By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
OK, class – raise your hands if you saw that one coming? If you did, you may want to drop out of Patriots Daily University and enroll in fortuneteller school because I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind who could/would have dreamed up the scenario in which the Pats absolutely stomped on the Dolphins on Monday night in Miami. Maybe, just maybe, someone might have seen them exploding for 35 second half points and a 41-14 win that didn’t feel even remotely that close. But I reckon it would have involved the offense doing the damage, not just putting up a paltry 265 total yards and spending the rest of its time chilling on the sideline while the special teams did everything, And when I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING. A kick return for a score, a blocked punt that led to a score two plays later, a blocked field goal for a score (the Pats first such TD since 1987!!!) and seemingly every kickoff by Stephen Gostkowski flying through the end zone and winding up somewhere near Palm Beach. Even our favorite punter of all time, Zoltan Mesko, got in on the act booming a couple of punts including one that traveled 60 yards in the air while simultaneously looking like a meteor. All this special teams goodness combined with some actual playmaking on defense thanks to the likes of Patrick Chung and Rob Ninkovich and a couple of nobody’s named BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the soon to be immortal Danny Woodhead providing the fireworks on offense made for a more than pleasant Monday evening and will surely provide for a very comfortable few days as we cruise through the bye week. It was a classic team win, early aughts-style, with everyone, known or unknown, pitching in and the glorious site of a beaming Bill Belichick racing around the bench area glad-handing, slapping pads and helmets and looking positively thrilled to close out the night.
So with that, let’s get at this week’s report card, certain to be a very, very special one, indeed.
OFFENSE: Overall Grade: B+
They may not have had to do too much on a night dominated by another phase of the game, but the Pats offensive players did plenty, regardless of how little time they actually spent on the field. After two quick drives that resulted in punts to start the game, the offense locked in, posting a 16-play drive (which took nine minutes off the clock) and a 13-play drive, both of which ended in field goals, to close out the first half, then a 12-play march early in the third quarter right on the heels of the Dolphins scoring a TD to close the Pats lead to just six points. Minus those first two drives of the game, the Pats did pretty much everything they needed to do when they needed to do it all night, providing the perfect supplement to the playmaking of the special teams and the defense.
After the game, ESPN yokels Steve Young and Matt Millen gushed and slobbered about Tom Brady and how everything that happened for the Pats in the win was all because of him and how great and perfect he is. Um, yeah, what game were they watching? Look, Brady is great, and this was his 100th career win as a starting QB – faster (131 games) than anyone in NFL history, and he looks like he’s pretty much all the way back from his 2008 injury. He can still make all the throws, he’s as patient and in command as ever and even on a night like Monday, when other factors are propelling the Pats to a win and he only throws 24 passes against 32 running plays, he has a major impact on the outcome of the game. But this wasn’t his night and I’m sure he’d tell you and Young and Millen the same thing. He was excellent, nonetheless, routinely finding his favorite target Wes Welker every time he needed to involving Tate and Woodhead in the passing game and just generally stabilizing things the way he’s always done. 19-of-24, 153 yards, a TD pass and a 107.1 passer rating? All just fine, thank you. Brady took a trip in the time machine to his early, game manager-style days on Monday night, which was just what the Pats needed him to do.
Running Backs: A
Fred Taylor is injured, naturally. Laurence Maroney is dancing and stutter-stepping to the tune of 11 carries for five yards in Denver. Sammy Morris is pretty much a fullback. Kevin Faulk is maxing and relaxing and healing from his torn ACL. Enter Green-Ellis and Woodhead, the two undrafted no-names who have carried the Pats running game for two weeks now. The Law Firm got the start and killed it, again, ripping off 76 yards and a huge score on just 16 carries (4.8 YPA). He’s now got 174 yards and two TDs in his last two games and should definitely keep the starting job once Taylor’s latest injury has healed (if for no other reason than that he doesn’t get hurt every single time he steps on the field, a la Taylor). Not only is BJGE doing what he’s doing, he’s looking tough and nasty doing it. He’s taking guys on aggressively with the ball in his hands, not skipping and dodging and trying to be cute and/or audition for Dancing with the Stars. The combination of speed, toughness, agility and smarts he’s shown has been a revelation. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to keep it going. And then there’s Woodhead; dubbed Rudy 2 by one of my viewing companions, building on his superb debut last week against Buffalo, with another sensational performance. The diminutive, hobbity Woodhead played the Faulk role perfectly again, racking up 36 yards on eight carries and an 11-yard TD catch, pretty much all of which came on the same third quarter drive (the one in which the Pats stepped on the Dolphins collective throat after the lead had been cut to six). On the scoring play, Woodhead faked Miami’s $55 million prized free agent/self professed “best linebacker in the game,” Karlos Dansby, out of his jock then ran away from him into the end zone. Then, there he was was on the kickoff team 12 seconds later, a spot from where he had a big block on Tate’s TD return (oh yeah and he also had a tackle in punt coverage). A pox on the Jets for letting this guy go – actually, check that. No pox, just a great, big, profanity-laced thank you to Rex Ryan for letting Rudy 2 leave the Jets so that the Pats could pounce. I hate to repeat myself, especially from week to week, but right now, who cares? MORE WOODHEAD ACTION!!!
