MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Fueled by ferocious pass rusher Cameron Wake and a defense that gained more confidence with each play, the Miami Dolphins shut out the New England Patriots in the second half Sunday, scoring 23 unanswered points to hand them a 33-20 loss in the season-opener.
A three-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro two years ago, Wake strip-sacked Tom Brady twice, with the Dolphins recovering both times, and both times the offense turned the turnover into points.
It was the first time since 2003 that New England lost its opener, ending its 10-game streak, which was third-longest in league history. It’s early, but with the Jets and Bills also winning their first game of the season, this marks the first time in Tom Brady’s career as Patriots’ starter that the team is alone at the bottom of the AFC East standings.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, but we started [expletive], I’ll tell you that,” defensive tackle and team captain Vince Wilfork said.
After playing well enough in the first half to build a 20-10 lead, New England came out of the locker room a different team, looking sluggish as the Dolphins appeared to gain energy on both sides of the ball, despite the humidity that thickened the south Florida air.
The numbers tell the story: In the first half, the Patriots offense totaled 15 first downs, converted 4 of 8 third downs, and posted 248 yards. In the second half, the offense had just five first downs, could only convert 1 of 9 third-down chances, and had 67 yards.
Conversely, Miami had 14 of its 25 first downs and had 222 yards of its 360 yards of offense in the second half; the running back duo of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller, who had a respectable 66 rushing yards in the opening two quarters, nearly doubled that in the third and fourth, with 127.
“We just didn’t do anything well enough that we needed to do in the game all the way across the board,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We have to get back to work. We have to improve in every phase of the game – playing, coaching, offense, defense, special teams. You name it.
“It just wasn’t what we needed to do today, and therefore we get the results that we did.”
Brady, who completed just 51.8 percent of his passes, was a little more succinct: “Our execution was just terrible.”
As Belichick alluded to on Friday, the Patriots did go with a rotation on the offensive line, starting the game with Marcus Cannon at left guard, Dan Connolly at center, and Jordan Devey at right guard, with tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer at their customary spots. But on the Patriots’ third possession, Devey came off the field, Connolly slid to right guard, and Ryan Wendell came in at center. The players continued to rotate throughout the game.
Rookie Cameron Fleming also played some, primarily as the sixth lineman in some situations, though he took a couple of snaps at tackle when Vollmer briefly left the game in the second half.
But whichever combination of players was on the field, it didn’t do much to protect Brady, particularly from Wake, who got a good amount of pressure on Brady early. But his first official sack was a good one for Miami.
In the third quarter, Wake basically had a free run at Brady and stripped him, with teammate Louis Delmas recovering. The Dolphins’ offense started at the Patriots’ 34, and in four plays had the tying touchdown on a 14-yard pass from Ryan Tannehill to Mike Wallace.
Brady was sacked four times, and according to the official scorebook, he was hit six times. But it seemed like he was being offered a hand to get up from the Sun Life Stadium turf from one of his teammates or an official far more than a half-dozen times.
Brady wasn’t willing to pin the offense’s struggles on the men in the trenches.
“Truthfully, I don’t think we were really jelling anywhere,” he said. “There wasn’t much positive from the quarterback position, the receiver position, the tight end position, and the running back position. None of us can play like that and expect to win.”
The loss of offensive lineman Logan Mankins, traded to Tampa Bay last month, lingers, but Vollmer didn’t want to hear it: “You can look for Logan all you want,” he said quietly. “He’s not coming back.”
When the Patriots came back on the field in the third, it wasn’t for long, going three and out. Ryan Allen shanked a punt, and Miami started near midfield.
It was on the verge of getting into the end zone, with first and goal from the 5, when rookie right tackle Ju’Wuan James was flagged for holding, essentially killing the drive. The Dolphins settled for a short field goal, retaking the lead at 23-20.
They increased that lead with a 12-play, 85-yard, six-minute drive, one that got a jump-start after a roughing-the-passer call against the Patriots’ Chandler Jones, his second of the game.
Miami converted three third downs on the drive, including the touchdown, a third-and-4 run by former Bronco Moreno, who had 134 yards on 24 carries.
“Anytime anybody runs for almost 200 yards, you always have to look up front,” Wilfork said, referring to the defensive line. “We’ll look at the film and see what happened. We have to figure it out. We will.”
Just as Allen’s poor punt led to points for the Dolphins in the second half, bad special teams play led to Miami’s first touchdown of the day. A low snap from Danny Aiken to Allen gave Chris McCain time to burst through the middle and block the punt; Miami recovered the loose ball at the New England 15.
Miami was in the end zone less than two minutes later, going ahead, 7-0, on a 4-yard pass from Tannehill to Miller at 11:46 of the first.
But the Patriots recovered well from that early stumble, scoring on their next opportunity on a Shane Vereen 2-yard run, then getting the ball back quickly after Jamie Collins forced a Wallace fumble, recovered by Jerod Mayo. That led to a field goal for New England.
An Alfonzo Dennard red-zone interception early in the second quarter eventually became a touchdown, on a 6-yard pass from Brady to Rob Gronkowski, who, as he predicted, played a limited number of snaps in his first game back from ACL surgery.
The Patriots were ahead, 20-10, at halftime.
“We can’t say we played well, because we didn’t. We got out-executed,” the Patriots’ Matthew Slater said. “They deserved to win this game. But it’s a 16-round fight, and we lost round one. There’s a lot of fight left.”Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.