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Patriots Take 2: Second-half adjustments lead to Patriots' best third quarter of the season

Posted by Erik Frenz  October 30, 2013 08:00 AM

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"Third quarter."

Two words signifying 15 minutes of game clock, spelling doom for the New England Patriots for the entire 2013 season -- that is, until Sunday against the Dolphins, when they turned back the hands of time and looked as dominant as ever in a huge third quarter that changed the tone of the game and gave the Patriots permanent control.

The Patriots have been on the wrong end of a couple of those this season, giving up a 10-point halftime lead over the Saints and an 11-point halftime lead over the Jets in the third quarter in their previous two games.

On Sunday, they outscored the Dolphins 17-0 in the third quarter, and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the process.

Here's a look at that and more in this week's film breakdown.

Aggressive defense

Speaking to Dolphins players after the game, one thing became clear: it wasn't just the Dolphins giving up the game in the second half. The Patriots made their share of adjustments to get back in the game. No one, however, made it clear what those adjustments were.

After review, it's clear that adjustment was to the dial on their blitzometer. The Patriots sent more than four defenders on the rush on 28 of 50 dropbacks (including penalties). Of those, 22 were in the second half.

Specifically in the third quarter, they called 10 blitzes on 12 pass plays.

hightower sack 1.png

One of those was the pivotal play in the game, a sack by linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who came through the A-gap to bring down quarterback Ryan Tannehill for a nine-yard loss on 3rd-and-2.

Hightower and Brandon Spikes ran a stunt, each heading through the A-gap opposite the one they were standing in front of at the snap.

hightower sack 2.png

By no consequence of the aforementioned linebacker stunt, defensive end Rob Ninkovich initially came unblocked off the edge, probably due to an egregious miscommunication on behalf of the Dolphins offensive line.

hightower sack 3.png

Once Ninkovich made a mess in the pocket, all Hightower had to do was clean it up.

This proved to be the first snowflake in what would become a large snowball and then eventually turn into a full-on avalanche. The Dolphins were still within kicker Caleb Sturgis' range, but his field goal try doinked off the right upright, and the Patriots were able to get a head of steam in the right direction.

If that play got the Patriots moving, the touchdown drive that followed put the foot on the gas, and the Patriots slammed the accelerator to the floor on the Dolphins' next possession.

blitz 9.png

Cornerback Logan Ryan blindsiding Tannehill on a corner blitz in the third quarter, forcing a fumble which was recovered by the Patriots at the 13-yard line.

The Patriots sent six defenders on their initial rush, with Spikes reading the running back and crashing the line once the back stayed in protection. Cornerback Logan Ryan (circled in blue) came off the offense's left, meaning that tight end Charles Clay (42) was initially uncovered on the drag route over the middle.

blitz 8.jpg

Clay was just about to break behind the rushing linebackers, and Tannehill was getting ready to throw to him. Had Tannehill been able to throw the pass, Clay may very well still be running. Instead, the blitz got home, Ryan forced the fumble, and the rest is history.

It looks like running back Daniel Thomas (33) was supposed to pick up the blitz, but he sought to block Hightower coming up the middle instead of Ryan coming off the edge. Had he picked the right defender, Tannehill would probably have had time to get the pass away.

Aerial approach

Much has also been made of the Patriots not attacking the middle of the field in the passing game. In the first half, seven of Tom Brady's nine pass attempts were outside the numbers, the other two over the middle. In the second half, Brady threw 11 passes to the outside and five over the middle -- still not quite the balance they're looking for, but better.

This is an adjustment that's been a long time coming; Brady has always excelled throwing over the middle, but the Patriots have continued to bang their head against the sideline in calling repeated throws to the outside -- low-percentage throws that could be leading to much of the offense's struggles, and did in the first half.

gronk middle.png

Perhaps it was just as simple as getting Rob Gronkowski back in the lineup. The Patriots went to him on this play, a 2nd-and-10 in the third quarter on their first touchdown drive of the day, and picked up 23 yards on the pass.

