By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
It’s halftime. You’re up 24 points. The opponent has mud in its tires. It’s a play that’s been acted out many times over the course of the Tom Brady era with the New England Patriots.
Usually, they turn to the the quarterback in that spot. He’s the one who stays consistent, keeps his foot on the gas, and stays aggressive. It’s often the best way for the Patriots turn halftime laughers into blowout wins.
Sunday was different. This time, it was the Patriots defense setting that tone and sustaining the aggression that suffocated the Dolphins to stunning effect in their 38-7 win on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
What’s the message at halftime for a defense that, while dominating at the time, still had 30 minutes to keep their feet firmly planted on the Dolphins’ throats?
“Just keep it going,” said defensive end Deatrich Wise after the game. “Whole other half to play.”
They certainly did that. The Dolphins didn’t find their way onto the scoreboard until garbage time, with Brock Osweiler at quarterback. Miami mustered just 172 total yards of offense. They had nowhere to go on the ground (just 3.1 yards per carry), while the passing offense came hurtling back to Earth after a strong start to the season. Ryan Tannehill was just 11-of-20, posting a dismal 47.9 passer rating.
The Patriots made a statement against the Dolphins. And unlike many of their Statement Wins™ over the years, it came heavily from the defensive side of the ball.
On a day where Brady threw two interceptions and Rob Gronkowski caught just four balls before exiting with an ankle injury, the Patriots essentially won on defense. Because even if the offense continued to sputter, the Patriots would’ve prevailed thanks to a monstrous, virtually flawless effort from a defense that had come under the proverbial fire in recent weeks.
It was a total team effort in the end; 38 points is 38 points. But it was the defense sending the message that the Patriots weren’t going to let up. It was going to be this hard, and it was going to continue until the clock read zeroes.
Safety Duron Harmon has seen enough in his four-plus seasons with the Patriots to know that you can’t beat a talented opponent in 30 minutes.
“Just keep playing; the game’s not over,” said Harmon, who referenced the Patriots’ 31-24 win over the Dolphins in Week 2 of the 2016 season. The Patriots led 24-3 at halftime of that game. But the defense allowed another 21 to the Dolphins in the second half, delivering no message whatsoever.
This game stated something entirely different.
Schematically, the Patriots stymied the Dolphins mainly by flooding the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. That’s an area where the Dolphins were incredibly efficient through the air entering the game. The combined totals of slot receivers Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson? Six catches, 40 yards.
The Patriots’ thicket of defensive hedges proved virtually impenetrable. The front-seven consistently won its blocks up front, taking it to the Dolphins in the same fashion that the Lions defense did to the Patriots last Sunday night. Two sacks and five QB hits later, the Patriots had decisively won the battle at the first two levels.
And even when Tannehill was able to get some deep throws off, the secondary stepped up too. Rookie J.C. Jackson popped in his second career game, coming down with his first career interception with some expert-level coverage on Wilson in the third quarter.
It was a good day of X’s and O’s for the Patriots defense. But Wise pinpointed the single biggest difference from this performance and the debacle that unfolded less than seven full days ago.
“It was the energy; the fans brought the energy today,” said Wise. “They really came out loud and we came out rolling. We really played together as a team like the Patriots do.”
Its true, the Patriots played good complementary football as well. That was no more evident than a two-play sequence in the second quarter that kick-started the momentum to really roll in the Patriots’ direction. Highlighting one of his best games as a Patriot, linebacker Kyle Van Noy burst toward the football after a botched snap by the Dolphins. He then literally took the ball away from the quarterback, which put it back in Brady’s hands.
“I guess I wanted it more than he did,” said Van Noy. “I just try to be a heady football player and get to the ball.”
One play later, touchdown. James White. Ballgame. It was 17-0, and the Dolphins were light years away from even threatening to accomplish anything.
As sloppy and ineffective as the Dolphins were, credit is due for a defense that had become the subject of New England’s infamous “noise” that vultures around Gillette Stadium in times of turmoil. The coming days should create a different kind of buzz.
Sunday is far from the end of their story, far from a definitive statement on how the group will look in December and beyond. But what you can certainly argue about this defense after dismantling the Dolphins, is that they won the game on that side of the ball. They made the kind of statement that Brady usually makes, like he did in the famous “On To Cincinnati” game in 2016. This was the defense’s moment, and now they’ll be on to Indianapolis in short order.
From here on out, it’ll be about consistency. Whether the Patriots defense can continue to build on Sunday’s success. But for one day, at least, they made one hell of a statement. And like you often expect from Brady, they did it for a full 60 minutes.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.