1. Tight End Game - The Patriots tight ends combined for 11 receptions (on 15 attempts), 114 yards, and 0 touchdowns. The Dolphins tight ends combined for 0 receptions (on 1 attempt), 0 yards, and 0 touchdowns. Just looking at the numbers, it seems as if the Patriots won this battle. However, there's much more to the story. While Gronkowski had a solid game, he wasn't called upon in the Red Zone and, for the second straight week, failed to score a touchdown. Alone, that fact isn't bad, because the Patriots have been able to capitalize on the additional attention to Gronkowski by throwing towards Hernandez.
Against the Dolphins, Hernandez caught 4 receptions for 36 yards. Those numbers are in line with the middle of the season where he averaged 4 receptions for 40 yards during a three week stretch. The Patriots will need Hernandez to produce at a higher level in the playoffs should teams cover Gronkowski.
To put the game in context, the Patriots tight ends have averaged 10.5 receptions, 136 yards, and 1.5 touchdowns during the season. It seems the Dolphins focused on limiting the impact of the tight ends by reducing the yards per reception and keeping them out of the end zone. While the Patriots could have easily tried to throw to the tight ends instead of running Tom Brady on the goal line, they didn't for a reason. This past game marked the second time all season that, when both TEs played, neither made it into the end zone (round 1 against the Jets). Hopefully this doesn't happen again.
While it would be nice for the tight ends to make a greater impact in the receiving game, they still participated and had a much greater impact on the game than the Dolphins tight ends, who were unable to replace Anthony Fasano. Win for the Patriots.
2. Use the Sideline - So a few things that went wrong in this match-up. Here's the players:
Davone Bess played Nate Jones in the slot
Reggie Bush was in the backfield
The Patriots played a mix of 3-4, 4-3, 3-3, and 4-2. The big problem? The safety position. Why? Well, this one's on the coaches, but it's not completely because of bad schemes. Sergio Brown played very well from what I saw; he was taking quality angles and he was more aggressive to the ball carrier (but not reckless). The issue is with how the safeties were being played on the field.
James Ihedigbo was used for a fair portion of the day to spy Reggie Bush (the linebackers also played this role at various points in the game). On the pass at the very beginning of the game to Brian Hartline over Devin McCourty:
You can see that Ihedigbo is in the middle of nowhere. This isn't entirely his fault- his job was to watch Reggie Bush who was in the backfield. However, Rob Ninkovich engaged Bush and completely flattened him in the blocking game (which would be an interesting technique to take out potential delay outlet receivers), meaning that Ihedigbo was left to cover no player. Ihedigbo stands around the same place for the whole play as McCourty (boxed) covers Hartline down the field. Sergio Brown (pink arrow) takes a beautiful angle and, should Hartline have not dove for the ball, would have been in the perfect position to make an immediate hit on the receiver.
Still, the Patriots defense was outschemed. Whether or not Bush meant to be a full time blocker (and rendering Ihedigbo basically useless on this play), the Dolphins found a way to get a player in single coverage down the field with no safety help in the nearby region. If Ihedigbo is supposed to act as the deep safety on McCourty's side, than he should have been nearby to make the play. If he's supposed to act as a spy on Bush, then Sergio Brown should have cheated towards the middle of the field before the ball was thrown.
The reason why this doesn't fall on the coaches? Would you be upset if the Patriots only covered Bush with a linebacker? That's the only alternative that would allow Ihedigbo to remain the deep safety. Of course, Ninkovich did a good job on the play, and Jerod Mayo and Dane Fletcher played well at other points, but if Bush ever broke for that big play with a linebacker in coverage duty- wouldn't that be a problem as well?
So the whole point of using the sideline as an additional defensive unit was that the safeties would be in position to break up any sideline pass. However, the utilization of a safety to cover Bush forced single deep safety on a few plays, and that only allows the Safety to help cover the middle of the field and puts the onus on the cornerback to cover the receiver on deep sideline routes. Based upon the scheme, the fault lies on McCourty's shoulders. However, the scheme deserves a few tweaks. No team should be putting any cornerback not named Darelle Revis in single coverage against Brandon Marshall. That's just asking for trouble.
I will say that even with the big play on McCourty early in the game, Marshall earned 3 receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown while in the slot position, where he could force mismatches in coverage. If you take note that McCourty was completely alone in coverage at the end of the game when he allowed a 41 yard reception to Marshall (you can't say the Patriots were playing prevent defense with 8 players, including both safeties, in the box), McCourty did a pretty good job on Marshall otherwise. Yes, he allowed two big plays which were both his fault (1. Not turning his head; 2. Biting on the fake), but 88 yards came on those two plays alone. Marshall's other two receptions were for 10 total yards. I'd give McCourty a "neutral" on the day, at the least, which is a very big improvement as the safety position hasn't changed.
I thought that the safeties would force Matt Moore to make the perfect throw down the sideline. Well, the safeties didn't play where I expected them to play and the Marshall is an elite enough player to make his own fortune and was able to get open by faking the inside routes. Still, a loss for the Patriots for not succeeding down the sidelines.
3. Checkdown - I was surprised by how little the Dolphins tried to checkdown. Maybe that's a statement of the current Patriots pass rush where the Dolphins quarterback never felt enough pressure to warrant a checkdown. Still, Bush gained 26 yards on two receptions. The first was in the 2nd quarter on 3rd and 4, where James Ihedigbo was in coverage and was turned out of his shoes on a cut by Bush. The other was on a first and 20 to open the 4th quarter where the Patriots dropped deep into coverage (Vince Wilfork was the closest player in coverage of Bush). Throughout the day, the Patriots did a good job of containing Bush and deterring Moore from looking in his direction. Still, the pass rush was never strong enough to make Moore feel uncomfortable and he was always willing to launch the ball deep down the field and hope for a player to catch it- which is also a statement on the Patriots safeties who are supposed to be on the lookout for those types of throws. Draw for the Patriots.
4. Turnovers - Well that was nice. The Dolphins turned the ball over twice. The Patriots didn't turn the ball over. 2-0.
Basically, if the Patriots turn the ball over 1 or fewer times and the Dolphins turn the ball over 2 or more times, then the Patriots will most likely be in the driver's seat for the game.
I wouldn't say the Patriots were in the driver's seat, but they definitely met these requirements. Turnovers are key for this defense and, because their turnovers are more balanced between interceptions and fumbles, this defense is proving more versatile and can force their own turnovers. Yes, I know they didn't force the Dolphins fumble. They still have been making their own success. Win for the Patriots.
PS: The Dolphins are now 2-6 in games where they have turned the ball over 2 or more times.
5. 60 Minutes -
This will remain on the list until the Patriots put together a full 60 minute game.
Loss for the Patriots. That first half was horrendous.
So the Patriots claim a victory after playing to a 2.5/5 counter. I think that score summarizes the two halves extremely well. Hopefully the Patriots can piece together a good game against the Bills and get into the playoffs with some positive momentum.