logoby Tyler Carter

Bill Belichick’s opening statement from his morning-after press conference following the Patriot’s worst home loss during his tenure:

“we all obviously feel bad…it was a total team loss. I don’t think we did a good job coaching, starting with me, and didn’t do a good job of playing. We got pretty well beat in every phase…other than special teams.”

Let’s start by assessing the dismal play of the offense:

As the unit and coaches adjust to life without…you know who, they’ve complimented their currently favored run & shoot, spread strategy by returning somewhat to their smash mouth, ‘run to set up the pass’ roots.  Such an offense is predicated on patience and effective run-blocking, the latter being the linchpin to the whole operation.  If you can’t give your backs room to maneuver, you can’t run the ball effectively.  If you can’t run the ball, you can’t lure an extra defender(s) up to the LOS for run support with play action.  If you can’t sell the play action, your deep threats (Moss, etc.) will constantly face double or even triple teams.  For those who still would have preferred the Patriots take some shots down the field despite such coverage, there are not one, not two, not three but four instances where his future HOF predecessor did that very thing to the tune of 4 interceptions, and none resulted in wins.  In short, forcing the ball against a competent defense that’s expecting it is rarely the answer.  But I digress.

How did the big boys do up front run blocking?  The stat sheet reads 79 yards on 20 carries for a seemingly satisfactory 4.0 YPC, including 58 yards on 12 carries (4.8 YPC) in the first half alone; however, those numbers are skewed by two plays: a 19 yard reverse by Welker (yes, it was a true reverse as the ball changed direction) and a 17 yard rush by Morris.  Take away those two plays and the first half rushing average plummets to 2.2 YPC.  By the beginning of the second half New England was down 21-6 and in catch up mode, and thus abandoned its patience with its running attack.  In summation, the Patriots offensive woes were easy to diagnose, if not easy to stomach.

Defensively, however, New England ran into a Miami offense that pulled out all the stops.  It was reminiscent of a Patriot squad that once upon a time started their season 0-2 following a last place campaign, and was desperate to get something going:

2001 Week 6, October 21st, 2001.  New England at Indianapolis

Best known as the David Patten show; the little-known wide receiver became the first player in over 20 years to catch, throw and run for a touchdown in the same game.  New England’s second thrashing of then division rival Indianapolis in four weeks initiated a midseason Colt meltdown capped off by this Jim Mora gem.

In those days the New England offense was helmed by a coordinator (currently gimpy HC of the NDFI) who, like Miami’s Dan Henning, also had a penchant for deception.  Later in the season the surging Patriots were more confident and cohesive, but that didn’t stop them from digging into their bag of tricks:

2001 Week 15, December 22nd, 2001.  Miami at New England

Among other plays, this game included a direct snap to Kevin Faulk who passed to Brady for his first (and only) career reception for a critical early first down.  New England and Miami would finish the season with identical records, but the Patriots won the AFC East on tiebreakers.  This was the last Dolphin team to make the playoffs.

The author doesn’t mean to imply that the current Dolphins will emulate the success of ’01 Patriots, but this and other parallels (solid free agent/draft class, competent front office & coaching staff) hint that the former may be in the midst of a turnaround.  In this week’s The Turning Point, we’ll take a look at the ‘Wildcat‘ set that Miami used early and often, and the Patriots had no answer for:

Situation: 2-2-NE 2 (2:32)

Miami Formation: Single-wing, Pennington split left, Williams slotted left, Cobbs split right, Brown under center
Personnel: WR 10 Pennington, WR (slot) 34 Williams, End 80 Fasano, Guard 65 Smiley, C 64 Satele, Guard 68 Ndukwe, Tackle 72 Carey, End 77 Long, Wingback 88 Martin, WR 38 Cobbs, Tailback 23 Brown
New England Formation: Goal line
Personnel: LDE 94 Warren, LDT 99 Wright, RDT 75 Wilfork, RDE 93 Seymour, LOLB 50 Vrabel, SILB 54 Bruschi, WILB 51 Mayo, WOLB 96 Thomas, LCB 37 Harrison, Slot CB 36 Sanders, RCB 29 Sanders
Play result: R.Brown right guard for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Summary: Sanders was initially matched up on Williams but abandoned the latter as he went in motion left-right.  A few heartbeats later Brown took the direct snap, faked the handoff to Williams, who sold it enough for Warren and Vrabel to bite and overpersue.  Protection-wise, Satele (the only lineman playing his natural position), Ndukwe and Carey crashed left to respectively seal off Seymour, Wilfork and Wright.  Smiley delivered the key block by coming around to trap Bruschi, as the latters arm tackle was insufficient to stop Brown on his way into the end zone.

