New England Patriots: Three Keys to Victory Over Miami on Sunday


Dec 14, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with head coach Bill Belichick (R) after clinching the AFC East title with a 41-13 win over the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots had a tale of two halves on Sunday at Gillette Stadium during their 41-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins. New England had an inconsistent first half as a turnover, an inability to run the ball consistently, drives stalling out, and bad clock management at the end of the first half made for a close contest. Only a big play on special teams and an interception and return gave New England a 14-13 lead despite being outplayed by Miami.

Dec 14, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws the ball over Miami Dolphins middle linebacker Jason Trusnik (93)during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 41-13. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

A look back at the game film reveals there are some issues that the Patriots need to address in the last two weeks of the season. With a season-ending match-up against Buffalo that seems to grow in importance each week, the Patriots also have an important trip to New Jersey to face the Jets on Sunday. The Patriots still control their own destiny in their quest for the number one seed in the AFC and home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs, but they cannot afford a slip-up against Rex Ryan and the Jets.

Here are three key leftovers from the game on Sunday that stood out as the Patriots attempt to take care of business in the next two weeks:

Nov 30, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; New England Patriots guard Dan Connolly (63) during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 26-21. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

One: Something is wrong with left guard Dan Connolly. Trading guard Logan Mankins in the pre-season allowed the Patriots to free up some roster flexibility for the future, but set-off a chain reaction on the offensive line that took four weeks of the regular season to get back to what is considered normal in New England. With rookie center Bryan Stork injured to start the season, the veteran Connolly started the season at center.

Connolly was good, but not great before shifting to left guard in week four. Connolly seemed to settle the position before he suffered a concussion and missed week seven against the Jets. Then, he injured his ankle in week twelve against the Lions trying to slow down Ndamukong Suh. Since then, Connolly has struggled mightily. Neither overly strong nor athletic Connolly gets by on his smarts and technique.

In the past four games (subscription required) credits Connolly with allowing a sack, eight hurries, and eight quarterback hits. On film, he is the weak point of the interior offensive line as he gets overrun both pass blocking and in the running game. Connolly left the game with a neck injury. He was replaced by Josh Kline who instantly provided an upgrade. Kline started two games at right tackle earlier in the season and can do the job until Connolly is closer to 100%. It is no coincidence the Patriots gained most of their yards on the ground and gave Brady time to complete two 30+ yard passes once Kline replaced Connolly.


Dec 14, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones (95) puts on his helmet prior to the game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Two: Healthy players on defense made a huge difference. While defensive end/outside linebacker Chandler Jones got the most attention as he returned to health with a huge game as he was a force against the run and pass, inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower played a key role in stuffing the run and dropping into coverage after missing the San Diego game last week. Add in a strong game by defensive tackle Sealver Siliga in his second game back and the Patriots defense got a shot in the arm with players returning to health at a time when most teams are losing players and facing attrition on defense.

Jones got most of the attention in the pass rush but he made some strong plays against the run as well. His ability to use his underrated strength to hold the edge and prevent the runner from cutting back inside is often missed. Jones had one of his worst games in week one against Miami as he was inexplicably shuffled inside negating his speed and agility. On Sunday, back on the field and back at his regular position he shredded rookie tackle Ja’Wuan James.

Siliga and Hightower worked together for the first time since week three and Siliga–along with Vince Wilfork and Alan Branch–completely controlled the line of scrimmage after a slow start. They even added a little pass rush and inside penetration as they used their size and strength against a Miami Dolphins interior offensive line that had been holding their own much of 2014 and were a part of the team’s success up until left tackle Branden Albert was lost for the season in week ten against Detroit.

Dec 14, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) signals for a first down to the crowd during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 41-13. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Three: Rob Gronkowski can only be slowed down, he cannot be stopped. The Dolphins had as much success as anyone against Gronkowski the past two seasons as they held him to two receptions in his second game back last season and just four receptions in the season opener. Of course, Miami was fortunate to have missed him once last year and to have faced him twice at well less than 100% strength and stamina.

On Sunday, the Dolphins threw the kitchen sink at Gronkowski. Defensive ends chipped him at the line of scrimmage, linebackers were physical in the first five yards, and threw just about every healthy linebacker and safety at him. The Dolphins held Gronkowski to no receptions on a pair of targets in the first and the Patriots made a point to get Gronkowski involved more in the second half.

The first play of the second half was designed to go to Gronkowski and it worked to perfection. The Patriots had both tight end Gronkowski and Tim Wright aligned tight to the line of scrimmage on the left side with Jonas Gray in the backfield and two receivers both to the right. Quarterback Tom Brady made a nice play-action fake to Gray momentarily freezing the Dolphins safeties. The Patriots sent Gronkowski vertically up the left seam with Wright running a go route up the left sideline with Miami’s linebackers struggling to keep up and the safeties trying to get in position. Linebacker Jason Trusnik could not keep up with Gronkowski and safety Reshad Jones was late getting over to help as the other two defenders stayed with Wright.

Gronkowski made a nice catch and run for 34-yards on the play and set the tone for a second-half of big plays on offense. Gronkowski had just three catches, but they were all over 25-yards and helped make a close game into a blowout. The Patriots basically ignored Miami cornerback Brent Grimes throughout the game picking on more favorable match-ups with cornerback Cortland Finnegan and safety/cornerback Jimmy Wilson and linebackers in coverage. It begs the question as to why Miami kept Grimes on Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman rather than letting him have a chance to cover Gronkowski.