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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / September 14, 2011

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If you just looked at the final statistics of the Patriots’ 38-24 victory over the Dolphins Monday night, you’d come away thinking that 2011 started much the way 2010 went.

The offense carried the team, rolling up an amazing 622 total yards, and Tom Brady is the league’s most valuable player until he’s proven human in the regular season (the postseason is a different matter).

There’s no way that the defense is improved, not with allowing 488 yards to the Dolphins. How can the unit possibly be making strides when Chad Henne, who on his best day last season was mediocre, throws for 416 yards and completes 61.2 percent of his passes?

Sorry, but the Patriots defense was good. And, for at least one night, it was improved.

Consider: The Patriots, despite sending an extra rusher on only 10 of 53 dropbacks, generated 20 quarterback pressures (sacks, hurries, and knockdowns combined).

That matched the 2010 season high set against Green Bay and first-time starting quarterback Matt Flynn.

And the 14 percent third-down conversion rate was no fluke. No matter what the Dolphins did on fourth downs in desperation garbage time.

There were four glaring miscues by the Patriots in the game: two by linebacker Gary Guyton, and two by cornerback Devin McCourty in a very tough matchup with Brandon Marshall.

Despite the new scheme and so many new faces, the Patriots were for the most part fundamentally sound.

Disregard him if you must, but Henne was a much improved quarterback over the one the Patriots faced last season. He didn’t react to pressure, made some clutch throws, made plays with his feet, and got a handful of sensational catches from his receivers.

Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the opponent. And sometimes you have to look at statistics with a distrusting eye. A closer look at the Patriots’ performance, position by position:

QUARTERBACK (Rating: 4.5 out of 5) Brady, who completed 32 of 48 passes for a career-high 517 yards and four touchdowns, was nearly flawless. The final result makes you forget that after starting the game 8 for 8 and staking the Patriots to a 14-7 lead, Brady completed 7 of his next 16 passes with an interception, He would likely want the interception back; Brady probably should have pulled it down or chucked it into the sideline when cornerback Benny Sapp made a terrific read. But that’s about it. After the interception, Brady was sensational, especially when directing the no-huddle attack that kept the Dolphins clueless.

RUNNING BACKS (Rating: 4 out of 5) There may not be a more effective running back out of the shotgun in the league than Danny Woodhead. He’s that good. He fits the Patriots’ zone blocking scheme perfectly, and if it weren’t for fear of wear and tear, the team would probably like to use him more. Woodhead does leave a little bit to be desired in blitz pickup - he gives ground but hardly ever whiffs - but Brady is aware and gets rid of the ball. Both Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis almost always get what they can.

RECEIVERS (Rating: 4.5 out of 5) There shouldn’t be any more doubt that this is a team whose base formation is two tight ends, two receivers, and one running back. The only way that changes is if Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski gets hurt. The Patriots had at least two tight ends on the field for 80 percent of the snaps, and quickly got Dan Gronkowski into the mix as well. Of his 66 snaps, Hernandez was off the line all but a dozen as he continues to be a matchup nightmare for defenses. Brady determines how he’s going to run the offense by how the defense chooses to match up on Hernandez. Gronkowski and Hernandez were terrific in the game, as were Deion Branch and Wes Welker. Chad Ochocinco, who had a rookie penalty that cost 46 yards, is being brought along slowly.

OFFENSIVE LINE (Rating: 4 out of 5) The unit had a very strong start, allowing only one pressure until there was 7:19 left in the half. Of course, it helped that the Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan blitzed on only three of 23 dropbacks in the half. Since his unit couldn’t cover well enough and being desperate, Nolan dialed up eight blitzes in 26 dropbacks in the second half. Rookie tackle Nate Solder got help on only five of 16 matchups against vaunted Dolphins rusher Cameron Wake (who needs a few more moves). Solder won all of the battles until late in the second quarter when he allowed two hurries and a sack to Wake. In the second, the Dolphins made an adjustment to help against the tight ends by dropping Wake more into coverage. Solder allowed one more pressure the rest of the game. Dan Connolly was tough as nails moving to center after Dan Koppen went out. He brought the fight to the defense more than he does at right guard, perhaps because there was always someone lined up over him. New right guard Brian Waters was rock steady outside of one pressure. Logan Mankins (two pressures) and Matt Light (one) were very good. A nice bounce-back game for Light.

DEFENSIVE LINE (Rating: 4 out of 5) Without counting linebacker/end Rob Ninkovich, the heavily rotated line had a total of 12.5 quarterback pressures and four stuffs (runs of 1 yard or less in non-goal line or short-yardage situations). Albert Haynesworth and Myron Pryor were the most impactful players with 4.5 combined pressures and stuffs (including two drawn holding penalties for Haynesworth), and each played 30 snaps. It was a nice debut for Haynesworth but it wasn’t flawless. He got way too high on his first snap, and was later pancaked by rookie center Mike Pouncey. But there was a lot to like. Pryor deserves more playing time. He’s probably the best stunter on the line because of his quickness. A very slow start for end Shaun Ellis, who needs to show more. Mark Anderson opened some eyes again with 2.5 total pressures in 34 snaps.

LINEBACKERS (Rating 3 out 5) A decent debut for this group, which saw Jerod Mayo play every snap. He has yet to be turned loose, and this unit really won’t be able to flex its muscle until Brandon Spikes takes over in the middle. Guyton was back to struggling against the run, and he was likely responsible for Henne’s 9-yard touchdown run. LB/DE Rob Ninkovich continued his improvement from the end of last season with 3.5 quarterback pressures. He gets more well-rounded with every snap. Dane Fletcher took some of Guyton’s snaps and fared well. He’ll have to prove his mettle against a stronger run team.

SECONDARY (Rating 3.5 out of 5) McCourty had one of his rougher games as a pro but he responded very well. Rookie Ras-I Dowling is going to be tough for opposing offenses in the red zone. He’s so physical and still learning the game. Safety Patrick Chung was all over the field. Neither Josh Barrett nor Sergio Brown had a blown coverage, from the looks of it. We don’t think Barrett was at fault on Brian Hartline’s third-quarter touchdown. It was just a well-designed play executed perfectly by Henne.

SPECIAL TEAMS (Rating 2.5 out of 5) You won’t see Stephen Gostkowski miss that badly on many 48-yard field goals. We’re wondering if the snap from new long snapper Danny Aiken was a bit inside of holder Zoltan Mesko and threw off the timing. Upon further review, Mesko kicked better than his 30.3 net average indicated. The return and coverage units were nondescript although Kyle Arrington seemed to stand out in coverage.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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