Sports

Patriots’ Brandon Lloyd victim game plan, not play

When the Patriots signed receiver Brandon Lloyd, the perception was that he would provide the outside-the-numbers threat the team had been lacking since the trade of Randy Moss.

While he hasn’t been Moss — no one should have expected him to be — Lloyd has been a viable boundary threat. Lloyd has caught 50 passes, which is as many as Vincent Jackson of the Buccaneers, who signed a five-year, $55.6 million contract in the offseason.

The Bills’ Stevie Johnson (55), and Davone Bess (56), and Brian Hartline (60) of the Dolphins are the only other AFC East receivers to have as many receptions as Lloyd. None of them play in an offense with Wes Welker (92 catches), Rob Gronkowski (53 in 10 games), and Aaron Hernandez (27 in six games).

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Still, the fact that Lloyd Sunday tied a season low with one reception for 10 yards (on the only ball thrown to him, late in the fourth quarter) seemed a bit odd and caused some consternation among fans.

After viewing the coaches film, it appears that Lloyd’s lack of action likely didn’t have anything to do about him being frozen out; it was simply part of the game plan tailored to the Dolphins.

It’s no coincidence that Lloyd’s previous low output was one catch for 6 yards against the Jets in Week 7 (though he was much more involved with eight targeted passes).

The Dolphins, under new coordinator Kevin Coyle, have become very similar to the Jets by mixing up pressures and coverages against Tom Brady. Both teams also feature one dominant cornerback (Antonio Cromartie for the Jets, Sean Smith for the Dolphins) and linebackers that are slow and don’t cover very well.

Most NFL teams have a saying when it comes to passing offense: “Take the easy money.” That means, take the higher-percentage play even if it might not be a big play. Keep the clock and the chains moving. The Patriots and Brady seem to live by this credo, outside of a few designed shots down the field. Welker and Hernandez, who combined for 20 of Brady’s 24 completions, were the easy money when matched up against the Dolphins linebackers.

Lloyd, who often runs slow-developing downfield routes, is almost never the easy money. That’s just the way it goes.

Against the Dolphins, the Patriots showed no interest in throwing at Smith, Miami’s excellent fourth-year cornerback. We counted just three times that Brady threw in Smith’s direction: two were throwaways because of double coverage, and the third was an incomplete pass to Julian Edelman.

Lloyd was in on 34 pass plays, and Smith lined up on him 12 times. So on 35 percent of Lloyd’s snaps, he wasn’t going to get the ball anyway unless there was a breakdown in coverage.

Of the other 22, Brady completed half of those passes to other receivers.

In all, there were nine times Lloyd could be considered open. Almost every time, Brady’s decision not to throw to him had to do with circumstances that led him to throw elsewhere.

A breakdown:

  Dolphins blitzed and Brady quickly completed a pass to Welker on a designed hot route to avoid the rush.

  Welker was open against a linebacker and Brady hit the mismatch.

  Brady was pressured and threw the ball away.

  Brady was pressured and threw quickly to Hernandez, who was more open against a linebacker.

  Brady threw deep at the mismatch of Shane Vereen against linebacker Karlos Dansby, and the result was a 31-yard pass interference penalty. Not a great decision, but result was good.

  Brady threw incomplete to Welker when Lloyd was the better option. However, Lloyd rounded his route and didn’t show as open as he could have to Brady. Still, Brady probably would like this play back.

  Lloyd and Welker ran a smash concept with Lloyd coming open on an in-breaking route, and Welker going to the sideline from the slot. It’s a play Brady completes to Welker all the time at the sideline — and he was open again — but Brady threw late and high.

  On the one completion to Lloyd, he was the hot route against a zone blitz and even then, the ball was almost not completed because Lloyd faded after his cut to the sideline, instead of running straight across.

  Lloyd was the only viable target in the corner of the end zone on third and goal before the field goal that made it 20-10, but Brady didn’t find him quick enough and was sacked.

So it wasn’t as though Lloyd was open all day and Brady ignored him. When Edelman is in the lineup, he’s going to get the shorter passes because he’s much better than Lloyd after the catch. Now that Edelman is on injured reserve, expect Lloyd to be in the mix a little more.

But it always comes down to matchups and philosophy for the Patriots’ passing game. Lloyd may still have a big game or two, but it’s easy to see why he wasn’t a big part against the Dolphins.

On to the positional ratings against the Dolphins:

Quarterback (3 out of 5):

Brady was probably groaning watching the tape because now he has another defense to grind against, along with the Jets and Ravens. Coyle did a nice job blending blitzes (10.6 percent) and some zone exchanges with linemen dropping into coverage. It was a carbon copy of Rex Ryan’s approach, and Brady had his struggles.

But he wasn’t bad. He just had to grind it out. Brady’s best play by far was a terrific audible on the touchdown to Welker. Brady saw the safeties come forward, indicating all-out blitz. Then Danny Woodhead picked off Jared Odrick, Donald Thomas pancaked Dansby, and Lloyd, Ryan Wendell, and Nate Solder finished the blocks in front of Welker. Tremendous.

Great play by Brady on the second play of the game to find Welker as he was being knocked down. Not a terrible decision by Brady to go to Hernandez on the interception — good things usually happen throwing to Hernandez one-on-one — but safety Reshad Jones, an emerging player, just made a terrific play. However, both Edelman (best option) and Stevan Ridley on a checkdown were wide open.

