fb-pixel Skip to main content

Dismantling of Dolphins mirrored Patriots’ season success

This catch by Martellus Bennett resulted in one of the Patriots’ two touchdowns on play-action passes.Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Football teams like to build an identity over the course of a season, figuring out what they do well and what they don’t. The Patriots’ 35-14 win over the Dolphins on Sunday was a microcosm of the identity they built this year.

For example:

1. The offense’s ability to create something out of nothing. The Patriots offense isn’t as dynamic without Rob Gronkowski, but it still does a good job of keeping the chains moving and picking up positive yardage. LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis consistently churned out positive yardage, even after they were hit at the line of scrimmage.


“Needed 2 yards, got 4,” was a common description of the runs by Lewis, who was especially slippery. The Patriots were 7 of 12 on third downs, continuing their excellent production this season (45.8 percent conversion rate, fourth best in the NFL). And of course, Julian Edelman took a short hitch pass 77 yards to the end zone thanks in part to a great block from Michael Floyd.

2. The offensive line was excellent. Tom Brady dropped back to pass 34 times and barely needed to wash his uniform after the game. He wasn’t sacked and was hit just once (by Cameron Wake), and he got the ball out quickly and was protected well by his linemen. Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon held Wake to just one tackle, while David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Joe Thuney held Ndamukong Suh to just four. The Patriots also rushed for 120 yards on a healthy 4.1 yards per carry. The offensive line has played well all season, and it showed Sunday.

3. The defense was a little spotty. The Patriots backed off and played more zone once they took a 20-0 lead, and sprung a few leaks. Matt Moore suddenly turned into the second coming of Dan Marino with a barrage of hitches, crossing routes, and swing passes to the running backs, completing 14 of 16 passes at one point for 130 yards and two touchdowns, bringing the Dolphins within reach. The Patriots had trouble fighting through picks, were inconsistent tacklers, then had a coverage breakdown that led to a 25-yard touchdown for Kenny Stills.


4. But the defense still came up big when it needed to. The Patriots have shown a knack for making timely plays this season, and that happened again Sunday. Logan Ryan made a great open-field tackle on DeVante Parker to force a punt in the third quarter. Rob Ninkovich hit Moore’s arm as he threw to force another punt. And finally Devin McCourty forced a fumble by running back Damien Williams inside the 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter, turning a potential Dolphins score into a 69-yard fumble return for Shea McClellin.

The 35-14 win was the perfect embodiment of the 2016 Patriots.

Other observations after rewatching the tape:

When the Patriots had the ball

■  The Dolphins defense was doing a great job of showing discipline, sitting back, and not giving up the big pass. Of Brady’s 34 dropbacks, the Dolphins blitzed only five times, and just twice through the first 2½ quarters. But defensive coordinator Vance Joseph decided to get aggressive on a third-and-7 at New England’s 23 midway through the third quarter and paid dearly.

The Dolphins blitzed seven, but Brady got rid of the ball quickly to Edelman on a hitch, and the Dolphins had only four defenders back to defend the run after the catch.


Add in a crushing block by Floyd, and Edelman had a 77-yard touchdown.

■  Brady was 0 for 1 against a three-man rush, 1 of 2 for 13 yards against a five-man blitz, 0 for 1 with a pass interference call against a six-man blitz, and Edelman’s touchdown against a seven-man blitz. That put Brady 23 of 28 for 186 yards and two touchdowns against a regular four-man rush.

■  The quick passing attack was effective in neutralizing Wake and Suh, and Brady was deadly with play-action passing. Brady was 4 of 5 for 47 yards and two touchdowns off play-action fakes. On the 2-yarder to Martellus Bennett, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips was unblocked and could have had a free shot on Brady, but he was completely faked out and had no idea Brady was holding the ball.

■  The play-action passing wouldn’t have worked without great blocking up front, and Andrews and Thuney both did an excellent job of swinging back around and blocking the blindside defender to give Brady just enough time to find his receiver.

The offensive line also did a great job of run blocking out of spread formations. The Patriots hit the Dolphins for consecutive runs of 19 and 9 yards with Blount against the Dolphins’ nickel defense.

■  What a performance by Floyd, who played 49 of 67 snaps while taking the place of an injured Malcolm Mitchell. It’s hard to determine which play was more impressive, the block on Edelman’s touchdown or Floyd’s effort on his own score, literally plowing through five defenders to will his way into the end zone. Floyd also caught a short slant pass over the middle and took it 13 yards for a first down, displayed nimble footwork with a toe-tapping catch on the sideline . . .


