After re-watching the first half of the Patriots Week 13 win over the Miami Dolphins, passing along some picked-up pieces and observations.
1. It didn't take long for the Patriots to cash in on a Dolphins miscue, as special teams standout Matthew Slater tackled punter Brandon Fields after a poor snap left him attempting to run for dear life. That gave the Patriots the ball on the 12-yard line, and six plays later (including penalties), they would cash in for a two-yard score from Stevan Ridley. Three of those six plays were throws intended for tight end Aaron Hernandez, who had his best outing of the season with 97 yards receiving. We noted in this space that Hernandez provides the Patriots with arguably their most dynamic red zone weapon (fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski is surely up there as well) because he keeps a defense honest. The Patriots can usher out Hernandez in so many different alignments, assignments and formations that it keeps a defense guessing between a run and pass play. Hernandez is a good effort blocker who squares his frame up very well, and his receiving ability is obvious. His value on the goal line was especially apparent on a 1st & goal play in which quarterback Tom Brady ran a play fake before looking for Hernandez in the back of the end zone. Defenses often rely on man coverage to counter goal line sets from an offense, and there's no consistent answer to defending Hernandez one-on-one.
2. This isn't a suggestion that the Patriots don't miss rookie defensive end Chandler Jones (or fellow pass rusher Jermaine Cunningham), but it did appear that having veteran Trevor Scott allowed them to incorporate some new defensive wrinkles. Specifically, Scott was used as a man-to-man coverage player on a tight end, as he checked tight end Anthony Fasano on the second play of the Dolphins' second drive. Scott showed like he was going to rush before walking over Fasano for the man-to-man assignment. The Patriots may have used Scott in this way both because of his good reactive athleticism and instincts, and also because Fasano is just an average athlete for his position. Nonetheless, Scott made his mark early and often in his first start as a Patriot, finishing with two critical sacks on the day.
3. The Patriots were typically strong on third down again Sunday, and a massive 3rd & 10 conversion on their second offensive drive highlighted what the team continues to do so well. The Dolphins brought pressure with just four players, but used a pair of "game" rushes from their tackles and ends in which the ends looped back inside around the tackles, who were working up the field and stretching the pocket horizontally. The Patriots delay-released running back Danny Woodhead from the backfield and picked up the rush with five linemen. Brady had just enough time to hit receiver Julian Edelman on a perimeter route, and the route seemed like it was run to perfection. Edelman not only had enough yardage for the first down, but the split second he got his head around and back toward Brady, the ball was right above his frame and in a spot for him to make a play. Impressive chemistry.
4. A pregame workout with team trainers suggests that right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was a true gametime decision for the Patriots, and it probably wasn't the best effort he has had in 2012. He was flagged for a holding penalty on a run by Ridley in the first quarter after the Patriots hurried up to the line of scrimmage, and the play seemed to encapsulate some of his struggles on the day. Vollmer was a step slower than defensive end Cameron Wake off the snap, and got stuck grabbing and reaching on the play. Wake would later best Vollmer for a sack of Brady, and the right tackle seemed to get caught high in his stance during portions of the game. That's a sign that a player is dealing with something physically.
5. After earning their first first down of the afternoon, the Dolphins attempted a shot play down the field intended for wide receiver Brian Hartline, who blew past the Patriots secondary and was wide open for what would have been an easy score. It's difficult to say with certainty based on the available replays, but it looked as though safety Steve Gregory was drawn in by the play fake of Ryan Tannehill on the play, which may have been one of the reasons that Hartline was so wide open. The coverage drops of the Patriots linebackers suggest the team was playing Cover 4, in which Gregory would have responsibility down the field to prevent deep throws, as would cornerback Aqib Talib, who after the play gestured toward Gregory to suggest a miscommunication. Without knowledge of the coverage call and limited replay angles, it's tough to precisely dissect this one, but it sure looked like a coverage bust and a fortunate break for the Patriots.
6. For the first time in 201 attempts, Brady was intercepted on Sunday, ending a streak of pick-less football that extended over a month-and-a-half period. The throw came in the first quarter on an attempted wheel route to Hernandez down the right sideline, but Dolphins safety Reshad Jones made an amazing play to navigate through traffic, pick up Hernandez in man-to-man coverage and snag the one-handed catch. Credit is due to Jones for the effort, as the throw was one that actually landed in a pretty good spot.
7. Just because a strategy doesn't pay off as intended, it doesn't mean it wasn't sound in its logic. On Sunday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick called a timeout in the closing seconds of the first quarter to ensure that the Dolphins would have to attempt a field goal toward the end to the right of the Patriots' sideline. That end zone was where more adverse winds were swirling on Sunday, and Belichick took the timeout so as to make the try off the foot of kicker Dan Carpenter more difficult (Carpenter has already missed five field goals from 40-plus yards this season). In the end, Carpenter still made the kick from 44 yards, but Belichick's strategy shouldn't be considered a miscalculation. He often dives into the importance of situational football for his players, and this was a case of situational coaching.
8. Not sure I can recall the Patriots using this set in 2012, but we saw it on Sunday: Brady took a shotgun snap as he was flanked by Woodhead on his left and, of all people, Wes Welker on his right. The guess here is that it was an attempt to isolate Welker in coverage and make it more difficult for a defensive back to track and keep up with him. Welker escaped out of the backfield to the right, running off of a natural pick from a slant route run by Brandon Lloyd, who was aligned to the right side of the formation. Welker found open space, but his route came up short of the first down, and the Patriots were forced to punt. Always intriguing to see the new wrinkles offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the staff comes up with.
9. Kind of the perfect storm of factors went into the Patriots' easy second touchdown of the day, as Brady hooked up with Welker on a slip screen for a virtual walk-in score. The Dolphins were bringing pressure on the play, which made it even easier for center Ryan Wendell and Vollmer to get out in space as blockers (the defensive linemen weren't attempting to gap them or hold them up on the play), and all it took was a quick throw from Brady and a nice seal block on the edge from Lloyd to spring Welker into a path led by his two linemen. The blitz left the Dolphins with just two players to account for Lloyd and Welker, and they were easily picked up on his way to the end zone.
10. We mentioned defensive end Trevor Scott once already, and his first half sack that forced a fumble of Tannehill was a beauty. Scott fired off the snap, got right tackle Nate Garner stuck in a bad spot with his shoulders turned toward the sideline, and Scott worked a nifty hands move to sneak around the corner before exploding toward Tannehill for the big play. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork fell on the football, which gave him a share of the NFL lead with teammate Rob Ninkovich for the most fumbles recovered this season (four). Scott made his 50 snaps count on Sunday.
Extra point: High marks to the Dolphins for their final drive to close the first half. The drive spanned 95 yards (after two penalties pushed them back from the 20 to five-yard line), and it was a deliberate, methodical march that included very good clock management. Tannehill's sprawling score capped off what might have been the best drive an opponent has had against the Patriots during the team's current six-game winning streak. Center Mike Pouncey displayed excellent strength at the point of attack as a run blocker on that drive and throughout the day.