FOXBORO — The New England Patriots looked like the Patriots again with a dominant 38-7 win over the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
The Patriots out-muscled the Dolphins along the scrimmage, and had the necessary urgency for a team that found themselves playing an opponent two games ahead of them in AFC East standings for the first time since Tom Brady’s first career start in 2001.
Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise said in the post-game locker room that the turnaround started early in the week, “starting Monday, everyone had that hungry look in their eyes…everyone was just focused. It was a focused week, it was a good week, and we came out strong.”
Below, I’ll take you through ten things we learned from the Patriots’ second victory of the season:
1. Patriots Start Fast, Bury Dolphins With 24-Unanswered Points in First Half
The Patriots led by quarterback Tom Brady talked about starting fast all week, and they did just that hitting the Dolphins with a haymaker in the first half. On Friday, Brady told the media, “You get behind 10 points or 14 points at the start of games, and you’re looking uphill all day, and it’s tough to win like that in the NFL.”
At their quarterback’s request, the Pats made this a nice walk in the park on a beautiful fall afternoon at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defense led the way holding the Miami offense to 75 total yards through the first two quarters and held them to one third-down conversion on five attempts in the first half. The Pats offense stalled at the goal line on their opening drive, but it’s the first time they’ve scored on an opening drive this season, and they followed it up with three touchdown drives in the second quarter. Do you like that?
2. Patriots Defense Wins on First and Second Down, Leads to Third Down Success
Excluding garbage time, the Patriots defense held the Dolphins offense to only 97 total yards and six first downs through the first three-plus quarters of play, a terrific turnaround for a unit that couldn’t stop a nosebleed the previous two weeks. Although the third-down defense will get a lot of attention, it was the early-down defense that deserves the credit. On Miami’s first seven third-down plays, the Dolphins were in third and eight or longer on six of them, and their average yards to gain on third down was 11.4. The Patriots entered Week 4 allowing their opponents to convert on 48.7 percent of their third downs but held the Dolphins to just a 27 percent conversion rate on Sunday.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick credited the Patriots defenses’ ability to stop the run on early downs as the key to their success on third down. The coach said, “[the run defense] created some long-yardage situations defensively that made our third-down defense a little bit – well it made third-down conversions more difficult for Miami.”
Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers was also excited about the early-down defense saying, “To get them behind the sticks, get them in a situation where they become one-dimensional…you put them in a backed up situation where it’s maybe an obvious pass, and we can execute the game-plan better.”
The Patriots success on early downs allowed them to get over Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill on third down, and that’s why they won this game so easily.
3. Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels is Back!
After a rough few weeks, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called an incredible game on Sunday against the Dolphins. The Patriots utilized their personnel perfectly incorporating a healthy dosage of screen passes, rub routes and quick-hitters to the perimeter to spread the ball around to six different receivers on the afternoon. The Patriots offense put up 38 points despite only 44 receiving yards from Rob Gronkowski, which is a great sign. Here are some examples of how McDaniels got the Pats passing offense going:
The Patriots wide receiver corps lacks top-end talent outside of Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman (suspended), but when correctly deployed they each have skills that can help this team move the ball through the air.
Let’s start with the 55-yard touchdown pass to Cordarrelle Patterson. McDaniels goes to one of the Patriots’ favorite rub concepts here, a pick/rub by the outside receiver from a stacked formation to pair with a wheel route from Patterson from the slot. James White perfectly executes the pick-play, and then we can see Patterson’s ability after the catch as he makes a terrific cut to the inside to break this for a touchdown. Patterson may not be able to create downfield separation on his own, but when aided by the scheme and put in a run after the catch situation he can be a useful playmaker.
The Dorsett touchdown is another excellent example. We all know Phillip Dorsett is fast, but he has a tough time with releasing into his route against physical corners. McDaniels isolates him here and the bottom of the screen against off-coverage, and he’s able to run a blaze-out to burn Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard for the touchdown. Dorsett does a great job of stemming this route to the inside, but McDaniels put him in a situation where he’s aided by alignment to get him the necessary space to utilize his speed.
