November 23, 2014

The Return of the Big Play

logoby Tyler Carter
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A week after this columnist suggested they were on pace for their worst statistical season since 2000, the Patriots responded by recording their most decisive win of the season against AFC West-leading Denver, an organization that has historically given them fits.

Although it was certainly satisfying to watch, such a butt-kicking made it difficult to identify a turning point.  Was it the return of the hoodie?  The Pat’s wearing their home blues for the first time this season?  The author’s first-ever trip to Gillette (and all-out effort to make a 12th man out of the country club fans in Section 214)?

The boys over at Cold, Hard Football Facts are fond of their ‘Quality Stats‘, which are so named for their having a direct correlation to winning.  Among the Quality Stats is the ‘Big Play Index‘, which ranks the teams according to Big Play differential (gained subtracting allowed).  Examples of big plays include turnovers (fumble recoveries and interceptions), long run (>25 yards) and pass (>40 yards) plays, etc.

After their first five games of 2008, the Patriots ranked a paltry 27th in the index.  On Monday night alone, the Patriots logged as many Big Plays (eight) as they had all season:

-Two interceptions
-Three fumble recoveries
-Two Sammy Morris runs over 25 yards
-One Wes Welker punt return over 40 yards.

And these Big Plays weren’t just enjoyable to watch; the Patriots scored 34 of their 41 points off of drives resulting from or including a Big Play.  They were the difference in this ball game, and largely resulted from an opportunistic defense (five turnovers) and a terrific ground attach (largest output in 15 years).  For this week’s Turning Point, we’ll break down a play from each unit.

Denver’s opening possession began promisingly as they drove 41 yards in 12 plays (converting three 3rd down attempts) and taking over 6 minutes off the clock.  They managed this despite Jay Cutler injuring his right index finger (throwing hand) on the first play from scrimmage and thus having to heavily rely on the running game (2:1 run-to-pass ratio).  On their fourth 3rd down situation, the Broncos attempted to spread out the Patriot defense with a 4 WR formation:

Situation: 3-5-NE 32 (8:57)

Denver Formation: Shotgun Trips Right, Hall offset right

Personnel: WR 15 Marshall, LT 78 Clady, LG 50 Hamilton, C 62 Wiegmann, RG 73 Kuper, RT 74 Harris, TE/WR 89 Graham, 19 WR Royal, WR 82 Jackson, QB 6 Cutler, RB 23 Hall

New England Formation: Dime 3-2-6

Personnel: LDE 99 Wright. NT 93 Seymour, RDE 90 Smith, LOLB 96 Thomas, SS/MLB 37 Harrison, ROLB 59 Guyton, LCB 21 O’Neil, NB 29 Sanders, RCB Trey Hobbs, SS 31 Meriweather, FS 36 Sanders.

Play result: A.Hall right end to NE 30 for 2 yards (L.Sanders).  FUMBLES (L.Sanders),

RECOVERED by NE-L.Smith at NE 32. L.Smith to NE 32.

Play Summary: Thomas and Guyton (normally an inside LB) flanked the defensive line while O’Neil, Sanders and Hobbs lined up opposite Jackson, Royal and Marshall, respectively.  In this dime package Harrison acted as the middle linebacker, staying with old friend Dan Graham as the latter went in motion.  After receiving Cutler’s toss, Hall headed to the outside where Thomas and Sanders, having shrugged off blocks by Royal and Harris (the latter’s did nothing to dispel Denver’s chop blocking reputation), closed in.  As Hall turned the corner to lunge for the sticks, Sanders reached around his back to pry the ball loose.  Le Kevin Smith, who started the play as the RDE, came all the way around to pounce on the ball and halt Denver’s initial drive.

