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Patriots Take 2: Battle in Trenches Dooms Patriots vs. Packers

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For the better part of seven games, the New England Patriots' offensive line had been an impenetrable wall. Then, the Green Bay Packers brought their biggest battering ram and stormed the gates, creating some pressure on quarterback Tom Brady that resulted in dysfunction up front.

It was the opposite story on the opposite side of the ball. The Patriots' front seven hardly cast its shadow on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, much less laid a finger on him.

The first (but maybe not the last) Brady-Rodgers battle was decided more by the players protecting and rushing them than it was by their individual efforts alone.

Here's a look at what the other 21 players were doing on Sunday.

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Under Pressure:

Our weekly look at which players created and allowed pressure this past week.

Offense (36 total pass snaps):

Nate Solder: 36 pass-block snaps; 2 hurries; 1 hit; 1 sack
Dan Connolly: 36 pass-block snaps; 2 hurries; 3 hits
Bryan Stork: 36 pass-block snaps; 2 hurries; 2 hits
Ryan Wendell: 36 pass-block snaps; 1 hurry
Sebastian Vollmer: 36 pass-block snaps; 2 hurries
Shane Vereen: 7 pass-block snaps; 0 hurries
Rob Gronkowski: 5 pass-block snaps; 0 hurries
Marcus Cannon: 2 pass-block snaps; 1 hit
Michael Hoomanawanui: 2 pass-block snaps; 0 hurries
LeGarrette Blount: 2 pass-block snaps; 0 hurries

In total, Brady was pressured on 13 of his 36 dropbacks (6 hurries; 6 hits; 1 sack).

Brady was hit while throwing on two of his incomplete passes. Packers pass-rusher Clay Matthews terrorized anyone he faced, and was responsible for one of those two hits delivered while Brady was throwing.



Nate Solder had a rough time against Matthews, which is not necessarily surprising given that Solder has struggled with quicker, smaller, explosive pass-rushers in the past. Solder had played well during the Patriots' seven-game win streak, so let's not give up on him just yet.

Besides, Solder was far from the only one who struggled with Matthews. Marcus Cannon gave up the aforementioned hit, and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers moved Matthews from one spot to another to get him in favorable matchups.



Matthews (circled in red) came up the gut on an A-gap pressure, and while he wasn't the one who generated pressure, his presence created a disturbance in protection. Shane Vereen had to account for him rushing up the gut, instead of helping left guard Dan Connolly to pick up the othe rush linebacker, Sam Barrington.


Defense (43 total pass snaps):

Rob Ninkovich: 36 pass-rush attempts; 2 hurries
Chris Jones: 34 pass-rush attempts; 1 hit; 1 sack
Vince Wilfork: 32 pass-rush attempts; 0 hurries
Akeem Ayers: 31 pass-rush attempts; 2 hurries
Dont'a Hightower: 13 pass-rush attempts; 1 sack
Dominique Easley: 8 pass-rush attempts; 0 hurries
Alan Branch: 7 pass-rush attempts; 0 hurries
Jamie Collins: 6 pass-rush attempts; 1 hurry; 1 sack
Tavon Wilson: 1 pass-rush attempt; 1 hit
Jonathan Casillas: 1 pass-rush attempt; 0 hurries

In total, the Patriots only got pressure on Rodgers on nine different occasions (4 hurries; 2 hits; 3 sacks). Sometimes, this was by design; The Patriots made an effort to keep Rodgers in the pocket with gap containment.

They also rushed four or fewer defenders on 35 of Rodgers' 43 dropbacks, and rushed three or fewer on seven of those 35.


Rodgers had more than 11 seconds to throw with 9:03 left in the fourth quarter, bobbing and weaving his way through the pocket to buy more time for himself.

There were long stretches where the Patriots failed to even breathe on Rodgers. From 3:37 remaining in the first quarter to 3:56 remaining in the third quarter, the Packers ran 24 pass plays and Rodgers was pressured only three times.

One of those pressures, however, was a drive-ending sack by linebacker Dont'a Hightower.



Hightower (circled in red) came up the gut between defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Chris Jones, with linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Akeem Ayers dropping into coverage. Their initial alignment, on the line of scrimmage, gives the illusion that Ninkovich and Ayers will be rushing the passer. Instead, both men buzz underneath to take away the slants.

That forced Rodgers to hold onto the ball, and gave Hightower enough time to beat rookie center Corey Lindslay for a sack.


Poor Fundamentals Lead to Third-Down Woes

Tackling and gap discipline could be points of emphasis for the Patriots after their loss to the Packers.

They were both key issues in why the Patriots gave up conversions on 10 of 17 third-down attempts by the Packers.

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On 3rd-and-12 with 7:55 remaining in the second quarter, wide receiver Randall Cobb caught the ball six yards short of the first down. There were three Patriots defenders circling him to make a tackle, but none of them could keep him short of the sticks.

As mentioned earlier, the Patriots tried to keep Rodgers in the pocket with a strict four-man rush. This was successful at times, not so much at others.



On 3rd-and-3 with 12:36 left in the third quarter, defensive lineman Chris Jones pushed too hard inside trying to get after Rodgers. The coverage downfield was good, but Jones' miscue opened up a hole for him to scramble off the left side, picking up the first down.


Brandon LaFell Developing into Red Zone Weapon

The Patriots can thank Brandon LaFell for much of their offensive production on Sunday. The veteran receiver caught five passes for 38 yards and two of New England's three touchdowns. Both of his touchdown receptions were on plays that began inside the red zone.

LaFell mentioned in the preseason that he had hoped he could be a red zone target for the Patriots thanks to his size, but it's his route-running and chemistry with Brady that have allowed him to be effective in tight spaces.



He ran an out route for his touchdown with 1:14 remaining in the second quarter, but the way he ran it allowed him to get free on the outside. He sold the route to the inside, and when the cornerback had leverage over the middle, LaFell quickly broke his route toward the sideline, and made an easy, uncontested catch for the touchdown.



He ran a stop-and-go route with 13:55 remaining in the fourth quarter, on a play that started at the 15-yard line. He fooled the defensive back with his route, selling the stop and catching his man flat-footed. That allowed LaFell to turn on the Jets and run a fade route to the end zone, where Brady hit him with a perfect back shoulder throw. LaFell turned against his momentum to make the catch for the touchdown.

While not amazing displays of size and athleticism, both of LaFell's touchdowns against the Packers prove why he can be an asset in the red zone.