NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
“A tale of two halves.”
It may be an overused phrase seen across sports ledes, but it was the story of what transpired at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. The New England Patriots went into halftime down 17-3 to the Miami Dolphins in the Week 8 AFC East battle. Yet through the first 30 minutes, the on-field performance signified a larger disparity than the box score.
The Patriots were stagnant on both sides of the football; the offense had totaled just 25 pass yards while the defense had allowed 103 rush yards. And in the process, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was lost to a gruesome leg injury, conjuring up the same season-ending reality that claimed defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Just when things hit rock bottom for head coach Bill Belichick and Co. – a booed three-and-out on New England’s opening third-quarter series – fortune switched sides. A sack by New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower snowballed into a missed field goal by Dolphins kicker Caleb Sturgis, and the Patriots responded with a 14-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady wide receiver Aaron Dobson. Then, after Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill was strip-sacked by cornerback Logan Ryan, a two-yard score from running back Brandon Bolden tied the game.
Before the third quarter was over, the Patriots had propelled to a 20-17 advantage by way of a 48-yard field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowski. The lead would not be relinquished, as New England went on to win, 27-17.
But if there was one play that defined the contrast between the first and second half of the Oct. 27 contest, it took place five snaps into the fourth: the assisted interception.
On 1st-and-10 from the New England 46-yard line with 13:17 to play in the final frame, Miami left the huddle in “11” personnel. Halfback Lamar Miller flanked Tannehill in shotgun, and tight end Charles Clay set up in-line off the left tackle. Neither was prepped to be utilized pass-catchers, though; they were prepped to help pass protect in the three-wide receiver set.
The Dolphins sought to attack via air with Rishard Matthews running a fade down the left sideline, Brian Hartline running a skinny post in the slot next to him, and burner Mike Wallace running an inside-out fade down the right boundary.
The Patriots countered those intentions with a 4-2 nickel alignment. Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones manned the outside of the front, defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones manned the three-technique, while linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower crept close to insinuate the blitz.
And in the secondary, New England went with a Cover-1. Right cornerback Logan Ryan took Matthews, nickelback Alfonzo Dennard took Hartline, left cornerback Marquice Cole took Wallace, safety Steve Gregory eyed the slot, and fellow safety Devin McCourty helped over top.
That help would be needed.
As Tannehill handled the snap, New England’s edge-rushers, Jones and Ninkovich, crashed the arc around their respective assignments. Concurrently, the other three Patriots rushers were met head on by the Dolphins’ interior line, affording the signal-caller pocket space.
Just before Ninkovich’s outstretched arm collided with Tannehill’s, the second-year QB got the pass off.
He got the pass off in the direction of his No. 1 target, Wallace, who had broken free from man coverage.
As the ball sailed, however, Wallace’s window of breaking free had closed.
McCourty sprinted over from the right hashes to cover the latter part of Wallace’s route. The converted corner established position on receiver’s inside shoulder, facing back towards the line of scrimmage.
From that stance, he saw Cole trailing five yards behind, recovering to the vicinity.
That recovery would be pivotal.
Fractions of a second later, McCourty left his feet to make a play on the football and eclipse Wallace. He flung his hands out to high point the ball. But in doing so, he flung himself towards a destination outside the field of play.
With Wallace waning at his back and Cole waiting at his forefront, McCourty, literally, thought off his feet as he made contact with the ball.
He wouldn’t be simply deflecting it.
The 2010 first-round draft pick thought to volley the ball to his teammate, who happened to be calling for it.
“That was all Cole,” McCourty told reporters after the game. “He just screamed, ‘Try to tip it back.’”
McCourty listened, flicking his fingertips away from his body in an effort to keep the opportunity alive.
He did. As McCourty flailed backwards, the football did not follow suit. Instead, it flailed down towards Cole.
Cole made the most of it, securing the ball palms-up just as he leaned out of bounds.
The former undrafted free agent, practice-squadder and often cut and re-signed special-teamer planted his heels inches before the perimeter.
Cole looked towards the ground. McCourty and Wallace looked at him.
The 29-year-old Northwestern landed, with the football clutched through the reverberation.
It was an interception – one of teamwork, body control and special awareness – that gave the Patriots the ball their own 18. And it was one that Cole, McCourty, Wallace and even Coach Belichick will be hard pressed to forget.
“You don’t really coach that,” Belichick said in his postgame press conference. “You don’t drill it; it’s just an instinctive and alert play by Cole that was as good an instinctive play as I think we’ve had around here in a long time. It was just a heads-up play.”
The heads-up play stifled the Dolphins, as New England’s subsequent drive ended in a third-yard touchdown by tailback Stevan Ridley. In turn, the game became 10-point divide; the Patriots had scored 24 unanswered.
Miami would not be able to answer back. After Cole’s pick, the closest head coach Joe Philbin and the Dolphins got to pay dirt was the New England 21, where a 39-yard field goal try was blocked.
Now, ultimately, the tilt was not decided solely on the linkage between McCourty and Cole. But the memorable play symbolized the value of momentum.
It’s ever changing.