Judging solely by the final 35-17 score in New England’s favor, one is inclined to believe that the game against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals was an easy victory for the Patriots. While it was at the end, it was not early on as the home team was inconsistent on offense and entered halftime up by only three points.
The first drive of the third quarter actually saw the Bengals take a 14-10 lead. With the Patriots unable to respond on the next drive, Cincinnati was in a position to extend its lead. However, the first play of the Bengals’ next possession started with a run for no gain and a holding penalty negating a 15-yard pass.
Then, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower made a momentum-changing play. Let’s take a closer look at it.
2-18-CIN 8 (7:11) (Shotgun) 14-A.Dalton sacked in End Zone for -8 yards, SAFETY (54-D.Hightower).
On 2nd and 18 from their own 8-yard line, the Bengals’ offense aligned with an 11 personnel grouping on the field. The Patriots countered with a three-safety nickel package with two down-linemen, two stand-up edge defenders and two off-the line backers. The defense was in cover 2 with man-to-man coverage on the outside and in the weak-side slot:
Prior to the snap, linebacker Elandon Roberts (#52), who has had another good performance, indicated pressure. Despite the Patriots showing blitz, the team only rushed four players. However, it was not the four you would expect as the defense dropped the edge defenders – Rob Ninkovich (#50) and Trey Flowers (#98) – back into coverage:
Both Ninkovich and Flowers faked the rush with a quick step forward before dropping back, selling the pressure perfectly. With the edge defenders not attacking the offensive line, the Bengals had a 6-4 numbers advantage in the trenches as running back Jeremy Hill (#32) stayed in to pass protect. As a result of Ninkovich and Flowers dropping into coverage, Cincinnati doubled defensive tackle Alan Branch (#97) with right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi (#70) and right guard Kevin Zeitler (#68).
Doubling Branch left four blockers to block the other three rushers. Center Russell Bodine (#61) took on Roberts, while left guard Clint Boling (#65) blocked defensive tackle Malcom Brown (#90). The key to the play is the offensive left side, where tackle Andrew Whitworth (#77) was isolated by Flowers dropping back and Hill moved to the B-gap:
This left the A-gap between Bodine and Boling exposed – and Dont’a Hightower (#54) took advantage of it. Prior to the snap, the 26-year old, looked to be in coverage of Hill. However, he did not play the running back and instead attacked the pocket. Hightower timed his rush perfectly: He did not start to move until the moment the ball was snapped, further selling his role as a coverage player.
Once Boling realized that he needs to close the A-gap in order to stop the rushing linebacker, it was already too late. Hightower, one of the league’s best blitzing linebackers, was already rushing at full speed and the guard whiffed on the blocking attempt:
Dalton was unable to get rid of the ball quickly, giving Hightower enough time to get to the backfield and meet the quarterback. Cincinnati’s passer tried to buy additional time and elude the pressure by moving to his left but New England’s linebacker was able to grab Dalton’s throwing shoulder with his right hand. Hightower then used his left hand to grab the quarterback by his nameplate and take him down for the safety.
Hightower had a chance to get to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (#14) due to the defensive backfield playing solid coverage across the board:
With the outside receivers not being granted the inside release by Malcolm Butler (#21) and Logan Ryan (#26), the only possible targets on the play were weak-side slot receiver Tyler Boyd (#83), covered by Patrick Chung (#23), and tight end Tyler Kroft (#81), running into Devin McCourty’s (#32) zone. While Boyd was ultimately able to get a small step on Chung, Dalton never had the time to look his way – his initial reads were on the offensive left – and potentially re-set his feet:
The coverage and the fact that he executed the play to perfection allowed Hightower enough time to burst through the offensive line and sack Dalton. From his well-timed rush, to him chasing and dragging the passer down, the linebacker showed why he is one of the best in the business.
However, football is a team-game and the safety would not have been made possible without the rest of the defense playing the down equally well: Ninkovich and Flowers were able to disguise their coverage, while the secondary was able to lock down Dalton’s first and second read.
New England’s coaching staff called the right play given the down and distance and the players did their job. The result was a game-changing play that decreased the Patriots’ deficit to two points and gave the team the ball. It took the lead on the drive following the free kick and never looked back en route to its fifth victory of the season.