The New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins last met on Sept. 7. It was Week 1. It was 89 degrees, partly cloudy, and partly ugly as New England fell to Miami at Sun Life Stadium, 33-20.
The Dolphins’ ground game of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller pierced through the Patriots’ defensive front for 193 rushing yards and a touchdown on 35 carries, while the passing game of quarterback Ryan Tannehill added two more touchdowns and an interception.
The Patriots’ offense was working at a different pace, only it didn’t know its pace at that time.
The likes of halfbacks Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and wideout Julian Edelman combined for 83 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. And on 29-of-56 passing, quarterback Tom Brady targeted eight different receivers for 249 yards and a score to a deliberately moving tight end named Rob Gronkowski.
But Miami’s defensive front was far less deliberate on that day. Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon moved with speed off the edge, while linebacker Chris McCain, defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Randy Starks did the same elsewhere. And symbiotically, the unit forced through the offensive line for four sacks accruing 23 yards and two fumbles, as well as six quarterback hits and 16 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
New England’s defensive front could only sack Tannehill once for nine yards in correspondence, generating only four hits and six hurries over the course of the quarterback’s 18-of-32 passing day. Yet the Patriots also put pressure on themselves in a different manner during the opener.
The team was flagged for nine penalties netting a total of 100 yards. The Dolphins, meanwhile, were flagged for only four penalties totaling 26 yards. Yet whether it was the penalties on offense or defense, whether it was running or the run-stopping, the passing or the pass-rushing, the variables ultimately combined to sever the ties between Miami and New England.
It remains to be seen what will do so this weekend.
“It seems like it’s been a long time since we’ve played the Dolphins because it has been,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his Wednesday press conference.
Three months have passed. The Patriots are hoping that time has changed things.
“We’re definitely watching that game,” Brady said in his press conference earlier in the week. “You end up watching all the games just because all of them can provide some insight. Certainly, that game can provide a lot of insight. But our team is a little bit different now. There are going to be some new things that we do.”
Since the opener, and since the 2-2 start’s 41-14 low point versus the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots have done things differently.
New England’s offense now features a different three-man combination on the interior of the line, with Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Bryan Stork fulfilling the guard and center spots over Jordan Devey and Marcus Cannon. The rushing attack now once again features LeGarrette Blount, with Jonas Gray, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden filtering in behind him in the absence of Stevan Ridley. And the receiving corps now features “F” tight end Tim Wright and wideout Brandon LaFell, who did not catch a pass during the first meeting in Miami.
The 37-year-old Brady has found LaFell and others over his past 12 games, amassing 29 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a completion rate of 66 percent since the season opener. But with Gronkowski and Edelman on pace to cross 1,000 yards receiving for the second time in their NFL careers, they’ve found their stride as well.
So has the defense. The personnel that appeared ill-fit for the 3-4 New England turned to in Week 1 has been diversified, even in the absence of right end Chandler Jones and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas and Alan Branch have all since arrived and become integral ingredients off the edge, on the inside and at the second level. Defensive tackle Sealver Siliga has been activated from short-term injured reserve after exiting in Week 3. Brandon Browner has returned to work the press-man cornerback position across from Darrelle Revis. And, all the while, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins have progressed into the starting base and nickel linebackers the organization hoped they’d become following their draft selections in 2012 and 2013.
But the development of defense has hinged on the communication within it. The first game of the campaign marked just the start of that acclimation process.
“It gets better every week and [we] still have a ways to go,” Belichick said. “But again a lot of those types of players who are playing for us or are getting ready to play for us, not knowing exactly how the opportunities are going to fall, have really gotten a lot better and improved in that last couple of months from earlier in the year when a lot of that communication was with Mayo, Hightower, Collins.”
Their cohesion has resonated.
“Some of those players have been unavailable at different points throughout the season,” Belichick said. “Now there are some different guys, like Ayers, like Casillas, like Collins in a little different role, obviously Branch, [Sealver] Siliga. There’s a lot going on there.”
The end result has seen the Patriots find an identity. New England now stands third in the league with 30.8 points per game and ninth in the league with 20.5 points allowed per game. And as a byproduct, the collection stands atop the division and the conference with a 10-3 record.
Miami has evolved as well and now stands in a tie for second in the division with a 7-6 record.
Tannehill and the Dolphins will have to outlast the Week 15 trip up north to Gillette Stadium to keep standing in the playoff picture, though. And it is there that Brady and the Patriots have gone 11-1 against them.
Yet while Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff will determine the fate of that mark and the fate of the AFC East, some things have already been determined.
“This is a division opponent, so I think there is always a great rivalry,” Brady added. “I know we’ve had a lot of great games against them. And then losing to them earlier, that was a tough way to start the year. But this is a different game.”
The Patriots are a different team.