When the Patriots’ defense was getting torn to shreds in the first month of the season, the lack of creativity with the pass rush was a significant factor.
Where were the blitzes that Matt Patricia was scheming up all summer? Why couldn’t the Patriots get aggressive once in a while?
It took the Patriots 11 games, but they finally got there.
Patricia brought the heat in Sunday’s 35-17 win over the Dolphins, blitzing Matt Moore early and often. The Patriots blitzed on two of the first three plays of the game, and 15 times overall on 43 Dolphins dropbacks, though some of the blitzes were actually four-man zone blitzes with linemen dropping into coverage and secondary players rushing the passer.
They entered the game with just 17 sacks all season. But they confused Moore and the Dolphins’ offensive linemen throughout the game, and came away with a season-high seven sacks. Six came on blitzes.
Patricia had his most fun with Elandon Roberts, sending him on a blitz seven times.
Roberts picked up his first two career sacks, showing impressive speed in blowing past center Mike Pouncey on his first one.
Jonathan Jones, David Harris, and Marquis Flowers each blitzed twice, while Malcolm Butler and Patrick Chung each blitzed once.
The four-man zone blitz produced four sacks — two by Roberts, one by Trey Flowers, and one by Jones. The Dolphins had no idea where the rush was coming from, and Roberts and Jones each picked up an uncontested sack with no blocker so much as laying a finger on them. On Roberts’s second sack, no Dolphins saw him screaming right up the middle of the defense — not even Moore, who had his head turned to the left.
The Patriots gave up a few big plays on the blitz — Kenny Stills’s 28-yard catch on fourth down, and a 15-yard catch for Jarvis Landry for a first down. But otherwise, the Patriots made up for a lack of speed up front by utterly confusing the Dolphins.
So where has this been? Have the Patriots intentionally been holding back on blitzes in order to unleash them later in the year? Do they have a better grasp of the defense now, 12 weeks into the season? Or was this simply the game plan that was called for?
Whatever the answer, the Patriots finally showed that they can get after the quarterback.
Other observations after rewatching the game:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Interesting day for the Patriots’ offensive line. It struggled in pass protection, as the Dolphins’ eight QB hits were tied for the most allowed by the Patriots this year (Texans game). LaAdrian Waddle was often overpowered by Cameron Wake, allowing three QB hits and two additional pressures. Ted Karras finally looked like a backup center, getting manhandled by Ndamukong Suh for a run stuff, whiffing on blocks to sabotage two screen plays, and getting blown up on Rex Burkhead’s stuffed fourth-and-1 run.
But for as much as the offensive line struggled in pass protection, it was equally dominant in the run game. Take away Tom Brady’s four kneeldowns and one scramble, and Nate Ebner’s 14-yard fake punt, and the Patriots still rushed 32 times for 186 yards, an impressive 5.8-yard average.
The Patriots got great blocks at the point of attack from Joe Thuney, Nate Solder, Shaq Mason, and James Develin, but also terrific second-level blocks from Karras, Solder, Rob Gronkowski, and receivers Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett.
Dion Lewis had one 22-yard run and two 25-yarders, and each time he benefitted from a total team blocking effort on multiple levels.
This was the most rushing attempts and yards for the Patriots this season and the best rushing performance by far.
■ Lewis did some of the damage on his own, too. He gained 36 of his 112 yards after contact, displaying an impressive array of power, spin moves, and stutter steps to gain extra yards. On one 25-yard run, he broke through a defender after 5 yards, then dragged Bobby McCain for an extra 8 yards.
■ Of course, it wasn’t all perfect. The Patriots are still having some short-yardage rushing issues, as Burkhead was stuffed once on the goal line and once on fourth and 1. The Patriots also got nothing out of four screen passes — a 1-yard catch for Lewis when Karras missed a block, a 2-yard catch for Dwayne Allen when Karras missed a block, a 2-yard catch for Burkhead, and a 4-yard catch for Lewis that was called back by an offensive pass interference penalty on Cooks.
■ The Patriots also committed three false-start penalties. And that’s on top of Karras’s “snap-fu” that led to the Dolphins’ first touchdown. These are things that aren’t supposed to happen at home, when the offense isn’t dealing with crowd noise.
