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12 Dec 2006
by Ned Macey
The Patriots had played with fire the previous two games. They turned it over eight times but managed to escape with wins over Chicago and Detroit. There was no escape on Sunday when Miami's pass rush punished Tom Brady, and the Dolphins posted a 21-0 whipping.
The Dolphins have now won five of six games. Their one loss, a week ago to Jacksonville, looks less troubling in light of that team's demolition of Indianapolis. At 6-7, this improvement is definitely too little, too late. Sadly, the Dolphins are again going to be just short of the playoffs and face the future with an unsettled quarterback situation.
The Dolphins have been Brady's nemesis for a number of years. For his career, Brady has averaged 5.7 yards per attempt with a 1.45 touchdown-to-interception ratio against the Dolphins. Against everyone else, he averages 7.2 YPA and has a 1.9 ratio. Brady has now thrown for under 100 yards in three full games of his career. All are against Miami.
What is hard to understand about this consistent play by Miami is the lack of continuity between the 2001 Dolphins and 2006 Dolphins. OK, Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas are still around. But, the only other starter even on the team before 2005 is Yeremiah Bell. The coaching staff was completely turned over last year by new head coach Nick Saban.
Even odder about the shutdown of Brady is that the Dolphins had been substantially better against the run than the pass this season. The secondary is mostly a combination of veteran cast-offs. When you start raiding the Lions for cornerbacks not named Dre' Bly, you would think your secondary would be hurting. But there was Andre Goodman holding his own. Erstwhile Cardinal and Raider Renaldo Hill manned the safety position. Will Allen, the former Giant, was considered a mediocre starter before signing with Miami.
Holding this patchwork group together is the aforementioned Bell. Bell had been a reserve player for several years. He got his first start in Week 6 against the Jets. To that point, the Dolphins pass defense had been terrible with a DVOA of 21.5%, 26th in the league. Since then, they have a DVOA of -20.6%, fourth in the league.
The switch from Travares Tillman to Bell has come at a cost to the run defense. That unit was dominant early in the season, fourth in the league with Tillman starting. With Bell, it has ranked 11th.
Against the Patriots, it is better to have a good pass defense than a run defense. The Patriots like to run the ball and have the talented Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon to do the pounding. Still, the results are just not that good. Their run offense DVOA is -2.7%, a mediocre 15th in the league. Maroney looks very impressive on the field, but at the end of the day, his DVOA is -9.9%, worse than Wali Lundy's. Dillon is about average, but he clearly has lost a step at age 32.
Maroney was out on Sunday, leaving Kevin Faulk and Patrick Pass to help out Dillon. Despite the 21-0 whitewashing, Maroney was not missed. The running backs gained 123 yards on 25 carries. On kick returns, an area where Maroney has excelled, the Patriots averaged 32.8 yards per return. Maroney is certainly a very talented rookie, but this Sunday's loss had nothing to do with Maroney's absence.
Despite the success on the ground, the Patriots offense stalled repeatedly. Poor pass protection was the leading culprit. The Patriots offensive line has completely broken down. Through the first five games, they allowed five sacks. They have allowed 20 in the last eight. Against Jason Taylor and the Dolphins they were no match. As the game progressed, the Dolphins started blitzing more and more players, and the offensive line was completely overwhelmed. They sacked Brady four times and pressured him on numerous other occasions.
Increased pressure made Brady a much less effective quarterback. As the hits mounted, he started getting happy feet in the pocket. He threw to covered receivers, rushed throws before the pressure actually came, and almost never got the ball down the field.
The Patriots receiving corps is a much discussed topic, but never has it been less of a factor than on Sunday. They combined for four catches for 47 yards. Brady attempted only six passes to his outside receivers. He attempted five to Troy Brown, who plays mostly in the slot. The outside receivers were almost never open even when Brady had time. The safeties stayed deep when they were not blitzing, allowing the cornerbacks to be physical at the line of scrimmage.
The second problem for the Patriots is a rash of turnovers. Brady avoided the interceptions that had plagued him in recent weeks, but fumblitis has invaded the team. They have 20 fumbles in their past eight games. They now lead the league in total fumbles. Daniel Graham put one on the ground to set up the Dolphins' first field goal. Brady fumbled twice on his four sacks. Brady's ability to hold on to the ball is becoming a problem. He has 12 fumbles this year despite only 23 sacks. The only quarterback with more is David Carr.
