Down by 14 in the third quarter of Saturday’s playoff game, New England turned to four. (NFL Game Rewind)
Four offensive linemen.
Baltimore Ravens head coach Jim Harbaugh called it deception. NFL officials called it legal. And the New England Patriots called upon it three times.
“It’s a play that we thought would work,” head coach Bill Belichick saidin his postgame conference following the Patriots’ 35-31 playoff victory over the Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
The play was more so an assembly for New England’s offense. Down 28-14 in the midst of the third quarter, it involved right guard Josh Kline leaving the game, and second tight end Michael Hoomanawanui entering it to assume his place rather than his role.
The results of the switch were 41 yards.
“We ran it three times, a couple different looks,” Belichick explained. “We had six eligible receivers on the field, but only five were eligible. The one who was ineligible reported that he was ineligible. No different than on the punt team or a situation like that.”
Steve Smith Sr. will line up against the Patriots for the first time since he was a Panther. (NFL Game Rewind)
Steve Smith Sr. is 5-foot-9, 195 pounds and 35 years old. But neither size nor age kept the wideout from catching 79 passes for 1,065 yards and six touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens this season.
Smooth in and out of breaks, sudden on and off the ground, strong at the line and the catch point – the 14-year NFL veteran isn’t what he should be.
He isn’t far from the player he was during his 13 years with the Carolina Panthers. He isn’t far from the talker or the competitor he was then, either. Yet whatever Smith is now, he’s been an answer for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. And he’s been a problem for the New England Patriots.
Behind Gary Kubiak’s scheme, Justin Forsett awaits the Patriots. (NFL Game Rewind)
The last time Gary Kubiak encountered the New England Patriots was Dec. 1, 2013.
He was head coach of the Houston Texans then, facing a Patriots defensive front laden with attrition at a since-renamed Reliant Stadium. There was no Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly or Jerod Mayo along New England’s front seven, and there was no Arian Foster within Houston’s offensive backfield.
But there were zone-blocking scheme principles.
Jimmy Garoppolo stepped in for the second half against Buffalo. (NFL Game Rewind)
Jimmy Garoppolo entered Week 17 having gone 9-of-10 passing for 92 yards and a touchdown over his first five NFL games. He left it having gone 19-of-27 for 182 yards and a touchdown over his first six.
The second-round pick out of Eastern Illinois hadn’t thrown a pass since Oct. 26 against the Chicago Bears, in a game that was a 25-point New England Patriots lead by the time he entered it in the fourth quarter.
Garoppolo had only entered to kneel down and hand off in the two months since then. But the 2013 Walter Payton Award winner would get throw the ball again on Dec. 28. And he would get to run with it, too.
It was an 11-point Buffalo Bills lead at the start of the third when the 37-year-old Tom Brady traded in his helmet and the 23-year-old rookie stepped in. The fourth-ranked Bills defense, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 74.9 passer rating and leading the league with 50 sacks, awaited him.
Only they did more than wait.
In the absence of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola emerged Sunday. (NFL Game Rewind)
There was a time and place for Danny Amendola. It was Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
As the New England Patriots traveled to East Rutherford to face the New York Jets for Week 16, the team did so without the production of Julian Edelman, whose thigh injury and concussion kept 92 receptions, 972 yards and four touchdowns at home in Foxborough. But another wide receiver with 15 catches for 113 yards and one touchdown on the season would be traveling along with them.
Amendola stepped offensive huddle Sunday afternoon having started just two games on the season. He stepped in having played no more than 18 offensive snaps over the Patriots’ last four games. He stepped in having been held without a catch in six games, and having held no more than three catches for 35 yards in one game.
Those numbers would soon change.
Vince Wilfork joined Chris Jones’ company with a deflected field goal. (NFL Game Rewind)
With under eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, quarterback Tom Brady and wideout Brandon LaFell missed on a comeback route. The interception rookie cornerback Marcus Williams made from there could have been the turning point.
The score read 17-16 as the New York Jets took the football back Sunday at MetLife Stadium against the New England Patriots. Yet after a three-and-out, kicker Nick Folk and the Jets’ field-goal unit came on in the aim of taking the lead back from 52 yards out.
Folk had gone 3-of-5 from 50-plus yards on the season to that point, with a 58-yarder versus New England on Oct. 16 standing among the two misses. And another would soon stand along with them.
But this time, Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones wouldn’t be the one to get a hand on it. It would be Vince Wilfork.
Vince Wilfork and the Patriots grounded the Dolphins on Sunday. (NFL Game Rewind)
The cinderblocks were cemented back into place on Sunday, three months after Miami Dolphins running backs Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller broke through them for 193 rushing yards and a touchdown on 35 carries.
The wall the New England Patriots constructed in Week 15 looked fundamentally different than the one from Week 1. And unlike the three-man line assembled at Sun Life Stadium in September, the hybrid front was built with players who were built for it in December.
Enter the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Vince Wilfork, the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Sealver Siliga and the 6-foot-6, 335-pound Alan Branch.
Jonas Gray stepped back into the offensive huddle for 20 plays Sunday. (NFL Game Rewind)
Four different New England Patriots combined for 21 rushing yards in the first half of Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium. Jonas Gray was not one of them.
The practice-squad promotion, a month removed from a 37-carry, 201-yard, four-touchdown performance, watched through his facemask from the sideline and only left it to cover kickoffs. One quarter passed, then another as the former Miami Dolphins running back made his first contribution, tackling current Dolphins returner Jarvis Landry after a gain of 26.
Yet as the Patriots’ offense stepped on to the field for the third quarter of what was a 14-13 game, Gray followed. He followed to make a different kind of contribution, after having rushed for 13 yards on three carries over the New England’s last three games.
Soon, the 5-foot-10, 225-pound back would follow his blocks to lead the team in rushing.
Jamie Collins has registered three sacks in his last two games. (NFL Game Rewind)
Jamie Collins amassed 16.5 sacks over his final 26 collegiate games at Southern Mississippi. But through his first 26 regular-season games with the New England Patriots, that number stood at zero.
Now it stands at three.
Collins has been called upon to rush the passer 17 times over his last two games. And through the A-gaps he’s hit home. He’s hit home the way he often did as a senior on an 0-12 football team, only two years later, he’s hit home as a chess piece on a 10-3 one.
When it comes to the safety position, it hasn’t been about one. (NFL Game Rewind)
Devin McCourty played all 57 snaps against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. But three others played the safety position along with him.
It wasn’t the first time personnel usage within the New England Patriots’ defense rotated. It was, however, a time that revealed the value in doing so.
The Patriots have dispersed in single-safety looks, two-safety looks, three-safety looks and even four-safety looks to counter offensive packages and situations in recent memory. Along the way, the back end has played two-deep, single-high, cover-zero and a core special-teamer as a hybrid linebacker in the dime defense. Yet there is something to be said for how the group has assembled those pieces for those alignments.
And there’s something to be said for how head coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and position coach Brian Flores have incorporated more than one free and one strong safety into the 11.
That was on display in San Diego.