While Tom Brady got all the glory for the Patriots comeback victory over the Saints Sunday, Michael Reardon breaks down the role the Patriots defense played in setting the stage for the dramatic win.
Tom Brady may have gotten all of the praise following the miracle comeback against the Saints last week, but it was disciplined defense by the Patriots that gave Brady the opportunity to score the go-ahead touchdown with five second left.
The Saints had three chances on their final drive with under three minutes in the game to salt the game away. They chose an off-tackle run, a quick toss out of the shotgun, and a play-action bootleg pass that proved to be their undoing. It also was a good example of well-disciplined football by the Patriot defense.
Following a Brady interception with 2:16 left in the game, the Saints began their possession on their own 29-yard line and the Patriots had only one time out left.
On 1st down, the Saints run off-tackle to the defense's left, deploying lead fullback (Jed Collins, #45) and a pulling guard from the backside (Ben Grubbs, #66) to clear the way for running back Khiry Robinson (#29). Collins' assignment is to block Rob Ninkovich (#50), who has been left unblocked to this point. Grubbs will run laterally behind the offensive line and then turn field through the hole to block the first defender in his way.
The Patriots brought safety Steve Gregory (#28) up near the line of scrimmage, clearly expecting the Saints to run the ball.
Collins made contact with Ninkovich and appears to have him well blocked. Grubbs turned up field into the hole to block linebacker Jamie Collins (#91). Robinson hits the hole in what looks like a clear running lane, but Brandon Spikes (#55) and Gregory are waiting in the second level to make the tackle.
It's important to note quarterback Drew Brees in the upper right corner continued to run after the hand-odd positioning his body in such a way that a defender might think he kept the ball. Make a mental note of his posture as it will become relevant again on third down.
Sometimes the job of defensive linemen is to block and plug up running lanes. Despite having a blocker hanging on him, Ninkovich has done just that. Similarly, while Collins has been covered up well by Grubbs, he managed to hold his ground. For this reason, a clear running lane never materializes and Robinson ends up running into the back of Grubbs. This delays him just long enough for Gregory to come up and make the tackle with a little help from Ninkovich.
The Saints gain just two yards on the play and the Patriots immediately use their final timeout with 2:05 left on the clock.
On second and eight, the Saints came out in a shotgun formation, this time with Pierre Thomas (#23) in the backfield. One interesting part about the lead up to this play is something Ninkovich does a few seconds before the ball is snapped. He looks back at Gregory and points to the area where Ben Watson (#82) is positioned, which is ultimately where the Saints end up running the ball on this play. It's possible that Ninkovich was just reminding Gregory that he had to cover Watson, but looking at how both he and Gregory reacted immediately after the snap of the ball, it's also reasonable to infer that maybe Ninkovich picked up some indication of what the Saints were about to do. Either way, both Ninkovich and Gregory end up in excellent position to shut down this play.
As it turns out, the shotgun formation was meant get the Patriots to spread to defend a pass play. Brees quickly tosses the ball to Thomas, who begins to carry the ball exactly where Ninkovich pointed pre-snap. Robert Meachem (#17) tries to block down on Ninkovich, but he eludes the block just enough to get in Thomas' way, forcing Thomas to change his direction. Gregory was playing run despite the passing posture of the Saints pre-snap. Gregory shadowed Thomas perfectly to make the tackle after only a one yard gain. This left the Saints in a third and seven situation with the clock stopped at the two minute warning.
The Saints on third down deserve criticism for their play call. After attempting a straightforward run on first down and a quick toss in the shotgun formation on second down, the Saints decide to again try to use deception to fool the Patriot defense on third down.
The Saints come out in a running formation with a fullback and a tight end lined up on the right side of the formation (Collins actually starts out left, but then motions to the right). After the ball is snapped, Brees fakes a hand-off to Pierre Thomas, who fakes a run to the strong side.
After the play-action, Brees continues on the same route he took on the first down play. The run the Saints fake is a very similar looking play to the one they actually ran on first down. Obviously the Saints hope the Patriots see the same play and sell out to try and stop the run, leaving Brees free to roll out to either throw the ball for a first down or run it if there's enough room.
The problem with this plan was Chandler Jones (#95), who never takes his eyes off Brees and follows him outside the pocket.
It's odd that Brees has been left one-on-one with Jones, especially considering the rather lackluster attempt by the Saints lineman to put any kind of block on Jones at all. They essentially left him alone, which was either a mental error by someone or an over-reliance on Jones "selling out" and running the opposite direction to break up the fake running play. Either way, Brees is now in a one-on-one situation with Chandler Jones. Running for the first down will not be an option (or not a good one, anyway), so if the Saints are going to shut the door on this game, it'll have to be through the air.
That brings up the other odd aspect of this play call; there's only on receiver running a route. Not only that, but it's a relatively low percentage route as it involves Robert Meachem (not the greatest hands) running deep down the middle of the field, away from Brees. There's no Saint on a short crossing route or wheel route, or any kind of checkdown at all. Brees has two bad options; throw the deep ball to a covered Meachem or try and evade Jones in the open field.
Ultimately, Jones trips up Brees for a five yard loss and the Saints are forced to punt the ball with 1:20 left in the game proving too much time for Brady, who promptly drove the Patriots down the field for a last second victory.
Don't overlook the play calling by the Saints and the good example of well-disciplined football by the Patriot defense. Ninkovich was critical in stopping the first two running plays. He stayed with his assignments and did his job. Similarly, on third down, Jones showed excellent discipline by staying with his assignment and not falling for the fake.
Gregory also played a role on all three players as he recognized the fake run on third down and was in the area to help double up Meachem down the field. This may have made Brees hesitate to throw the ball thereby aiding in Jones' tackle.
This was a win for Brady and a win for the Patriots defense.
Michael Reardon is a Fantasy Football writer and Patriots Insider columnist who has followed the New England Patriots for years. An amateur football player himself, Michael uses his knowledge and experience to illustrate the finer points of the game. You can follow him on twitter @mjreardon
[Disclaimer: Images courtesy screen shots of game replay and are copyright of their respective owners including (but not limited to) the NFL, Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots. Images used for illustration purposes only.]