It's finally time to sort through and break down the Patriots' first full game plan of the 2011 season. It obviously worked well against the Dolphins, so let's crack out the microscope and see how it unfolded in Miami for the first Two-Minute Drill of the regular season.
1. Devin McCourty's emergence has been well-documented, but I thought Monday night showed just how important he's become for the Patriots' defense. He spent a lot of the night singled up with Dolphins stud receiver Brandon Marshall, who posted numbers with seven catches for 139 yards, but only had four receptions for 40 yards through three quarters, when the game was in doubt.
2. Think back a bit. Marshall had eight receptions for 64 yards and two touchdowns, primarily against Leigh Bodden, in 2009. Then in Week 4 of 2010, the Patriots used a wide rash of coverages on Marshall, whether they doubled him, tripled him, bracketed him, checked him with a rush linebacker, used a safety or cornerback. They did everything possible to keep him in check.
3. By trusting McCourty to stay with Marshall, the Patriots could place a greater focus on containing slot receiver Davone Bess and running back Reggie Bush. Both of those guys allow Chad Henne to get into a rhythm, which is more important for a growing offense with a younger quarterback who needs to play with confidence. When Henne didn't have his safety blankets, the Dolphins struggled badly.
4. I don't understand the criticisms of the Patriots' defense against the Dolphins. Sure, Miami marched straight down the field on its first possession, but the Dolphins only gained 162 yards on their next nine possessions, which included five three-and-outs and two series with just a single first down. (One of those possessions only spanned two plays after Tom Brady's interception turned into a Dolphins touchdown.)
5. The Patriots' defensive philosophy changed drastically in the last nine minutes of the fourth quarter, when the Dolphins racked up 162 yards on three possessions. The point is, don't look at the final numbers because they don't tell the story of how the Patriots played for three and a half quarters when they utilized a much more aggressive game plan.
6. The game changed to a large extent when Albert Haynesworth and company manhandled the Dolphins' offensive front on a first-and-goal from the 1 with four and a half minutes remaining in the third quarter, stopping Lex Hilliard for a loss of a yard. Henne threw two incompletions to Marshall on the next two plays, which looked like the Dolphins saying, "We can't beat their defensive line, so let's throw it to the big guy and see if he can make a play."
7. It didn't end there, though. The Dolphins had two goal-to-go series later in the fourth quarter, and they passed the ball on all five of their plays (one for a touchdown), including a fourth-and-goal on the 1. So, after Hilliard was stopped, the Dolphins threw the ball seven consecutive times on goal-to-go situations. That shows a complete lack of confidence in their own ability to win a battle with New England's revamped defensive line.
8. Credit Patriots rookie cornerback Ras-I Dowling for being on the winning end of two of those plays — incompletions to Marshall (on third-and-goal before a field goal) and Brian Hartline (on fourth-and-goal on the next possession). Granted, Henne could have made better throws, but I do wonder if Dowling's height caused the sailing through to Hartline.
9. Dowling basically expected Henne to challenge him in those situations. When asked specifically about that, he replied, "I think every rookie knows you're going to get tested the whole season, so kind of, yes."
10. The surprise of the night, at least from a personnel standpoint, was Dowling's start at right cornerback. Obviously, Leigh Bodden did a tremendous job on Davone Bess in the slot, but I was stunned to see Dowling get the nod over Kyle Arrington, especially after Dowling had so little playing time in the preseason.
11. I wonder if that will stick or if Bodden will be the prototypical starter at right cornerback when the Patriots aren't worrying as much about a key slot receiver. I don't think the Chargers have anyone of Bess' caliber, so we'll get a good read on that answer Sunday.
12. For what it's worth, Bodden got a ton of time in the slot in 2007 when he played in Cleveland for head coach Romeo Crennel, who was New England's former defensive coordinator.
"I'm just getting back used to it," Bodden said of the slot. "More and more practice, the better and better I'll get at it."
13. The loss of center Dan Koppen is going to be huge. Koppen has been primarily in charge with the calls on the offensive line for several years now, and he's always in sync with Tom Brady. It's not a perfect parallel, but Koppen is on the same page with Brady to a similar extent as Wes Welker. Koppen has to pick up Brady's calls on blocking assignments and blitz pickups, and he relays them to the other linemen, so his role is just as important mentally as physically.
"That's tough," Brady said of Koppen's injury. "He's the best, and there's no one like him. I think he and I have great chemistry between the two of us. We always have, and he's one of my great friends. Hopefully, he's back at some point. We're certainly going to miss him, but at the same time, other guys have to step in and do the job. I think that's part of what this game is all about — other guys stepping in when they're called upon and executing just as if he was in there. Hopefully, we get him back at some point."
14. That other guy will be Dan Connolly, who stepped in admirably at left guard for Logan Mankins in 2010. Obviously, Connolly is not Mankins, but there were very few complaints about the play at left guard for the first seven games of the season. Connolly is also well-versed at center and even warmed up as the backup at the position before Monday's game. He'll be ready.
15. One remaining question mark continues to be Chad Ochocinco. I've documented his issues with the playbook, but from the things I was told, I didn't expect him to have such a small role in Week 1. Obviously, things haven't progressed as quickly for him as the team hoped, and it was interesting that the Patriots didn't even use him as a decoy against the Dolphins.
16. I thought it was a sign that the Patriots wanted to make sure they utilized what they knew would work against two talented cornerbacks — Vontae Davis and Sean Smith — particularly in the no-huddle offense. Brady and the offense can execute that game plan with the more experienced players, and they didn't need to hold back with a receiver who hasn't completely caught up.
17. The heat and humidity was definitely a factor in Miami. After all, running backs Shane Vereen and Kevin Faulk were soaked during pregame warmups, and they were only wearing shorts and T-shirts. During my postgame conversation with McCourty, I asked him if there was any trash talk between him and Marshall, and he said the two were too busy trying to catch their breath after each play to worry about that.
18. I don't want it to sound like Nate Solder had a favorable matchup with outside linebacker Cameron Wake, but Solder's athleticism was a better fit for Wake, whose attack is based on speed. I thought the Dolphins would have been better served putting Jason Taylor on that side because the veteran could have used a number of tricks on the first-time starter. That was my opinion going into the game, and it hasn't changed.
19. Hometown safety James Ihedigbo had a blast during his Patriots debut, and his mother and brother traveled to Miami for the opener. The Amherst, Mass., native said his mother goes to every game. Ihedigbo is expecting nine or 10 family members to attend Sunday's home debut against the Chargers, and he's ready to get his tickets early.
20. The Chargers will help unfold a new layer in the Patriots' defense because they'll have to draw up a specific game plan for tight end Antonio Gates. Since the Pats cut a couple of safeties, I wonder how they'll allocate their resources to a tight end-reliant offense. Safety Josh Barrett could be a candidate to jump in on Gates, or the Pats could ask for coverage-savvy linebacker A.J. Edds to step up in his second week with the team. Most likely — and building on some notes from earlier — the Patriots can leave McCourty on Vincent Jackson and gear up a number of variations on Gates. Either way, they'll definitely show something new.