MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – UPS used to market itself with the slogan "What can Brown do for you?" It's a question the Patriots may have been asking themselves all week as well.
Since acquiring the sublimely gifted Antonio Brown – arguably the most versatile, if not the best wide receiver in the NFL – last weekend, New England has been giving Brown a crash course in the Patriots' complex offense, while doing its best to keep his focus on the field. Brown's arrival, and the ensuing news of off-field allegations against him, have been the headline surrounding the reigning Super Bowl Champs this past week.
After throttling a good Pittsburgh Steelers team in the opener, without Brown at their disposal, how would the Patriots improve offensively with Brown available against a Dolphins squad that was obliterated at home in Week 1?
Brown entered the game on New England's second offensive play and found an immediate hole in the Dolphins' zone. QB Tom Brady connected with him for a big gain of 18 yards. Brady looked his way again just two plays later for another first-down pickup.
Brown caught all three passes thrown to him on that opening drive, and was likely the target of a fourth, but he caused a Dolphins defender to hold him, thus allowing New England to enjoy a first-and-goal opportunity. RB Sony Michel eventually punched in the game's first score.
In all, an active and productive debut drive for Brown.
"He did a great job," Michel remarked about Brown. "He's a team player and he did what he needed to do."
"It was awesome," WR Julian Edelman said of Brown's contributions. "He's a playmaker. A lot of energy. It's going to make it tough [for opponents]. You're impressed anytime you see a guy like that. Hopefully it keeps compounding."
But this is Miami, after all, and things almost never go smoothly here for the Patriots.
With right tackle Marcus Cannon a game-time decision (he was ruled unfit to suit up today due to a left shoulder injury), New England was forced to use newcomer Marshall Newhouse, a 10-year NFL journeyman signed just this past week.
Late in the first quarter, though, Newhouse had to switch to left tackle when starter Isaiah Wynn left the game with an unspecified foot injury. Recent addition Korey Cunningham was inserted at right tackle.
Working with a new left tackle, new right tackle, and backup Ted Karras as the new starting center in place of co-captain David Andrews (who's on IR), the Patriots also saw fullback James Develin get shaken up in the middle of the second quarter. He managed to return to action on the next series, however.
Up only 7-0, things looked bleak after a Stephen Gostkowski wide-right field goal miss from 48 yards – there appeared to be no problems with the snap or the hold – and later a Brady sack on 1st down in Patriots territory. But Brady managed to hit WR Phillip Dorsett on a perfect route on 3rd-and-17 to keep the drive alive.
Were it not for that play, Brown might never have had a chance to haul in a gorgeous back-shoulder pass from Brady in the end zone later in that same drive to put the Patriots up 13-0. Gostkowski hooked the ensuing PAT wide left (again, nothing seemed amiss with snap or hold).
Defensively, the Patriots picked up where they left off against Pittsburgh, being stingy against the run, putting occasional pressure on Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, and tackling well in the open field. D-lineman Adam Butler had a sack and a batted Fitzpatrick pass to highlight a solid first-half effort by New England's D.
That helped the Patriots own a decided time-of-possession advantage in the first half (20 minutes to Miami's 10).
The Patriots have seen comfy first-half leads evaporate in the South Florida heat before, though. To help keep players cool throughout the game, the team's equipment staff used makeshift awnings to shade the players on the bench. It seemed to work.
In the early second half, a fantastic punt by rookie Jake Bailey and subsequent tackle by gunner Matthew Slater pinned the Dolphins deep in their own end. Pressure on Fitzpatrick again led eventually to a wonderful tip drill, with CB Stephon Gilmore knocking a pass into the waiting arms of safety Devin McCourty.
"Yeah, I undercut the ball," Gilmore explained afterward. "I jumped too early, but was able to get my hand on the ball and Devin made a great play."
New England's offense was well set up to score, which they eventually did with a Gostkowski chip-shot.
They could've had more, though, but Brady's targets to Brown in the end zone were well defended by Miami.
Still, the Patriots kept the heat on Fitzpatrick – Danny Shelton registered a sack, Butler added a second, LBs Jamie Collins and rookie Chase Winovich combined for yet another.
"The boys are getting after the quarterback," safety Duron Harmon smiled. "The secondary did a good job of covering their guys and making it hard for Fitzpatrick and [backup QB Josh] Rosen back there.
"When you know the ball's coming out quick, you can be aggressive all over the place. We did a really good job of that today. That's the reason why we got seven sacks. That's the good thing about having veteran guys who've been in the system a long time. We've got guys who can play corner, nickel, safety… [Patrick] Chung can play a little linebacker. We just have versatile guys, and when you have that type of versatility in the secondary and then up front, it's a good recipe for having a pretty good defense. "
"It starts in practice. We're practicing hard," Gilmore continued. "We're making plays in practice and trusting each other. We're putting in a lot of hard work to get there."
Meanwhile, Michel kept piling up the yards – something he couldn't do much of last week versus Pittsburgh – and nearly had a second TD plunge of the day, but it was ruled short of the goal line, even after a challenge review. Brady sneaked the ball into the end zone, though, and New England owned a 23-0 lead entering the fourth quarter.
"Every win means a lot to this team," Michel observed. "We came out here and guys fought hard."
A pair of Patriots pick-sixes, one for 54 yards by Gilmore and another of 69 yards by Collins, sealed the outcome in the early fourth quarter, allowing New England to leave this town with a rare lopsided victory.
"It felt good," Gilmore admitted when asked about his first NFL touchdown. "Kyle Van Noy kind of hit [Fitzpatrick] as he was throwing and I was able to break on the ball and make a good play to get the ball in the end zone."
Brown may have been the attention-grabber initially, but he was nowhere to be found in the post-game locker room. In the end, New England's defense opened a lot of eyes for the second consecutive week.
"It was good to come in here and get the win," Edelman concluded. "It was a complementary game. Defense played lights out, we made plays [offensively] when we had to… it was a good team effort."