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Patriots - Dolphins: Scout Insider Report

<p>Scout's Insider news nuggets. More on how the team unraveled, who was in on the plays, why there was a coverage breakdown on Wes Walkers long punt return, and who should be concerned about job security. </p> <p>Get Inside with the Free Weekly trial: <b> <a href="https://secure.scout.com/store/view.aspx?s=121&p=6" target="_blank">Free Trial</a></b></p>

Photo: Miami Dolphins' Arturo Freeman (20) grabs the face mask of New England Patriots' Corey Dillon (28) during the first quarter at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, Fla., Monday Dec. 20, 2004. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

INSIDERS PERSPECTIVE

The Patriots are concerned about a defense that is struggling when it's supposed to be peaking. During both of the team's championship seasons over the last three years, the defense has steamrolled into the playoffs. This year's group, with many of the same characters, is sputtering toward January.

Perhaps it's a simply a matter of the club's depleted secondary finally catching up to it. The Patriots, after all, were an impressive and unlikely 6-0 heading into the Monday night collapse without its two starting cornerbacks, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole. It also seems like one other member of the remaining defenders always seems to be nicked up and out of action.

Monday night, fill-in starter Randall Gay left early in the third quarter. Asante Samuel missed almost all of three games during this stretch without Law and Poole, the latter of whom has been declared out for the season.

But after six straight wins where New England found a way to overcome its missing cover men, it's hard to write off one loss to the injuries. But the Patriots blew an 11-point lead with 3:59 left in the game at Miami a week after the Bengals carved through the defense to the tune of 478 yards and 28 points. So the unit can officially be tabbed as struggling.

For this veteran unit to allow 57 points over a two-game stretch in December is a major problem and one that has the players wondering where they are as they prepare to defend their Super Bowl title.

"Right now we're not where we're supposed to be as a team," safety Rodney Harrison admitted. "That's part of adversity. We're trying to weather the storm and get back on track. We need to continue to grow and continue to get better."

Time is running out for them to do that, though. With a road game at the Jets and a home game vs. a terrible 49ers team left on the slate, the Patriots have only two games to work out the kinks, and one has to wonder if San Francisco will provide an accurate measuring stick if the Patriots win that game in convincing fashion.

"We played our best ball in the past down the stretch," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "You look at last week and now this week and that's not the case. We have to get it turned around. We need to play better. What's disheartening is that it's the same guys that have done it (in the past). So we just need to evaluate it and play better."

"We're playing uncharacteristically," linebacker Ted Johnson added. "We're making it very hard on ourselves. Defense is all confidence. We had that coming into (the Miami game) and I hope we still have it. We've lost our killer instinct for now. We have to get our sting back."

One has to wonder, though, if the Patriots are capable of getting it back. Law's expected return to the lineup this week should at least provide some kind of boost, but how much of one remains to be seen.

The Patriots special teams coverage units also continue to have problems. New England entered Monday night's game having allowed a kickoff and a punt return for a touchdown this season - both against Buffalo - while also allowing a fake field goal for a touchdown. Miami's Wes Welker may as well have added to that total Monday night when he returned a Josh Miller first quarter punt 71 yards to the 2-yard line to set up a Sammy Morris game-tying touchdown run.

It appeared that linebacker Justin Kurpeikis lost his containment responsibilities on the play, allowing Welker to bounce outside into the open field. That might not bode well for Kurpeikis' future with the club. After allowing the two returns for scores against Buffalo (one in each meeting), the player held accountable for the long returns was released. Shawn Mayer was victimized after the first return for a score and Rabih Abdullah after the second.

Welker also averaged 27.8 yards on five kickoff returns, and the Patriots never stopped him short of the Miami 30, which is the goal on every kickoff.

NOTES, QUOTES

  • Monday night saw the Patriots end a couple more of their remarkable streaks. The Patriots had won 31 straight games when leading at the half and 38 when leading after three quarters, but both of those streaks came to an end in Miami. New England led the Dolphins, 14-10, at the half and, 21-17, after three quarters before falling, 29-28.

  • The last time the Patriots lost a game they led at the half was in October of 2001 when Tom Brady threw four fourth quarter interceptions in a loss at Denver. The last time the Patriots lost a game they led after three came all the way back in the 2000 season finale when the Dolphins overcame a 24-17 deficit to win 27-24 in Foxborough.

  • The Patriots special teams coverage units continue to have problems. New England entered Monday night's game having allowed a kickoff and a punt return for a touchdown this season -- both against Buffalo -- while also allowing a fake field goal for a touchdown.

    Miami's Wes Welker almost added to that total Monday night when he returned a Josh Miller first quarter punt 71 yards to the two-yard line to set up a Sammy Morris game-tying touchdown run.

    It appeared that linebacker Justin Kurpeikis lost his containment responsibility on the play, allowing Welker to bounce outside into the open field. That might not bode well for Kurpeikis' future with the club. After allowing the two returns for scores against Buffalo (one in each meeting), the player held accountable for the long returns was released. Shawn Mayer was victimized after the first return for a score and Rabih Abdullah after the second.

    Welker averaged 27.8 yards on five kickoff returns, and the Patriots never stopped him short of the Miami 30, which is the goal on every kickoff.

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