How did that happen?
How did the Patriots – an 11.5-point favorite that beat Miami by 18 two weeks ago in a game where they handed Miami a touchdown – look like just another team on Monday night? It's the obvious question and there are plenty of obvious answers. And some that aren't so obvious. Here's a collection of them.
The Dolphins did absolutely nothing to beat themselves. The Patriots had the two turnovers – two underthrown Tom Brady picks directed at Brandin Cooks – and Miami didn't turn it over once. They didn't even come close until that bing-bing-bing ricochet pass from Jay Cutler late in the fourth quarter.
- Brady unable to get comfortable without security blanket Gronkowski
- Patriots lament lack of energy after loss to Dolphins
- Curran's Patriots-Dolphins preview/review
Cooks does many things very well. He's got elite speed, tremendous hands and he's tough. But he doesn't get sudden separation and, as Troy Brown said in Postgame Live, some of that has to do with his route running. Xavien Howard got physical with Cooks and Cooks' wasn't getting away from Howard early. That messed up timing, which we saw on the third down throw that Brady fired at Cooks before the wideout even got his head around. The ball had to come out on time, Cooks was delayed getting off the line and was still running his route and the pass never had a shot. Cooks was targeted seven times. He caught one. He's profited this season from the presence of Rob Gronkowski, the effectiveness of the running game and play action that at least slows the pass rush. With Brady having less time and Cooks becoming the main option because of his 1-on-1 matchup, a spotlight was put on the facet of Cooks' game which isn't there yet.
Brady couldn't buy time. In so many games this season, Brady's been able to read where the heat is coming from and step up in the pocket where he can survey with no obstructions. With Miami sending extra rushers frequently up the middle and really stressing the middle of the Patriots offensive line where Joe Thuney and David Andrews are susceptible to power, Brady was forced to retreat to throw rather than step up.
The personnel on defense caught up to them. Without Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy, the front-seven – already diminished by the absence of Dont'a Hightower – was comprised of a lot of bit players in big roles. Kenyan Drake walked through a tackle attempt by Eric Lee at one point. Alan Branch injured his knee and eventually left the game for good. Elandon Roberts got put in mismatches by shrewd Miami playcalling. Marquis Flowers – who started alongside Roberts at linebacker – is a depth player and special-teamer. Jordan Richards – who had a clean shot at sacking Cutler but couldn't wrap him up – is not good at tackling. Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler – promising rookies – remain rookies. When Duron Harmon was up and hollering at the defense on the sidelines, he was yelling at a collection of players that I wouldn't have known if they walked up to my door a couple of months ago.
Bunches of bunch formations were an issue. Midway through the second half, after Jarvis Landry found himself all alone for a red zone touchdown, Jerod Mayo sent me a text which read, "A team going back to bunches. A lot of loaded formations." This was something Mayo harped on early in the season when the Patriots defense struggled. The bunch formations where receivers are stacked on one side puts a premium on communication. Monday night was by no means a throwback to those dark days, but the Dolphins' approach at least revisited an issue the Patriots had earlier in the year. Too few teams have tried that approach.
Brady rarely looked comfortable or confident he was going to get a clean pocket. And that's what Miami set out to do. Brady with his feet planted is an assassin. He's obsessive about getting his feet set and being able to rip into throws. He can usually get to that stable base quickly. Miami kept making him move his feet and reset which led to some of his inaccuracy.
Cutler was smart enough to fight another day. When plays broke down or nobody came open, Cutler didn't try to jam passes into tight windows. He got rid of it and moved on to the next play.
Miami didn't have busts. Their loss two weeks ago was littered with defensive breakdowns in the secondary and at the linebacker level. That absolutely helped New England roll up 196 yards on the ground and 10 plays of 20 or more yards. They ran for 25 yards on Monday night and had five plays of 20 or more yards. They also tackled brilliantly all night.
There was a lot of wailing on my Twitter timeline (as there always is when the Patriots don't play like the Patriots) and a lot of it was aimed at Josh McDaniels. That feels like a copout. If the offensive line is leaking and guys aren't getting open fast, that's how it looks. There's no lever to pull that makes it all go away. Miami just played really well and its personnel outplayed the Patriots. They did things Monday night that they didn't do two weeks ago and some of those adjustments have to fall on the coaches and coordinator but this was execution, not coaching.
What's it mean going against Pittsburgh? Well, the Steelers will run bunch formations. And they have the game's most explosive wide receiver who can threaten the defense at all three levels. They'll need to communicate better. And the Steelers will definitely play man and try bring pressure. It's something Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked about all offseason after the Patriots blistered his zone schemes in the AFC Championship last year.
So is it time for a level of panic? No. Gronkowski's return will drastically change the Patriots. He's been a monster this season and a week off isn't going to change that. The Steelers were going to do everything Miami did anyway. Now the Patriots have a good look at what they'll need to improve in order to beat it.