By: Bob George/BosSports.net
October 06, 2002

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MIAMI -- Congratulations are due the New England Patriot defense for doing such a terrific job on Ricky Williams.

And that's not being sarcastic. Williams was "held" to "only" 105 yards rushing on 36 carries. That's only a 2.9 yard average per carry. That's a whale of an improvement from eight yards per carry by Priest Holmes, and two long touchdown bursts by LaDainian Tomlinson. The Patriots set out to stop Williams, and by gum, they did.

The problem for the Super Bowl champs is that it takes a lot of things going right to win a football game, and nothing else did Sunday afternoon in Miami. The Dolphins laid about as much of a licking on the Patriots as they did here last year at about this time. The 26-13 final score is misleading in the level of domination by the Dolphins. They spanked the Patriots quite soundly, dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and inducing Tom Brady into making more uncharacteristic mistakes that helped send his team down the tubes.

In the big picture, things are still okay. This is a tough stretch of games, and the Patriots are going to face everyone's best each week given that they are the defending champs. But for the short term, the Patriots are experiencing some problems that need to be corrected quickly. With home games against Green Bay and Denver sandwiched around a bye week, the Patriots will have to handle two more of the finer teams in the league who will continue to exploit the problems the Dolphins exposed today.

Where to begin? Let's start with the all-important line of scrimmage.

You knew that Matt Light would have a tough time with Jason Taylor. The knock on Light is that he is good against power rushers but poor against speed rushers. Taylor being the latter, he owned Light in the first half and made two impact plays that helped set the tone for the rest of the contest.

Taylor torpedoed the first Patriot drive by sacking Brady at his own 28 on third and nine. One drive later, he clobbered Brady at the Patriot 45 and knocked the ball loose. Adewale Ogunleye recovered, and the Dolphins turned that turnover into six points on a kooky eight-yard run by Jay Fiedler. Taylor was done sacking for the day, but the Dolphin defense played with much the same intensity for the rest of the game.

The Patriot pass defense, number one in the league going into the game, had some bad moments which proved costly. In particular, Ty Law had a poor game overall and was burned often in zone coverage. He was covering Chris Chambers when he caught an 8-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to put the Dolphins up 13-0. But in what was perhaps the most critical play of the game, Law committed a defensive gaffe which stripped the Patriots of the first sense of momentum they had in the game.

The Patriots had just scored in the third quarter to make it 16-6, on a 34-yard pass from Brady to David Patten. After an exchange of punts, the Dolphins faced third and eight at their own 28. Since the Patten touchdown (set up by a fumble by Williams caused by Tedi Bruschi), the Patriot defense had finally found the range and was stopping the Dolphins cold. But on this play, Law let Chambers go on a left sideline route, hoping that a safety would pick him up. Predictably, Lawyer Milloy was nowhere nearby, and Chambers caught a 17-yard pass smack dab in the middle of a zone seam. Seven plays later the Fish made it 23-6.

Another area that the Patriots failed miserably in was the offensive line as a whole (as opposed to Light individually). What stood out greatly was the amount of playing time the second unit had (Grey Ruegamer, Tom Ashworth). The only plausible explanation for this, injuries notwithstanding, was that Bill Belichick wanted to shuttle in fresh legs in the hot weather, and rotated his linemen so that they could get a blow and not get too exhausted.

The problem with this is that the Patriots never got into any rhythm offensively, and the numbers bear all this out. The Patriots only had 37 yards rushing as a team. They converted only three of ten third downs. The Dolphins had a 2-1 edge in time of possession. Simplified, the Patriots were never able to sustain any kind of long drive and had no sense of ball control whatsoever. That usually reflects on the offensive line, and their ability/inability to protect Brady and open holes for the running backs.

Finally, Brady again suffered uncharacteristic mistakes. He threw two more interceptions and suffered a fumble (as mentioned earlier, hit by Taylor). Early in the second quarter, Brady tried to hit a heavily covered Deion Branch on a slant route. Two defenders stood right in front of him and Sam Madison tipped the pass up in the air. Patrick Surtain came down with the ball for the pick. And early in the fourth quarter, in a play eerily similar to last week in San Diego, Brady took the Patriots deep into Miami territory but then threw an ill-advised deep pass to Donald Hayes. Madison, all over Hayes, made the pick at the Miami 11.

One has to wonder if these offensive woes the Patriots have been suffering are because of the injury to Troy Brown. Brown is expected back next week against the Packers, so that will help the Patriots greatly in their endeavours to recapture the offensive efficiency they had in the first three games of the season. Branch may be a talented rookie, but Brown appears to be a lot better at getting open and for making the most difficult catches of them all.

Defensively, what do you do? Fiedler isn't one one-hundredth the quarterback Brett Favre is. If Law and Otis Smith (is this guy possibly beginning to slow down for good?) continue to have problems covering wideouts, Favre will slaughter the Patriot pass defense next week. And if the old geezers on the Patriot defensive unit are all beginning to look their age, which they deftly defied last year, this is a lot more than just a short-term nagging nuisance.

On the other hand, this is Miami, and it is October. Miami improved to 13-0 lifetime against New England in the months of September and October. The Patriots could have trotted out their "A" game and it still may not have been good enough.

But what will bother the Patriot coaches this week was how badly the Patriots were dominated in Sunday's game. The team is obviously not playing at previous high levels, and there are a ton of reasons as to why. Age is one reason, and being the defending champ is another big reason.

Which reminds us of something. Don't you wish that those ex-Dolphin Pats hadn't had that stupid picture taken with their Super Bowl rings on their middle fingers. Not surprisingly, that picture found its way into the Miami locker room this week. Often times domination has its roots in motivation.

There is no question that the world champs were dominated.

But hey, at least they did a great job on Williams.


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