Mike Shanahan, a member of the Bill Walsh coaching tree, favors a run-heavy variant of the West Coast offense.  Behind undersized yet powerful offensive lines, mid-late round running backs such as Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, and Tatum Bell have each logged 1000 yard rushing seasons for the Broncos over the last ten seasons (with Davis rushing for over 2000 yards back in 1998).  This season however has been one of flux for Denver’s running back corps: due to Travis Henry’s one-year suspension and Selvin Young’s injury, the Broncos primary ball carrier Monday night was journeyman Michael Pittman.  When he sat out a few plays to nurse an injury of his own, it fell to Andre Hall, a return specialist, to carry the load.

Although they came out in the dime package, the Patriots seemed wary of a run call (having been subjected to it throughout the drive).  With six defensive backs on the field they had plenty of speed to contain an outside rush, and Sander’s savvy reach-around strip was followed by a terrific individual effort by Le Kevin Smith (who, playing behind Seymour at RDE, doesn’t get a lot of opportunities).  Denver’s next drive would likewise be derailed by a Hall fumble.

However, despite twice inheriting great field position off of turnovers, the Patriot offense settled for field goals.  On their next possession New England advanced the ball to the Denver 42 before two Matt Cassel sacks forced them to punt.  After the defense forced a Denver three-and-out, the Patriots took over at their own 44, and a Moss catch (his first) got them back into Denver territory.  On this day, however, it was the Patriots rushing attack that took center stage, and their longest run was about to come:

Situation: 2-1-DEN 47 (9:36)

New England Formation: Big I

Personnel: WR 81 Moss LT 72 Light, LG 70 Mankins, C 67 Koppen, RG 61 Neal (good to have him back), RT 64 LeVoir, TE 84 Watson, TE/H-back 86 Thomas, QB 16 Cassel, FB 44 Evans, RB 34 Morris

Denver Formation: 3-4

Personnel: LDE 91 Ekuban, NT 79 Thomas, RDE 94 Moss, LOLB 51 Winborn, LILB 55 Williams, RILB 58 Webster, ROLB 52 Green, LCB 24 Bailey, RCB 32 Bly, SS 33 Manuel, FS 37 Lowry

Play result: S.Morris up the middle to DEN 13 for 34 yards

Play Summary: Faced with a 2 TE, 2 RB formation, Denver anticipated a run call and countered with nine men in the box (Manuel came down from his strong safety spot to line up opposite Watson, and Bly followed Thomas as the latter went in motion pre-snap).  While Evans headed between the Koppen-Neal gap, Morris witnessed a monster hole develop from Light’s manhandling of Moss (which additionally sealed off Webster) and headed in that direction.  After zigzagging past Bly, Green and Lowry (the latter two collided with eachother), Morris cut to the outside to follow Moss’s downfield block.  By the time Bly finally decided to make the tackle, Morris had busted off a 34 yard gain to give the Patriots 1st and 10 at the Denver 13.

A combination of blocking (Light, Thomas and Moss on Moss, Green and Bailey, respectively), moves/vision by Morris, and piss-poor pursuit angles by Denver made this gain possible.  It is worth noting that the Broncos injury situation (Richardson and Boss Bailey were out) forced Thomas and Green to play out of their normal positions.  Still, Moss was no match for Light, and Bly badly overran Morris when a diving stop may have limited the damage Denver suffered on the play.

The Patriots would score four plays later on 4th and 1 (compare this to last week when they failed to score on four consecutive plays from the one yard line).  Despite going 0-5 on third down in the first half and allowing 6 sacks, the Patriots demonstrated marked improvement in the Red Zone (80% efficiency) while rushing for a blistering 6.8 YPC.

Conclusions:

Should we temper our optimism considering Denver’s injuries (Cutler, the Bailey boys, most of their receiving corps), sputtering offense (<15 PPG over their last four games, 5 turnovers on Monday night alone), and overall lack of discipline (8 accepted penalties for a crippling 85 yards)?  Perhaps, but the Patriots had a lot to do with Denver’s struggles.  With an inspired and possibly resurgent St. Louis team coming to town next week, the Patriots will have a chance to build on their success and prove that Monday night was no fluke.

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