For Patriots, Miami's never a vacation
Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, it's the Patriots visiting the Dolphins on Sunday.
Mike: Before getting into this game, let's quickly do what the players in the locker room have avoided: looking back at the loss to the Saints. I didn't see that coming.
Tedy: I expected it to be a fourth-quarter game in a situation where the better team would pull it out in the fourth quarter. I thought the Patriots would put together an effort that would lead to victory, especially with the motivation of having not finished the game against the Colts a few weeks ago. You talk about being dominated. When the backup quarterback is coming in with 5:30 to go in the game, you know you've been dominated.
Mike: Some had an issue with that decision at quarterback. I didn't. What was your thought?
Tedy: They were beaten in every aspect of the game, just like Coach Belichick said after the game. They were outcoached and outplayed. If that's the way the head coach sees it, as a player you go along with it. They got their butts kicked.
Mike: It seemed to me that some members of the defense got spooked by the moment. You just don't expect to see that from a Patriots team.
Tedy: For all the steady progress the defense made this year, they probably took about two steps back last week. Blown coverages. Trying to get things together on the sideline with players looking to each other for answers. I think it showed their youth a little bit, as they were having a tough time forgetting about the last play and being able to move on. They can take that game as a learning experience.
Mike: From a player's mind-set, is it easier to lose a game like that when compared to the way the Patriots lost against the Colts? Maybe you just tip your cap to the other team and move on, whereas against the Colts, that was a game the Patriots let slip away.
Tedy: [Laughs] It's no easier to take. When you get your butt kicked like you did on Monday night, that's definitely tougher to put behind you. I thought they played very well against the Colts. This game, it was about getting beat like a drum. That's tough to take. After a game like that I'd be happy it was a short week, to be able to get back in that meeting room right away and say "OK, who is our next challenge?"
Mike: You say the words "Patriots at Miami," and traditionally that has meant a struggle.
Tedy: The Patriots have struggled on the road all year, having not won a true road game. I think that's something they still need to prove to themselves, that they can go on the road and get a victory. To get your first road victory of the year is satisfying, whether it's in Week 1 or Week 13. I think that has to be a rallying cry, proving you can win on the road. I know they're talking about bouncing back. Historically, out of all my years playing with the Patriots, going down to Miami, you always know it's going to be tough no matter what the records are.
Patriots defense vs. Dolphins offense
Mike: This seems like a back-to-basics type of week. The run defense will be tested.
Tedy: The Dolphins are the third-ranked running team in the league, and the loss of running back Ronnie Brown is huge. He was the best offensive player they had. I know they are feeling that, but Ricky Williams has been running hard from what I've seen on film. He's hitting the holes hard, whether it's out of the Wildcat or they give it to him on various traditional sets. He looks really good and is averaging 5.1 yards per carry. That's pretty darn good. He'd be No. 1 on the Patriots' hit list in terms of people to stop.
Mike: When it comes to the Patriots' run defense, the place to start is with Vince Wilfork. His dominating performance last year led the Dolphins to sign a new center in free agency, Jake Grove. Grove is dealing with an ankle injury -- he's missed practice Wednesday and Thursday -- and his status will be something to monitor as we get closer to game day.
Tedy: That's how good Wilfork is on the nose. He dominates guys to a point where teams trade a player because they know they have to deal with him twice a year. One thing about Vince is that I like leaving him in one place. From down to down, to go from nose guard to defensive tackle/defensive end in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme can be very difficult. Vince is smart enough and athletic enough to pull it off. I think any player will be more effective when left at a certain spot. You let them thrive there. Another example of that is Mike Vrabel. During his early years here, he was asked to do some things that many players in the NFL have never been asked -- going from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, then back to outside linebacker. When he was finally able to lock in at outside linebacker, he was an All-Pro.
Mike: Interesting point, because we saw Wilfork move to end in the last meeting between the teams to go up against big left tackle Jake Long. Wonder if they'll do that again. Elsewhere, the Saints hurt the Patriots with the big play through the air. I heard Bill Belichick mention that the Patriots can expect to see more of those long plays in the future until they show they can stop them, but do you think the Dolphins, who are more run-based, can do the same thing with quarterback Chad Henne?
Tedy: I think they'll take their shots. How can you not after what you saw on film last week? Blown coverages and just being beat down the field. But let's get it straight: This isn't Drew Brees and his corps of receivers. This isn't a quarterback who can put the ball in very small windows like Drew Brees. I thought the one touchdown in which Wilhite got beat against Robert Meachem, you saw that Wilhite was in position but the ball was put in a place where even his good position wasn't enough. Can Chad Henne duplicate that? I don't think so but it still has to be attempted. Their fastest receiver is Ted Ginn Jr., and he has problems catching the ball. I think shots down the field will be well-timed, maybe off of play-action, possibly early in the game. But the Dolphins are a running team, and once Henne has to work to bring them back into the game with his arm -- like last week against Buffalo -- he ends up throwing interception after interception.
Mike: You've explained that the Patriots are a matchup defense and they'll bring personnel in and out of the game based on the offensive personnel. This is something I've thought about recently, wondering if they should simplify some of the matchups.
