FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots might return Sunday night from Washington as AFC East champions if they beat the Redskins and the Jets fall to the Chiefs, so the scoreboard watching (both games are at 1 p.m.) should be in effect, if not for the players then at least from the fan base. But there are plenty of other topics to discuss this week, so let’s run through 20 thoughts in the newest edition of the Two-Minute Drill.
1. The Patriots’ defensive changes Sunday against the Colts weren’t simply limited to the depth chart, as Matthew Slater, Nate Jones and Niko Koutouvides played key roles. There was also an adjustment to the scheme in the front-seven.
2. The starting front-four, which played together for the majority of the game, featured Andre Carter and Rob Ninkovich at defensive end and Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love at defensive tackle. Ninkovich has been used in that role before, but it had recently been occupied by a combination of Mark Anderson and Brandon Deaderick.
3. In terms of the scheme, Carter started by playing a lot of 3-technique, which means he lined up in the B-gap and tried to beat the tackle to the inside. It was fairly effective against the run, especially with safety James Ihedigbo lining up as if he were an outside linebacker, but Carter had a tough time generating a pass rush with that technique. Carter’s most effective pass rushes in the first half came on a limited amount of snaps in his normal spot at the 5-techniqe (over the tackle’s outside shoulder). Carter did more of that in the second half.
4. Ninkovich, a defensive end in college whose primary role in New England is as an outside linebacker, took a large majority of his snaps as a defensive end, even if he looked like an outside linebacker on some plays when he started in a two-point stance. It was clear that he had defensive end responsibilities in that formation because he didn’t drop back into coverages when he was lined up over a tight end, or when the running back broke into a pass pattern out of the backfield. If Ninkovich had linebacker responsibilities, there would have been more hesitation before rushing the passer.
5. Also in that four-man line, there were a number of times when Love was on the nose and Wilfork was playing the 3-technique. I thought Wilfork was very effective in that spot.
6. Ihedigbo played on the line of scrimmage more Sunday than at any point in his career, and he had a lot of different responsibilities as something of a big-nickel safety. He contained on the rush, blitzed at times when he was on the weak side and dropped back into an underneath zone. There were a few plays when he manned up on the slot receiver or a running back on a route, too. In a lot of ways, Ihedigbo took on Ninkovich’s typical responsibilities.
7. Because of these changes, both in terms of scheme and personnel, it’s obvious Bill Belichick was trying to put guys in different situations to see what they could add to the defense. To an extent, it flies in the face of the way he talked up the Colts last week because if they were as formidable as he expressed, the Patriots would have stayed with that had been working in recent weeks.
8. Now, it definitely makes sense to try some new things at this point in the season when the Patriots are lining up against some seriously inferior opponents. They’ve got a lot more room for error, and it gives the defense more to work with when the playoffs come around.
9. Upon further review, the Patriots really weren’t playing prevent defense in the fourth quarter aside from a very limited amount of plays. There were more plays with a lack of execution, most of which were in man coverage, than they had in the first three quarters, and the Colts made some plays, too.
10. The three big plays happened on the outside. Cornerback Sterling Moore made an inexcusable mistake by getting completely turned around on wide receiver Pierre Garcon‘s first move before he caught an easy 33-yard touchdown pass. Then, Garcon caught a great pass from Dan Orlovsky for a 40-yard gain to beat Devin McCourty, though Garcon’s second foot clearly came down out of bounds, and it should have been reviewed by the booth.
11. On the next play, McCourty was caught turned around again and couldn’t make a play on the ball on Garcon’s touchdown. McCourty’s lack of awareness while playing the ball has been his biggest issue this season. He’s got to be able to read the receiver better as the ball is approaching before turning around to defend the pass.
12. One note about McCourty’s shoulder injury, which kept him out of the previous two games: He said it’s the first one he’s ever suffered. Shoulder injuries are weird, especially once they become repeat issues. Players who suffer two or three separated shoulders continue to have them pop out with more frequency. For now, McCourty’s shoulder shouldn’t be a long-term issue, but if it continues to pop out, it’s something to be concerned about.
13. One statistical correction: After reviewing the tape, tight end Rob Gronkowski‘s spike against the Colts actually traveled 35 yards — not the 31 yards I noted Sunday. He was nine yards deep in the end zone when he spiked it (I initially estimated that he was five yards in), and the ball traveled all the way to the 26-yard line. That’s just ridiculous.
14. Slater practiced at safety last week (and started there Sunday) for the first time since the 2009 preseason. He said after the Colts game that he never would have been able to re-learn the position’s responsibilities without the help of Ihedigbo. Slater also laughed at that notion because he said he couldn’t stand Ihedigbo during his four seasons with the Jets. Slater and Ihedigbo got into it on the field every time they played, Slater said, because Ihedigbo was the Patriots’ target on special teams.
“I remember the first time he came in here [after signing],” Slater said. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m glad I don’t have to play against you anymore.’ He is a great player on special teams, and he’s a great football player.
“Now we’re close teammates and out there playing together. It’s kind of ironic.”
15. Carter has turned out to be one of the Patriots’ best free-agent signings of the last five years, and this will be a big week for him as he prepares to play the Redskins after the two sides parted ways following the lockout. Carter, who has nine sacks, wouldn’t have gotten the same opportunity to contribute with the Redskins after they drafted Ryan Kerrigan. Between outside linebackers Brian Orakpo (six sacks) and Kerrigan (6.5 sacks), Carter — who played outside linebacker in Mike Shanahan‘s system — would have had a tough go of it with playing time this season in D.C.
16. Wide receiver Taylor Price‘s strange Patriots career ended unceremoniously Saturday when he was released to make room for center Nick McDonald. Based on informal calculations, I received more questions on Twitter about Price than any other player this season. Price was a third-round pick with good physical tools, but I never understood the massive amounts of fanfare for a guy who couldn’t perform well enough in practice to warrant playing time during actual games.
17. Price was on the roster for 28 real-life games (27 in the regular season, one in the playoffs, and by “real life,” I mean “not the preseason”), and he was inactive 21 times. He was in uniform for seven games, but he didn’t play a single snap in three of them. And Price was only effective in one game this preseason — coincidentally, it was against the Jaguars, who claimed him off waivers — when he caught five passes for 105 yards and one touchdown.
18. Buddy Farnham caught more passes than Price this preseason. You know who else has had a better preseason than Price during their recent New England tenure? Joey Galloway (believe it or not, he caught six passes in the 2009 preseason), Bam Childress, C.J. Jones, Terrence Nunn and Darnell Jenkins. Price couldn’t get on the field because he didn’t perform in practice. It wasn’t on the coaches or Chad Ochocinco or anyone else but Price.
19. I was under the impression that offensive lineman Ryan Wendell was in Belichick’s doghouse last week, and it was confirmed Sunday when McDonald started over him. McDonald, who played very well, got a Super Bowl ring last season with the Packers. He said his ring is safely locked up at home, and his Patriots teammates have gone to his place to see the ring.
20. It was a strange scene Sunday when Patriots fans booed kicker Adam Vinatieri during his lone field-goal attempt, and it was stranger when you consider that, just hours earlier, Patriots fans were lined up to get autographs from Peyton Manning behind the Colts bench.