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ON FOOTBALL

To go long, they need to branch out

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Yesterday, the Patriots missed Deion Branch, and Tom Brady knew it.

The absence of a defense-stretching wide receiver wasn't the only reason the New England Patriots were shut out, 21-0, for the first time in 3 1/2 years, but the absence of that kind of deep threat allowed the Dolphins to play the gambling five- and six-man rushes without fear of being burned to sack Brady four times (for 20 yards), force him to fumble once, and limit him to a ridiculous 78 yards passing during a painfully long afternoon at Dolphin Stadium. The Dolphins found themselves shocked at Brady's demeanor as the offense unraveled around him.

"I've never seen Brady so frustrated," said defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday. "I've never seen him get hit so many times. Early on he was able to move around in the pocket and showed us a lot of different things, but we knew we just had to settle down and play ball. We felt early on we put good pressure on him but didn't get anything, so we came out with four-, five-, and six-man blitzes and were able to get to him."

Even when the Dolphins weren't sacking Brady, they were hitting him (three hurries), jostling him, and squeezing him until his field vision began to shrink. Several times he was seen upbraiding his receivers, including one blistering of tight end Daniel Graham. Many more times he looked like a man without options when he dropped back to survey the field and found the unwanted presence of Jason Taylor, Matt Roth, Kevin Carter, Holliday, and even safety Yeremiah Bell in his face.

For a time, Brady held up and the Patriots' defense held on despite poor field position in the second half, but in the face of an incessant pass rush, an implosion was inevitable. Yet, when it finally came, it was still shocking.

"You could hear him tell his linemen to protect and his wide receivers to get open, but we kept getting after him," Roth said. "We knew that if we could get after Brady, we could confuse him a little bit by blitzing safeties, and with our defensive backs playing great [man] coverage, we could make plays."

Despite rushing for 123 yards, the Patriots' offense could neither control the tempo nor slow down Miami's rushers, who stormed around Matt Light, over Stephen Neal, through Logan Mankins, by Nick Kazcur, and under Dan Koppen so effectively that few of them were willing to speak about it after all was said and done. Light struggled mightily against Taylor, whom Bill Belichick called probably the league's most dominant defensive player this season. Nothing Taylor did detracted from that opinion and when Light was approached after the game, he did what he did during the game. He disappeared, taking his clothes from a hanger and slipping out without comment.

As the Dolphins stretched their lead from 3 to 6 to 13 and finally to 21 points, for one of the few times since he took over as quarterback six years ago, Brady and the Patriots had no answers, so they surrendered, sending in the human white flag -- backup quarterback Matt Cassell -- in relief of the beleaguered Brady with 4:49 left to play. Five minutes is an eternity for a guy like Brady under most circumstances, but yesterday was not most circumstances. Yesterday was bad circumstances. Very bad circumstances, indeed.

"Their defense was everywhere," fullback Heath Evans said. "They piled on the pressure and we just didn't handle it well. We have some things, apparently, to work on this week in practice. I don't know why [Brady was taken out]. Probably to conserve his health."

That's the kind of day it was for the Patriots' offense. As the score mounted, so did the fury of Miami's pass rush and New England had no weapons to counter it. When your tight end is your deep threat, you have serious problems. When you have to resort to a botched trick play to beat man coverage deep -- Kevin Faulk's cross-field lateral to Brady, who hit Graham for a 38-yard score, was ruled a forward pass -- what is missing is clear and undeniable. A deep threat is missing. A guy who can pressure a secondary downfield is missing.

"We watched a lot of tape, even live tape to hear his signals and things like that," Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas said. "I think that helped a lot. You have to play a game with him out there. Disguise and come down even when you're not blitzing and things like that. We had him a little confused today. To rattle Tom Brady, that's a good accomplishment for our defensive line. They did a great job, but we were covering, too. We had a great game plan."

In the end, the double-forward pass play was a symbol of the kind of day it was for Brady and the Patriots. Nothing worked even when it seemed it had. They had no formations or adjustments or answers to a Miami defense whose plan may become the blueprint of how to attack Brady's offense. If you have corners who can hold up, you don't have to lie back in zone defenses that Brady routinely picks apart. You attack. You attack Tom Brady before he attacks you, knowing that this year he doesn't have as many weapons as he used to.

"When [quarterbacks] start to make comments about the pressure, the coverage, the routes, or whatever, you know you're doing something right," Taylor said. "It's not a slight to Tommy. If you pressure any quarterback, I don't care who they are, from the best to the worst, they don't really respond well to it most of the time.

"We got a couple hits on him today based on protections and trying to line up and confuse them a little bit, but at the end of the day, this is a team game made up of one-on-one battles and you have to win yours."

Yesterday the Patriots didn't win many of theirs on offense. They didn't win many along the line of scrimmage when they had to pass protect, and they didn't win many with their wide receivers when they had to get the kind of quick separation necessary to keep the Dolphins' gambling pass rush off Brady. They didn't win many one-on-one battles, so in the end they didn't win the war, either.

"They have a very good scheme," Brady conceded. "With that press [man] coverage, it takes a little longer to get open. When you have a great pass rusher [Taylor], you know you won't get that time. There was never any easy throws out there. We never put any pressure on those guys."

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com.

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