After re-watching the first half of the Patriots' Week 17 win over the Dolphins, passing along picked up notes and observations.
1. The influence of tight end Rob Gronkowski extended beyond catches and yards yesterday, as his presence was felt from the moment he stepped back on the field. On the very first snap of the game, the Dolphins looked to be in Cover 3 defense, with four defenders playing the underneath part of the field. Tight end Aaron Hernandez aligned to the same side as Gronkowski, splitting out wide. Gronkowski ran a vertical route up the seam, while Hernandez ran an inward-breaking route underneath Gronk. The hook-curl zone player in the area of the route combination had carried Gronkowski up the field, opening up space for Hernandez. On the very next play, the Dolphins looked to be playing man defense with two over-the-top safeties. Gronk was picked up by a linebacker near the line of scrimmage, but a safety also came crashing down to bracket him over the top. That left running back Danny Woodhead with ample space up the right sideline, and he took a short pass for big yardage down the field. Whether or not he's catching a pass, Gronkowski still alters nearly every play.
2. The Patriots aren't often aligned in a 3-4 front, but the principle of two-gap control hasn't been tossed away from their defensive playbook as a result of it. On the Dolphins’ first offensive play of the game, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork engaged his blocker, rode him laterally down the line, staying square and maintaining leverage on the block before finally disengaging and wrapping up running back Reggie Bush for virtually no gain. The form was, unsurprisingly, textbook from Wilfork, and a reminder of the way the Patriots have long worked to defend the run -- with discipline, technique-based defense. They aren't a gap-shooting team, although they have incorporated more linebacker stunts against the run, which Brandon Spikes ran on the first play. The run defense starts with Wilfork, and he almost always makes it count.
3. On a day in which blustering winds made kicking a difficult chore, Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko landed one of his better punts, albeit one of his shortest too, of the season. Facing the north end zone of Gillette Stadium, where a large opening invites additional winds, Mesko skied a 25-yard punt to pin the Dolphins at their own eight-yard line. Earlier in the game, we saw the Patriots go for it on 4th & 6 from the Dolphins 24-yard line rather than attempt a 40-plus yard field goal, and then we saw Miami try a field goal and see the ball hook right-to-left. The conditions were undeniably tough, so credit Mesko for coming up with a big kick -- even if it wasn't a long one.
4. Strong read by safety Steve Gregory on his first-quarter interception, as he was a roaming defender with the Patriots playing man coverage across the board on the Dolphins four targets in the pattern. The Patriots rushed six players up front, forcing a quick throw from Ryan Tannehill, and Gregory stepped in front of it with the help of very good underneath coverage from cornerback Kyle Arrington. Gregory has shown himself to be at his best in a center field, free safety role, particularly defending the intermediate passing game, where all three of his picks this year have come.
5. Breaking down the touchdown throw to Wes Welker that followed the Gregory interception: Welker motioned from left to right prior to the snap, closing in on the end of the line. That created a modified bunch formation with Gronkowski and Hernandez, and the Dolphins appeared to counter with a combination coverage featuring man coverage on the perimeter and zone coverage in the middle of the field. Two linebackers had underneath coverage, while two safeties worked over the top. Welker continued on his path at the snap, pressing down the line before almost sneaking in front of the linebacker and safety to the left side of the field. Tracking a motioning player can be difficult for a defensive player, and Welker was untouched on his way to the end zone.
6. Screen throws, even though short in distance, are difficult ones for quarterbacks to make. They require touch, anticipation, and, of course, accuracy. Brady hit Woodhead on a screen with just under two minutes left in the first quarter on what was a terrific throw. Defensive tackle Paul Soliai sniffed the screen out early and was in the vicinity of Woodhead, but Brady placed the football on Woodhead's outside shoulder, far enough from Soliai to not make a play, and in a spot that started Woodhead's momentum toward the sidelines, not toward the middle of the field. The result was a big gain due to some strong downfield blocking, but don't overlook the throw, even one that traveled less than 10 yards.
7. Digging back into the Week 13 archives, some will remember the Patriots being fortunate when Tannehill missed receiver Brian Hartline down the field on what looked like a coverage bust. Yesterday, the Patriots were once again fortunate when Tannehill missed a wide open receiver down the field, but it wasn't a result of a coverage bust, just poor coverage. Safety Tavon Wilson was beaten at the top of the route from Bush, who had a few steps on him down the field, but Tannehill was way off the mark with his throw. The secondary played solid on the whole yesterday, but caught a break on that play.
8. A thought on the vertical routes run by receiver Brandon Lloyd: it often seems as though Lloyd runs his routes tight to the sideline, which doesn't give him much room for error in the event that a throw is slightly off the mark. It also doesn't give him much room to work with when he does catch the football. The line of the route is due in part to the coverage he faces, but it seems as though Lloyd could do well to try to work slightly closer to the middle of the field on his downfield routes to open up more space for big plays.
9. The Patriots got tricky on a 3rd & 1 play with just under six minutes to play in the first half, calling for a direct snap to running back Stevan Ridley while Brady was simulating calling for an adjustment. The key, formationally, was that Brady's motion was not toward the line of scrimmage. As the ball was snapped, Brady was moving laterally (perhaps even a bit backwards), which kept the motion legal.
10. Some of it was due to penalties (which took additional time off the clock), but the clock management by the Patriots on their final drive of the first half was outstanding: 14 plays, 6:24 taken off the clock, and the Dolphins were left with just a single timeout and 1:00 on the clock for their final possession. The Patriots converted on key third downs, ran the ball effectively with three different backs and worked the play clock masterfully. There have been a couple of clock management situations at the end of halves earlier in the year that haven't worked out exactly as planned, but the Patriots ironed out the details and made things click on the final possession.