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Patriots Take 2: Offensive miscues vs. Lions are correctable

Posted by Erik Frenz  August 24, 2013 08:00 AM

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The Patriots didn't look great on Thursday night against the Lions, and not much changed on a second viewing.

The bad stood out because of the lopsided result and the four turnovers in the first half, but there were some positives to come out of the game.

"That’s the crazy thing with football — it’s usually not as bad as you think it is," said safety Devin McCourty after the game. "There’s a lot of things we could’ve done better, but we did some things well tonight."

Let's take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Thursday's game.


1. Trouble brewing at right guard?

From the opening snap, the Patriots offensive line struggled to get any kind of push up the middle against the duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley at defensive tackle for the Lions. Left guard Logan Mankins held his own against Fairley, but right guards Will Svitek and Dan Connolly were taken apart by Suh.

It should come as no surprise, though. Svitek is not naturally a guard, having played tackle his entire eight-year career in the NFL. This was Connolly's first real action of the preseason; he's been out of practice with an injury, and hadn't played in either preseason game before Thursday night.

The Patriots rushed 12 times for 17 yards before finally finding any semblance of a running game.

On one running play in the first quarter, Connolly tried to get under Suh, but the defensive tackle trucked Connoly and threw him to the ground, then brought down running back Stevan Ridley for just a two-yard gain.

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On another play, Suh bull-rushed Svitek into Brady's lap, allowing defensive end Jason Jones to get around right tackle Sebastian Vollmer into Brady and get the sack. Svitek gave up two pressures on the night, and it might have been more if Vollmer (two sacks, two hurries) hadn't had to slide over the help him out from time to time.


2. Kenbrell Thompkins the "X" factor

Patriots fans have been clamoring for a solid outside receiver since Randy Moss left town in 2010. Kenbrell Thompkins isn't the second coming of No. 81, but he is quickly becoming one of Tom Brady's favorite targets in the passing game.

Thompkins has shown up in practice for weeks, and finally had his breakout performance against the Lions, hauling in six of Brady's passes for 94 yards. He finished with eight catches for 116 yards on the night.

One trait Thompkins showed was his ability to get away from press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes, people think that the ability to get off a jam requires one to be physical, but Thompkins twice juked free of the cornerback at the line of scrimmage using his quick feet, not his arms, to create separation at the line of scrimmage.

He did so twice, both times on go-routes, and caught two deep passes as a result: one for 37 yards in the first quarter, and one for 27 yards in the second quarter.

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On the catch in the second quarter, Thompkins broke free of press coverage from cornerback Chris Houston by juking hard off the line of scrimmage. Thompkins faked a break inside, before cutting right back to the outside and down the sideline. The receiver had created separation within a yard of the line of scrimmage, and Brady didn't hesitate to pull the trigger.

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Like any good X receiver, Thompkins then tracked the ball in flight and made the play. There was an opportunity for Thompkins to stay in-bounds and get the touchdown, but connecting on two deep passes was an important first step in this offense transitioning from a dink-and-dunk machine to one more capable of creating big plays.


3. Julian Edelman will not go down without a fight

Wide receivers have been the talk of the town in New England since March, but Julian Edelman seems to have been forgotten in the mix.

The coaching staff definitely hasn't forgotten about Edelman, and he's rewarded them for it with a few brilliant catches this preseason. He had one such catch against the Lions.

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His catch on 3rd-and-7 in Lions territory was a thing of beauty, from the route down to the very end of the run. It was drawn up as a five-yard out, but he juked Houston clean out of his shoes off the line and again in and out of his break, and left him in the dust as he ran toward the sideline.

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Even after making the catch, though, he was still a few yards shy of the first down, but was able to race to the marker and tap his toes neatly in-bounds, moving the chains for the Patriots.

Edelman also made a pair of nice catches against the Eagles, one while taking a heavy hit from a defensive back. He's been one of the more consistent receivers on the roster in the preseason, with at least three catches in each game and with a total of 10 catches for 75 yards in the preseason. He had three catches for 18 yards on Thursday, all on passes from Brady.

It helps that he has a leg-up on the rest of the receivers with his knowledge of the playbook.

"This will be my fifth year here, so the terminology and all of that is kind of my strength right now," Edelman said. "There's new stuff, and I have a long way to improve, but that definitely helped."

The Patriots are hopeful that his knowledge of the offense will help ease the transition of some of the younger weapons in the receiving game.


4. An outbreak of fumblitis

The Detroit Lions came out aggressive, and one way that manifested was in three fumbles forced on the Patriots. Tight end Zach Sudfeld and running backs Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen all put the ball on the ground at one point Thursday night.

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Sudfeld caught a beauty of a seam pattern from Tom Brady, but simply didn't put the ball away in time before safety Glover Quin got his helmet on the ball and knocked it loose.

That's a bang-bang play because it happened so quickly, but Sudfeld could have known the safety was coming at him, sitting back in Cover 2, waiting for the ball to hit its destination. If Sudfeld had known that, he had plenty of time to put two hands on the ball.

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Bolden's fumble happened on a dumpoff pass, and like Sudfeld, Bolden was victimized by not putting the ball away quickly enough before a defender was able to put his helmet on the ball.

Unlike Sudfeld, Bolden had a bit more time to get the pass under control. Still, part of the blame goes to Ryan Wendell, who missed a block that allowed the defender to get right through to Bolden to force the fumble.

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Vereen's fumble? Simply poor discipline. There's no reason to try and dance to a first down on 3rd-and-15 when backed up on your own eight-yard line. The Patriots needed him to secure the ball with two hands so they could punt it away, but instead, their defense faced yet another "sudden change" scenario. The practice helped, as colleague Ben Volin noted on Friday, but the Patriots would rather not get that practice in the regular season.

Even though Sudfeld, Vereen and Bolden didn't play again after their fumbles, Belichick said there was no underlying message involved.

"Our message has been the same here from day one that ball security is of the highest priority for anybody that handles the ball," Belichick said. "I think that message has been delivered on a daily basis since we started practicing back in May. I don’t think there are any new revelations about that message. Ball security is very important to anybody who handles the ball in any situation. There can be no mistake about the importance of it. There can be no mistake about that message. That message has been delivered ad nauseam."

Message received.



5. Chandler Jones' dominant preseason continues

It's been years since the Patriots have had a stud pass-rusher off the edge that could be counted on to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Chandler Jones looked like the player that could do that from Weeks 1 thru 8 of the 2012 regular season, but he tailed off after an ankle injury.

He started hot and has stayed hot in the preseason.

The big story for Jones this offseason was that he put on 10 pounds of muscle. He showed why it could help him, by using an effective bull-rush to get pressure on Matthew Stafford.

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His technique was perfect, with low pad level, his hands inside the chest of the linemen and his arms extended to keep the tackle at bay.

Jones has used that bull-rush and a few other moves to generate six pressures and three sacks in three games. He is right back on track to putting pressure on the quarterback week-in and week-out.



6. What happened on Tom Brady's interception?

There's a little confusion floating around as to the reason for Tom Brady's interception, and it's not hard to understand why. Everything happened so quickly, and everyone's second-guessing themselves after Bill Belichick's response to why everyone thinks they know what the hell they're talking about.

We don't have 100 percent of the context — maybe Aaron Dobson ran the route wrong, maybe Julian Edelman did, maybe Brady should have waited to pull the trigger — but here is what happened.

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Dobson and Edelman ran a pick on the right side of the play, with Dobson running a slant over the middle and Edelman running a quick out. The purpose of the play was to get the defenders tied up with each other.

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Instead, the receivers got their feet crossed, and veteran cornerback Chris Houston wisely stayed out of the traffic jam. Dobson would have been open if he hadn't run into Edelman, but because Houston avoided the pick, he was able get in front of the ball before Dobson could get to where it was being thrown.

