Dolphins’ defense finally gets the chance to play the way it was built to play

MIAMI GARDENS – Tom Brady looked flustered on Monday night. Sometimes he looks hurried or angry, even in games that New England wins, but rarely is he flustered.

The Miami Dolphins’ defensive front made that happen in this 27-20 upset of the defending Super Bowl champions, pushing through the Patriots’ offensive line like a rising tide and forcing from the future Hall of Famer so many antsy and inaccurate throws that Brady ended up with a tawdry 59.5 quarterback rating, his worst in four years.

Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (93) puts pressure on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) during the second half of the game between the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Monday December 11, 2017. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post)

“The guys that we have up front, we should run the show,” said defensive end Cameron Wake. “That’s the way it should be.”

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But it hasn’t been, or at least not often enough, which is something coach Adam Gase takes personally. He’s in charge of the Miami offense, and his unit hasn’t been in charge of much of anything on the way to a 6-7 record.

More than once Gase has said this his defense was built to play with the lead, because that’s when Wake and Ndamukong Suh and Andre Branch and Jordan Phillips can do what they were born to do, which is to breathe fire into a quarterback’s face, and to earn all those big salaries in doing so.

Think of Monday’s 0-for-11 failure on third down by the Patriots. That doesn’t happen without Brady being chased and pushed and prodded into an uncharacteristic 24-of-43 passing night. Xavien Howard’s two interceptions don’t happen, either, without Brady unloading the ball under duress and throwing it toward covered receivers instead of taking the usual, casual check-down targets that commonly are available to him.

“I think there were less screen passes in there and stuff like that,” Brady said. “Ideally you’d like to spread it around to everybody. We just got behind and that’s not really the way we wanted to play the game. It was just a bad loss.”

Not bad enough to ruin the Patriots’ season of course, but it did delay their clinching of the AFC East title for at least another week. Meanwhile, Miami maintains slim hope of a wild-card playoff spot way out there somewhere with a trip to snowy Buffalo coming up next.

That won’t be fun, but rattling Nathan Peterman ought to be easy in comparison to throwing Brady off his game. A Miami defense built to play with the lead needs only to get some help from Jay Cutler, who threw three touchdowns against New England and got the Dolphins out in front by 17 points with a quarter to play.

“I never really pay attention to sacks,” Gase said in last week’s run-up to New England. “I always look at pass disruptions. How many times are you hitting the quarterback? How many times are you putting pressure on the quarterback where he has to move off the spot and he has to get rid of the ball sooner than he wants to?”

Well, let’s see. On Monday night Brady threw it 43 times and he must have been bothered by the pass rush, what, at least 30 times. Mixed in there were sacks by Suh and Jordan Phillips and hurries by just about everybody, from Suh to Cam Wake to rookie Davon Godchaux, who right around the two-minute warning got so aggressive that he was flagged for roughing the passer.

Remember New England’s last, best chance to mount a comeback? The Patriots got it all the way to the Miami 1-yard line on a 23-yard pass to Danny Amendola with 1:24 to play. All Brady wanted to do was get the ball in the end zone as quickly as possible from there, cutting deep into Miami’s 10-point lead and stopping the clock right there.

Instead there was a series of five incompletions, with veteran tackle Nate Solder getting caught holding against Wake, and both Wake and linebacker Lawrence Timmons taking turns knocking Brady down just as the ball came out of his hands. Before long the Patriots were backing up, taking a field goal instead of a touchdown, looking to an on-side kick as their salvation. That didn’t go their way, either, and so the Patriots, who crushed Miami 35-17 a couple of weeks ago, are 10-3 and headed home grumpy.

Would it have made a difference having Rob Gronkowski in the New England lineup instead of serving a one-game suspension? Sure, but not enough to reverse the kind of momentum Miami’s pass rushers had going, a burst of energy that was unleashed by the rare pleasure of having a big lead.

Complimentary football, that’s what Gase always calls it, and when it happens, when the offense helps the defense and the special teams pitch in, too, it’s a lot easier to write a complimentary column.

There’s no trouble here, for instance, calling Monday’s win the most impressive for Miami since that 20-17 comeback at Atlanta on Oct. 15.

There were plenty of games like that in 2016, when the Dolphins surged to 10-6 and a playoff spot. It was a 30-15 win over Pittsburgh that turned things around, with Ben Roethlisberger throwing a couple of picks and getting sacked by Wake and Branch and generally not looking at all like himself. No wonder, with Miami building a 23-8 lead through three quarters, a sure signal that the Steelers would be passing all the time and the Dolphins’ pass rush would be crashing all the time.

Every now and then, in other words, Miami looks every bit the equal of the best teams in the league. It’s why the 2017 TV schedule featured so many prime-time games, and why the Dolphins’ dismal performance on national telecasts has been such a disappointment.

Maybe there’s a little more fun left in this season after all, as long as the Dolphins’ defense plays like it was built to play. Gase said it again on Monday night – “It really starts with our front.”