Answers from on high
MIAMI GARDENS - The Patriots' first defensive adjustment came well before the game started yesterday. Facing a Dolphins team that gashed them for 38 points earlier in the season, they shuffled their coaching operation.
Coordinator Dean Pees, who all year has relayed signals and defensive play calls to the field from the sideline, was instead sent upstairs to serve as another set of "eyes in the sky." Linebackers coach Matt Patricia was elevated to defensive sideline boss, wearing the bright red shirt that tips defenders off to look in his direction for the assignment.
The decision was made because of the diversity and complexity of the Dolphins' offense, and with their "Wildcat" package in mind.
"We were just trying to have our communication as efficient as we could, and sometimes for a coordinator it's easier to see the whole game from up there than down on the field when you're making the calls," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the switch.
"With all the different things that Miami does - their Wildcat formations and multiple personnel groupings and all that - it's just one step less in the communication if you can see it upstairs as opposed to hearing it from someone relaying [it] to him down on the field."
The decision, which was made in coaching meetings early last week, reflected how much respect the Patriots had for the Dolphins' diverse attack.
In the end, the defensive performance was mixed.
When it came to the "Wildcat" - in which running back Ronnie Brown lines up at quarterback and takes a direct snap from center - the Patriots bottled it up to the tune of eight rushes for 25 yards. Miami also was penalized for holding on a ninth rush out of the formation.
So in that respect, the Patriots won an important battle within yesterday's chippy, emotionally-charged 48-28 victory. They weren't about to get clawed by the 'Cat again, as the Dolphins - unveiling it for the first time in Week 3 and catching New England by surprise - had scored three rushing touchdowns and one through the air in a 38-13 rout.
Overall yesterday, the Dolphins finished with just 62 yards on 19 carries, which Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said accomplished the defense's No. 1 goal.
But the flip side is that the New England pass defense was alarmingly porous, with Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington ringing up a career-high 341 yards and three touchdowns.
If the Patriots are to make any kind of postseason run - there are five regular-season games remaining and at 7-4 they're in the playoff chase - it's hard to imagine they'll go far unless things tighten up in the passing game, both with the pass rush and in coverage.
One of the low points came early in the fourth quarter when Pennington connected with running back Ricky Williams on a diving 13-yard touchdown pass to make it 31-28. The Patriots' defense, slow to get back to the line of scrimmage after a 36-yard catch-and-run by receiver Davone Bess, was barely set at the snap of the ball.
At that point, it looked like the team that had the ball last would win.
Later, summing up the Patriots' defensive performance, Belichick called it a day in which the unit was "just trying to hang in there."
Strategy-wise, New England seemed to be searching for the proper balance between staying strong enough at the line of scrimmage to defend the run, but having the personnel to be competitive in the passing game.
They stayed in their base 3-4 alignment for much of the game and when the Dolphins brought a third receiver onto the field, the Patriots often subbed cornerback Lewis Sanders for safety James Sanders. In making that switch and playing Lewis Sanders (6-1, 210) in a hybrid corner/safety role, the Patriots were able to stay in a fairly sturdy 3-4 base but add more of a coverage element to their scheme.
That protected them against the Dolphins' dangerous run game - Miami runs Wildcat plays out of the three-receiver package - and the hope was that it would help them be more competitive against the pass.
Again, the results were mixed, which isn't a new storyline for the defense at this point of the season. After the last two weeks - in which the Jets drove the field to score in overtime, and the Dolphins sliced through them in the air - there remain more questions than answers.
The Dolphins converted 50 percent of their third downs yesterday, and scored four touchdowns in four trips inside the 20-yard line. Those are statistics that usually produce losses for the team giving them up.
But the Patriots' defense, which struggles to generate consistent pressure but seems reluctant to blitz to protect its secondary, produced just enough resistance so the team's spread-the-field explosive offense could pull away. Safety Brandon Meriweather's fourth-quarter interception was also a decisive blow.
"It was huge for our defense to win one," Meriweather said, before correcting himself after realizing that his analysis was a bit flawed.
"For us to come out and just hang on and get a win was huge."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.