Was it bad timing between Brady and Dobson? Did one of the receivers cross just a step too soon? We may never know, and Belichick probably loves it that way.



7. Joe Vellano's start

The Patriots created some buzz when they decided to start Joe Vellano at defensive tackle over Vince Wilfork. Vellano was able to show glimpses in the game of the talent he's shown through practices.

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Vellano took on two offensive linemen and still plugged his gaps on a 1st-and-10 zone stretch toward his side of the field.

In doing so, he forced running back Reggie Bush to take the long way around, as he ran closer to the sideline before eventually being brought down for just a two-yard gain.

There were some times, however, where he was moved off the line relatively easily.

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On another 1st-and-10 in the second quarter, Vellano lined up as a 3-technique with an outside shade over the left guard.

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Once again, he took a double-team, but was walled off by the combination of the guard and center. He was driven back by the duo, and toward linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who was unable to find Lions running back Montell Owens through the clutter before the back could pick up six yards.

Vellano had an up-and-down night, like just about everyone on the roster. He'll most likely be kept on the practice squad, and given the Patriots relative depth at defensive tackle, it's not out of the question that we could hear Vellano's name again during the regular season.



8. Zach Sudfeld's blocking

There's little doubt at this point as to what Sudfeld can do for the Patriots offense as a receiver. He has Gronkowski's size, but he brings a lot of the skill set of Aaron Hernandez in terms of his quickness (though not on Hernandez's level) and route-running savvy.

One area he could still improve, though, is his blocking.

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The Patriots faced 3rd-and-6 in the first quarter, and lined up with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). Sudfeld was lined up tight to the left tackle, upright and looking ready to run a route.

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He dropped his hips and went into a pass block, and defensive end Willie Young was able to get across his face and get pressure on Brady.

Sudfeld has shown the ability and instincts to be a blocker (see his key block on LeGarrette Blount's long touchdown run against the Eagles) but there are times when he shows that he needs improvement.



9. Ryan Mallett's stunted growth

We can always expect at least a few flashes of brilliance from backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, but we are still waiting for Mallett to show that he can sustain those flashes.

It was another slow start for Mallett, who missed his first three throws before hitting Thompkins for a 15-yard gain.

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The pattern was nothing spectacular, just a five-yard slant route by Thompkins against a zone blitz.

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The throw was a beauty, though, splitting three defenders on its way into Thompkins' hands, hitting the receiver in stride.

He showed that he has improved a bit with his mobility, scrambling to buy time on more than one occasion with mixed results. He threw a nice pass to wide receiver Quentin Sims for 14 yards, but had Sims wide open on the left sideline on another scramble and threw it into the dirt.

One interesting stat from ProFootballFocus.com: Mallett is 0-for-5 on pass attempts of 20 yards or more this preseason. He has been lauded for his big arm, but has yet to polish that arm strength into consistent downfield accuracy.

Whether it's in regard to his ability to take over the offense if Brady goes down, or his trade value to teams looking for a potential starter, the feeling about Mallett is that not much has changed since his rookie year.


10. Tony Scheffler's touchdown

How did tight end Tony Scheffler get so wide open on his touchdown catch in the second quarter?

Hard to say exactly, without knowing the defensive call or the assignments, but it looks like this is what happened.

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The Patriots had designed a five-man rush, with Hightower rushing from the strong side. Spikes may have come on a delayed blitz, or he may have reacted to the play-action fake by Matthew Stafford. He may have had the responsibility of reading the running back, to either rush into the backfield if he ran the ball or to drop into coverage if he went into a route.

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There may have been a miscommunication between Spikes and Dane Fletcher, who allowed Scheffler a free release and did not attempt to follow him until he recognized the pass was going that direction.

Regardless of what happened, no one was within three yards of Scheffler by the time he had leaped to catch the pass while falling into the end zone.





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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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