A theme of these reviews has been talking about how much had to go right for the Dolphins to win games.
First, Miami has to avoid turnovers. The worst losses Miami has experienced this season - Texans and Titans - both involved multiple turnovers in the first half. Miami has won just 3 games this season in which its turned over the ball (Seattle, Bengals, and Jets) while losing 6 games (Texans, Jets, Bills, Cardinals, Titans, Patriots).
Second, Miami had to avoid penalties. The defense largely has been good at avoiding penalties this year (except, of course, for Nolan Carroll), and the fact that the defense rarely "gives" yards to the opposing offense is one of the reasons why they've done well on third-downs this season. However, a 1st-and-15 or 1st-and-20 for Miami's offense usually ends with a punt. We lack the firepower on offense to overcome 1st and long situations, one of the downsides to being built as a run-first team. It's hard to run for 15-20 yards in 3 plays to get a first-down.
And third and finally, Miami had to make the most of its opportunities on both sides of the ball. The past couple of years, Miami has been one of the league-leaders in dropped interceptions. When Kevin Coyle took over as DC, I remember him remarking that he counted over a dozen dropped interceptions by our unit while watching tape from our games last year. Recently when asked who on Miami's defense qualified as a playmaker, Coyle immediately said Cameron Wake. When asked who else, he said Reshad Jones, and that's all he named. One reason is that our defense, which is quite good in many ways, has been poor at forcing turnovers for the past couple of seasons. Miami has just 9 interceptions this season (tied for 21st in the NFL), despite leading the league in pass-attempts against, and Miami's defense has recovered just 3 fumbles (tied for 29th in the NFL) despite forcing 11 fumbles (near league-average). Also, on offense, Miami rarely earns "chunk-yardage" (over 20 yards) on a play this year, so Miami can't afford to let opportunities to get big plays slip away. Last year, Miami was top-5 in the AFC in plays of over 20 yards, but a large number of those plays were made by deep passes to Brandon Marshall. That element of Miami's offense is gone and making plays for Jay Cutler in Chicago, so whenever Miami's remaining receivers are able to get open downfield, like Marlon Moore against the Rams or Clay against the Seahawks, the Dolphins HAVE to make that play, because Miami doesn't have multiple players on offense who are big-play threats every game like Brandon Marshall or Vincent Jackson.
Miami just lost a close game against the Patriots by a final score of 23 to 16 because Miami failed at all 3 of those weekly goals. Miami turned over the ball on offense AND special teams. Miami was heavily penalized (sometimes unfairly, but sometimes fairly). Miami left multiple big plays on the field. Unsurprisingly, that resulted in a loss that leaves Miami just 1 loss away from being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
Let's start with Special Teams - a mixed performance.
Field Goals: Dan Carpenter went 3 for 3 on field goal attempts, connecting on a 44-yard attempt, 33-yard attempt, and 42-yard attempt. Carpenter is a perfect 16 for 16 under 45 yards but 1 for 6 (17%) between 45-55 yards for the season (17 for 22).
Kick coverage: On 5 kickoffs, 3 were touchbacks. In the 2 "returnable" kicks, the Dolphins held the Patriots to one 29 yard return, with the other kick not returned because it was an onside kick.
Special-section- onside kick: Miami attempted and failed to convert an onside kick. The onside kick is a low-percentage play (success league-wide is usually 30-40%), and the Patriots played the kick well since they were fully expecting it. The kick had plenty of air underneath it but went a little too far, allowing Patriots WR Brandon Lloyd to field it cleanly.
Kick returns: Marcus Thigpen had 1 return for 17 yards (5 touchbacks).
Punt coverage: Brandon Fields punted 5 times for an average of 51.8 yards (long of 60 yards), with a net average of 42.8 yards, and 2 downed inside the 20. On 2 punt returns, the Patriots PR Julian Edelman was held to an average of 12 yards per return and a long of 15 yards. However, long-snapper John Denney low-snapped the ball to Brandon Fields on one punt. Fields struggled to gather up the ball and eventually was tackled for loss, giving the Patriots terrific field position early in the game.