Wide Receivers: B+
Hey did you know Randy Moss had no catches for the first time in 51 games with the Pats? Do you care? Me neither, although he dropped a sure TD on that fake spike play at the end of the first half. But he took out Miami’s best defensive back and opened up so much space for the Pats to make plays in the passing game when they needed to and he seems to be just fine with it (so far). Again, just 24 pass plays, mostly of the short variety (Brady only threw 6.4 yards per pass attempt). But on a night like Monday, you don’t need the high-flying passing game, you just need guys to make a couple plays here and there and that’s just what happened. Welker caught eight passes for 70 yards and looked like his old self in cranking out first downs throughout the game, especially on that long drive following Miami’s second TD. Tate added four catches for 39 yards, one an acrobatic sideline grab that stopped the clock on the final drive of the first half. Sometimes, you can get away with your superstar posting a donut, the way it happened for Moss. The Pats sure did on Monday.
Tight Ends: A-
There was a stretch in the second quarter when Brady went to rookie Aaron Hernandez on one play after another and all Hernandez did was smoke anyone is his path. It wasn’t the same statistical result for Hernandez as it’s been – he did fire up five more catches but for only 29 yards (to his defense, he had a 26 roll wiped out by a holding penalty in the first quarter). But he’s obviously an integral part of the offense, a guy whom Brady and Belichick have the utmost faith in regardless of the fact that he’s one of just two players in all of the NFL yet to celebrate his 21st birthday (I wonder what that party will be like). Defenses are trying to handle him like a receiver since he so clearly can handle being covered by linebackers, and so far, he seems too strong for a lot of defensive backs. It’s going to be a real treat to see him continue to develop. Alge Crumpler played a little more than usual likely because of the commitment to the running game, and provided his regular bruising, beastly performance as basically an extra O-lineman. Crumpler’s added time led to fewer snaps for Rob Gronkowski, who had one catch for four yards.
Offensive Line: B-
The only near substandard aspect of the Pats offense on Monday night, though the line can and should be absolved given how good they’ve been all year. Matt Light’s holding penalty negated that long play to Hernandez and Light probably could have been whistled another time or two. Sebastian Vollmer really struggled against Miami’s speedy pass rushing specialist Cameron Wake, who left big SeaBass flailing on multiple occasions. Wake had a sack and dropped Brady three other times after the ball had been thrown and it all came against Vollmer. Still, the running game resulted in big nights for the two primary backs and that’s a feather in the O-line’s (especially Dan Connolly, who had another near perfect game) collective cap. It wasn’t these guys best effort but even so, it was enough to healthily contribute to the win.
DEFENSE: Overall Grade: B+
I have to play devil’s advocate just for a second here because for all the sunshine and puppies going around after this win, it’s important to point out that much, much more work is necessary on this defense. They still gave up 400 yards, still had moments in which Miami receivers were standing in the middle of the field with no one within 20 yards of them and they still had multiple plays on which defensive backs couldn’t make tackles. Four interceptions and the couple of sacks and so forth are great and contributed mightily to the end result. But there were still multiple examples of how much improvement is needed here, especially in the secondary. That being said, this game produced clearly the best effort of the season from the defense and they should be commended (especially Ninkovich, Chung and Jerod Mayo, who was absolutely monstrous) for not breaking despite being bent and bent and bent.
Defensive Line: B
There were a few moments early when the Dolphins ran the ball with conviction, away from Vince Wilfork and it looked like it would be an extra long night for the D as a whole considering the problems defending the pass. But after weathering the early early storm, the D-line toughened up and looked stout for the rest of the night. Wilfork still managed to make a few stops both from the nose and on the outside, including a classic crusher of Dolphins star Ronnie Brown in the backfield in the third quarter. Mike Wright spent a fair amount of time over the nose and struggled with that assignment initially before settling in nicely and registering a sack as well as another tackle for a loss. Gerard Warren also produced a highlight-reel stop against the run in the fourth quarter, rounding out a nice night for this group.
