Anyone who was ready for the demise of the Patriots after Tom Brady's knee injury scare on Wednesday got some bad news on Friday night. After two preseason games, it's beginning to look like the Patriots could be a pretty good football team yet again in 2013.
Several key players stepped up in Friday night's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a second viewing, here's what stood out.
1. Danny Amendola can stretch the seam
Danny Amendola's 26-yard touchdown catch gave us a glimpse of the explosive nature to his game. He ran a seam route right through the defense, with Tom Brady's perfectly thrown ball (were there any other kind on Friday night?) hitting him right between safety Ahmad Black and linebacker Mason Foster.
Brady connected on those routes and throws with Wes Welker at times, but Welker didn't have the speed to consistently create separation when running vertically.
An interesting statistical parallel: According to ProFootballFocus.com, a website that tracks every play in every game, Brady hit Welker on 50 percent of passes that traveled 20 yards or more down the field (nine catches, two drops on 22 attempts). Rams quarterbacks in 2012 combined to hit Amendola on 50 percent of deep throws.
So far, the duo is one-for-one on such throws in the preseason.
2. Tom Brady looks confident stepping into throws
Speaking of that touchdown catch, any questions about Brady's confidence stepping into throws were put to bed when Brady sent that 26-yard touchdown pass into the air.
Of course, it's a little bit easier to step into a throw when the pocket is this clean, but the confidence and accuracy on the deep throw were both good signs. In splitting Black in deep coverage and Foster underneath, Brady put the ball in the one spot where only his receiver could get to it.
Overall, he looked like typical Tom Brady, and he is now 18-for-20 (90 percent) for 172 yards (8.6 YPA), two touchdowns and a 135.8 passer rating through two preseason games.
3. But what if Brady goes down?
Ryan Mallett's progress has been up-and-down in practices, and he had a night that showed it. He went 12-for-20 for 137 yards and a touchdown, which is an impressive stat line on its own, but there were a lot of opportunities Mallett left on the field. He started off slow, going 3-for-7 on his first seven throws, but went 9-for-13 the rest of the way out.
What confounds me is when he fires short of his target. His big arm has been the talk of the town since he arrived in New England, but he's yet to show that he truly knows how to use that arm strength to maximum potential.
There are times when he fires the ball to his target as hard as he possibly can when he should put a bit more touch on the ball. That's understandable. When he fires short, though, it looks like he's overcompensating.
4. Jamie Collins' role coming into focus
A big topic of our film review last week was the alignment and utilization of linebacker Jamie Collins. We once again saw him do a mix of different things, including a few things we had not seen before.
We got a glimpse of what it might look like for Collins to be an edge rusher in the 3-4. The Patriots came out in their base 3-4 defense to start the second half, with Collins lined up as the right outside linebacker, and Collins was sent into the backfield on 2nd-and-3.
He stayed disciplined and didn't bite on the play-action fake, keeping his eyes in the backfield as he rushed the passer. He didn't log the sack or generate pressure, but his football intelligence will go over well with head coach Bill Belichick.
Collins lined up primarily on the strong side, prior to any shifts by the tight end. Dont'a Hightower is the starting strong-side linebacker, so for now, it appears Collins will have a part-time role in the defense. Regardless of how often he plays, it's clear Collins will contribute in a number of ways.
He made a great play in coverage right before the end of the second quarter. He lined up as the strong-side linebacker (circled in red) and dropped in zone coverage over the middle.
The slot receiver ran a slant route against cornerback Marquice Cole, and was able to get away from the cornerback. Mike Glennon watched his receiver come open, but held onto the ball a fraction of a second too long. Meanwhile, Jamie Collins had his eye on the quarterback the whole time, and broke on the ball once it was released.
The defender, the receiver and the ball all got there within a split-second of each other, and the pass was broken up for the incompletion.
In run defense, Collins had his ups (tackled running back Mike James for a one-yard loss in the third quarter) and downs (was blocked by tight end Tim Wright and taken out of a nine-yard run) but if he continues to make plays in coverage, he'll bring a missing component from the Patriots defense last year, when they ranked 29th in coverage of tight ends according to Football Outsiders.
His versatility throughout his career as a safety, linebacker and defensive linemen allows him to do almost anything the coaches ask of him.
5. Team effort on Brandon Spikes' sack
Brandon Spikes looked like a one-man wrecking crew when he sacked quarterback Josh Freeman on the Buccaneers' first offensive play, but it was not without a little help from his teammate.
