New England Patriots: Patriots-Dolphins film review

Picked-up pieces from 4th quarter review

December, 17, 2013
Picked-up pieces from fourth-quarter review of the Patriots’ 24-20 loss to the Dolphins:

1. An overall tough day for Patriots safety Steve Gregory, as the Dolphins’ touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter was a play he could have made. At the snap, the Dolphins created some play action by pulling tight end Charles Clay right-to-left across the formation, bringing receiver Mike Wallace on a fake right-to-left end-around, and also faking the handoff to running back Daniel Thomas who was headed to the right. Gregory peeked into the backfield at all the run-action and because of it was a step slow to get to the right flat to account for Thomas coming out of the backfield to catch the 2-yard touchdown.

2. Rookie receiver Josh Boyce’s final play of the game was his 19-yard kickoff return with 14:54 remaining. He was seen limping out of the locker room after the game. Three plays later, left tackle Nate Solder took himself off the field.

3. What was probably quarterback Tom Brady’s worst throw of the day came on first-and-10 from the Dolphins’ 13 yard-line (8:42 remaining) when he was in the shotgun with an empty backfield, couldn’t find an initial place to go with the ball, then rolled slightly to his right before throwing into heavy traffic. Brady was fortunate that one wasn’t intercepted as safety Chris Clemons broke on the ball.

4. Those hoping for more red zone runs from the Patriots can point to LeGarrette Blount’s 8-yard run on second-and-10 from the Dolphins’ 13 as one reason why. Blount ran hard, and on a day when the Patriots didn’t have any big targets in the red zone, it seems fair to wonder if they could have benefitted from turning a bit more to their big back to see what he could produce.

5. On the next play, third-and-2, Dolphins end Derrick Shelby came in untouched between right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Marcus Cannon, who were engaged with rushers, to force an incompletion. Bill Belichick said the Dolphins were bringing many defenders up to the line in the red zone -- sometimes rushing with them, and sometimes backing off -- and on this play it looked like the line needed to slide to the right at the snap. When that didn’t happen, it created the dreaded runaway rusher because the Dolphins had five rushers against four blockers, which is seldom a good thing for an offense.

6. One of the positives for the Patriots in the game was improvement on third-down defense. The Dolphins were 4-of-11 on third down, and a corner blitz by Alfonzo Dennard (6:57 remaining) produced one of those stops. The undermanned defense, which couldn’t come up with the big stop on the Dolphins’ winning drive, did have one on the previous march. So it wasn’t all bad.

7. Receiver Julian Edelman seemed peeved that umpire Fred Bryan created a traffic jam on an incomplete pass over the middle (4:34 remaining) on the drive that the Patriots went ahead 20-17. But that didn’t deter Edelman from using Bryan as a human shield of sorts on the next play -- a 24-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Edelman aligned to the right of the formation and came across the middle behind Bryan, who had to duck as Brady delivered a dart. Dolphins safety Reshad Jones took a bad angle (somewhat impeded by tight end Michael Hoomanawanui) and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe over-pursued and Edelman was gone.

8. On the fourth-and-5 play in which Dolphins tight end Charles Clay caught a screen and ran 6 yards, the Patriots were in their 4-1-6 dime defense. Clay initially aligned in the backfield before motioning to the far right (cornerback Logan Ryan lined up across from him). The throw to Clay was a bit behind him, but he made a nice catch and was able to get up field as tight end Dion Sims blocked down on Ryan, and safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Dane Fletcher were blocked. Safety Steve Gregory made initial contact at the Miami 48, which would have stopped Clay short, but it wasn’t a clean shot and Clay lunged forward for another 3 yards for the first down. The Patriots’ best cornerback, Aqib Talib, had aligned over receiver Brian Hartline on the opposite side where the Dolphins had three receivers.

9. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower has taken some heat for his coverage on running back Marcus Thigpen’s go-ahead 14-yard touchdown catch, but as ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi pointed out, he was initially responsible for jamming tight end Charles Clay at the line of scrimmage. Hightower has had struggles in coverage at times this season, and asking him to jam one player and then cover another is significant. The Patriots had switched their linebacker personnel on the play, taking off the 4-1-6 dime with Dane Fletcher and going to the 4-2-5 nickel with Hightower and Brandon Spikes at linebacker. That decision backfired on them.

