After a pre-season filled with blockbuster free agent acquisitions and heightened expectations, the New England Patriots were abruptly brought back down to earth with a thumping 33-20 loss against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday in Miami. The loss comes as a surprise to most, as the Patriots were expected to be one of the main AFC contenders for the Super Bowl along with the Denver Broncos and, to a lesser extent, the Indianapolis Colts.
Throughout the game, the revamped and inexperienced Pats offensive line struggled to give Tom Brady any sort of protection against the dynamic Dolphins pass rush. Veteran defensive end Cameron Wake was particularly destructive and recorded two sacks in the game. In all, Brady was sacked four times, two of which resulted in fumbles subsequently recovered by Miami. In fact, the Patriots should consider themselves lucky that Brady ended the game uninjured, given that he was still shrugging off the effects of a calf injury that kept him off the practice field leading up to the game at Sun Life stadium.
Throughout the pre-season, many touted this defense as the best coach Bill Belichick has had in years, but on the back of Sunday’s performance, it looks like those comments may have been misguided. The defensive line struggled all afternoon, both against the pass and the run, while the secondary was unable to break up passes when needed. The Dolphins were forced to punt only twice, which goes to show how much the New England defense struggled when attempting to get the Miami’s offense off the field.
Sunday’s game also marked the competitive debut of star cornerback Darrelle Revis in Patriots colors, but for most of the game he was rendered a spectator, as the Dolphins elected to rush the ball 38 times, primarily through Knowshon Moreno, who seems to turn in stellar performances every time he faces the Patriots.
New England actually started pretty well, holding a 10-point lead heading into halftime, but completely fell apart after the break, managing a mere 67 yards over the last 30 minutes of the game. Tight end Robert Gronkowski was largely ineffective in his first appearance since he tore his ACL and MCL in a game against the Cleveland Browns last season, even though he did catch a touchdown pass early in the first half on a slant route. Julian Edelman led the team with 116 all-purpose yards, and was probably the lone bright spot for the Patriots.
All eyes will now be on the offensive line when the Patriots take the field against the Vikings next Sunday. The performance against Miami will increase the doubts surrounding the trade of star left guard and captain Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Bucaneers. Sure, the Pats may have got the tight-end they were looking for in Tim Wright to replace Aaron Hernandez (and an additional draft pick to boot), but the move still represents a considerable risk, especially considering that the O-line was already in a state of flux through pre-season. Belichick has always prided himself on never being afraid of cutting a player, but this may prove to be one gamble too many.
Another aspect of the Pats game that will be in sharp focus next Sunday will be the run defense. The run defense couldn’t cope with Knowshon Moreno and company, so how is it going to handle Adrian Peterson, arguably the NFL’s best running back?
Tom Brady, when asked about the Dolphins game, said the Patriots need to improve across the board, and he’s right. On offense, Brady needs to throw the football much better (he missed a wide open Edelman in the second half, a throw he should have made comfortably; overall he threw 2-for-18 on throws 15 yards or greater). The wide receivers need to make more plays, the tight ends (particularly Michael Hoomanawanui) need to block better, and the offensive line needs to give Brady much better protection. On defense, the D-line needs to present a more meaningful pass rush and find ways to stifle the run, while the secondary needs to break up more big plays.
Sunday showed us talk of the Lombardi trophy coming back to Foxborough is still pre-mature. For a team which assesses its season purely on whether it wins the Super Bowl or not, the Patriots really need to play better to avoid total disaster.