The best football coaches don’t use player injuries or unavailability as excuses — they find ways to win with what they’ve got.
Sunday against the Patriots, Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle certainly earned his paycheck.
He entered the game without his best defensive back (free safety Reshad Jones), a starting linebacker (Philip Wheeler), and last year’s first-round pick (pass rusher Dion Jordan). In the first half, he lost his other two starting linebackers, Koa Misi and Dannell Ellerbe, who suffered a season-ending hip injury. And another safety, Jimmy Wilson left the game with a head injury after being hit by Brandon LaFell.
Yet the Dolphins’ defense dominated the Patriots in the second half despite the parade of backups. The key, after reviewing the film on Monday, was a switch to a 5-2 defensive front. The alignment was nontraditional but made a lot of sense — the Dolphins are loaded along the defensive line with Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell, and Chris McCain, and were dangerously thin at linebacker.
While it left the Dolphins susceptible to defend speed, it also helped create a lot of confusion along the Patriots’ offensive line. The Dolphins were able to overload one side of the line and mask their pressure. The result was Wake lined up against tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, which led to an easy sack-fumble, or Odrick lined up one-on-one over rookie Jordan Devey, a major mismatch. The Dolphins dominated the Patriots in several areas of the game, but none more than up front with their defensive line, and nontraditional alignment from Coyle.
Other observations after re-watching the Patriots’ 33-20 loss:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Bill Belichick said Monday that his plan was to use every player on the roster, in part to keep players fresh because of the heat and humidity. But the offensive line rotation, with Ryan Wendell playing center in three series and Jordan Devey playing right guard on 10 series, didn’t work out well at all. All six offensive linemen who played struggled on Sunday. Nate Solder was beaten badly on an inside spin move from Vernon for a sack. Sebastian Vollmer, coming back from a broken leg, had no chance of slowing down Wake on his second strip-sack.
But the majority of the Dolphins’ pressure came from the interior, as Miami double-loaded the “A” gaps all game. McCain’s sack was a product of Odrick completely overpowering Marcus Cannon. Wake forced Tom Brady into a throw-away after beating Devey badly on a stunt inside, and Vernon forced another throw-away when Cannon missed a back-side block. Connolly and Devey were no match for Starks, who collapsed the pocket all day.
We only counted 13 blitzes on 61 passing plays. It was as impressive an effort from a defensive line as we’ve seen against the Patriots in some time. It also looked like the Dolphins had the Patriots’ snap-count timed.
■ If we’re going to be fair, then we have to turn a critical eye toward Brady, who was clearly skittish in the pocket and had some terrible accuracy. How terrible? He completed just 2 of 18 passes of 15 or more yards downfield. Let that one sink in for a moment.
Brady needed a whopping 56 pass attempts just to get to 249 yards, a paltry 4.45 yards per attempt. After scanning through the data at Pro Football Reference, we determined it was Brady’s eighth-lowest yards-per-attempt in his 218 career regular-season and postseason starts.
His struggles weren’t just because the Dolphins had a hand in his face all game. He never gave his receivers a chance on many of his passes. He threw a deep ball to LaFell out of bounds. He threw a wheel route to Shane Vereen out of bounds. He threw too far for Kenbrell Thompkins (who was flagged for pass interference). He overthrew Julian Edelman by about 10 yards, though there may have been a miscommunication about wanting an out route or a corner route. Even the 44-yarder that he actually completed to Edelman was underthrown.
Brady’s never thrown a great deep ball, but his performance Sunday should be a real cause for concern.
■ LaFell likes to get nasty, which usually isn’t a bad thing. But he delivered a shot to Wilson’s head on the pick play that might earn him a fine, and he’s lucky he didn’t get a pass interference penalty against Cortland Finnegan in the third quarter. LaFell also was busted for offsides on a kickoff. His stat line — 0 catches, two penalties for 15 yards.
■ Perhaps offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was spooked by the Dolphins’ front seven, but he never gave the running game a chance, calling 61 passes and only 19 runs. And he didn’t have to go pass-wacky – the game was 23-20 for much of the fourth quarter. Stevan Ridley and Vereen did a nice job making something out of nothing on a few of their carries to keep drives alive, but they couldn’t get into a rhythm with only eight and seven carries, respectively.
When the Dolphins had the ball
■ CB Darrelle Revis was on his own hemisphere, not an island. Of his 62 snaps (he left with cramps late in the fourth quarter), 60 of them came at the left cornerback position, instead of following one player. He covered Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Jarvis Landry, and even Charles Clay, and while Wallace beat him for a 22-yard catch and a touchdown, Revis had a better game than the stats suggest. He was targeted just five times, and allowed only those two catches. He had a really nice pass break-up on a throw to Wallace, and got his hand on the ball again on the touchdown, but it deflected off Wallace’s thigh and back up into his hands for a lucky TD. The one time Revis was beaten was when Wallace put a nasty double move on him, but he couldn’t tap his toes down for the touchdown. But of all the issues Sunday, Revis certainly was not one of them.
■ It also was interesting to see Revis playing a lot of off-coverage, and a lot of zone (mostly Cover 3). It was mostly a sign of respect for Wallace’s speed, as the Patriots were clearly concerned with getting beaten by big plays. It worked, to an extent – the Dolphins had only three plays of more than 20 yards all game, but it opened up the box for Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller to rip off huge runs. We counted only seven blitzes in 33 dropbacks, although Jerod Mayo’s sack came on a blitz.
■ Bill Parcells traded center Samson Satele in 2009 in part because he felt he couldn’t handle the big nose tackles in the AFC East, such as Vince Wilfork. So it was very interesting to see Satele, signed off the street in training camp once Mike Pouncey injured his hip, absolutely dominating Wilfork in the run game. Wilfork got his butt kicked Sunday by Satele and guard Shelley Smith. If he wasn’t getting pancaked to the ground, he was having a tough time coming off his blocks. The big man just didn’t look like the dominant player he used to be.
■ Second-year defensive tackle Joe Vellano was whipped up and down the field by Ja’Wuan James and Smith. This team misses Chris Jones, who was inactive with an injury, and probably could use Tommy Kelly, who was cut last month. And how many of Mayo’s 12 tackles came 7 yards downfield with his back to the line of scrimmage? Sure seemed like a lot.
■ Rob Ninkovich suffered either a shoulder or pectoral injury early in the third quarter. He returned to the field for a few plays but mostly sat out the second half. The Patriots missed him in the run game.
■ The Patriots mostly played a three-man front, although Dont’a Hightower was used as a stand-up pass rusher the majority of the game.
The Dolphins could have put up 40 points if Ryan Tannehill had any accuracy. He threw behind Wallace on a crossing route, forcing Wallace to slow down and leading to a hit from Jamie Collins that caused a fumble. He underthrew Wallace on Alfonzo Dennard’s interception, missed Wallace deep in the end zone, and could have had a touchdown in the fourth quarter if he didn’t throw the ball too high for Miller, causing the running back to fall down.
■ On the blocked punt, the Dolphins rushed six against eight. First, the snap from Danny Aiken was low, taking Ryan Allen out of his rhythm. Then Ninkovich, playing guard, let McCain slip right through the “A” gap untouched. Then Nate Ebner, the punt protector, had his head turned the other way and didn’t see McCain.
■ Just a sloppy day on special teams — the blocked punt, Edelman muffing a punt (but recovering his own fumble), and LaFell going offsides on the kickoff. Patrick Chung averaged 25 yards on his two returns.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.