by Ben Muth
It’s been over a month since I've checked in on the Patriots. In that period of time, their offense has been running roughshod over every defense they've faced, scoring 45, 37, 59, and 49 points in four consecutive games. They were all but unstoppable when I was away, so of course, they fell back to earth this weekend.
The Patriots weren’t awful on offense on Sunday -- they still put up 23 points, after all. But it was strange to watch them struggle in a couple of areas. The biggest issue seems to be how much they miss Rob Gronkowski in the running game. The Patriots seemed unable to get to the edge against the Dolphins for most of the game. The outside zone play has been big for New England this year, and they hardly ran it at all against Miami. The few times they did call it, they didn’t see much success. The only two successful outside zones the Patriots ran, that I can recall, were both to the weak side (away from the tight end) in the fourth quarter.
New England’s inability to threaten the edge resulted in Miami’s defensive line anchoring down inside. When a defensive front doesn’t have to worry about moving laterally, they become almost impossible to move vertically. The Patriots weren’t getting much movement on inside zone or power concepts, though they did pick it up a little later in the game.
The running game finally found some traction on New England's final drive of the game. After getting the ball back, up seven with 8:28 left, the Patriots ran it 11 times (not counting Tom Brady’s centering of the ball) for 54 yards and ate up seven minutes of clock. They primarily leaned on a single back power play to the left side: Nate Solder and Donald Thomas were the keys as they gave a series of strong double teams for Stevan Ridley to run behind.
This final drive by the Patriots was the high-cholesterol equivalent of Andrew Luck’s fourth-quarter heroics in Detroit last weekend. New England’s running attack had struggled all game, but with the game on the line, the big fellas stepped up and did what they had to. Putting together a long clock-killing drive that essentially ends the game is the reason offensive line coaches get up in the morning.
Individually, the offensive line was a mixed bag. The left side of the line, with Solder and Thomas, played well. In addition to their final-drive dominance on the ground, they were generally solid in pass protection all game. Plus, they worked in combination well enough to have the play of the game: a block that ended with Koa Misi flat on his back. The right side of the line did not fare as well.
At right guard the Patriots suited up just about everyone on the roster with a number in the 60's, Dan Connolly started but left the game early. Nick McDonald replaced him and finished the game, but not before being replaced briefly by Marcus Cannon. McDonald and Cannon played adequately, but there’s a reason they were the fourth and fifth options at guard. More concerning for the Patriots had to be Sebastian Vollmer’s play.
Vollmer has been great all year, but missed Week 12's game against the Jets with an injury. He was a game-time decision on Sunday, and it looked like New England may have made the wrong decision. Vollmer struggled in both the passing and running game against Cameron Wake for most of Sunday.
In the running game he was consistently behind his blocks: his helmet was never on the correct side of the defensive lineman. Generally, if the defender is running towards your side, you want your helmet on the defender’s outside number or shoulder (depending on if the play is going inside or outside). Vollmer never threatened to get outside of Wake. As a result, Wake was never worried about losing leverage and was able to dig his cleats into the ground and hold the point. On backside cutoffs, Vollmer had the same issue. He was unable to get his head across defensive tackles, so he gave up far too much penetration.
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It wasn’t just the lack of movement or some leakage in the running plays: it was the huge negative plays he allowed. He gave up a sack-and-a-half and was responsible for another sack he wasn't credited for. (His man beat him inside, forcing Brady to give ground and roll right into Solder’s man.) He also had a holding penalty. Those are all drive-killers.
It went beyond ineffectiveness: he looked bad moving around the field. He looked stiff and slow out of his stance (hence why he was behind all his blocks), and had trouble redirecting on pass rushes. With how well he’s played all year, it’s easy to write off this performance due to the injury, but it’s still very worrisome. It’s tough for offensive linemen to get healthier during the year if they’re active every week. Add that to the fact that the Patriots play the Texans and 49ers (two very physical defenses) the next two weeks, and it could be a bumpy road for Vollmer the rest of the way.
Moving on to schematic issues, I want to talk a little about Aaron Hernandez’s long catch-and-run to start the fourth quarter.
First, the thinking behind the call was great. I love taking a shot deep on third-and-short on the defense's 30-to-45-yard line. I’m sure the Patriots considered this four-down territory, so it makes sense to try for the big play on third down when you know you still have fourth down in your back pocket. So how did they set up their shot?
The Patriots came out in 12-personnel with both tight ends to the right and both receivers to the left. They motioned Wes Welker towards the line until he was essentially aligned like a third tight end. The Patriots faked an outside zone to the right (proving that you don't have to be running a play well to fake it) and popped it to Hernandez down the sideline.
The key to the play was obviously the hard run fake. Hernandez’s route is genius because it looks exactly like he’s blocking on an outside zone play before releasing deep.
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From a protection standpoint, the problem you have to deal with when faking an outside zone is how to handle the backside edge rusher.
There are three traditional ways. The first is to run naked boots: you don’t block the backside defender and roll the quarterback outside him. It’s an effective method and has worked for decades, but a bootleg wouldn’t work with Hernandez’s route. (Or, more accurately, it would probably take too long to throw back to him.)
The second way is to only sell the run fake on the play side. On the backside, you have the tackle kick out to the edge rusher. It’s not as good as a fake, but it can still fool teams and the quarterback drops straight back after the play-action. It’s a sound protection that allows you to throw any route combination off of it. This is often how the Colts blocked their play-action passes in Peyton Manning’s heyday.
The third way is to keep an extra blocker in, either another tight end or a fullback. You can fake a slice concept (a tight end or fullback comes across the formation to block), or just line the extra man up next to the offensive tackle and block him. The problem here is that if the edge rusher senses the pass early, you have a mismatch, and since these are typically max-protect plays (i.e. seven- or eight-man protection schemes) most of the routes are downfield and slow-developing. It’s asking a lot for a tight end or fullback to hold up that long on a strong pass rusher.
The Patriots found a creative solution. They had center Ryan Wendell take a few steps like he’s running outside zone to the right, then he doubled back outside to pick up any unblocked edge rushers.
Offseason readers and Rams fans may remember this particular strategy from Josh McDaniels' tenure as an offensive coordinator in St. Louis. When I broke down the Rams-Redskins game from last year, St. Louis ran a similar protection scheme that ended in a sack for Brian Orakpo. I wanted to throw up watching this scheme in action, but here I really liked it. So why the change in tune? Because it worked.
Just kidding, I’m not a color commentator. The reason I’m flipping on my previous feelings is that the scheme had been tweaked to help Wendell out. The Patriots made a simple adjustment that eliminated much of the risk of the protection: they had Welker hold up the outside linebacker for a two-count before releasing into the flat.
Welker is still holding up the outside linebacker at the line of scrimmage when Wendell starts looking outside. In the St. Louis game, Orakpo was two yards behind the line of scrimmage before the St. Louis center (Jason Brown) got his head around. Here, Wendell has plenty of time to settle down and get in position to block somebody coming off the edge. Also, by releasing Welker into the flat, you create a safety valve for Tom Brady if Miami brings two guys off that left edge.
It’s a great example of a coach tinkering with the nugget of a good idea until it turns into a successful scheme. It’s also another instance of how it sucks to be a Rams fan: your team got to be the guinea pigs of a scheme that will help the team that beat you in the Super Bowl.
Of course, on this play, the edge rusher locked onto Welker man-to-man, meaning the circling Wendell had no one to block. A watched pot never boils, and a creatively-accounted-for blitzer never rushes.