Sunday, November 8, 2009
Updated: November 9, 10:07 AM ET
Defense irons out Wildcat wrinkles
By Mike Reiss
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The defining moment Sunday for the Patriots' defense came after linebacker Adalius Thomas frustratingly threw his arms in front of him, motioning to the team's coaches on the sideline after Miami's Ricky Williams took an option pitch 15 yards for a touchdown.
At that moment, midway through the second quarter, the question was if the Patriots were heading down the same road they painfully traveled Sept. 21, 2008. On that day, the Patriots had been gashed badly by the Dolphins' never-before-seen Wildcat attack, failing to adjust to the unique style of offense.
On Sunday, it wasn't the Wildcat. It was the spread option run by rookie quarterback Pat White.
Unveiled on the Dolphins' fourth drive of the game, White rushed for 33 yards around left end on an option keeper. Soon after, White pitched to Williams on the right side for the 15-yard score to tie the game at 10.
Frustration was evident among Patriots defenders, although there was one major difference from the first Wildcat strike they had absorbed in September 2008.
"Last year, we panicked, we didn't stay focused and we were all over the place," safety Brandon Meriweather said. "This year, we were more like a veteran team. We stayed calm."
The spread option didn't hurt them again, and the Patriots prevailed 27-17 at Gillette Stadium.
The Dolphins had White in the game five times after that impressive scoring drive, and he had runs of 1, minus-1, 6 and 2 yards, as well as an incomplete pass.
Depending on whom you believe, the Patriots' later success against the option was either a result of simply playing their assignments better, or a tactical change that threw a wrench into the Dolphins' option plans.
"They made that adjustment and we just didn't handle it, bringing the outside linebacker up to the line to not let our tight end get off to the middle linebacker," Williams explained.
Patriots defensive end Ty Warren also noted a change in the team's 3-4 alignment.
"I think we tightened things down on the edges, so it wouldn't look appealing to run around there any more," he said. "We made that adjustment on the sideline. Same personnel, just a different approach."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick saw it a little differently or simply wasn't willing to get into such detailed X's and O's talk. Belichick said the Patriots had prepared for the spread option, and players concurred, although the way the Dolphins ran it was different than anything they had seen. The change was having a running back line up behind White, instead of to the side, which was an unexpected wrinkle.
"The first couple times they ran it, we weren't quite sure, we were a little indecisive," Belichick said, adding that "it probably happened a little faster than we practiced it."
Belichick huddled with defensive players on the sideline after Williams' touchdown, and he felt the main adjustment was players' simply carrying out their duties. Instead of a major tactical change, he said it was more about a missed assignment on White's first run and trouble shedding blocks on the Williams score.
"It wasn't a big new thing, we just didn't play it very well and they executed it well," he said. "Luckily, we got that straightened out and it wasn't a big problem in the second half. They tried to change up and instead of running the option they ran it back inside, but White didn't hurt us too much on those inside runs."
In preparing for the game, Belichick revealed, the Patriots spent about 25 percent of their practice time on the Dolphins' overall Wildcat package.
Not including the White option plays, the Dolphins ran the Wildcat 10 times for 7 yards. The only time it truly hurt the Patriots was on running back Ronnie Brown's 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Joey Haynos in the third quarter.
One of the bigger Wildcat-related plays came when Thomas held his ground at outside linebacker and sacked quarterback Chad Henne on a double reverse pass at the end of the third quarter. It was a big-time effort by Thomas, who sensed something tricky was on the way because of how Williams was holding the ball after taking the handoff from Brown.
The play represented the opposite end of the spectrum for Thomas, who had been visibly frustrated after Williams' touchdown run to his side. Thomas went to tackle White and no defender was in sight to bring down Williams.
"It was a new wrinkle they added to it; they always have something special just for us," Thomas said.
Yet there was a significant difference between Sunday and last year. This time around, the Patriots had the answers after the initial strike.
"We definitely made mistakes out there, but it didn't cost us," Thomas said. "We won, and that's the main thing."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.