NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
While 34 completions, 364 yards and two touchdowns convey otherwise, the New England Patriots passing game was condensed in Sunday’s 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
Without tight end Rob Gronkowski attracting defenders off the line, without rookie wideouts Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins stretching the edges of the field, and without left tackle Nate Solder enduring blocks off the blind side, New England’s offense was forced to change shape.
The unit did so with backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui supplanting Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and fourth-round pick Josh Boyce occupying the top three wide receiver spots, and left guard Logan Mankins transitioning to left tackle.
The modifications exchanged size and downfield presence for short, timing routes built to exploit Miami’s off-man and press-ball coverage while preserving quarterback Tom Brady.
The offense remained relatively efficient through the process. Brady was sacked once, hurried 12 times and hit seven times, according to Pro Football Focus, but the Patriots managed to sustain drives of 16, 10, 15 and 12 plays long.
As those four drives merged into the red zone, however, New England’s undermanned and undersized attack revealed its side effects.
Only one drive inside the 20 resulted in a touchdown.
Albeit in a less prolific campaign, the Patriots have scored touchdowns on 55 percent of inside-the-20 trips this season, per TeamRankings.com. Over the team’s last three contests, that clip has risen above 63 percent. Although in Week 15, the unit’s conversion rate was just 25 percent.
It was a deficiency that Brady discussed Monday during his weekly radio appearance on WEEI.
“We do things well enough at times to move the ball down the field, get ourselves in good position,” Brady said. “But then we don’t do enough to make plays when we really need to make them.”
In order to understand why the Patriots faltered near the end zone on Dec. 15, it’s important to understand why previous occasions netted different results. And New England’s meeting with Miami in Week 8 provided a point of reference.
During that Oct. 27 battle at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots permeated the end zone for scores on three of four possessions. The likes of the 6’6”, 265-pound Gronkowski and the 6’3”, 200-pound Dobson were key components in that success, especially as New England faced a 14-point deficit with 8:33 remaining in the third quarter of play.
At that juncture, a 2nd-and-6 from the Miami 14-yard line, the Patriots went five-wide with running back Brandon Bolden motioning outside.
For offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Co., the objective was to pull the Dolphins secondary close on Amendola’s pivot route from the left slot and Austin Collie’s five-yard in from the right slot. If influential, it would create a layer downfield, with Dobson running a sluggo route from the “X,” Gronkowski running a deep dig from the “Y,” and Bolden running a vertical pattern from the “Z.”
Miami’s defense countered with off-man coverage, aligning right cornerback Nolan Carroll opposite Dobson, third safety Jimmy Wilson opposite Amendola, strong safety Chris Clemons opposite Collie’s, and left cornerback Brent Grimes opposite Brandon Bolden.
The Dolphins had another form of coverage in mind for Gronkowski, one that would require the services of left defensive end Cameron Wake, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, as well as free safety Reshad Jones. The trio sought to blanket him inside, outside and overhead.
As Brady handled the shotgun snap, linebacker Phillip Wheeler blitzed the left B-gap between Solder and Mankins. But by the time the six-year pro reached the 14-year pro, an open target had broken free from man coverage.
It wasn’t Gronkowski, who was blanketed by the three-man brigade. Instead, it was Dobson, who sold the in-cut and arced back around Wilson towards the end zone.
Just before Brady was knocked by the Dolphins pass-rusher, he released the ball. It connected with Dobson, veering back inward to make the grab for a TD.
Spreading the field thin from “11” personnel thrust three safeties and a linebacker into coverage. The middle of the field was inhabited in an effort to contain Gronkowski, but the sidelines were deemed testable. And consequently, within two seconds of retrieving the football, Brady was able to send it on its way to Dobson for a 14-yard TD.
The Dolphins defense reared a similar coverage nearly two months later at Sun Life Stadium, as New England’s route-runners were allowed free releases off the line of scrimmage. Yet this time around, the results were altered.