Tedy: The question is, can the young players and new players to the Patriots' system handle all of these constant package changes and positional changes within the downs? You need experienced players who have done this in their careers to really be effective at it. If you're a first- or second-year player, or a player like Derrick Burgess who is coming from a place where he was only asked to do one thing, it can be difficult. Even later on in my career, there were times when I would be in the defensive huddle and I'd see defensive personnel coming in and I'd say, "Here comes the 3-4; I'm the Mike linebacker" or "Here comes nickel; I'm the money." You have to tell yourself the position you'll play before the defense is called. You switch positions within packages. So you have to be on your toes mentally.
Mike: One thing I'll be keeping an eye on this week is any potential personnel changes, specifically at cornerback with Jonathan Wilhite and at rush end with Burgess. Anything else you want to touch on before we look at the other side of the matchup?
Tedy: Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning. I think you've seen it this year and in past years how Dan Henning can give a Bill Belichick-coached team headaches in terms of the way he calls plays. I thought one of the best series of play calling I've seen this year against the Patriots was when Henning brought in Pat White and they had that touchdown drive with the option. It was very creative, and you could see a lot of that this week.
Patriots offense vs. Dolphins defense
Tedy: If I were to put it simply, they played great man coverage with a combination of double teams coming from different people. Welker might have thought he was running free, and then a safety came up and made a tackle. That's another thing the Saints did, they made great open-field tackles. How many times have you seen Wes Welker, when short of the first-down marker, break a tackle and then run another five yards to get the first down? The Saints did a good job of sticking to him in man coverage and once he got the ball, they made the tackle. I thought establishing a physical presence with Moss when he was coming across the middle was important. We saw it when Darren Sharper hit him low and flipped him up. The Saints didn't care who they were, what their names were; they hit them, tackled them, and covered them man-to-man. There were times in that game where everybody was covered. There just wasn't enough separation against man-to-man coverage. The other part about it was the Saints' signing Mike McKenzie and Chris McAlister off the street. What's the easiest thing to tell a guy coming off the street? "You cover this guy, or you cover that guy, and that's all you have to do. You may get some help, but that's your job. You don't have to understand the zone concepts as much, or the communication right off the bat." They keep it simple for them -- you cover Moss. Mike McKenzie did what he does: He jumped routes and was trailing Moss all over the field. It was sort of the same thing Ty Law did when he signed with the Broncos and played against Hines Ward. Just cover Hines. Cover him all day.
Mike: In terms of Moss specifically, I've been wondering if he has been slowing down a bit. That's going to be something I will watch closer Sunday in Miami, a team he had success against last meeting. What else is on your mind?
Tedy: I think the Patriots offensive line is starting to get beat up. Stephen Neal went down last week and came back in. He's as tough as they come. Then you look at Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Sebastian Vollmer, Nick Kaczur, Dan Connolly -- all these guys are banged up. Everyone is banged up at this time of year, but when you have your entire offensive line banged up, that's when you start to see three-man rushes that start to get pressure on Tom Brady, or guys getting beat one on one. This being a short week, it gives you less time to heal from those injuries. This is sort of a MASH unit right now. I know they're hurting a bit, but I know these guys and they're tough, some of the toughest guys in the league. They just have to suck it up and do whatever they can to protect Tom Brady because one guy who is going to be juiced over there is Joey Porter. He is not saying much this week up to this point. He doesn't need to. He said it all last time they played and last time they played it was zero tackles and zero sacks. He wants to make up for that in a big way.
Mike: A couple of other things on that Dolphins defense. Jason Taylor is still playing at a high level with those six sacks, and I think those rookie corners will benefit from having faced Moss and Welker before. Maybe it takes away a little of the awe factor. I'd also mention the Dolphins' specialists: Kicker Dan Carpenter is 16-of-17 on field goals, and punter Brandon Fields has consistently helped shift field position. As for the Patriots, I think there might be temptation to go away from Laurence Maroney after his three straight weeks with fumbles but I'd stick with him. I think he's been running hard and is one of those explosive weapons who could make a defense pay from concentrating too much on Moss and Welker. Let's look at the big picture: How do you view this Patriots team right now?
Tedy: If I'm in the locker room this week, I am calling on all the clichés, like "one game at a time," but in the big picture, they have to win the AFC East. That's what they have to focus on, and it starts by beating the Dolphins on the road. A victory this week would remedy two problems: one, the winless record you have going into enemy territory; two, it would give you more distance in the division by putting the Dolphins behind you after sweeping them.
Mike: I've heard some ask the question if this team is elite anymore. At this point, few are saying they are. At the same time, things can change fast in the NFL as the 2008 Arizona Cardinals proved. They came in here and got blown out in the snow in late December, but they found a way to turn it around. Let's wrap this up by getting your take on the Patriots' chances of being there at the end.
Tedy: In terms of right now, if you want to look at this team, you can't say they are among the best teams in the league. You have Indianapolis, New Orleans and Minnesota. They are far and away the class of the league right now, and the Patriots have lost to two of them. The Patriots are bunched in with those other teams, jockeying to get themselves in the tournament. I think their approach right now is to just say, Let's get better every week. We're going to have to battle and see if we can get that No. 2 seed, but let's first make sure we can win the AFC East and try to fix these problems we have. Once you get into the tournament, it's anybody's ballgame.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.
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