Patriots -Dolphins: More than Belichick vs Saban
By Dave Fletcher
The numbers weren't pretty going into last week, and they are even uglier now after the Patriots were routed by the Colts in a telling Monday night contest. New England's defense just isn't very good right now - statistically, medically and emotionally. The Pats rank in the bottom rung of the NFL in just about every meaningful defensive category.
They have allowed the second most points in the NFL (27.5 per game), yielded the second most total yards per game (370.9) and let opponents convert third downs 43 percent of the time (28th).
But there's only one number that really matters going into Sunday afternoon's matchup against the Miami Dolphins: 1-0. That's the Patriots record in the AFC East, which is weak enough that New England still has to be considered the favorite to win the division.
While Miami is much improved this year under head coach Nick Saban, they are still a young team that New England should be able to beat despite their problems. Saban, a former defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick in Cleveland, has brought new life to an overhauled Miami defense. Meanwhile, the Dolphins offense has revamped its running attack with rookie Ronnie Brown, who leads his rookie class in rushing yards with 611.
Belichick heaped some hefty praise on Brown (4.8 yards per carry) earlier this week when he compared his rushing ability to LaDainian Tomlinson.
"(He) has been very impressive, said Belichick. Of the guys we've faced, he's probably the best back I've seen since Tomlinson came in the league. He's got good speed, really good vision, and runs hard."
Despite Brown's progress, Ricky Williams has cut into the rookies workload over the past four games since returning from suspension. His 3.7 yards per carry prove he isn't quite the runner he was before his spiritual and herbal mini-retirement last season. Back in his heyday, Williams bruising style would have made for a good fit against this Patriots defensive line, a unit that has been no stranger to the injury report.
Richard Seymour's knee is getting better and he participated in portions of practice on Friday, but it is anybody's guess when he will actually make the jump back onto the football field. Seymour, along with Ty Warren (hip), Jarvis Green (shoulder) and Marquise Hill (ankle) are all listed as questionable for this week. Belichick's assessment on the injury situation was predictably ambiguous.
"Say (a player) is playing at 90 percent," said the coach. "They play in the game and they're fine and the next week they're 95 percent. Some guys play the game at 90 percent and something happens, maybe the next week they're at 80 percent. Some guys play the game at 100 percent and the next week they're at 50 percent. I have no way of being able to tell you what is going to happen."
The team probably doesn't need to rush back a less-than-100 percent Seymour this week to face Gus Frerotte and his 65.3 passer rating, good for 29th in the NFL. The lifetime backup quarterback (until this season) has thrown more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (eight).
Frerotte represents quite a dropoff from last week, when New England's beleaguered secondary did little to slow down the explosive Colts passing game. Duane Starks played so poorly he was placed on injured reserve on Thursday, a move that was equal parts pragmatic and necessary. Despite the need for depth at cornerback, Starks was burned enough -- either because of injury or ineffectiveness -- that the Patriots decided he was no longer helping the team.
Rookie Ellis Hobbs could start at cornerback opposite Asante Samuel, who also had his fair share of problems versus Indy. Luckily, Chris Chambers and Marty Booker aren't exactly Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Chambers, though inconsistent, leads the team with just 30 receptions. Miami's biggest receiving threat may be tight end Randy McMichael, who has the ability to get open down the middle of the field. If New England's front seven can somehow find a way to get some pressure on Frerotte, they should be able to compensate for its shortcomings in the defensive backfield.
Offensively, the Patriots offense has been thrust into the role of point bingeing. The reality is that Tom Brady and his offense can never put too many points on the board with the defense giving up big plays at an alarming rate. While Brady has had some of his worst games of his career in Miami, this defense is nothing like what he faced in the past. Over the past six years, the Dolphins played out of a predictable but effective 4-3-base defense that relied largely on vanilla pressure schemes.
"It couldn't be any more different (this season)," said Belichick. "Nick blitzed more in one game than they would blitz in a whole season. It's more one (safety) deep (under Saban) than two deep They press you."
The revamped Dolphins defense, with their multiple looks and blitz packages, has begun to take on a Belichickian form.
You name it. They have it, said Belichick. They play 3-4. They play 4-3. They play even. They play over. They play under. They drop the safeties down. They have safety blitzes, corner blitzes, zone blitzes, man blitzes, all out blitzes.
Miami may be on the right track to building a quality defense, but Brady should be able to beat the blitzes with quick releases to Deion Branch and David Givens, who are both on pace for career highs in catches. The Dolphins have just four interceptions this year, the same amount Brady threw in one game last year at Pro Player Stadium. Two of those picks, however, were careless heaves that are normally uncharacteristic of the Pats quarterback.
Corey Dillon, on pace for under 900 yards this season, has been hobbled by his ankle for the past few weeks and may be limited in his touches. Even against a Dolphins team that has given up 118 rushing yards per game, New England may need to abandon any notion of running to set up the pass. Dillon clearly isn't playing with his usual confidence and swagger, as evidenced last week by his second-quarter fumble as he turned his back on a tackler.
Blaming Dillon for last week's debacle is too simplistic, though. The Patriots as a whole could use more swagger right now. They have yet to win back-to-back games and, as Brady says, are searching for guys to respond to adversity. The Patriots know there is a lot of season left, and their remaining opponents are a combined 25-40. It may be a long time before this team wins 14 regular season games again, but Brady doesn't think that should be cause for depression.
"These illusions that we might have or that a lot of people might have that we can just show up and win ... the reality is that doesn't happen very often," Brady said. "We have had some great years around here, but to sit hear and compare this year to last year is (pointless). At 4-4 it doesn't mean the season is over."
What to look for: Do the Patriots force the game into Frerotte's hands? With the Patriots secondary in such disarray, most offenses would jump at the chance to exploit New England's most glaring weakness. But Miami's passing game is anemic and they would be doing New England a favor by not feeding the defense a steady diet of Brown and Williams. Linebackers Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Roosevelt Colvin need to make plays to stop the running game early so Miami is forced to rely on the arm of Frerotte in the fourth quarter and not the legs of their two workhorse running backs.
Notes: The Patriots have committed 72 defensive penalties this season, tying them for 24th in the NFL Opponents have 10 plays of 40 yards or more against New England's defense Miami's turnover differential is -4 The Dolphins are 28th in the NFL with a 32.4% third down conversion rate Last week was the first time in 30 games that the Patriots have lost a game when Tom Brady had a passer rating over 100 New England is 21-6 in division games since 2001 Since the Dolphins were founded in 1966, the Patriots have just seven wins in Miami.
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