Picked-up pieces from 3rd quarter review

December, 16, 2013
Picked-up pieces from third-quarter review of the Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Dolphins:

1. For those critical of the Patriots “abandoning the run”, the pass-pass-pass sequence that preceded Stephen Gostkowski's missed 48-yard field goal is an area that could be viewed as one to support your viewpoint. The Patriots had runs of 5, 5 and 1 yard on the drive at that point, and had advanced to the Miami 30-yard line when Tom Brady was in the shotgun with an empty backfield and a 2 WR/1 TE/1 FB/1 RB package on the field. The Dolphins countered in their base D. This was the type of matchup where the Patriots exploited the Texans on Dec. 1 in the passing game, but they couldn't duplicate the success against Miami on first down (incomplete pass to Shane Vereen). On second down, the 3 WR/1 FB/1 RB package produced an incomplete pass to Vereen as Brady was once again in the shotgun. Three somewhat lackluster pass plays there naturally left some to wonder why LeGarrette Blount didn't get a chance to keep plowing ahead. It's always easy to say after the fact, but that's one sequence where offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might look back and wish he'd called an early-down run.

2. Some sloppy tackling by cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in the game, such as on Brian Hartline's 19-yard catch-and-run (9:32 remaining) on a slant. It sure seemed as if the Patriots were relying on Dennard and Kyle Arrington to win some battles one-on-one on the outside as part of a plan to devote more resources between the numbers (e.g. Aqib Talib to the inside part of the field), and they did at times. But overall, the Dolphins won more of them (Mike Wallace 9-yard catch with 3:33 remaining), with Tannehill impressing with his ability to deliver some strikes.

3. Credit defensive end Chandler Jones for drawing the holding penalty on left guard Sam Brenner on third-and-4, which was declined as the Dolphins kicked a field goal on fourth down. Jones rushed from an inside position, with Andre Carter coming to rush at right defensive end in the dime package. That's been an effective approach for the Patriots this year, using Jones to create some disruption inside. It also gives Jones a chance to showcase some diverse skills, as he previously picked up his team-high 11.5 sack in the second quarter with a nice inside move on left tackle Bryant McKinnie.

4. Tough assignment for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to block defensive end Cameron Wake on the play Brady was sacked (5:37 remaining) for the first time. Hard to imagine that was the way the Patriots had their protection drawn up, although part of it is a result of the stress the Dolphins put on the opposition by showing blitz looks pre-snap. Just a hunch, but it seemed as if right tackle Marcus Cannon maybe wasn't seeing the same picture as the others up front, as he initially blocked down on Jared Odrick along with right guard Dan Connolly, leaving Hoomanawanui on the island with Wake.

5. Linebacker Dane Fletcher's pass interference penalty on third-and-4 from the 7-yard line looked like the right call. Specifically, it looked like his right arm (on the right shoulder) turned tight end Dion Sims enough to create the interference. There was enough contact to warrant the flag from this viewpoint, similar to the beginning of Hoomanawanui's route on his second-quarter touchdown catch (no penalty on that one). Sims also sold it well. That was a big play in the game, as the Dolphins didn't have to settle for a field goal, scoring a touchdown two plays later.

Picked-up pieces from 2nd quarter review

December, 16, 2013
Picked-up pieces from second-quarter review of the Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Dolphins:

1. The Patriots weren't often in their base defense, but when they were, Kyle Arrington was the cornerback opposite of Aqib Talib instead of Alfonzo Dennard. While Talib usually plays the left side, that wasn't the case against the Dolphins, which was seen on the first play of the second quarter (Mike Wallace 16-yard catch against zone coverage after lining up across from Arrington). The Dolphins didn't have tight end Charles Clay on the field on the play, which is why the Patriots were in their base D.

2. The Patriots' plans to attempt to force Ryan Tannehill to throw to the outer parts of the field continued to show up as Talib aligned over slot receiver Rishard Matthews consistently in the quarter. One of the questions entering the game was if Talib would shadow Wallace on the outside, but the Patriots used him more on the inside part of the field in the game. This was a wrinkle few saw coming and Tannehill mostly answered the challenge. Safety Devin McCourty often was responsible for Clay.