How about Mayo, eh? One week after his huge performance against Buffalo, he busted out again, posting 16 tackles, nearly coming up with a spectacular, diving interception and from time to time looking like the strongest, most athletic player on the field. The Pats have needed Mayo to step up and make plays, lead the defense and live up to not just his Defensive Rookie of the Year award from two years ago but his status as the 10th overall pick in that year’s draft for a while now and in three out of four games this year, with last year’s knee injury pretty much looking like its completely healed, he’s doing it. It feels good to write that given how disappointing he was last season and how much time I’ve spent ripping him after so many no-shows. He’s really looking like the man at this point and the Pats must be thrilled with that development. Mayo’s a monster right now. Ninkovich, as already mentioned, had the game of his life with the two picks (each perfectly timed given the way Miami was marching down the field right both times) and a sack also at a critical time. He’s not looking like Mike Vrabel in just the literal sense anymore. What a game for yet another no-name, undrafted dude. Jermaine Cunningham again looked like he’s making progress with a couple of pretty, pass-rushing moves off the edge that resulted in a couple of super near misses of Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne as well as a basketball blocked shot-esque knock down of a pass. Tully Banta-Cain and Brandon Spikes were mostly spectators but neither did anything to incriminate himself. It was a big night for the linebackers, such a welcome sight after so many mediocre showings over the past couple seasons.
Defensive Backs: C+
Chung’s TD return notwithstanding, it was a mixed bag for this group, which was better but still not very good. Devin McCourty was beaten a couple more times, missed a couple more tackles and had a brutal pass interference penalty that cost the Pats a three-and-out (and was absolved by Ninkovich’s second INT a few plays later) and Chung, who for all his ability and big moments this season, still needs a lot of work not just on his technique and awareness of where he is on the field and in coverage, but on his tackling. When Miami’s Davone Bess scored on 19-yard pass play in the first quarter, Chung not only took a rather circuitous route to him, but he also missed the tackle as Bess turned up field, getting dragged a couple yards before Bess shed him for good. Jonathan Wilhite put up his weekly clueless moment or two, again twisting in the wind on one pass play where he was totally out of position and another where he couldn’t tackle a receiver who was right in front of him. It’s getting harder and harder to remember Wilhite ever making a play and given that he gets roasted in one way or another at least once every week, I wonder how much more time he can afford to be given out there. Brandon Meriweather made a huge hit on a quick slip screen to Bess on which he read it perfectly and buried Bess for a six-yard loss. Of course, he then got up and did an embarrassing dance complete with a salute, before missing an easy tackle and getting cleaned out on a running play, respectively, a few minutes later, before leaving with a knee injury and not returning in the second half. You won’t hear too much complaining from this space if he misses any time. Meriweather’s injury gave new-ish acquisition Jarrad Page, a safety procured from Kansas City late in the preseason, a chance to play a lot of snaps and Page looked pretty good despite getting wiped out by a great block by receiver Brandon Marshall on Miami’s second TD. Page was in good position most of the time, didn’t miss any tackles or run himself out of any plays and came up with the Pats fourth pick of the game late in the fourth quarter (and I don’t think he did any dancing afterward either). Wonder if Meriwather was playing attention… Oh and Darius Butler barely played, only appearing late when the game was out of reach. Phew.
Special Teams: A+
Not much analysis required here. Tate’s 103-yard kickoff return for a TD (sprung by killer block from Sammy Morris). Chung’s blocked punt, two plays later a TD. Chung’s blocked field goal recovered and run in by Kyle Arrington for a TD. 35 points in the second half, 21 of which either off or directly a result of special teams plays. Plus, Gostkowski’s booming kickoff after booming kickoff and two field goals and Zoltan’s punting and Woodhead’s blocking and tackling gets this unit the highest grade possibly given here at old PDU (it also got the Dolphins special teams coach fired, which was predicted in my living room midway through the fourth quarter). Good work, men.
A lot was made leading up to the game about Belichick continually reminding his charges, especially the defense, that they were being skewered in the media throughout the week. He showed them a grid of predictions in their own house newspaper, Patriots Football Weekly, all of which had them losing. He emblazoned into their heads that they were being disrespected, a lot like the way they were when Rodney Harrison was leading that charge back in 2003 and 2004. And it worked. They blew out a division rival and on the road, no less (their first road win against a winning team since November 2008). They killed it in the second half. They played a complete, 60-minute game in which ever facet of the game combined seamlessly to contribute to the win. It was a hugely important win in a hugely important game handled flawlessly by Belichick and his staff, especially special teams coach Scott O’Brien, who clearly saw something flawed in the Dophins punt and field goal teams that he got his guys to exploit perfectly. Belichick’s demeanor and behavior late in the game and afterward spoke volumes. He was thrilled because he saw the way his guys responded to the circumstances. On Monday night and leading up to it, once again, he was the master.