Patriots are working the long ball into their attack
Following Sunday’s 27-26 Patriots victory over the New York Giants, receiver Brandon LaFell compared himself to Charlie Brown.
Well, the comparison was made unknowingly, and LaFell never named the cartoon character, who has fought his own personal crusade when it comes to football. Charlie Brown simply wants to kick the ball, and time and time again, he confidently and enthusiastically runs up to take the heroic kick, only to have Lucy devilishly yank away the ball at the last second.
LaFell was speaking about the deep pass that Tom Brady threw to him in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, and his choice of words sounded similar to how Charlie Brown must feel.
“Every time we run it in practice, he never throws it to me,” LaFell said. “He looked at me [Sunday] in the huddle and said, ‘Hey man, just stay alive.’ I’m like, ‘You always tell me that.’ ”
But this time, Brady did throw deep for LaFell, connecting for a 54-yard gain, the second time in as many games the two hooked up on a long-distance play.
LaFell caught a 48-yard bomb from Brady in the 27-10 win Nov. 8 over the Redskins.
Not long ago, Brady likened the state of his passing game to golf, one of his favorite offseason pursuits. His wedges were working just fine, he said; it was the driver that needed to come around.
Now, after a pair of deep balls to LaFell and another long pass that Rob Gronkowski turned into a 76-yard touchdown against the Giants, it looks as though the Patriots have a newfound affinity for — and the ability to pull off — one of the most exciting plays in football.
“I don’t think we’ve made any different type of effort to do it or force the ball to a particular area of the field,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “I think, more than anything, it’s opportunity meeting execution.
“If they present the opportunity to do something, whether that be throw it outside the numbers, inside the numbers, throw it deep, when you see that and the coverage allows for you to throw the ball there and the reward and the risk is probably in our favor, then it comes down to our overall level of execution.
“We’ve been fortunate to hit a few of those here in the last few games. It’s obviously something that helps any offense if you’re presented with the opportunity and you can make those plays. It makes life a lot easier.”
Taking some deep shots made sense against the Giants, who came into the game ranked 31st in pass defense. They were torched for 505 passing yards and seven touchdowns at New Orleans on Nov. 1, had allowed six 100-yard receivers (now seven), and now have given up seven pass plays on the season of at least 40 yards.
The Patriots, by comparison, have allowed just three pass plays of at least 40 yards; one came on the Giants’ second play from scrimmage, when Eli Manning hit Odell Beckham Jr. for an 87-yard touchdown.
Beckham’s score was on a shorter throw that he simply took the distance, catching it just past the Giants’ 35-yard-line and running the rest of the way. Gronkowski’s touchdown was similar to that, with Brady throwing it almost 35 yards in the air, Gronkowski catching it inside the Giants’ 45, eluding a tackler, and completing the longest play of his NFL career.
LaFell would have his chance to go deep on the next Patriots series. On a first-and-10 play from the New England 31, LaFell was the only receiver lined up left. Gronkowski came in motion from right to left, and Brady, under center instead of in the shotgun, took the snap and faked a handoff to LeGarrette Blount.
With the line giving Brady a clean pocket and plenty of time to throw, he dropped back to the Patriots’ 22, took a few steps forward, and uncorked the ball from the 24-yard-line.
It wasn’t Doug Flutie throwing the ball 65 yards in the air to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl, but then Brady is 38, not in college. His ball for LaFell was thrown so high that it temporarily left the view of the camera being used to show the game on television.
“I looked up 30 yards downfield and the ball was in the air,” LaFell said. “I just made a play on it.”
The pass traveled some 55 yards in the air, and nearly came down in the hands of Giants cornerback Jayron Hosley. But the ball slipped through the arms of Hosley and went right to LaFell, who maintained his concentration to complete the catch. As soon as he caught it — at the Giants’ 20 — he was thinking touchdown.
“The DB misjudged it, it went right over his hands, and I made a good play,” LaFell said. “I just knew it was me and him back there. I knew the safety was in the middle of the field, and I just knew I’d have to catch the ball, and once I beat him, I’d get to the end zone. But when I turned around, it was like everybody was coming.”
LaFell did not get to the end zone, instead getting tripped up at the 15-yard line. Still, it was good for a 54-yard gain, a bit longer than the 48-yarder he had the week before against Washington, on a deep pass that was thrown so high LaFell said it felt like catching a punt.
Five plays later, LaFell was the intended receiver on a short slant pass near the goal line that was intercepted by Trumaine McBride, an indication that Brady, like all golfers, needs to keep the wedges sharp, since those are the scoring clubs.
The pick set in motion the climactic conclusion that allowed the Patriots to remain unbeaten at 9-0: The Giants went down and kicked a field goal to take a 26-24 lead, then the Patriots drove 44 yards in 12 plays over the final 1:47, setting up Stephen Gostkowski for a game-winning 54-yard field goal with one second left.
Don’t tell Charlie Brown, but Ryan Allen’s hold was perfect.