Chris Long was one of the few standouts on defense for the Patriots last Sunday (photo source: bostonglobe.com)
Whew! That would've been awful if the Patriots actually lost a meaningful game in Foxborough vs. the Dolphins. The Patriots nearly allowed their divisional rivals from South Beach to overcome a defecit that would've made the Houston Oilers proud. Regardless, they were able to make just enough plays to win and they now stand at 2-0, atop of the AFC East . . . as usual. The following are the grades for each positional group Sunday's win over Miami.
Quarterbacks: A-. The only mar to this performance was when Jacoby Brissett lapsed and held the ball too long on a delayed blitz by safety Michael Thomas. An incredible hustle play by James White maintained possession for the Patriots after a 14-yard loss. Brissett gets high marks for 3 nice runs for first downs, including two 3rd and 1's, where he made a second effort on each to gain the line. His beautiful-play-action fake on the dump off to the wide open Martellus Bennett was a huge play in the game. Until he got hurt, Jimmy Garoppolo was outstanding with a near perfect performance where he showed poised-decision making, great athleticism, and crisp passing. His pre-snap reads were spot on every time.
Running backs: A. LeGarrette Blount provided every type of highlight you like to see out of a big back by hitting the hole with authority, dragging multiple tacklers, and even hurdling one perplexed Byron Maxwell. James Develin provided some great blocks at the point of attack. James White showed burst and elusiveness on a 16-yard run as well. Rookie D.J. Foster chipped in with a 7-yard carry of his own. Besides one mishap by White on the blitz pickup this was about as good as you'd expect from this group. Miami kept White in check in the passing game, but it was Blount's day and he made them pay dearly.
Receivers: B+. The receivers had a few third-down drops in this game, including two by Julian Edelman, both of which came when the Dolphins had already seized momentum. One could argue that the first ball was not his fault since Brissett threw it so hard from such a close distance. Danny Amendola had two nice touchdowns but he also had a fumble at his own 43 yard line. Martellus Bennett absolutely torched the Dolphins over the middle. In an otherwise great effort, linebacker Kiko Alonso was beaten on Bennett's seam route for a TD. Not to be underestimated, Patriot receivers Edelman, Amendola, and Chris Hogan all blocked downfield and provided the usual toughness this group provides.
Offensive line: B+. The offensive line coupled with Blount's powerful running were the keys to victory last week. Nate Solder and Joe Thuney were especially tough on some runs to the left. Once again, Bennett contributed as either an extra lineman or on some crackbacks. Thuney did have 2 costly holding penalties though. And, of course, Marcus Cannon was beaten for several pressures and a sack . . . again. Shaq Mason also gave up a sack and didn't look particularly aggressive on some of the running plays called his way. The line's domination on the last drive was the drive of the game (even though it resulted in no points) since it milked the clock and forced Miami to burn all of its timeouts. Their performance on that drive alone boosted their score by letter grade.
Defensive line: C-. Take away the outstanding effort by Chris Long and the group gets a D. Long was all over the field, especially in the first half when he recovered a fumble and forced an interception, which was reminiscent of Mike Vrabel's hurry on Kurt Warner leading to Ty Law's pick 6 in Super Bowl XXXVI. Long capped off his nice day with a batted pass on Miami's last drive. Trey Flowers had a fumble recovery but didn't pressure Tannehill once. The entire group was strong against the run but was easily walled by the Miami line on passing downs, even on plays where they blitzed. Miami effectively abandoned the run early midway through the third quarter, but still the Patriots line could not reach the quarterback. Tannehill was able to calmly hold the ball and scan the defense for the open man, often leading to big gains.
Linebackers: B. Jamie Collins secured the interception following Long's key pressure and was solid otherwise. However, Miami was keen to his famous A-gap blitzes and sealed him off time and again. Jonathan Freeny had a nice game filling in for Dont'a Hightower, where he contributed three tackles and held his ground on running plays. This group held Miami running backs to 35 yards total on 10 carries. Elandon Roberts made his debut and added a rare QB pressure. Tannehill was contained for the most part in the pocket. His late 17 yard run on the last drive was against a prevent defense, where the Patriots only rushed 3, leaving the middle of the field open. In fact, Tannehill did the Patriots a favor on this play as his scramble ticked 17 seconds off the clock until he spiked the ball on the next play. That left him three downs, 34 yards to go, and only 21 seconds remaining.
Cornerbacks: D. The pass defense did everything they could to assure quarterback Ryan Tannehill was going to win the AFC Offensive Player of The Week award. Justin Coleman got absolutely torched on a blitz where he should've known he had no deep help but instead he bit down on an out and up by Kenny Stills for a 24-yard TD. Logan Ryan had a tough day, once again, against the bigger Devante Parker, who had 8 receptions for 106 yards after a slow start. Ryan also got flagged for a costly pass interference call against Parker that set up the Dolphins at the 12 yard line from where they scored on the next play. However, Ryan once again showed his physical prowess with 7 tackles and a forced fumble, which occurred right after Amendola's fumble. Finally, Ryan surely heard it during the film session from teammates when Tannehill trucked him on his aformentioned-long run. Malcolm Butler had an uncharacteristicly poor run when the team completely unraveled in the second half. On the same ugly drive where Ryan committed his PI, Butler was beaten twice by Jarvis Landry on consecutive plays for 33 and 14 yards. He then was targeted on consecutive plays once again on Miami's final scoring drive by Parker for 13 yards and Landry for 13 yards. It was unusual and troubling to see Butler in the trail position so often during this contest. Tannehill often telegraphed his throws by focusing only on his primary receiver, but Patriot corners were rarely in a position to make a play on the ball.
Safeties: B. Unlike in last January's meeting in Miami, when Devin McCourty was late to several key pass plays over the top, this time McCourty kept the play in front of him. Duane Harmon was the star of this group with the key interception to seal the game. Upon a second review of the play, the ball was well thrown by Tannehill to Parker, but Harmon timed his jump perfectly to come up with the timely pick. Patrick Chung kept tight end Jordan Cameron to only 2 catches. However, he was late to react when he collided with Jamie Collins on the Cameron TD instead of sealing him off at the goal line.
Special teams: C. When Stephen Gostkowski missed what should have been the game-clinching-39-yard-field-goal attempt, all of New England took a collective breath. That is where a great field-goal kicker should never miss. Apparently, the game plan in the punting game was not to allow Landry a clean punt return but instead force fair catches and downed punts. On two consecutive second half possessions, this strategy backfired, as the punt team downed 37 and 28 yard punts, which left Miami in good field position for their subsequent scoring drives. The Patriots kicking team once again produced near-perfect execution with great kickoffs, sound coverage, and solid tackling. The punt return team did a commendable job sealing off Dolphins gunners on one 19-yard Amendola return.
Coaching: A-. Some critics rightfully questioned the Patriots playing a soft zone so early in the game after Jimmy G got hurt. That, coupled with Miami running a no huddle offense, put Tannehill in a rhythm, which almost cost the Patriots an embarrassing defeat. However, Josh McDaniels gets credit for scheming up running plays in the second half, when he called several sweeps to the left side for some big gains. The clock management on the last two drives was outstanding. Bill Belichick dared Adam Gase to use his timeouts on the Patriots last drive, but the Miami coach failed to use any of them until it was too late. Then he burned all of them in short order, thereby making a difficult situation even worse.
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