Punt returns: Thigpen returned 2 punts for an average of 3 yards and a long of 6 yards. The Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko averaged 34.7 net yards punting on 3 punts, with 0 downed inside the 20 yard line and a long of 54 yards. However, a chance at a 3rd punt return was wiped out by Jimmy Wilson's roughing the kicker penalty that kept the Patriots' drive alive and led to a touchdown. Wilson later admitted that he left his feet late and that left him unable to avoid hitting the punter after the punt was away.
Coaching/Overall - A performance by special teams that fell below expectations for the third week in a row. After allowing its first punt-return TD 2 weeks ago, the unit allowed their first kickoff-return TD last week, and this week, the unit was responsible for a turnover deep in Dolphins territory. Teams are aware Thigpen is a very dangerous returner who has scored 2 TDs and now avoid giving him a chance at a long return. The only bright spot was Dan Carpenter.
As I said last week, the issue with Carpenter is distance, not pressure. For example, in this game Carpenter's final field goal came late in the fourth quarter and gave Miami a shot at tying the game if Miami had converted an onside kick and scored a TD. If Carpenter misses that field goal, Miami had no chance at all. However, Carpenter drilled that 42-yard field goal, just as he came through for Miami on a game-tying field goal at the end of the week 3 Jets game to send the game in overtime, and just as he came through on the last-second, game-winning field goal last week against the Seahawks. All 3 of those high-pressure kicks came late in the fourth quarter with Miami tied or behind, and Carpenter converted all 3. IMO, the only high pressure kick he missed this year was a 48-yard kick in overtime against the Jets in week 3. His miss against the Arizona Cardinals was a 51 yarder that came in the 3rd quarter with Miami ahead by 13, meaning that while it definitely hurt Miami in a game that went to overtime, it wasn't a late-game kick, and it definitely wasn't a chip-shot. His only misses have come beyond 45 yards, so the common theme of his misses is distance.
Anyways, special teams as a whole has been very shaky the past few weeks after a very promising start. This game, the unit was responsible for Miami's 2 worst plays of the game, which is always a bad sign for special teams.
Next, the Defense - which had arguably its most impressive performance of the year up to the Patriots' final drive.
Run defense: Allowed 109 yards rushing on 28 carries by Patriots running backs (3.9 yards per carry). However, 54 of those yards came on the Patriots' final drive in 11 plays (4.9 yards per carry), which chewed up a lot of clock and ended on a chip-shot field goal deep in Miami's territory. The Patriots owned time of possession as our offense couldn't sustain drives, and a mini-controversy has developed over Miami's substitution pattern on the defensive line for that final drive. My take is that while the coaches are talking vaguely of "snap count targets," I think they really believed the defensive linemen were gassed at the end of the game, and that led to the use of substitutes on the final drive. However, they don't want to openly accuse guys like Wake of being "tired." Nonetheless, the Patriots are one of the best rushing teams in the NFL, and Miami held up well until the end.
Pass rushing: Miami did a very good job of generating pressure on Brady. Now, an important disclaimer is that the Patriots were playing with 2 injury replacements on offensive line (at LG and RG) so I'm not sure our front-4 would be as effective in a later matchup against their starting O-line. However, Tom Brady definitely doesn't fit the "mobile QB" label that has given our defense serious issues, and he definitely had an awful day. Miami finished with 4 sacks and many more hits and hurries. Reshad Jones, Koa Misi, Paul Soliai, and Cameron Wake all had 1 sack. Wake's sack was very enjoyable as he was up against likely Pro-Bowl right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and used a speed rush to the outside to get past Vollmer and circled back to Brady for a direct hit. Wake had multiple hits and QB pressures, and he drew a holding penalty on Vollmer. Olivier Vernon had his weekly "Pass Pressure That The Opposing QB Easily Sidesteps To Prevent a Sack," but I believe Koa Misi seeing more time at DE is a sign that the coaching staff isn't satisfied with Vernon's production so far, otherwise they'd be increasing his snaps.
Be sure to include at least 1 defensive end on your mock drafts...
Pass coverage: Brady had a mixed passing day - 24 of 40, for 238 yards and 1 TDs and 1 INTs (that's a bad day for Brady, yes). It was a mix of pressure by Miami, Brady having some accuracy issues when forced to throw outside the numbers, good coverage by the Dolphins secondary on all of his targets except for 2, and some Patriots receivers such as Hernandez, Welker, and TE Daniel Fells being guilty of untimely drops.
Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (12 catches for 103 yards and 1 TD) gave Miami issues, as always. Patriots WRs Julian Edelman (1 catch for 13 yards) and Brandon Lloyd (1 catch for 10 yards) were barely productive. That's a total of 14 catches for 126 yards or 9.0 yards per catch for wide receivers - overall, a good showing.
Sean Smith had one of his better games, as he was rarely targeted. That's partly because of good coverage by him, but also partly because Brady had other CBs to exploit. However, one time Smith was targeted while on Welker was on Miami's all-out blitz near the endzone (that was shown early to Brady - ugh), which led to a couple of hand-signals exchanged between Brady and Welker. Welker then went into motion and settled behind Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd blocked Smith, and Welker caught a quick pass with a clear path to the endzone because all of our LBers and safeties were at the line of scrimmage on the blitz. Never show blitzes early to veteran QBs with veteran WRs.
Nolan Carroll, like Smith, was rarely targeted, though that's in part because he's been splitting snaps with other CBs, and he saw fewer snaps this game than RJ Stanford (which is not a good sign for Carroll). However, he still allowed a third down conversion on Edelman's only catch of the day.
As for tight ends - Miami was fortunate not to face Rob Gronkowski, but Aaron Hernandez is no slouch. Hernandez finished with 8 catches for 97 yards, which is bad but could have been worse as he was guilty of 2 drops. Reshad Jones did have a terrific one-handed interception while covering Hernandez down the sideline, but I worry about what will happen when we face Hernandez and Gronk at the same time. The second tight end for the Patriots this game was Daniel Fells, who 0 catches and 1 drop but drew a (questionable) pass interference call on Reshad Jones. Struggling to slow down just 1 elite tight end is a bad sign, both for our game against the 49'ers and our future matchups against the Patriots (in which Hernandez will only be the second-most talented TE on the field with Gronk coming back).
As for the running backs/fullback - Danny Woodhead had 2 catches for 15 yards (7.5 yards per catch).
Coaching/Overall: Run defense was outstanding until the final drive, when it fell apart mainly on inside runs. The Dolphins generated pressure and sacked Brady 4 times. Pass coverage of receivers not named Wes Welker was excellent, but Welker had himself a very nice game (as usual). Coverage of tight ends - or rather, 1 tight end - was poor.
Our redzone defense was good, with only 2 of 4 Patriots redzone possessions ending in a touchdown (though again, they were missing their best redzone target in Gronkowski).
Our third down defense was poor, as Miami allowed the Patriots to convert 7 of 14 third downs (50%) - I excluded the Patriots' 15th and final 3rd down, in which Brady intentionally went down behind the line of scrimmage to set up a field goal (and thus the down wasn't "defended" by Miami).
Kevin Coyle Effect: For first time in 4 games, Miami's defensive backs earned an interception, with Reshad Jones coming through while on single-coverage of Hernandez. Out of 12 games so far, Miami's defensive backs failed to generate an interception in 6 despite being up against the most pass-attempts in the NFL.
Despite all those flaws (not stopping Welker OR Hernandez, poor third down defense) and being put into a bad spot by turnovers by offense and special teams as well as an awful special teams' penalty, Miami's defense only allowed 23 points, the Patriots' second-lowest score this season. Far from perfect, but overall, a good effort by the defense.
Last, the Offense - which did worse against the Patriots' defense than it did against the Seahawks defense last week...
Offensive line: Last week, our offensive line finally looked like it was gelling in a new system with two new starters. Of course, this being the Dolphins, that couldn't last forever. Jake Long was lost early to a serious-looking triceps injury. That forced a reshuffle as our primary backup OT is Will Yeatman, who was a tight end 5 months ago but is being converted into a tackle. The coaching staff is high enough on his potential to keep him on the roster (as opposed to the practice squad, where he could be poached), but that means our "real" backup left tackle is....our right tackle. And our "real" backup right tackle is a guy the last coaching staff used as a guard (Nate Garner). Though Long's injury forced multiple position-switches at offensive tackle, Miami was very fortunate that the Patriots' weakest position on defensive line right now is defensive end. First round pick (and candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year) DE Chandler Jones was out with injury. Primary backup DE Jermaine Cunningham was suspended over a week ago for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. So Miami was up against the Patriots' #2 and #4 DE's, which limited the damage. Tannehill was still sacked 3 times, and he took some hard-shots as Nate Garner struggled mightily at right tackle. Jonathan Martin held up well at left tackle, but let's hold off on praising him too much until we see how he does up against Aldon Smith next week (who is closing in on the single-season sack record)...
