Something must have been wrong with the New England Patriots defense early in the year. Five weeks in and the team was worst in the league in yards allowed per game and an alarm was rung by fans. The Patriots could have been in a deeper hole if not for Tom Brady.
“How we played at the beginning of the year was not the way that I’ve ever played football, as a defense, since I’ve been here,” said Duron Harmon, a fifth-year safety for New England.
The Patriots have obviously figured out whatever was ailing them. New England defeated the Miami Dolphins 35-17 Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium for its seventh consecutive win and the defense was front and center. With the win, New England clinched its 17th consecutive winning season.
The defense sacked Miami quarterback Matt Moore seven times, intercepted him twice and recovered a fumble. The Patriots held the Dolphins to just 221 total yards which is remarkable given that they were giving up an NFL-worst 401.9 average coming into the game. The seven sacks brought the team’s total sacks to 24 on the year. Harmon reflected on how the defense turned their season around.
“Just consistency,” said Harmon. “We’re not giving up as many big plays as we did. Everybody is on the same page. Communication is a hell of a lot better. Tackling is better. We’re consistent all across the board.”
Safety Devin McCourty said the defense has simply come together.
“Obviously every play is not going to be perfect,” McCourty said. “I think we understand what we’re trying to do and we’re trying to just keep that going.”
The biggest play of the game belongs to cornerback Stephon Gilmore who recorded his second interception as a Patriot. Gilmore intercepted a Matt Moore pass late in the second quarter.
“It was a huge play, no question. A big momentum play,” said New England head coach Bill Belichick after the Patriots’ 35-17 victory over the Dolphins.
The interception, which was all the more crucial because there were just 16 seconds left in the first half with New England up by two scores, came as Gilmore read exactly what Dolphin receiver DeVante Parker was running.
“They ran that route on us earlier in the first quarter,” Gilmore said. “I know every time [DeVante] Parker is in the slot he runs the seam empty so I just beat him to the spot.”
The Patriots placed tight end Martellus Bennett on injured reserve with a shoulder injury less than three weeks after claiming him off waivers from the Green Bay Packers, the team announced Monday.
Bennett played just two games in his return to the Patriots this season before sitting out last Sunday’s contest against the Miami Dolphins.
When asked yesterday what he loses with the tight end on IR, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels talked about Bennett being fun and productive in a short period.
“You hate for that to happen with any guy, and certainly we were excited to have Marty back and looking forward to trying to build as we went through the year,” McDaniels said. “You know, he was here for those couple of weeks and worked hard to get himself caught back up in the offensive system and was fun to be around and gave us some production in the time that he was in the game. We only had him for a short time, so it’s not like we’ve had him for four months.”
Along with losing Bennett, the Patriots also lost core special teams player in Nate Ebner. Ebner tore his ACL on a successful fake punt he executed against the Dolphins and is now out for the season. Fellow special teams player James Develin talked about losing Ebner.
“Nate’s been an absolute stalwart on special teams for us for a long time,” Develin said. “But we’ll have guys to fill in, and we’re all going to have to pick up our game collectively and make up for that. It’s a shame to see him go down, but that’s the game of football, and so we’ll make the adjustments we need to and move on.”
Burkhead continues to work hard
Sunday’s performance against Miami showed how valuable Burkhead is to the Patriots’ offense.
“It’s huge,” Burkhead said of the opportunities he’s received with the Pats. “Just trying to find whatever role I can to help the team out. Help get wins. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Burkhead scored two touchdowns on Sunday to go along with 50 rushing yards and two receptions. The running back’s ability to help both in pass and rush situations has created a nice complement with Dion Lewis, who ran for 112 yards on Sunday.
“It’s not being selfish about carries or whatever role you may want individually,” Burkhead said. “It’ just about what helps the team out and what helps us moving forward going down the line.”