MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — It’s not a call that comes in very often, only when the opposing offense gives the Patriots’ defense a certain look. During a crucial third-down play midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, the call was made, and linebacker Jerod Mayo tried to contain his excitement.
With the Dolphins facing third and 4 from the Patriots’ 7-yard-line and trying to cut into a 10-point deficit, Mayo took off on a delayed blitz, heading straight for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Nobody picked up Mayo, who drilled Tannehill for an 8-yard loss, the most important and timely of New England’s three sacks. Miami kicked a field goal to make it 20-13, but Mayo’s sack helped preserve a lead of at least a touchdown.
“It was just a call by the coaching staff, and it came at the right time,” said Mayo, who tied Kyle Arrington for the team high with six tackles. “If we get the right look then we’ll call it, so every once in a while.”
After allowing more than 400 yards in four of the previous five games, Mayo and the defense limited the Dolphins to 277, the second-best showing by the Patriots this season. Miami’s 15 first downs are the fewest given up by New England, and the Patriots recovered a fumble, extending their streak of forcing at least one turnover to 23 games.
“Obviously, there’s things that we can do better, but we’re getting the balls off of guys, trying to turn over the ball, trying to steal possessions, getting them off the field on third down,” Mayo said. “We’re headed in the right direction. We got off the field in crucial situations, especially coming out of the half, playing strong, when it was back and forth a little bit.”
The Patriots limited Miami to just three third-down conversions in 13 attempts. The 23 percent conversion rate for the opposition was the Patriots’ best this season.
Ridley’s grand feat
Needing just 61 rushing yards entering the game to hit the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his brief career, second-year tailback Stevan Ridley waited until just about the final minute. An 11-yard run on the Patriots’ seven-minute drive left him at exactly 1,000, and he tacked on 10 more, finishing with 71 yards on 19 carries.
“Breaking 1,000 yards is a great accomplishment. I’m very thankful,” said Ridley, who had 441 as a rookie before becoming the featured back in 2012. “I’ve worked hard, the offensive line’s working hard. I’d say in a million years I never thought I’d be here. But I’m here now, and dreams can be accomplished.”
Ridley had 46 of his 71 yards on that final drive, with the Patriots at the time protecting a 20-13 lead.
“I still have a lot of work to do, and I’m going to keep riding it out,” Ridley said. “But I’m happy for now, 1,000 yards is pretty impressive, I have to say.”
There have now been 15 seasons of at least 1,000 rushing yards in Patriots history, from 12 players. Ridley is on pace for 1,347 yards, which would be the fourth-highest total, behind Corey Dillon (1,635 yards in 2004), Curtis Martin (1,487 in 1995), and Jim Nance (1,458 in 1966).
Three of the seven Patriots inactives were established before the team left Foxborough, with tight end Rob Gronkowski, guard Logan Mankins, and defensive end Chandler Jones ruled out Friday after not practicing all week.
The other four inactive players were guard Mitch Petrus, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, fullback James Develin, and defensive back Derrick Martin. Petrus, who signed with the Patriots Nov. 13 and made his debut against the Colts five days later, was added to the injury report on Saturday night with an illness. Shiancoe, Develin, and Martin were healthy scratches.
Those inactives meant that Julian Edelman and Sebastian Vollmer would be in uniform. Both were limited in practice last week — Vollmer was held out Wednesday — and were listed as questionable. Edelman was knocked out of the Jets game Thanksgiving night with a concussion, and Vollmer missed his first game of the season with knee and back injuries. Both started against the Dolphins.
Edelman, who had scored two TDs in each of the Patriots’ previous two games, left the game in the second half with a foot injury and did not return. He had one catch for 13 yards, and averaged 12.5 yards on two punt returns. He was seen after the game in a walking boot and using crutches, and did not speak with the media.
Falling in line
With Jones injured and Jermaine Cunningham serving the first of a four-game suspension, there were opportunities for the reserve players on the defensive line, such as Trevor Scott, Justin Francis, Brandon Deaderick, and Jake Bequette, who was active for just the third time this season.
Scott, getting his first start, made the biggest impact, sacking Tannehill twice and forcing a fumble.
“I was definitely excited for the opportunity today and tried to make the most of it. I’m just glad we came out with the win,” Scott said. “It definitely feels good to be able to go out and make plays with my teammates, there’s no better feeling than that.”
Deaderick also forced a fumble and had three tackles, while Francis was credited with one tackle.
The Dolphins’ decision to kick a 42-yard field goal on second down in the game’s final minute made strategic sense, since they trailed by 10 points and would need two scores to tie. A failed onside kick ended their comeback hopes, but the Dolphins’ last-minute 3 had a direct impact on anyone who placed a wager on the game. The Patriots were giving anywhere from 7 ½ to 10 points, depending on when and where the bet was placed, so the field goal turned a Patriots cover into a Dolphins cover . . . The Patriots have won 12 consecutive December games, dating to Dec. 6, 2009, when they lost at Miami, 22-21 . . . Stephen Gostkowski made three field goals but also missed from 49 yards, leaving him 24 for 30 this season. The six missed field goals match a career high (he was 20 for 26 as a rookie in 2006), and they’ve all come between 30 and 49 yards. He’s made both of his attempts this year from 50 yards and beyond . . . Anyone holding out hope that Brian Waters might still be able to suit up this season can strike the Pro Bowl guard off the wish list. Friday was the deadline for teams to remove players from the reserve/did not report list, and the Patriots didn’t remove Waters, who had one season left on his contract . . . Dan Connolly got the start at right guard, but he left the game in the first quarter with a back injury. Nick McDonald, who started in place of Connolly against the Colts, replaced him, and Marcus Cannon took over for McDonald for the first two series of the second half. McDonald then came back in . . . Special teams captain Matthew Slater also left the game with an injury after a Patriots’ kickoff return following the Dolphins’ first-quarter field goal, but he was back out there on the next assignment. He finished with two tackles.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.