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In The Trenches: The Dolphins’ Pass Rush Overwhelmed The Patriots

The New England Patriots had their first Week 1 loss since 2003 on Sunday, falling 33-20 to the Miami Dolphins in South Florida.

There were a number of areas in which the Patriots struggled, but the biggest was probably pass protection — quarterback Tom Brady was sacked four times, hit on seven occasions and forced into 18 hurried throws per Pro Football Focus’s numbers. (PFF’s data is available to members only.) And the Dolphins generated their most damaging pressure against Brady when they didn’t send extra pass rushers to blitz him. On plays that Miami blitzed, Brady was sacked once and posted a respectable 7.5 adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A); meanwhile, when he wasn’t blitzed, Brady was sacked three times — and fumbled twice — and his ANY/A dropped to 2.7.

Brady’s pre-snap reads are so good that the prospect of a defense sending extra pass rushers — and leaving one-on-one matchups behind those pass rushers — only makes the Pats QB more deadly. That’s why opponents have a history of being more successful against New England when they don’t blitz, instead counting on their defensive line to generate pressure without the help of additional rushers.

Miami frequently lined up with five defensive linemen and overwhelmed the Patriots’ offensive line. Cameron Wake created major havoc (two sacks, two forced fumbles and three hurries) coming in from the edge, but the Patriots also had serious breakdowns in protection up the middle. Between rookie Jordan Devey and converted tackle Marcus Cannon, New England’s offensive line featured the two worst pass-blocking performances by any guards in Week 1, according to PFF’s play-by-play grading system. Dan Connolly also posted the worst performance of any center. (Miami’s Earl Mitchell and Jared Odrick had the two best pass-rushing performances of any defensive tackles.)

The temptation might be to lay the ultimate blame for New England’s blocking debacle at the feet of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, since he abruptly traded away former All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins just weeks before the regular season kicked off. But while Mankins is still a certified road-grader when it comes to clearing running lanes for ball carriers, he was a below-average pass blocker by PFF’s play-by-play grades last year and is 32 years old this season (putting him near the age when offensive linemen historically see a major decline in performance). It’s unlikely the drop-off between Mankins and Cannon was solely responsible for the Patriots’ protection mishaps Sunday.

And it bears mentioning that Miami’s scheme would have been vulnerable if the Dolphins’ two linebackers in the 5-2 front, Jason Trusnik and Jelani Jenkins, hadn’t played so well in coverage. According to PFF’s numbers, they dropped into coverage on nearly 70 percent of the snaps for which they were on the field and only allowed 3.9 yards per target on the eight passes that came their way. Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots’ devastating tight end, was also held to 1.8 yards per route run, a rate well below his career mark of 2.4. (Measuring coverage performance on a per-route basis is important because the best pass defenders strive to be invisible to the stat sheet when it comes to targets.)

The good news for New England is that its pass protection wasn’t great up the middle last year, either, but the team still managed the NFL’s fourth-best offense. We already noted that Mankins was a below-average pass blocker at left guard a season ago, but Connolly also graded as one of the worst pass-blocking right guards in the league in PFF’s system, and Ryan Wendell (who played sparingly Sunday but allowed two hurries) was the league’s very worst pass-blocking center. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer need to play better than they did — granted, Miami has one of the best pass-rushing defensive lines in football — but all is not lost for the Patriots, even if they will probably spend all season struggling to slow down interior pressure from opposing linemen.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.