New England went from scoring just six points against a Bengals team that wasn't playing very well, to dropping 30 on a Saints team that actually was.
How'd they do it?
Here's what stood out after a closer inspection of the game film:
1st Quarter – Offense
…Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui had one of his best games as a Patriot, starting with the first pass he caught on the second play of the game. His 16-yard gain was aided by the fact that New Orleans failed to put a defender on him at the line of scrimmage. Tom Brady recognized this mistake, of course, and immediately lobbed an easy pass to Hooman.
…Several times on the opening sequence, New England tried running with LeGarrette Blount to the right side by pulling left guard Logan Mankins. The tactic wasn't very effective, however. Blount had a net gain of just 3 yards on three carries in those situations.
…Can't really blame the offensive line for the first sack of the game against Brady. The QB held onto the ball too long because the Saints secondary did a nice job of covering every Patriots receiver. The pocket just eventually collapsed in on Brady, who couldn't elude the rush.
…Credit New Orleans with doing an excellent job of defending New England's second possession. It looked like running back Brandon Bolden had favorable numbers of blockers in front of him on a screen pass that started the drive, but he nearly dropped the ball, which gave Saints defenders just enough time to scurry over and drop him before he could make too much of the play. But the next play – a pass to Amendola – was tightly covered and Bolden's up-the-middle run was stuffed just short of the sticks.
](http://www.pjtra.com/t/R0BKSkdIREBKSElGRUBISEtERw) …The Mankins-pulling-right plow worked much better on the third drive, when Stevan Ridley took over as the ball carrier. Mankins and Hooman teamed to seal off a wall on the right so Ridley could squeeze between them and center Ryan Wendell for an 18-yard pickup.
…After a really poor drop on the first play of the game, rookie WR Aaron Dobson bounced back with three good grabs, including an impressive 19-yarder that he had to jump and extend his arms for on the final play of the quarter. Dobson had a Saints defender on his back, but still was able to make the catch. Plays like this show that he can be a solid receiver in this league, but he needs to work hard on correcting the mental errors that lead to so many frustrating drops.
…On the second possession, Marcus Cannon entered the game in place of Dan Connolly at right guard. Connolly was announced as having suffered a "head" injury (typically that means a concussion). Looking back at all the plays on the first series, he did appear slow and lost at times on that first drive, but there wasn't any one play that looked like an obvious one to cause such an injury to Connolly.
2nd Quarter – Offense
…James Develin continues his streak of delivering at least one significant block per game this season. The fullback was instrumental in helping Ridley get into the end zone at the beginning of the second quarter. It's been a pleasant development for the Patriots that he's been able to fulfill his role so well. On this particular play, Develin, in an I-formation, ran to the left side of the line to help Mankins prevent the New Orleans front from penetrating. The avenue they created gave Ridley just enough space to lower his head and power over the goal line. Great job.
…Blount may be powerful, and Bolden quick, but Ridley's combination of both make all the difference in the Patriots rushing attack. His burst and decisive cuts jumped out on tape in the second quarter – even more impressive considering he was coming off a knee injury that prevented him from practicing and playing during Bengals Week just one week ago. Ridley later used the stiff-arm to perfection to shed a Saints defender and gain extra yards. So long as he's able to minimize his fumbling issues, Ridley is clearly the best all-around back New England has.
](http://www.pjtra.com/t/R0BKSkdIREBKSElGRUBISEtERw) …On the second possession of the quarter, Hooman's alertness, coupled with New Orleans insistence on not covering him, contributed to a couple more big gains in the passing game. Sent in to help pass protect, Hooman noticed that Brady was holding onto the ball too long and released from his assignment into the flat. Brady saw him uncovered and dumped the ball off for a 19-yard catch-and-run. Six plays later, Hooman faked like he was pass protecting at the snap, allowed a Saints defender to rush by him, and received what looked like a designed pass from Brady. The Saints again had no one there and the play picked up 18. With Rob Gronkowski's continued absence and the nascent growth of the young receivers, the Patriots could certainly use more plays in the passing game from the tight end position. Hooman is proving more and more capable in this department.
…Hooman and Develin teamed up to seal off the Saints on the left side of the formation to allow Ridley to sneak into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day.
…Bolden had a nice 13-yard gain on a Mankins-pulling-right play. The entire o-line did an excellent job with their individual blocking assignments to make this play work.
…Cannon really struggled in place of Connolly. He was overpowered and pushed backwards and to the ground trying to pass protect on one play and beaten on a couple others that resulted in losses of yardage or minimal-to-no gain carries. A misread by him also led to an earlier Brady sack.
…The Saints executed a textbook stunt (sending a d-lineman in a loop around the o-line) to get yet another sack of Brady late in the half on 3rd-and-10 to force a punt. New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan made some good calls in this first half, anticipating some Patriots tendencies.
…The Patriots failed to account for safety Malcom Jenkins a couple of times in the first half, one of which was an unmolested take-down of Brady at the end of the 2nd quarter. It was a simple blitz, with Jenkins showing like he was in pass coverage at the line of scrimmage.
1st and 2nd Quarter – Defense
…One of the biggest questions all week was, "How are the Patriots going to defend Jimmy Graham?" One solution was to single-cover the Saints' superstar tight end with cornerback Aqib Talib, and that's what defensive coordinator Matt Patricia elected to do from the first play. Talib immediately broke up a pass to Graham on the second play of the game and was fortunate not to get called for a taunting penalty.
