COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Sometimes you just know when you’ve hit the right note with Bill Belichick.
It happened on a conference call Tuesday. I asked him about a simple play, but a big one in Sunday’s game at Denver. The Patriots were facing a second-and-11 from their own 24 midway through the third quarter. The Broncos had just scored a touchdown, cutting the Patriots' lead to 27-16, and Sports Authority Field at Mile High was hopping. The Pats went with a single back, Dion Lewis, lined up seven yards behind quarterback Tom Brady. Brandon Cooks was wide left, and to Brady’s right Rob Gronkowski was in a three-point stance next to right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, Martellus Bennett flexed a couple of yards wider and Philip Dorsett at the edge of the formation but still within shouting distance.
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Brady took the snap and quickly faked a handoff to Lewis. Bennett delayed his release before lazily heading down the seam while Dorsett hurriedly ran a 7-route. Cooks’ job was simple. Get up the field as fast as possible and pull the cornerback with him. Gronkowski was given a free release and jumped past both linebackers and the safety, entering a huge void in the Denver defense. But it was left guard Joe Thuney who made the play, pulling across the formation to stop Von Miller dead in his tracks, giving Brady just enough time to hit the wide open Gronk for 26 yards. A handful of plays later, the Pats scored a touchdown and put the Broncos to bed.
“Yeah, that play that you’re referring to was a play that, obviously, has a hard run-action with a puller and a fake to the back,” said Belichick when I asked. “A lot of times the defensive end or the outside linebacker will kind of freeze for a second there while he has to figure out is it a run? (EDITOR'S NOTE: that’s exactly what happened.) Then it’s a pass and then the guard is kind of on him and he has to restart his pass rush, so that’s a play we’ve used in the past.”
The idea is to give Miller -- or another rush first player -- a different look with protection and plant a seed for later. Of course it’s easier said then done, especially against a player of Miller’s ability.
“[It's] a tough block for the guard, as you said, to come across the formation and have to pass block on an outside rusher that he’s not usually used to blocking the majority of the game," said Belichick. "It’s been the type of play that you can gain a little bit of an advantage on the defense, but there’s also some degree of difficulty and margin for error because it’s a play that’s probably a once-a-game block for an offensive lineman.
"Joe did a good job on that play. It was good ball handling and faking I think caused Miller to slow down a little bit and hesitate and that gave Joe a chance to get on him.”
Thuney is an unheralded player along that front line, rarely highlighted because most people don’t pay attention to what happens on the interior offensive line. But the youngster out of North Carolina State has been coming along quite nicely and drew praise from Belichick.
“Joe did a good job in the game,” he said. “He was singled up quite a bit in the protection. He gave us a solid performance.”
That’s high praise in Belichick-speak, damn near glowing when you think about it. But it wasn’t reserved solely for Thuney. While the Pats have gotten improved play from the tackles, the interior of that offensive line has been sound as a pound, despite their youth. That hasn’t gone unnoticed. They have played a big role in the Pats becoming a more balanced football team and -- in these eyes -- a better offense over this win streak.
“Yeah, they have. You’re right,” said Belichick. “On the one hand they’re young. On the other hand they’ve played a lot of games and they’ve played a lot of games together and they’ve had a lot of practices together. The communication, the footwork, the technique, just kind of seeing things the same way with those guys has really been good. Dante [Scarnecchia], of course, has always done a great job with that group. Those three players in particular, two guys in their third year, one guy in his second year just have worked together and have improved individually and improved as a unit in their combination blocks, which there are so many of those on the offensive line. Their ability to handle twists, and blitzes, and stunts and things like that, they are hard to do but those guys do a good job. They work well together.”
Of course, Belichick is Belichick; he added, “I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement.” But he’s right. Because of their youth, this trio hasn’t yet reached their prime, though Shaq Mason is awfully close, developing into one of the better players at that positon. Mason is someone Scarnecchia said of recently, “He’s good and he’s gotten better from last year.”
The man in the middle, David Andrews, is undersized but his quickness is very beneficial, especially with the way the Pats like to have their linemen get out in front of play-action passes (like the one Thuney did) or on screens to either the running backs or wide receivers. Plus, Andrews’ intelligence and work ethic are off the charts. That was highlighted by the fact that the undrafted second-year pro was named one of the team’s captains. While susceptible to power rushes, his technique has gone a long way toward overcoming some of those physical limitations, especially during this five-game win streak.
Then there’s Thuney, who quietly goes about his business, relying on his athleticism, quickness and improved technique as well. Plus he’s cut back on the penalties that plagued him as a rookie a season ago.
“I’m getting smarter in my old age,” Thuney joked.
So is this coaching staff. They’ve gained more and more trust in this group, and it’s shaped the way offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is calling games and the way the Pats are playing them, although Belichick says don’t get too carried away.
“Well, I think it helps the play calling,” he noted. “I mean, there’s certainly advantages to being balanced, but in the end the most important thing is being able to move the ball and score points. If we have to do one thing more than another, we feel like that’s a better way to move the ball and score points, then I think that’s what we’ll do and that’ll be the priority. In the end, we’re trying to score points. We need points to win, so however we get those, we get them. Whatever we feel like our best opportunities are, that’s what we want to try and do.”
But after 41 points in Denver, and the trust to put Thuney in the position they did on the 26-yarder to Gronk, shows there’s been a shift in approach. And you can’t argue with the results.