Near the end of the first half yesterday, the Patriots faced fourth and 1 on the Dolphins’ 6-yard line. Already ahead, 14-7, they had a chance to move ahead by two scores. Bill Belichick eschewed an easy 3 points and decided the Patriots could get the yard.
Of course, they could not, and the resulting momentum swing set the stage for the Dolphins’ second-half comeback. The reason may have been a player the Patriots did not have available, an unheralded player who has been one of their most valuable this season.
The reason the Patriots may have not gotten that fourth and 1 was right guard Stephen Neal was inactive with a knee injury and sitting out. In today’s Miami Herald, David J. Neal (no relation to Stephen, I presume) writes an excellent, detailed description of the play from the perspective of the Dolphins:
The Patriots lined up in an I-formation, double tight-end set with Sammy Morris as the fullback and Laurence Maroney as the tailback. Offensive tackle Mark LeVoir checked in as an eligible receiver and lined up as the left tight end.
The Dolphins lined up with Paul Soliai, usually a nose guard directly over the center, more toward the right guard; Randy Starks over left guard; and Tony McDaniel over the left tackle.
“I think they had a guy hurt on the [right] side, so the [left] side became their strong side,” McDaniel said. “That’s why Randy and I got on that side. They started running the ball to that side because a guy on the other side got hurt.”
At the snap, Soliai sprung hard to the gap between right guard Dan Connolly and center Dan Koppen, leaving Connolly haplessly grasping at Soliai’s calves. Starks stood up Koppen and Logan Mankins, then dumped Koppen into Morris’s path. With Soliai also down there, that made two huge bodies in front of Morris and forced him to slide over behind Matt Light. Meanwhile, McDaniel was in the process of bending Light back into a C-shape. Joey Porter arrived to stop Morris for no gain.
“We basically out-physicaled them on that play,” McDaniel said. “Their guys against our guys. We knocked their offensive line back a couple of yards and, by the time the ball got to the line of scrimmage, Joey Porter — I think made the tackle — it was tackling practice for him.”
According to the Dolphins’ defenders version of the play, we can surmise two things. First, the Dolphins knew Neal was injured and therefore assumed the Patriots would run left. Second, Dolphins defensive lineman were able to so thoroughly overwhelm Connolly and Light that it made irrelevant the Patriots’ plan to run away from where Neal would have lined up.
That play underscored a significant problem for the Patriots offense. Without Neal and tackle Sebastian Vollmer, they were bullied yesterday.
The Patriots scored touchdowns of 81 and 58 yards, and only three sustained drives crossed midfield. When the Patriots had a chance to grind the clock in the fourth quarter on two drives, they ran a combined six plays and used 2 minutes, 37 seconds off the clock. They opted to pass several times.
When Morris needed one yard in the second quarter, the offensive line could not provide the means to get it. In the fourth quarter, when they needed to run the ball again, they didn’t even try.