Patriots need to stretch the field

One week after just barely beating the Lions, the Patriots were shut out by the Dolphins, 21-0, on Sunday. Here are five areas in which the Patriots must improve:

Pass protection versus pressure: New England's offensive line has done a nice job protecting Tom Brady when opponents play base defense. But when teams bring pressure from different areas, the Patriots' protection scheme breaks down. The Patriots might need to keep an extra blocker in to give Brady more time.

Consistent ground attack: Earlier this season, the Patriots established a consistent running game, but that has been missing the past month. They got decent production this week (123 yards even without Laurence Maroney), but had only 79 yards in Week 13 and 85 yards in Week 12.

Consistent rushing defense: New England has a formidable defensive front, but it has been inconsistent lately against the run. The Patriots gave up 131 yards against the Dolphins, who were playing without featured back Ronnie Brown. Last week against the Lions, the Patriots gave up 77 yards on the ground, but in Week 12 they gave up 153 yards rushing against the Bears.

Stretch the field: There have been few big plays in the passing attack for the Patriots. Tight end Ben Watson is leading the team in receptions and is tops in yards per catch (13.1) among the Patriots' top four targets. Opponents crowd Patriots receivers at the line and challenge them to go deep.

Consistent special teams: The coverage teams have been inconsistent over the course of the season, giving up field position. Punter Ken Walter, who took over for Josh Miller, is averaging only 35.9 yards per punt in three games. Rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski has converted 13 of 17 field goal attempts. That's decent but not great.

Ken Moll spent 11 seasons as a scout for the Jaguars and Browns. Before that, he spent 15 years as an assistant coach in the college ranks. He scouts the AFC East for Scouts Inc.