In terms of run blocking, Miami ran the ball well right before halftime with the Patriots playing deep to avoid big plays, but in the second half, the Patriots began regularly run-blitzing Miami on first and second down, and Miami wasn't able to run effectively afterwards. Losing Jake Long definitely didn't help our run blocking, but our lack of passing game success against one of the worst secondaries in the NFL is the bigger disappointment.
Receivers/Tight Ends: Anthony Fasano had just 1 catch (for the fifth week in a row), this week for 14 yards. Nice and easy - just 1 catch per game. He was also penalized for holding, which is a penalty he's committed frequently this season (4th time).
Clay had an okay game. Obviously, after his breakout game last week, the Patriots made sure to not let him run free, but he still chipped in 2 catches for 26 yards, including making a great catch on a poorly thrown pass. This is the first time all year Clay has had 2 consecutive games with more than 1 catch. It's a start....
Egnew was inactive....
Bess had a poor game, with just 1 catch for 13 yards and 2 drops. Per ProFootball Focus, he struggled to get open against press-coverage for most of the game.
Hartline finished with 5 catches for 84 yards but could have had so much more. He got wide open deep twice. The first time Hartline was several yards ahead of cornerback Kyle Arrington with no safety nearby (most likely due to blown assignment by a safety), but Tannehill overthrew him by about a yard. The second time, Hartline was left alone on the sidelines, yet Hartline dropped the (underthrown) pass after cornerback Aqib Talib probably made early contact. Hartline also committed a false-start penalty.
Marlon Moore had 0 catches again but the end-around plays with Marlon Moore at WR that worked so well last week were well-defended. Marcus Thigpen was also used in this role (and had one 8 yard carry).
Rishard Matthews continues to be very rarely targeted but produce when targeted. After being targeted twice in Buffalo (resulting in a catch and defensive pass interference call drawn), and not being targeted at all last week, Matthews was targeted twice this game. The first time, Matthews was targeted on a comeback route and the pass was so low it hit his feet. The second time, the pass was completed for a 28 yard gain on Miami's last drive. What's interesting is that the Patriots were in prevent defense, yet Matthews still managed to get a catch deep down the sidelines. Again, the Bills' and Patriots' secondaries are far from elite, but the guy is producing when given a chance. It might be worth giving him more than 2 targets per game, just to see what happens.
Running backs/Fullback: Jorvorskie Lane has disappeared as a receiving and rushing threat, and had a limited effect as a blocker as the Patriots run-blitzed whenever Lane was in the game (correctly guessing Miami intended to run the ball).
Reggie Bush finished with 15 carries for 64 yards (4.2 yards per carry). He had 1 pass target and 0 catches, as Miami steadfastly refuses to make him a regular part of the passing game other than as a decoy.
Daniel Thomas had one of his worst games of the season, with his string of strong performances coming to an end. He had 5 carries for 10 yards (2.0 yards per carry), so he was less effective than Bush. He had 2 catches for 19 yards, but he struggled in pass protection and failed to pick up a delayed blitz on Miami's second-to-last drive. He also fumbled the ball, though at least it was recovered by Miami.
Lamar Miller was active but unused...
Quarterback: My thoughts about Tannehill....
One of Tannehill's worst games of the season when you consider the quality of the secondary he was facing. 13 of 29 passing for 186 yards, 1 rushing TD, 1 lost fumble counts as the best defensive performance by the Patriots secondary against a QB since they faced Tebow in the playoffs last year.
Tannehill did a lot of things well with at times shaky pass protection, using his legs to gain yards and keep plays alive. While our receivers weren't getting as open as they should have considering the opponent, the fact that Tannehill frankly missed receivers who were open means he has to shoulder a lot of the blame. The overthrow to Hartline was an understandable miss - Tannehill tried to put a lot of air underneath the throw while throwing it deep because a CB was in hot pursuit by Hartline, and the ball ended up landing a yard outside of Hartline's reach.
