After re-watching the second half of the Patriots' Week 13 win over the Miami Dolphins, in which they clinched yet another AFC East division title, passing along some notes and observations.
1. Late in the game, it was Matthew Slater who was called upon to fill a third receiver role in the absence of Julian Edelman (foot), but he had long made his mark on special teams by that point. Credit Slater for at least three tackles on punt plays (including a first-half tackle when the Dolphins were attempting a punt). In the second half, Slater twice flew down the field as a gunner and corralled a Dolphins returner within yards of him receiving the football. The Patriots' ability to flip the field and win the battle of field position is an underrated aspect to their continued success in 2012.
2. On the Dolphins' opening drive of the second half, they faced a third & 9 play and opted for an empty offensive set. The Patriots were in their sub defensive personnel, with Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo on the field as linebackers. Hightower drew the assignment of covering running back Reggie Bush in man-to-man defense, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill looked his way. A poor throw from Tannehill prevented a completion, and though Bush was able to generate enough separation to provide a window to throw to, it's notable that the Patriots put Hightower in a man-to-man situation against such a talented back. That's a sign of trust in the young linebacker, who continues to play very well in his rookie season.
3. The Patriots have been rock solid of late in situational football, but a letdown on a third & 4 with just under 11 minutes to play in the third quarter knocked them out of field-goal range. Brady took a shotgun snap and short set in his dropback, with the Dolphins bringing just three men in pass pressure. One of those players was defensive end Cameron Wake, who looked like he was shot out of a cannon in darting around right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, quickly turning the corner and drilling an exposed Brady. The sack pushed the Patriots out of range for kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and it was one of the bigger hits Brady has received this season. As Brady said of the play during a radio interview with WEEI on Monday morning, "He got a good hit, there's no question, but I'm glad I came out of it OK."
4. Slot cornerback Kyle Arrington had a very strong day in covering pesky receiver Davone Bess on Sunday, and he also was called upon to generate some pressure on Tannehill. With just under nine minutes to play in the third quarter, the Patriots sent Arrington on a designed blitz off the edge, well-disguised by press coverage from Arrington. The quick defensive back was in the area of Tannehill before running back Daniel Thomas had enough time to see he was coming, allowing Arrington to get a relatively clean shot on the quarterback. Tannehill managed to release the ball before taking a sack, but the pressure from Arrington shouldn't go unnoticed. The Patriots don't blitz with their secondary players a whole lot, but Arrington made his chance count. On the following play, he made a sure-fire tackle to prevent Bess from picking up a first down.
5. The "All-22" tape isn't yet available for this game, and that's the vantage point that allows us to see the entire field and follow coverage schemes from a defense. But without having seen it yet (it's typically available on Wednesday mornings), it looked as though the Patriots played a decent amount of defense in which they put their perimeter corners on an island. Aqib Talib had his first penalty as a Patriot on Sunday, but he showed some of the man coverage skills that we believed he would bring to this defense, and did a nice job on some sideline routes run by Brian Hartline. With a matchup against the Houston Texans and receiver Andre Johnson just one week away, the Patriots could once again turn to Talib to take on an opponent's best wideout.
6. Masterful play call and design to open the fourth quarter, as Brady hooked up with tight end Aaron Hernandez on a big play that set the Patriots up on the Dolphins' one-yard line. Brady used a hard, extended play fake on third & 1 to draw the defense in, and Hernandez -- aligned in a wing formation on the right side of the line -- gained width as a blocker before sneaking out toward the sideline. Brady arced the throw right over the defense, and Hernandez dashed down the sideline for a big gain. It was an extremely well-timed play call that was executed to near perfection.
7. The Hernandez play was followed by a regrettable series of events for the Patriots, as on first and goal guard Donald Thomas was slow to pull out of his stance and pick up a back-side rusher (safety Reshad Jones), who sacked Brady. On second & goal, Wes Welker dropped what should have been a score to put the Patriots up by 14 points, and on third and goal linebacker Koa Misi came off the edge to sack Brady on a play that involved not only a letdown in protection, but very good coverage from the Dolphins' secondary. A field goal gave the Patriots a 10-point cushion, but a touchdown may have put the game out of reach with just 10 minutes left.
8. More props for Arrington: On a third and 5 from the Patriots' 26-yard line, Tannehill dropped back to throw, but eventually was forced to elude pressure and scramble outside of the pocket to his left. Arrington was in coverage on the play and running away from Tannehill's scramble when he saw the quarterback make his move, and he quickly put on the brakes in his coverage and sprinted toward the sideline, making a tremendously instinctve play to chase down the quarterback just inches shy of a first down.
9. The Patriots' offense did what it had to do on its final drive of the game (excluding the kneel-down to run the clock out), and that was take time off the clock, force the Dolphins to use their timeouts, and extend the lead to two scores. It was the kind of drive that separates the great teams from the good ones, and credit the offensive line for playing full-steam ahead, power football. The Patriots did a nice job of getting to the second level and picking up linebackers, as well as using pulling guards to provide a lead blocker for both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. The Dolphins front seven was physical and tough all game, but the Patriots wore it down when it needed to most.
10. Four other notes from that drive: The conditioning of the Patriots stood out during the long drive on a hot day. The Patriots haven't played in a climate like that in quite some time, and the offensive line showed few signs of wearing down. If anything, Miami looked like the tired team. ... What a catch by Brandon Lloyd on the sideline, as he sprawled to make the tip-toe grab for a first down. It was the only ball thrown his way all afternoon. ... More situational football: the decision to have Brady dive toward the middle of the field on third and goal from the two-yard line -- rather than trying to punch it in for a touchdown -- was a shrewd tactic by Bill Belichick. He played the percentages, put his kicker in the best possible spot to make an easy field goal, and erased the risk of a fumble near the goal line. ... Finally, it was a surprise to see the Dolphins go without defensive end Cameron Wake and defensive tackle Jared Odrick for much of the drive. Hard to figure that one out.