Monday night down in Miami didn’t go quite as planned and the Patriots found themselves on the wrong end of a 27-20 loss in a game that was never as close as the final score indicated.
Sure, the Dolphins did about all they could to give the game away, but New England looked like a team that lacked energy and allowed themselves to be manhandled by a Miami team with little to lose and plenty to prove after losing their previous meeting up in Foxboro two weeks ago. The end result saw the Patriots get outplayed by an opponent that simply competed harder, which now sets up a game next Sunday in Pittsburgh that suddenly has even more riding on it.
That being said, here are some thoughts on what went down Monday night.
1) No repeat in their ground game this time around – In their first game, the Patriots did a good job running the football, with both Dion Lewis (15 carries, 112 yards) and Rex Burkhead (13 carries, 50 yards) finishing with strong performances as the Patriots racked up 196 yards on the ground. But on Monday night, it was a different story as the two combined for just 10 carries and 25 yards.
Miami’s defense did a better job up front, especially against Burkhead, who carried 5 times for just 8 yards. The Dolphins defense set the tone right away on the first play from scrimmage, with Ndamukong Suh drilling Burkhead and dropping him for no gain. Suh walked back to the huddle jawing at New England’s offense and that ended up being a bad sign as the Dolphins brought plenty of fire and intensity in this one, which the Patriots never seemed able to match. They attacked the Patriots offensive line and closed down a lot of the holes that were open the first time, keeping the Patriots from controlling the line of scrimmage while not allowing them to get into a rhythm. As a result, the ground game seemed to take a backseat and that was obviously a big factor in shutting down New England’s offense.
2) Tom Brady looked like he was playing through pain – Looking back at last night’s game, one of the things that stood out was the fact that many of Brady’s throws were coming up short, while others either sailed or lacked the normally tight spiral that we’re used to seeing from the veteran quarterback. He’s missed time over the past couple of weeks while reportedly dealing with an Achilles injury, but the lack of power on quite a few of his throws was probably about as evident as it’s been since this injury first appeared on the injury report.
The first sign something was up came on New England’s opening series, with the team facing 3rd-and-10 from their own 25. With Brandin Cooks facing one-on-one coverage on the outside, Brady dropped back and thew deep down the left sideline and didn’t seem to get enough on it as he underthrew him, leading to his first interception of the night. From there he was either coming up short or badly overthrowing receivers who were right in front of him, which for a player who is normally one of the more accurate passers in the league, it was clear something was amiss. Brady was spotted flexing his hand after a hit, although it’s unclear if that played a factor.
Either way, as the game wore on, the ball didn’t seem like it was coming out of his hands well and it didn’t help that he was trying to battle through it against a Dolphins pass rush that did a good job of getting pressure on him. By the fourth quarter, there were several balls that uncharacteristically fluttered after he let them go and for a player who relies so much on his mechanics, it was obvious that something definitely wasn’t right and it was hard not to wonder if his injury played a little more of a factor this week.
Brady and the offense couldn’t do very much Monday night.
3) With Gronkowski out, the passing game struggled – With Gronkowski out thanks to his fourth quarter hit against Tre’Davious White, it was clear that the Patriots’ plan was to try and get the running backs involved in the passing game in an effort to try and overcome his absence and create match-up problems. At the end of the first half, it was Rex Burkhead (5/5 45yds), Dion Lewis (3/3 31yds) and James White (2/3, 8yds) who lead the team in receiving, while Brandin Cooks (0/2) and Chris Hogan (0/1) and Danny Amendola (0 targets) were each held without a reception.
Without their star tight end, the Patriots found themselves unable to attack the middle of the field and the Dolphins’ defense forced a lot of passes by Brady toward the sideline, and there weren’t many open looks. The biggest reason for that was the fact the Dolphins played much more physical this time around with New England’s receivers. Miami did a great job pressuring them coming off the line and making it hard for them to get into their routes, which allowed them to stay on them nearly every time coming out of their breaks. Miami safety said Reshad Jones told Miami reporter Omar Kelly after the game, “We knew if we put our hands on the receivers they couldn’t get off the ball.”
It worked, and it made for a frustrating night for a group that just simply couldn’t get it going.
4) Third down was obviously a problem – The worst part about Monday night’s game was the fact New England couldn’t convert on third down, finishing 0-for-11 on the night, their worst performance during Tom Brady’s career. Even worse, you actually have to go all the way back to 1991 to find another game where they didn’t move the chains, which happened against the Pheonix Cardinals after the team finished 0-for-6. Brady was just 14-years old.
He finished the night 3-of-10 (30%) passing on third down, far and away his worst performance of the season. Oddly enough, his other lowest completion percentage came against Miami in their previous meeting where he finished 2-of-5 (40%). Prior to that, the last time he finished under 50% throwing the football on third down, you have to go all the way back to their week one loss against the Chiefs where he finished 5-of-11 (45%).
But one of the storylines of this season has been the fact that he’s had really poor results targeting Cooks on third down. On Monday night he finished 0-for-4 with two interceptions, bringing his season total targeting him to 5-of-22 (23%). From there he was also 0-for-2 targeting Chris Hogan, with Hogan normally a relatively reliable target for him (12-of-18, 8 first downs this season on third down). Gronkowski’s absence loomed large, as he leads the team in 3rd down conversions, coming into the game with 16.
However, as bad as it was not having Gronkowski on the field, the bigger problem was the fact the Patriots found themselves in long-yardage situations on the majority of them. They faced 3rd-and-8 or more on 7 of their 11 attempts, including 4 of 10-yards or longer. That’s a recipe for disaster, and unfortunately things just didn’t go their way Monday night.
5) Defensive personnel losses definitely hurt them – As much as people want to panic about the way New England’s defense struggled during this one, the Patriots were also fairly depleted given that both Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy were absent coming into this game. From there, they caught another bad break after Alan Branch suffered a knee injury in the second quarter. The Dolphins took advantage and had a big night running the football, with Kenyan Drake putting up 114 yards on 12 carries. Drake made his presence felt early after ripping off a 26-yard run on Miami’s opening drive that helped set up their first field goal, and he was a problem all night.
He also caused them problems in the passing game, which included a 47-yard pass that helped set up Miami’s second touchdown of the game. His performance was huge as he finished with 79-yards receiving and he played a key factor in Jay Cutler’s success on a night where Cutler finished 25-of-38 for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Branch managed to play just 15 snaps after he tried fighting through an early injury and the Patriots struggled against the run, while Van Noy’s absence was also problem as the Dolphins running backs were able to get deeper into the second level, lead by Drake.
New England managed to get some pressure on Cutler, but they were inconsistent. However, as bad as it was, give Matt Patricia credit. He did a good job of getting creative and drawing up blitzes from the secondary, with Devin McCourty finishing the night with one of the team’s two sacks, which came on a safety blitz. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
One thing to watch now will be the health of Patrick Chung, who was injured during the team’s poor onside kick attempt at the end of the night, which didn’t go ten yards and more or less summed up a bad night of football for a New England team that just never got it together. Chung stayed down after the play and did manage to walk off under his own power, but he definitely appeared to be in a lot of pain.
This one will sting but the Patriots won’t have long to think about it. They’ll return to work on Wednesday as they get ready to travel to Pittsburgh in what’s now become a must-win game if they hope to secure the top seed heading into the postseason.