The underthrow to Hartline in my opinion was less excusable - Hartline was standing WIDE OPEN alone by the sideline, which presented Tannehill with 2 choices - he could have thrown a bullet right at the stationary Hartline, or he could have lobbed a pass deep to lead Hartline towards the endzone. Instead, Tannehill lobbed a pass right to where Hartline was, so Hartline had to stay in place and wait for a pass as Talib realized Hartline was open and tried to make a play on the ball. Hartline ultimately dropped the pass that hit him in the chest, so Hartline deserves blame for that not being a catch, but that was a poor throw by Tannehill since he made his receiver's job more difficult than it needed to be. Those were the most painful misses, but Tannehill was slightly off on several more throws.
Now, as I mentioned, Brady missed some throws, so when I see a game in which two normally accurate QBs are missing throws while the announcers point out how much the flags above the stadium are being blown around, it's fair to blame some of those problems on the wind, but ultimately Tannehill needed to do a better job on some shorter throws. He missed Bush on a quick slant with Bush lined up in the slot, and Bush might have been able to get a first down if the pass hit him in stride instead of being thrown behind Bush and too low. The distance of the throw is too short to blame on the wind alone.
Coaching/Overall: Our offense was balanced but largely ineffective - with 26 rushing plays compared to 29 passing plays. Miami's struggles on third down continued as Miami went a VERY poor 3 for 13 (23%) on third downs. Omar Kelly actually wrote a very good piece detailing what went wrong on each third down, and I suggest you take a read by clicking here. I'm not normally an Omar fan, but he did a fair job on that writeup.
I wrote last week, "Belichick surely watched this game [against the Seahawks] during the Pats' extended break after their Thanksgiving game, so Sherman must continue to tweak our offense to prevent it from growing predictable. The set of plays with Marlon Moore appearing to run an end-around is nice, but it won't catch the Patriots off guard."
Basically, Miami tried those same end-around plays (with limited success since the Patriots were well prepared), but otherwise used the same plays we've used all season that defenses have repeatedly proven they can stop. It's a poor effort by Mike Sherman to not continue to try to add new wrinkles to Miami's offense.
Referee Critique: Most games end with questionable calls in favor of the Patriots - ask any Bills fan about how they felt the referees treated their team in their last game against the Patriots, which was closely fought. In this game, there was a missed obvious facemask penalty on Tannehill that that should have been called against the Patriots that the announcers were very critical of the referees for missing. There was also a 31 yard pass interference penalty called against Miami on a pass that landed 5 yards out of bounds that again resulted in the announcers being very critical of the referees. There was also a missed intentional grounding call against Tom Brady, but he regularly gets away with that (which is why watching him get penalized for it in the Super Bowl was so satisfying, since he was genuinely surprised the referees applied that rule with him involved).
Those were the most egregious calls that went in favor of the Pats. There were a couple of calls/judgments I disliked, BUT I felt were defensible, like Hernandez being spotted a first down when it appeared he was half a yard short and the Reshad Jones pass interference call. 50-50 calls aren't worth debating, so I'm not going to talk about them, but the first 3 calls I mentioned were more like 30-70 calls that the Patriots got the benefit of the doubt on.
In Summary: A near-complete team loss, as special teams continued their recent struggles while the offense reverted back to its pre-Seahawks game form. Miami didn't get the benefit of the doubt on some flags, but the bigger issues were the inability of the passing game to exploit a weak secondary, the shaky offensive line after losing Jake Long, and Miami's special teams helping the Patriots score 14 points.
A Look Ahead: As I said last week, for our win over the Seahawks to mean something, we had to follow it up with another win at home. As it stands, we're at 5-7 with road games against the 49'ers and Patriots, along with home games against the Jaguars and Bills, and our playoff hopes look "theoretical" at this point unless we pull off an upset next week.
With an injury-depleted O-line, I normally would say we should run the ball more to protect Tannehill, but the 49'ers have one of maybe 3 defensive fronts in the NFL that are better at stopping than run than Miami's, so next week could get painful unless Martin frankly does a better job at left tackle against elite pass rushers than Jake Long has (which is unlikely). Miami's best hope is a defensive slugfest keeping things close, since Miami's offense struggles to score against most opponents, and it will be up against the best defense in the NFL.