Week 2: the Cardinals pull a stunt
There's certainly plenty of blame to go around for the Patriots' shocking loss to the Cardinals on Sunday, but you have to put the poor performance of the offensive line up near the top of the list. The pass protection was extremely inconsistent, and Brady paid dearly for it on some big plays. It's true that the Patriot offensive line was not at full strength and Arizona has some talented players in the front seven, but even accounting for that, it just was not a good game. For the purposes of this piece I'm focusing on a two specific lineman, but the tape definitely showed costly mistakes made by everyone on the line at times, including Logan Mankins.
This play began with 5:33 left in the first half, with the scored tied at 6 apiece. The Patriots are trying to get an offensive drive going after recovering a Kevin Kolb fumble caused by Chandler Jones. The drive began at the NE 48 yard line, but on first down, Brady was sacked for a 10 yard loss by Sam Acho after he overcame Patriot blocker Michael Hoomanawanui. That play was followed up by a false start penalty on right tackle Marcus Cannon, which put the Patriots here, in the unfortunate position of 2nd and 25.
Brady is lined up in the shotgun, flanked by both Ridley and Gronkowski in the backfield. Not depicted here are Edelman and Lloyd lined up as the outside receivers on the right and left respectively, and Welker in the slot to the right.
This article will be focusing on the pass protection battle between right guard Donald Thomas (#64) and right tackle Marcus Cannon (#61) against Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (#90) and outside linebacker Quentin Groves (#54).
This is the situation almost immediately after the snap, but we already have quite a bit of information. First and foremost, whatever doubt there may have been that the Patriots were going to pass is now gone. Brady is looking to his left, which, unsurprisingly, means Lloyd was probably the primary read. While both Ridley and Gronkowski will eventually run routes, neither seems to be in a hurry to get started, suggesting that their initial responsibility was to pick up any blitzers that the Cardinals might send to each their respective sides.
As for the Cardinals, they have elected not to bring any extra pressure, opting instead to rush only the front four lineman and drop seven men into a zone coverage, with a single man coverage on Welker.
So in summary, Brady has already begun looking for an open man, he will have five targets to choose from, and is protected by a line that has a five to four advantage over the Cardinal pass rushers. Seems like a pretty good situation to be in, aside from the whole 2nd and 25 thing, right?
This is the same point in time, but we're going to now focus in on the activity on the right side of the offensive line. At this instant, Donald Thomas is a split second away from making contact with Darnell Dockett (refer to point 1), which makes sense as Dockett was lined up over Thomas to begin with. The right tackle, Marcus Cannon, has come up out of his stance and is getting ready to deal with outside linebacker Quentin Groves (2), who will presumably be rushing around the corner of the pocket in an attempt to use his speed to get around Cannon and reach Brady.
Given the down and distance situation, and Ridley and Gronkowski's slightly delayed routes, I think it's pretty safe to infer that this play was not designed to be a short pass, but instead involved some longer-developing routes. While it my be overly optimistic to try to get all of the 25 yards needed for a 1st down on this play, the Patriots were clearly looking to get a good chunk of yardage. By extension, that means that the offensive line is expected to provide Brady a reasonable length of time to get rid of the ball, ideally around 4.5 - 5 seconds.
This is almost immediately after what we saw in T.1 (Brady has only taken one step since then), but already we can see that Dockett and Groves are up to something.
Here you can see that Thomas is now fully engaged with Dockett (1), and looks like he has a pretty good lock on him. However, instead of trying to bull rush through or even swim/spin around Thomas to get to Brady, Dockett has begun to move towards Cannon's space, in the direction of the yellow dotted line.
Groves, meanwhile, has not continued on the outside path that we anticipated, but instead has suddenly changed direction (2), and is now heading towards Thomas' space.
This is known as a "stunt," and simply speaking, it means that Dockett and Groves are going to swap pass rushing lanes in the hopes that the offensive linemen will get confused or otherwise fail to pick both of the pass rushers up on their new routes. Cannon has his eyes right on Groves, but it's unclear at this point whether or not Thomas has any sense of what Groves is up to, but (spoilers) we'll see in a minute that no, he clearly didn't.
