From chumps to chumps to chumps to chumps to chumps to — who are these Miami Dolphins?
What a joy to watch. What a total team effort. What a way to not just beat the New England Patriots, but thrash them.
Miami beat New England 27-20 in a game that was never really close, and that five game losing streak we just alluded to feels like five exits back.
Miami is back in the AFC playoff hunt. There are reasons for optimism. There are reasons for hope. There are so many good things to talk and write about as Miami prepares to head for playoff elimination games at frigid Buffalo and frosty Kansas City.
Dolphins coach Adam Gase says, “The tape don’t lie.”
So each week, I’ll give the game tape a closer look. Here are some things I noticed:
- Adam Gase challenged his players to execute perhaps every formation in Miami’s play book. And they did it well. There was a time earlier this season when Gase felt the need to scale things back. After all, Miami was committing so many pre-snap penalties and running the wrong routes and failing to pick up blocks and barely getting the snaps off in time and, well, you get the idea. But it turns out that challenging his players to show the Patriots defensive an incredibly wide array of formations was genius. The players responded. In the first quarter, Gase stacked four wide receivers to the left in a diamond formation, with Julius Thomas out one-on-one to the right. Gase did an awesome job in this game of creating favorable matchups for Miami. He also confused the Patriots by showing them things he hasn’t shown. No doubt Miami has been holding some of these things back. On a 47-yard pass from Jay Cutler to Kenyan Drake, the running back was matched up out wide up with a linebacker. If you saw how quickly and how far past the linebacker Drake ran, it was embarrassing. This is one of the things Gase does best when he’s got it rolling. Drake, as Lane Kiffin would tell you, can do some Reggie Bush-like things, both as a runner and as a virtual receiver. Gase used Kenyan Drake, Jakeem Grant, Jarvis Landry, Jakeem Grant and Anthony Fasano at running back, fullback or H-back. He used Landry and Grant together in the backfield. He even lined up Laremy Tunsil as a blocking receiver on one play! On a touchdown pass to Landry, Jay Cutler faked a toss to Drake, who was lined up at receiver, then rolled to his right to hit Landry in the flat. Gase has some really good red zone offense ideas. Gase found a way to work Grant into the offense. He utilized misdirection, play-action, pre-snap motions and designed bootlegs to perfection. Gase utilized every level of the field to create open opportunities for receivers. And he set up his play calls with smart sequences. Gase passed on 4th-and-1, using a play-action bootleg pass to DeVante Parker. If anything, this game can lift the spirits of some who criticized Gase’s play-calling this year. And to be fair, Gase has criticized himself at times.
- Jay Cutler sort of rolled back the clock in that throwback Dolphins uni. It seems safe to assume that Cutler’s ribs aren’t hurting any more. This is what Cutler came back for, a real positive moment on a national stage, in what may be his final NFL season. Sure, Cutler will enjoy the $10 million he’ll earn this season. But Cutler surely is aware of his legacy and that defeat of New England is one that will be talked about and remembered 10-20 years from now. Cutler showed some emotion. It seemed like he really wanted this one, as so many of his teammates of course, did, too. It must be said that Cutler outplayed Tom Brady. It must be said that Cutler showed outstanding mobility and accuracy for most of the night. Cutler’s night could have been even better if Jakeem Grant and DeVante Parker and Julius Thomas had helped him out a few more times. The play that will be talked about for a long time came in the second quarter. On a third down, with Miami down 7-6, Cutler somehow evaded a blitzing defensive back coming from Cutler’s left. The Patriot was completely untouched, but at the perfect moment, Cutler spun away and flicked it to Kenyan Drake for a first down that set up a touchdown. It was a very Johnny Manziel-esque, Houdini type escape. Cutler was cool under pressure. It turns out Gase was right about trusting Cutler more than Matt Moore, the quintessential professional backup. Cutler is 6-5 in his 11 starts, which frankly, isn’t all that bad. Cutler was much better than not-that-bad on Monday, which was quite startling, actually.