The Dolphins left just one defender over the middle, and Brady made them pay once Gronkowski broke past the linebacker in zone coverage.

gronk middle 2.png

Look at all the open space around Gronkowski. For years, the key to stopping the Patriots was to take away everything over the middle. This year, they've gone outside more, and defenses have matched that. Now, with Gronkowski back, they can start going over the middle and catching defenses off-guard.

Problems lie ahead for Patriots run defense

The Patriots traded for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga on Tuesday, just minutes before the trade deadline. After watching the Jets and Dolphins pull out the battering ram on the middle of the Patriots defense, it's not a surprise they called in some reinforcements. They'll have to sturdy things up quick, because it wasn't pretty.

The Dolphins had not previously been known as a dominant running team, but against the Patriots, they piled up 156 yards on 31 carries, including 103 yards on 22 carries in the first half before they got away from the running game while the wheels fell of in every other area imagineable.

No matter the down or distance, the Dolphins were having their way with the Patriots on the ground.

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Daniel Thomas picked up 15 yards on 4th-and-1 on a run straight up the gut. Considering the Dolphins marginal success rate on short-yardage runs (43.8 percent converted for first down, second-lowest percentage in the NFL), the fact that they were able to reel off such a big gain is kind of a big deal.

The Dolphins deserve some credit for well-executed blocks, but so much went wrong on this particular play for the Patriots, it's easy to say they let them off the hook.

thomas 4th and 1 2.png

Defensive tackle Marcus Forston shot through the A-gap between the center and left guard, and Joe Vellano got taken out of the A-gap on the other side. Ordinarily, a linebacker would be there in clean-up duty, but Hightower filled the B-gap between right guard and right tackle, where the fullback was headed, and Spikes got cleaned out by Dolphins guard Richie Incognito at the second level.

Forston and Vellano figure to be the two players that will see their roles decrease the most with the arrival of Sopoaga.

Aaron Dobson emerging as reliable target

The rookie wide receiver experiment hasn't been a 100-percent success, but Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have each enjoyed their own moments in the spotlight during the first eight weeks of the season.

dobson's career.pngIf recent trends continue, though, Dobson could emerge as one of Brady's most trusted targets in the future. He's already on his way.

Don't be fooled by the fact that Dobson's first target and first catch as an NFL receiver went for a touchdown; his pro career couldn't have gotten off to a much rockier start than catching just three of 10 passes thrown in his direction, dropping three of those passes.

Recently, though, Dobson's performance has taken a turn for the better.

He's been getting separation all season, but only recently has it turned into production. He's turning a higher percentage of his targets into catches, and although he's still dropped a few passes --including one on Sunday -- Brady hasn't stopped looking his direction. Dobson had as many targets as Gronkowski against the Dolphins.

Dobson rewarded his quarterback by running great routes and making some difficult catches, specifically on his touchdown catch. He ran a beautiful stop-and-go route down the left sideline, faking two steps to the inside and setting up cornerback Nolan Carroll perfectly to get open in the end zone.

Dobson maintained his focus and hauled in the touchdown.

He had another big play, a 26-yard reception down the left sideline on a curl route. Cornerback Dimitiri Patterson implored the official for a flag for pass interference, but it was for naught.

pass interference 2.png

In Patterson's defense, he has a point. Dobson clearly put his hand on him as he stopped his route.

pass interference 1.png

Perhaps Patterson might have had a better case if he hadn't continued running another five yards downfield after the initial interference. It didn't look like Patterson kept running because he was pushed; it looked like he just kept running, not expecting Dobson to stop short.

Either way, it wasn't called on the field, so no harm, no foul.

There have been enough signs of progress not to lose faith in the development of the young receivers, and Dobson has been riding a recent wave of success.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Erik Frenz delivers analysis of the biggest news with the Patriots, including insight into the AFC East and New England's biggest rivals from a Patriots perspective. Erik is an interactive writer who engages his audience in his posts’ comments sections and on Twitter. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and ask questions. More »


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