By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Miami Meltdown is how the Patriots’ 34-33 loss to the Dolphins will be remembered. But things weren’t going particularly well for the Patriots defense before Kenyan Drake ripped their hearts out, either.
Just days after a superb effort against the Vikings, the Patriots defense reverted frustratingly back to a unit that has had some un-Patriot-like problems with big plays and fundamentals. Tackling. Shedding blockers. At times the Patriots are impeccable when it comes to these very coachable aspects of the game. Bill Belichick-coached teams typically excel at the simpler things that lesser teams can’t do well with consistency. It usually leads to the Patriots maybe giving up plays between the 20s, but keeping the big strikes off the board.
Sunday in Miami was mostly the opposite.
The Dolphins’ first drive was an early sign that it may be that kind of afternoon for the Patriots, as Frank Gore gashed them for a 36-yard run and barely got touched in the process. The main issue on this play was the linebackers, as all three got locked up before they could even get an opportunity to tackle Gore on the misdirection run.
Watch below as Dolphins right guard Jesse Davis pulls left to bottle up Dont’a Hightower, tight end Nick O’Leary stuffs Elandon Roberts before the point of attack, and Kyle Van Noy is left blocking no one as he was lined up on the strong side. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James forces Devin McCourty to cut him down at the second level, and Gore is off to the races.
Nothing too complex on this play. This isn’t the first time an offense has used a pull block. Just perfect execution and fundamentals by the Dolphins, and no resistance from the Patriots.
It got even worse on Brandon Bolden’s 54-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. Once again, perfect blocking by the Dolphins as they create a perfect little diamond-shaped opening for Bolden to rumble through with ease. Their best chance at a stop may have been Lawrence Guy, who gets stood up and sealed off by rookie tight end Durham Smythe. Once Bolden gets by Guy, he basically has the Grand Canyon to run through as Van Noy, Roberts, and Patrick Chung can’t get off their blocks in time either.
As bad as the Patriots’ tackling and ability to shed blocks was during the game, Brice Butler’s third-quarter touchdown that put the Dolphins up 28-27 at the time might be even more inexcusable. He was up against Stephon Gilmore one-on-one. Gilmore should win that matchup every time. Instead, on the TD, he let Butler get just enough separation over the middle and couldn’t hawk the ball when it got to them. Gilmore should’ve wiped him out. It never should have come to Butler even having a chance at a catch.
The Butler touchdown was also indicative of the Patriots’ inconsistency getting pressure on Tannehill, who looked predictably ineffective when they could. They sent only the front four guys on this play, and all four get completely jammed.
Malcom Brown also looked like he got held on the play, but still. It’s an inexcusably easy pitch-and-catch for Tannehill and Butler.
The bright side is, these problems should be fixable. We know the Patriots are typically good at things like tackling and taking the right angles on runners. It’s relatively rare to see an opposing offense out-execute them up front the way the Dolphins did on these big chunk plays. Belichick knows this.
“Well, the run game is about team defense,” said Belichick when asked about the run D during his Tuesday conference call. “So, obviously, it starts with coaching so we’ve got to do a better job of coaching all aspects of it and executing it. It’s not one play. It’s a combination of our overall execution and consistency. It starts with the coaching.”
Got that right.
The Dolphins’ big plays weren’t about smoke & mirrors or a severe talent advantage or anything that can’t be corrected. That might make Sunday’s loss more frustrating, but it’s also not necessarily a problem that’s going to continue down the stretch. For the Patriots defense it comes down to better team execution, and they’ll most certainly have to take a leap forward in Pittsburgh.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.