I should also mention that the center, Ryan Wendell's (#62) primary responsibility is to pick up any blitzing Cardinal linebackers up the middle, and since the Cardinals didn't send anyone, it appears that he's standing there with not a lot to do (3). He is available to provide a little help to one of the guards on either side of him, sticking an arm out or something along those lines, but not at the expense of his assignment. The Cardinals could still send a delayed blitz, so Wendell has to stay where he is, and keep his head o on the swivel.
T.3 Breaking Bad
Right away, you can tell that Arizona's ploy has worked, and things are not looking goof for Brady. Thomas remained fully committed to Dockett and followed him exactly where Dockett wanted to take him (1). Groves (2) has quickly looped around the Thomas/Dockett roadblock, essentially using them to set a basketball-like pick to create separation himself and Cannon, and is just about to arrive at the area that Thomas has left vacant.
For his part, Cannon seems to realize what is going on, but he simply doesn't have the athleticism to navigate around Thomas/Dockett quickly enough to put a block on Groves, though he does try.
In a true Shakespearean-tragedy twist that fits in quite nicely with the overall feeling of this game for Patriot fans, with just a little luck, Wendell (3) could still have saved the day. At this point it's clear that the Cardinals are not sending a blitz up the middle, and if Wendell had simply been looking to his right rather than his left at this instant, there's a chance he would have gotten enough of a piece of Groves to give Brady enough time to throw or, at the very least, Cannon a much needed half-second to catch up to him. It's frustrating, but we can't blame Wendell as it was not his primary responsibility. To this above all: to thine own gap be true. (Swish!)
T.4 The Payoff
As predicated, Cannon lacks the quickness to get around and catch Groves (2), and I can only assume that he is politely tapping Groves on the shoulder to ask him to please not hit #12. Groves either declines or doesn't hear Cannon ask, I can't tell which. Thomas has broken off his block with Dockett (1) but it doesn't matter at this point, they're spectators. Brady has already accepted the inevitable, and is beginning to protect both the ball and himself.
Ultimately, this play was doomed by a mental mistake by right guard Donald Thomas. Thomas should have recognized the stunt early in the play based on Dockett's movements and reacted accordingly. In this situation, the correct thing to is let Dockett flow to Cannon, as he would then become Cannon's responsibility to block. He can keep his right arm on Dockett to help "pass" him to Cannon, but the important thing is that he stay home at his gap assignment and be prepared to pick up the other stunting pass rusher that will surely be coming to replace the departed Dockett. By failing to recognize the stunt, not only did he leave his assigned area, opening up a huge hole for Groves, but he also made it impossible for Cannon to engage Groves in a timely manner.
Likewise, Cannon's job was to stay "home" once he saw that Groves was changing direction and heading to Thomas' space, and pick up whoever came to replace him. My guess is that Cannon recognized the stunt, but then quickly saw Thomas' mistake, and tried to chase down Groves, knowing he would otherwise go unblocked.
It may sound a little complicated, but stunts are not an uncommon tactic by NFL defenses, particularly with athletic defensive tackles like Dockett that have some quickness. The Cardinals used several stunts in this very game, both before and after this play, and for the most part, the Patriots properly accounted for them (actually on the play that resulted in Welker's franchise record-breaking catch, the Cardinals stunted on both sides of the line). From this we can conclude that Thomas knew what he was supposed to do in this situation, he just made a mental mistake that ended up being very costly. The Patriots ended up in 3rd and 32 as a result of this sack, and waived the white flag, calling a draw up the middle to Danny Woodhead before punting.
"Michael Reardon, a former Patriots Insider columnist, has recently returned to reclaim his old post. A long time Patriots fan and an amateur football player, Michael tries to bring a different perspective to coverage of the New England Patriots that puts the spotlight on some less emphasized aspects of the game of football."
[Disclaimer: Images courtesy screen shots of game replay and are copyright of their respective owners including (but not limited to) the NFL, Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots. Images used for illustration purposes only.]