One particular play – a 2nd-and-5 from the Miami 14 – the differing results proved evident.
With the Patriots trailing by four and out of timeouts with 12 seconds remaining, there was little element of surprise for the Dolphins. New England was going to pass it. Miami was going to pin their ears back and dare them to.
The Patriots employed “11” personnel with receiving back Shane Vereen abutting Brady in blitz pickup, and Hoomanawanui in a two-point stance off the left side of the line prepped for a comeback route. Out left, Collie – replacing an injured Boyce – readied for a short streak. In the slot, Amendola was geared for the same.
Out right at the flanker, Edelman leaned in for a stutter fade towards the right pylon.
Conversely, Miami displayed a 4-2 nickel with eight defenders in the box. Without the threat of the run, the front was set to bring a five-man rush with Ellerbe blitzing the interior from linebacker territory, and Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins dropping back in man versus Hoomanawanui.
The encroaching safety tandem of Jones and Clemons sugared an underneath zone. Wilson lingered in off-man on Collie. And former San Francisco 49ers practice-squadder Michael Thomas and rookie third-rounder Will Davis shipped press-bail technique opposite Amendola and Edelman, respectively.
Brady harness the snap and immediately angled front foot and shoulder towards the right corner of the end zone in the direction of Edelman. Albeit his first option, the rest of New England’s potential pass-catchers were covered well by the man defenders and zone help.
Edelman, who had already tied a career-best 13 receptions and reached a new best with 139 yards, stepped in and out to create space against Davis. The 5’10”, 198-pound receiver had established the outside over the 5’11”, 186-pound cornerback. Nonetheless, Davis’ inside shoulder matched Edelman’s hip stride for stride.
With alternatives blanketed, Brady released the football in vicinity of Edelman and Davis. The ball was charted towards boundary, where his teammate could snare it and fall out of bounds or into the end zone.
As the airborne ball reached its apex and descended, Edelman looked back and adjusted. That gave Davis a fraction of a second to close in at the foreground and brush arms with his assignment.
Edelman lunged out with his right hand up, but Davis’ coverage had absorbed the inside. The Kent State product was left on the outside looking in, while Davis could not locate the ball.
The ball made contact with Edelman’s outstretched hand, just as Davis rotated back towards the field of play.
The pass would not get any closer. It grazed Edelman’s fingertips before flailing to the grass beside No. 11.
Despite Edelman’s discontent over Davis’ tight closing coverage, the pass was ruled incomplete.
Two plays later, the game was decided.
In many ways, Miami’s defense adopted the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy that New England has embodied over the seasons. The coverage conceded the short game and tested the after-catch abilities of the Patriots receivers. It was a plan that gave way to yards, yet it was also a plan left points off the board.
The Patriots offense spent 15 official plays in the red zone – four runs and 11 passes. When it was final, two field goals, one touchdown and one turnover were collected.
From the backfield, LeGarrette Blount garnered three carries for 11 yards, while Stevan Ridley garnered one carry for two yards. Ultimately, though, the ground did not bear the same workload as the air.
In the passing game, Vereen was targeted twice to no avail, as was Amendola. Boyce and Collie were thrown to once apiece; Collie’s target found its way into the hands of Dolphins newcomer, Thomas, for the game-clinching interception.
Edelman was the lone Patriots wide receiver to secure a pass inside the 20, recording one six-yard reception over the course of three attempts. And out of the tight end grouping, it was Hoomanawanui who reeled in the Patriots’ lone red-zone TD – a one-handed 13-yard catch in the second quarter.
Cumulatively, Miami’s red-zone defense held Brady and the Patriots offense to 13 rushing yards on four attempts, and 19 passing yards on two completions in 11 attempts.
The front applied pressure. The secondary made it a jump-ball battle. And in turn, New England’s succinct approach to acquiring first downs was not conducive to acquiring touchdowns.