5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 43-0 shutout of the Dolphins

Stephen Gostkowski had the worst game of his career, and other takeaways.

Miami Gardens, FL - 9/15/2019 - (4th quarter) New England Patriots defensive end Chase Winovich (50) sacks Miami Dolphins quarterback Josh Rosen (3) during the fourth quarter.  The New England Patriots visit the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, FL.  -  (Barry Chin/Globe Staff), Section:  Sports, Reporter:  James M. McBride, Topic:  16Patriots-Dolphins, LOID:  9.0.875742716.
Patriots defensive end Chase Winovich sacks Dolphins quarterback Josh Rosen during the fourth quarter. The Patriots' defense pitched a shutout Sunday. –Barry Chin/Boston Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ way-too-easy 43-0 win over the Dolphins, who proved far too horrific to make Miami anything close to a house of horrors for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick…

ANTONIO BROWN MAKES HIS DEBUT, AND AN IMPACT

What becomes of his future remains to be seen, but the NFL’s lack of immediate action meant Antonio Brown was eligible to play for the Patriots on Sunday — and the team wasted no time in putting its talented new wideout to use.

Brown didn’t start, but he took the field for New England’s second play, found a soft spot in the middle of Miami’s zone, and hauled in his first hookup with Brady. He wound up with three catches on that initial offensive series, and in fact he was the only player targeted by a Brady pass on that opening 10-play possession.

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Given the nature of that early productivity, it may be that rather than throw the whole playbook at Brown right away, Josh McDaniels scripted out a number of early plays for the receiver to focus on in his effort to make an impact. For the rest of the game, Brown caught only one of the five passes Brady threw his way — but the tandem certainly made that one count, connecting on a pretty back-shoulder throw just inside the pylon. There wasn’t much to the route, but with Brown’s physical abilities paired with Brady’s incredible accuracy there didn’t need to be for it to work.

Brown finished with four rushes for 56 yards, plus a two-yard first-down pickup on an end around. His limitations came into focus a little bit in the second half, when Brady tried to find him three times after the offense moved into the red zone, but one time the receiver broke in when the quarterback threw it out, another time Brady’s throw was off target, and on the third they just missed.

With that, Brown was basically a nonfactor after his touchdown — but assuming he can stay on the field, he will only continue to better. So should Brady’s ability to maximize those contributions while still feeding guys like Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman, neither of whom did all that much Sunday.

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MIAMI IS GOSTKOWSKI’S VICE

Don’t give up on Stephen Gostkowski. At least not yet.

The long-time Patriots kicker may well have had the worst game of his 14-year career on Sunday, missing a 48-yard field goal and two extra-point tries. But if there’s a confidence-saving grace to hold on to, it’s that the Patriots don’t play in Miami again this season.

Gostkowski’s three misses Sunday come on the heels of last season, when he missed two kicks in a game at Sun Life Stadium. Go back over the past five seasons, and 2017 is the only one in which Gostkowski emerged from South Florida without sending one wide.

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Last December, Gostkowski responded to missing both an extra point and a field goal in Miami by making his next 22 kicks before missing a three-pointer in the Super Bowl. That’s how the optimists should see it.

The pessimists, however, have some ammo. Before Sunday, he also missed field goal tries in three different preseason games, meaning he’s been off the mark at least once in six of his last seven games. Before the misfires at Miami last year, he’d missed in three of five games. And, don’t forget, in a role where comfort and routine can make all the difference, he’s working this season with a new holder after rookie Jake Bailey beat out incumbent Ryan Allen.

On the surface, the holder didn’t appear to be the problem Sunday afternoon. The laces were out, and the execution appeared smooth, so the problem appeared to be the kicker — and time will tell if it happened to be the location, too.

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HOW MUCH CAN THE OFFENSIVE LINE TAKE?

Already missing right tackle Marcus Cannon, the Patriots lost left tackle Isaiah Wynn for the day after he helped clear space for Sony Michel’s first-quarter scoring jaunt. That meant the edges of the offensive line were occupied by Korey Cunningham and Marshall Newhouse, while the middle was manned by Ted Karras, who took over at center after David Andrews was sidelined by blood clots.

