Taking a closer look at Aaron Hernandez's 8-yard touchdown reception that lifted the New England Patriots to a 20-16 triumph over the Dallas Cowboys Sunday at Gillette Stadium (screenshots from Fox broadcast):
The Patriots come out with Hernandez split out wide with the two tight ends to Brady's left, receivers Deion Branch and Wes Welker to his right, and running back Danny Woodhead in the backfield. The Cowboys actually send only two rushers at the quarterback, one of which is DeMarcus Ware speed rushing off the edge. Nine others drop back into coverage to crowd the field, particularly to Brady's right where Branch and Welker are smothered.
Two key things happen here: Matt Light is able to push Ware just wide enough to buy Brady time and guard Logan Mankins has been assigned to help, protecting Brady's blindside from the relentless Ware, who already had two sacks on the day. Downfield, tight end Rob Gronkowski runs an out route at the front of the end zone, which forces safety Terence Newman to commit to him given linebacker coverage by Sean Lee. Hernandez is going to square in, using Gronkowski and Newman as a bit of a pick.
Cornerback Mike Jenkins actually does a real nice job sticking with Hernandez and he's right in his pocket as the ball is delivered. But Hernandez has the size advantage and inside leverage. Combined with a perfect ball from Brady makes it nearly impossible to defend. You can't see it in this screen capture (check out the previous one), but Woodhead does a nice job releasing into a short route just beyond the line of scrimmage, which forces linebacker Anthony Spencer to cement himself at the 5-yard line and not offer help on Hernandez cutting across. Brady does a nice job delivering the ball, particularly after 6-foot-4 defensive end Marcus Spears dropped off the line and tried to clog up the passing lane by leaping to deflect the pass as Brady zipped it in.
Hernandez, who fumbled the ball away earlier in the second half, exults with his "make it rain" celebration. After dropping a touchdown pass last week against the Jets and giving away the team's first offensive fumble of the season Sunday, it was quality atonement.
Brady breaks down the play: "They had some double coverages on the other guys. They double covered, there was a combination coverage on Wes [Welker] and Deion [Branch] and then there was a combination coverage on that other side. I was reading Gronk, [the linebacker and safety] both took Gronk and then Aaron wound up being one-on-one. He had the guy outside leveraged on the in-breaking route. He made it, ran a good route and made a great catch."
Added Hernandez: "I had an in-route and Gronkowski had an out-route. He’s a great player, so he drew the safety’s attention and I came around. Tom made a great throw and I just had to make the catch.”
While the play was executed well by the Patriots, it might have been what happened just before that made the difference. The Patriots had called a timeout before the final play that had more to do with play set-up than clock management.
Brady explains: "I think [coach Bill Belichick] was concerned with Matt [Light] because he knew he was hurting. He wanted to make sure that we had DeMarcus Ware under control. We helped him out with the protection to give us a little more time and Logan helped out on that, too. It was good. As usual, Coach was right."
Without that protection, maybe Ware gets to the quarterback and who knows what happens from there. Instead, Brady delivered the touchdown -- and the win.