FOXBOROUGH — With nine seconds left and the ball at the Patriots’ 29-yard line, Dolphins left tackle Branden Albert had one job: block Chris Long. He got the perfect jump, settling into pass protection the instant the ball was snapped, and waited for Long’s assault.
From a standing position, the Patriots defensive end powered straight through Albert, rocking the 314-pound tackle backward with two huge pushes. Gaining the edge, Long then sped toward quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Shucking a potential hold on Albert, Long got into the backfield and lowered his shoulder into Tannehill’s midsection right as the quarterback released the ball.
The pass sailed high of the intended target, receiver DeVante Parker, and into the hands of leaping defensive back Duron Harmon. That quarterback hurry and ensuing interception sealed the Patriots’ 31-24 win.
It was the culmination of a busy day for Long, who recorded two tackles, including a takedown of Tannehill after an errant snap for a 19-yard loss, and tipped a ball on the Dolphins’ last drive. More importantly, he had a hand in three of the Dolphins’ four turnovers.
Through two games in his first year in New England, Long has been one of New England’s best defensive players. The former Ram recorded three tackles and a sack in a win against the Cardinals last week, and on Sunday, he was the defensive difference maker.
“I just want to fit in here,” Long said. “I want to be able to be a part of this thing. I love coming to work with these guys every day. We have a bunch of team-first guys, and that’s all I’m trying to be, team-first.”
Long had success not only as an edge rusher but also against Miami’s interior line. Late in the second quarter with the Dolphins driving, he plowed through right guard Jermon Bushrod and again pushed Tannehill as he released the ball. The ball went way off target and into the hands of a waiting Jamie Collins.
Long’s most impressive play might’ve been his fumble recovery earlier in the quarter. Already in the backfield, the 270-pound Long sprinted across the field toward the sideline to get himself into the play after Jarvis Landry had made a catch. When the ball popped out, Long was in the position to pounce on it.
The Patriots didn’t record a sack on Sunday for the first time in 30 games, and Tannehill threw for 389 yards after finishing the first quarter without a single passing yard. But plays like Long’s, which don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet, paint a different picture.
“We got pressure, we just didn’t cover well,” safety Devin McCourty said of the defense’s second-half struggles. “That’s what it comes down to. We have to cover, because if we don’t give them time to get there, the ball is coming out fast and there’s not much they can do up front.”
The Dolphins struggled mightily to move the ball early on, but found success once they went to a no-huddle, up-tempo offense. The dual-threat Tannehill scrambled around to the tune of 35 rushing yards to go with his huge passing total, and the Dolphins got dangerously close to sending the game to overtime after being down, 31-3, early in the second half.
For Long and the Patriots, though, those are just numbers.
“Any time a team like that with playmakers is able to push the tempo, it makes things a little tougher,” Long said. “But at the end of the day, we made a play to end the game, and that’s the bottom line.”