New England Patriots TE Martellus Bennett recorded three catches for 33 yards and a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins and he could have caught more if his number had been called. Instead, QB Tom Brady found Bennett twice on the opening drive and forced the Miami defense to make adjustments, which opened the field for the Patriots receivers- specifically WR Julian Edelman.
You see, Brady and Bennett, who often lined up as the in-line tight end, knew something very specific about the Dolphins defense: they don’t chip tight ends at the line of scrimmage.
“Anytime I get free release it's always much better than having a nine-technique right outside of me and then a point,” Bennett said after the game. “It's always hard to get a release on different routes. If I get free release, I feel like I can just run and do whatever I want to do on my routes and really set them up. When they bang you, it's a lot of respect; but these defensive ends, I know playing the Dolphins that they don't really do that. They just want to get up the field and rush, so they're not really touching you like when we play 3-4 teams or if they're in an 'under double,' their Sam (linebacker) doesn't really chuck the tight end, so for the most part, I knew I was going to get free releases for the game.”
Back in week 2, we covered how the Dolphins defensive line places their defensive ends wider than the normal defense in order to be more aggressive and get to the quarterback. By starting wider outside the offensive tackles, the pass rushers have a flatter angle to get after the quarterback and can hit their blocker at an uncomfortable angle.
There are many flaws to this defensive strategy. The first, of which the Patriots took advantage in week 2, forces linebackers to have much more responsibility and gives the opposing team a clear advantage in the run game. The Dolphins are down two starting linebackers and both starting safeties, so the Patriots had no problem running up the middle.
The second, which Bennett highlights, is the focus on getting after the quarterback can allow the tight ends to reach the second level without being touched.
Q1 NE-1-10-MIA 25 (9:23) T.Brady pass short middle to M.Bennett to MIA 14 for 11 yards (B.Rambo).
On Bennett’s first catch of the day, you can see both of the Dolphins edge defenders lined up far outside the offensive tackles. Brady and the Patriots are about to run the play action to draw the linebackers to the line of scrimmage. Bennett (#88) is next to the Patriots right tackle and gets a free release on an low crosser behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties.
The play action draws both Dolphins linebackers (#47 and #46) up, giving Bennett a huge window in the open field. This was an easy pitch-and-catch for a first down.
Q1 NE-1-2-MIA 2 (7:35) T.Brady pass short right to M.Bennett for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Bennett’s second catch comes from the 2-yard-line as the Dolphins expect a run play with NFL rushing touchdown leader RB LeGarrette Blount. Bennett lines up on the left side of the offensive formation, but the key to this formation is the motion with TE Matt Lengel.
Lengel comes across to the left side and gets in front of the wide rusher, who expected to be blocked by Bennett. The motion with Lengel also sells the idea that Bennett’s blocking responsibility is linebacker #58. The playaction causes the linebacker to rush the line of scrimmage to undercut Bennett’s block, and Bennett simply goes over the top without anyone in coverage.
Two playactions, two plays where Bennett gets behind the linebacker untouched.
Q2 NE-1-10-NE 36 (9:06) T.Brady pass short left to M.Bennett pushed ob at MIA 44 for 20 yards (N.Hewitt).
We’re going with a wider angle on this next play to fully capture how wide open Bennett was on this third play. As with the other two, the pass rushers are lined out wide, the Patriots go with the play action, and Bennett leaks away from the linebackers completely untouched.
The two wide receivers on the far side are responsible for clearing out the defensive backs to give Bennett as much room as possible to operate in the open field.
This was the last catch by Bennett all day, but the damage was done. The Dolphins were afraid of the play action to Bennett for the rest of the game, allowing the Patriots to have success on the ground (whenever LG Joe Thuney managed to block Dolphins DT Jordan Phillips). The Dolphins linebackers were also so focused on defending against the pass, that the Patriots kept Bennett (and other backfield players) in-line on certain plays to distract the linebackers and allow the wide receivers to cross the middle of the field without worry.
The Patriots strategy in week 17 wasn’t much different than in week 2 in the sense that it revolved around the Dolphins aggressive pass rushers. If the Dolphins find a way to get past the Steelers in week 3, don’t be surprised if a divisional round match-up between the Patriots and Dolphins features more of the same.