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On Football

Getting the handle on ‘Pistol’ made this a good win

By Albert R. Breer
November 9, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Having worked with Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning as a Jets assistant in 1998 and ’99, Bill Belichick knew he had to give his players a visual of what to expect this week.

“[Henning] is big on the game-plan plays, we expected that from him,’’ Patriots defensive end Ty Warren said. “So Bill mentioned how [Henning] would come in every week and draw up five different plays for the next opponent they’d be playing.’’

The message, which may or may not have been necessary, was simple: Be ready for everything.

In this case, “everything’’ arrived in the middle of the second quarter, in the form of a spread-option wrinkle that looked to be straight out of the offense scheme Pat White triggered at West Virginia. And that made sense, since it was the rookie who was coming in off the bench to run it.

In 2008, the Patriots’ inability to handle the Wildcat - a nouveau single-wing look that quarterbacks coach David Lee brought with him from Arkansas - was their undoing in a September loss to Miami. Yesterday, New England’s ability to adjust like it couldn’t last year was really the reason it survived this AFC East slugfest and walked away with a 27-17 win.

That second-quarter drive started with Ronnie Brown keeping for 2 yards out of the Wildcat New England was ready for.

Then, White entered, and “everything’’ broke loose.

He lined up in the Pistol (a half-shotgun with a running back behind with him), and kept on a speed option off the left side for 33 yards. He kept on a zone-read option play - a staple of the college spread - for 4 yards. And he pitched to Ricky Williams for a 15-yard touchdown on the Pistol speed option, this time to the right, to cap the five-play, 80-yard undressing of the Patriots defense.

If all that jargon’s enough to get your head spinning, imagine how it would feel trying to defend it. But instead of reacting like a plumber thrown into an MBA program, as they did last year, the Patriots were prepared this time, at least as much as a team can be, for something unexpected.

Anyone who thinks this stuff is a gimmick hasn’t watched Belichick’s buddy Urban Meyer reel off two national titles the last three years at Florida. The difference, this time around, was that the Patriots went in expecting to have to adjust.

“The first time we played them last year, we found ourselves looking at what was going on behind the line of scrimmage as opposed to looking at what was going on in front of us,’’ Warren said. “We focused on what was going on in front of us. They’re gonna get their yardage, but the object of the game is to win more than you lose and I think we did that today.’’

Three areas were addressed by the coaches:

1) When White came in the game, the Patriots moved their outside linebackers up, tighter to the line, and had them handle the Dolphins tight ends. That kept the Patriots from losing the edge, and also helped the inside linebackers pursue to the ball.

Williams explained that the outside linebackers made it “so our tight end couldn’t get off to [block] the middle linebacker’’ at the second level of the defense, which allow the guys inside to flow to the play.

2) In the Pistol, with the tailback behind him, White also had a fullback to one side or the other, indicating the run strength of the formation.

So in the second half, the Patriots brought a safety down closer to the line to the side of the fullback. That made the numbers game there more palatable.

3) Part of this boiled down to simply playing “assignment football’’, the key to combating the option at any level - Pop Warner or the NFL.

You have the pitchman, I have the quarterback, everyone else defeats their blocks . . . Not complicated at all, but necessary in this situation. Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano said, “They figured out who the option man was, and that made it tough for us to seal the edge,’’ because defenders assigned to the quarterback and pitch back were honed in on their assignment.

And so the Dolphins ran nine plays out of the Wildcat or the White-driven spread-option package in the third quarter, and produced 12 yards on seven carries, with a 1-yard touchdown pass and an incompletion on two Brown throws.

The Patriots hadn’t rendered the Wildcat/option completely ineffective - the Dolphins did have that touchdown and some of those rushing yards were valuable, tough ones - but they came close enough for the Dolphins to abandon it altogether in the fourth quarter.

“They just didn’t prepare for it, and we game-planned it,’’ Williams said of their early success. “Then, they made an adjustment and we just didn’t handle it . . . We changed the blocking scheme. We just didn’t do a good job blocking it.’’

That left the Dolphins and Patriots to what each team is at its core.

Miami took the game into a dark alley and tried to incite a street fight, starting the second half by grinding through a 16-play, 66-yard drive, converting four third downs and a fourth down, ripping 10:09 off the clock and slowing tempo to a crawl. The Patriots responded three plays later with theatrics, Randy Moss catching a short drag, shaking off rookie Vontae Davis, and turning upfield for a 71-yard touchdown to quicken the pace against an offense that would struggle to keep up.

Asked about a sequence that seemed to encapsulate each team, Patriots cornerback Shawn Springs said, “Gotta love having Brady and Moss.’’

Those six words are the essence of what New England has become. The 66 yards the Dolphins covered before that big play are who the Dolphins are.

But the matchup doesn’t boil down to that without the Patriots’ approach to preparing for what they couldn’t see coming.

“You make the adjustments on the sideline,’’ safety Brandon Meriweather said. “You listen to the coaches, and you do exactly as they tell you. That’s the only way to prepare for that.’’

By doing that, something they couldn’t do 14 months ago, the Patriots simplified the game.

And opened the door to prove, at least this time around, that they were the better team.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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