The Patriots may have beaten the Dolphins soundly, 28-0, on Sunday to finish the regular season, but there is still plenty to clean up during the bye week they earned.
Surprisingly, the work is needed on the offensive side. The Patriots’ record-breaking offense is far from a well-oiled machine, as it heads into the postseason coming off three underwhelming performances.
Against the Dolphins, the Patriots had two terrific drives of 13 and 14 plays that ended with touchdowns in the second quarter. Outside of that, it was fairly blah, with the other two scores coming after getting the ball at the Miami 28- and 47-yard line.
The play of the offense was odd against the Dolphins because, in many ways, it was improved and more crisp than the dreadful performance against the Jaguars.
Tom Brady continued to play very well, all four running backs ran decisively, the offensive line gave up a three-year low for hits on Brady one week after giving up a three-year high, and in the passing game, Wes Welker was awesome, Rob Gronkowski added something, and Deion Branch was quietly very good.
But the rest of the receivers and tight ends left a lot to be desired, and that has to be an area of concern as the Patriots get ample practice time to get everyone on the same page. They must get Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd going, or they could have a problem in the postseason.
Whatever progress Lloyd and Brady made in the second half against the Jaguars seemed to be erased against the Dolphins. They just aren’t on the same page when it comes to route running. Three times against the Dolphins, Brady made seemingly perfect passes but a lack of precision by Lloyd appeared to cause an incompletion.
With 9:26 left in the first quarter, Lloyd had tight man coverage against cornerback Dimitri Patterson. Lloyd made his cut to the sideline at the Miami 27-yard line. Instead of cutting parallel to the line of scrimmage, Lloyd faded to the 22. Brady’s pass was well thrown to the 25. It should have been a toe-tap-and-out-of-bounds completion.
With 6:24 left in the first half, Brady threw a terrific pass to Lloyd on a go route down the left sideline but the receiver kept fading toward the sideline. Even if he caught it, he would have been out of bounds. Lloyd shouldn’t let the cornerback dictate his route.
Again, with 8:16 left in the third quarter, Lloyd started his cut to the sideline at the 43-yard line. He bowed his route to the 46.5-yard line. If he cuts on a dime, which is what a good, veteran route runner like Welker or Branch does, that’s another completion.
This can all be cleaned up in practice, but if it hasn’t to this point, you have to wonder whether it will ever happen. Lloyd has been dealing with a knee injury and perhaps that’s to blame for his inability to cut better. Regardless of the reason, the Patriots have to be giving serious thought, depending on the matchup, to limiting Lloyd to just shot plays, because at this point, it’s questionable that Brady will trust him in a playoff game.
And the Patriots need a fully functioning Gronkowski and a much-improved Hernandez at tight end in the playoffs.
While Michael Hoomanawanui has made a few big catches, he and Daniel Fells just aren’t good enough to play more than a handful of plays. Of the nine stuffed runs allowed (1 yard or less outside short yardage), five were allowed by Fells and Hoomanawanui, who also was responsible for the only sack.
Hernandez looked healthier against the Dolphins, but he had another penalty and two drops to give him six in the past three games. He appears far removed from the cocky, confident weapon he was before his injuries. At this point, he’s a little above average. He’s not scaring anyone.
The Patriots’ passing offense is not as good as it was last year. The vision most of us had was of a dynamic outside threat in Lloyd, two unstoppable tight ends in Gronkowski and Hernandez, and the ever-reliable Welker to go along with an improved running game (that’s still intact). That is not reality.
The good news is, the Patriots don’t play for another 11 days. Time is on their side for improvement.
Here are the positional ratings against the Dolphins:
Quarterback (rating: 4.5 out of 5)
As we said after the last matchup with the Dolphins, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle is going to be a grind for Brady. Coyle does a great job with his pre- and post-snap looks. Brady did well to quickly see any mismatches. There weren’t many, and the Patriots had to rely on a lot of screens and Welker to move the ball. Brady had three times as many standout plays than he did questionable ones. If the Patriots didn’t drop three passes and Lloyd were more precise, Brady’s day would have looked even better. Big-time throw and catch by Brady and Branch on third and 13 early in the second quarter. On the second play of the second drive (an 8-yard pass to Hernandez), Brady missed a wide-open Gronkowski down the middle of the field. Maybe he forgot for a second that Gronk was back.
Running backs (4.5 out of 5)
Only one quarterback pressure allowed by this group (Stevan Ridley), and there was a lot of tough running. Nice job by Ridley getting 2 yards on first down at the 8 near the end of the first quarter. Should have been dropped for a loss. Great run blocking — Ryan Wendell reaching and turning the nose, Nate Solder on the end, Logan Mankins climbing to the linebacker, and even Hernandez finishing a block against a cornerback — on Shane Vereen’s 9-yard run to end the first quarter. Outstanding run by Brandon Bolden for 24 yards late in the game. Showed great patience and vision, accelerated through the holes, and got good blocks from Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Welker. Love Danny Woodhead’s red zone work. Vereen has come a long way as far as his decisiveness and toughness. Hopefully he can stay healthy this offseason and return even better.
Receivers (1.5 out of 5)
If it weren’t for Welker and Branch, this group might have gotten a zero. Even Gronkowski had a drop, injury or no injury. For every nice play that Hernandez, Lloyd, Fells, and Hoomanawanui had, they had at least three that weren’t good enough. Expect Josh McDaniels to ride those guys hard this week. Loved the quick run action — quick fake to Vereen, pulling Connolly — built in by McDaniels on the 23-yard slip screen to Welker. Terrific block by Branch on Woodhead’s 14-yard wheel route with 4:19 left in the second quarter. Near-interception on throw to Welker was not a drop. Tough catch behind and going to the ground. Pass could have been a little better, but Brady had rare pressure.
