In a season that’s seen plenty of memorable offense, it was the finest sequence of the year for New England.
What the Patriots did in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Dolphins was impose their will on a Miami run defense considered to be one of the best in the league. The 16-play, 77-yard drive consumed 7:18 and changed the nature of the game: It made it a two-possession contest with 1:10 remaining, and helped secure the AFC East title for the fourth straight year.
It wasn’t the longest drive of the year -- New England had a series against the Jets on Thanksgiving that saw them go 7:39. And it ended with a field goal instead of a touchdown. But given the circumstances, as well as the fact that it was the first real example of a successful four-minute offense the Patriots had shown all season, it was their best of the year.
There were 12 runs -- 10 of them from Stevan Ridley, one of them from Shane Vereen and a kneeldown from Tom Brady -- and three passes (one each to Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez). The field goal counts as one of the plays, so if you average out the drive, New England picked up an average of 5.13 yards on each play. Ridley had 10 carries for 46 yards on the series, and was the acknowledged difference-maker on the drive.
“It was just play-calling,” said the running back, who went over 1,000 yards on the season in the win. “It was time to lock in and go ahead and move the ball on the ground. Our offensive line, they battled hard. They worked all day and they just kept fighting. That’s all you can ask of an offensive line, to just keep fighting until the very end. You see how football goes. The last drive it finally opened up for us, and we found a way on a great run defense.”
And while the Patriots didn’t put up the usual crazy offensive numbers they did over the previous month, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was more than happy the group was able to rise to the occasion when it counted.
“That really changed the outcome of the game,” Belichick said of the final drive. “We’ve been in those situations before where we’ve thrown up a lot of big numbers, as you put it, or scored some points and then get to that point in the game and go three-and-out. So, it’s really about being able to do the things that you need to do to win the game, and I thought that’s what we did offensively.
“Certainly offensively, and on that last drive, it was a great drive at a critical point in the game -- it’s what we needed to do, and we did it,” he said. “That’s what I’d like to see from an offense or a defense or any part of your team for that matter, to make the critical plays that you need to make to win the game. That’s really what it’s all about, not a bunch of stats. That’s not what winning is about -- winning is about making the plays you need to make to win the game.”
As for the Dolphins, they stayed in their base 4-3 defense for most of the drive, and made the curious decision not to utilize premiere pass rusher Cameron Wake and fellow defensive end Jared Odrick on the drive. Both were healthy, but Miami coach Joe Philbin decided against using them. (Wake wasn’t in the mood to chat about the decision, telling the Miami Herald, “I don’t know. It was one of those questions for the coaches.”)
“They were running the ball,” Philbin said. “We have a play count that we want to keep guys to [in order] to keep guys fresh.”
One of the statistical oddities was the fact that the Patriots struggled to run the ball consistently to that point, but managed to gash the Dolphins time and again on the ground with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. It would be understandable if Miami spent the bulk of the drive in sub packages or blitzing, but that wasn’t really the case. With one or two exceptions, the Dolphins had seven or eight men in the box. They were just getting blown off the ball on a consistent basis.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday that the Patriots didn’t really do much different when it came to their fourth-quarter game plan. Instead, it came down to execution -- New England got good yardage in its first-down opportunities, kept down and distance manageable, faced one third down of consequence, and had one play (a kneeldown) that went for negative yardage.
“There were maybe a few things that we decided to do a little bit more of on that drive,” McDaniels said. “But all in all I think it was just execution up front, trying to give the back an opportunity to get started. I thought the backs made some really, really good runs on that last drive to keep us in positive down and distance situations and convert some first downs for us. And I thought the line and the tight ends did a nice job of getting people covered up to allow that to happen.”
Here’s a play-by-play look at the drive, straight from the gamebook, with our notes underneath:
1-10 from the NE 20 -- S.Ridley right end to NE 23 for 3 yards (K.Dansby; K.Burnett).
The Patriots were in a 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends -- Aaron Hernandez and Daniel Fells were on the right side) as they broke the huddle. Ridley took the handoff from Brady (who was under center) and headed off right tackle. Left guard Donald Thomas pulled to try and open up some room, but was met by a series of Miami defenders -- including linebacker Karlos Dansby, who did a nice job reading the play -- who caught up about three yards past the line of scrimmage. Ridley didn’t actually go down, but the officials blew the play dead shortly after it was clear they were at a stalemate.
2-7 from the NE 23 -- T.Brady pass short left to A.Hernandez to NE 31 for 8 yards.
New England is in a three-receiver set with Matthew Slater, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd on the field, accompanied by tight end Aaron Hernandez and running back Danny Woodhead. Miami countered with a nickel package, and three down linemen. In the shotgun, Brady takes the snap and locks on to Hernandez (who was lined up slot left), who runs a quick route seven yards down and sits in a soft spot in coverage. He hauls in the pass and flips around, leaning forward to pick up the first down. (Dansby was again in on the tackle, wrapping up the tight end.)
