The New England Patriots ran the ball six times for five yards in the first half against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
It didn’t matter.
Facing the first-ranked Detroit defense – a unit that had conceded an average of 68 rushing yards and 15 points per game – New England’s offense went wide. It went outside. It went where three-time NFL All-pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh did not.
The end result was a 34-9 Week 12 win over a team that hadn’t allowed more than 23 points in one game this season.
New England had 24 in one half.
With “12” personnel sets spreading linebacker DeAndre Levy and the Lions’ coverage, Tom Brady stood in shotgun. From there, the quarterback dispersed throws to five different receivers on the way to a 38-of-53 passing day and his 63rd career 300-yard day.
And, playing against the team he made his regular-season debut against 14 years ago to the day, it was all about timing.
The offensive line of Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer started its fourth in a row, and that continuity helped the timing remain. Brady wasn’t sacked. He found flanker Julian Edelman for 11 catches and 89 yards, split end Brandon LaFell for nine catches and 89 yards, multipurpose back Shane Vereen for eight catches and 48 yards instead.
Then he got to the the tight ends. Rob Gronkowski split the seams for five catches and 78 yards. And flex threat Tim Wright carved into the end zone for two touchdowns – his fifth and sixth scores of the season – on the way to netting five catches for 36 yards.
It was, however, just two yards short of the end zone that Brady made his most glaring mistake, as Amherst native, UMass product and onetime Patriots safety James Ihedigbo disguised coverage to intercept his former teammate.
But the Patriots’ defense intercepted Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on Sunday afternoon as well, as a weak-side hit from linebacker Jamie Collins parlayed into a cornerback Logan Ryan pick in the fourth.
New England’s defense managed to hold the 2009 No. 1 overall pick to 18-of-46 passing with 264 yards. And by the time New England’s offense finally turned to the run to close the game out, Detroit’s own offense had been held to zero touchdowns, three field goals and five punts.
1. Gray Looks On: Jonas Gray went from 37 carries to no carries in the matter of a week. The running back stood on the New England sideline with his helmet on, watching LeGarrette Blount make his return to the Patriots and score a three-yard touchdown in the second quarter, then a one-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Blount, who was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this week, finished with 12 carries for 78 yards and the same number of touchdowns he tallied as a Steeler.
2. Covering Lions: New England’s secondary rotated in different looks against 6-foot-5, four-time Pro Bowler Calvin Johnson, 1,000-yard “Z” receiver Golden Tate, and 2011 Patriots undrafted rookie Jeremy Ross. The 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner matched up with Johnson for most of the game, notching two pass deflections, while fellow starting cornerback Darrelle Revis spelled in to break up a jump-ball pass intended for Johnson down in the red zone. Revis was, however, on the elusive Tate for most of the tilt, and capitalized with four breakups. And, rounding out the group, nickelback Kyle Arrington stepped in on Ross. Altogether, Johnson totaled four receptions for 58 yards, Tate totaled five for 97, and Ross totaled three for 35.
3. Ayers Off Edge: The absence of right defensive end Chandler Jones is still felt, but since arriving in New England on Oct. 21, his replacement, Akeem Ayers, has registered three sacks in four games. The third one took place in the first quarter on Sunday afternoon, as he inside-outed Lions rookie left tackle Cornelius Lucas to bring down Stafford after starter Riley Reiff exited with an knee injury. Yet with that impact comes perspective. The 2011 second-round pick played just 10 snaps and made just two tackles with the Tennessee Titans earlier this year, but the UCLA standout has played an integral role in his short time with the Patriots this past month.
4. Safety Swivel: Second-year Patriots safety Duron Harmon has platooned with starter Patrick Chung in waves this campaign, and that was evidenced versus Detroit, when the 2013 Rutgers grad stepped into the defensive backfield for a sequence of passing downs. Both have found a purpose next to free safety Devin McCourty, with Chung working in the base defense and Harmon in the sub-package defense versus Detroit.
5. Flags Hit Hard: Last week, the Indianapolis Colts accepted just five penalties from the Patriots – the second-lowest mark of the season for New England. This week was a different story. New England was flagged 11 times for 84 yards, and perhaps the most pivotal one came from Collins, whose defensive holding call negated a sack by left end Rob Ninkovich. But ultimately, the infractions were a fraction of the game’s outcome.
The 9-2 Patriots have now won seven straight.