NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots were put to the test at Buffalo this afternoon, barely emerging victorious via a 23-21 margin in a game which went Buffalo’s way for quite some time. Read on for five key takeaways from the Patriots’ season opener.
1. Stevan Ridley fumbles, loses lead-back responsibilities to Shane Vereen
Shane Vereen, who made only brief cameo appearances in last year’s two contests versus the Bills, lined up at both running back and wide receiver and looked dynamic, gaining seven yards on his first run and converting another first down through the air in the second quarter. Vereen uncovered himself with a spin from the receiver position shortly afterwards, but Brady missed him down the field on what may very well have been a touchdown. Starter Stevan Ridley, on the other hand, ran hard but had one early fumble overturned and lost control on another fumble midway through the second quarter which was returned for a 74-yard touchdown by Bills safety Da’Norris Searcy. After the fumble, Vereen and reserve back LeGarrette Blount stepped in for Ridley. On his next carry of the game, Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell created a massive hole which allowed Vereen to gain 21 yards.
Vereen shouldered the load for the rest of the game, looking explosive and powerful en route to an incredible 14-carry, 101-yard performance (7.2) which also included a 7-58 receiving line. It will be interesting to see what type of distribution the Patriots go with next week against the Jets, as Ridley appears to have worked his way into Bill Belichick’s doghouse, while Vereen has emerged as one of the most dangerous weapons in New England’s offense.
2. Redesigned Patriots offense devoid of contributions from the team’s tight ends
This afternoon’s game offered its first glimpse of a Patriots lineup without tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the results were mostly as anticipated: New England typically lined up with three wide receivers, but also used a two-man backfield at times, replacing the two tight-end sets which defined the Patriots’ approach last season. While a larger offensive role for rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld was anticipated, the passing game predictably emphasized New England’s group of wide receivers, with the depth chart featuring Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins on the outside and Julian Edelman in the slot.
The results were mixed, as Kenbrell Thompkins proved a low-percentage target, catching just four of fourteen targets. On the bright side, Julian Edelman was integrated into the offense more thoroughly than he was when Wes Welker was still a member of the team; Edelman caught two first-half touchdowns and secured all five throws in his direction over the first two quarters, finishing with seven catches for 79 yards. However, despite leaving the game temporarily after re-aggravating his groin injury, Danny Amendola submitted an outstanding performance which included three clutch catches on the final drive of the game, finishing with ten receptions for 104 yards on 14 targets.
3. Patriots offensive line dominates in run game, occasionally falters in pass protection
New England’s offensive line play was a mixed bag, routinely clearing big holes for Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen as part of New England’s 35-carry, 158-yard performance (which included four kneeldowns by Tom Brady) but demonstrating a lack of awareness at times in pass protection. Mike Pettine’s unpredictable blitzes caught the Patriots off-guard on a number of occasions, with strong safety Da’Norris Searcy sacking Tom Brady on a safety blitz and cornerback Ron Brooks hitting Brady on a blitz as well. While Searcy’s sack was the only one Buffalo recorded over the first half of the game, Alan Branch and Marcell Dareus both recorded quarterback hits, and Brady was additionally pushed from the pocket by Mario Williams.
The protection improved in the second half, but was overwhelmed early in the fourth quarter, with Brady being sacked by Kyle Williams in a third-and-goal situation. However, part of the responsibility on that particular play must fall to Kenbrell Thompkins, who ran an incorrect route and bumped into Julian Edelman. Overall, the line played well, although Brady took a number of nerve-wracking shots throughout the game; the unit as a whole will need to play better next week against Rex Ryan and the Jets, who run a similar scheme.
4. Patriots on the wrong end of the turnover differential, give the ball away three times
Typically an area where New England outperforms their opponents, the Patriots forced two turnovers this week but also turned the ball over three times themselves, seriously jeopardizing their chances of winning. With New England looking to extend an early 10-0 lead, running back Stevan Ridley’s fumble was returned for a 74-yard touchdown by Da’Norris Searcy, shifting the momentum in the game, with tight end Zach Sudfeld bobbling his first target, resulting in a Justin Rogers interception just before the half.
Two plays later, the Bills were in the end zone, trimming a 17-7 lead to 17-14 and giving Buffalo the momentum once again. On the next Patriots drive (discounting Tom Brady’s kneel to end the first half), Brady fumbled the ball away on the one-yard line, allowing Buffalo to preserve a 21-17 lead. Simply put, mistakes of this magnitude cannot occur again. Both Ridley and Sudfeld were severely penalized for their blunders, and this is certain to be one area of emphasis in practice this week.
5. Arrington, defensive backfield force two turnovers, allow two embarrassing touchdowns
One of the early standouts on New England’s defense this week was slot cornerback Kyle Arrington, who made impact plays throughout the contest, beginning by stripping C.J. Spiller on the Buffalo 13-yard line and setting up a short touchdown drive culminating in Tom Brady’s first touchdown pass to slot receiver Julian Edelman. Arrington forced another fumble late in the second quarter, stripping rookie wide receiver Marquise Goodwin on a crossing route. However, Arrington was burned by Stevie Johnson for a touchdown early in the third quarter despite bracket coverage from free safety Devin McCourty, giving Buffalo a 21-17 lead in the game.
The rest of the coverage was inconsistent at best, with Alfonzo Dennard dropping an interception on a well-covered pass down the left sideline intended for wide receiver Robert Woods, but either Aqib Talib or Steve Gregory making a mental error at the end of the second half which led to Woods catching a wide-open 18-yard touchdown pass on his second target of the game. With the duo of Talib and Gregory blowing coverage on the Woods touchdown, and the ineffectiveness of Arrington and McCourty’s bracket coverage on Stevie Johnson’s touchdown, we should see other teams test New England deep.