The Patriots coaching staff, especially on offense, needed a better performance in this one, and we got it from Josh McDaniels on Sunday.
4. Brady Has Another Up and Down Day
Although the Patriots offense as a whole got back on track, quarterback Tom Brady still had an up and down day on Sunday. Brady’s decision making, especially early on, continued a trend that doesn’t bode well for last year’s MVP. Brady was nearly intercepted on a throw over the middle to tight end Rob Gronkowski in the red zone on the Pats’ opening drive and then was picked off by Dolphins corner Bobby McCain on the team’s second drive of the game on a great individual play from McCain. He then threw another interception late in the game into double coverage while under pressure. From this perspective, Brady’s confidence both in his offensive line and receivers still isn’t completely there, and he’s hesitating to pull the trigger while targeting specific players and has seen his footwork suffer as he feels pressure in the pocket.
However, as illustrated by his touchdown pass to James White, Brady is still a terrific passer and doesn’t appear to be losing anything regarding his downfield ball placement and velocity, or in this case touch. White’s touchdown catch was another great call by McDaniels in the red zone on a flood concept also known as “scissors” against the Dolphins’ zone coverage in the red area. Teams often play zone down by the goal line, and McDaniels flooded the left sideline with passing routes to get White open, and Brady dropped an absolute dime into White on a lollipop throw.
5. Run Defense Sets the Tone for the Patriots Defense
The Patriots ultimately won this game due to their play along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. After a rough performance a week ago in Detroit, the Pats run defense bounced-back in a significant way holding the Dolphins to only 56 yards on the ground. All week long, the Patriots defensive linemen stressed fundamentals defending the run, saying their issues stemmed from poor arm extension and hand usage in the previous two weeks. Patriots defensive tackle Malcom Brown set the tone early with a run stop and drawn holding call on the Dolphins’ first rushing attempt of the game, and you could see a huge difference in the Pats’ ability to get off blocks and penetrate the Miami offensive line from the jump.
Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler told me in the Patriots locker room after the game, “We definitely accomplished that goal today [returning to fundamentals vs. the run]. We played with the best technique we’ve played with in a game this year, and it worked out for us.” The Patriots run defense, and rightfully so, was a significant point of blame for the team’s loss to the Lions, but the team made huge strides in that department this week.
6. Patriots Offensive Line Sparks Sony Michel’s Breakout Performance
In a bit of surprise, the Patriots’ offensive line struggled mightily to create holes for their running backs on the ground through the first three weeks of the season. However, on Sunday, both Sony Michel and James White had massive running lanes to rush through thanks to a terrific performance by the big guys up front. Pats center David Andrews credited the offensive lines work ethic at practice for the turnaround up front, “We expect to [run the ball well]. We hold ourselves to a high standard and unfortunately we haven’t been doing that the past couple of weeks. We put a lot of work in this week in practice, and all of that came to a head today.”
Sony Michel’s 13-yard run in the first quarter was a sign of good things to come for the Patriots on the ground. The Pats ran an inside zone scheme here with the offensive line coming off the ball at a 45-degree angle. Michel got terrific blocks from the left side of the offensive line as left guard Joe Thuney held his block while left tackle Trent Brown turned the defensive end completely to the inside to seal the edge for the rookie running back. Patriots wideout Chris Hogan also gave Michel another solid block downfield to keep the run going, and we saw Michel’s confidence grow thanks to the enormous creases created by his blockers.
