Hannable: Loss to Dolphins unveils Patriots' problems, which could be exposed again vs. Steelers

Ryan Hannable
December 12, 2017 - 6:14 am

Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — First, let’s get it out of the way. 

The Patriots’ 27-20 loss to the Dolphins Monday night in South Florida doesn’t impact their playoff status, as they still would earn the AFC’s No. 1 overall seed if they win their remaining three games. But, it did show some vulnerabilities which the Steelers could expose again next Sunday in an AFC showdown in Pittsburgh.

The offense was a disaster without Rob Gronkowski, going 0-for-11 on third down, but that will change next weekend when the tight end returns from his one-game suspension. Certainly having Gronkowski back will help the offense, but it wasn’t just not having him on the field that caused the poor play.

Tom Brady had his worst game in a long time, finishing 24-for-43 with 233 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions for a QB rating of 59.5. It was his lowest QB rating since 2013, and also his first multi-interception game since 2015. Brady now has a record of 7-9 in games played in Miami.

The quarterback never seemed comfortable in the pocket, as sometimes he even threw the ball before he had to. The Miami defensive line created just enough pressure to take Brady off his game. 

“For sure [we rattled him],” Miami cornerback Bobby McCain said. “For sure. Man-to-man defense and letting our front go rush. Let them do what they do and in the backend just giving them time.”

“It was pretty bad,” Brady added. “You can’t get any worse than that — we couldn’t stay on the field and just didn’t make enough plays. It’s just a bad night. We’ve had a lot of good nights this year and this was a bad night.”

Brady could get some help next week if tackle Marcus Cannon can return from an ankle injury that has kept him out since the bye week. 

If the Steelers can create some of the same pressure as Miami against Brady, the Patriots could be in for a long afternoon next Sunday at Heinz Field.

Brady also didn’t have anything working with his top two receivers, Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan. As a pair, they combined for just two catches on 12 targets. It just seemed like Brady wasn’t on the same page as them the entire night. The 40-year-old was also intercepted twice by Xavien Howard when throwing to Cooks. 

A lack of production from the top two wideouts, as well as two interceptions isn’t going to get it done against the Steelers.

The play of the Patriots defense may be most concerning, as it will be going up against a Steelers offense ranked eighth in points per game, but has scored 30 or more points in three of its last four games. It also has three of the best playmakers in all of football — Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell — who can all score at any time from anywhere on the field.

New England was missing two of its top contributors on defense in linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who is the signal-caller, and also top pass rusher Trey Flowers, not to mention losing its top run-stopper in Alan Branch during the first quarter. The Patriots need these three back next week because they were missed dearly on Monday.

The Dolphins had a ton of success with crossing routes where the Patriots seemed to have breakdowns in coverage, so then they switched to zone and that seemed to create even more miscommunications. Whether this was related to the defensive calls or not, it was a major issue and the Steelers certainly have the ability to take full advantage with all their offensive weapons.

A lack of pressure on the quarterback allowed Jay Cutler to be comfortable all game long, as he went 25-for-38 with 263 yards and three touchdowns. Imagine what Roethlisberger could do with this, especially after throwing for over 500 yards against the Ravens.

Bill Belichick and the Patriots will have a choice to make — try and eliminate Brown or Bell. Typically, the coach tries to take away the opponents biggest weapon, but when it has two legitimate threats it becomes very difficult. New England can’t leave it’s depleted front-seven on its own against Bell because he would destroy them. On the other hand, it can’t leave Malcolm Butler on Brown 1-on-1 because he would get torched, especially considering the way Butler’s play has suffered of late and how well Brown is playing. Butler was beat multiple times on Monday and didn’t look like a player ready for the challenge of facing Brown in a week.

“Just had to make plays when they came your way,” Butler said. “Everybody had to make plays, especially myself. Just need to do better all-around the board.”

Missing two of their most important players on defense clearly showed Monday and therefore they deparately need Flowers and Van Noy to return. Marquis Flowers, who wasn’t even with the team at the start of camp, called the defensive plays Monday and Elandon Roberts got burned once again on a passing play covering a running back. Both things may have been different with Flowers and Van Noy on the field.

With Monday’s loss meaning nothing, Belichick should essentially burn the tape and pretend like it never happened. After all, if the Patriots can learn from their mistakes and beat the Steelers next Sunday it will almost be like Monday’s loss never happened. To the contrary, if the issues are exposed again, New England will likely be playing on the road in the postseason.

Bottom line, we'll know a lot about the 2017 Patriots after next Sunday.

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