. . .and had another great block on an 11-yard run by Lewis (Chris Hogan also had a great block on that run).

It’s easy to see why the Patriots were willing to risk the public relations hit by claiming Floyd — he’s very physical and very talented.

■  The Patriots spread out the Dolphins more than other opponents, using their three receivers on 75 percent of snaps and giving fullback James Develin only 17 snaps. Develin has been smashing a lot of heads of late (84 snaps the previous two games) and could use a lighter workload.

■  Lewis is such a dynamic weapon for the Patriots. His stats were modest Sunday — 11 carries for 48 yards, and two catches for 4 yards — but he showed once again that he’s one of the best at getting something out of nothing.

Two Dolphins defenders had him corralled at the 24-yard line, yet he still made it to the 29.

On another run, he kept his legs churning to turn a 3-yard gain into an 8-yarder.

And our favorite play was the blitz pickup he had on Phillips, hitting him just in the nick of time before Phillips crunched Brady. Lewis is the secret weapon the Patriots didn’t have last postseason.


When the Dolphins had the ball

■  Let’s talk about Trey Flowers, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the Patriots’ best defensive players.

Flowers single-handedly wrecked the Dolphins’ first possession — he tossed aside Branden Albert to stuff Jay Ajayi for 1 yard, stuffed Ajayi again for 1 yard on second down, then blew past center Kraig Urbik and smashed Moore to cause an incompletion on third down.

Later, Flowers set the edge perfectly on an end-around to Jakeem Grant, forcing Grant to cut inside, where he was met by Elandon Roberts and Patrick Chung for a 1-yard gain.

Flowers then shed Laremy Tunsil and stuffed Ajayi for no gain. And he forced another incompletion late in the fourth quarter, stunting past Urbik and crushing Moore again.

Five tackles, three run stuffs, and two quarterback hits in just 29 snaps — an incredibly impressive performance for Flowers.

■  Two players who were not quite as impressive were linebacker Kyle Van Noy and cornerback Eric Rowe. We have noted in recent weeks that Van Noy looks lost in coverage, and that looked especially true against the Dolphins. Van Noy bit badly on a double move by Williams, who got 4 yards of separation even though Van Noy gave him 11 yards of cushion at the line of scrimmage. Had Moore not been crushed by Flowers, that would have been a big gain on third down. Van Noy played only 19 snaps and lost playing time to Roberts, who had 29 snaps and made several great tackles in run defense.

Rowe really struggled to fight through picks.

He couldn’t keep up with Parker on a third-and-9, allowing a 14-yard catch over the middle, and did the same thing in the third quarter, allowing a conversion on third and 7. Rowe also whiffed on a tackle of Ajayi on a throw underneath, and was in position to tackle Jarvis Landry at the 2-yard line, but let him slip away, along with Dont’a Hightower.

Ryan showed Rowe how it’s done with his impressive tackle of Parker well short of the sticks on third down.

■  Hightower is battling some sort of knee injury and didn’t look like himself. He couldn’t fight off the block from a tight end on a 5-yard run, totally whiffed on Ajayi on an 8-yard run, and couldn’t wrap up Landry before he scurried into the end zone.

■  What happened on Stills’s 25-yard touchdown?

The Patriots rushed only three defenders and dropped eight, with McCourty and Chung splitting the deep part of the field and Van Noy patrolling the middle. Since it was third and 4, the Patriots used four defenders to sit on the underneath routes, and the Dolphins did a good job of stressing the defense.

They ran three vertical routes — one up each sideline and one down the middle. Chung double-teamed Landry on one sideline, and McCourty turned his attention to Parker on the other sideline, leaving Stills 1-on-1 with Van Noy down the middle.

Was Van Noy supposed to run with Stills down the middle of the field? Possibly, though it’s hard to believe the Patriots intended for a linebacker to cover a receiver. Was McCourty supposed to take the middle of the field? Perhaps, but then Parker would have been open down the sideline.

Most likely, we should just credit the Dolphins for coming up with the perfect play call against that specific defense.

Special teams

■  The Patriots wanted nothing to do with return man Grant, sending 5 of 7 kickoffs for touchbacks and 1 of 3 punts out of bounds.

■  We give Stephen Gostkowski a pass for his missed 52-yarder at the end of the half. For one, the footing was terrible, and 52 yards is no gimme. Second, why did the Patriots run a play to the right to set up the field goal? Gostkowski has been pushing his kicks to the right all season and prefers to kick from the left hash, as he does on extra points.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin