All the New England Patriots needed was to hold the New York Giants to a field goal. In so many areas, the Patriots have been so bad this season, but one area they had been good in was red zone defense.
On Sunday, New England allowed the Giants to score on three out of their five red zone possessions, and although one was a score on which the Giants were set up on New England's 10-yard-line, the final score was obviously the most detrimental.
In the end, it was fundamentals that got away from them
The game-winning touchdown pass—a third-down throw to Ballard from the one-yard line—was really pretty rudimentary, though.
The Patriots lined up in a base 4-3 package with three linebackers and a safety stacked in the box, clearly expecting run.
This, of course, was a clear response to the Giants coming out with 23 personnel in I-formation. Brandon Jacobs and Bear Pascoe lined up at halfback and fullback respectively, with DJ Ware set just off the line as an extra blocker and Jake Ballard bookending the left end of the offensive line.
For added measure, an extra offensive lineman, center Jim Cordle, checked in as an eligible receiver.
If this were a play in the third quarter, everything about it would scream "run." The run-heavy personnel suggests the Giants are going to pound it in for a score.
But one look at the scoreboard makes all the difference.
Fourth quarter. Nineteen seconds. Three points. The Giants have no timeouts.
A run play here puts them in a disastrous position, as they have to rush their field goal unit on to the field with the clock winding down.
Throw the formation out the window. There's no way they're going to run the ball here.
But what happened?
Tracy White bites on the play action fake, and the Patriots defense never had a chance to make a play simply from how they're lined up.
Regardless, this has to fall on White. He has to be aware of the situation. With 19 seconds left and no timeouts remaining, the Giants aren't going to run it. And risk not even getting a chance at sending the game to overtime?
What makes it worse is that only two guys are even running routes on this play. That means only two guys had to be in coverage. One of the two guys who couldn't afford to blow his assignment did just that.
Everyone else was blocking, including Brandon Jacobs who was the decoy on the play action. The Hi-Lo read is just an easy-pickin's red zone play for Eli. The added bonus of this play is that if neither of the routes are good, all Eli Manning has to do is throw it away.
I don't even need to show you what happens next. That much is obvious just from the wide open space directly in front of Jake Ballard.
But let's take a closer look at the moment Manning makes the throw.
If White had his coverage, Andre Carter was just about to get past Jacobs and would have landed a sack or at least forced an incompletion, thereby either ending the game or sending it to overtime.
A much better outcome than what the Patriots ultimately ended up with, which could have been avoided had White remembered the basics of situational football.
The Big Picture
The Patriots were put in a tough spot with the injury to Brandon Spikes, but their linebackers have been susceptible in coverage all year. It's a wonder they haven't been picked on a bit more by opposing quarterbacks this season, having yielded a very respectable three receptions and 39 yards average to tight ends before last week's game against Pittsburgh.
Over the past two weeks, though, tight ends have hauled in 11 receptions for 152 yards and a touchdown. Those tight ends have made New England's linebackers look pretty silly in the meantime.
Despite a lack of talent, White shouldn't be too high on the need-a-stop list at linebacker.