There were several different scenarios of how this game might play out. Before the New England Patriots took the field last Sunday in Miami, there were several probable courses this game could take, the most probable of them – despite the disparity of the records and the fact that Miami was playing at home – were scenarios that favored the Patriots.
It was well within probability that the Patriot defense would shut-down Miami’s struggling running attack (which began the day averaging just 95.2 yards per game, and their 3.6 yards per carry was dead last in the NFL). Once that had happened, the veteran Patriot defense – employing all of their wiles – would surely take advantage of rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was not only facing a Bill Belichick defense for the first time in his career, but would be doing so without any of his top five receivers available to him.
Another plausible scenario, amplifying a bit on the first one, had the Patriots’ fifth-ranked running attack controlling the game and keeping Tua and his offense on the sidelines. Another considered that the Patriots – playing for their playoff lives against a young team that was possibly not yet ready for that kind of intensity – would make some crucial defensive play (or something) to turn a tight game into their favor.
The most plausible scenario that ended with a Miami victory featured the Dolphins’ second-ranked scoring defense keeping New England off the scoreboard long enough for a defensive score or a game-changing play from the special teams to bring them victory.
Far, far down the line and deep into the “very improbable” section of the list was the scenario that had the Dolphins – saddled with one of football’s worst running games – blowing through the Patriot defense to the tune of 250 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns behind a back (Salvon Ahmed) that no one had ever heard of before, while controlling the clock for 37:26.
And yet, exactly that was the story of Miami’s surprising 22-12 vanquishing of the New England Patriots (gamebook) (summary). In spite of the scenarios, the surprise wasn’t that Miami won (they are 9-5 now, after all). It was how they did it – their 250 yards being more than the combined total of any two games the Dolphins had previously played this season.
In contemplating the question, “where has this been all season,” I suggest the following possibilities.
The Unknown Backs
In addition to missing all of his top five receivers, Tua was also down his leading rusher. Myles Gaskin – currently on the COVID list – missed his sixth game of the season. But they did activate Matt Breida off the COVID list for this game, and paired him with Ahmed – an undrafted rookie out of Washington, making just his third career start. Salvon finished with a game-high 122 rushing yards, and Breida – who was part of the crowded backfield in San Francisco last year – added an impressive 86 more – averaging 7.2 yards per carry.
Exactly how Ahmed escaped the attention of the rest of the NFL is uncertain. What is certain is that he can run. On a 31-yard streak down the right sideline, Salvon reached a top speed of 21.03 mph – making him Week 15’s fastest ball carrier.
For his part, Breida showed unexpected quickness to the outside. This ability to cut and accelerate was a deciding factor in Matt’s two longest runs. When Lawrence Guy plugged up the center of the field with 7:24 left in the game, Breida shot to the right and found a seam for a 24-yard gain.
Earlier in the game, with 12:26 left in the third quarter, the Dolphins faced a second-and-one from the Patriot 29. As the hole opened right up the middle, linebacker Terez Hall poured through to seal it. It seemed at that point that Hall had Breida dead-to-rights for a loss on the play, but before Terez could make the play, Matt was gone, veering toward – and eventually up – the left sideline.
On the play (which gained 14 yards) no one blocked safety Devin McCourty who had lined up fairly close to that sideline. Devin saw Matt coming all the way, but Breida still beat him to the sideline and ran past him.
Nothing in this suggests any deficiency on the part of Gaskin, who has played reasonably well when available. But these lesser known backs – perhaps because they are less known, or because they have fresh legs here in Week 15 – brought a spark to the Dolphin running game that has been mostly missing this season.
An Offensive Line Comes Together
During the broadcast, color commentator Charles Davis – as he watched these events unfold – credited a young offensive line starting to jell. Dolphin rushers came into the contest getting just 2.14 yards per rush before contact – a figure that reflects heavily on the offensive line, and that was the seventh worst in the NFL. The team that played against the Patriots didn’t look like that at all.