To say the Patriots were caught off guard (pardon the pun) would be an understatement.  If this had been the only time Miami (successfully) ran this formation, it might have been forgivable under the circumstances: the Patriots were faced 2nd and 2 backed up on their own 2 yard line and had less than 10 seconds to adjust to Dolphins unorthodox formation after the latter broke huddle.  Burning a timeout would have been useless and wasteful given how Miami was moving the football.

However, this would not be only time the Dolphin offense utilized the single wing; after the Patriots second field goal closed the gap to 14-6, Miami used this formation three times on their third scoring drive alone.  On the first occasion, Brown took the direct snap and did in fact hand off to Williams, but the latter tripped as he tried the corner for ‘only’ a 3 yard gain.  Five plays later and immediately following the two minute warning, the Dolphins ran the same exact play with much greater results:

Situation: 1-10-NE 45 (2:00)

Miami Formation: Single Wing, Williams flanked left, Cobbs slotted right, Pennington split right, Brown under center
Personnel: Same
New England Formation: 3-4 over
Personnel: LDE 94 Warren, NT 75 Wilfork, RDE 93 Seymour, LOLB 50 Vrabel, SILB 54 Bruschi, WILB 51 Mayo, WOLB 96 Thomas, LCB 21 O’Neil, SS 37 Harrison, FS 36 Sanders, RCB 27 Trey Hobbs
Play result: R.Williams right end to NE 17 for 28 yards

Summary: Williams once again went in motion left-right while Hobbs and Thomas remained on their side of the field with no one to cover.  After the snap Smiley and Satele, the lineman who normally comprise one of the A gaps, let the slow-footed Wilfork through in favor of downfield blocking.  Ndukwe and Carey double-teamed Warren while Long turned back inside to prevent Bruschi’s pursuit; combined with Martin’s block on Vrabel, this opened up a huge hole for Williams, and downfield blocks such as the one by Pennington on O’Neil (no joke) sprung Williams for a huge gain.

It’s worth pointing out here that in the Patriots version of the 3-4, defensive lineman (especially Wilfork) tend to be more stout and are expected to occupy multiple blockers.  In running these plays to the outside, however, Miami negated their contributions.  On this play specifically, only Fasano (who chipped Seymour) and Ndukwe and Carey (double-teamed Warren) were needed to hold off the line, while most everyone else ran downfield to block.

Three plays later, Miami once again visited the New England endzone:

Situation: 1-5-NE 5 (1:03)

Miami Formation: Same
Personnel: Same
New England Formation: 3-4 over
Personnel: LDE 94 Warren, NT 75 Wilfork, RDE 93 Seymour, LOLB 50 Vrabel, SILB 54 Bruschi, WILB 51 Mayo, WOLB 96 Thomas, LCB 21 O’Neil, SS 37 Harrison, FS 36 Sanders, RCB 27 Trey Hobbs
Play result: R.Brown right guard for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Summary: Exact formation as used on the second play broken down, same call and result as the first.  The only difference was that Hobbs stayed with Williams from pre-snap up until the former realized the latter didn’t have the ball; upon this realization he fell down pivoting back to help Bruschi (who was once again trapped by pulling guard Smiley).

At halftime the Patriots went into the locker room down 21-6.  If they made adjustments they had nothing to show for it as they were beaten twice more by the single wing formation (Brown’s left-handed 23 yard touchdown pass to Fasano, and his 62 yard touchdown run up the middle).

Silver Lining:

Belichick was quick to take personal responsibility for this loss, and rightly so.  The Patriots are very scheme-heavy, and the coaching staff normally succeeds each week in preparing the team for what they can expect from their opponent.  Needless to say, however, they didn’t see this one coming.  However, its tough to be too critical since Miami used a formation that is all but extinct today at the professional level.

Nevertheless, in a copycat league with every team looking for an edge, future Patriot opponents might consider adopting some of Miami’s strategy.  The single wing is simple enough to operate as many of its elements survive to the present day in the guise of punt formations.  Fortunately, the Patriots have a couple of weeks to formulate some contingencies.