Brady and the first team offense carved up the Lions. Raj Mehta/USA Today Sports
After a weekend sadly spent working instead of watching football, I used NFL GameRewind to take a closer look at Friday night's "dress rehearsal" with the Lions. Here, in no particular order, are my observations.
While the playcalling on either side of the ball was still fairly vanilla compared to what will happen in the regular season, Friday still featured plenty of exciting glimpses at the kind of X's & O's conundrums this offense will put opposing defenses in.
The opening drive was a striking example of this. The Pats opened up with 12 personnel: two tight ends (Gronk and Dwyane Allen), two receivers (Edelman and Brandin Cooks) and one back (Dion Lewis). Their ability to run and throw with equal effectiveness left the Lions helpless as they marched down the field for a touchdown, using tempo to make it even tougher for the overmatched Lions to adjust. Get a load of this sequence of plays all of which came with the same personnel:
2nd & 8: Gronk and Allen are in-line, adding two extra blockers to the left side of the line. Brady's play fakes to Lewis before pivoting and throwing a quick receiver screen to Edelman in the right slot. The left side of the line (plus both tight ends) all fire out as if running a classic "zone stretch left", an action that sucks two of Detroit's linebackers to the wrong side of the field. Edelman is able to turn the combination of open field and two blockers in front of him (Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon) into an 11 yard gain and a first down.
1st & 10 (25 seconds later): The Pats hurry up to the line and snap it again so quickly that they catch both the Lions defense and broadcasting team unprepared for the play. This time, the screen to Edelman goes the opposite way for 23 yards.
1st & 10 (20 seconds later): The Pats rush back to the line and snap the ball again. Now, both Gronkowski and Allen are lined up in-line on the right side of the line and the Pats run right behind them. Gronk and Marcus Cannon combine for a double team that gets some movement off the line of scrimmage, and Allen is able to seal off the edge defender to create a lane for Lewis. Lewis takes advantage of said space, bursting through the hole and using his pad level to create a few yards after contact. It's a seven yard gain.
2nd & 3 (26 seconds later): This time, they go empty backfield using the same personnel that just executed a power rushing play. With a defensive back lined up across from Lewis split all the way out right and linebacker Jarrad Davis being the closest coverage defender to Edelman, Brady has two obvious tells that zone coverage is coming. Edelman easily beats Davis with his quickness on an in-breaking route and has a big gain before sadly blowing out his ACL attempting to juke his way past former Patriot Tavon Wilson.
Edelman's injury obviously put a damper on the night for Pats fans, but signs of the Pats offenses' impressive multiplicity continued throughout the night, even without Brady's favorite target. In fact, another impressive sequence happened on the Pats next extended possession (their second possession lasted only one play, as Brady hit Chris Hogan for a touchdown on a deep ball). This sequence happened in 11 personnel, with one tight end (Gronk), 1 back (James White) and three receivers (Cooks, Hogan and Danny Amendola).
3rd & 4: Pats have White in the backfield and Gronk in a two point stance just off the right side of the line. Slot corner Quandre Diggs follows Amendola's motion, a strong tell that man coverage is in store. Brady adjusts the protection accordingly, calling for both Gronk and White to chip the edge rushers on either side. That creates plenty of time for Amendola to beat Diggs down the field, with Brady zipping a lazer in their for a third down conversion
1st & 10 (25 seconds later): The Pats rush up to the line of scrimmage and snap it almost immediately, with Gronk in-line on the right. This time they rush right into the teeth of the Lions defense, which has it's lighter nickel personnel on the field to counter the Pats 3 WR set. Cameron Fleming seals off his edge, David Andrews and Joe Thuney execute a combo double team, with Thuney peeling off the double to seal a second defender from the rush lane, and Shaq Mason makes a nice cut block on the Lions Davis at the second level. White takes advantage of the space given to him for an eight yard run up the middle, with most of those yards coming before contact.
