Welcome to the Play of the Game, a weekly breakdown of the last game’s top play as voted on by you, the fans. Today, we will take a closer look at the New England Patriots’ Week 12 victory over the visiting Arizona Cardinals and a first-half play that changed the entire course of the game.
The New England Patriots’ game against the Arizona Cardinals started in the worst possible fashion. Three plays in, quarterback Cam Newton threw an interception that set the visitors up in the best possible field position — one they took advantage of to take a quick 7-0 lead. Arizona followed that score with a field goal before the Patriots finally fought back by driving for a touchdown of their own early in the second quarter.
Still, as the period was coming to a close, New England’s defense allowed the Cardinals to march into scoring range again. Down at the goal line, however, the unit tightened up: two short passes bookending an incompletion set up a 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line with only three seconds remaining in the half.
Let’s take a closer look at this pivotal moment that turned the tide in the game and eventually played a key role in the Patriots’ 20-17 victory.
4-1-NE 1 (:03) (Shotgun) J.Jones reported in as eligible. K.Drake up the middle to NE 1 for no gain (A.Spence, J.Bentley).
After Arizona wide receiver KeeSean Johnson was tackled short of the goal line on third down, the Cardinals took their final timeout with three seconds left on the clock. The decision about the follow-up play already appeared to have been made at that point in time, though: the team would go for the touchdown on the final play of the half, trying to add to what was a 10-7 lead at that point.
Coming out of two sets of timeouts — New England also used one — the Cardinals lined up in a heavy set with quarterback Kyler Murray (#1) in the shotgun and running back Kenyan Drake (#41) offset to his right. The only wide receiver on the field was DeAndre Hopkins (#10), who was isolated on the boundary side of the field opposite Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (#24).
Gilmore, meanwhile, was part of a relatively standard 4-3 defense that aligned with eight player on the line of scrimmage and the other three off the ball but in the box. If Arizona was going to win the down running the football, it had to find a way to clear a path for either Murray or Drake despite having a numerical disadvantage.
Schematically, the two alignments looked as follows before the snap:
Once the ball was snapped, the Cardinals’ front line went into man-blocking mode. The left half of the eight-man line beginning with left guard J.R. Sweezy (#64) was matched up one-on-one against the defenders lining up on the other side of them: Sweezy took on 0-shade defensive tackle Akeem Spence (#52); center Mason Cole (#52) blocked Adam Butler (#70); left guard Justin Pugh (#67) went up versus Deatrich Wise Jr. (#91); left tackle D.J. Humphries (#74) was asked to block back-side linebacker Chase Winovich (#50).
The other four blockers, meanwhile, employed a pair of double-teams to take out linebacker John Simon (#55) and 5-technique lineman Lawrence Guy (#93). With Hopkins serving as a decoy versus Gilmore, this left four Patriots defenders initially unaccounted for. One of those — middle linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (#51) — eventually ended up filling the gap that Kenyan Drake was trying to burst through:
Bentley was able to do that by patiently approaching the down and reading the flow of the play in front of him. While he initially moved to his right to mirror the blocking up front, he quickly reversed course to shoot into the defensive left-side A-gap. While his quick reaction allowed him to do that and eventually stand up the ball-carrier before he could cross the goal line, other factors contributed to this as well.
Let’s start with the concept used by the Cardinals. Arizona was running a gap play, meaning that the running back would hit a hole behind a man blocking scheme as opposed to attacking a zone and making a call based on the way the defense was reacting. Specific to this play, the offensive right-side A-gap between Mason Cole and J.R. Sweezy was the intended lane for Kenyan Drake.
Given the way the defenses was lined up, however, three things were imperative for the play to succeed: down-linemen Lawrence Guy and Akeem Spence had to be moved off the ball, while right tackle Kelvin Beachum (#68) quickly had to get of his double-team to serve as the lead-blocker against potential second-level penetration.
The blocking was meant to look as follows, with Arizona essentially using a duo call on the right side of its line and an iso concept from that A-gap to the left:
Had the Cardinals used a fullback to lead out of a traditional iso set instead of employing an additional tight end on the perimeter, the play likely would have succeeded. However, it unfolded differently as Beachum — basically carrying out the assignment a fullback would have had on a classic iso play — was not quick enough to get to the second level and account for Bentley before he was already too far into the hole.
The role Lawrence Guy played in this cannot be understated: the veteran lineman penetrated up the field quickly at the snap despite facing a double-team, and was able to keep Beachum engaged just long enough for the play to break down from Arizona’s perspective. That alone might not have doomed the call just yet, however.
Unfortunately for the offense, Akeem Spence was able to get a good position versus J.R. Sweezy and use the veteran guard’s initial momentum against him to push him out of the way and also crash down on the ball-carrier.
“Pretty much it was on the goal line and just ‘mano y mano’, just wanting to make the play and keep points off the board, which was really helpful going into halftime,” Spence said after the game — his first as a Patriot. “It just so happened that the ball chose my gap and being a defensive tackle, you take pride in your gap. So the ball showed up and I had that play and took it into the half. Keeping points off the board heading into halftime is big and helps us win in the end so I am really just doing my job.”
Spence’s role in combination with Bentley’s quick reaction and Lawrence Guy occupying the double-team in front of him allowed the Patriots to stand their ground at the goal line and keep Kenyan Drake out of the end zone.
“It was crucial,” said safety Adrian Phillips after the game. “They had the ball with however many seconds left, and it’s 4th-and-1 on the goal-line. If they score, then on top of that they get the ball back [to start the second half].
“It was a big swing of momentum, and a big swing in points. It was huge for us to be able to go out there and get the goal-line stand. You go into halftime, now everybody’s amped up. That’s exactly what we needed for our team. That was a confidence builder and we knew we could do it. We just haven’t been doing it in the past and we finally got it done today. It just boosted our confidence even more.”
The goal-line stand was a huge moment in the game, and possibly the Patriots’ season as well. Instead of being down 10 points heading into the half and with Arizona set to receive the next kickoff, New England was still down only three — a deficit that was erased midway through the third quarter and eventually turned into a lead and victory.