NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
The Miami Dolphins remain in the race for the AFC East, withstanding another last-minute drive from the New England Patriots to earn a 24-20 victory and make up for their earlier loss to the Patriots in week eight. Read on for five observations from this week’s loss.
1. Left tackle Nate Solder re-injured, forcing rookie Josh Kline into the starting lineup
All three of New England’s offensive tackles were listed as questionable heading into this week’s game, with star left tackle Nate Solder having missed some practice time this week with a concussion sustained during last week’s victory. However, Solder was forced from the game early today and ruled out shortly afterwards with what was listed as a head injury. Short on offensive line personnel, the Patriots shifted left guard Logan Mankins to left tackle, with undrafted free agent Josh Kline taking over for Mankins at left guard.
The injury proved costly, as although Brady was sacked just one time this week, he was hit on six other occasions, taking a beating late in the game which disrupted New England’s passing game. There appeared to be some chemistry issues between Kline and center Ryan Wendell, most notably on one play in which a Miami defender had a clear path to Brady. Should Solder miss any extended time, it’s unclear how the Patriots would account for his absence.
When swing reserve Will Svitek is healthier, it’s possible that he could step into the lineup rather than Kline, who appeared overwhelmed. This may be an area which the Patriots will target with a corresponding roster move this week in order to ensure that this situation doesn’t resurface in the future, or to provide sufficient depth should Solder be listed as an inactive again next week.
2. Patriots make some questionable decisions regarding defensive back assignments
As Mike Wallace is undoubtedly Miami’s top receiving option, it came as something of a surprise that the Patriots opted not to cover him with Aqib Talib, instead playing Kyle Arrington at left cornerback for almost the entire first half, with Talib drawing various assignments ranging from covering tight end Charles Clay to lining up in the slot on the opposite side of the field. The results were decidedly mixed, as Talib was able to limit his opponents but Arrington struggled to defend receivers down the sideline, Mike Wallace’s twenty-two-yard sideline grab being the most notable example.
Late in the second quarter, Arrington briefly left the game to receive some stretching on the sidelines for what appeared to be a cramp, and despite his absence, New England’s coaching staff opted to go with special teams ace Marquice Cole in coverage on Wallace, with Wallace immediately separating from Cole and capitalizing on a poor angle by strong safety Steve Gregory to score a thirty-nine-yard touchdown which trimmed the lead to three points with less than one minute remaining in the half.
Right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard struggled to defend receivers as well, giving up some slants and crossing patterns to Brian Hartline and allowing Rishard Matthews to make an impressive sideline grab late in the fourth quarter. Questionable strategic decisions and poor play in the secondary allowed Tannehill to throw for over three hundred yards and complete three touchdown passes.
3. Missed field goal, poor kickoff by Stephen Gostkowski ultimately prove costly
Stephen Gostkowski has enjoyed one of his best seasons as a pro thus far, but today was a game in which his mistakes forced the Patriots into an uncomfortable position late in the game. Gostkowski missed a forty-eight-yard field goal wide left in the third quarter, and after New England took the lead late in the fourth, kicked the ball out of bounds, giving Miami a short field to work with on a drive which resulted in a go-ahead touchdown.
New England took over with just over one minute remaining, but was forced to drive downfield and score a touchdown rather than getting downfield for a game-winning field-goal attempt. Ultimately, the Patriots proved unable to recreate the magic they had in previous games this season, with Tom Brady’s fourth-down attempt being intercepted in the end zone with three seconds remaining, dropping the Patriots to 10-4 on the season and allowing the Denver Broncos, who lost to the San Diego Chargers on Thursday, to move back into first place in the playoff picture.
Should the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight, they would move into second place in the standings owing to their head-to-head victory over New England earlier in the season. That would force the Patriots to begin the playoffs by participating in the wild-card game rather than enjoying a first-round bye, with New England traveling to face either Denver or, more likely, Cincinnati in the second round. The loss also prevented the Patriots from clinching the AFC East today.
4. Amendola effective as Patriots try to replace Gronkowski’s production
With tight end Rob Gronkowski out, the Patriots relied almost exclusively on their wide receivers in the first half, with Danny Amendola making perhaps the biggest impact for New England. On the team’s initial drive, Amendola caught a screen pass and gained eight yards, then made some more extensive contributions as the quarter began to wind down, exploiting a hole in zone coverage for a thirty-yard catch-and-run to begin the drive, then catching passes on each of the next two plays, gaining eleven and seven yards, respectively. Amendola’s thirty-yard gain was the most significant Patriots gain of the first half, and his fifty-six receiving yards represented almost half of Tom Brady’s first-half total.
Other than Amendola, Julian Edelman received the most attention from Brady, catching four passes in the first half, while Josh Boyce came up with a thirty-yard reception on the first drive of the second half, although his performance was tempered by two drops, including one on an admittedly difficult contested catch in the end zone at the beginning of the game, forcing New England to kick a field goal. On a fifteen-play fourth-quarter drive which culminated in a field goal, Amendola and Edelman combined to make seven catches, helping the Patriots cut the lead to four points. Edelman also caught the go-ahead touchdown with just over four minutes left on a catch-and-run over the middle. During New England’s final drive, Amendola held on through a painful hit over the middle on fourth and eight, then caught another pass and ran the ball into Miami territory.
5. Patriots pass rush effective once again versus porous Dolphins offensive line
Although Ryan Tannehill was accurate in the first half, completing seven of his first ten attempts for seventy-five yards, the effectiveness of Miami’s offense was constrained by their poor pass protection, which effectively crippled some of their early drives. On the first drive of the second quarter, Kyle Arrington successfully executed a delayed blitz, capitalizing on a poor block in blitz pickup to sack Tannehill for a loss of four yards on a drive which ended two plays later following an eleven-yard completion on third and thirteen, a situation in which the Dolphins would have otherwise converted.
Miami’s next drive began with a Joe Vellano sack and, although the Dolphins nonetheless moved the chains on the subsequent play on a sideline throw to wide receiver Mike Wallace, the drive ended prematurely shortly afterwards when Chandler Jones beat Bryant McKinnie with an inside move, causing an eight-yard loss that prevented the following fourteen-yard completion from giving Miami a first down. The play proved significant, as a miscommunication on the following field goal attempt gave the Patriots the ball.
Midway through the fourth quarter, pressure from Chandler Jones caused Tannehill to underthrow Mike Wallace on a deep route, and Alfonzo Dennard was able to bat down a pass on a blitz of his own immediately afterward to force a punt. After a Stephen Gostkowski kickoff went out of bounds late in the game, Sealver Siliga found a clear path to Tannehill and brought him down to force a third-and-seventeen situation.