December 4, 2016

Patriots at Miami: Signs of Life

The Patriots came through down in Miami this week with an excellent win that had some solid signs for the future after the blowout loss to the Colts earlier in the week. No, yesterday’s win was not against a great team. But it was against a team the Patriots have struggled to beat in a stadium that Miami is very tough in. And Miami is a solid team that has beaten Carolina and Denver on that very same field this year. No game down there is going to be a walkover and the Patriots had a week that was more good than bad and resulted in a W. That is all that matters.

On offense, it was a decent effort. They did get off to a slow start, but that has happened occasionally even in past championship years as the Patriots sort of felt an opponent out and tried to play field position. Other than the first drive, the Patriots couldn’t really gain a hold in that regard of that battle early on. GDRV thought it may have been a decent decision to go for it in Miami territory on 4th and 1 on the first possession, but they elected to punt. Given how they seemed to be moving the ball on that first drive, it may be a decision they want to rethink for next time.

A special hand needs to go out for fill-in running back Heath Evans. His bruising style and hard running kept the offense with a running game after Corey Dillon went out. That good play didn’t lead to many points while he was doing most of his running, but it made the Dolphins have to respect the run which perhaps opened up the passing game later on. With only two weeks of practice with the Patriots under his belt and outside of his normal role, that was a big boost for the Patriots.

Once the Patriots passing game started rolling, the Patriots did start punching in some points. The offensive line deserves praise for their excellent play. Rookie Nick Kaczur continues to improve weekly and had an outstanding game yesterday. Brandon Gorin is a better run blocker than Tom Ashworth, but not as strong a pass blocker. Yesterday Gorin held up well in both areas in his first start of the season filling in for the injured Ashworth. And Russ Hochstein came in at center in tough conditions when Dan Koppen went out injured and he too filled in without missing a beat. By the end of the day, the Patriots had three starters out and another rookie, Logan Mankins, at a fourth spot on the line and were still holding up okay and moving the ball.

Quarterback Tom Brady had an uneven day, but made some big throws when it mattered. Tim Dwight in the receiver spot made one of the better plays of the year in ripping the ball away from a defender for a 59 yard advance that led to the winning score. Tight end Ben Watson flashed his great downfield potential and scored two TDs.

All in all, a decent showing from the offense. They put up 23 points with many injuries. They scored when it mattered. They helped win the game. You’d like to see a quicker start, but other than that not much to complain about.

On the other side of the ball, the embattled defense showed some signs they could be on the verge of turning it around. Up front, there was more pressure, better discipline and good play from some long missing players, practically, such as Jarvis Green and Vince Wilfork. The return of All-Pro Richard Seymour helped a lot as well up front and he should improve as he gets back into playing condition.

The linebackers were active and helped win the game. Tedy Bruschi looked like the old Tedy Bruschi, playing with passion, knocking down passes, jumping over linemen to get in the quarterbacks face and just generally playing with reckless abandon. That kind of thing can be contagious and early on it was obvious the Patriots defense was flocking to the ball and gang tackling. They shut down the running game and dared Miami quarterback Gus Frerotte to make plays. He made his share, but in the end neither he nor the Dolphins made enough.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect for the Patriots of this win was the play of the defensive backs. Rookie Ellsi Hobbs starting his first game showed he was a high energy player not afraid to be physical and get in receiver’s faces. He generally blanketed his man and came up with his first pick. All in all, an excellent starting debut and it looks like there is something to work with there. Asante Samuel at the other corner also had a good day. He did get beat for one touchdown, but showed again he is a willing hitter and good in coverage most of the day. New safety starter Michael Stone was easily the best fill in the Patriots have had at that spot since Rodney Harrison went down. He seemed less hesitant and more confident than any of his predecessors and was generally in the rights spots willing to deliver a hit.

Yes, its true, Miami did throw for 360 yards. But it just felt different. Maybe its that it took Frerotte 47 attempts to ring up those yards. Or that he only completed 53.2% of his passes. It just seemed better and more competitive. Now sure, there were a couple plays where the tackling was bad you’d like to see a better job. And 360 yards is still unacceptable even if it “felt” better or not.

But GDRV liked the hitting and the competitive coverage. The energy level was high. GDRV liked the fact the Patriots got off the field a few times on critical 3rd downs (and 4th down at the end of the game). It was all very encouraging, given what has gone on with the pass defense to date.

It sounds like a broken record, but Josh Miller continued his outstanding season. If he continues this way, he should get some consideration for the Pro Bowl. Adam Vinatierri outkicked his Miami counterpart, kicker Olindo Mare. The Patriots returns and coverage were not good and in fact they started the game with a penalty on their first return. Both units remain somewhat underachieving.

GDRV was encouraged by this win. At 5-4, the Patriots have the division under their own control. But a word of caution. It has been such an up and down season, every time the Patriots seem to be getting it together, they take a step back. But again, there were more positive signs than we have seen in awhile. They do have a lot of injuries to overcome, but some of those guys will come back soon. If they can continue to improve and can beat New Orleans Sunday to put together their first two game winning streak of the year, we may just see them get rolling yet.

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