NEPD Staff Writer: Doug Kyed
What we saw on Saturday was enough to convince me that this team will be good enough to compete for a Super Bowl. I’m a natural optimist, but when a team can come back from as many issues as the Dolphins game presented the Patriots with, that might mean we have a special team on our hands.
Here are my six keys to victory over the Dolphins on Christmas Eve:
RESPONDING TO ADVERSITY
It’s going to be tough even coming up with all the issues the Patriots faced on Saturday. Let’s see: Matt Light was declared inactive suddenly during pregame, Logan Mankins started his first regular season game in eight years at left tackle, Donald Thomas had only previously played 16 snaps (mostly at fullback) before starting at left guard, Logan Mankins got injured and did not come back 12 snaps into the game which thrust Marcus Cannon into a starting role in just his sixth game since coming back from cancer, Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes were inactive again, the Pats were down 17-0 at the half, Andre Carter’s injury meant there were four total edge rushers on the team…
And even after all of that the Patriots still won 27-24, scoring 27 unanswered points through the first 28:12 of the second half. So how exactly did that happen? Well, first of all, Donald Thomas was starting in place of Mankins at left guard. Pro Football Focus actually had him rated as the Patriots best offensive player. He allowed 2 QB pressures and one sack, but his real presence was felt in the run game.
Dane Fletcher also stepped up big for the Patriots. He only rushed the QB nine times, but he had one QB hit and two pressures according to Pro Football Focus. When Brandon Spikes comes back, I’d still like to see Fletcher get a lot of snaps. He can play MLB, OLB and it would be interesting to see him even lined up with a hand on the ground. He’s been a really great player overall this year while he’s been healthy.
The fact that the Patriots could respond this well to all the issues that they faced says a lot about them. A lot of teams would have rolled over in the second half and accepted another Dolphins December victory. This team didn’t though, and they came back with one of their strongest halves of the season. I feel like this Patriots offense is so high powered they can come back against anyone, especially if they’re fully using their no huddle attack.
Of course, most of the credit goes to me for putting on my lucky Patrick Chung shirt at the half. You can blame me for not wearing it from the start of the game as well.
The Patriots are really excelling in this category again this year. They’re third in overall turnover ratio with a +14, which makes sense since they only have five fumbles lost this year (tied for first), eleven interceptions (tied for fifth), 11 fumbles recovered on defense (tied for sixth) and 19 interceptions (tied for sixth).
Against the Dolphins, the Patriots forced three fumbles, two in the second half, and two turnovers. Vince Wilfork recovered a Matt Moore fumble in third quarter and Devin McCourty intercepted a Moore pass in the beginning of the fourth quarter.
The problem with relying on turnovers is that they can be completely based on luck. The Patriots do seem to be better than most teams at forcing that luck, but a lot of it does still come down to chance. If the Patriots can keep this up against some of the better teams in the playoffs, they’ll definitely stand a good chance of continuing their season.
The Patriots offense in general really came on the second half, but it’s especially when the rushing attack started working. According to Patsfans.com, the team had only 33 yards on nine carries in the first half, while they had 86 yards on 22 carries in the second half. The Patriots were especially successful rushing to the left, where they had 74 of their 119 yards on just eleven of their 31 total carries. A lot of thanks goes out to Nate Solder and Donald Thomas, who were great in leading the way for Stevan Ridley.
Ridley could be the kind of player who could just explode come playoff time. He had a really nice game with 13 carries for 64 yards. He may look like he’s running out of control, but he’s also a threat to break a twenty yard run at any time.
LIMITING BIG PLAYS
The Patriots allowed four plays over twenty yards on Saturday, which may not be great for many teams, but it certainly is for the Patriots. The real key there is that only one of those plays came in the second half, and all of them were passing plays.
The Pats D did a really nice job of containing Reggie Bush on big plays. His longest run of the day was for only twelve yards. Bush had a nice game overall, but his big play potential is what’s really scary about him. Luckily, the Patriots didn’t need Chung to limit him.
BALANCED PASS RUSH
It might look like I’m grasping for straws here since the Patriots pass rush wasn’t overly special against the Dolphins, but it was frankly pretty important that they showed any semblance of a pass rush without Andre Carter.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jerod Mayo managed two sacks on just eight pass rushes, Shaun Ellis finally showed up with one sack and one pressure. Brandon Deaderick and Rob Ninkovich also came away with sacks. The rest of the pressure came from Mark Anderson with one QB hit and one pressure in limited snaps and Fletcher. Alex Silvestro made an impact in just twelve snaps with one pressure.
PATCHWORK OFFENSIVE LINE
I touched on how well Thomas played early, but I wanted to throw out some more credit to this unit. I openly questioned the decision to start Thomas at guard rather than a center/guard combo of Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell. I can admit when I’m wrong though. It seems like Belichick has more confidence in Thomas, whereas Connolly and Wendell are strictly centers at this point. It was nice to see that while Mankins is out next week, we have a solid backup in Thomas. Thomas was a starter at RG for the Dolphins in 2009, where Pro Football Focus had him rated as an average blocker.
With multiple injuries along the line this year, the Patriots have proven to be one of the deepest units in the league. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have been able to step in successfully as rookies at tackle, while Connolly and Wendell have filled in fine for Dan Koppen. To think that the Patriots opening day offensive line was Light, Mankins, Koppen, Waters and Vollmer while the Pats finished up on Saturday with Solder, Thomas, Connolly, Waters and Cannon and were extremely impressive is a testament to both the Patriots talent evaluation at OL as well as Dante Scarnecchia’s coaching. Tom Brady should be very happy to have such a nice young group of players protecting him.
Brady had a dreadful first half going just 7-19 for 87 yards, but really rebounded in the second half going 20-27 for 217 yards and a touchdown according to Ian Logue at Patsfans.com. The Patriots first half struggles are definitely troubling. It’s something we’ve endured as fans all year. I’d like to see that change next week against Buffalo, but then again, we may only be seeing our starters in the first half depending on how the game is going.