3. Arrington's sack (12:33 remaining) came on a blitz as he was initially lined up wide to the left side over Wallace. Tannehill seemed to see it coming, and had time to unload the ball, but credit to Arrington for powering through running back Lamar Miller and wrapping up Tannehill. Solid play.

4. On the Patriots' third offensive series, veteran Will Svitek entered for Marcus Cannon at right tackle. This was by design to give Cannon a breather as he was playing for the first time since injuring his ankle Nov. 24. Cannon seemed to hold up well overall.

5. Defensive tackle Joe Vellano's sack (8:12 remaining) came on a five-man blitz, with the Patriots mixing things up by sending Talib off the left side and linebacker Brandon Spikes up the middle, with right end Chandler Jones dropping in coverage. Vellano, who aligned over right guard John Jerry, rushed off Jerry's inside shoulder, ripped with his left arm, and got low to power through what might have also been a hold. Center Mike Pouncey was a little late to help, but Vellano's decisive early victory might have contributed to that. That was Vellano's first snap of the game and he made it count. Also, credit to left end Rob Ninkovich for a strong rush that forced Tannehill to step up into the pocket, into Vellano's grasp.

6. As pointed out by colleague Field Yates during the game, it looked like the Dolphins' botched field goal was a fake, as left wing Derrick Shelby flared out immediately at the snap. That might have led to the snap clanging off the facemask of holder Brandon Fields, with the Dolphins a bit anxious and unable to pull off the timing needed to execute the play. If that was indeed the call, McCourty and Nate Ebner played it well as they accounted for Shelby's unusual movement at the snap.

7. An underrated coaching point from this perspective was Joe Philbin using his timeouts after the two-minute warning as the Patriots, leading 3-0, were driving for more points. Knowing the Patriots were getting the ball to open the second half, Philbin likely wanted to avoid the possibility of a Patriots “double score” -- one at the end of the second quarter, one at the start of the third quarter -- and the strategy paid off. Bill Belichick is often a master at such “situational football” and Philbin showed he's also sharp in that area. The Dolphins' staff spends time on Thursdays watching situations from games around the NFL with how coaches use their timeouts, and perhaps that led to Philbin's usage of the timeouts, which saved clock for the team's end-of-second-quarter touchdown drive.

8. One thing about tight end Michael Hoomanawanui's one-handed 13-yard touchdown catch: Those who attended training camp practices this year might not be surprised. Hoomanawanui made a few of those in camp as well. Also, those who attended a 2010 Rams-Patriots preseason game when Hoomanawanui was with the Rams might remember he had a dazzling grab in that contest as well. Hoomanawanui has some stick 'em on those hands.

9. With the Dolphins spreading things out on their final drive of the second quarter, an 82-yard touchdown march that started with 1:31 remaining, the Patriots countered in their 4-1-6 dime defense with Dane Fletcher the lone 'backer. Again, Talib played mostly on the inside and that's why Marquice Cole -- who had to come on for an injured Arrington -- ended up on the outside against Wallace on the 39-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Cole is more of a slot corner, but the outside-the-box game-plan against the Dolphins had him aligning wide. In retrospect, rookie Logan Ryan might have been a better choice personnel-wise.

10. No expert commentary needed, but an unfortunate angle taken by safety Steve Gregory on the Wallace touchdown catch-and-run. Safeties are the last line of defense and that's a miscue Gregory certainly would like to have back. Part of the reason Gregory was the lone safety deep was because fellow safety McCourty dropped down to account for Clay, who was a focal point of the Patriots' plan.

11. Credit to Tannehill and Matthews. The third-and-10 hookup on that final drive was well earned. Tight window to throw, tough catch to make. Sometimes the other guys make plays too. Matthews, a second-year player out of Nevada, impressed us as a player you don't hear much about but who appears to be a younger talent with the arrow pointing up.

Picked-up pieces from 1st-quarter review

December, 16, 2013
Picked-up pieces from first-quarter review of the New England Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins:

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.