By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If you felt like the Patriots defense couldn’t stop anyone or anything in the second half against the Miami Dolphins, you were not far off. New England held off a huge second-half rally by Ryan Tannehill and Miami to eke out a seven-point win, 31-24, in a game in which they led 31-3 in the middle of the third quarter.
Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looked outstanding in the first half, throwing for 234 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, before being forced out of the game with a shoulder injury. The offense stalled with Jacoby Brissett under center, which left it up to the Patriots defense to hold the Dolphins down and maintain the team’s big lead.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Tannehill looked like Tom Brady in disguise after the Garoppolo injury, as he was 4-of-9 passing with just 40 yards before the injury with 4:04 left in the second quarter but 28-of-36 with 349 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions after Garoppolo left the game. Operating largely in a no-huddle offense, Tannehill picked the Patriots’ conservative defense apart. He completed his first eight pass attempts in a row to start the third quarter, including one negated by a Miami penalty, and was 15-of-16 with two touchdowns in the Dolphins’ first three drives of the second half.
Tannehill was 21-of-22 passing in the second half before making three incompletions on the Dolphins’ final drive, which ended with an interception in the end zone by Patriots safety Duron Harmon. Tannehill may not have finished the game like Brady or other great quarterbacks might have, but to that point, he was about as close to unstoppable as it gets.
Miami had the Patriots defense’s heads spinning in the second half of the game, much like New England fans’ heads spun trying to figure out what the hell was going on as Tannehill completed pass after pass. Defensive end Chris Long, who was one of the lone bright spots on the defense with a fumble recovery in the second quarter, gave credit to the Dolphins cranking up the tempo on offense for the Patriots’ defensive struggles for most of the second half.
“Any time a team like that with playmakers is able to push the tempo, I’m sure, you know, it makes things a little tougher,” Long told reporters after the game. “But … at the end of the day, we made a play to win the game. And that’s the bottom line is like, it’s really hard to win football games and especially with a great team like that on offense that has a lot of weapons and putting that pressure on us with the tempo and we responded at the end and made a play to win the game.”
Harmon’s interception came deep in the end zone on a fourth-and-5 play with Tannehill throwing from the Patriots 29-yard line. As good as Tannehill looked in the second half, a better quarterback might have made the Patriots pay on that last drive. A more experienced coach than Adam Gase may have made better play calls. DeVante Parker might have pulled a Kenbrell Thompkins. The defense ultimately made the play they needed to win, but Harmon’s interception was a sobering reminder of how close the Patriots came to squandering a four-touchdown lead. To put it bluntly, they’re lucky they weren’t facing a better team.
There were two significant factors at play in the Patriots’ defensive meltdown in the second half. One was that the unit was missing linebacker and defensive leader Dont’a Hightower, whose absence ostensibly caused communication issues on the field with Jamie Collins as the fill-in signal-caller. The presence of No. 54 could have resulted in more pressure on Tannehill and better control of Miami’s running game.
The other factor was that the Patriots defense may have dialed it back after the team went up four touchdowns early in the third quarter, which came right after they forced a fumble on Miami’s Jay Ajayi. They played more of a “Prevent” style to limit big plays down the field and force Tannehill to pick the defense apart with short-to-intermediate passes … which he did, until Miami’s shaky final drive.
The Patriots are human, after all, right Devin McCourty?
“We’re not humans, we’re robots [laughs],” McCourty joked when asked if the defense let up because of human nature. Injuries and hidden cyborg labs aside, the Patriots defense looked defective in the second half on Sunday and improvement will be needed, regardless of who’s quarterbacking the offense.
“We’ve got to play better. I think for us defensively, it’s our mentality,” McCourty continued. “You never know. You come out here some days and the offense will be hot, other times we have to step up and make some plays. That shows by going out there and being consistent. … To come out in the second half and not play well shows that it’s September and we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
The Patriots made the final big play on defense, but won’t be able to survive every week getting pushed to the brink like they were against Miami on Sunday. Getting Hightower back will obviously be a massive help, but for a team with such a strong “Next Man Up” mentality, the absence of one single player shouldn’t cause that many problems. With Jacoby Brissett likely under center on Thursday against the Texans, whoever is on the field for the defense will be depended on to carry the team to victory.
For the next two games, the defense is the real leader of the Patriots. They’d better start playing like it.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.