NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The Arizona Cardinals were considered a major underdog entering their week two contest at the New England Patriots; however, the Cardinals now sit at 2-0 after completing a stunning 20-18 upset. The Patriots (1-1) looked sluggish for most of the game; Tom Brady was under constant pressure from Arizona’s pass rush and lost tight end Aaron Hernandez early in the first quarter. With six seconds remaining, Stephen Gostkowski kicked what would have been a game-winning field goal attempt wide to the left. Read on for in-depth breakdowns of New England’s offense, defensive, and special teams from week two.
One of the biggest storylines of the game was tight end Aaron Hernandez’s ankle injury on New England’s second drive of the game. Wide receiver Julian Edelman landed on Hernandez’s leg and number 81 was immediately brought back to the locker room for X-rays. Fortunately, those X-rays were reportedly negative and at the moment Hernandez is suspected to have a high-ankle sprain, which could sideline him for four weeks or so. The injury force New England to make some major changes to their offensive gameplan; most of New England’s subsequent offensive work came out one one-tight end sets. Michael Hoomanawanui functioned as New England’s second tight end, but the Patriots primarily ran the ball when he was on the field.
Wes Welker’s role with the team was called into question following a relatively limited function in the offense against Tennessee. Welker began the game on the bench – he was replaced in the starting lineup by Edelman – but eventually worked his way onto the field after Hernandez left the game and received more targets from Brady than in last week’s contest. Welker’s first catch was an impressive leaping grab which made him the Patriots’ all-time leader in receptions. However, Welker did make one costly drop on third down which led to a Zoltan Mesko punt being blocked.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ playcalling deserves a mention as well; New England ran the ball in a number of counter-intuitive situations with undesirable results (running back Danny Woodhead’s nine-yard loss on a third-and-six attempt stands out), and the crowd at Gillette Stadium voiced their displeasure with McDaniels on various occasions. New England failed to adjust to Arizona’s pressure up front, which prevented the Patriots from finding any sort of offensive rhythm this afternoon. New England’s overall offensive production approached their usual standard (316 passing yards for Brady, 90 yards on the ground), but drives frequently sputtered out and the majority of the Patriots’ output came late in the game.
The offensive line struggled to protect Brady from Arizona’s aggressive front-seven. Right guard Dan Connolly (head) was active after being a limited participant in practice this week, but reserve Donald Thomas was in the starting lineup and played the entire game. Marcus Cannon continued to rotate with starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Brady was pressured from every direction; Arizona recorded a total of four sacks and forced him to move around in the pocket on a number of other occasions. Consequently, New England had trouble establishing a downfield passing game and primarily relied on screen passes and intermediate routes.
Despite the passing game’s struggles, most of New England’s receiving options had impressive games. Brandon Lloyd caught eight passes for 60 yards despite being covered by Cardinals star Patrick Peterson for most of the game, while Welker added in five catches for 95 yards. Julian Edelman factored in heavily, especially in the fourth quarter, and ended up with five catches for 50 yards. At tight end, Rob Gronkowski came away with six passes for 75 yards including Brady’s sole touchdown pass. Four passes were completed to New England’s running backs, Stevan Ridley (three) and Danny Woodhead (one.) Hernandez left the game before catching a pass.
Ridley ran hard all game and ended up with 71 yards on 18 attempts, adding 24 receiving yards for a total of 95; he has established himself as the Patriots’ clear number one back. Shane Vereen (foot) was inactive again and may have difficulty earning touches upon his return. Danny Woodhead totaled 30 yards on nine touches (including a 12-yard reception) and would have scored the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter if not for a holding penalty called against tight end Rob Gronkowski. Fullback Lex Hilliard also carried the ball once for a two-yard gain and a first down, while rookie Brandon Bolden was nowhere to be found.
Despite allowing 20 points, New England’s defense performed fairly well. Ten of Arizona’s points came on short drives: a 47-yard field goal on a seven-yard drive and a two-yard touchdown catch on a two-yard drive following mistakes on offense and special teams, respectively. Unfortunately, the Patriots were unable to stop Arizona drives of 13 and nine plays on the Cardinals’ other two scores.
One of the key aspects of New England’s gameplan was evidently removing star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald from Arizona’s offense. Fitzgerald saw bracket coverage for almost the entire game and caught just one pass for four yards. Cornerback Devin McCourty also made a nice play in single coverage to break up a goal-line fade route intended for Fitzgerald. The Cardinals were forced to consider their other receiving options without much success; Todd Heap easily led the team with five catches for 62 yards, but Early Doucet was the only wide receiver with more than one catch (three for 21 yards.) The Cardinals also dedicated themselves to running the ball; they totaled 33 attempts on the ground compared to 27 attempts in the air (not including one sack.)
Running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams were limited to 57 yards on 24 carries. Williams almost cost Arizona the game with just over one minute remaining when he was stripped of the ball by Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes; nose tackle Vince Wilfork fell on the ball, setting up Stephen Gostkowski’s final field-goal attempt. Spikes had a very strong game overall, making a number of big hits and showcasing an impressive inside spin move on a blitz. New England attempted to pressure Kevin Kolb by blitzing their linebackers; Jerod Mayo was frequently used as an edge rusher. Only defensive end Rob Ninkovich recorded a sack on Kevin Kolb, but Arizona’s quarterback looked fairly uncomfortable all game. Rookie right end Chandler Jones provided the most consistent pressure, beating left tackle D’Anthony Batiste on a number of occasions and stripping Kolb at one point; the ball was recovered by rookie safety Tavon Wilson, his second turnover in as many games.
Special Teams Breakdown
Poor performances by New England’s special teams units played a large role in Arizona’s upset victory. Stephen Gostkowski converted his first four field goal attempts, accounting for New England’s four offensive scores. However, his fifth attempt, a 42-yard attempt with six seconds left on the clock, was wide left and ultimately cost New England the game, overshadowing his prior performance. Cardinals linebacker Quentin Groves blocked a Zoltan Mesko punt in the third quarter, giving Arizona the ball on New England’s two-yard line on a drive which resulted in a Kevin Kolb touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Roberts. Devin McCourty worked as New England’s kick returner (two attempts for a 23-yard average), while Julian Edelman continued to return punts (two for a 12-yard average.) The Patriots were also able to prevent Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson from doing damage on punt returns; he fielded just one for three yards.