(Two more things: One, Miami continues to play soft coverage, lined up 7-8 yards off the receiver. And two, Brady gets rid of the ball quickly -- which was the case on all three passes on this drive -- so as to negate any sort of pass rush the Dolphins can present against the hobbled New England offensive line.)
1-10 from the NE 31 -- S.Ridley up the middle to NE 39 for 8 yards (K.Burnett).
The Patriots again open in 12 personnel and Miami answers in nickel coverage, with Hernandez and Fells on the field as tight ends and Welker and Lloyd on the field as wide receivers. Ridley is in the backfield. As Brady calls out signals, Fells shifts in motion, eventually coming to a halt as a fullback lined up behind right guard Nick McDonald. Ridley takes the handoff and goes up the gut, starting to the left side before cutting back to the middle. It’s clear early that this play with be another positive run for the Patriots, but it’s the block from Fells that really allows Ridley to take it from a 3-4 yard gain to an 8-yard pickup. The tight end runs interference for the running back, moving linebacker Kevin Burnett out of the way as Ridley gets an 8-yard gain out of it. (Burnett eventually picks up the tackle.)
2-2 from the NE 39 -- S.Ridley left guard to NE 48 for 9 yards (R.Jones).
The Patriots are again in 12 personnel, with Fells and Hernandez as tight ends (who both line up together on the left side) and Lloyd and Welker as wide receivers and Ridley as the lone back. From under center, Brady hands off to Ridley, who runs straight toward the left guard/left tackle spot behind Thomas and Nate Solder, while Fells and Hernandez are also there to provide support. The Patriots simply overpower that spot -- there’s no huge hole for Ridley to run through, but instead, the back simply rides the wave of blockers downfield. That wave eventually comes to rest on defensive back Reshad Jones, who got credit for the tackle by simply hanging on to Ridley’s ankles. No rocket science here -- the Patriots simply overloaded in one spot, and the Dolphins weren’t prepared to handle the number of bodies New England threw at them.
(One more thing: It wasn’t just Fells and Hernandez who were there in support on the left side -- Welker, who was lined up slot left, did an excellent job engaging his man on a block to help the play work.)
1-10 from the NE 48 -- (6:16) S.Ridley left guard to MIA 47 for 5 yards (R.Jones).
It’s 12 personnel again for the Patriots, who featured the same lineup and same deployment of personnel on this play as the previous play from scrimmage. (That is, loading up to run left.) They got just about the same result out of it, as Ridley found the hole, got to the next level and was only denied something bigger by Jones, who made a nice hit to bring him down on this one.
(One more thing: This was really amazing -- it was the same exact play, right down to the fact that right guard Nick McDonald pulled left to provide more support.)
2-5 from the MIA 47 -- T.Brady pass short left to W.Welker pushed ob at MIA 41 for 6 yards
Into Miami territory for the first time on the drive, the Patriots attempt their second pass of the series. New England has the same personnel on the field it has had for most of the drive -- two tight ends (Fells, Hernandez), two receivers (Welker, Lloyd) and one back (Ridley). Fells goes in motion from right to left, and lines up alongside Welker, who is wide left. Brady, under center, takes a quick three-step drop and finds Welker on a lightning quick out-route. As Fells runs interference by blocking Burnett out of the picture, Welker is able to find just enough daylight to haul in the pass before his momentum -- and Miami defensive back R.J. Stanford -- carry him out of bounds at the Miami 41.
1-10 from the MIA 41 -- S.Ridley right tackle to MIA 30 for 11 yards (K.Burnett).
Technically, probably the nicest run blocking play of the drive to this point for the New England offensive line, and it allowed Ridley to pick up another first down. Brady was under center, and went on a quick count. He handed the ball off to Ridley, who saw a big hole open on the right side thanks to right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who just rode defensive end Derrick Shelby right out of the picture. Right guard Nick McDonald also cleared Dansby out of the play with a nice block. (Although Dansby also overran the play thanks to a nifty cutback by Ridley.) Ridley was eventually taken down by Burnett.
(One more thing: Ridley was inches away from breaking several of these runs for a touchdown -- Miami linebackers and defensive backs are getting his legs and feet on many tackles on this drive.)
1-10 from the MIA 30 -- S.Ridley left guard to MIA 28 for 2 yards (R.Jones).
One of the two least successful plays on the drive. The Patriots were again in 12 personnel with the same lineup, with both tight ends on the right side and both receivers split to the left. Brady is under center, and quickly hands the ball to Ridley, who darts left but cuts back when Miami does a nice job shutting off the running lane. (Center Ryan Wendell was beaten to the spot by defensive lineman Paul Soliai, which cause Ridley’s initial cutback.) When he reversed field, all he found were Dolphins -- he initially dodged Shelby, but was buried by three other defenders before he could do much else. A rare misfire for New England on this sequence, but at the same time, the Patriots were still able to get positive yards on the play.
(One more thing: After this play, the Dolphins called their first time out. With the clock approaching four minutes remaining and New England starting to near field goal range, it marked the beginning of the end for Miami. Rewatching the game broadcast, you started to see the looks on the faces of the Miami players and coaching staff: Why isn’t anything working?)
