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Game Observations: Defense dominates Dolphins

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The standing may indicate the Patriots are still in second place but they made sure the first-place Dolphins knew who the kings of the AFC East are with a thoroughly dominant 38-7 victory at sunny Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

The Patriots dominated on both sides of the line and cruised to the victory, their second of the season. Here are some random thoughts from Week 4.

-The story of the game was the play of the Patriots defense, which snapped out of an early-season funk with some spirited play against the Dolphins. Miami opened the game with a picturesque 22-yard pass from Ryan Tannehill to Kenny Stills, but from there did nothing the rest of the first half. Miami finished with 75 yards of total offense and converted just 1 of 6 third downs in the opening 30 minutes. Kyle Van Noy was effective as a part-time pass rusher and was active throughout. Dont’a Hightower, who hasn’t been effective in the early part of the season, split his time in his normal middle linebacker spot as well as the edge, where he generally dropped in coverage. He, too, was active and the linebackers were excellent swarming to the football and keeping the Dolphins running game in check. Miami rushed the ball six times for 7 yards in the first half as the Patriots front seven dominated at the point of attack.

-The Patriots run defense was outstanding the entire way as Miami finished with 45 yards on 18 carries. At times the front included all three big guys as Lawrence Guy shifted to left defensive end with Malcolm Brown and Danny Shelton inside. Elandon Roberts also saw extensive action on the inside and was active before leaving with an apparent ankle injury late. The run defense was superb.

-The play on third down was certainly a big factor the defense’s success but it actually started much sooner. Hightower spoke earlier in the week of the need to be better on early downs and that was evident in Miami’s struggles. The Dolphins faced third downs needing, 12, 10, 10 (converted via penalty), 13, 8 and 24 in the opening 30 minutes. The only third-down conversion came on a garbage time play to close the first half. That continued as a holding call on Miami’s first second-half possession led to a third-and-12, which resulted in Adam Butler’s sack of Tannehill.

-Offensively the Patriots got a huge lift from Sony Michel, who topped the 100-yard mark for the first time of his young career. The rookie ran with patience and power, often taking advantage of stretch plays that tested the Dolphins edges while doing a great job of setting up his blocks. He carried 25 times for 112 yards and picked up the first touchdown of his career to close the Patriots scoring with a 10-yard run. After listening to some ill-conceived criticism after his first two games, Michel did a nice job bouncing back and delivering a solid ground game for the Patriots. Overall New England racked up 175 yards on the ground in a dominant effort.

-Josh Gordon made his much-awaited debut for the Patriots and did a nice job in his limited opportunities. He caught a 13-yard slant pass on the opening drive to convert a third down on a possession that ended with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. He also drew a questionable illegal contact penalty against Xavien Howard to extend another drive, which ended in Cordarrelle Patterson’s 55-yard touchdown catch and run to make it 10-0. He added a 19-yard catch late in third quarter and was down field blocking on James White’s 22-yard touchdown run but otherwise Gordon’s presence was rather uneventful.

-Howard is the Dolphins best cornerback but he struggled in the first half and that helped the Patriots get off to a fast start. He was called for holding to negate a third-down stop on the Patriots first possession and allowed New England to eventually open the scoring with a field goal. Two series later, Miami again appeared to have a third-down stop when Tom Brady tried to hit Gordon on a comeback near the sideline, but Howard was flagged for illegal contact. Moments later, Brady made it 10-0 when Patterson took advantage of James White’s rub at the line and was uncovered for a 55-yard touchdown. Patterson made a terrific cut back inside to elude members of the Dolphins secondary en route to his first touchdown as a Patriot. He became the 70th different receiver to catch a touchdown pass from Brady, tying Vinny Testaverde for the most all time.

-Brady did not get off to one of his better starts but he more than made up for that later. In the first quarter he seemed to be pressing a bit and threw several passes into tight windows. On the first drive he had two passes deflected and another – the 13-yard slant to Gordon – never avoided being tipped. On the next possession he forced another into tight coverage over the middle to Phillip Dorsett and was picked off by Bobby McCain. The Patriots receivers were having a tough time separating but that changed as the game wore on. Eventually New England was able to find some space for the receivers and Brady began to carve up the Dolphins, throwing three touchdown passes and building a 31-0 lead through three quarters.

-Brady finished with a solid day, completing 23 of 35 passes for 274 yards and the three touchdowns but he also threw a pair of interceptions. Both were intended for Dorsett, and for the season Brady’s now been intercepted four times and three have been in the direction of Dorsett. Not sure if this is part of a larger point and simply a coincidence as Brady seems to be developing some comfort when throwing in the wideout’s direction. Dorsett finished four catches for 55 yards including a terrific finger-tip touchdown catch that he followed with a somersault flip in the end zone. He also had a chance for a huge play early in the third quarter when he got behind the defense on a go route but dropped a perfect pass from Brady.

-The Patriots got some contributions from a pair of newcomers as John Simon and Kenjon Barner made their debuts. Simon saw some action on special teams and was seen on defense throughout the second half. Initial impressions? He showed some burst coming off the edge and put some heat on Tannehill, sacking him once and getting in his face on a couple of other occasions. He finished with five tackles. Barner mopped up after Michel and White were done for the day. Barner carried three times for 11 yards while helping the Patriots run the clock out.

-Rob Gronkowski left early with an ankle injury and did not return. He did catch four passes for 44 yards including the 491st reception of his career, which moved him past Ben Coates for the most by a Patriots tight end in franchise history. Gronkowski appeared to injure his right ankle and was worked on by the trainers on the sideline for several minutes before leaving for the locker room. With a short week and the Colts coming to town for the Thursday night affair, Gronkowski won’t have much time to recover.

-The win was the 300th under the stewardship of owner Robert Kraft. He became the fastest owner to reach 300 wins in NFL history, doing so in 423 games, surpassing Oakland’s Al Davis, who needed 63 more games to reach that mark.

-Rookie J.C. Jackson saw action in dime packages and came up with the first interception of his career. He did a great job of sticking with the speedy Albert Wilson down the right sideline. Tannehill’s pass was late and short, allowing Jackson to maintain his leverage underneath before coming away with the pick. It was a terrific play for the rookie, who showed similar technique on the practice field consistently during training camp.

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