Just a few hours after arriving back at Gillette Stadium and reviewing the footage of Sunday night's game in Indianapolis, head coach Bill Belichickconducted a conference call with the media.
He was asked, right off the bat, about one of the plays that changed the course of the game – the dead-ball, unnecessary roughness penalty against tight end David Thomas. It occurred late in the fourth quarter with the Patriots offense moving at will against the Colts defense for what could have been the game-winning or game-tying score.
Immediately afterward, Thomas explained that he was trying to make a block on that particular running play and that he didn't hear a whistle, so he assumed the play was still live. At the time, it appeared to be a questionable call, at best. The infraction seemed to occur just as the play was ending.
But upon closer inspection, Belichick conceded, "Well, I can see why they called it."
To that point, Thomas and his fellow tight end, Benjamin Watson, had already played key roles in the game, but with much better results. For much of the game, Thomas and Watson were both on the field with the Pats offense in two-tight-end sets.
This wasn't entirely surprising, as a week ago, Belichick was very concerned about the Indianapolis Colts pass rush.
He spoke during his press conferences about how the tandem of Dwight Freeneyand **Robert Mathis *were probably the most talented group of sack specialists that the Patriots might face all season. Mathis' stats: 5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles. Freeney, equally impressive, had registered 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles this season.
So, Belichick had to do something to protect his quarterback, Matt Cassel, who had been sacked 28 times heading into Sunday night's prime-time tilt in Indy.
The morning after, Cassel's sack total remained at 28. For the first time this year, Cassel played an entire game without being brought down in the backfield.
Part of this could be attributed to the help provided by Thomas and Watson, as Belichick acknowledged Monday.
"Having a little more presence on the edge creates another gap for them to defend in the running game. It creates a little bit wider alignment or different leverage positions for the rushers against the offensive tackles. There are some advantages to that. But I thought overall that our pass-blocking was pretty solid. I thought our run-blocking was pretty consistent. We just couldn't score enough points."
Indeed, New England rushed for a team total of 140 yards, with rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellisand veteran **Kevin Faulk *gaining the bulk of those yards with Thomas and Watson out there to help pave the way.
Meanwhile, the two tight ends were also active in the passing game. Both caught three passes a piece, with Thomas gaining 29 yards and Watson 14.
"It was a game where we had to do a lot of different things as tight ends," Thomas observed. "I felt like we executed our game plan well."
When Indianapolis had the ball, they often looked for their tight end, Dallas Clark, another Colt about whom Belichick was concerned last week.
One of the big questions leading up to Sunday night's match-up was who would cover Clark. Safety Rodney Harrison, who did so with aplomb in last year's contest versus the Colts, obviously could not reprise that role because he's out for the year on injured reserve.
Often, the task fell to rookie Jerod Mayo, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for October.
"Jerod has been involved in coverages all the way through," Belichick noted. "This was one of those games with the Colts where it's hard to substitute people. So, whatever group's out there you've got to be prepared to play with. When they go shotgun and spread Clark out, he's kind of like a third receiver. Sometimes he comes in [toward the line] and plays like a tight end. He's a very versatile player."
Clark, who was kept out of the end zone, still managed to gain 63 yards by hauling in 4 passes from Colts QB Peyton Manning. When Mayo wasn't covering Clark, veteran Adalius Thomasassumed the responsibility.
"Defensively, you have to be able to shift in and out of those defensive formations to match up with him. Sometimes that involves your guys doing things a little bit differently than they would normally do them because you don't have the opportunity to substitute. It ended up that our linebackers ended up in quite a bit of coverage against the tight end and the backs. It probably came up more in this game than it would normally come up."
Overall, Belichick told the reporters on his conference all Monday that he was focusing on the positives from his team's 18-15 loss.
"I was happy with the fact that we moved the ball. We had long drives and maintained ball possession, and changed field position."
And that was due, in large part, to the play of New England's two tight ends.