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It was a tale of two halves on Sunday in Foxborough. The first half saw the Pats offense struggle to get in-synch, with a deep touchdown to Mike Wallace just before the half making the score only 14-13 New England. However, a fired-up Pats team came out on fire in the third quarter, scoring 24 unanswered points in the third quarter to quickly turn what had been a close game into a blowout. Here are some observations from the game film.

Return of Jones

It was certainly a pleasant sight just to see Chandler Jones back on the field, seven weeks after reports made the odds of a return from the star pass rusher seem grim. The good news was made even better by Jones showing no ill-effects from his hip injury. In fact, Jones picked up right where he left off, racking up a sack and a half, 3 hurries and a QB hit to go with 4 defensive stops against the run.

The return of Jones was always going to mean fewer snaps for Akeem Ayers, who had performed admirably in Jones' hybrid DE/OLB edge role. Indeed, Ayers' 32 snaps were his lowest since making his Patriots debut back in Week 8 against Chicago, and paled in comparison to the 56 (out of 81) snaps Jones was on the field. However, Ayers held his own when out there, getting 2 hurries and a QB hit in his 19 pass rushing snaps.

Ayers played well enough in Jones' absence to earn a role, even with his star teammate back in the mix. Since his Week 8 Pats debut, Ayers' 21 QB hurries rank fifth in the league for 3-4 outside linebackers, trailing only Justin Houston, Khalil Mack, Paul Kruger and Brandon Graham. With an extra pass rushing threat at their disposal, the Pats had the flexibility to play around with their personnel a bit on passing downs.


For example, take a look at this third down play from the Dolphins second possession. The Pats keep Ayers on the right edge of their defense with Rob Ninkovich on the left side, but bring in Jones and line him up as a defensive tackle. Mike Pouncey is one of the best interior lineman in football, but he's not used to dealing with guys as quick as Jones, who quickly beats him to fly across Tannehill's face. Tannehill manages to hit a checkdown to his running back and move the chains before Jones can get a shot on him, but the play stands as an example of how the flexibility that comes with having multiple pass rushers can be used to create mismatches (and thus pressure).

They also reserved the two players roles on Duron Harmon's second quarter interception. The defense is in a dime look, with three safeties (Harmon, McCourty and Tavon Wilson) on the field and only three traditional rush players in the game. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are lined up in their normal spots on the edges, with Ayers standing up around the offensive interior.


The play initially starts as a two man rush, with Ayers appearing to be in a "spy" role keeping an eye on Tannehill. However, when center Samson Setele abandons the middle to take a shot at the already double-teamed Jones, Ayers fires through his vacated gap and gets just enough pressure on Tannehill to affect his overthrown pass. Such a play is an example of how the various looks the Pats throw at their opponents up front are designed just as much to confuse the opposing offensive line as the quarterback, and how creating those breakdowns in protection can lead to big-dividends on the field.

Secondary depth

With a balky hamstring limiting slot corner Kyle Arrington to only 12 snaps, there were opportunities for some of the team's depth corners to play more on Sunday. Even so, it was surprising to see Malcolm Butler, an undrafted rookie who hadn't seen the field since Week 9, in one-on-one coverage with Dolphins star Mike Wallace to start the game. Tannehill recognized the matchup and went to it on the Fins first play from scrimmage, hitting his big-money receiver for a 50 yard gain. Simply put, the rookie looked overmatched on the play, showing poor technique by allowing Wallace a free outside release. From there, the Miami speedster was just too fast for Butler, who was trailing for most of the play.

Wallace used his speed to take advantage of Butler again right before the half. This time, Butler gives about a 9 yard cushion to Wallace, but Miami's star is fast enough to get a step behind him on the go-route. Butler recovers and has competitive coverage on the play, but Wallace manages a highlight reel worthy one-handed snag while keeping both feet in bounds. Sometimes, the other guy just makes a play, and that was certainly the case here. Tannehill deserves credit on that play as well, as he delivers a strike despite Dont'a Hightower barrelling into him.

While Butler may have been in a little over his head against a receiver of Wallace's caliber, the rest of the Pats depth held up on the back end. Logan Ryan, playing for the first time since getting torched by rookie Davante Adams two weeks ago in Green Bay, had a solid game, allowing just two catches for 29 yards on five targets. Those numbers are even more impressive when you factor in that he spent a decent amount of time on Jarvis Landry, Miami's leading receiver on the day.

Finally, the secondary was also bolstered by a solid game by the aforementioned Duron Harmon. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are clearly entrenched as the team's starting safeties, but Harmon has proven to be a reliable option to play McCourty's deep, centerfield role in the scheme. The Pats utilized him on Sunday (his 32 snaps were his most since Week 5), and doing so freed them up to use McCourty on dangerous tight end Charles Clay for stretches. Having the flexibility to use McCourty, a former Pro Bowl corner, in one-on-one matchups without sacrificing on the back end is a major boon to the defense, and gives Matt Patricia yet another option when game-planning for specific opponents.

Kline holds his own

There wasn't much intrigue left in the game by the end of the third quarter, but one development that warranted monitoring was starting left guard Dan Connolly getting knocked out of the game with a neck injury. Connolly, a team captain, had started all 14 games of the season, playing center the season's first three weeks before sliding over to guard when rookie Bryan Stork was moved into the starting lineup. Considering the poor play exhibited by the team's offensive line before settling on it's starting five of Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell and Vollmer, injuries to any one of those starters could force the team to dip into a bench that had already failed them during the year.

This time, it was Josh Kline who came in to play Logan Mankins' old left guard spot. If you didn't notice him, that's a testament to his solid play in the final 18 snaps of the game. He wasn't dominant by any stretch, but the second-year reserve consistently executed his assignments in both the running and passing game. As ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss has noted, it was noteworthy that Kline held up despite playing the majority of his snaps lined up across from Jared Odrick, a talented player who had racked up 3 hurries against Connolly.

The sample size was admittedly small, but Kline's play should offer some reassurance that the Pats have at least one interior option to turn to should something happen to one of their starters. It also should give them confidence should Connolly's neck issue be something that requires him to miss time. Connolly has shown toughness and leadership by battling through injuries all season, but his play has suffered as a result: he leads the team in both hurries and QB hits surrendered by a wide margin. Coincidently, the Pats finish their season with the two teams that Kline has started against this year: the Jets and Buffalo.

Ned Brady 12/17/2014 03:14:00 PM Edit
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