New England’s defense allowed 245 total yards on offense, and most importantly, held All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald
to just one reception for four yards on five targets. The Patriots had
just three cornerbacks out on defense for the entire game, which did not
include last year's second round pick Ras-I Dowling. Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington were the starters at left cornerback and right cornerback, respectively, while Sterling Moore would enter the game in nickel situations and play right cornerback, shifting Arrington to the slot.
Since the Patriots keep their cornerbacks planted on their respective side of the defense, they didn't have one particular player following
Fitzgerald around the field. That meant that McCourty was lined up with Fitzgerald on 12 passing plays, Moore had him for 10, Arrington had him for six and linebacker Jerod Mayo had to cover him in the slot once. Fitzgerald's only reception was on
the play he went in motion forcing the linebacker to cover him.
New England held Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb to just 140 yards despite blitzing on only six plays. The Patriots were successful when they sent linebackers in to blitz allowing two receptions for 13 yards and drawing a holding penalty.
In the Patriots zone defense, coach Bill Belichick pays little attention to the short-middle of the field, allowing running backs mostly free reign to catch the ball while linebackers and safeties cover the deeper-middle portions of the field. The Cardinals had three completions on five targets for 31 yards on those plays that
McCourty was especially impressive, and might have played the best game of his career. He was targeted four times in the game and allowed zero receptions. His best play was when the Cardinals had the ball on the Patriots' 2-yard-line after they blocked Zoltan Mesko's punt. Kolb threw a slant route to the corner of the end zone to Fitzgerald and McCourty had the Cardinals' receiver absolutely blanketed. Hopefully we'll be seeing the McCourty of 2010, not the one who struggled in 2011. You could make an evil twin joke here, but McCourty’s not so evil twin already plays in Tennessee, and evil triplet jokes might be going too far.
Moore played a nice game as well, after having a mostly subpar preseason. Moore may just be one of those players that turns up his game when it really counts, as we saw last year in the playoffs against Baltimore. Moore was targeted just twice and allowed two receptions for 13 yards, one being the touchdown the Cardinals scored from the Patriots two-yard-line. Moore was on the receiving end of a great pick on that play set by tight end Todd Heap, which took him out of a screen pass to Andre Roberts.
Arrington was the one cornerback that struggled at times; he allowed three receptions on three targets for 47 yards. The most notable play he whiffed on was a 28-yard reception by Heap where he misjudged his coverage, and then got juked by a 32-year-old, 252-pound tight end. That's just unacceptable.
All three safeties to see the field on defense played great. Their main responsibilities were to cover the deep half of the field and to help out in double coverage on Fitzgerald. Tavon Wilson was targeted two times and allowed one reception for 11 yards. Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung were each targeted once and neither allowed a reception. After last year's debacle at safety, this was especially refreshing to see.
The linebackers covered better than in past weeks as well. The Patriots
likely have the biggest linebackers in the league, especially since bringing in Dont'a Hightower who clocks in at 270 pounds. That heft is mostly kept around to stop the run, which the Patriots do spectacularly, and it would be forgivable to see them struggle in pass coverage. This group has done a great job so far this season though. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes allowed three receptions on four targets for 21 yards, weak side linebacker Mayo was targeted three times for two receptions and 13 yards while rookie strong side linebacker Hightower allowed just one 12 yard
reception on two targets.
It would have been nice to see the Patriots get the win with such great pass coverage, but if you're looking for small victories, this is one to point to. Kolb didn't play a great game behind center, but last year, even bad quarterbacks were torching the Patriots.
Last year's secondary allowed four signal callers who are either not starting this year, or are completely out of the league to pass for over 300 yards on them. Chad Henne passed for 416 in last year's season opener, Jason Campbell threw for 344 yards, Vince Young threw for 400 yards and Dan Orlovsky threw for 353 yards. The Patriots also allowed good games from two other quarterbacks not starting this year – Rex Grossman and Matt Moore. Even Tyler Palko — by far the worst starting quarterback in the league last year — threw for 234 yards on the 2011 New England secondary.
If the Patriots offense can recapture their Week 1 performance, and the
defense keeps playing to such a high level, this Cardinals game could just be one blip on an otherwise successful season.