Not many games compare to Monday Night Football. Once or twice a season, we get to see our Patriots on primetime television with the entire nation watching, waiting for the smallest mistake to criticize us on. The atmosphere and intensity is inexplicably different, regardless of the opponent. It is the only Monday of the year that I actually look forward to. The anticipation of being able to go home after a long day of school or work and watch the Pats play on national television is unlike any other. The excitement you get from seeing other Pats fans in their jerseys intensifies throughout the day as we get closer to kickoff. The emotion and focus of the players is almost palpable due to ESPN’s top of the line production. Standout performances live forever and are highlighted every time the team plays on Monday night.
Who can forget Monday Night games like the 2011 season opener against the Miami Dolphins in which Tom Brady torched Miami’s secondary for 517 yards and four touchdowns. 99 of those yards came on an unforgettable touchdown from Brady to Wes Welker as the team was backed up on their own one-yard line. But then there are Monday Night games all Patriot fans would like to forget, like the week 4 game in 2014 against the Kansas City Chiefs in which the Patriots looked as helpless and demoralized as the Super Bowl aspirations of Eagle’s fans after the injury to Carson Wentz.
Unfortunately, Monday night’s game was another embarrassment that Pats fans would like to move on from as they struggled on both sides of the ball, losing to the Dolphins 27-20. While injuries might have had a major impact on the outcome of this game, the Patriots still failed to get anything going. Offensively, Brady might have had his worst game since the aforementioned Chiefs game. Struggling with accuracy all night, Brady was only able to complete 56% of his passes while throwing two interceptions. His timing with the receivers seemed to be off for most of the game and the rushing attack, which had been potent in recent weeks, was only able to contribute 25 yards on 10 carries. The questions surrounding Brady and his future with the team are back on full throttle, just in time for the team to face Pittsburgh’s suspect secondary.
Defensively, the team showed a lot of fight as key players like Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy were inactive for this game due to injury. Regardless of injuries, the unit still struggled to make tackles in the run game (cough, get up Patrick Chung), cover Miami’s speedy receivers (cough, Malcolm Butler you got mossed), and generate a pass rush that resulted in sacks (cough, embarrassing Jordan Richards). I may develop a fever by the end of this article.
I will never be one to overreact to a road loss to a divisional opponent, especially when you consider that the team was coming off an eight-game winning streak and was in the midst of three-game road trip. With that being said, various issues that have plagued the team throughout the year reared their ugly heads once again. As the team moves onto this week’s game against the Steelers and ultimately, the playoffs, they must do a better job of addressing some of these key weaknesses as teams will undoubtedly try and attack these holes.
Put simply, the defense cannot stop the run. This may not be an issue that the Patriots will be able to solve as their lack of depth in the front seven has been a problem to say the least. The loss of players like Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Kyle Van Noy, and Trey Flowers have the Patriots currently sitting at 24th in rushing defense, a considerable decline from last year’s third. While Van Noy and Flowers are slated to return in the near future, these issues existed even when they were in the lineup and have not improved.
As I detailed in a previous article, the Patriots have tried to counter their lack of depth by loading the box with 7-8 players. This strategy has not proven to be successful as in the past two weeks alone, they have allowed 183 rushing yards to the Bills and 114 yards on 4.6 yards per carry on Monday to Kenyon Drake. The team is allowing 120.7 rushing yards per game, a 32-yard increase from last year. This lack of improvement is extremely concerning given the amount of resources that have been allocated to fixing these issues. Teams that are able to expose this weakness will be able to move the ball down the field while also keeping the ball out of Brady’s hands, a formula that could prove to be disastrous for the Patriots.
Though tight end Rob Gronkowski did not play in Monday’s game due to suspension, the lack of production from New England’s receivers, specifically Brandin Cooks, was not only disappointing but also revealing. Earlier this season, I highlighted the importance of Cooks and how he was developing into a complete receiver. Cooks struggled with tight coverage at the beginning of the year, but has made several strides in creating more separation and saw his impact in the short/intermediate passing game increase.
With Gronk out, Cooks needed to elevate his play in order to make up for that loss of production. Instead, Cooks struggled to create any type of separation from Dolphin’s defensive back Xavien Howard, who was able to intercept Brady twice. Cooks was targeted seven times and was only able to come down with one of them. That one catch just so happened to occur when the Dolphins were playing a zone defense, which further magnifies Cooks’ struggles with tight man coverage.
I would not expect these struggles to continue once Gronk returns to the lineup. But Monday’s performance from the receivers revealed two things. First, if a team is able to limit Gronkowski’s production and compete with these receivers man to man, the offense may have some problems moving the ball. This could be especially troubling for the Patriots if that team possess a front seven that is capable of putting pressure on the quarterback and containing the run. Clearly, this is a big if, as Gronk is one of the most unguardable players in the league, but the possibility exists.
Secondly, while injures are something that every team must deal with, the Patriots may be an injury or two away from an ending that emulates that of the 2015 season. Recall that in 2015, key injuries to players like tackle Nate Solder and fullback James Develin had a huge impact on the team’s blocking scheme. Julian Edelman suffered a foot injury that impacted his ability to create separation from a Broncos defense that gave Brady the worst beating I can remember.
Brady has already taken an unhealthy amount of hits this year and Marcus Cannon’s absence has not helped that cause. The receiving corps has had some struggles creating separation in recent games versus teams like the Bills and Dolphins, whose defenses are nothing to brag about. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how teams attack the Patriots. The holes uncovered by the Dolphins are ones we are bound to see again. If not addressed, a year that began with dreams of an undefeated season could end in disappointing fashion. This will not be an easy game to forget, but for now, we can turn our attention to the battle for home field advantage this coming Sunday in Pittsburgh.