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02 Feb 2005

Nine Plays that Explain the Patriots

By Michael David Smith

The New England Patriots enter the Super Bowl following two big wins against their two biggest AFC challengers, the Colts and Steelers. Here are nine plays that stick out as the most important in understanding how the Patriots convincingly won both games -- and how they can beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl.

Offense

1. Charlie Weis loves varying his formations. On 3rd-and-6 from the Patriots' 34-yard line on the first play of the second quarter against Pittsburgh, Tom Brady lined up in the shotgun with David Patten split near the sideline. Patten got past Chad Scott for an eight-yard gain.

2. On the very next play, Russ Hochstein lined up as a tight end, giving the Patriots six offensive linemen. This is the formation the Packers have used so effectively the last two years, and other teams are catching on. (The Eagles used it in the NFC Championship, so this Super Bowl could be heavy on the offensive linemen.) Corey Dillon gained five yards up the middle on the play. Late in the game Hochstein lined up as a fullback and delivered a crucial block as the Patriots converted on a 4th-and-1. When Richard Seymour is healthy, he gets some playing time as a blocking fullback, but with Seymour out, the Patriots didn't lose that package of plays; they just found someone else who could do it. I love the way the Patriots use so many players in so many different roles.

3. Flashback to the divisional round: With 4th-and-goal at the one-yard line, the Patriots used Hochstein as a blocking fullback and Mike Vrabel as a tight end. Although Matt Light was whistled for a false start just before Dan Koppen snapped the ball, the play clearly was going to work and the Colts' defense wasn't ready for such an overload of blockers. The Eagles will need to be.

4. On the last play of the first quarter Montae Reagor of the Colts sacked Brady, lining up as a right defensive end and beating a Patriots double team. But here's something interesting about the play: Brady held the ball for 3.4 seconds. That's long enough that it's reasonable to call that play a "coverage sack," meaning the reason for the sack was that the Patriots' receivers couldn't get open, not that the Patriots' linemen couldn't hold their blocks. Brady could be blamed, perhaps, for holding the ball too long. But I think there's more to it than that. I think he's become extremely cautious since that Monday night in Miami when he threw four picks. Since then he has only one interception in 110 attempts. I don't think the Eagles can count on Brady to throw any balls up for grabs the way the Falcons' Michael Vick did in the NFC Championship.

Defense

5. With the Steelers down 3-0 and facing 4th-and-1 at the Patriots' 39-yard line, they decided to go for it. Jerome Bettis took the handoff and ran behind center Jeff Hartings and left guard Alan Faneca. I don't know if there's a pair of linemen in the league I'd rather have blocking for me on 4th-and-one, but on this play the Steelers didn't have a chance. Patriots defensive linemen Keith Traylor and Jarvis Green wouldn't budge, safety Rodney Harrison (playing more as a linebacker, close to the line of scrimmage in a position that allows him to use his physical presence to stop opponents from breaking long runs) got penetration, and Bettis was going nowhere. Linebacker Roosevelt Colvin forced a fumble that Mike Vrabel recovered, but the fumble was irrelevant after the fourth down stop.

6. On a Steelers 1st-and-10 in the third quarter, Vince Wilfork blew right past the Steelers' Keydrick Vincent, easily making a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. I saw Wilfork a lot when he was in college at Miami, and he was always so much bigger than the Big East offensive linemen he faced that he relied almost entirely on being able to hold his ground and, when necessary, knock his opponent down. But now that he's playing guys more or less his own size (he and Vincent are both listed at 325 pounds), it's interesting to see how quick he is coming off the ball. This rookie is going places.

7. The Patriots' defense is more effective when it sits back and gives its intelligent linebackers and defensive backs time to react to the opposing quarterbacks. They got away from that on a 2nd-and-11 in the third quarter, rushing five and allowing Antwan Randle El to get past the secondary for 34 yards. Linebacker Ted Johnson saved a touchdown, tackling Randle El at the 5-yard line, but Bettis scored on the next play.

8. On the play that essentially put the game on ice, the third-and-goal run on which Jerome Bettis was stopped -- and after which Bill Cowher inexplicably decided to kick a field goal -- the Patriots used six defensive linemen. The Patriots run a 3-4 as their base defense, but if you watch closely throughout the game you'll find that they often diverge from the 3-4 when circumstances warrant. Both the Browns and Dolphins will try to implement this type of shifting defense next season, but it doesn't work if you don't have player flexibility like the Patriots.

Special Teams

9. Larry Izzo made the tackle on the opening kickoff against the Colts. That's a fairly routine play. And yet I mention it here just because I wanted an excuse to work Izzo in. Izzo has been one of the league's best special teams players for years. He's a perfect example of what turned the Patriots into the great team they've become. The Patriots didn't sign any stars in 2001, but they signed a bunch of solid, team-first guys who can play an important role. Izzo was one of them. Izzo also was called for unnecessary roughness when he delivered a hit after the whistle blew on a third-quarter punt against the Colts. It was the right call by the official and a stupid play by Izzo, but he's an impossible player not to like.

These nine plays typify how the Patriots have won their two playoff games, but the amazing thing about these Patriots is how easily they adapt when circumstances change. I mention the six-lineman formations, but they're just as likely to use five wide receivers on offense or five defensive backs and four linebackers on defense. No team in the league makes such good use of all its players.

For more Super Bowl analysis, read last week's article: 17 Plays that Explain the Eagles.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 02 Feb 2005

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