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On Sunday in Buffalo, there was a lot to feel good about for the Patriots in their 52-28 victory over the Bills.
Tom Brady continued his top-flight play from the Ravens game and was in complete control once the Patriots got down to basics in the second half.
The running game erupted thanks to equal parts vision and patience from rookie Brandon Bolden, play calling from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, adjustments at the line by Brady, and very good execution by the offensive line against a smaller Bills defense.
And on defense, the line played soundly and the linebackers made impact plays.
But if there’s one lingering concern as the Patriots welcome the Broncos and Peyton Manning to town Sunday and set course for the rest of the season, it has to be the secondary, namely the play at safety.
There was some good in there with cornerback Devin McCourty’s two interceptions, safety Tavon Wilson’s gift-wrapped pick from Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and all-around solid play from No. 2 cornerback Kyle Arrington.
Besides that, the Patriots internally have to be doubling up efforts to get things corrected in the secondary because the sub packages on defense are ripe for exposure by the right quarterback and team.
It can’t be sitting well with coach Bill Belichick that his defense, despite having more talent and time in the system for some players this season, is still giving up way too many explosive plays: seven of more than 20 yards (accounting for 56 percent of Buffalo’s 438 yards), and another nine for more than 10 yards.
A sampling of the miscues after watching the coaches’ tape:
McCourty actually appeared to be out of position on his second-quarter interception. The Patriots looked to be in Cover 3, with the safety and two corners responsible for a deep third of the field. McCourty let receiver T.J. Graham run by him. McCourty was lucky Chandler Jones knocked Fitzpatrick down to contribute to an underthrow.
Jones and Jermaine Cunningham kept safety Steve Gregory from getting burned on third and 12 in the second quarter by forcing an overthrow from Fitzpatrick.
On the 14-yard third-and-10 conversion to Brad Smith right before halftime, the Patriots were in a three-deep coverage with Wilson in middle of the field specificially to take that play away. Wilson failed to drive properly on the ball.
Not sure what defense the Patriots had on when the Bills converted a third and 15 on a 16-yard screen pass to Fred Jackson early in the third quarter. No one had Jackson, and Wilson appeared out of position in the zone.
Just poor safety play on the 86-yard touchdown to Donald Jones. Patrick Chung took a bad angle and missed a tackle for at least another 55 yards, then Gregory failed to hold up Jones down the field.
On the 22-yard pass to Jones in the third quarter, Sterling Moore was likely supposed to pass his man onto the safety and then sink on Jones. Moore never turned around on an easy reception.
On third and 17 late in the third, Fitzpatrick overthrew a wide-open Stevie Johnson, who had beaten Moore.
The Patriots avoided another big play late when Johnson stepped out of bounds at the 7-yard line on first down at the New England 37. The Patriots were in quarters coverage (four players split the field in quarters) and Moore sunk in the out pattern underneath, which he is likely supposed to do. Chung got caught flat-footed and didn’t pick up Johnson’s sideline vertical route properly.
The Bills’ final touchdown, a 35-yarder to Smith on third and 8, was part good play by the Bills, part bad play by the Patriots. New England was running a newer coverage, an inverted Cover 3, if you will. The Patriots show Cover 2 (two deep safeties) at the start, but at the snap, the two safeties come up to play the intermediate routes, and Wilson retreats to patrol the middle of the field. The two edge cornerbacks play over the top to divide the field into thirds with Wilson. The Bills hit the seam perfectly, but Wilson likely is supposed to recognize the vertical threat sooner.
The Patriots got away with that stuff — and more — against the Bills thanks to an offensive explosion and Buffalo’s lack of precision and ball security, but it has to be cleaned up.
The rest of the team feels like it’s ready to explode. Will the secondary catch up?
Here are the positional ratings against the Bills:
Quarterback (Rating: 4.5 out of 5)
Brady was terrific once again. His elite ability to not throw into bad spots — as opposed to guys such as Fitzpatrick — is underappreciated. Brady senses the traps from the defense and he finds another way. The touchdown to make it 21-14 was a stellar play by Brady and Danny Woodhead. Nobody was open and Brady needed all of the 5.41 seconds he bought himself for Woodhead to get open (and break two tackles for the touchdown). Brady had one bad throw behind Wes Welker. One play Brady probably wishes he had back was on third and 11 in the second quarter. Welker was wide open across the middle, and Brandon Lloyd had a step and a half on cornerback Aaron Williams. But Brady threw back shoulder to Lloyd for the incompletion.
