Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 38-7 demolition of the Dolphins – which made the case New England isn’t as much of a mess as some have suggested, and Miami certainly isn’t nearly as good as its record…
That’s more like it
It wasn’t quite the same as the “On to Cincinnati” performance of 2014, when the Patriots came home with some so curious about the fate of their dynasty that they were questioning the job security of the quarterback. That bamboozling of the Bengals was more of a bullying, with the Patriots starting fast and ramming the ball down the throats of their opponent in an energetic show of force.
This one wasn’t like that. In fact, it started somewhat slow, at least offensively, with the Pats moving methodically, surviving a near-interception, then settling for a field goal when they failed to convert on an early goal-to-go opportunity. But the end result may be just the same. And just as reassuring.
Just as those Bengals were perceived to be something of a threat, these Dolphins had played well at the start of this season. Had the Patriots floundered again, they would have fallen behind by three games in the AFC East, which wouldn’t have been a divisional death sentence, but also wouldn’t have left them much margin for error with three quarters of the season still to play.
So it was nice to see the Patriots play like there was something at stake. There was energy. There was urgency. Neither of those attributes were apparent during last week’s debacle in Detroit, but after a couple of tough starts turned into two losses the Pats came out looking prepared and playing fast, and the result was a complementary performance where the defense gave the offense a chance to get on top, and the two sides fed off each other from there as the lead bulged into a blowout.
That’s the Patriots’ formula that’s become familiar after all these years. Relentless effort, readiness and contributions from up and down the roster has been the recipe for a lot of wins in Foxborough. Including Sunday’s.
If one stat told the story of the Patriots’ season-opening struggles, it was New England’s pitiful performance on third downs. The Pats were converting just 28.6 of their opportunities offensively, fourth-worst in football. On the other side, opponents were picking up the necessary yardage on 48.7 percent of chances, which ranked 30th of the 32 NFL clubs. The Patriots couldn’t control the ball, and meanwhile couldn’t get off the field. That’s a bad combination.
But Sunday the Patriots presented evidence to suggest their struggles might’ve been closer to a rough stretch than an alarming deficiency.
With Brady at the helm, the Patriots converted on 10 of their 14 third-down tries, good for a robust 71 percent success rate, and these weren’t necessarily the sorts of conversions facilitated by sizable gains on the earlier downs. Of the 10 conversions, half a dozen required the Pats to pick up at least six yards, and included in the lot was a third-and-11 hookup from Brady to Philip Dorsett.
The Patriots also scored twice on third down, and yet it still might’ve been the defensive turnaround that was more impressive. Brock Osweiler took over midway through the fourth quarter and led Miami to its only score, but with Ryan Tannehill behind center, Miami’s second offensive series lasted five plays – and that was the Dolphins’ longest of the day with its starting quarterback on the field.
While he was in the game, the visitors were 1-for-8 on third down. And at the point when Adam Gase pulled Tannehill, the Patriots held a 26-6 advantage in total first downs, with two of Miami’s six coming via penalty (and the other four via pass). This time the Patriots not only kept getting off the field (possessing the ball for more than 36 minutes), they also kept the Dolphins off their half of the field for all but two plays in the first 53 minutes of the game.
Those two plays were both snapped at the New England 48 yard line. And one of them was a punt.
The backs come up big
Part of the Dolphins’ unbeaten start had been built on a defense that was the NFL’s third-toughest to run against through the first three weeks. And considering Sony Michel’s first two weeks as a pro running back had for some raised questions about the Patriots’ decision to make him a first-round pick, Sunday didn’t seem the likeliest of occasions for a breakout performance from the Georgia product.
Wrong. Michel looked strong while toting the ball 25 times for his first pro score and 112 yards – a total matched by James White, as New England’s tandem of feature backs accounted for almost half (224) of the team’s 449 yards from scrimmage and asserted itself as a 1-2 punch to be reckoned with.
The Patriots’ running back room has suffered some losses, with Brandon Bolden cut, then Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead each landing on injured reserve. But a week after Brady appeared to be lobbying for White to get more playing time, the fifth-year weapon carried the ball eight times for 44 yards, on top of catching eight of 10 targets for 68 more yards, and scored once on the ground and once through the air.
That’s the most White has ever touched the ball in a regular-season game, and still there was opportunity for Michel to pile up 25 carries, including 15 (for 80 yards) in the first half. Clearly the backs were a featured part of the Patriots attack. And they busted out for 38 points. There appears to be a correlation.
A diverse attack
After looking hapless and stale at times during those disappointing stops in Jacksonville and Detroit, the Patriots returned to Gillette Stadium and infused a gameplan featuring a lot of misdirection, multiple personnel sets, a multitude of different looks, and seemed to make a point of spreading the ball around.
Brady connected on passes to seven different receivers, and targeted eight. They built in a pass that played to the open-field strengths of Cordarelle Patterson and he turned it into a 55-yard touchdown. Phillip Dorsett made a fantastic, flipping catch to add another score. There was trickery that included Brady lining up in the slot before having the ball lateraled to him for a pass. There was even a screen pass to Dwayne Allen.
OK, so the gameplan wasn’t perfect – but rather than remain in the rut that had thrust them into disadvantaged positions the past couple of weeks, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady trusted their personnel enough to be proactive in infusing something new into their stagnant attack. Among the results were five plays of 20-plus yards, and 240 more yards of offense than they’d managed a week earlier.
Aided by the Dolphins’ decision not to hit him at the line of scrimmage, Sunday’s plan seemed to give Rob Gronkowski more space. Josh Gordon got in the mix. And next week Julian Edelman is eligible to return, adding another element that should make guys like Dorsett, Patterson, and Chris Hogan all the more dangerous.
Josh Gordon arrives
Gordon’s stat line was humble, to say the least, and had the look of a guy getting his feet wet in a new offense. He finished with two catches, on two official targets, for 32 yards. There’s more to the story, though.
Gordon’s first catch, and the first time Brady looked his way, came on the Pats’ first drive. On third and six from the Miami 16, no less. There wasn’t a lot of room, but Gordon was navigating traffic in the middle of the field, with the goal line behind him, and the quarterback trusted his new target enough to fire it into a small window. The receiver rewarded the trust by reeling it in, and fighting his way to a 13-yard gain that gave the Pats first and goal from the 3.
Brady went to Gordon on third down the next time they tried to connect, and while this one was incomplete it was waved off because of illegal contact. Then Brady looked to Gordon on third down again, when the pair hit for their second completion, a 19-yard gainer that extended the series on which the Pats went up 38-0.
In between, Gordon showed his wares in the running game by holding his block long enough that when White bounced his run back to the left side, the lone defender on that half of the field was walled off by Gordon’s big body.
If this acquisition works out, Gordon’s impact will be more obvious, and more quantifiable. But, for starters, Sunday was just fine.