- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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1. The first thing to consider, from a defensive standpoint, is how the Patriots decided to match up against the Dolphins. Against the three-receiver package with Charles Clay at tight end, the Patriots played a 4-2-5 nickel with Jamie Collins alongside Dont'a Hightower at linebacker, which added more speed at the linebacker level. The Patriots also used a 4-1-6 dime against that grouping, usually on third down. Against the Dolphins' more traditional two-receiver package when Clay was in the game as a tight end, the Patriots stayed in a 4-2-5 nickel but had Brandon Spikes alongside Hightower at linebacker for a bit more power in the front six. The only time the Patriots went to their base defense was against the Dolphins' two-receiver package that didn’t include Clay.
2. The Clay factor is one of the biggest takeaways from initial film review. The Patriots paid him great respect, deciding that they would commit resources to him and the inside part of the field and see if the other Dolphins players on the outside could beat them (that includes quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has struggled at times throwing downfield this season. That is why cornerback Aqib Talib often aligned inside or specifically across from Clay when Clay was split out wide (e.g. 11:16 remaining, third-and-6), and other times safety Devin McCourty was given the assignment on Clay (e.g. 2:38 remaining, third-and-2).
3. When considering why the Patriots' offense started the game with its best opening drive in weeks, the play of the offensive line stands out. They were creating running lanes and giving quarterback Tom Brady time to survey his options. When the unit plays like that, this offense is tough to slow down.
4. It's easy to second guess the pass-pass-pass sequence in the red zone that ultimately led to the Patriots settling for a field goal on the first drive, but it didn’t seem like egregious play-calling from this perspective. One could perhaps quibble with throwing on second-and-goal from the 4, but when the Dolphins brought two safeties down in the box, creating a 6-on-8 situation, the correct pre-snap read is to throw. That meant one-on-one matchups for the outside receivers, and you’d like to think you could win those. But what happened was that the Dolphins backed both safeties out at the last moment, winning the chess match as Brady purposely sailed a pass over the head of Danny Amendola in the back right-hand corner of the end zone. In retrospect, an inside handoff to Shane Vereen might have scored a touchdown, but based on pre-snap information, there was no reason to think that would have produced such a result.
5. Would it have been better to have Brady under center in that situation with LeGarrette Blount in the game at running back? That's a fair question to ask and a case could be made for it. The Patriots' offensive line had already had some success opening running lanes and in one respect, it would have been nice for them to have a chance to power through the Dolphins in the red zone with a pure run call. But they had just gained 6 yards through the air on the previous play, and had success throwing it throughout the drive. So it wasn't like that wasn't working either.
6. In the end, if receiver Josh Boyce hangs on to a contested third-down throw in the end zone, the idea of "abandoning the run" in the red zone might not even be broached. Tough catch, but one we think an NFL receiver should be expected to make.
7. Some creative coaching early as the Patriots opened their first series in the not-often-used 3 WR/1 FB/1 RB package, with Brady in the shotgun and fullback James Develin aligned to his immediate right and Blount to his left. The receivers were tight to the line of the scrimmage, constricting the field, and the Patriots blocked an inside run to Blount well, with center Ryan Wendell sealing things off and then left guard Logan Mankins showing why he’s still one of the best in the game, first blocking down on nose tackle Paul Soliai before going to the second level and powering into linebacker Dannell Ellerbe before forcefully throwing him to the ground. For an offense that has started slow in recent weeks, opening with an 11-yard run was a good combination of coaching/game-planning smarts and top-notch on-field execution. Stevan Ridley's 11-yard run (2:22 remaining) came out of the same 3 WR/1 FB/1 RB grouping.
8. Ridley's run for minus-3 yards (1:54 remaining) came out of the base 2 WR/2 TE/1 RB grouping, with the Dolphins matching with their base defense. The Patriots created a strong side by aligning tight ends Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui to the right side, which is where the run headed. There was some type of miscommunication between the blockers on that side, as Mulligan went to the second level and right tackle Marcus Cannon appeared to get caught up with right guard Dan Connolly, allowing end Derrick Shelby to knife through and cut down Ridley. This is the type of play where seeing an All-22 end-zone angle would help clear some things up, but an initial guess is that Cannon might have been at the heart of the play going for negative yardage.
9. Credit Nate Ebner and Brandon Bolden for drawing the block in the back penalty on the kickoff following the Patriots' opening field goal, forcing the Dolphins to start their second drive at their own 6, as those are the types of plays that help shift field position.
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