When the Dolphins released their inactives list on Sunday before their game against the New England Patriots, there was an immediate hole on the defensive side for the visitors.
Of the seven listed players, four were linebackers, including starters Kelani Jenkins and Kao Misi, two of the team’s top four leading tacklers.
Not a great way to start the day against one of the league’s most prolific offenses.
Yet with Kelvin Sheppard and Jason Trusnik slotted alongside Philip Wheeler in the linebacking corps, things weren’t that bad to start off.
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Down 7-0 following a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown, Trusnik came up with a key interception, the first of his career, after tipping a Tom Brady pass at the line, hauling it in to end a promising New England drive on the Miami 34-yard line.
When the Dolphins converted a 32-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to Mike Wallace just before the half, they were holding on, trailing by just one, 14-13.
Then the third quarter started and the paint started peeling off of the facade as the Patriots began to wear down the defense, taking advantage of the Dolphins’ lack of depth across the middle.
“We tried to go back out and get the momentum on our side,” Sheppard said. “That didn’t happen. We fell short.”
On New England’s first play from scrimmage in the second half, Tom Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski for a 34-yard strike up the left side, and the Patriots immediately wrestled away any momentum that the Dolphins might have gained heading into halftime.
“He’s a big target,” Brady said of his trusty tight end. “He makes it easy for me. We were all pretty [teed] off at halftime. I thought we did a better job coming out there in the second half.”
Those two would combine for three plays of more than 25 each yards en route to setting a Patriots franchise mark with 24 points in the third quarter.
In the process the Patriots opened up their run game, working things up the middle with Jonas Gray rumbling for 29 yards in the quarter.
“We didn’t play well in the third quarter, we didn’t coach well in the third quarter,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “We’re all professionals. We’re all here to do a job.”
Said Wheeler: “We didn’t come out and play. We expected to come out there on defense and play with the momentum and come out fired up, and we didn’t. I don’t think we came out there flat, and we were trying. They made some good plays.”
The trio of Sheppard, Wheeler and Trusnik did combine for 25 tackles in the game, finishing as the Dolphins’ top three stoppers, yet the majority of those stops came as a result of the Patriots directly targeting them in the passing game, as Brady went at them seven times in the third quarter alone.
“We felt coming into [Sunday] we had a solid plan,” Sheppard said. “We will watch the film and see where exactly we fell short.”
The instant reaction from the coach following the loss was a lack of team focus over the entirety of the game, something that was made clearly evident as the Dolphins got blown out of the water in the third quarter.
“Even though we were losing at halftime, I thought we were playing competitively, and certainly we would have a good opportunity to win the game,” Philbin said. “But you have to play 60 minutes, and you can’t make the mistakes that we made.”