2nd & 2 (30 seconds later): The Pats go no huddle and spread the Lions out with an empty backfield. Lining Gronk up in the slot draws the Lions slot corner, 5'9" Quandre Diggs. Brady takes his chances and throws one for Gronk on the seam route. It's incomplete only due to pass interference, which sets up first and 10 from the 13.
Sequences like this show what the Patriots offense is capable of at it's best. It was clear to the naked eye that the Patriots first string offense was overwhelming the Lions defense, but the film revealed the nuances to how they made it look so damn easy. By emphasizing versatility within their personnel, they've created an offense that can run or pass effectively out of nearly any formation or personnel grouping. No matter what the defense schemes to take away, there are multiple counters that Brady can easily audible too. That X's and O's advantage, more than any one individual player stepping up, will be how the Patriots overcome the massive loss of Edelman for the season.
With that off my chest, here are the rest of my observations:
Edelman had two catches, both on receiver screens, prior to suffering his knee injury, both of them seeing the receiver take hits and make cuts through traffic. He seemed to get up slightly slow after the first one and appeared to look down and grimace a little bit while walking back to the huddle. Like the rest of us, he probably thought he was knicked slightly, as he has been more times than any of us could imagine throughout his eight year career. He would catch a ball for a nice game on the very next snap, playing through whatever bumps and bruises like he always has on Sundays. Did something happen on that initial snap to make him vulnerable to the injury that would happen just three plays later? We'll likely never know for sure, but some food for thought.
It was interesting to see Jordan Richards, a little used safety despite his status as a 2015 second round pick, getting early defensive reps in the box as a linebacker. Richards had struggled earlier in the preseason playing more of a deep safety role. Perhaps this was a case of the Pats trying to find a role that best suits the Stanford product, as plenty of other teams have successfully converted defensive backs into undersized linebackers who can be an asset in coverage. Unfortunately for Richards, his lack of top end athleticism showed up on tape even playing closer to the line of scrimmage. Noteworthy examples included his falling while attempting to break down in zone against Ameer Abdullah (0:54, 1st quarter) and a brutal missed tackle on Dwyane Washington's touchdown reception. If Richards is going to be converted to a Patrick Chung-like box role, he's going to have to tackle much better than he has this preseason (he also had an ugly missed tackle on a long touchdown run against Jacksonville). It's very possible that his time in New England is running out, although he still is eligible to stick around on the practice squad even if he misses the final 53 man cut.
We saw a bit of the good and not-so-good from veteran David Harris, who figures to be the team's starting middle linebacker. Harris is still effective playing downhill, which showed up in a two play sequence with 10:52 remaining in the 1st quarter. On second down, he did a nice job of not only reading the play, but sifting through the traffic cleanly to make a run stuff and set up third and long. On that third down, he beat the running back one-on-one on a blitz, creating pressure that forced Matt Stafford to rush to a checkdown short of the sticks. A strong open field tackle by Stephon Gilmore got the defense off the field. However, Harris also had some noteworthy struggles when asked to move laterally, particularly in coverage. Another two play sequence (this time with 2:54 remaining in the first half) saw Stafford hit plodding tight end Darren Fells for an easy completion in Harris' zone, before going right back to the well with Ameer Abdullah, who easily outran Harris to the flat for a big gain. Tough assignment for Harris, as Abdullah is one of the more explosive pass catching backs in the league, but an example of why he might come off the field in some nickel situations.
