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Patriots' offensive tactic with Shea McClellin sparks thoughts of Ravens playoff game

DENVER -- In the box score, the play simply reads like this: “5:55 -- T. Brady pass incomplete short middle to M. Bennett.”

But a closer look at the play, which came in the first quarter of the New England Patriots’ 16-3 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, shows how offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was experimenting with outside-the-box tactics that spark memories of the eligible/ineligible tactic from two seasons ago against the Baltimore Ravens.

Specifically, the Patriots had linebacker Shea McClellin replace left guard Joe Thuney for the play, splitting McClellin to the right side of the line of scrimmage similar to the way they employed running back Shane Vereen against the Ravens when they declared him ineligible.

The difference this time was that McClellin, who wears No. 58, did not have to declare as an ineligible receiver.

“It’s just a play, I think they’ve done it before in the past, I don’t even know what they call it,” relayed McClellin, who is in his first year with the Patriots. “They came to me a little while ago and we were practicing it, and when the right time came up, we’d run it. It was cool to have the opportunity to be out there.”

McClellin’s presence, split to the right side, drew the attention of Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller, who split out to cover him even though he was ineligible. That effectively negated Miller from the play.

McClellin, who said he hasn’t played offense before as a pro, joked that his offensive career is probably “one-and-done.”

Meanwhile, taking Thuney off the field meant his streak of playing every offensive snap this season came to an end.

“It’s been great, 14th game, but whatever the team needs to me to do, I’ll do,” Thuney said. “I’m just happy to be part of this team.”

Using the unique McClellin/Thuney switch as a springboard, which could be a preview of some more outside-the-box thinking in the playoffs, here is the weekly snap-count analysis:

Total offensive snaps: 75

Total defensive snaps: 62

OFFENSIVE LINE

LT Nate Solder – 75

C David Andrews – 75

RG Shaq Mason – 75

RT Marcus Cannon – 75

LG Joe Thuney – 74

This group has started the past eight games, and its consistency shows. Cannon was a top storyline after the game for his work against Von Miller, especially after his struggles against Miller last year. About the only mistake Cannon made was forgetting his luggage on his way out of the locker room.

QUARTERBACK

Tom Brady – 75

He was 0-for-6 after the first quarter, and nothing seemed to come easy (the way it often is in Denver), but he made some clutch throws when it counted.

TIGHT END

Martellus Bennett – 67

Matt Lengel – 15

Cameron Fleming – 11

This was a season high for Lengel, as the Patriots ran a few more traditional two-TE sets than the norm. He appeared to have one issue with alignment, which forced the team to burn a timeout.

WIDE RECEIVER

Malcolm Mitchell – 67

Chris Hogan – 52

Julian Edelman – 44

Matthew Slater – 1

When the game began, Mitchell and Hogan were the top grouping in the two-WR set, as Edelman’s workload was managed, perhaps with the thought that he was also asked to serve as the team’s punt returner with Cyrus Jones inactive. But on the fifth drive, Edelman stepped into more two-WR sets, and Brady found a level of comfort he didn’t have beforehand, connecting with Edelman on catches of 17, 15 and 12 yards.

RUNNING BACK

Dion Lewis – 28

James White – 24

LeGarrette Blount – 23

Using the team’s quicker backs as inside runners was a bigger part of the plan against Denver's fast defensive front, as Blount (who is a bit slower to the hole than Lewis) didn’t start and seven of his 23 snaps came on the team’s final drive. This is a good example of how the Patriots alter their game plan weekly to tap the strengths of their personnel based on the best way to attack the opposition.

FULLBACK

James Develin – 43

This was a season high for the hard-charging lead blocker who has become a bigger part of the offense since Rob Gronkowski’s season-ending back surgery.

SAFETY

Devin McCourty – 62

Patrick Chung – 62

Duron Harmon – 22

This wasn’t a heavy “Big Nickel” game, as the Patriots played more sub defense with three cornerbacks in a more traditional nickel. McCourty’s big hit on Demaryius Thomas along the right sideline on fourth down helped close out the game. “I was just trying to get there as quickly as possible. I’m not the biggest guy out there, so I was just trying to use my speed as power,” he said.

CORNERBACK

Malcolm Butler – 62

Logan Ryan – 62

Eric Rowe – 48

Jonathan Jones – 11

With Rowe returning from a hamstring injury, he didn’t regain his starting role but played as the No. 3 option after the first two series, in which Jones filled that spot. Ryan made his start count with his first interception, while Butler appeared to have solid coverage throughout, often shadowing Emmanuel Sanders. Cyrus Jones was inactive, and Justin Coleman has slipped to more of a special-teams-only role.

LINEBACKER

Kyle Van Noy – 51

Dont’a Hightower – 42

Shea McClellin – 20

Elandon Roberts – 11

The most impressive part of the Patriots’ defensive performance might have been that they did it with Hightower on the sideline for extended stretches as part of a rotation (and perhaps with rest for his knee in mind). Van Noy (six tackles) and McClellin are a big reason the D has turned the corner since the Nov. 20 game against San Francisco. In a different twist, Roberts started in the 4-2-5 nickel alongside Hightower before his playing time dipped as the game progressed.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Alan Branch – 36

Malcom Brown – 27

Vincent Valentine – 25

Brown missed some time in the first half (stomach) before returning, which caught the attention of his teammates. “He’s a tough player,” said McCourty, one of the team’s captains. “His stomach is hurting and he’s not feeling well, but he goes back into the locker room and gets an IV because he wants to help the team. He knew once he went down we had two defensive tackles out there, so he wanted to come back in.”

DEFENSIVE END

Trey Flowers – 41

Rob Ninkovich – 35

Chris Long – 33

Jabaal Sheard – 31

Geneo Grissom – 1

The rise of Flowers (two sacks) was noted by teammates such as Long, who said his work has been “outstanding” and that he’s been one of the team’s best players. Flowers has done a good amount of his damage as an interior pass-rusher in sub packages.