Offensive line (5 out of 5)
After giving up a three-year high of 13 hits against Brady (three sacks, 10 knockdowns) vs. Jacksonville, the line allowed a three-year low of three (one sack, two knockdowns). Add in the two hurries, and Brady felt pressure on a season-low 13.2 percent of his dropbacks (Dolphins blitzed just twice). And even though the Patriots had 23.1 percent of their rushes go for 1 yard or less outside of short-yardage situations, most of the blame fell on the tight ends. There have been three games worth of outstanding run blocks with Wendell and the left side of the line leading the way. Wendell was just terrific controlling the Miami nose tackles all game long in the running game. The Patriots did not let Dolphins end Cameron Wake get the better of them again. He had zero pressures as right tackle Sebastian Vollmer got help on 35.7 percent of Wake’s rushes. Outside of his false start, Mankins had his best game in some time.
Defensive line (5 out of 5)
Dominating performance up front, as the line generated 15 of the 18 quarterback pressures. End Chandler Jones, and not Justin Francis, led the way with 3.5 (two hurries, 1.5 knockdowns). Francis had three (2.5 sacks, half-knockdown), while Vince Wilfork (2.5), Rob Ninkovich (2.5), and Trevor Scott (two) also had multiple pressures. Brandon Deaderick has done a much better job of late holding the point of attack and shedding blockers. Had a nice play with 4:20 left in the first quarter to set up his sack on the next play. Jones snuffed out the screen pass, causing an errant shovel pass. This was Jones’s most complete game since his injury. He seems back at full strength.
Linebackers (4.5 out of 5)
The Patriots played only eight snaps of base defense, which is the only time Brandon Spikes saw the field. He needed the rest. Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower were both terrific, and the rookie would have been flawless if not for his roughing-the-passer penalty (which was close, but probably called correctly). The Patriots’ seven sacks took an average of 4.1 seconds, which meant the excellent coverage should be largely credited, especially the linebackers (except for defensive back Derrick Martin’s sack, on which he bullrushed — yes, bullrushed — left tackle Jonathan Martin). Hightower’s coverage against Anthony Fasano was key in the sack by Deaderick in the first quarter. Great play by Mayo to duck inside the peel block of center Mike Pouncey to drop Reggie Bush for a 2-yard loss early in the second quarter. Tavon Wilson flashing outside kept Bush in the middle. The Dolphins’ fumble at the 1-yard line was largely unforced, but Mayo may have caused Bush to peek early because Mayo was slamming through the A gap where the run was supposed to go. Both Mayo and Hightower did a terrific job in not letting Bush sneak out of the backfield on pass plays. An underrated key.
Secondary (4 out of 5)
It was obvious the Patriots felt that the Dolphins receivers were no threat, and for good reason — they could not get any separation. Not perfect play out of this group, but with blitzes on 40.9 percent of dropbacks (third-highest rate this season) and with the front seven getting pressure at the same rate (also third-highest this season, behind Cardinals and Rams) the results are going to very good. Kyle Arrington, Steve Gregory, and Patrick Chung stood out. Martin can blitz, but you don’t want him in coverage during the playoffs. Devin McCourty has improved in coverage, but he’s still better at safety.
Special teams (4.5 out of 5)
Phenomenal play by Niko Koutouvides on the 4-yard kickoff return to start the second half. After two average weeks, Zoltan Mesko seriously outpunted Brandon Fields, who was vying for a Pro Bowl spot, with three downed inside the 15. Great kickoffs by Stephen Gostkowski in tough conditions. Martin had a legit block-in-the-back penalty.
PLAY OF THE GAME
The situation: The game was scoreless with 7:23 left in the first quarter when the Dolphins faced third and 8 at their 25-yard line.
What happened: On the previous play, the Patriots played man coverage underneath two deep safeties and rushed only three. They showed two deep with man coverage again, as Derrick Martin ran with receiver Armon Binns in motion across the formation, but brought pressure with linebackers Dont’a Hightower (54) and Jerod Mayo (51). Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) had to rush as the play clock expired at the snap, which played into the Patriots’ hands. Hightower drew blocking from the back, both Vince Wilfork (75) and Justin Francis (94) slanted left to occupy the center and right side of the line, and Mayo showed enough faux pressure that the guard picked him up. That left a wide-open lane for Rob Ninkovich (50) to stunt through and not allow Tannehill to step into his throw. Cornerback Kyle Arrington (24) re-routed receiver Rishard Matthews (86) at the snap and stayed in his back pocket. Deep safety Steve Gregory (28) recognized the play quickly, and jumped in front of the pass for an interception that would set up the Patriots’ first touchdown.
ON HIS GAME
Wes Welker, receiver
Except for some outlet passes to Danny Woodhead, Welker was the Patriots’ passing offense with eight catches on 12 targets for 94 yards. And when Tom Brady needed a play, he went to Welker, who was targeted on six third or fourth downs and caught five of those passes.
OFF HIS GAME
Michael Hoomanawanui, tight end
Had his best game of the season last week against the Jaguars with two big catches, but really struggled blocking as he gave up the lone sack, and had part in four of the Patriots’ nine runs that went for 1 yard or less outside of short yardage.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregABedard