It’s Monday morning and after spending the past 16 hours angry at the world because his professional pride and defense were severely wounded in a 35-17 loss the previous day, Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke has gathered his players in a meeting room and everyone is reliving the nightmare of the New England game.
There have been moments this season that Burke is disappointed in himself because he missed a call or two in a game, and he sees that as a failure.
But last Monday was different because Burke called a good game against the Patriots. And no one on the Dolphins sideline was surprised by anything the Patriots did. Indeed, the Dolphins the previous week practiced all but one play the Patriots ran in the game.
The Dolphins spent much of the offseason preparing to play the Patriots because games against that team are the thing — the measure of success or failure for AFC East teams.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Beyond that, Burke, the first-year Miami defensive coordinator, is from Hudson, Massachusetts. He coached at Harvard and Boston College and had 20 friends and family in the stands for Sunday’s game.
So Burke wanted his unit to be on its game against New England. And the week of good practices and good results on multiple written tests players took suggested that would happen.
Then game day arrived, and the Patriots ran 67 offensive plays.
And the Dolphins defense committed 20 mental errors or busts.
So the Dolphins screwed up on about one-third of their defensive plays Sunday. The week before against Tampa Bay, the Dolphins had five mental errors.
This game it was different players taking turns making mistakes. And it wasn’t just different players but the busts came on different situations and calls. So coaches couldn’t bench somebody for screwing up repeatedly. And they couldn’t stop using one particular call that no one was executing.
The dam didn’t have one leak. It had 20 diverse leaks busting out at different times.
I’m told Burke went through each and every one of those busts Monday morning — explaining what went wrong, asking culprits to talk through why they blew assignments and trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Head coach Adam Gase, who normally doesn’t participate in these defensive meetings, sat in for the beginning of the 90-minute affair. He left after about 15 minutes and later asked Burke if the whole session was as harsh as the first 15 minutes.
The answer: Yes, it was.
People within that meeting say the gathering spared no one.
Rookie Cordrea Tankersley had to answer for his mistakes, particularly two on the first drive of the game alone.
Tankersley dropped a coverage on that opening drive because he thought his assignment called for him to pick up Brandin Cooks running a deep post. He was instead supposed to stay with Phillip Dorsett, who was running a crossing route.
The rookie’s mistake left Dorsett alone and led to a 39-yard completion.
“On the first one, we are in a man-oriented concept and Tank drops his guy,” Burke told reporters Thursday. “He’s expecting help. It’s kind of a long story technique-wise, but he’s expecting help that’s not there for him, and he should stay on the guy and cover.”
Tankersley knows this now, but he has been struggling with concepts and assignments in four of the past five games. The Dolphins think of this as growing pains. And that’s kind of understandable.
But Miami’s problem is Tankersley isn’t the only one blowing coverages or lining up wrong and using wrong techniques.
During the Monday meeting linebacker Lawrence Timmons is told he lined up out of position on multiple occasions, including a 22-yard run. He wasn’t where he was supposed to be before the play even began.
Reshad Jones had to account for losing leverage on one Rob Gronkowski touchdown and making a check [a new coverage call] that leads to a wide open pass to Gronkowski for another touchdown.
Safety T.J. McDonald, who had not played football in 11 months until he played again three weeks ago, is still rusty. And he’s not totally straight about the Miami defense after playing for the Rams the past four years.
So he too is making multiple mental mistakes.
Kiko Alonso, who sources say has outstanding football intelligence, has been out of position in coverage multiple games as he sees mistakes by teammates and tries to cover for them — thus getting out of position on his own assignment.
So the Dolphins are managing errors by young players, by new players and by veteran players. And last week was about the worst of all those.
One of those errors came when New England, facing a third-and-14 situation, converted with a 37-yard pass to Cooks who was all alone in the secondary.
Both McDonald and Alonso rallied to Gronkowski who was a check-down option 4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That left the field behind those two defenders wide open for Cooks to exploit.
“We are playing zone coverage there, and the underneath defenders got aggressive on short routes that they don’t need to be covering on third-and-14,” Burke said, “and that opened up the window for the deep throw behind.”
The Dolphins play the Denver Broncos on Sunday, and the defense’s challenge is to figure out what a new offensive coordinator and new starting quarterback are going to bring to the game. And they play the Patriots again the following week.
The challenge then, on a Monday night game, will be to correct those 20 mental errors that might have cost the team the game in New England.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero