The Patriots rang in the New Year with their first win in the sweltering Miami heat since 2012.
The 35-14 victory made New England only the seventh team in NFL history to go 8-0 on the road and solidified the defense’s spot as the league’s top scoring defense in 2016.
Despite an excellent game-plan from the Dolphins, which produced drives of 9-, 10-, and 12-plays, the defense came through when it mattered most.
Quarterback Matt Moore was pressured on 10 of his 34 throws (29.4%), but completed merely 2 of those passes for 27 yards and an interception, which the Patriots’ offense turned into 7 points.
Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty also prevented a touchdown by punching the ball out of running back Damien Williams’ arms in the red zone. Linebacker Shea McClellin returned the fumble 69 yards and put the offense in ezcellent field-position for another touchdown drive.
Here are some takeaways from my film review of the Patriots’ defense against the Dolphins:
FLOWERS AND ROBERTS SHINE
Defensive lineman Trey Flowers made a big impact on Sunday against both the run and the pass. Pro Football Focus credited him with four stops against the run and two hits on the QB, one of which prevented a big play on third down early in the game (more on that later).
His versatility to generate pressure and stuff running backs from anywhere along the line has been one of the keys to the defense’s about-face in the latter half of the season.
Inside linebacker Elandon Roberts missed some games in the middle of the season due to injury and poor play, but he has performed well since returning and continues to be a menace as a run defender.
Did I mention Roberts is really good against the run? pic.twitter.com/gxccHjxDWX— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 2, 2017
Roberts reads his keys very quickly and his instincts give him the confidence to fly to the ball-carrier when he diagnoses running plays. These are great qualities to see from a rookie.
Elandon Roberts is short, but he's not small. Albert one of quite a few offensive linemen Roberts has victimized this season. pic.twitter.com/2FUr0vHHYg— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 2, 2017
Equally impressive is Roberts’ eye-popping strength. Not only does he have the ability to stack and shed offensive linemen when they reach him at the second-level, but the former Houston Cougar can also overpower men significantly larger than himself.
Aside from one play where he over-pursued on a running play and left a wide open lane for Dolphins back Jay Ajayi, Roberts had an excellent day at the office.
THE BOX SCORE DOESN’T TELL THE WHOLE STORY
If it weren’t for Moore’s inability to make plays when pressured and Damien Williams’ fumble in the red zone, this could have been a much closer game.
Dolphins head coach Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen devised one of the best game-plans I have seen all season from an opposing offense. They consistently schemed players wide open and had an answer for everything Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia threw at them.
New England tends to play zone coverage on early downs and man on third down, though they will often employ a two-deep zone in 3rd and very long situations.
On 9 of their 11 third downs, Miami used formations with stacked or bunched receivers.
On 5 of the 6 plays that the Patriots showed man coverage in these situations, the Dolphins sent the receiver on the outside of the stack or bunch on a crossing route.
Looks like Cover 1 on 3rd & 9. McCourty and Ryan double Landry, clearing space for Parker underneath. Impossible for Rowe to defend this. pic.twitter.com/dW1l0KGZvv— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 2, 2017
This is a perfect play-call when an offense needs less than about nine yards for a first down. The receiver gets a free release and the defender has to fight through traffic, forcing him to chase down his man.
Landry doesn't make contact with Ryan off the line, allowing the CB to get in perfect position to limit YAC on the crosser pic.twitter.com/j215SrUuVG— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 2, 2017
Miami only converted when using crossing routes twice, but quick pressure forced Moore to miss a wide open Parker twice and once Logan Ryan was allowed to chase down Parker completely unabated.
When the Patriots employed zone coverages, the Dolphins countered mostly with floods, levels, and other zone beating concepts.
These route combinations can freeze defenders; give receivers just enough room to scamper for first downs, or get receivers one-on-one match-ups. This brings me to my next takeaway.
VAN NOY’S COVERAGE WOES CONTINUE
Kyle Van Noy has struggled in recent weeks when dropping back into coverage, where he excelled in his first few weeks. There were two plays in particular that jumped out when I watched the tape.
Well executed rip love from Flowers prevents big play. Stills clears Butler, leaving Van Noy (flat defender) to pick up wheel. Tough task. pic.twitter.com/K5NJWxwizn— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 2, 2017
On the first play, the Patriots appear to be in a cover 4 defense. Parker clears out Malcolm Butler, who is covering the deep quarter of the field. This makes Van Noy responsible for the #2 receiver (Williams) if he runs a vertical route in the space that Butler has vacated.
Williams sells the speed-out before turning it up and running a wheel-route. Van Noy bites on the initial move, leaving the running back wide open down the sideline. If not for the pressure from Flowers, this is a big gain for a first down.
Van Noy needs to have better situational awareness and discipline here. The flat route should be his last concern on 3rd & 13 when playing quarters coverage. Has to anticipate a double-move.
Van Noy got lucky here. Looks like he was trying to jump the route but goes right where Sheard already is. Need to play w better discipline. pic.twitter.com/pbyiDMjxrH— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 2, 2017
On the second play, 53 is again bailed out by his defensive line.
This time, Kenny Stills is attempting to sit in the hole of New England’s zone. Jabaal Sheard is in position to potentially make a play on the ball if Moore targets Stills, but Van Noy reads the quarterback’s eyes, over-pursues, and runs right into Sheard’s area.
Stills adjusts his route accordingly and moves to the spot the linebacker abandoned, but Chris Long forces a bad throw.
The BYU product must improve heading into the playoffs, or teams will continue to target and exploit him in coverage.