Defensive tackles Tommy Kelly (93, left) and Vince Wilfork (75, right) ate up three blockers on the play as the two linemen performed a stunt, crossing each other's path. Kelly, specifically, drove guard Ted Larsen inside and out of the "B" gap to clear the way for Spikes.
Then, with the interior linemen preoccupied, Spikes was able to easily dispatch Doug Martin after the running back collided with Freeman. Spikes then had his own collision with Freeman for the sack. This is an important year for Spikes, whose contract expires at the end of the season, and he flashed the potential to play a big part in the Patriots pass defense with two sacks on the night.
6. Standout night for the defensive ends
If the Patriots defense is to be successful in 2013, it will be with the help of defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich getting into the backfield on a consistent basis. Jones was the first one of the two to get on the sack sheet for the preseason with his first quarter take down of Freeman, and kept his motor running despite being walled off by left tackle Donald Penn off the snap. His tackle for a four-yard loss on running back Peyton Hillis was perhaps more impressive.
He lined up on the end, in the seven technique over the tight end. He beat the tight end off the snap and split the gap between the tight end and the tackle.
Even after that, he wasn't home free. The left guard had pulled across the formation to be the lead blocker, and the fullback was also leading the way. Neither of them bothered to stop Jones as he broke through the line, perhaps because they weren't expecting it to happen so quickly.
Not to be outdone, Ninkovich had a sack of his own in the second quarter. It was an interesting play design, with Spikes rushing the passer from the right edge and Jones coming across the formation, but Ninkovich's rush was nothing spectacular, just a straight upfield rush against the right tackle.
An assist should go to Spikes and Marcus Benard, both of whom created enough pressure from the left side to keep Glennon in the pocket. Still, this play was an example of the big plays and the blue-collar hustle plays we've come to expect from Ninkovich.
As a team, the Patriots stopped 139 plays for a loss or for no gain in 2012, and ranked 20th in the NFL in that stat. Improved penetration from their defensive line, like we saw on these plays, could mean improvement for the defense as a whole.
7. Will Svitek's tough night
It's hard to be too tough on Svitek. He is an offensive tackle, but the Patriots have moved him to guard while they wait for Marcus Cannon to come back from his injury. He did his job for the most part, but he got off to a tough start.
It looked like Svitek (circled in red) missed his assignment on the opening run, letting defensive tackle Gerald McCoy blow right past him to tackle running back Stevan Ridley for no gain.
On the next play, he had a similar occurrence where he slid to the right to help tackle Sebastian Vollmer against the defensive end, when clearly, it was center Ryan Wendell who needed the help with McCoy, who created pressure on Brady as he delivered a throw to Amendola.
Svitek had a solid game as part of a group effort by the offensive line against the Eagles, and Svitek gave up just one pressure in that game, but if he's going to be called on to start at guard, he'll need to make sure Brady has a clean pocket to step into throws.
8. Justin Francis is the most versatile defensive linemen on the roster
Francis was spotted at defensive end and defensive tackle in four-man lines, and as a defensive end and outside linebacker in the 3-4 alignment. He also lined up in those spots in varying nickel packages.
The Patriots will often put players in varying spots to see what they're capable of doing in those situations, and the preseason is the perfect time for that, but that level of versatility (and a degree from Rutgers) basically writes your ticket for the Patriots roster. Not to mention, Francis has contributed in plenty of special teams units as well.
9. Marcus Forston is a lock as the third defensive tackle
The Patriots are paper-thin at defensive tackle, and have had to manufacture depth at the position by using defensive ends Marcus Benard and Justin Francis as defensive tackles in some sub packages. Through it all, Marcus Forston has come into focus as the third true defensive tackle in the rotation. He's been up-and-down, but there's enough to build on.
He had back-to-back tackles in the fourth quarter on running plays inside the Patriots' 10-yard line. Running back Peyton Hillis got the hand-off on 1st-and-goal from the 7-yard line, and although Forston was able to shed his blocker, he wasn't able to stop Hillis dead in his tracks and had to turn to make the tackle. Hillis picked up six yards on the carry.
Forston showed his strength on the previous play, but showed his incredible burst off the line in the next play. In fact, he was in the backfield by the time Glennon had even turned around to hand the ball off, and made contact with Hillis an instant after he received the handoff.
The Patriots really need someone that can penetrate the backfield up the middle, and Forston is showing why he could be the player to fill that role.
10. If Tim Tebow makes the Patriots roster, it's not because he's one of the best 53 players
To avoid belaboring the point, I'll just leave it at that.
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