That left only the guards — Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason — from the Patriots’ original plans up front, and the usually stout Mason was bullied backed and shoved right into Brady for a sack on Sunday. It remains to be seen how long Cannon and Wynn will be out, and Dante Scarnecchia is as good a position coach as NFL offensive linemen have ever seen, but if there’s a breaking point to how much the Pats can endure in the trenches, they would seem to be approaching it.

Brady was sacked twice Sunday, and was hit three times. The running game got out to a strong start, and totaled 126 yards, but picked up only 3.6 yards per carry. Collectively the group was also called for four penalties (though not all were accepted).

It didn’t matter against the Dolphins. It probably won’t matter against the Jets, and it may not matter until the Browns and Ravens show up on the schedule around Halloween. But if the Pats’ offensive line isn’t healthier by then, the attrition at those positions could come to be this club’s Achilles’ heel.

A MISMATCH FOR THE PATS’ DEFENSE

The battle between the Dolphins offense and Patriots defense had the look of a scrimmage between the JV and varsity at a high school practice, so making any big-picture determinations about New England based on its latest performance would be foolhardy. But, that said, Sunday’s effort certainly did nothing to undo the growing belief that this could be a special group.

This time the shutout survived after intermission, too, but Sunday marked the fourth consecutive game in which the Patriots didn’t allow a point in the first half — and they’ve now given up a total of just 10 first-half points in their last seven games. They haven’t allowed a touchdown, period, since the fourth quarter at Kansas City in the AFC championship game. They’ve played three games since, and surrendered a grand total of six points.

Miami managed to make some yards during fourth-quarter garbage time, but before that surge in a five-score game they were averaging a mere 1.8 yards per play. To put the lopsidedness in another perspective, consider that in the first three-and-a-half quarters, the Dolphins had snapped the ball six times in Patriots’ territory — and here’s what those became:

*A rushing attempt for no gain

*A 10-yard holding penalty

*A sack for a five-yard loss

*An interception that was returned for a touchdown

*Another interception that was returned for another touchdown

Stephon Gilmore read Ryan Fitzpatrick’s staredown to step in front of the receiver for the first pick-six, then Jamie Collins snagged a deflected ball at the Pats’ 32 before more or less jogging the 68 yards required of reaching pay dirt. (So, that’s right, the New England defense scored two more touchdowns in a span of 108 seconds than it has allowed in three entire games.)

Of Miami’s 184 yards, 106 of them came after Collins’s interception, and after the score had ballooned to 37-0. That got Miami up to a whole three yards per try, though its quarterbacks finished 18 of 39 passing, with three interceptions, and its running game racked up just 42 yards. That means that through two weeks, New England has yielded just 74 yards on the ground, while 41 of the 86 passes thrown against its coverage had crashed down incomplete.

The level of competition must be considered — but so far it’s hard to envision it having gone any better.

A SLOPPY BLOWOUT

Why was Tom Brady out there, and throwing to some of his go-to guys, in the late stages of a long-decided game? This time it was relatively easy to understand.

There’s the stated reason, which was repeated by Belichick a number of times afterward. It’s a 60-minute game. After the team struggled on the road last season, after it incurred the last-second miracle in Miami on the same field, and in this opening month when attitudes are established and teams are built, the coach didn’t want to give his players any perception that they would let up before the final whistle. It may also have been part of the thinking that sending the defense out to protect its shutout, while Brady and the offense sat, could establish a sense of hierarchy the staff is trying to avoid.

Then there’s the less-mechanical reason. As polished as a 43-0 final may look on the scoreboard, there were plenty of blemishes that plagued the Pats in this one, particularly on the offensive side. There were a couple of poorly executed rub routes that produced offensive pass interference penalties, a pair of stalled drives, two sacks of Brady, and then a turnover. There were three touchdown drives of 60-plus yards on the day, but only came after halftime.

Before Brady took the field leading by 37 points, two second-half possessions had resulted in punts after four plays, and another had netted just 26 yards after New England took over on a short field.

In total, before the final possession the Pats’ offense had produced only 23 points despite having the ball for more than 33 minutes. One of its three touchdowns was a choppy trip through the red zone that ended with Brady ramming it in himself after earlier attempts failed. Add to that the reality that by the end of the game there were effectively four new starters working with Brady and the first team, which doesn’t even factor in the training camp absences experienced by Gordon, Edelman, and Matt LaCosse, and getting one more series late gave the unit one more opportunity to refine some things. So Belichick seized it.