Sunday, September 13, 2020

Patriots Outlast Dolphins 21-11

The Patriots mostly dominated the Dolphins, finishing with a 21-11 win over their AFC East rivals. Their 1-0 record puts them in a first-place tie with Buffalo for the division lead. Next week they travel to Seattle for an 8:30pm kick against Seahawks in what will undoubtedly be a much quieter CenturyLink Field.

This game wasn't really as close as the final score indicated. The defense started off almost as dominant as they did last year, picking off Miami QB Ryan Fitzpatrick three times and holding the Dolphins to 3.2 yards per rush and only one pass over 20 yards for the entire game.

If not for a N'Keal Harry fumble into the Miami end zone (which resulted in loss of possession and a touchback for the Dolphins), the game would have been a huge blowout.

New QB Cam Newton had an impressive debut. He led the team in rushing (75 yards and 2 touchdowns) and completed 15 of 19 passes (79%) for 155 yards and a QB rating of 100.7. He's still learning the offense, as several times he didn't get the team out of bad plays.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels used Newton's running ability to implement run-pass-option plays and even had a nifty play where RB James White went in motion and then curled around at the snap to run the actual Option play with Newton. Newton should get even better as he learns the offense, and no doubt McDaniels has more tricks up his sleeve.

One caveat: Newton came up limping after his last run of the day -- an ill-advised attempt at a first down to ice the game when it was already well in hand. The Patriots need to protect him late in games. The drop-off from Newton to either Jarred Stidham or Brian Hoyer is pretty steep.

The Patriots running game looked good, with veterans Sony Michel (37 yards and a TD) and Rex Burkhead (32 yards) doing the most work among running backs. I was impressed with the explosion of rookie J.J. Taylor out of Arizona. If he becomes comfortable with the pass protection schemes, he could help reduce the load on White.

The receivers had an off day. Old reliable Julian Edelman led with 5 catches for 57 yards, but he dropped an easy grab on the first drive, which ultimately led to a punt. Second-year man Harry had five catches of his own, but his fumble turned what could have been a 21-3 lead into a 14-11 tight game. At least Harry had some catches, and with Newton's ability to extend plays, Harry could have a big season.

The O-line was good, no huge mistakes and only showed some cracks when Miami overloaded the line with 8+ defenders. Guard Joe Thuney played well and it was great to see center David Andrews back after a career-threatening clot problem cost him all of the 2019 campaign.

On defense, the secondary impressed as you might expect. They are by far the strongest part of the entire team. Three interceptions, one each from Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and free agent signee Adrian Phillips (over from the L.A. Chargers), who also led the team with 9 tackles. The commentators mentioned often how few open receivers there were, and the depth was on display in four different players had passes knocked down.

Gilmore did have two pass interference calls, and the team had one other, too. And safety Devin McCourty looked just a hair late twice on passes he could have broken up or intercepted. In fact, the safety play wasn't great, as Terrence Brooks was called for the other P.I. penalty. Next week the Patriots play against Pete Carroll, who would probably say the secondary has to "clean it up."

Given that the Patriots list Chase Winovich as a defensive end, the linebackers were completely nondescript in this game. Ja'Whaun Bentley ended up with five tackles and Brandon Copeland had three, but not much to distinguish them. The Pats started the game with five DBs and two LBs (as predicted by yours truly), which owes to their lack of talent among the 'Backers.

The D-line did a great job stuffing the Dolphins running game. Winovich, Derek Rivers, and John Simon all had tackles for a loss, and they kept good pressure on the QB, with five QB hits and a sack.

Justin Bethel made the play of the day on special teams. Punter Jake Bailey outkicked his coverage a bit with a 55-yarder, but Bethel beat his man on the outside and made the return man change directions twice, and ultimately the rest of the coverage team tackled him for a three-yard loss. That drive ended with another Fitzpatrick interception.

Bailey was great, kicking off and punting. Kicker Nick Folk missed his only attempt at a field goal (but was perfect on extra points.). The Pats could really use a kicker like Stephen Gostkowski, but he signed with Tennessee a few weeks back.

On the coaching front, it was interesting to see how McDaniels integrated Newton's skills to diversify the attack. The defensive gameplan on Sunday is what the Pats needed last December 29 to secure a first-round playoff bye. They stuffed the run and then let Fitzpatrick become Fitzpatrick, a risk-taker who is good for two or three INTs per game.

Where does that leave us? In this year, I'll take a division victory with enough stuff for Belichick to correct for next week. The game in Seattle will be a lot different without the crowd noise. And at least they'll have one week of film to study before that one.

Biggest On-going Issue: It's still kicker; the team has to figure that out or commit to going for fourth downs and two-point conversions.

Statistical Oddity: Including yesterday the last three games the Pats rushed for over 200 yards are against each of their division rivals: 215 against the Jets (11/25/2018), 273 against the Bills (12/23/2018), and 217 yesterday.

Bonus Oddity: Newton's 75 yards rushing on Sunday are more yards than Tom Brady rushed in any season since 2012.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The win is most important, but to see how well the offense played was impressive."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 1-0!

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