7. Sony Michel Silence Doubters With Breakout Performance
Speaking of Michel, the Pats rookie silenced his critics on Sunday with a breakout performance going for 112 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. With improved blocking up front, we saw Michel’s acceleration into the secondary and sneaky power come to fruition against the Dolphins. In his first two career games, Michel admitted after the game on Sunday that the game was moving fast for him and that he was a bit tentative with the ball in his hands. However, we saw Michel’s confidence grow significantly in his third career games, and he credited his teammates with keeping his spirits high saying, “My teammates do a great job of complimenting me to keep my confidence up. I’m around a great group of guys, so it’s amazing. I’m blessed to be around guys like James White, the offensive line and Tom [Brady].”
Michel flashed all of his abilities that made him a first-round pick on Sunday, but especially his burst through the hole and balance and power on contact. On his 23-yard run, his longest of the day, Michel gets some terrific blocking as a gigantic hole opens up thanks to the Patriots’ power-lead running scheme with fullback James Develin. Michel doesn’t hesitate, accelerating through the hole and then makes a good move to run through another tackle before he eventually goes down with two Dolphin defenders taking him to the ground. Runs like this one, and hopefully longer explosive runs in the future, are the reason why the Patriots selected Michel with the 31st overall pick in April.
8. Josh Gordon Makes an Impact Despite Low Usage
New Patriots receiver Josh Gordon only played 18 snaps in his first game with his new team, but his impact was undeniable. Gordon converted two first downs for the Pats, one on a quick slant, and another by drawing an illegal contact penalty, and his presence on the field made the Pats offense feel that much more explosive and dangerous on Sunday. After the game, the former Browns wideout sounded like a player that’s extremely happy to be a Patriot.
“I’m more than blessed,” Gordon said about the opportunity to play with the Patriots.
“I’m extremely grateful to be put in this scenario. I think the only thing right for me to do is take full advantage of it. I’m loving it, I’m enjoying it, the guys here are great, it’s a real home environment, and I feel as comfortable as ever here.”
Gordon also added that his relationship with Tom Brady is already off to a great start, which should be music to Patriots fans’ ears. Gordon said, “Tom’s a passionate guy, and I love that, and I love the game of football, and I think we’re going to mesh just fine.”
From a usage standpoint, Gordon only targeted on two slant routes from the perimeter, a route that will likely be a staple of his route tree in New England. The Patriots didn’t let Gordon loose necessarily against Miami, but even running mainly slants and comebacks, he still took a slant for 19 yards.
He was also seen blocking downfield on James White’s touchdown run. Although it wasn’t a huge day on the stat sheet for Gordon, this was a terrific debut in terms of him buying into the system, and big things are coming for Gordon in the future.
9. Gronk’s Injury the Only Negative on a Great Day
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski tweaked his already injured ankle on Sunday and sat out the remainder of the blowout after re-aggravated the injury. Gronk was a bit gimpy walking around the Patriots’ locker room all week and got treatment on the ankle every day we were given access to the players, but chalked the ankle issue up to the bumps and bruises of football season. Before the injury, Gronk was improving in a few critical areas along with the overall improvement from the Patriots this week. The Dolphins tried to box Gronkowski in on a few occasions, and he was able to find the pockets in the zone and take advantage of matchups with the Miami linebackers.
On this third down conversion, the Dolphins were in zone coverage with linebacker Kiko Alonso dropping into the middle of a cover-2 shell. Gronk shakes Alonso at the top of the route with a quick dig route over the middle and adjusts his route to avoid running into the next defender in the zone. Gronk has said over the last few weeks that he needs to do a better job of getting open, and he was able to exploit a matchup with the slow-footed Alonso here. Hopefully, for the Patriots and Gronk, his ankle injury isn’t a long-term issue.
10. Trey Flowers’ Return Has Domino Effect on Patriots’ Front Seven
Finally, the Patriots defense got an enormous boost with the return of defensive end Trey Flowers. Flowers only made one tackle on the day, but his return put the Patriots front seven back into their proper roles and makes it so they don’t have to ask too much out of the rest of the defense. Flowers is the Pats’ best defensive player, and this defense is a different unit when he’s on the field.
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