On Football

Containing the rush to judgment

By Albert R. Breer
December 7, 2009

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - It’s really not like the Patriots needed another reminder of how much trouble they’ve had defending opposing passing games.

But since it’s not the other team’s job to worry about the New England psyche, the Dolphins gave the Patriots one anyway. Or, to be precise, two.

The first was with the Dolphins backed up to their 6 in the second quarter, the next when they started a drive at the 3 in the final stanza. Miami came with a quarterback starting his ninth game, piloting the league’s 30th-ranked passing game.

And the Dolphins came out throwing, a risky move against any defense with playmaking ability. In a situation when you can least afford a negative play, and a sack could blow a close game wide open, Chad Henne coolly dropped back and completed passes for 9 yards to start the first drive and 10 yards to start the second.

On neither play could Henne so much as hear a Patriot pass rusher grunting near him. Which made it like a lot of other plays this game and a lot of other plays this year.

Dissect Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler if you’d like. Wonder whether Brandon Meriweather’s play has tailed off after a fast start.

But know this: All the defensive backs have been put in a nearly impossible position because this so-called pass rush is more like a roadmap to open receivers.

Did Henne play well? Sure, in what amounted to a seven-on-seven drill for the quarterback, which is increasingly becoming what playing against the Patriots is like for opposing offenses.

Henne hit the ground just once against the Patriots, on a sack split between Tully Banta-Cain and Jerod Mayo. Last week, Drew Brees was only knocked down once, even though the Patriots blitzed on 42 percent of the Saints quarterback’s pass drops.

This, folks, is a problem, and it’s not going away.

When asked to explain the lack of a rush, outside linebacker Adalius Thomas answered, “I don’t know. You have to ask somebody that does that study or whatever. Whatever they call, that’s what we play.’’

The issue is, really, it doesn’t matter what the Patriots call, because the rush isn’t coming now, and probably won’t come until new players are acquired to bring it.

In the offseason, the Patriots pursued Jason Taylor and, for a time, believed he would sign with them. When he didn’t, the trade for Derrick Burgess - costing the team third- and fifth-round picks - was necessitated.

Burgess has collected all of two sacks since and the last meaningful one came in the season opener. And although Banta-Cain has flashed ability and Thomas may have some untapped potential in this area, there’s no longer any question that the Patriots lack a player who strikes fear into any offense’s protection.

As such, Henne could sit back and go through the Patriot secondary like Sherman went through Atlanta.

“It’s great, because it gets to the point where [Henne] can go through his reads,’’ said Miami rookie receiver Brian Hartline, who finished with four catches and 41 yards. “One guy doesn’t win, and you have to force the ball up in the air. Well, if that doesn’t happen, he can just go to his next read. The O-line was on fire, they did a great job.’’

Wasn’t that difficult against this crew - even without starting center Jake Grove. The Dolphins entered the game knowing they could spread the Patriots out, and not pay for it, since they’d seen New Orleans do it the week before. So they ran three- and four-receiver sets, forcing more defensive backs on to the field, leaving fewer bodyguards for Henne, and consistently moved the chains.

And they did it with disregard for balance, despite entering this one averaging more running plays per game (33.2) than all but two other NFL teams. On Miami’s first two scoring drives, it racked up an aggregate 3-17 run-to-pass ratio, and those numbers only came down in the second half a) in the red zone or b) as the Dolphins were bleeding clock to set up the winning field goal.

“You watch film, teams have spread them out,’’ said receiver Greg Camarillo. “We just saw an opportunity.’’

The opportunity was, as receiver Davone Bess put it, to make getting open “real easy, because [Henne] had all day.’’ And the Dolphins took it.

There is, of course, a reason DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen and Dwight Freeney are making more money than most quarterbacks. There’s also a reason when you look at world champions you see high-level edge rushers such as James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley (2008 Pittsburgh), Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck (2007 Giants), Freeney and Robert Mathis (2006 Colts), and Joey Porter (2005 Steelers.)

In today’s NFL, you pay for the quarterbacks, and the guys who hit the quarterbacks, and the Patriots simply don’t have enough of the latter. Or any, for that matter.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of research to see that this year’s elite have big-money players paid to get after the franchise cover boy. The Saints? Will Smith. The Colts? Freeney. The Vikings? Allen. The Chargers? Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips. And so on.

The truth is that Taylor likely wouldn’t have been enough to shore up this deficiency, and Burgess certainly isn’t. It’s a problem that requires an offseason to fix.

So maybe, when March rolls around, someone like Julius Peppers will be brought in the fold, or the Patriots will trade up and invest a high first-round pick in one of these guys, since that’s usually where you find them. But for now, you’re left with this. And it’s not pretty.

Yesterday Henne threw more passes than he had since his true freshman season at Michigan, when he slung it 54 times in a comeback situation against Ohio State. He’d never thrown it more than 36 times in a game as a pro.

He threw and threw and threw, and wound up with more completions, attempts, and yards than he’s had before, and he didn’t have to take more than one lick to do it, even though this game was close throughout and the Patriots had more than their share of pin-your-ears-back spots.

“This is definitely the first game we’ve won throwing the football rather than running it. It’s a definite boost,’’ Henne said. “If we keep it balanced, or we have to win one way or the other, we know we can do it.’’

And so it has become for the Patriots’ defense. It is serving as a morale injection for a struggling passing game.

But as Butler and Meriweather and Wilhite and Co. continue to absorb blame, make sure you realize where more of it belongs.

After all, there’s enough to go around.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at

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