Running backs (4.5 out of 5)
Only one quarterback pressure allowed by this group (Stevan Ridley), and there was a lot of tough running. Nice job by Ridley getting 2 yards on first down at the 8 near the end of the first quarter. Should have been dropped for a loss. Great run blocking — Ryan Wendell reaching and turning the nose, Nate Solder on the end, Logan Mankins climbing to the linebacker, and even Hernandez finishing a block against a cornerback — on Shane Vereen’s 9-yard run to end the first quarter. Outstanding run by Brandon Bolden for 24 yards late in the game. Showed great patience and vision, accelerated through the holes, and got good blocks from Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Welker. Love Danny Woodhead’s red zone work. Vereen has come a long way as far as his decisiveness and toughness. Hopefully he can stay healthy this offseason and return even better.
Receivers (1.5 out of 5)
If it weren’t for Welker and Branch, this group might have gotten a zero. Even Gronkowski had a drop, injury or no injury. For every nice play that Hernandez, Lloyd, Fells, and Hoomanawanui had, they had at least three that weren’t good enough. Expect Josh McDaniels to ride those guys hard this week. Loved the quick run action — quick fake to Vereen, pulling Connolly — built in by McDaniels on the 23-yard slip screen to Welker. Terrific block by Branch on Woodhead’s 14-yard wheel route with 4:19 left in the second quarter. Near-interception on throw to Welker was not a drop. Tough catch behind and going to the ground. Pass could have been a little better, but Brady had rare pressure.
Offensive line (5 out of 5)
After giving up a three-year high of 13 hits against Brady (three sacks, 10 knockdowns) vs. Jacksonville, the line allowed a three-year low of three (one sack, two knockdowns). Add in the two hurries, and Brady felt pressure on a season-low 13.2 percent of his dropbacks (Dolphins blitzed just twice). And even though the Patriots had 23.1 percent of their rushes go for 1 yard or less outside of short-yardage situations, most of the blame fell on the tight ends. There have been three games worth of outstanding run blocks with Wendell and the left side of the line leading the way. Wendell was just terrific controlling the Miami nose tackles all game long in the running game. The Patriots did not let Dolphins end Cameron Wake get the better of them again. He had zero pressures as right tackle Sebastian Vollmer got help on 35.7 percent of Wake’s rushes. Outside of his false start, Mankins had his best game in some time.
Defensive line (5 out of 5)
Dominating performance up front, as the line generated 15 of the 18 quarterback pressures. End Chandler Jones, and not Justin Francis, led the way with 3.5 (two hurries, 1.5 knockdowns). Francis had three (2.5 sacks, half-knockdown), while Vince Wilfork (2.5), Rob Ninkovich (2.5), and Trevor Scott (two) also had multiple pressures. Brandon Deaderick has done a much better job of late holding the point of attack and shedding blockers. Had a nice play with 4:20 left in the first quarter to set up his sack on the next play. Jones snuffed out the screen pass, causing an errant shovel pass. This was Jones’s most complete game since his injury. He seems back at full strength.
Linebackers (4.5 out of 5)
The Patriots played only eight snaps of base defense, which is the only time Brandon Spikes saw the field. He needed the rest. Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower were both terrific, and the rookie would have been flawless if not for his roughing-the-passer penalty (which was close, but probably called correctly). The Patriots’ seven sacks took an average of 4.1 seconds, which meant the excellent coverage should be largely credited, especially the linebackers (except for defensive back Derrick Martin’s sack, on which he bullrushed — yes, bullrushed — left tackle Jonathan Martin). Hightower’s coverage against Anthony Fasano was key in the sack by Deaderick in the first quarter. Great play by Mayo to duck inside the peel block of center Mike Pouncey to drop Reggie Bush for a 2-yard loss early in the second quarter. Tavon Wilson flashing outside kept Bush in the middle. The Dolphins’ fumble at the 1-yard line was largely unforced, but Mayo may have caused Bush to peek early because Mayo was slamming through the A gap where the run was supposed to go. Both Mayo and Hightower did a terrific job in not letting Bush sneak out of the backfield on pass plays. An underrated key.
Secondary (4 out of 5)
It was obvious the Patriots felt that the Dolphins receivers were no threat, and for good reason — they could not get any separation. Not perfect play out of this group, but with blitzes on 40.9 percent of dropbacks (third-highest rate this season) and with the front seven getting pressure at the same rate (also third-highest this season, behind Cardinals and Rams) the results are going to very good. Kyle Arrington, Steve Gregory, and Patrick Chung stood out. Martin can blitz, but you don’t want him in coverage during the playoffs. Devin McCourty has improved in coverage, but he’s still better at safety.Continued...