Butler made his presence felt, particularly on passing downs
It was arguably the best preseason showing from Adam Butler, an undrafted rookie who's path to a roster spot on the defensive line looks pretty good following the release of Kony Ealy. While capable of playing all over the defensive line (he did so against SEC competition at Vanderbilt), Butler's value as a rookie should come as an interior pass rusher in subpackages. He flashed in that role all night, using his explosive "get off" from the line to knife into the backfield and make plays. One particularly impressive rep came on Eric Rowe's interception. Working a two man stunt with fellow rookie Harvey Langi, Butler engages the right guard but slants his pass rush directly into the right tackle, occupying both blockers with the goal of freeing Langi to loop inside. Not only does Butler free Langi, but he manages to fight through the right tackle to flash color at Stafford as well, flushing him out of the pocket. Stafford would escape (the right tackle managed a last ditch shove to get Butler on the ground), but throwing on the run resulted in an errant throw that was tipped in the air and ultimately picked. Another impressive snap came with 6:22 in the first quarter, as Butler's first step allowed him to knife through the Lions zone blocking scheme to blow up a rushing attempt.
Another guy who had his best showing of the preseason was Cameron Fleming. Fleming faced competition this summer for his swing tackle role from veteran LaAdrian Waddle, but a concussion to Waddle has combined with lingering injuries to rookie Tony Garcia and starter Nate Solder to make Fleming the team's de facto left tackle the past two games. After having plenty of rough moments the first two games, Fleming was largely solid last night, as Brady was rarely under duress. However, one glaring exception came with 10:50 to go in the second quarter, as Fleming was beat immediately off the snap with speed around the edge. Brady was fortunate to get his pass off, as defensive end Anthony Zettel had a golden opportunity for a strip sack. Fleming is a strong run blocker with years of experience in the Pats system, but his lack of foot speed will always be concerning in pass protection. It's worth noting that his best effort came against a Lions team whose edge rushing talent has been depleted by injuries to Ziggy Ansah and Kerry Hyder.
The right side of the line was the lynchpin of the 2016 team's power rushing attack, and that figures to continue in 2017. It was telling to see the team run behind Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason on consecutive plays on the goal line, resulting in a touchdown and two point conversion by Mike Gillislee. Give some credit to Gronkowski and James O'Shaugnessy as well for the short yardage success, as both had nice blocks on the touchdown run.
Gillislee is another guy who looked good in his 2017 and Patriots debut. While not quite as big and powerful as the departed LeGarrette Blount, he was consistently able to convert short yardage situations and looked like a nightmare to tackle on his 27 yard run. He's big enough that the little guys won't want to mess with him once he gets a head of steam going, and he's got more explosion and home run speed to finish those big runs than Blount did.
Harvey Langi didn't make a ton of noise on defense, but he showed up on special teams with two impressive tackles covering kickoffs, including a loud stick in the first quarter. It was already clear the Pats liked Langi due to his versatility and athletic upside. While it might take some time for him to become a defensive contributor (he'll be behind Trey Flowers, Dont'a Hightower, Shea McClellin, Deatrich Wise and even Kyle Van Noy for edge snaps when everyone's healthy), his athleticism should allow him to be a special teams contributor as a rookie, justifying his likely spot on the roster.
Another guy who made his case on special teams was undrafted rookie Kenny Moore. Moore faces far longer odds than Langi thanks to the Pats loaded depth chart at corner, but he's stepped up as one of the top gunners with special teams captain Matt Slater sidelined. The third quarter saw Moore impressively beat a double team on the outside to come bearing down on rookie punt returner Jamal Agnew. Hearing Moore's footsteps, Agnew muffed the punt and was extremely fortunate that the loose ball bounced out of bounds. That saved a Lions possession, which ultimately resulted in a Lions touchdown to Jared Abrederis. Guess who made the tackle on the ensuing kickoff? Despite good special teams showings in preseason games and impressive coverage plays in training camp, it will still be surprising if Moore makes the initial 53 man roster. However, he's played his way into being an ideal practice squad candidate whose special teams prowess could result in time on the active roster as early as this season.
Sticking with the special teams, there were no splash plays from Cyrus Jones in the return game, but he continues to look confident fielding punts even in traffic. Perhaps no ones odds at making the roster improved more with Edelman's injury than Jones, whose punt return skills are needed more than ever with Edelman sidelined and Amendola likely to take on a larger offensive role.