After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' Week 17 win over the Dolphins, passing along picked up notes and observations.
1. The second half started about as well as the Patriots could have asked for, as they got a good kickoff from Stephen Gostkowski paired with terrific coverage and unfortunate circumstances for Miami. Gostkowski put some air under the ball, allowing his coverage players to get down the field, and the ball was fielded at the one-yard line, forcing Marcus Thigpen to return it. The ball also angled directionally to the left, the opposite direction of where the Dolphins had called for their return to be set up. That meant Thigpen was forced to run about 40 yards to gain five, as linebacker Niko Koutovides took him down deep in Dolphins territory.
2. One area to continue to monitor in the playoffs, and one that we've talked about in this space before, is the Patriots linebackers in pass coverage against running backs. Reggie Bush was able to outflank Jerod Mayo on at least one occasion yesterday, and other runners have done the same this season. With a potential first round playoff matchup against a back such as Arian Foster or Ray Rice, this is an area for the Patriots to be cognizant of defensively. Mayo is their best coverage linebacker amongst the starting trio, but the group has room for improvement on the whole.
3. After the game, Bill Belichick noted that individual stats can be overrated. He was speaking within the context of sacks, as the Patriots registered seven in total yesterday, and many as the result of a group effort. For example, veteran defensive end Trevor Scott got up the field and was able to turn the shoulders of right tackle Nate Garner on a 2nd-and-10 rush with 12:30 to play in the third quarter. That pressure forced Ryan Tannehill to step up into the pocket, where Vince Wilfork was awaiting his arrival. Though Wilfork corralled Tannehill to earn the sack, it was the hard work of Scott that helped make it happen. On the next play, Scott was credited with a sack thanks in part to Justin Francis and Brandon Deaderick, as the events came full circle.
4. In a league where playing pass defense has become increasingly difficult, Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington made a very nice pass break-up with just under seven minutes to play in the third quarter. Arrington showed good reactive athleticism to mirror the in-breaking route, and a good trigger out of his transition to get his up-field arm around the intended receiver to cleanly deflect the football without making any contact. Arrington has been called on to play a bigger role of late with Aqib Talib nursing a hip injury, and has picked up his play since a slower start to the 2012 season.
5. The Patriots took over on their own one-yard line late in the third quarter after sloppy ball handling by Tannehill and Bush. On their very first play of the drive, they attempted to throw the football, although quarterback Tom Brady faced heavy pressure on a blitz from Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby. Running back Stevan Ridley had pass blocking responsibilities on the play, and whiffed on an effort to deter Dansby. Ridley attempted a cut block, but Dansby eluded the attempt with relative ease. That's a block Ridley must make going forward.
6. Ridley did do well to atone for the missed block on the following play, however, as he pushed the Patriots away from their own goal line with an 11-yard run. Tight end Daniel Fells threw a key edge-setting block on the play to give Ridley a natural alley to hit, while receiver Wes Welker boxed out the cornerback to create leverage for Ridley. From there, the second-year running back broke three tackles and used a late spin move to earn the first down. Good execution all around.
7. The "Gronk Spike" that followed it may not have been as emphatic as many are accustomed to seeing, but the way that Rob Gronkowski scored his fourth quarter touchdown was a vintage staple of his role within the offense. Gronkowski and Hernandez aligned in a "YY" formation to the left side of the line, with Hernandez lined up a yard off the hip of Gronkowski and a yard off the line of scrimmage. Both pushed vertically on the play, which was a play action pass. The Dolphins countered with a three-deep look that forced the middle of the field safety to play between the hashes. By the time the Dolphins recognized the pass, it was too late, as the tight ends were each down the field, with Gronkowski wide-open over the middle. With Gronkowski on the field, the Patriots play action passing game is that much more lethal.
8. Derrick Martin registered his first sack as a Patriot on a fourth-quarter blitz, and while credit is due to the veteran defensive back, also noteworthy on the play was the anchor of Dolphins left tackle Jonathan Martin. Martin, a second-round pick, protected the blindside of Andrew Luck while the two were teammates at Stanford. He began his season as a right tackle, but shifted over to the left side when Jake Long went down with a triceps injury. Martin's struggle in anchoring his base and taking on power pass rushers has stood out in that time, and to be pushed back by a defensive back is a sign he needs to bulk up this offseason. Long is a free agent, and Martin could be called upon to become the full-time left tackle for the promising Tannehill.
9. One thing that stood out relating to the Patriots pass rush throughout the game is that the team seemed to hold one rusher in a contain alignment so as to not allow Tannehill, a former college wide receiver, to break the pocket and scramble with his legs. The Dolphins have used more read-option plays in recent weeks, although that wrinkle hardly appeared on Sunday. Whether it was Wilfork in the middle or a rusher off the edge keeping contain, the Patriots looked intent on making sure Tannehill did not do damage on his feet. With seven sacks, one interception and just 235 passing yards allowed on the day, the defense deserves high marks.
10. If the Patriots are to advance far in the playoffs, it will require them beating teams that they have already played this season. The mark of a good team is one that can adjust in areas that it struggled with from one meeting to the next, and the Patriots played at a much higher level against the Dolphins in Week 17 than they did back in Week 13. Primary areas of concern in that game were an inability to run the football early and protection of Brady. On Sunday, the Patriots allowed just one sack (it came on a cornerback blitz) and rushed for 167 yards. With a rematch against one of three potential opponents in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the Patriots will aim to improve upon areas that they struggled with in the first meetings, as well as execute in areas that were successful, like they did on Sunday.