...Loved the way offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called this game in Jimmy Garoppolo's first-ever start at QB. The first play call was a misdirection play-action rollout to Garoppolo's right. He had an open target downfield, WR Chris Hogan, but Garoppolo's pass was a bit overzealous and floated just over Hogan's head. Well-designed play to get the young QB away from the potentially dangerous Cardinals pass rush.
The opening two drives for New England were great examples of McDaniels' creativity in both play design and calling, based on the situations presented to his inexperienced QB. Garoppolo, too, never panicked and actually seemed to gain confidence the more the game played out. Well-executed and well-timed screen passes and end-arounds helped keep the Cardinals defense honest, while an o-line of mostly backups did an admirable job both run-blocking and pass protecting for Garoppolo.
...That first possession ended with a brilliant Garoppolo touchdown pass to Hogan down the left (Cardinals) sideline. The play began with Garoppolo noticing something troubling with the way the Cards defense was lined up, so he called an "Alert" just after going under center. His teammates recognized the call and adjusted accordingly. It seemed that Arizona was bringing overload pressure from their left, Garoppolo's right, side. This left Hogan in a 1-on-1 wide left with rookie CB Brandon Williams.
The young defender was playing tight man coverage on Hogan, who got a good release off the line of scrimmage. Williams flipped his head back around to look for Garoppolo. Williams might have thought he had safety help, but the closest teammate was too far off in the middle of the field. Hogan easily distanced himself from Williams, who'd slowed up momentarily to peek into the backfield. Garoppolo quickly looked off the safety in the middle of the field to keep him in place, then swiveled his head in Hogan's direction before dropping in a precise arching pass that hit Hogan in stride. Great recognition by Garoppolo at the line and wonderful execution.
...The second drive was going fairly well for Garoppolo and may have resulted in another TD were it not for an excellent defensive play by safety Tyvon Branch, who was playing slot corner against WR Danny Amendola on 3rd-and-3 from the Arizona 29. Amendola ran a great out-route to the left side and was open for a moment, but Branch read the pass, jumped it, and was just able to reach a hand in to deflect the ball away, or else Amendola would have easily picked up the first down. New England settled for three Stephen Gostkowski field goal points.
...Rookie RG Ted Karras deserved the holding penalty he incurred on that opening drive. He clearly grabbed hold of the Cards defender by the right arm and shoved him to the ground during a LeGarrette Blount short run to that side of the formation. However, the officials could easily have called an off-setting penalty on the Cardinal defender, who shoved his right hand into Karras' facemask.
...Let's take a quick look at New England's defense, which played a pretty solid game against Arizona. Were it not for two turnovers by the Patriots offense in their own territory, the Cards would likely not have moved the ball far enough to get their first two touchdowns. One of the most noteworthy individual plays in this quarter was veteran DE Chris Long's sack of QB Carson Palmer, Long's first takedown since joining the Patriots this offseason. His path to Palmer was simply a speed-rush of LT Jared Veldheer. When Veldheer engaged Long a few yards in the backfield, Long just grabbed the o-lineman by the shoulder pads and tossed him to his left, leaving nothing but green grass between him and Palmer.
On the other side of the formation, veteran DE Jabaal Sheard was winning a similar 1-on-1 battle with RT D.J. Humphries, and it appeared Sheard would have gotten to Palmer first. However, Humphries grabbed Sheard by the facemask and yanked him to the ground before he could reach the QB. Humphries was flagged, but the Patriots declined because Long got the sack on the other side. In the post-game locker room, when I asked Long about the play, Sheard, standing in the locker directly to Long's left, made us all laugh when he remarked over his shoulder, "You're welcome." Not only was it a good individual play by both men, it forced the Cards to punt.
...Arizona repaid the favor on New England's ensuing possession. Facing 3rd-and-9 from their 41, the Patriots called for a shotgun pass by Garoppolo. Rushing from the defensive left, LB Markus Golden used a speed move, just like Long did earlier, to get easily around RT Marcus Cannon. The latter ended up on the turf as he tried in vain to reach out and obstruct Golden. Garoppolo sensed the pocket collapsing and stepped up to try to avoid it, but Golden bore down on him from behind and jarred the football loose. DE Chandler Jones, in an otherwise unremarkable night for him against his old team, was in the right place at the right time and just fell on the ball to collect the turnover.
...Jones' celebration with a teammate cost his team 15 yards via penalty thereafter, but that turnover still produced Arizona's first points when Palmer found WR Larry Fitzgerald for a short touchdown pass. It was a pick route by Michael Floyd, coming from the flanker spot to the inside to disrupt Fitzgerald's defender, CB Logan Ryan. The Patriot corner did a good job of shedding Floyd, but couldn't get to Fitzgerald fast enough to prevent him from diving into the end zone from three yards out.
