NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Although the New England Patriots scored just three points by halftime and struggled to move the ball through the air all game, the team was ultimately able to extend their AFC East lead via a 27-17 win over the Miami Dolphins, who proved unable to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill from an uncharacteristically aggressive Patriots defense. Read on for five keys to this afternoon’s victory.
1. Tom Brady has another off day, passes for just 116 yards
With wide receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski both healthy, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had an opportunity to show what he could do when given his entire cast of offensive weapons, and the result was a shameful six-of-eight first half in which Brady threw for just twenty-five yards and was intercepted on his first throw of the game, a pass which negated the team’s excellent kick coverage and subsequent defense, setting up Miami a mere 40 yards away from New England’s end zone and leading to a touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill.
Possible culprits for New England’s early lack of passing production include Brady’s severely swollen throwing hand and ineffective blocking by the left side of the Patriots’ offensive line, which allowed Jared Odrick to sack Brady on two occasions; Nate Solder also committed a holding penalty which called back what would have been a third-quarter touchdown catch by Rob Gronkowski. Brady managed to rebound in the second half, primarily by finding rookie Aaron Dobson, who caught four of his five targets for 60 yards and Brady’s touchdown throw, but in the future, the Patriots will need more from their quarterback than the type of game he had today.
2. Struggles on third-down continue for Patriots
The Patriots have had disastrous execution on third down all season, a trend which continued into this week’s performance, with the results so discouraging that head coach Bill Belichick has continued the conservative fourth-down approach he’s grown increasingly fond of this season. The most notable example was a fourth-and-three situation from the Miami seventeen-yard line in which, down 14-0, Belichick opted to kick a 34-yard field goal rather than attempt to continue the drive.
In total, New England converted just two of ten third-down conversions to Miami’s eight-of-sixteen figure, with an additional Patriots fourth-down conversion, a play which was probably motivated more by the prospect of kicking a 52-yard field goal into the wind than by a high level of confidence in the team’s offensive execution. Without fixing their problems on third down, the Patriots will be unable to mount the prolonged drives necessary to keep their defense well-rested.
3. Patriots get aggressive on defense, are well-rewarded
By getting more aggressive on defense, New England was able to claw their way back into the game, with a third-quarter twist blitz resulting in a pressure by Rob Ninkovich and sack by Dont’a Hightower not long after, that play setting up a Miami field goal attempt which was unsuccessful. After New England drove down the field and scored a touchdown on a fourteen-yard lob from Tom Brady to Aaron Dobson in the end zone, the Patriots sent cornerback Logan Ryan after Ryan Tannehill, resulting in a fumble which was recovered by Rob Ninkovich and immediately preceded the tying score on a stretch play by running back Brandon Bolden.
Ryan actually recorded a second sack late in the fourth quarter as part of a highly-effective overall philosophy based on overloading Miami’s protections. By the end of the game, the Patriots had accumulated six quarterback sacks, only two of which were credited to defensive linemen (ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.)
4. Mike Wallace held in check by an unlikely cast of cornerbacks
Defending wide receiver Mike Wallace appeared problematic heading into the game, but he was a non-factor for the vast majority of the contest against unexpectedly impressive coverage from the likes of Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole. Wallace was targeted on nine throws, catching just three of those passes for 41 yards, the eighth target a pass into bracket coverage in which free safety Devin McCourty was able to tip the ball to Cole for a sideline interception which prematurely ended a Miami drive and gave New England possession of the ball with just over thirteen minutes remaining and a slim 20-17 lead.
Wallace’s only successful play of the day was a twenty-five yard screen which converted a third-and-twenty-three situation for the Dolphins, a testament to just how well New England’s secondary has played this year against a seemingly never-ending procession of top receiving options. Cornerback Aqib Talib’s absence was a major concern heading into the game, but turned out to be irrelevant in actuality.
5. Dedication to running the ball pays off for Miami
In a first quarter in which possession of the football was dominated by the Dolphins, there was nonetheless an encouraging effort to defend the run by the depleted Patriots defensive front, which began the game with two tackles for loss, those stops coming from nose tackle Chris Jones and middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. The next five attempts, which came on Miami’s second drive, went for a combined eleven yards, although the ideal field position Tom Brady’s interception provided the team allowed the Dolphins to take a 7-0 lead on a well-thrown pass from quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Miami’s scoring drive nevertheless helped obscure an offense which gained only 71 yards on twenty-three offensive snaps.
Despite this initial success, New England’s run defense eventually crumbled in the face of repeated carries, as it has in every game this season, with Miami’s offense ultimately accounting for 156 yards on the ground over 31 carries, averaging five yards per carry.