Friday, October 30, 2015

Patriots Destroy Dolphins 36-7

The Patriots put the wood to the Dolphins last night, crushing them 36-7 in a game that frankly wasn't even that close. The win gives the Pats a stranglehold on the AFC East; a two-game lead over the Jets, and a four-game lead over Miami and over Buffalo. Next up is a 10-day respite before taking on Washington at home.

This game was over before it began. Miami simply was not prepared for what they would face in Foxboro, and the short week of preparation did them no favors. The Patriots played crisper, with more purpose, and their offensive and defensive game plans gave them a decided advantage over the less-talented and still-building Dolphins.

Even though the team scored 36 points, this game was more about their stifling defense. A week after the Dolphins racked up 248 yards on the ground, the Patriots held them to just 15. That might be the biggest one-week drop-off in NFL history. And credit is due not only to the players, who were flying all over the place, but to the defensive coaches, who put together a great plan and also had some perfectly timed mix-it-up calls that confounded Miami.

The defensive line was largely responsible for holding down the Miami running game. They blitzed a fair amount to get pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, ending up in 5 sacks and 10 QB hits (along with 8 tackles for a loss). Chandler Jones led the way with 2 sacks, 4 tackles (2 for a loss), and 2 QB hits. He and Rob Ninkovich (1 sack of his own) also did a great job holding the edge to funnel running plays back inside. And once there, it was gang tackles by the interior linemen (too many to mention here).

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower is playing at an extremely high level. He had 3 tackles, a sack, and 3 QB hits, and he also redirected plays to other defenders. Between him and Jamie Collins, they shut down most everything across the short-middle. Jonathan Freeny continues to get more snaps than Jerod Mayo, and it's curious, as there doesn't seem to be anything special about Freeny. The situation bears watching; we could be seeing either the last days of Mayo or he could be recovering from injury.

Patrick Chung led the secondary again, making plays against both the pass and the run and hitting hard when he tackled. Corner Logan Ryan still is behind too many plays, but he led the team with 7 tackles, knocked down a pass, and got an interception in the game, so it was worth it on Thursday. Safety Devin McCourty's play has slipped a little, and I'm not sure why. But he is extremely valuable in coverage of tight ends and he even got a sack yesterday.

A shoutout to the defensive coaches. They played two-gap on the line all night, and when they needed a big play on third-and-one, they sent everyone one-gap and blew up the run before it could get started. Result: punt. On another play, they had been sending blitzes throughout the game, but this time they dropped eight into coverage and confused Miami. Result: interception by Duron Harmon.

Excellent scheming and play-calling like this gives the Patriots a chance against any team. Their offense already rocks the house, and when the defensive coaches are on their game like they were Thursday, the team is close to unstoppable.

On offense, a week after New England abandoned the run against the Jets, the opening touchdown drive was four pass plays and four running plays. It was amazing to see LeGarrette Blount push and plow his way for 72 yards (on 17 carries), especially given that the bulk of Miami's defensive talent was on the defensive line and the Pats dressed only six offensive linemen.

The offensive line did a great job run-blocking, with assists from two tight ends. Michael Williams mostly helped left tackle Sebastian Vollmer, while Rob Gronkowski hardly split out, mostly sticking with tackle Cameron Fleming on the right side. The O-line still needs work in pass protection, but they are improving -- and would do even better if they could get healthy.

(Note: the close-in alignment gave Gronkowski more free releases, just as I said it would last week. Here's hoping they stick with it; it really takes best advantage of his abilities.)

Going with this lineup also allowed the Pats more options protecting quarterback Tom Brady, and he took full advantage. Brady finished the game 26-38 for 356 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a 133.2 QB rating. On the season, he has 20 touchdowns and 1 interception -- almost unimaginable. (Trivia Question: what was Brady's best season-long TD-to-INT ratio, and what year did he get it? Answer below.) And bear in mind that his pass protection wasn't great; his success is mostly due to his quick release and amazing rapport with his receivers.

Speaking of receivers, where o where to start? Gronkowski did most of the damage, 6 catches for 113 yards and a long touchdown to open the game. He also blocked very well on running plays and in pass protection. Julian Edelman caught 7 balls for 81 yards and did a nice job stretching for the end zone on both of his touchdowns. Brandon LaFell caught 4 passes, and running back Dion Lewis had 6 grabs for 93 yards and 1 touchdown (all in the first half), and he always seems to make the first guy miss when he gets the ball outside the numbers.

Special teams gave up one big kickoff return (thankfully it didn't amount to anything), but Stephen Gostkowski set a Patriots record with his 25th consecutive successful field goal -- guess whose record he broke :) The punting was a mismatch in favor of Miami, but that seemed to be skewed by several punts with the wind (one of 70 yards).

The only problem on the coaching front is the number of penalties. The Pats had 8 for 69 yards yesterday, giving them a total of 50 infractions on the year for 456 yards (11th and 7th worst in the league, respectively). There were too many "concentration" penalties Thursday (false starts, illegal man down field, etc.), and sometime soon this could bite them in the ass.

So where does that leave us? 7-0 and rolling is all you can say. Washington has been playing better of late, but expect Belichick's stellar record against the NFC to come to the fore here. Besides, their quarterback, Kirk Cousins, has never faced the Patriots -- and that usually doesn't go well the first game.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Dion Lewis emerged from a crowded field to get this award. It was a toss-up between him and Gronkowski, but Lewis' receiving yards in the first half were more important to keeping Miami off-balance.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Rob Gronkowski has a remarkable 61 touchdowns in 61 starts. Other Hall of Fame tight ends -- don't ask, it isn't even close. G.O.A.T.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I expected the outcome, but that was one of the best game-plan games I've ever seen -- offense and defense."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 7-0!

PPS. Tom Brady had a 9-to-1 ratio in 2010: 36 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions.

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