Patriots Report Card Vs. Dolphins

After a posting these report cards over the last several weeks, I'm very glad that TheInsiders weren't in charge of my High School math classes. TI takes another hard look at the Patriots performance, offering top grades when merited, but also finding things that can be improved. Here's this week's report card!

Here is the Patriots report card against the Dolphins, as seen though the eyes of TheInsiders:

PASSING OFFENSE: C -- In all fairness it was a tough day to throw the ball with frigid temperatures combining with 20-30 mph wind gusts and occasional snow, but the Patriots did just enough of it to help win the field position battle. Quarterback Tom Brady was 16-for-31 for 163 yards and was sacked three times, although one came when he tripped on Antowain Smith. Overall, the protection was solid, but Miami's secondary kept the clamps on a receiving corps that was once again without Troy Brown. Deion Branch led the way with six receptions for 93 yards and tight end Daniel Graham caught six passes as an outlet receiver in the flat for 24 yards. Even given the tough conditions, the passing game was no better than average and the offense failed to generate any consistent drives beyond its first field goal march in the first quarter. New England didn't make a first down in the third quarter and given the fact that the offense produced just three points, this grade might be generous. But on a day when protecting the football was as critical as any factor in the game, Brady did not throw an interception and held the ball on the two occasions the rush did get to him. New England's only turnover came when Kevin Faulk caught a 15-yard pass and was drilled with a helmet-to-helmet hit that nearly knocked him unconscious and forced him to fumble. Miami's secondary was excellent.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D-minus -- The Patriots showed encouraging signs early, rushing 15 times in the first quarter even if for only 37 yards. They managed four rushing first downs in the quarter while holding the ball for 12:20 while Miami had the wind at its back. It seemed as though New England would remain committed to the run, but it started chucking it when it had the wind and may have cost itself an opportunity to wear down the Dolphins. But Charlie Weis can hardly be blamed for throwing it given the Patriots paltry 2.3 yards per carry average. The Miami front seven was near dominant against the run for most of the day until allowing a 20-yard run in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins used their quickness up front to get penetration and make early contact with the plodding Antowain Smith, who ran 27 times for 60 yards. They had no answer for Zach Thomas, who finished with 11 tackles. Smith ran hard, but didn't produce much.

PASS DEFENSE: A-plus -- The pass defense was tremendous. Jay Fiedler never adapted to the conditions and completed just 13-of-31 for 111 yards with his longest play a 23-yarder that was deflected and fortuitously bounced off Chris Chambers' hands into those of Oronde Gadsden. But Fiedler was picked off twice, lost one fumble and had at least four other throws that were close to being intercepted while New England recorded six pass break-ups. Tedy Bruschi intercepted Fiedler for the game's only touchdown and Ty Law grabbed one late with Miami down 10-0. Five different Patriots had a sack with none more punishing than Rodney Harrison's strip sack which led to a turnover with Miami knocking on New England's door at the 10-yard line while trailing just 3-0. That was as close as Miami would come to scoring and then Jarvis Green capped things off with a sack for a safety to give New England nine defensive points in the game. Tight end Randy McMichael, who did a lot of trash talking after the first meeting and before Sunday's game, was shut out with no receptions after recording eight for 102 yards in the first meeting. Miami's top wideout, Chambers, had just four grabs for 32 yards.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-plus -- Other than one 16-yard run in short-yardage, the Patriots dominated up front and kept the clamps on the explosive Ricky Williams, who finished with 25 carries for 68 yards for 2.7 per attempt. He barely had room to run and when he tried to pop the ball outside, New England's edge defenders were disciplined in keeping containment and then making sure tackles. He was the only Miami player to carry the ball and he did very little with his chances. Rodney Harrison had 11 tackles and big nose tackle Ted Washington added 10 to lead the charge.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- The Patriots had a new holder and a new punter and it was a pretty average performance, although the Patriots did control field position with some good timely punting. Rookie punter Brooks Barnard made his NFL debut and while he shanked a couple, he did connect on a couple in big spots with a long of 49 yards. He had four punts downed inside the 20 and helped force Miami to start at least half its possessions 80 or more yards from the goal line. He finished with 10 punts with a 36.5-yard gross average and a 32.5 net. Adam Vinatieri got a friendly bounce on a PAT that bounced through off the upright and barely made a 28-yard field goal while missing wide right from 54 yards. Kevin Faulk helped avert disaster when he recovered Tyrone Poole's muffed punt.

COACHING: A-minus -- The plan was sound given the conditions and New England executed early to keep the ball away from Miami when the Dolphins had the wind at their back. The Patriots used a barely productive running game to hold the ball for 12:20 in the opening quarter and for 32:45 overall. But they played conservatively and tried to make Miami mount long drives while frustrating the Dolphins by stuffing Williams and making Fiedler throw to beat them in the wind and cold. The Patriots played more man-to-man coverage than normal so they could commit extra defenders to the run and once again Miami's receivers could not make them pay. New England had only two penalties, one coming when defensive lineman Richard Seymour, playing fullback, moved out of his stance too early and a second when long snapper Lonie Paxton was whistled for holding on a protection. Defensively, the Patriots called some timely blitzes, none bigger than Harrison's sack and forced fumble for a turnover. It was a solid day for the coaches and players, who forced Miami to play their style of game, while relying mistakes to win. It worked.

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