Miami runners averaged 4.86 yards per carry before contact (the NFL average is 2.45), with Matt Breida leading the way. On average, over his first 12 carries Matt was 6.3 yards up-field before the first defender could lay a glove on him.
And this wasn’t the case of a couple of big runs skewing the stat-line. Time after time the Dolphin line pushed the Patriots off the ball and into the secondary. Of their 42 running plays, 27 earned at least 4 yards (a decisive 63%). Coming together? Well, last Sunday they certainly looked like it.
Among those young linemen, the one that I enjoyed watching most was rookie right tackle Robert Hunt, Miami’s first second round pick out of Louisiana, making his ninth career start. On the 31-yard run by Ahmed mentioned earlier, Hunt was the only blocker – lineman or otherwise – to that side to give Salvon the edge. No problem. Robert threw blocks on both the outside defenders (pushing Chase Winovich and Jonathan Jones out of the play) to present Ahmed with a clean sideline.
My favorite play came at the very end of the third quarter. The Dolphins faced third-and-8 from the Patriot 34. Miami ran a draw play with Patrick Laird. Hunt grabbed defensive end Deatrich Wise and not only flung him out of the way, but used him as a kind of human broom to clear out two other defenders (Myles Bryant from the secondary and Winovich trying to pursue from the edge). Laird ran through the pathway that Hunt cleared for 12 yards and a first down.
How good Hunt will or won’t become, time will tell. But I like that he plays with an edge – a kind of “get off my lawn” meanness that can be infectious along that offensive line. I think Dolphin fans are going to enjoy watching young Robert anchor that line for a good many years to come.
Those that pay attention to line play, anyway.
Patriots’ Defensive Erosion
There was 9:03 left in the game. The Dolphins, clinging to a 15-12 lead, had a first-and-ten on their own 25-yard line. Tua opened to hand the ball to Ahmed, who headed up the middle, only to find the middle well clogged. Guard Michael Deiter got no movement on Guy, and Ted Karras couldn’t get off his double-team block on Adam Butler in time to clear linebacker Anfernee Jennings out of the middle. But Salvon gained 13 yards on the play anyway.
From the edge to Ahmed’s right, linebacker Shilique Calhoun crashed in to involve himself on the run up the middle. As he did, tight end Durham Smythe, pulling left-to-right roll blocked him out of the play, creating a gaping alley around the right end – essentially through the exact area that Calhoun had surrendered.
Among the trunk-full of challenges that New England has dealt with this season is finding healthy defenders. They lost Patrick Chung and Don’t’a Hightower at the beginning of the season, as they opted out due to COVID concerns, and the Patriots have been steadily losing defensive players ever since. They lost two more in this game, as top cornerback Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley both went down. Calhoun is a fifth-year linebacker, playing his second season in New England who has made just one career start. Normally on the field for about 25% of the snaps, Silique found himself playing more than half of the defensive snaps due to Bentley’s injuries.
As the injuries mount, the Patriots have been forced to draw ever deeper into their depth chart, with predictable results – including the erosion of the defensive discipline they were so regarded for last year. This is especially evident, now, in the run defense.
Two weeks ago, New England ranked eighteenth in the league in run defense. They have now fallen to twenty-seventh after serving up 436 rushing yards to the Rams and the Dolphins in their last two outings. They are losing more at the line of scrimmage this year, but the gashing plays are happening as their not-ready-for-prime-time defenders lose track of their containment assignments. With the loss, New England is officially eliminated from the playoffs – their trying season will run only two more weekends. In a sense, that’s a mercy.
Dolphins Not Eliminated, But . . .
Even with the win, Miami’s playoff hopes aren’t a whole lot better than New England’s. In a jostled AFC picture, the Dolphins are clinging to the final spot, leading Baltimore only because of a better conference record. Baltimore will almost certainly win their final two games (against the Giants and Bengals), so Miami will have to do the same (against Las Vegas and Buffalo – both on the road) to hold their spot. It will be a tough ask.
But even if the 2020 Dolphins don’t break their three-year playoff drought this year, it’s clear that Brian Flores has this team pointed, again, in the right direction.