 562 touches at Ole Miss.

Bolden was one of only three other running backs active for the Patriots on Sunday, and with Vereen injured and Ridley coming down with fumblitis, we will probably see them add a player or two to their line-up in the backfield for Thursday.

8. Shotgun snaps

It seemed like the shotgun snaps from center Ryan Wendell were coming in low on a consistent basis on Sunday, and film review held true to the original impression. On final count, 21 of a possible 45 shotgun snaps came in low, with Brady reaching down to corral the snap before either dropping back to throw or handing it off to a running back.

Two of the snaps came in low and wide, with Brady reaching down and to his side to pick up the ball.

low snaps.png

Then, there were these two low snaps, with the Patriots backed up in their own end zone. If Brady had been unable to pull one of these two snaps in, the Patriots would have given up a safety. In a two-point game, that could have been the one last swing the Bills needed in their favor.

9. Julian Edelman's prior chemistry pays off

The Patriots offense got off to a slow start, but Julian Edelman didn't.

Only three passes in Edelman's direction fell incomplete. Two were drops — one of the routine variety, the other of the circus-catch-in-the-end-zone variety — and one was a pass that was well over everyone's head and went out of the back of the end zone.

On a day where the Patriots offense was out of sync, not one of Tom Brady's catchable passes in Edelman's direction fell incomplete without at least hitting Edelman in the hands.

That's not intended as a back-handed compliment, quite the contrary, it's a ringing endorsement of the chemistry Brady and Edelman already possess. Drops will clean themselves up, and Edelman has not been guilty of drops too frequently in his career (eight on 126 targets).

If young pass-catchers like Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Zach Sudfeld continue to struggle, the veteran Edelman could continue to thrive.

10. Danny Amendola appreciation day

This is another topic I already hit earlier, but can we just take a moment to appreciate another brilliant third-down catch by the Patriots new receiver?

amendola crazy catch.png

How about one more?

amendola crazy catch 2.png

I could do this all day, but Ice Cube and Chris Tucker may have put it best in "Friday".

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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