Welcome to the Play of the Game, a weekly breakdown of the last game’s top play as voted on by you. Today, we will take a closer look at the New England Patriots’ 21-11 win over the Miami Dolphins and a crucial fourth down conversion. Note that the breakdown would be usually online sooner than Friday morning, but with NFL’s GamePass taking until Thursday to release the All-22 film, today will have to do.
The New England Patriots were in full control of their opening day game against the Miami Dolphins midway through the third quarter. They had scored a touchdown to go up 14-3, forced a three-and-out on the very next series, and were just driving to add to their lead. Momentum can change quickly, however, and the team found out when wide receiver N’Keal Harry fumbled the football at the Dolphins’ 1-yard line for a touchback.
The visitors subsequently marched the length of the field to score not just their first touchdown of the game but a two-point conversion as well. When the Patriots got the ball back they were in need of an answer — they found it via a 10-play, 75-yard drive that featured numerous big plays. None, however, was bigger than a fourth down conversion deep in Miami territory. Let’s therefore take a closer look at it.
4-1-MIA 5 (6:08) (Shotgun) M.Onwenu and J.Herron reported in as eligible. C.Newton left tackle to MIA 1 for 4 yards (J.Baker, Z.Sieler)
Following a 5-yard scramble by quarterback Cam Newton on 3rd-and-6, the Patriots left no doubt about what they would do following the measurement. They would not attempt to kick a field goal to go up six points, but rather go for the ensuing fourth down by following a recipe that had served them well in the game up until this point: running the football by keeping it in the hands of their 6-foot-6 quarterback.
When New England presented its personnel for the fourth down play, it was clear what would happen: the offense aligned with seven offensive linemen on the field, two tight ends, and a fullback to support Newton — the rare 14-personnel group.
The original alignment, before some pre-snap motion by tight end Ryan Izzo (#85) and fullback Jakob Johnson (#47) looked as follows:
As can be seen in the diagram, the Patriots originally aligned with eight blockers up front before shifting Izzo to the left-side end and Johnson next to Newton (#1) on the front side of the formation. Those shifts forced the Dolphins to react by closing the gap over center David Andrews (#60) and moving their “Jack” linebacker — Kamu Grugier-Hill (#51) — more towards the boundary to create a hole for the ball-carrier to exploit.
And exploited that hole was as a look at the play from the end zone view shows:
Johnson kicked out at the snap to block Grugier-Hill, with Izzo moving to the second level to take on “Will” linebacker Jerome Baker (#58). While New England’s fullback displayed some tremendous form by squaring the Dolphins defender up and winning the leverage battle from the get-go, the tight end was no less impressive: Baker was eventually able to disengage, but Izzo held his block long enough for the play to be a success.
In the meantime, Shaq Mason (#69) pulled over from his right guard position to give the offense a numbers advantage around the gap against “Mike” linebacker Elandon Roberts (#44). The ex-Patriot Roberts followed the flow of the play but was unable to get to Newton before Mason was in his way to take him to the ground and keep the lane open long enough for the quarterback to push through it.
Another key block was made by rookie offensive lineman Mike Onwenu (#71). The sixth-round pick aligned on the outside shoulder of left tackle Isaiah Wynn (#76) and was asked to hold the edge against frontside end Shaq Lawson (#90). With Lawson shooting the gap between the two linemen, Onwenu was able to take advantage of his position by making Lawson’s upfield momentum work against the veteran defender.
Onwenu was not the only rookie involved in the play, though. The right side of the line was manned by Justin Herron (#75) and Devin Asiasi (#86), who held their own as well. Asiasi’s block was particularly encouraging: while he initially moved up the field against slot cornerback Noah Igbinoghene (#23), he disengaged quickly to take on backside safety Brandon Jones (#29) blitzing around the edge. Some good vision by the young tight end.
With the hole therefore clear, all Newton had to do was rush upfield as soon as he received the ball on his shotgun snap. The former league MVP, who finished the game with 76 rushing yards on 14 carries, did just that: he got to the hole quickly and lowered his shoulder upon initiating contact. Keeping his feet working, Newton was able to gain an additional three yards after already breaking the plane on the conversion.
All in all, the Patriots executed the play very well by taking advantage of their new quarterback’s skillset and the depth and blocking abilities of their offensive line and tight end personnel. Miami did not make any egregious errors in terms of alignment or personnel — although having two defensive backs on the field against a tight end and fullback might not have been the best choice — but New England simply just won the down through perfect execution across the board.