The key to cracking the New England Patriots defense was pretty simple, according to Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill. It’s easier said than done, of course, but the strategy wasn’t complicated.
“We just got the first down,” Tannehill said after the game with a shrug. “That's the biggest key [when] we can get the first first down, we can get rolling and we didn't really do that in the first half. We kept getting close and didn't get it or [got] going and had a turnover or got going and had an interception before half. So, it's a matter of taking care of the football and getting that first, first down. Once we get going, we are pretty good at staying on the move and keeping the chains moving.”
Over the first half of play, the Patriots defense was stifling. The Dolphins first five drives totaled 34 yards and the team failed at every third down turn.
On the first third down play, the Dolphins needed 7 yards, but Patriots S Duron Harmon broke up a crossing pass for TE Jordan Cameron. Dolphins punted.
On the second third down play, the Dolphins needed a mere 1 yard, but Tannehill was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Dolphins punted.
On the third third down play, the Dolphins needed 5 yards and Tannehill sailed a pass to Cameron, which was almost intercepted by Harmon. Dolphins punted.
On the fourth third down play, the Dolphins bungled the snap and Tannehill had to fall on the ball to prevent a turnover. Dolphins punted.
On the fifth drive, Jarvis Landry fumbled the ball on the second play, so the Dolphins didn’t even get a third down opportunity.
On the sixth drive, Jamie Collins intercepted an ugly Tannehill pass on 2nd and 2.
All of these plays were crucial because it gave the ball back to the Patriots to face an exhausted Dolphins defense. The longest of the Dolphins first six drives was only 4 plays. The Patriots were in the driver’s seat and Miami was playing on their heels as Miami was just 1 for 4 on third down in the first half.
But just think if any of these plays had been different. If Tannehill converted the 3rd and 1. If the Dolphins didn’t mess up the snap. If Landry didn’t fumble. If any of these plays were better executed by Miami, then the Patriots wouldn’t have run out to a 31-3 lead.
And then the Dolphins found life at the end of the second quarter, as they drove 77 yards for a field goal in the final minute of the half with the no huddle offense. The Dolphins only third down conversion of the first half took place on this drive, a 3rd and 4 from the Miami 32, where Cameron leaked out into the flat and stretched the ball over the first down marker in front of S Patrick Chung.
Tannehill connected on a gorgeous 21-yard pass to TE Dion Sims in front of Chung, and then hit the Patriots in their weak spot in coverage on the next play, a 25-yard completion to Jarvis Landry. These weren’t flaws in a “prevent defense”. These were just the Dolphins making plays that they hadn’t been making earlier.
In the second half, the Dolphins picked up from where they left off with the no huddle. On their opening drive, they picked up 18 yards on a 3rd and 1 as the Patriots weren’t prepared for a deep pass in a short-yardage situation. New England was saved by a fumble that ended the Dolphins 41-yard drive on the Patriots own 34-yard line.
The Patriots scored on the responding drive to take a 31-3 lead and yet the defense did not drop into prevent- although the coaching staff appeared to be taking a nap.
On the Dolphins next drive, Tannehill completed an 11 yard pass of a scramble play on 3rd and 8. RB Jay Ajayi, the recipient, appeared to be out of bounds:
Really surprised Belichick didn't challenge this 3rd down conversion. Looks like he only got one foot down. pic.twitter.com/BA6FXOKdAd— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) September 19, 2016
It’s possible that his feet were on the ground when he gained control, but it doesn’t look like it from this angle, and it seems like he didn’t get both feet in bounds. The Dolphins scored two plays later after Justin Coleman tried to jump the route while Kenny Stills did an out and up into the end zone.
Still, this shows that the Patriots defenders were still playing competitively. Coleman was in tight coverage and he gambled on a pass, but guessed wrong. That summed up the Patriots second half as they tried to make plays, but they just couldn’t make it work.
On the Dolphins next drive, Tannehill connected on another deep pass on 3rd and 1, with a 33-yard gain off a pick play to WR Jarvis Landry. Two plays later, Logan Ryan was called for a 20-yard pass interference penalty and the Dolphins were knocking on the end zone again.
This was just poor execution by the Patriots players and just because I say they were in a competitive position, doesn’t mean that they were overly competitive. There were moments where it appeared the defensive backs were just going through the motions instead of actively fighting for the ball.
On the Dolphins final scoring drive, they just started to pick apart the Patriots in the middle of the field with the no huddle. Tannehill hit completions of 5-, 13-, 15-, 5-, and 15-yards before scrambling for 6 yards and letting rookie Kenyan Drake run the remaining 7-yards for a touchdown.
The Patriots are going to watch the game and realize this was a game of inches and the Dolphins were inches away from making- or not making- serious plays. The first half, the Dolphins couldn’t pay for a completion. In the second half, Landry and Parker both recorded one hand grabs, while Tannehill made a couple of passes that couldn’t be defended.
New England didn’t play prevent. They just failed to execute.
Last week’s game showed the Patriots that they could win against any team in the league. This game showed that they could also lose to any team. Head coach Bill Belichick will make sure these players are competing for all 60 minutes for the rest of the year.