MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — They are the drives where everything is tested.
Strength. Stamina. Toughness. Execution.
The Patriots were clinging to a 20-13 lead Sunday against the Dolphins when the offense took possession at its 20-yard line with 8:28 to play.
It’s a situation, the four-minute offense, in which running the clock and putting points on the board would give the Patriots a two-score lead and put the game away.
It’s a situation in which they have been successful just five times in 18 chances since the start of the 2010 season.
They had been 0 for 6 this season with the return of offense coordinator Josh McDaniels. Failures led to losses against the Cardinals, Ravens, and Seahawks. The defense had to bail out the offense against the Broncos, Jets, and Bills (a successful drive that yielded a field goal when a touchdown would have made it a two-score lead).
This time, the result was different.
The Patriots put together a terrific 16-play, 77-yard drive that lasted 7:18 and yielded a field goal that gave them a 23-13 lead with 1:10 to play.
“That was our best drive of the day,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We needed it.”
The Patriots did it, largely because of a running game that gained 54 yards on 11 of the 14 scrimmage plays (not including Tom Brady’s final 1-yard loss to set up the field goal in the middle of the field).
Entering the fourth quarter, the Patriots had attempted to pass on 37 of their 56 plays (66.1 percent). They had gained just 55 yards on 17 carries by the running backs (3.2 yards per attempt).
That was an improvement on a first half during which Brady dropped back 77.1 percent of the time, and the running backs had 11 yards on seven carries (1.6 yards per attempt).
There were probably a few fans scratching their heads as to why the Patriots would throw so much since their running game, with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, has been much improved this season.
The Patriots knew the Dolphins had the league’s seventh-best run defense, and had limited Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks to 46 yards on 19 rushes on the same field the week before in a 24-21 Dolphins victory.
So, McDaniels developed a smart game plan: throw early, use the width of the field, get the Dolphins a little tired, and then come back to the run late.
“Yeah, they’re a good run defense, they all are physical players up front,” Belichick said. “We thought we would be able to attack them, attack the width of the field a little bit at times. Ultimately, you have to balance things out, which we tried to do.”
Tried? The Patriots kicked down the Dolphins like one of Ridley’s touchdown celebrations.
The Patriots’ offensive line, after playing possum most of the game, showed it could hold its own on the final drive.
There’s no better opportunity to prove your mettle as an offensive team than with a chance to put the game out of reach late.
You know you have to run the ball.
They know you have to run the ball.
Time to man up.
And the Patriots did it with help of an old, reliable play: 34 power (though the number varies from play to play).
It’s a play the Patriots have been running for years, most successfully with Logan Mankins pulling across the formation from his left guard spot, or Stephen Neal doing it from the right side.
Neal is retired, and Mankins was out for the fifth time in six games. Right guard Dan Connolly left, again, with a back injury, so the Patriots were left to run a play, which needs flawless timing and execution, with backups at left guard (Donald Thomas) and right guard (Nick McDonald).
The power must go on.
“It’s a play we run all the time,” McDonald said.
The play starts with the running back taking a false step back or to the side in order to give the backside guard an opportunity to cross behind the center and in front of Brady as he pivots for the handoff.
“You step either way, for the timing of the play,” Vereen said.
Center Ryan Wendell pivots to the area the guard has just vacated.
“The center’s job is always to replace, to go back and cover where the guard came from,” Wendell said.
There are two crucial double-teams on the play side (where the ball will be run to).
The guard and tackle each double-down on the defensive tackle, who is usually playing the three technique on the outside shoulder of the guard. The guard tries to peel off and pick off the linebacker, while the tackle gets in front of the three technique. The two tight ends double the end.
The goal is to move the defender. Any penetration would blow the play up.
“Double-team movement is always key because that’s what sets up the play,” Thomas said. “It’s not the pull, it’s the double-team. A lot of people don’t realize that. But you have to get that three technique, get him moved back a little bit. If you can get some push on him, then it makes the guard’s job easier when he’s pulling around to get up in there.”
The pulling guard already had an idea of where he would end up — and it could be in the A gap (between the center and guard), B gap (guard and tackle), or C gap (outside the tackle) — before the play.
“For me, it’s more of looking around, locating who I have to get, and when you pull — you have to keep your eye on him and see where your entry point is to get there,” Thomas said.
“It makes it a little bit more tough when you add those elements into it. Especially when you know it’s a drive like that and they’re not going to sit there in the same spot that they are. They’re going to be slanting, running twists.
“The linebackers might run through, [you] might have to pick up somebody else. It makes it a lot more difficult than if it was in the first quarter and it was just second and 4. That’s the key element of making it a little bit more difficult.”
The running back reads the play from inside out, looking first to see if there’s an opening in the A gap. If there’s nothing, he follows the pulling guard. There are no preconceived notions about where the play might go.
“You just have to run it and see how it unfolds,” Ridley said. “That’s the thing: If you predetermine it’s going to be inside or outside, that’s when you’re going to miss it.
“You do have a puller in front of you, and for that we just have to read it out. It might be inside, it might be outside, but you never really know where it’s going to hit exactly.”
The Patriots ran the power play six times on the final drive after just two attempts in the previous three quarters. They picked up 31 yards, including 9 from Ridley behind McDonald on second and 2, and 8 from Vereen behind McDonald on second and 10.
The power powered the Patriots to ice the game in a crucial situation.
“If one person doesn’t do their job, then it messes it up,” Ridley said.
“You have people pulling, people blocking down, the design of the play, you kind of have to run it to perfection if you want to have success with it. But it starts up front. You just have to find it. Some days it’s inside in the A gap, sometimes it’s all the way out. If you follow your pullers and the read, you’re going to be on track.”
The Patriots were certainly that on the final drive.
“The running game was huge,” Brady said. “I thought the running backs ran really hard, protected the ball, and got some great blocking up front. It’s what we needed at that time. It’s a very good run defense, a good group of linebackers, they’re physical and they really made it tough on us today.”
On this day, the Patriots were the tougher group when it mattered. That bodes well as the games become more important.
Patriots playbook: Power play
Before their final drive, the Patriots had just 55 yards on 17 carries in three-plus quarters. On the final drive, the Patriots ran 11 times for 54 yards. On six of those runs, the Patriots used one of their old reliables: the power play. The backside guard Nick McDonald (65) pulls ahead of the running back Shane Vereen (34), who first looks to run inside, and then follows the guard’s block to the outside.