■ Brady started the game 12 of 16 for 160 yards, but went just 6 of 12 for 67 yards the rest of the way. On his interception, it looked like the Dolphins were in straight man-to-man defense, and Brady wasn’t able to get enough on his throw as he stepped right into a pass rusher.
■ Josh McDaniels once again did a great job of dictating matchups to the Dolphins’ defense. The Patriots forced the Dolphins into their base defense by bringing James Develin, Gronkowski, and Burkhead into the game with two receivers, then created favorable matchups by splitting Develin and Burkhead out wide against the cornerbacks. This put Danny Amendola in the slot against linebacker Lawrence Timmons, and Amendola worked the middle of the field for a 15-yard catch and first down against the Dolphins’ zone defense.
■ The Dolphins also had communication issues in the secondary, similar to what we saw with the Patriots earlier this year. On Dorsett’s 39-yard catch, his defender mistakenly switched off and trailed Cooks on a deep crosser . . .
. . . leaving three defenders around Cooks and none around Dorsett.
Later, the Dolphins had three defenders trail Amendola on a deep vertical, leaving Cooks wide open over the middle for 37 yards.
■ Another light day for James White, which is becoming a trend. He played just 18 snaps, fewest among the three running backs, and only had four touches for 15 yards. He hasn’t been running the ball as well as Lewis or Burkhead of late, and struggled a bit in pass protection recently (though not against Miami).
When the Dolphins had the ball
■ For the third straight week, this was mostly a man-to-man game for the Patriots’ defense. Stephon Gilmore had a gimpy DeVante Parker, and held him to one catch for 5 yards. Butler mostly handled Stills, getting busted for a 34-yard pass interference but also making a terrific pass breakup on a slant pass that he knocked right out of Stills’s midsection.
Jones drew Landry, and while Landry did have eight catches for 70 yards, 15 of those yards came against Butler, and Jones was scrappy and competitive throughout the game. Jones had arguably his best game as a pro, leading the Patriots with nine tackles, earning his first NFL sack, and playing 52 of 61 snaps.
■ Kyle Van Noy almost exclusively played in the defensive end/outside linebacker role previously occupied by Dont’a Hightower, while Roberts and Harris patrolled the middle of the field.
Van Noy had six tackles, a sack, two hits, and a pressure coming off the edge, plus an excellent open-field tackle on an end-around to Landry that could have gone for a long gain had Van Noy not stayed home.
Roberts had four tackles and two sacks in just 34 snaps and is earning a lot more playing time on passing downs.
■ One of the only negatives for the defense was the 8-yard walk-in touchdown catch for Kenyan Drake. It was a little hard to see on video, but it looked like Roberts got caught up in traffic and couldn’t make it over to the sideline in time.
■ Despite the seven sacks, the Patriots’ pass rush still isn’t necessarily fixed. Their first sack came with 33 seconds left in the second quarter, six of the seven sacks came in the second half, and four of them came in the fourth quarter, when the Dolphins had to throw on every down. And the Dolphins have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, and were playing with two backups.
We don’t want to take anything away from the Patriots for blitzing Moore into oblivion. Just don’t expect a similar performance each week.
■ The Patriots have now pulled off a blocked field goal by Cassius Marsh, a tipped field goal by Lawrence Guy, a blocked punt by Burkhead, and a successful fake punt for Ebner in their last five games.
Special teams coach Joe Judge is really doing his homework. Brandon Bolden and Jacob Hollister made the key blocks to seal the edge for Ebner.
■ Weird things happen when the Patriots call a special teams play for Ebner. When they had him try a rugby style onside kick in 2015, the execution was horrible and it sparked a surprise comeback by the Eagles. This time, Ebner suffered a season-ending knee injury when he planted his right leg into the turf.
Tough loss for the Patriots’ special teams, particularly on punt and kickoff coverage. Jordan Richards replaced Ebner as the all-important punt protector.
■ Credit the Dolphins with great kick coverage. Amendola had just 4 return yards (plus a fumble) on three punts, while Lewis averaged just 17.5 yards on his two kickoff returns.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.