- Kenyan Drake is sort of incomparable, which is the point, actually. Adam Gase sort of deftly swatted aside my recent attempt to compare Drake and Matt Forte, noting Drake’s superior speed. When Drake was preparing for the NFL Draft, some comparisons included: Charles Sims, Jeremy Langford or Ty Montgomery. Drake’s ceiling is higher than all those players. Drake has unnatural explosiveness and raw speed. He can run inside or outside. He shows surprising power. He is a more-than-capable blocker (as he showed again on Monday) and if he can continue to protect the football, there is no reason he can’t carry a load the way a Chris Johnson once did. Johnson wasn’t built like the typical workhorse back, you may recall. Drake is unique, and that’s why the Dolphins drafted him highly despite his specialized role at Alabama. And that’s part of the reason why Gase felt comfortable shipping Jay Ajayi away. As powerful and inspiring as Ajayi was, Drake instills more fear into defensive coordinators as they prepare to face him on Sunday. The Patriots defense did react in anticipation to Drake’s moves. This is a positive sign. In the second quarter, Drake made a linebacker miss and made a safety miss en route to cutting on a dime for 26 yards. In the third quarter, Drake, perhaps benefited by having studied Ajayi so closely, powered his way for eight yards by plowing through two tacklers and then carrying a linebacker three more yards. That type of run inspires teammates. And of course, a few minutes later, a special 31-yard run. Drake should have been stopped for a 3-yard loss but did a 360-degree spin you’re more likely see in “Madden” to evade the blitzing safety, then burst to the right, throwing a stiff-arm at another safety in for good measure. Dynamic. Explosive. Encouraging.
- Matt Burke’s utilization of press man coverage was successful. The Dolphins didn’t play only man coverage on defense. And they weren’t always in press. But when they did, more than often, it was successful. Miami had utilized so much off-man zone earlier in the season. And it just seems like Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain and Alterraun Verner really responded to the challenge of getting in the Patriots receivers’ faces. “We were locking them up,” McCain said in the locker room after the win. “Man-to-man. Me against you. Locked up.” Burke had a really good game. He brought blitzers at the right times and in the right doses. He knew he needed to make Brady feel uncomfortable and after the game, Miami defenders were saying they felt Brady was flustered. Howard was phenomenal for the second consecutive game, with two interceptions and a slew of passes defended. Burke and his staff were able to iron out Miami’s communication and assignment errors from the first Patriots game and for that, they deserve kudos. The Dolphins have physical corners (including injured Cordrea Tankersley) capable of matching up in occasional man coverage. It makes sense to mix it up, but it was a great call to lean on some tight man on Monday.
- EXTRA POINTS. DeVante Parker may very well end up on another roster if he doesn’t find himself before the end of this season. If a pass off of Parker’s hands goes the other way for a pick six (it bounced of Kenny Stills and and mercifully found the grass), suddenly it’s 27-24 and it’s a completely different game. And Parker is a South Florida goat. Just catch the ball, please…. Once again, Jesse Davis showed why he should be starting at right guard or right tackle for Miami next season. Why? Well, he generally moves people in the right direction… Alterraun Verner is a very capable veteran corner, ideally suited as the number 3 or number 4 corner on a good roster… We still don’t see Julius Thomas on Miami’s roster next season… We personally would rather see Anthony Fasano come back for one more season, and not retire… It was interesting to see Charles Harris rushing from a standing position. Something to try to get the rookie going. Harris had a few decent pressures… Lawrence Timmons bounced back after some recent struggles. He seemed quicker and more inspired… If Jordan Phillips can play as well as he has the last two games, somewhat consistently, the Dolphins can start to view him with a much longer lens… T.J. McDonald could end up as a very good value sign. He drops players for loss. He hits hard. He plays fast… Did you realize Ndamukong Suh played every single defensive snap? What a monster… Jarvis Landry drew a 21-yard pass interference penalty on a deep route in the third quarter. Unfortunately those 21 yards don’t go toward his yards-per-catch average.