For most of the first quarter, the Thursday night game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants was a defensively dominated affair: not until there were less than two minutes remaining in the period that the first points were put on the board. Fittingly, neither of the two teams’ offenses broke the scoreless stalemate as it was the Patriots’ special teams units that rose to the occasion to deliver the game’s first touchdown.
Running back/punt rusher Brandon Bolden was able to create a solid upfield push, allowing him to get a hand on the football that ultimately landed in the waiting arms of rookie defender Chase Winovich who returned it six yards to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead. It was the second such score the Patriots’ kicking game units were able to get this season after a similar play during the team’s Week 4 win against the Buffalo Bills.
With all that being said, let’s take a closer look at the play.
4-9-NYG 19 (1:48) R.Dixon punt is BLOCKED by B.Bolden, Center-Z.DeOssie, RECOVERED by NE-C.Winovich at NYG 6. C.Winovich for 6 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
After the Patriots defense forced a three-and-out, the Giants sent their punting unit onto the field. New England countered with a look that was different from the game in Buffalo: back then, nine rushers aligned in the pocket which gave the team a numbers advantage against the Bills’ protection. This time, however, the Patriots used just seven players on the line of scrimmage to challenge punter Riley Dixon (#9) and the men in front of him.
The tricky part, as head coach Bill Belichick pointed out during a conference call on the morning after the game, was that the rushers aligned in an overload 2x5 formation:
“It was an overload rush and it looked like the Giants were in their kind of zone protection on that and just trying to take up space and not really allow any gaps for the defenders to get through and Brandon had a great get-off and just drove [Nate] Stupar back and got him close enough that he ended up hitting the punter,” Belichick said when describing the play that would turn into the first six of 35 points his team scored on Thursday.
The overload allowed the Patriots to get a favorable 5-vs-4 situation on the offensive right side of the line, with personal punt protector Michael Thomas (#31) playing a key role in the blocking up front. Thomas could have prevented the push-back that Brandon Bolden (#38) was able to create, but instead of helping Nate Stupar (#45) during his one-on-one he decided to stay closer to the center of the action.
The one small step Thomas took to his left created enough space for Bolden to push the blocker in front of him straight back — and the veteran special teamer did just that but lowering his right shoulder and challenging his opponent’s balance. Stupar was moved backwards almost immediately after the snap, and scrambled to regain his stance and blocking form. At that point, however, it was already too late: Bolden was in the backfield.
The 29-year-old, who spent last season with the Miami Dolphins before returning to the team with which he started his career in 2012, was able to not just get into the backfield but also to lift his left hand up as soon as he got near Giants punter Riley Dixon. With Dixon using his right foot to kick the football — it is no coincidence the Patriots overloaded this side of the line of scrimmage — Bolden was in a position to get a hand on the football (even though it actually hit Stupar’s helmet).
“It was a really good play, well executed play by Brandon in terms of getting off on the ball. It’s kind of similar to the [Dont’a] Hightower play from Chicago last year where [Hightower] knocked the blocker over and was able to come clean — sort of the same idea,” Belichick said about the play. “In punt protection when you give ground, if you don’t take a stand then the rushers can run you right back into the punter.”
The play against the Chicago Bears saw Dont’a Hightower also overpower the blocker in front of him to get to the football. This time, it was Bolden and his strong get-off and quick reaction allowed him to get a hand on the football. The ball popped up in the air and Chase Winovich (#50), who had originally aligned on Bolden’s inside shoulder before the snap, was in a perfect position to plug it out of the air at the Giants’ 6-yard line.
The rookie was able to do that because the traffic around him was rather light: blockers are taught to head up the field quickly after the snap to cover against a potential return. Naturally, this also happened here which left Winovich as one of the few players to actually face New York’s goal line at the time the football started to come down again. He was therefore able to calmly field it and run into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
For the second time in two weeks, New England perfectly executed a punt play by putting its players in a position to succeed and by playing technically proficient yet aggressive football. This approach has served them well so far this season, not just on defense but also in the kicking game.