...McDaniels tried early to relieve pressure on Garoppolo by moving him around, but eventually, the QB showed he could handle staying in the pocket. Garoppolo made good, quick decisions throwing the ball most of the night, and on one occasion early in the second half, he made the wise choice to tuck it and run for a first down. Arizona was playing a zone defense on 3rd-and-6 from the NE 29 and it looked like they'd covered all of his intended receivers. The pocket was shrinking on Garoppolo, but he had the presence of mind to duck out of it. He displayed good awareness and speed to pick up 10 yards and keep the drive alive. We've seen Brady do this at times, more so in recent years, but not with this type of quickness that Garoppolo showed. Very athletic, nimble play.
...At the end of that drive, Blount capped it off with a gritty run for a score. Arizona's defense was in disarray just before the snap on 1st-and-goal from their 8, and most of their players weren't set when Garoppolo called for the shotgun snap. He immediately handed to Blount, who took the ball up the middle, dragging no less than four Cardinals with him into the end zone. The late reaction by Arizona helped, but Blount did the rest by keeping his legs churning and clutching the ball with both hands.
...As he sometimes does, Blount negated that great play with a poor one. On the next possession, he again took a handoff up the gut, this time in NE territory, and was met at the line of scrimmage by DT Frostee Rucker. The helmet of the defender popped the ball loose upon first contact and the Cards recovered.
...This led to their next touchdown. A couple of Palmer passes to Fitzgerald and TE Jermaine Gresham brought Arizona down to the NE 4. RB David Johnson got three on the next carry, and on 2nd-and-goal from the 1, he was called on again. Like the Blount TD at the other end, New England wasn't set on defense before the snap. In fact, rookie DT Vincent Valentine and Sheard bumped into one another as they scurried to realign themselves. Palmer wisely called for the snap and handed to Johnson, who barreled to the spot left of center where Sheard was trying to go. That slight delay from bumping into Valentine put Sheard at a disadvantage and Johnson was able to bowl over the goal line.
...Cannon's holding penalty in the early 4th was deserved. Thankfully for him, it was offset by an egregious PI on the Cards' Branch. The Patriots' o-line had its share of mistakes Sunday night - four of the six men who appeared in the game at that spot incurred penalties - but overall, I thought the group performed better than expected, considering all the moving parts and missing pieces. In particular, Cam Fleming was effective in neutralizing Chandler Jones most of the night.
...Kudos as well to newcomer Martellus Bennett. The tight end wasn't much of an element in the passing game plan, but he was called on to handle extra run-blocking chores that inactive Rob Gronkowski might otherwise have been given. Bennett did a fine job accepting and executing that role versus Arizona. He was flagged for a holding penalty versus Jones that was questionable upon further review. Looked like Jones initiated the contact with Bennett by thrusting himself into Bennett's chest, and Bennett used his leverage to throw Jones to the ground with his right arm. The officials saw it otherwise and it cost the Patriots a first down. Gostkowski drilled a 53-yard field goal to give the Patriots some points, but they could have had more if not for Bennett's flag. But for the most part, Bennett accepted and performed admirably his "dirty-work" assignment on the night.
...Though they gave up a few big plays, too, I was happy with the secondary... Malcolm Butler, Justin Coleman, and Logan Ryan all made crucial pass breakups throughout the game and were never beaten badly even when they surrendered receptions to the Cards' receivers.
...One of the few poor efforts Sunday night by New England's defense was the 45-yard run by Johnson. It featured several missed tackles by the Patriots and was easily their sloppiest play of the night.
...Jones' only other significant play of the night came when he wasn't facing Fleming. The Cards moved Jones to Cannon's side, and the DE used both a speed and spin move to elude the right tackle. Jones found his way into the pocket and swallowed up Garoppolo for the second sack of the QB's night. Great individual play by Jones and poor technique by Cannon.
...Perhaps the best play all night by Garoppolo came two plays later, when he found Amendola for 32 yards on 3rd-and-15. Garoppolo scanned the field quickly to his right and checked down to three options, none of which were available. So, he improvised and sidestepped to his left. The play was essentially broken at this point, but Amendola adjusted his pattern to get into an open area for his QB. Garoppolo saw him and delivered a great pass just as he was being drilled in the side by a defender. Of all the plays on that final 13-play scoring drive that gave New England the lead for good, this was the most impressive and important one. It was probably the play of the game.