When asked to shed some light on his team's 20-3 nosedive
against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, New England Patriot
quarterback Drew Bledsoe politely explained that he would first
have to look at the game video. He won't be the only one
studying that tape. The Pats' upcoming opponents will also be
dying to know how the Dolphins did what no team had been able to
do in a long time: make Bledsoe look human and make his big
tight end, Ben Coates, virtually disappear.
It was quite a trick for Miami, which had in the past ranked
defense somewhere between hot-dog buns and halftime shows on its
priority list. The Dolphins went on a well-documented spending
spree in the off-season, tossing money at any veteran free agent
who promised to nudge Don Shula and Dan Marino one step closer
to a Super Bowl. They made a special effort to upgrade their
defensive front, trading for Trace Armstrong and signing Steve
Emtman as a free agent, and so far the big guys have earned
their lunch money.
On Sunday, Miami's defenders kept Bledsoe off-balance and kept
the high-powered Pats out of the end zone, and now giddy Fish
fans are wondering how far their defense can carry this old
slouch, Marino. A funny thing happened in Foxboro: The crowd
showed up to see Hootie and wound up more impressed with the
Blowfish. Marino played just O.K., completing 14 of 20 passes
for 193 yards, and still Miami won convincingly.
"It feels really good to step up and carry our weight, and hear
people talk about how good our defense is," says Dolphin
linebacker Bryan Cox. "For the first time, I feel we've got more
talent on defense than on offense, and that's saying something."
Sunday's game was a rude awakening for the Pats, who were
walking on air after their dramatic 17-14 win over the Cleveland
Browns the week before. "The feeling I had was that it seemed
like something would go wrong on every play," said Bledsoe after
the loss to Miami. "One time it was me. One time it was Briz
[wideout Vince Brisby], one time it was Ben, one time it was an
offensive lineman. Just everything seemed to go wrong."
Bledsoe couldn't even flip the ball to the 245-pound Coates and
let him plow New England back into the game. Coates had 96
catches last year and another nine against the Browns, but the
Dolphins did a masterly job of surgically removing him from the
game plan. Miami safety Michael Stewart and various linebackers
double-teamed Coates on virtually every play, sticking to him
like pilot fish and forcing Bledsoe to look for his wideouts,
none of whom require any special consideration. "We didn't
really do anything different against Bledsoe and Coates," said
Dolphin defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti, "but then again,
if we did, I probably wouldn't tell you about it anyway."
Bledsoe has played five games against Miami since the Patriots
made him the first pick in the 1993 draft. In his first three
encounters with the Dolphins, he threw for 1,025 yards and nine
touchdowns. In the last two he has thrown five interceptions and
no touchdowns. Coates caught 17 passes for 288 yards and four
touchdowns in the first three games. He has had five catches for
40 yards in the last two. Miami, it seems, has figured something
After Sunday's loss Patriot offensive tackle Bruce Armstrong
was sitting at his locker, scratching the back of his head and
studying the floor in front of him. He looked up and saw a pack
of reporters approaching. "I wish I could tell you what
happened, but I can't," said Armstrong. "If you guys have
questions, well, they're probably the same questions I have."
The answers, unfortunately for Armstrong, belonged to the
Dolphins, the best team in the AFC East.