There was reason to doubt the Patriots offense was capable of the efficiency we've seen from them in years past, but after hanging 55 points on the Pittsburgh Steelers, there's proof that they're still a dangerous unit when they get things going.
As a team, they played 45 minutes worth of some of the best football we've seen from them all season. Sandwiched in the middle, though, was yet another troublesome third quarter that saw the Patriots gain 103 total yards while being outscored 17-3.
The other three quarters? Just 507 yards and a 52-14 scoring margin. If only that's how football really worked.
What did the offense do to finally get off the ground? Here's a look at the film.
Aaron Dobson's experience is showing
When the Patriots drafted Aaron Dobson in April's draft, they were looking to add speed, size and athleticism on the perimeter of their offense. Dobson has brought all three, but until the past few weeks, those skills have not manifested in the form of on-field production.
Against the Steelers, it was a perfect storm coming together for Dobson. Quarterback Tom Brady went 5-of-9 targeting Dobson, and went his way for two touchdowns.
The Patriots have been trying to hit the back-shoulder fade to Dobson with almost no success this season, until a fourth-quarter try finally yielded positive results. Steelers cornerback William Gay was locked up on him in man coverage on the outside, and did about as much as he possibly could, short of drawing a penalty, to defend this throw.
Dobson got a good release off the line of scrimmage, running toward the front pylon as he sprinted downfield. He turned around just in time to look the ball into his hands, and he tapped his left foot down as the rest of his body crossed the plane, which was enough for the touchdown.
There's a bit of a myth surrounding the second touchdown, an 81-yard strike late in the fourth quarter.
Brady mentioned in the postgame press conference that Dobson had an option on the route, and that he chose correctly. However, Dobson raising his hand was not the signal which caused Brady to throw the ball.
The quarterback, knowing his receiver was headed straight through the Steelers' secondary, had already begun winding up his arm for the throw as Dobson began putting his arm in the air.
The ball then traveled roughly 50 yards through the air before being caught by Dobson at the Patriots 40-yard line.
It's not just on the big plays that Brady is looking to Dobson, though.
On 3rd-and-6 in the fourth quarter, needing to keep a drive alive, the quarterback -- and the coaches -- trusted Dobson to both get open and catch the ball.
He lined up wide in a trips bunch formation, with running back Brandon Bolden motioning out to the left from the backfield.
The advantage of a trips bunch formation is that it allows at least one of the receivers to get a free release, since the space is so condensed that the corners can't possibly all play close to the line of scrimmage without being exposed to a big play.
Dobson made a nice adjustment on the ball, which was thrown slightly behind him, and he picked up the first down. Over the past four weeks, Dobson has caught 18-of-31 passes thrown his way for a team-high 287 yards and three touchdowns, with 12 of his 18 catches yielding a first down.
If the rapport between he and Brady continues to develop as it has so rapidly over the past few weeks, the future is very bright for this duo.
Fight aggression with aggression
How was the offense able to rack up so many big plays (five passes of 20 yards or more, eight runs of 10 yards or more)? By taking advantage of the Steelers aggressive style of defense.
They did it with deep throws -- six of them, to be exact -- of which, Brady hit four. They also did it with play-action; Brady attempted 11 passes off play-action, and went 8-of-11 for 238 yards and two touchdowns on those throws.
The long touchdown to Dobson was a play-action fake, but so was this 27-yard completion to tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots came out in their 13 personnel grouping -- one running back, three tight ends, one wide receiver. The run-heavy look caused the defense to crowd the line of scrimmage with nine defenders in the box.
With only two receivers running a route, Brady had limited options. Luckily, the Steelers made his job easier by attacking the line of scrimmage with eight defenders. That left three in coverage -- two on Amendola, one on Gronkowski -- and all Brady had to do was find the single coverage.
That happened to be Gronkowski, who came open over the middle, right where the safeties and linebackers would have been had the entire defense not bit on the run fake.
Instead, this was just another big play for the Patriots, and just another example of Brady carving up Dick LeBeau's defensive scheme.
Stevan Ridley running hard
Raise your hand if you thought Ridley's night was over after he fumbled in the third quarter. That's been the pattern throughout his career, but for at least one night, that pattern finally broke.
Coaches showed confidence in Ridley by putting him back in the game, and he was not about to take that faith for granted.
"For the coaches to stick with me and ride it out, it said a lot," Ridley said. "I think on my team, everybody's made their mistakes at different times, and that's something that I've had to work on and focus on since I've been here. But for me, I just couldn't hang my head. It wasn't a time for me to hang my head, it was a time for me to go out there and try to close that game out, because that's what our team needed me to do, and that's really what I did. I just leaned on my offensive line, and they made some creases in there for me the whole night, and that was a tough defense that we went against. So, I hated it, and like I said, it made me sick, but I really think that it motivated me more to go out there and finish the game strong."
Ridley's ability to hold onto the football has come under scrutiny this season, but no one will ever question his toughness.
He is always churning forward for the extra yards, and he regularly shows remarkable balance and quick-thinking to pick up yards after contact.
On this third down in the third quarter, Brady was in the shotgun with Ridley to his right.
The Steelers lined up with six defenders in the box, but one of those was a defensive back, meaning there were six defensive backs total on the field against the Patriots' 11 personnel package (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers).
With left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins doing their part to anchor the left side of the line, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui held the edge, creating the alley for Ridley to run through.
Ridley charged hard through the hole, and was able to gain a few extra yards despite being tripped up by a linebacker. He did a little pirhouette move as he stumbled forward toward the ground, helping him keep his balance briefly to pick up a few extra yards.
This was an overall well-blocked play, but highlighted the importance and added value of having offensive linemen who are quick on their feet and can get out in front of a running back to create some extra space.
Ridley can thank a pulling guard for the space provided on an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter. This time, it was Mankins pulling across the formation to clear the way.
This time, the Patriots came out in the 12 personnel grouping with two tight ends and a running back, a bit more run-heavy personnel. The Steelers matched with their base 3-4 defense, so there was no number mismatch on this play -- just a standard man-on-man running play.
Once again, Hoomanawanui and Connolly are part of the group creating the hole for Ridley. With Mankins out in front to block the linebacker, all Ridley had to do was navigate his way through the traffic.
He ended up brushing shoulders with Mankins, but kept his legs moving forward and lowered his shoulder as defenders circled around him.
"There's gotta be a fine line," said running backs coach Ivan Fears, "between being as aggressive as you can -- and I mean, really going after it, trying to make a play -- but also being smart."
This is a play that shows us that fine line -- Ridley toed it to perfection.
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