logoby Tyler Carter

Editor’s Note: This morning PD would like to give you a sneak peek at one of our new weekly features and introduce you to Tyler Carter, one of our newest staff writers.  Tyler’s ‘The Turning Point’ will hone in on the key moments – be it a play, or a series of plays – that truly made the difference in that week’s Patriots game. I think this ‘dry run’ from last Sunday’s pre-season loss in Tampa will give you a good look at what we have planned for this feature, as well as give you a chance to know Tyler and the talents he’ll bring to our site. Enjoy, and get ready to check out ‘The Turning Point’ after every Patriots game this year (SB).

Let me start by thanking Scott, Bruce and PD for this opportunity. I’ll try to make these pieces as insightful, entertaining and dorky as possible. On a more sarcastic note, I’d also like to thank the New England Patriots for tossing me a softball, or more appropriately, a naked bootleg sideline interception (couldn’t resist) for the initial installment of this column.

By any measure the Patriot offense was inefficient (10 points in 11 drives, 3.7 yards per play, 3 turnovers). But they were also without Brady (all-time Top 5 NFL QBs don’t exactly grow on trees) and two starting lineman (one a two-time Pro Bowler). Combined with Monte Kiffen’s lightning-fast Tampa 2 defense and the hostile environment, and it’s at least understandable that a younger, inexperienced squad would struggle.

Besides, when Coach Belichick, who is notoriously cryptic after a loss (especially a loss that counts), specifically offers the following indictment of his defense:

“…we gave up a 17-play drive to start the game and missed some tackles on a couple short passes and they turned into long passes…”

Who are we to argue? On said drive (this week’s The Turning Point), it took the Bucs 9:38 to march 80 yards (an 8.3 yards per minute clip…wait, is YPM even a stat? It should be). Here’s a related postgame snippet from Mike Vrabel:

“We didn’t make enough plays and then gave too much on first down and gave up short conversions on third down. Missed tackles. Big plays. That will about do it.”

No, my Ctrl-B keys aren’t sticky from having tasted too many cupcakes over at The Big Lead. Rather, the highlighted passages identify weaknesses that Tampa Bay exploited during the contest (let alone their first possession). Let’s see if we can support Vrabel’s analysis with some opening drive statistics (courtesy of the Game Summary PDF provided by NFL.com):

Problem #1: Too much (ground given up) on first down.

Key Stat: Average 1st down yards per play (YPP) allowed: 4.3. Ironically, this number balloons to 4.8 YPP if you discard Graham’s 1 yard TD run. Dunno about you but I’d take 2nd and 5.2 anytime on Madden!

Problem #2: Short conversions on third down.

Key Stat: Average 3rd down distance: 2 yards. The longest situation Tampa Bay faced was 3rd and 3 from the 5, and they even made that look easy with a 4 yard quick slant underneath to set up the aforementioned TD run.

Problem #3: Missed tackles.

Key Stat: Combined tackles by New England secondary: 9 (6 solo). Six solo tackles by the little guys on 1 drive?! Small wonder that this position group is dinged up. This stat suggests that, due to poor strategy (aka playcalling) or lack of execution, the front 7 didn’t (figuratively) pull their own weight.

Statistics alone however don’t tell the whole story. Here’s an in-depth look at some of the key plays from the opening drive.

Situation: 1-10-TB 20 (15:00)

Tampa Bay Formation: Weak I Twin WR. Hilliard lined up in the slot.

New England Formation: 3-4.

Play summary: New England didn’t react when Hilliard went in motion left-to-right, telling Griese they were playing zone. Despite Woods and Bruschi flanking the DL (a 5-2 run-stuffing look), good one-on-one blocking by RT Trueblood (Warren ended up near the opposite hashmark) and FB Storer (stuffed Bruschi to open a lane) sprang Graham for a 6 yard gain.

In a nutshell: too many yards allowed on 1st down resulting from poor execution and a possible missed tackle (Bruschi did manage to get a hand on Graham).

Situation: 2-4-TB 26 (14:24)

Tampa Bay Formation: Same.

New England Formation: Same.

Play summary: Hilliard again went in motion, only this time Hobbs came in tight on Bryant while the Patriot’s Bryant (confused yet?) moved over the top of Hilliard. This caused Griese to audible to an inside run, and although the Patriots seemed to sniff this out (having a superior number of defenders matched against Tampa Bay’s blockers), they failed to jam the middle as Graham still managed 3 yards.

In a nutshell: poor execution/gap discipline (across the board).

Situation: 3-1-TB 29 (13:58)

Tampa Bay Formation: Strong I.

New England Formation: 3-4.

Play summary: Sensing another run up the gut, the Pats brought Spahn up as the 8th man in the box, and every one of the defenders bit on the resulting fake handoff as Bryant received the end around and burst for a 16 yard gain. Mayo and Woods seemed aware of the fake, but Storer again delivered the key block as he prevented the latter from sealing the edge, thereby springing Bryant.

In a nutshell: conservative play-calling on 3rd and short, poor execution.

With only three plays in the books, even now it’s clear how in control Tampa Bay was. Following another run up the middle for a modest gain, Tampa Bay passed on 4 of the next 5 plays:

B.Griese pass short left to B.Storer to NE 47 for 5 yards
B.Griese pass short left to A.Smith to NE 43 for 4 yards
B.Griese pass short left to W.Dunn to NE 36 for 7 yards
• W.Dunn right guard to NE 33 for 3 yards
B.Griese pass short left to I.Hilliard to NE 25 for 8 yards

Sterling Sharpe (in a moment of insight) pointed out that these pass plays were run from different formations (Power I, Ace or Single Back, Shotgun 3 WR 2 RB, and Ace 2 TE), and that confusing a defense with multiple looks is a hallmark of the West Coast Offense. Marshall Faulk also chipped in (can’t… take…it…) that another caveat of the WCO it’s to script the first handful of plays. This would explain why Griese appeared to throw to his first read (left side) in each case; it nullified the Patriots pass rush (only once did they lay a finger on him, and it took roughly 3 Mississippis) and allowed him to take advantage of the vacated space underneath (Hobbs backpedaled more than Melo at the Garden). At this point the Patriots were flummoxed and winded, and the Bucs took 4 more excruciating minutes off the clock in the final 25 yards using a mix of short passes and inside runs.

While the Pats didn’t do themselves any favors during the opening drive, Tampa Bay certainly deserves credit for coming up with an effective (albeit scripted) game plan and executing it perfectly. A silver lining to all of this is that these mistakes seem correctable, and the Pats adjusted on Tampa’s next possession by holding them to a 3 and out before giving way to the subs.