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Inside zone hurts over-hyped Pats' defense

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – From the time cornerback Darrelle Revis signed as a free-agent in mid-March, the New England Patriots defense has been billed by many as potentially being one of the NFL’s best.

With such widespread optimism, what can be said after Sunday’s surprising 33-20 season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins?

Start with this: Shame on us for false advertising.

And also, as always, give the Dolphins credit for the second-half beat-down they delivered.

As Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said in a somber postgame locker room, “It was like two different teams from the first half to the second half.”

When getting down to the nitty-gritty, the number that irked Wilfork most was the 191 rushing yards surrendered. He said any time a team gives up such a high total it starts with the big guys up front.

Which brings us to “game within the game” and how the Dolphins, with five months to prepare, were determined to attack the Patriots.

“We knew going into the game that we wanted to run a lot of inside zone,” Miami coach Joe Philbin said.

This shouldn’t have come as a big surprise to the Patriots, because the inside zone is a staple of the Eagles’ offense, and Miami’s first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was Philadephia’s quarterbacks coach in 2013.

To simplify, the inside zone focuses on offensive linemen working laterally and upfield, and the running back finding the first available lane to hit. In July, the “inside zone” was broken down in great detail by Sheil Kapadia of Phillymag.com.

The Patriots’ defensive front didn’t win enough of those battles, and also tackled poorly at times, allowing a Miami offensive line with five new starters to control the second half of the game. Personnel-wise, the Patriots were basically in two defenses:

  1. A base unit that included a front of Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Vince Wilfork/Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano/Dominique Easley, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins.

  2. A sub defense that took Ninkovich off and created a six-man front.

When it comes to Bill Belichick’s Patriots defenses over the years, stopping the run with a fundamentally-sound front that executes its “run fits” correctly and accounts for all gaps has generally been one of the unit’s strengths. While last year was a struggle, part of that was attributed to injuries to key players such as Wilfork and Mayo.

Everyone was healthy for this one, which made the performance all the more surprising. Sometimes it’s just holding the point, getting off blocks and tackling, which comes to mind when considering that of running back Knowshon Moreno’s 134 rushing yards, 50 came after initial contact.

The Patriots have only allowed 50 or more rushing yards after contact three times in the last three seasons, and Moreno, the former Denver Bronco, was the back for two of those games (Week 12 of 2013, 79 yards after contact).

With Moreno leading the charge, the Dolphins kept hitting the inside zone with success, successfully executed a number of crossing routes in the passing game, and upped the tempo with the no-huddle at times in the process. It all started up front.

“I thought our guys took control of the line of scrimmage,” Philbin said. “Blocking is blocking.”

Said Wilfork, “Everything they did we knew. They didn’t trick us. We thought we had a good game-plan for it and obviously we didn’t.”

And we thought we had a good read on the Patriots’ defense, primed to be one of the NFL’s best.

Based on this one-game snapshot, obviously we didn’t.