NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots claimed the AFC East divisional crown this afternoon against the Miami Dolphins, but their inconsistent performance is certain to disgust head coach Bill Belichick in the film room. Read on for some of the keys to this week’s underwhelming 23-16 victory.
1. Tom Brady, Patriots struggle to establish rhythm in the passing game
Tom Brady’s four-game streak of games completed without throwing an interception ended early in this afternoon’s contest; Brady attempted to throw into tight coverage and was intercepted by Dolphins strong safety Reshad Jones while looking for Aaron Hernandez down the seam. Wes Welker and Hernandez received almost all of Brady’s targets this week; they combined for 31 of Brady’s 40 passing attempts.
However, both players also struggled to secure the ball on important downs; Aaron Hernandez dropped a would-be touchdown on a corner route in the first quarter, and Welker dropped a pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter. None of New England’s other targets – Danny Woodhead, Julian Edelman, Daniel Fells, Shane Vereen – made a significant impact in the passing game; Brandon Lloyd was held without a reception over the first three quarters.
New England’s passing game struggled to keep Brady upright all game; the quarterback sustained seven quarterback hits and was sacked on four separate occasions, two occurring on the same drive and preventing the Patriots from converting a fourth-quarter goal-line opportunity into a touchdown.
2. Chandler Jones’ absence leads to an intermingling of three-and-four-man fronts
Among the most intriguing storylines entering this week’s game was regarding how New England would attempt to compensate for Chandler Jones’ injury. Head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia ended up using three-man and four-man lines in an effort to create confusion. Rob Ninkovich slid from left end to right end when New England lined up with four down linemen, then shifted to outside linebacker in the three-man fronts. New England’s three-man lines included Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Brandon Deaderick; Trevor Scott joined Wilfork, Love, and Ninkovich as the primary left defensive end in four-man fronts.
Scott eventually recorded a second-quarter strip sack in the second quarter which set up a New England field goal; he added a second sack in the fourth quarter. Rookie third-round pick Jake Bequette was active this week and received some playing time along the defensive line as well.
3. New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork puts together another impressive performance
In order for New England’s mixture of three-and-four-man defensive fronts to succeed, they needed a big game from nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who did not disappoint. Wilfork’s ability to play all over the field – at one point, he was lined up as a five-technique defensive end in the 3-4 – allowed New England to shift their defensive fronts in order to gain advantages in the trenches.
Wilfork stopped a couple of rushing attempts in the backfield; he also recovered Trevor Scott’s forced fumble, setting up the Patriots in position to convert a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Wilfork looked a little bit more comfortable in New England’s three-man line; it will be interesting to see whether or not the Patriots continue to work that front into the defensive gameplan once defensive end Chandler Jones returns from his nagging ankle injury.
4. Special teams played a large role; both punting games were particularly visible
New England’s initial scoring drive was set up by a poor snap; Dolphins punter Brandon Fields was unable to control the ball and ended up being tackled on the Miami 12-yard line. Later, New England’s drive was sustained by a roughing the kicker penalty called when Dolphins defensive back Jimmy Wilson ran into punter Zoltan Mesko; Tom Brady capitalized on the penalty by driving downfield and completing a touchdown pass to Wes Welker.
The Patriots also struggled to put together extended drives; Fields was able to place the Patriots on their own two-yard line twice, preventing the Patriots from being able to drive into scoring range. The stalled drives allowed Miami to begin their following drives with strong field position.
Although Gostkowski converted a second-quarter field goal attempt from 43 yards out, he also missed an early attempt wide right; the miss was his second in as many weeks. Gostkowski’s two short fourth-quarter field goals each provided New England with ten-point leads.
5. Aqib Talib struggles to defend Dolphins right wide receiver Brian Hartline all day
When New England traded a fourth-round selection to Tampa Bay for Aqib Talib, they were most likely hoping that Talib would bring some stability to their fluctuating secondary. Talib has remained at left cornerback throughout the duration of his time with the Patriots, but struggled once again, this week against Dolphins right receiver Brian Hartline. Talib allowed five completions on ten targets for a total of 84 yards; he also committed defensive pass interference at one point during the game. A would-be touchdown was not defended by Talib, but his receiver was unable to get both feet inbounds.
At this point, Talib’s job cannot necessarily be considered in jeopardy, but he must improve his play by the end of the season if he wishes to secure a lucrative long-term contract in this offseason, whether from New England or another team. Thus far, Talib accidentally sits on long routes too frequently, expecting a shorter pass which leads to a longer gain such as Hartline’s 28-yard grab today.