Jon Scott: The Patriots never adjusted to the Wildcat formation, and they've shown vulnerability to it since the Dolphins game. If pressed, you'd have to think that the defensive coordinator hasn't prepared the team well enough to deal with the formation. No formation can guarantee a net first down each play, but with New England, that formation seems to generate just that.
Q: This doesn't appear to be as formidable a defense as the Patriots have had in recent years; what has been missing?
JS: A significant portion of the problem with the Patriots' inability to stop the teams is their lack of depth and experience. The Patriots have been missing up to four key starters on their defense at various times (Rodney Harrison, Adalius Thomas, Richard Seymour, Ty Warren). Their No. 2 corner hasn't been the same three weeks in a row, and the linebacker unit is in a state of flux. Look at the Chargers, who blame their defensive decline on the loss of just one defensive playmaker (Shawne Merriman).
This isn't an excuse to say the Patriots can't stop the teams because of injuries; it's simply a statement that the replacements have had a hard time getting up to speed. Each week there's a new face or two on defense, and continuity is an issue. Yet despite that, New England ranks in the top 10 on defense. They're starting two undrafted rookies (LBs Pierre Woods and Gary Guyton), a fourth-round rookie (CB Jonathan Wilhite), a first-year starter (S Brandon Meriweather), a first-round pick (Jerod Mayo) and two first-time Patriots (Deltha O'Neal, Jason Webster). Seven of the 11 faces on defense are brand new to the starting role.
Q: Many are touting LB Jerod Mayo as a potential NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year winner; what has he brought to the Patriots defense?
JS: Without Mayo, the Patriots would be in dire straits. They had no one to play inside linebacker next to Tedy Bruschi. Though the team thought of bringing back Junior Seau, and they tried to use Victor Hobson as Plan B, Mayo proved worthy of the nod to start, making Hobson expendable.
Until Adalius Thomas was injured, Bruschi was only seeing the field roughly 30 percent of the time, while Mayo and Thomas held down the fort for most of the snaps. Mayo has the ability to react to the ball midstream, so even if he's out of position initially, he's fast enough to catch up to the play as it continues. He's a quick study. He has absorbed all that's been thrown at him in a very complex defense and has assimilated most of the assignments. He's better than a young Tedy Bruschi, and he's getting better every week. His 20 tackles last week was a franchise record. Mayo is sixth among tacklers with 85 so far, having a bigger impact on his team than these big names: Ray Lewis (20th), Jonathan Vilma (11th), Zach Thomas (25th), Lance Briggs (17th) and even Tedy Bruschi (43rd).
Q: From this end, the secondary looks like it's very vulnerable; is that a fair assessment?
JS: That's a very accurate assessment. Taking a look at the Patriots secondary in passing situations, here are players who have less than two years experience in the Patriots system: DB mike Richardson, S Brandon Meriweather, CB Jason Webster, DB Deltha O'Neal, CB Jonathan Wilhite. That's four of the team's six starting defensive backs in the nickel situation with less than two years experience in the system, three quarters of them are new to the Patriots this year.
Yet despite all the turmoil of losing a guy like Rodney Harrison and Asante Samuel, the Patriots are still the 12th-best defense in the league. That part still amazes me. It's tough enough to be in the top third of the league, but losing the number of playmakers the Pats have lost on defense again, and they're still doing that well is surprising.
Q: Who is the one player on special teams the Dolphins should be concerned about, and why?
JS: Ellis Hobbs. It's the obvious answer, but it's true. Kelley Washington and Sam Aiken deserve credit for covering kicks and punts better than a lot of special teams players in the NFL, but Hobbs has something special in his ability to return kicks. He's so fast on the return, that even when he's hemmed in, he can find a way to squirt through the coverage to daylight. He was leading the NFL in return yardage in the first half of the season, but has fallen off that pace as teams make adjustments to stop the big returns the Patriots were getting. Hobbs is fifth overall at 28.4 yards per return for players with 10 or more kick returns on the season.