Some observations on some hot topics from the New England Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
Shane Vereen's Limited Action
A week after setting a Patriots running back record with 12 receptions and 153 receiving yards against the Cleveland Browns, Shane Vereen hardly made a dent in the box score and on the football field on Sunday.
There were several reasons for his drop-off. The Dolphins committed extra resources to making sure he was taken out of the play. They also sniffed out his route on a few plays, allowing them to be in position to make the play.
There were some opportunities, however, that got left on the field.
This was on the first drive of the game, with the Patriots facing 1st-and-10. Julian Edelman (circled in black) ran a dig route on the outside, and Vereen (circled in yellow) ran a flare route straight toward the sideline. The post route by tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in the slot was supposed to free up the area between the numbers and the hash marks at the 40-yard line, where Edelman would come out of his break.
No one accounted for Vereen out of the backfield, the safety didn't take the bait on Hooman's post route, and Brady elected to go to a double-covered Edelman instead of the wide open Vereen. Without knowing what was going through Brady's head, it's easy to second-guess why he wouldn't at least check down to Vereen, especially with the pressure closing in.
It's not as though Vereen was wide open every time he went out into a pattern -- quite the contrary.
There were times, also, where Vereen would be doubled when he ran a pattern. On this play, Vereen ran a pivot route from the slot in a spread set. With Edelman running a 10-yard dig route on the outside, that area of the field was supposed to be free for Vereen.
Instead, Vereen found himself covered both inside and outside, and linebacker Philip Wheeler was right in position to defend the pass when Brady went that direction.
This was a common theme of the day -- the Dolphins would double Vereen any time he would run a route at the second level. That wasn't the only common theme, though.
Vereen ran some flare routes out of the backfield, intended to get him sprinting into the open field, where he could eventually use his skills as a running back to elude defenders in the open field. The Dolphins were ready for this, though, and almost always had someone accounting for him when he would run this type of route.
Sometimes, the ball would fall incomplete...
...other times, Vereen would be tackled shortly after catching the pass.
It wasn't always additional resources. Sometimes, the Dolphins simply had the right call to defend what the Patriots wanted to do. That might have come from film study.
And if that's the case, the Patriots have some work to do.
There has to be a collective effort -- from Tom Brady and the Patriots coaching staff -- to mix things up more for Vereen. The flares and out-routes out of the backfield were great when Rob Gronkowski was soaking up two or more defenders over the middle every snap, but that's not happening anymore. The Patriots have to find a way to get things done despite the new circumstances.
A lot has been made of the red zone playcalling over the past few days. Before I get too far into my thoughts on what happened in the red zone in this game, it has to be said: the play you see is not always the play that is called. Sometimes, Brady adjusts at the line of scrimmage. I only saw one play where it looked like the Patriots had called a run and they checked to a pass.
On this particular play, the Patriots came out in a one-back set with Brady lined up under center. Brady saw something in the defense he didn't like -- perhaps the defenders crowding the line of scrimmage -- so he called an audible. From there, he moved back to the shotgun.
The Dolphins sent five defenders, and it looked like they adjusted their defensive call when Brady made his adjustment.
There were other plays where Brady made such adjustments, though, and it's not out of the question that he was checking out of a shotgun handoff -- one time, Vereen motioned from Brady's side in the shotgun out wide of the formation.
The Patriots ran the ball just four times inside the 20-yard line, against 11 pass plays (two completions). Running back LeGarrette Blount had an eight-yard run in the red zone, but other than that, the Patriots' three runs netted five yards.
If the Patriots had failed to punch it with a run-focused approach, though, the second-guessing would have been why the ball wasn't in Brady's hands in the most crucial gotta-have-it situations.
People will always second-guess play calls -- but of course, when it works, it's brilliant. Take, for instance, Hooman's one-handed touchdown grab in the second quarter.
It wasn't the prettiest play overall -- the pocket collapsed around Brady from the blind side and up the middle, forcing him to step up; then, of course, the catch was about as gritty as they come, with Wheeler draped on him in coverage -- but just for a minute, it looked like the Patriots hadn't lost a step in the red zone.
"Those are the kind of plays that we need, because we're not going to be open by five yards every play," Brady said Monday on WEEI. "Especially down in the red area, we've got to make tough plays in tight windows and come up with tough catches, take some hits -- like Julian did last week against Cleveland where he took that big hit in the back of the end zone. That's football in the red area. We've got to be better in the red area."
Perhaps Brady was alluding to what took place later when he discussed the tighter windows.
This is a similarly tight window to the one Hooman had to fight through to make his first touchdown grab, but look at where the ball is thrown. It zips right between his hands. You can argue whether there should have been a flag thrown on this play or not (to quote CBS analyst Phil Simms, "That was very close to being pass interference. ...There's the hit before the football gets there, but at the end of games, if the call is close, you let it go. ...That right there, yes, it was probably pass interference, but not in a situation like this." Thanks for the clarity, Phil.), but you can't argue that Hooman could have still made this catch.
Aqib Talib in the Middle
The Patriots moved Aqib Talib around the field a bit on Sunday. At times, he would line up in his customary spot on the outside, but more frequently, he would line up in the slot or in coverage over the middle.
There have been varying reasons given to why this was the case.
Could it be that the Patriots wanted him over the middle to take away those throws from Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill? Probably not; Tannehill has been incredibly effective throwing outside the numbers (61.9 completion percentage this season), so if anything, it would have been to the Patriots benefit to put him outside. If that was truly their plan, though, it failed miserably; Tannehill was 15-of-17 on throws between the numbers against the Patriots.
That's not on Talib, necessarily. In fact, it was not a bad day for Talib individually; he gave up just two receptions on four targets.
It's entirely possible that the Patriots didn't want Talib out there covering speedsters like Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline after what happened to him last week against Browns receiver Josh Gordon, especially since Talib is not 100 percent healthy (was listed as limited on last Wednesday and Thursday's injury report with a hip).
It's fair to wonder whether the Patriots were trying to prevent exposing Talib too frequently, and what -- if anything -- that might mean from here on out.
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