FOXBOROUGH — Trust me, I know what you're going to say.
I realize that when it comes to New England Patriots football, comparing anything to the team's defensive performance while winning their first Super Bowl in February 2002 borders on the sacrilegious. And this being Week 4, the 2018 Patriots defense and the opposing quarterback being Ryan Tannehill ... I'm really going down a rabbit hole.
But when I watched the TV copy of the Patriots' 38-7 victory over the Dolphins on Sunday, I couldn't help but be reminded of that game and the beating New England put on Marshall Faulk. Ron Jaworski and Greg Cosell dubbed it the "Bull's-Eye" game in their seminal football strategy book, "The Games That Changed the Game."
We'll talk about the key role that has been growing for Kyle Van Noy, and touch on some other factors that contributed to the Patriots' defensive success against the Dolphins. But we have to start with the newfound physicality the Patriots displayed against the Dolphins — and I'm not talking about the run defense and just winning one-on-one battles against blockers (although that certainly happened and helped).
Against the Dolphins, it wasn't the same game plan, and it wasn't aimed at one player like in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams. But there was no question the Patriots had a much more focused strategy against the Dolphins' passing game. And after the previous two losses, you could understand why.
The common theme in the losses to the Jaguars and Lions, at least on the defensive side of the ball, was that the Patriots couldn't get off the field because they were being bled to death by little dinks, dunks and crossing patterns to backs, tight ends and others. They didn't produce big plays vs. New England, but they were effective at keeping the opponent ahead of the chains (good down and distance), which had a trickle-down effect on the Patriots' third-down defense.
In the two losses, the Patriots allowed the backs and tight ends to catch 22 of 30 passes (73.3 percent) for 203 yards and a touchdown. In other words, they got worked.
Through three games, Dolphins running backs Kenyon Drake and Frank Gore, gadget master Jakeem Grant and their tight ends had accounted for 45 percent of Miami's receptions and 36.9 percent of their receiving yardage. So the Dolphins entered Sunday's game with the potential to do the same thing.
But it didn't happen. In meaningful game action, Tannehill's safety valves caught one pass on four targets for 9 yards. And that one, by Grant with 6:38 left in the second quarter, came on 3rd and 24, a play the Patriots gladly gave up. (The Dolphins' backs and tight ends did have four other receptions on five targets for 39 yards, but the either came right before the half, or when Brock Osweiler was finishing off the blowout — including Gore's touchdown).
As a result, the Patriots' defense looked like a totally competent unit. In my mind, it was the biggest reason why New England won the game. I mean, the Dolphins punted (seven times) or turned the ball over on their first nine possessions and only ran more than three plays three times (average number of plays per drive: 3.2).
So how did they do it? Time to dust off the Bull's-Eye.