2-8 from the MIA 28 -- T.Brady pass short left to B.Lloyd ran ob at MIA 18 for 10 yards.
Lloyd’s only catch of the day was a big one that helped New England rebound from the misfire on the play before. New England came out with a different look -- it was still in 12 personnel, but this time, it was Shane Vereen in the backfield instead of Ridley. Brady was in the shotgun, and as he started calling signals, Vereen slipped out of the backfield and went in motion to the right side, eventually lining up wide right. Lloyd and Welker were again split wide left, as they were on the play before. It wasn’t the exact same play, but the sequence did bear some similarities to Welker’s pickup earlier in the drive: Lloyd was clearly the first read, and Brady (after taking a quick three-step drop) waited a couple of beats before finding No. 85, who was along the New England sideline. He ducked out of bounds quickly to end the play.
1-10 from the MIA 18 -- S.Ridley up the middle to MIA 18 for no gain (T.McDaniel).
There’s a rhythm here, as the Patriots go back the personnel package they’ve had on the field for the majority of the drive -- a 12 set with the same familiar faces. The two tight ends are lined up off the right side, and the two wide receivers are split left, with Ridley out of the backfield. Brady, under center, quickly hands to Ridley, but for the first time all drive, Miami stops New England for no gain. On the play, defensive tackle Tony McDaniel does a very nice job shooting the gap between right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and right guard Nick McDonald, getting into the backfield and breaking things up before they really developed. It appeared that McDonald went to block the linebacker, while Vollmer was late moving over to pick up McDaniel. Regardless, the defensive lineman did a nice job breaking up the play. (Miami took its second time out at the end of the play, stopping the clock with 4:05 left in regulation.)
2-10 from the MIA 18 -- S.Vereen left guard to MIA 10 for 8 yards (K.Dansby).
Another departure in regular personnel on this play for the Patriots, as Vereen is in the backfield. Lloyd and Welker line up on the right, as Brady calls out signals while under center, Welker goes in motion from right to left, joining the two tight ends on the left side. Brady hands to Vereen, who hops forward and finds a hole off left guard, thanks to a nice piece of blocking from Donald Thomas and Nate Solder, who clear a path for the running back to get to the next level. (Right guard Nick McDonald also pulls on the play to offer support.) Another late tackle from a Miami linebacker -- in this case Dansby -- prevents a bigger play from taking place.
(One more thing: Vereen, like Hernandez earlier in the drive, executed a nice spin move at the end of the play while leaning forward. It allowed him to pick up another 3 yards. Nicely done. At the end of the play, Miami takes its’ final time out at the four-minute mark.
3-2 from the MIA 10 -- S.Ridley left tackle to MIA 8 for 2 yards (K.Dansby).
Remarkably, this is the first third down the Patriots have faced on this drive, but New England isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel here, as they line up tight in 12 personnel in what is clearly a running play. Looking to pick up some more yards and continue to kill the clock as they’re in field goal range. Brady, under center, gives to Ridley, who maneuvers to the left side behind another wall of bodies and leans forward for the first down. Again, this one wasn’t rocket science -- the New England o-line physically overpowered the Miami front by overloading the left side.
1-8 from the MIA 8 -- S.Ridley left guard to MIA 5 for 3 yards (K.Dansby).
More of the same on these next two plays, as the Patriots are simply looking to grind down as much of the clock as possible by running the ball, holding on to the rock and trying to find the best possible spot to pick up an extra yard or two with the same personnel and scheme on the field they’ve had for most of the drive. Miami was again bunched close to the line, and Ridley got what he could get, picking up 3 yards. (For what it’s worth, it looked like Ridley may have either chosen the wrong hole -- right guard Nick McDonald pulled to the left side, but Ridley jumped back right -- or the lane closed up too fast because of some good initial pressure on the right side by the Miami defensive line. Whatever the case, it was the sort of play the Patriots were looking for in that situation: there were positive yards and New England also killed more of the clock.)
2-5 from the MIA 5 -- S.Ridley right end to MIA 2 for 3 yards (R.Jones).
See above. More 12 personnel, and Brady was under center. Welker went in motion from left to right, and Brady handed to Ridley. The running back followed the block of pulling guard Donald Thomas -- as well as tight ends Fells and Hernandez -- and leaned forward for another couple of yards. That took things to the two-minute warning.
3-2 from the MIA 2 -- T.Brady left guard to MIA 3 for -1 yards (K.Burnett).
Another third down, but this one doesn’t matter, as the quarterback is simply maneuvering to the middle of the field to give kicker Stephen Gostkowski the best possible angle to attempt a field goal. (He dives from the right hash to the middle of the field.)
4-3 from the MIA 3 -- S.Gostkowski 20 yard field goal is GOOD.
Despite the struggles he had earlier in the afternoon when he went wide right on a 49-yarder, this time there’s no such problem for Gostkowski, who cleanly bangs home a 20-yard field goal.