The second week of the preseason serves as a dress rehearsal for most teams since game-planning comes into play. Coaches spend more time preparing for their opponents, and their play-calling is designed to exploit weaknesses gleaned from their research.
Although winning isn't a priority, coaches want to see their first-stringers perform at a high level in limited action to get a gauge of where their team stands at this point of training camp. Let's take a look at what I learned from watching Thursday night's games:
» The Patriots' offense will be more explosive in 2011. That's a scary thought when considering the unit averaged a league-best 32.4 points per game a season ago. The versatility of the team's young players -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski -- combined with the addition of Chad Ochocinco to a veteran cast of playmakers gives New England the personnel to effectively counter every defensive tactic. The Patriots take advantage of the versatility and depth of their talent by using a variety of personnel packages and formations to test the adaptability of their opponents.
Against the Buccaneers, the Patriots mixed in "21" (two backs, two receivers and one tight end), "11" (one back, one tight end and three receivers), "12" (one back, two tight end and two receivers) and "13" (one back, three tight ends and one receiver) packages to create mismatches in space. Their clever utilization of tight, cluster and spread formations out of various personnel packages prevented the defense from properly matching up with New England's playmakers, which led to big plays.
To that point, the Patriots scored a pair of touchdowns out of their "13" package due to the defense's overreaction to the run-heavy tendency typically associated with the grouping.
Tom Brady, who connected on 11 of 19 pass attempts for 118 yards with two touchdowns, is critically important to the team's utilization of multiple packages due to his remarkable ability to execute play-action fakes in the passing game. Brady entices defenders to attack the line of scrimmage, which allows the Patriots' receivers to get open down the field. In the NFL, big plays typically come off play-action.
Also, don't discount the effectiveness of Woodhead and Green-Ellis on the ground. They combined for 114 rushing yards on 16 carries, while showing the ability to exploit seams in the defense created by the offense. If they can continue to muster solid production from their running game, the Patriots' offense will torment opponents with their balance, versatility and variety.
» The Patriots are showing a more aggressive defensive approach.Bill Belichick has scrapped the team's 3-4 in favor of more four-man lines to generate more pressure on the quarterback. This move, however, has been augmented by a more aggressive approach from the defensive guru. He incorporated several stunts along the frontline to free his defenders at the line of scrimmage. This resulted in Eric Moore and Andre Carter routinely getting clean shots on the quarterback. In addition, Belichik mixed in some linebacker blitzes with Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton designated as rushers. Mayo, in particular, was frequently used on rushes through the B and C gaps and finished the night with two sacks as a result. With Albert Haynesworth, Vince Wilfork and Gerard Warren poised to create a formidable defensive tackle rotation, the clever utilization of blitzes will ensure favorable isolated matchups along the line and result in more sacks for the Patriots in 2011.
» The zone blitz remains Michael Vick's biggest problem. Vick has made tremendous strides as a passer, but still struggles facing complex blitz pressure. The Steelers exploited that aspect by using blitz combinations with zone coverage behind it. Unlike man blitzes, which are vulnerable to hot routes, zone blitzes change the open windows based on the coverage paired with the pressure.
Against Vick, the Steelers brought pressure up the middle and from the quarterback's left while simultaneously shifting their coverage from a man look to a zone concept. The combination of pressure and pre-snap disguise baited Vick into misreads, which resulted in his three-interception performance.
Remember, the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants had success using this approach against him near the end of the season and he vowed to work on handling it during the offseason. While one dismal preseason performance shouldn't set off alarms in Philly, Vick's ongoing struggles against the zone blitz should lead the Eagles' coaching staff to come up with better solutions for dealing with the tactic in the future.
» The Eagles' defense is still vulnerable against the run. Philadelphia has assembled a talented cast of defenders, but still has issues stopping the run. The front seven was thoroughly dominated at the point of attack and failed to hold up against the physical nature of the Steelers' running game. The Eagles' inside trio of DT Cullen Jenkins, DT Tony Hargrove and LB Casey Matthews were blown off the ball, allowing Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman to roam freely between the tackles. Matthews, in particular, struggled mightily against the Steelers' isolations and powers. While his effort was admirable, Matthews' inferior size and strength become major issues when facing a downhill running game.
The Eagles have spent significant money to upgrade their defense in hopes of making a run at the title, but they must do a better job against the run to have a shot at fulfilling their potential.