Finally, penalties are a massive problem for New England. Overall, penalties do not correlate at all with wins and losses, but in a given day, penalties can kill. They had nine penalties for 71 yards. The first two Dolphins field goals came on drives extended by roughing the passer penalties, one admittedly dubious. An illegal formation penalty cost them 15 yards on a punt. They even got flagged on their well-conceived trick play. They have now averaged 8.5 penalties over the past four games.
The Dolphins were not passive observers in a Patriots' meltdown. They applied the pressure that overwhelmed the offense. As importantly, their own offense was just effective enough to control the clock, win the field position battle, and convert several scoring opportunities. They only scored six first-half points, but they had no three-and-out drives and consistently reversed field position.
The Dolphins offense has been below average most of the season, but offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has finally developed a system to make Joey Harrington effective. Who knew such a system existed? Over the past four weeks, Harrington has a DVOA of 10.5%, roughly Eli Manning quality. Add in a workmanlike performance by Sammy Morris against the tough New England run defense, and the Dolphins offense actually looked capable.
Despite the recent improved performance, Harrington remains a questionable solution at the quarterback position. For the first half of the game, he was extremely protected, throwing mostly underneath. When he did go down the field, he was inaccurate and missed a number of open receivers. In the second half, he gained confidence and threw the ball with more authority. But even his touchdown pass to Marty Booker was a questionable throw. Artrell Hawkins had as good a chance at making the catch as Booker.
The rest of the Dolphins are too good to have to protect their quarterback the way Harrington is protected. His play is reminiscent of Brad Johnson's a year ago in Minnesota. When the defense is playing well, Harrington takes the check down, avoids sacks, and "manages" the game. Neither player threatens the opposition down the field. Harrington is averaging an appallingly low 10.3 yards per completion. Johnson, by the way, averages 10.2 yards per completion.
Harrington, unlike Johnson, is not in his late thirties. Additionally, Harrington, unlike Johnson, has never been an effective quarterback before. Four solid games do not a Pro Bowler quarterback make. He is a legitimate back-up quarterback, a great player to come in for a game or two. Depending on Harrington as a long-term solution at quarterback is a mistake.
The Dolphins have the same question marks they had a year ago when they finished 9-7 with a late season run. Their defense is getting older. Zach Thomas was very effective on Sunday, but at times he appears to have lost a step. Jason Taylor should be defensive player of the year, but he is 32.
Offensively, they have a very difficult decision to make at quarterback. Will Daunte Culpepper ever be effective again? Is Harrington capable of consistently playing good football? Should they scrap both and go after Jake Plummer, Byron Leftwich, or another veteran?
One clear area for improvement is wide receiver. Anyone harboring thoughts of Chris Chambers being an elite receiver needs to stop watching SportsCenter so much. Chambers was eliminated from the game by Asante Samuel, and his presence as the primary receiver is becoming a problem. Marty Booker is a solid second receiver, but he is 30 and not capable of carrying an offense. His impressive game against the Patriots should be tempered by the fact that they always struggle against second receivers. Mike Furrey hit them for over 100 yards the week before.
The team tried to make the big splash at quarterback a year ago, and it has backfired. Now, they have a crowded quarterback situation and few other areas that need major upgrades. After another strong finish to a season, the temptation will be to think the team is ready to compete. That thought should be resisted. Young blood should be brought in to support the defense. The offensive skill positions, outside of Ronnie Brown, should all be subject to change if the proper replacements become available.
The Patriots hope their off-season does not start for a while, but this team looks to be in for a short playoff run. They will not get a first-round bye, something they had in all three of their recent Super Bowl seasons. A first round date with either a dominant pass defense in Jacksonville or a Cincinnati team with diverse receiver weapons could spell trouble. If they survive that, they would likely have to travel to San Diego to play a team that is simply more talented than they are.
Further complicating issues are mounting injury concerns. Their two starting safeties and a starting linebacker are already out, and now Vince Wilfork is injured. The Dolphins had big gains on the ground after Wilfork's departure on Sunday.
The good news is that they have Tom Brady. While the Dolphins proved authoritatively that he is not all you need, it doesn't hurt. Brady is pressing right now and clearly not at ease in the pocket. The number one goal over the last three weeks is to get the offensive line in order. If they cannot do their job, hold receivers and tight ends in to block. Brady can be lethal even with this wide receiver corps. A confident Brady will always give them a fighting chance, but this Patriots team will need a great deal of good fortune to get back to the Super Bowl.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
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