Running backs ( 4 out of 5)
Bolden’s 27-yard run to jump start the offense on the second drive of the second half showed terrific patience and vision. The hole behind Rob Gronkowski, the lead blocker, was closing and Bolden rode it to the outside of Dan Connolly’s great block on tackle Spencer Johnson, and then had one of his five broken tackles (they accounted for 25 percent of his yardage). Later in that drive, Stevan Ridley ran into a bad carry by not being as patient. On his 20-yarder with 5:53 left in the third, Bolden allowed Gronkowski to get in front of him, and then read the backside blocks of Ryan Wendell and David Thomas well before breaking a tackle. The Patriots ran the same play back-to-back to go ahead, 42-21, in the fourth quarter: a neat little counter-type play during which Brady showed the ball on the right side of the line to get the linebackers going that way, and then actually handed it off on the left where the defense had vacated. They ran that play about six times in the game with great success. Ridley had some very nice plays, but he also made a few questionable decisions and wasn’t as patient as Bolden. And Ridley’s fumble out of bounds reminded one of his fumble last year against the Bills. He fumbled the following week and was sent to the bench. Shane Vereen didn’t do anything wrong in his return, but his plays always seem to work out poorly for some reason.
Receivers (3.5 out of 5)
Two fumbles and a drop out of this group hurts, but there was still some standout play, especially in the run game with Daniel Fells adding to what we already know Gronkowski can do. Want to know the value Welker has in this offense? Watch the 19-yard pass to him with 4:49 left in the third quarter. Welker ran an “S” route during which he went inside the slot corner, outside the linebacker, and then bent back to the middle of the field, and as he flipped his head, Brady hit him in stride. No one else on this team — and few other players in the league — can make that play. Not to mention the ridiculous catch by Welker on third down with 5:47 to play. Speaking of the absurd, the throw by Brady and catch by Lloyd for the final touchdown was perfection.
Offensive line ( 4 out of 5)
Brady was pressured just seven times total (sack, five hurries, knockdown). There was a lot of good work done by this group in the run game, as the focus on inside running behind delayed handoffs worked wonderfully. The Patriots basically doubled the two tackles and worked combinations to the second level, or doubled one and pulled with a guard. The line in order of performance: Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Wendell, and Thomas. Thomas had some standout plays and was far from bad despite giving up a half sack with Wendell, 2½ hurries, and the knockdown. Bills ends Mark Anderson and Mario Williams couldn’t do anything one-on-one against Solder and Vollmer, respectively.
Defensive line ( 4.5 out of 5)
Despite the three sacks, the Patriots didn’t have much of a pass rush with only six additional pressures (four hurries, two knockdowns). But that’s how it goes against the fast-throwing Fitzpatrick. The only negative we saw was a missed tackle by Rob Ninkovich (sack, hurry). Jones (half sack, hurry, 1½ knockdowns), Cunningham (half sack, half knockdown), and Trevor Scott (two hurries) made an impact. Yes, I split Jones’s sack because Cunningham’s pressure made the entire play. On drive following the Donald Jones touchdown, Vince Wilfork set the tone by beating a double team for a run stuff on second down. Ninkovich should give an assist on his third-quarter sack to Arrington for passing off his man and driving on Jackson, whom Fitzpatrick wanted on a shallow cross.
Linebackers (4 out of 5)
Three huge plays out of this group with Brandon Spikes’s two forced fumbles and Jerod Mayo’s interception, but there were some issues. Mayo missed a tackle on a plus-20-yard play. And Spikes blew two gaps on big runs, and failed to get a jam on tight end Scott Chandler’s second touchdown. Mayo set up Spikes’s forced fumble before halftime by taking on center Eric Wood in the hole and forcing C.J. Spiller to hesitate. On both of Spikes’s forced fumbles, he came from the back side of the play.
Secondary (2 out of 5)
Both McCourty and Arrington played well in shutting down the Bills’ outside passing game. But outside of that, this unit had the issues that we’ve already discussed. Against a better team, the Patriots might not have been so lucky. As opposed to his first interception, McCourty was in perfect position on his second. The Patriots were in Cover 3, McCourty stayed over the top of Johnson, and then reacted to the ball.
Special teams ( 2.5 out of 5)
This was the kind of standout game we’ve been waiting for from Zoltan Mesko and his punt coverage unit, with two downed inside the 7-yard line. Don’t know what to make of Stephen Gostkowski’s two misses. The operation appeared fine – Mesko knows how Gostkowski wants the ball held — but sometimes kickers just go through slumps. It bears watching, obviously.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com.