The New England Patriots ended the 2012 regular season on a high note and have plenty of momentum heading into 2013 and the playoffs after demolishing the Miami Dolphins 28-0. Here are five small bits that we learned after a huge game from the defense and a solid performance offensively.
1. Justin Francis emerges at the right time
Rob Ninkovich went down with what looks like a nasty hip injury in the second quarter, but Justin Francis picked up where he left off and was even better. The undrafted rookie defensive end shook off a subpar game in Week 16 by recording three sacks on Ryan Tannehill to lead the seven-sack assault by the Patriots on the Miami Dolphins offensive line. Francis made the ‘Fins line look absolutely helpless, and he has emerged as a big rotational pass rushing option in the absence of Rob Ninkovich.
That’s the thing, the Pats have plenty of depth at DE as far situational pass rushers go. Trevor Scott is an explosive guy on the outside and can make big plays, and then of course the Pats have Jermaine Cunningham back from suspension. The one problem is that neither Scott nor Francis are good in run defense. Rob Ninkovich, on the other hand, is one of the run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL, so that’s something to watch out closely for. Against better competition like Denver Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin, that could end up being a major factor. On the bright side, Cunningham is an underrated run defender and can pick up the slack there.
2. Rob Gronkowski quick to shake off the rust
The New England Patriots gave Rob Gronkowski a quick tune-up game for the playoffs against the Miami Dolphins, and it didn’t take long for the star tight end to shake off the rust. He only took part in 25 snaps and four targets in the passing game, but he turned those targets into two big receptions for 42 yards. One of them was a 23-yard TD that went for a touchdown.
3. Kyle Arrington bounces back in a big way
When Kyle Arrington is off, he is awful. When he’s on, though, he makes a high quantity of plays. Arrington was all over the place on Sunday and recorded eight tackles and defended a pass. His play slipped over the past two weeks against the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars, and it looked like he was reverting to his early season form. But Arrington quickly regained his mid-season form with a solid performance on Sunday, and the main thing that impressed me was his ability to make solid tackles to wrap up plays for short gains. Looking at the stats, the Dolphins averaged six net yards per attempt.
4. We needed that from the offensive line
After an appalling performance in Week 16 in which the offensive line allowed Tom Brady to get hit nine times, the Patriots offensive line calmed down and absolutely shut down the Miami Dolphins voracious front seven and pass rush. That’s no easy feat, and that was one of the line’s best performances of the year. Sebastian Vollmer got his revenge on elite Dolphins pass rusher Cameron Wake, who beat up on Vollmer in their first meeting this year due to injury issues for Vollmer. The Patriots star right tackle looks healthy again after a rough spell.
Nate Solder also had a nice bounce back game after being roughed up in Jacksonville last week, and he was also eaten up by upstart 49ers pass rusher Ricky Jean Francois two games ago. The Dolphins managed just one sack, and it was from a corner blitz. The other hit on Brady was an inside blitz from ILB Kevin Burnett.
5. All-out rushing attack
All four New England Patriots running backs put in strong games against a normally shutdown Miami Dolphins defense. Stevan Ridley only averaged 3.7 yards per carry, but make no mistake; he had another solid game. Ridley found the end zone twice and looked extremely powerful breaking tackles against a strong Dolphins D.
Shane Vereen also got in the act by averaging 4.8 yards per carry on eight rushes for 38 yards, Brandon Bolden looked solid in his six carries, and Danny Woodhead made some big plays with three carries for 18 yards. Heck, even Wes Welker got into the act with an 11-yard run to help the Pats notch a total of 167 rushing yards.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.
Tags: Brandon Bolden Danny Woodhead Jermaine Cunningham Justin Francis Kyle Arrington Nate Solder New England Patriots Rob Gronkowski Rob Ninkovich Sebastian Vollmer Shane Vereen Stevan Ridley Trevor Scott