…New Orleans was much more efficient on their second possession, thanks in part to some missed tackles and soft coverage by New England. Drew Brees and the Saints offense completed five of their first eight passes in the quarter, the last one being a short touchdown toss to rookie running back Khiry Robinson. New England was simply out of place and on their heels throughout that drive, allowing Saints receivers to get open in pockets all over the field.
…Rookie d-tackle Joe Vellano read a screen pass intended for running back Darren Sproles on the first play of the 2nd quarter, resulting essentially in a throw-away by Brees. Vellano fought threw his o-line opponent at the snap and lunged into the backfield at Sproles. Even if Brees was on target with the throw, Vellano would've been there to stuff Sproles for a loss. So, Brees did the wise thing and intentionally threw it wide of Sproles.
…The Patriots were stout in pass coverage on the third series, a three-an-out that came when Talib again stripped Graham of a pass that would've been good for a 1st down. Just excellent technique, positioning, and awareness by Talib.
…Talib got physical with Graham on the next series to disrupt his pass route. This forced Brees to throw well behind Graham to avoid a potential interception.
…Vellano's fellow rookie d-tackle, Chris Jones, made an athletic, diving tackle at the legs of Sproles in the open field to stop him short of a 1st down. Jones read the play, left his blocker, and came across to his right to hit Sproles. Good instinctive play by the rookie.
…Brees underthrew his first two passes of the final drive of the half and was lucky not to have had them picked off, so tight was New England's secondary in coverage.
…That coverage broke down a couple of plays later, when Sproles was left all alone down the left sideline. Brees would've hit him in stride for a likely touchdown had it not been for left defensive end Rob Ninkovich. He came barreling into Brees at the last moment to disrupt the throw just enough for it to be overthrown. He simply bull-rushed the right tackle and willed his way into Brees. Solid effort by the veteran Ninko.
…Sproles got open on that play by running a textbook out-and-up pattern against linebacker Jerod Mayo. The latter was no match for the fleet-footed back. Luckily, Ninkovich was too strong for the right tackle, too, or Mayo would've been badly burned.
…New Orleans tried to go for it on 4th and less than a yard, but were flagged for a false start that forced them to punt. The game film clearly shows, though, that the call should have gone against New England. Vellano had clearly entered the neutral zone prematurely, which caused the right guard Jahri Evans to react. Patriots got away with one there.
3rd and 4th Quarters –Defense
…Starting the 2nd half, New England was allowing the Saints to complete underneath passes, all the way into the Patriots' red zone. But the defense, and Brees, began to tighten up at that point. Brees was uncharacteristically off the mark with two poorly thrown passes to open receivers, the second of which would surely have been a touchdown. Instead, New Orleans settled for a field goal.
…On that opening drive of the half, Talib injured the hip that's given him trouble over his career. He was running to the left to keep up with Graham when he just pulled up lame. Talib seemed to know right away what was wrong and headed straight for the medical staff on the sideline. He came back a few plays later, but eventually left the game for good.
…With Talib out, the Saints couldn't take advantage of Graham against the even smaller Kyle Arrington, who provided good coverage, but they did find some running lanes up the middle, where the o-line was able to push around Jones and Vellano.
…Robinson's second touchdown was on the ground, and he has his fullback, Jed Collins, to thank. Collins came in motion from the right and blocked down on the incoming Arrington from the left of the offensive formation. It looked like Arrington would have had a good angle to get into the backfield and stop Robinson short, or at least slow him up, but Collins' block sealed off the edge and Robinson took it.
…In the fourth, Patricia mixed up the coverage of Graham, using Devin McCourty and Jerod Mayo in a zone look, as well as Arrington 1-on-1. Both worked, as Graham didn't catch a single pass all game.
…Chandler Jones used a nice swim move against the left tackle to get a sack of Brees at the start of the 4th.
…The very next play, Brees was under a bit of pressure, but that was no excuse for yet another poorly thrown ball. Intended for a limping Graham (left ankle, it seemed), it sailed over his head and into the hands of Arrington, who'd shadowed the huge tight end from the left side of the field all the way across to the right and was just in the right spot – as he often is – to make the pick.
…New England called on a couple of other rookies, safety Duron Harmon and corner Logan Ryan, in the latter stages, when Talib was out. Harmon spelled McCourty.
…Against the Saints, there wasn't much of the three-defensive-end look we've come to enjoy from New England this season. The Patriots were content to stick mostly with traditional base looks or nickel most of the time.
…I'm a bit surprised New Orleans didn't try to run the ball up the middle more, to try to exploit the two rookie defensive tackles, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, who've been pressed into starting service with injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. This may have sped the game up and kept the ball out of the hands of Brady for long stretches.
…Kudos to the rookie Jones, who played every snap on defense. Amazing effort, even if it wasn't perfect.
3rd and 4th Quarter – Offense
…The running game continued to thrive with Ridley, but stuttered when Blount and Bolden came into the game.
…Inexplicably, Brady was as awful for most of the second half as he was sharp in the first. He wasn't being forced into bad throws, he just was throwing the ball poorly.
…On the final drive, though, Brady came alive. The Saints, of course, were playing back, which gave Brady's receivers some room to get free. The no-huddle pace helped, too. The final throw to Thompkins for the touchdown had to be thrown with absolute precision, and it was. Saints corner Jabari Greer was in position to make a play, but Brady's pass and Thompkins' route were just too precise. Excellent concentration by the rookie Thompkins, who's had his ups and downs this season like the rest of the Patriots receivers.
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