Running backs (4 out of 5):

Ridley has had bigger games, but this might have been his best individual effort because he had to work for everything against a stingy Miami front and with some sloppy run blocking by the line. His 2-yard touchdown run to open the game should have been stuffed, but Ridley broke a tackle. He ran really hard, and some of his second efforts were reminiscent of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Woodhead’s screen in the first quarter was set up perfectly, but Thomas, Wendell, and Dan Connolly all missed their blocks.

Receivers (2.5 out of 5):

Welker, Hernandez, and Edelman each had a standout catch, but there were drops by Welker (10th on the season) and Hernandez (third). There was some really shoddy blocking out of this group, especially from Hernandez (quarterback hurry, 1.5 run stuffs, and three other poor blocks). Daniel Fells wasn’t much better and had a holding penalty. The Patriots are really feeling the loss of Gronkowski blocking on the edges. It seems they’ve cut down on their outside zone runs as a result and are staying mostly inside.

Offensive line (3 out of 5):

Outside of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, this group actually did a solid job. But Vollmer had his worst game of the season with one full sack, two half-sacks, three hurries, and a knockdown allowed (in addition to a holding penalty) against stud end Cameron Wake. The good news is that four of Vollmer’s pressures came on the first series, and he settled down a bit. It was reminiscent of Matt Light’s early struggles against the Eagles last year, after which Light caught fire. Wendell did terrific work holding the point of attack against much larger players in the run game, and Solder also did well on the ground. Outside of the sack he allowed, Thomas continued to show well. Don’t look now, but Solder was open on a tackle-eligible goal line play.

Defensive line (4.5 out of 5):

Tremendous work by all but the bit players in this group, led by Vince Wilfork (hurry, knockdown, two stuffed runs, fumble recovery), Kyle Love (1.5 hurries, stuff), and Trevor Scott (two sacks, forced fumble, 1.5 hurries, stuff). Don’t know where Love has been the past two games, but I’m sure the Patriots are glad to have him back in the groove. He was stout and played very smart, snuffing out a screen and drawing a hold. Scott played surprisingly solid all-around, and tougher against the run than his reputation. On Scott’s second sack in the fourth quarter, the coverage of Jerod Mayo underneath Bess and Kyle Arrington under Hartline allowed the sack to get home in 4.89 seconds. Rob Ninkovich got sucked in by the play-action the Dolphins ran on the read option touchdown by Ryan Tannehill. Looked like the first Broncos game last season.

Linebackers (5 out of 5):

Saw only one minor error in this group (a slow run fit by Dont’a Hightower), but otherwise it was exceptional work. Mayo had his finest game this season even before his well-executed sack as the Dolphins tried to cut the deficit to 3. Terrific back-to-back plays by Mayo in the third quarter to help stuff Reggie Bush to just 1 yard on each carry. Mayo perfectly crashed the blocking scheme to make the running back hesitate. Key pressure from Mayo on Tannehill on third down with three minutes left in the third quarter. Hartline had beaten Aqib Talib again, but the pressure made Tannehill throw an errant pass out of bounds. Brandon Spikes played very mature in this game, which bodes well, as do his two pass breakups.

Secondary (2 out of 5):

Arrington had his third straight standout game playing in the slot position, and he’s obviously more comfortable in that role. The Talib trade has definitely helped there. Talib himself really struggled (two 20-yard passes, pass interference), and a better quarterback would have burned him a handful of times. He’s just very undisciplined. He’ll have a great play where you marvel at his skills, and then he’ll get lazy and/or peek into the backfield on the next three. The Patriots really need to zero him in down the stretch. Steve Gregory either got the wrong call or simply bit hard on play-action in the first quarter when Tannehill missed a wide-open Hartline for a touchdown. That was not Talib’s error. Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard, who was otherwise solid, each gave up 20-yard pass plays.

Special teams (4 out of 5):

Matthew Slater, who had two phenomenal tackles, including the muffed punt, should add this to his Pro Bowl reel. Stephen Gostkowski was booming his kickoffs again, but another field goal miss raises eyebrows. Punter Zoltan Mesko, who was solid, appeared as if he did not like his hold on the missed field goal.

PLAY OF THE GAME

Situation: Trailing, 2010, with 8:53 remaining, the Dolphins had third and 4 at the New England 7-yard line. (Video breakdown of the play.)

What happened: The Patriots showed two-man coverage — Cover 2 with two deep safeties and man coverage underneath. Linebacker Jerod Mayo (51) had running back Daniel Thomas (33) in man coverage. Mayo often has the option of rushing the quarterback if the running back stays in to block, which is commonly called a “green dog.” The Patriots refer to it as a “hug blitz” — hug coverage and then go. Depending on the situation, Mayo varies his aggressiveness. This time, he was very aggressive. At the snap, he hopped to the outside to make Thomas, who has the option of helping inside if he feels Mayo will rush, think he was in coverage, but it also hid Mayo a bit behind left tackle Jonathan Martin (71). Patriots right end Trevor Scott (99) helped by running to Thomas, who fell for it and chipped Scott. That left Mayo to shoot himself out of a cannon for the sack on Ryan Tannehill (17), which took just 2.2 seconds.

ON HIS GAME

Jerod Mayo, linebacker

The top standout in a terrific front seven, Mayo was sensational: sack, two knockdowns, two half run stuffs, forced fumble, great openfield tackle, and standout pass coverage. An All-Pro performance.

OFF HIS GAME

Sebastian Vollmer, right tackle

Hopefully, this was just a case of Vollmer being outmatched by Cameron Wake and not an injury, because the Patriots need better than a sack, two half-sacks, three hurries, and a knockdown allowed from their Pro Bowler.

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