Monday, November 14, 2005

Patriots 23, Dolphins 16 (11/13/2005)

What a difference an opponent makes. Last week, the Colts go pass happy, rack up 453 total yards and score on nearly every possession, and they smoke the Pats 40-21. This week, the Dolphins go pass happy, rack up 437 total yards, but score on hardly any of their possessions, and lose to the Pats 23-16. Not exactly a barn-burner for most of the game, but the Pats defense showed signs of life and their offense woke up just in time to claim the lead twice in the fourth quarter and hold on for the win. A win is a win, and 5-4 sounds a lot better than 4-5.

The offense was almost as beat up as the defense for this one. The following players were inactive: running backs Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass, linemen Tom Ashworth and Matt Light, tight end Daniel Graham, and wide receiver David Givens. Recent addition Heath Evans (cut by Miami in October and signed by the Patriots two weeks ago) was the game's leading rusher, with 84 punishing yards. He also picked up the blitz well and had blocks on two screen passes. The Dolphins double-teamed Deion Branch the entire game, and Tim Dwight and Ben Watson helped pick up the slack. Dwight had his best game as a Patriots, out-muscling a defender for a 59-yard pass on the game-winning drive and making two other tough catches in traffic. Ben Watson had only three catches, but two were for touchdowns, and the second TD was one of the best catches you'll see a tight end make this year.

The O-line appeared to figure out how to run-block, but it was more likely that they had a healthy running back for a change. In fact, there were some gaping holes, with Evans running 10 to 15 yards untouched. And Russ Hochstein filled in well when center Dan Koppen went down with an injury in the third quarter. (Note: with both Koppen and Corey Dillon injured during the game, the Patriots ended the game with only four offensive players from their starting 11 in week one.) Pass blocking was more of an adventure, but considering that they had rookie Nick Kazcur alone against pass-rushing specialist Jason Taylor, I thought the line did a decent job in pass protection. Tom Brady waited until the end to pull his traditional heroics (that's 21 fourth-quarter comeback wins). But he did cut his interceptions in half from the last time they played (from 4 to 2), and he made the gutty throws when he had to. Not his best performance, but enough to win once the defense clamped down.

And speaking of that defense, they improved for sure. It helped to play the Dolphins, with Gus Ferotte and Chris "I can't believe I dropped another one" Chambers in the starting lineup, but you can't dismiss what they did against the run or the red zone. For the first time this year, the Pats stopped an opponent from scoring when they were inside the Patriots 20 yard line. I wish they'd started eight games ago, but with their divisional schedule coming up, I'm glad they started it now. Tedy Bruschi still looks a step slow to me, but he turned back one drive with a touchdown-saving tip near the endzone. And rookie Ellis Hobbs played well in the secondary, with an interception, a fumble recovery, 7 tackles, and some huge passes defensed late in the game. He also brought a lot of attitude and emotion to the game, and it was an even bigger lift because his counterpart, Asante Samuel, played the best game by any Patriots DB this season. Samuel had several nice plays in pass coverage, was important in containing the outside run, and just leveled Ricky Williams on one run. He has three of the best four hits by any Patriot this season.

Richard Seymour returned, and suddenly the Patriots stopped the run with ease. Miami averaged 116 yards rushing prior to yesterday; the Patriots held them to just 77. Vince Wilfork played better, and the linebackers (Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel especially) did a great job of taking away the cutback lanes. Colvin had a huge game, with an all-important forced fumble (with Miami driving toward a 14-0 halftime lead), some serious pressure on the QB, and some nice coverage and tackles in the passing game. The Patriots never sacked Ferotte, but they were in his face and got him on the run often enough. Willie McGinest knocked down a pass at the line and the Pats had several other tipped balls (one of which was intercepted by Hobbs). And even though it's scary to watch him flying through the air, Tedy Bruschi got Ferotte out of the pocket twice.

As for special teams, it was up and down. All-world punter Josh Miller killed another two kicks inside the 10 yard line, and all-time-great Adam Vinatieri nailed every field goal and consistently put his kickoffs deep. In fact, now that I think about it, special teams weren't up and down, they were an overall strength. I recall a couple of penalties, but on balance, they were a net positive.

My coaching gripes aren't specific to this game but more general. They are not adjusting in-game as well as they have in the past. Too many long spells without decent offensive production, and not enough defensive adjustments during the first half. They usually come out with better plans on both offense and defense after the half; but in the past they made those adjustments *during* the first half. Maybe it's the absence of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, but somehow they aren't getting the job done until the half. Which doesn't make them bad, it just makes them like the rest of the league.

So where does this leave us? Well, for the fifth time in ten weeks, the Patriots are one game over .500. And for the tenth consecutive week, they are in first place in a very weak AFC East. I was frankly surprised that so many people picked Miami to win because their offense is so bad. I know the Dolphins have had success against us in Miami, but if Tom Brady didn't throw four INTs last year, this would be three straight wins down there. Next week, the Patriots will break their "W-L" pattern with a victory over the Saints at home, and that will give them six victories for the season. Four more and they'll most certainly be in the playoffs; so all is not lost yet.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Of the two new players in the Miami game, (defensive back) Ellis Hobbs is more important to the Pats playoff chances than (running back) Heath Evans. All three of the Patriots injured running backs could return this season. But none of the five DBs on injured reserve will be back this year, so they need help in the secondary more than they need running back help."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 5-4!

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