Sometimes, football isn’t about winning the chess match, or coming up with creative schemes to outwit your opponent. Sometimes, it simply comes down to one-on-one matchups — cornerback against wide receiver, lineman against pass rusher.
And in Sunday’s 30-27 victory over the Saints, the Patriots simply won more one-on-one matchups.
They didn’t do anything exotic to shut down Saints star tight end Jimmy Graham — just a lot of Cover-1 man with a deep safety. Yet Graham was held without a catch because he couldn’t fight off the constant jamming, pestering, and tight coverage by Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty.
Stevan Ridley churned out 96 yards and two touchdowns on 4.8 yards per carry because Logan Mankins and Nate Solder created big holes by dominating Akiem Hicks and Junior Galette. Cornerback Jabari Green was in tight coverage on the game’s final play, but Kenbrell Thompkins simply outplayed him for the ball and the winning touchdown.
The Saints won a few one-on-one matchups. Darren Sproles was a nightmare for Jerod Mayo in coverage and caught six passes. Kenny Stills outplayed Alfonzo Dennard for a 34-yard touchdown that almost proved to be the winning score. And defensive coordinator Rob Ryan dialed up some impressive blitzes that confused and overwhelmed the Patriots’ offensive line.
But as Bill Belichick said Monday, the win wasn’t about the coaches or the schemes. It was about the Patriots players making a few more plays than the Saints did.
A review of the game after watching the coaches film:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ The Patriots initially tried spreading out the defense with three- and four-receiver sets, but didn’t have a lot of success until going heavier, either with two tight ends or one tight end and one fullback. The Patriots’ two first-half touchdown drives utilized these formations exclusively, and Ridley not only had runs of 14 and 18 yards, but the approach kept the defense honest and opened up the field for the passing game, with Tom Brady hitting three throws of 15-plus yards in the two drives. Overall, the Patriots ran two-receiver sets on 28 plays, three-receiver on 36 plays, four-receiver on 18, and five-receiver on one play.
■ The Patriots entered the game tied for the league lead with 18 drops, and had four more, plus a fifth by Danny Amendola that was wiped out by a penalty. Aaron Dobson had two drops, including a crucial one on fourth down late in the fourth quarter.
■ Mankins was excellent in run blocking, and it seemed like every time Ridley or Brandon Bolden had a nice gain, there was Mankins pulling through the hole and making the key block. Mankins had the key block on a 14-yard run by Ridley, a 12-yard run for Bolden, a 19-yard run by Ridley, and then on Ridley’s first touchdown. Ridley had 20 of the Patriots’ 35 carries and clearly has the best burst of the running back group.
■ The Patriots went no-huddle on 46 of 83 snaps, by far the most they have used it this season. They did a good job of keeping the Saints off-balance in the first half and not allowing the Saints to substitute, although the Patriots were hurt by some negative plays and penalties in the second half.
Brady did a nice job, for the most part, of stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush; his 20-yard bullet to Dobson on the run in the second quarter was a beautiful throw. But he definitely wishes he put more air under the ball on the deep incomplete pass to Amendola in the third quarter, which should have been an easy touchdown. And on the final drive, he badly underthrew Julian Edelman, who could have had an easy touchdown three plays before Thompkins scored his.
■ On the final play, the Saints had three players watching Austin Collie streak down the middle, and only Greer covering Thompkins. Safety Rafael Bush probably should have helped on Thompkins but got over much too late.
■ The offensive line, though it blocked pretty well, had several communication errors thanks to impressive blitz schemes by Ryan, who wasn’t afraid to send six, seven, or even eight rushers at Brady. Overall, we counted 22 blitzes on 50 dropbacks by Brady. Three of the Saints’ five sacks were scheme-related, in which a blitzer got to Brady untouched while an offensive lineman stood around blocking no one. Only one was a coverage sack, in which Brady held onto the ball for seven seconds.
■ Nice heads-up play by Dobson to get out of bounds on the quick throw on the final drive. Solid game from Michael Hoomanawanui, with four catches for 57 yards and some nice blocks in the run game. And pretty darn gutsy of the Patriots to call a designed fourth-down play in the final seconds for Collie, who had just arrived in New England 10 days earlier.
When the Saints had the ball . . .
■ Talib has played like one of the best cornerbacks in the league this year, and that continued Sunday. Not only does he have tremendous coverage skills, and not only does he use his tremendous length to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage, he also is good at knocking the ball away, particularly with his left hand.
At the end of the Falcons game, Talib used his left hand to wrap around Roddy White and knock the pass away from him in the end zone. And he did it twice in the first half against the Saints, using his left hand to jar the ball free from Graham.
The Patriots have been lucky to have Talib this year, and really can’t afford to have him miss much time with the hip injury he suffered Sunday.
■ The Patriots had some really poor tackling. Dennard, Chandler Jones, and McCourty all whiffed on Pierre Thomas’s 29-yard screen pass. Jamie Collins and Talib then whiffed on a 19-yard screen to Sproles. Talib and Mayo whiffed on a checkdown to Sproles in the third quarter. Dennard and Mayo missed tackles on Khiry Robinson’s 20-yard run in the fourth quarter. Steve Gregory missed a tackle on Ben Watson in the fourth quarter, and Dennard let Robinson get away again late in the game. That’s at least 11 missed tackles.
■ Valiant effort by the two rookie defensive tackles subbing for Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Chris Jones, signed off waivers after being cut by Houston and Tampa Bay, played all 65 snaps, provided some nice pressure in the first half, and had a really good tackle of Sproles from behind on a screen. Vellano played 55 snaps, and led the team with eight total tackles.
But they seemed to run out of gas in the second half, and overall the Saints rushed 12 times for 75 yards up the middle (6.25 average).
■ The Patriots might have the fewest blitzes in the league. We counted just five on 38 dropbacks by Drew Brees, as the Patriots played it safe in coverage. Brees should be kicking himself for missing Stills wide open for a touchdown in the third quarter, and that interception to Kyle Arrington was unnecessarily high as well.
■ Rough day for Mayo, Hightower, and Spikes in trying to contain Sproles, Thomas, and Robinson. But Talib, McCourty, and Dennard were exceptional.
Special teams . . .
■ That home run throwback was almost a total disaster, as Edelman was hit as he threw and was lucky that Talib recovered the fumble. But the Patriots had their blocking set up pretty well, and Talib would have had a huge gain if Edelman had gotten off a clean pass.
■ Excellent job again by kicker Stephen Gostkowski, booming four touchbacks out of seven and hitting a career-long 54-yard field goal.
■ LG Logan Mankins: Delivered several punishing blocks to open big holes in the run game.
■ RB Stevan Ridley: The Patriots certainly missed his burst in the loss to Cincinnati.
■ QB Tom Brady: It wasn’t his best game, but he was sharp and accurate when it mattered most.
■ CB Aqib Talib: Not too many players can dominate Jimmy Graham the way he did.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin