Commentary

Room for improvement on Patriots' D

New-look unit still a work in progress, but plenty of silver linings found in Miami

Updated: September 13, 2011, 11:06 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

MIAMI -- Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne passed for 416 yards and the New England defense still emerged all smiles on Monday.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Haynesworth
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesWith a lack of big-play receivers in Miami, opponents will likely target RB Reggie Bush in 2012.

Yep, Tom Brady's otherworldly effort -- passing for a franchise record 517 yards, the fifth highest total in NFL history -- had a way of masking some of New England's defensive struggles. Yet despite those rough patches, members of the Patriots' defense leaned on the silver linings, including the notion that things will improve moving forward.

"We gave up a lot of yards today, a lot of yards from scrimmage for the quarterback," Pats defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. "But a lot of that comes with playing and getting reps. … Those things we have to correct -- and we will correct them -- if we want to be a good defense. I think everybody in here on the defensive side feels that way."

The game plan certainly didn't call for allowing Henne to establish a new career high for passing yards (trumping a previous high of 363 yards in September against the Jets). The script also didn't call for allowing the Dolphins to march down the field and draw first blood on Monday night.

But here's what the Patriots will hang their hats on: Take away that first drive of the game and they actually did a good job of limiting the damage. Miami's game-tying touchdown early in the third quarter was a result of an interception and a long return of Brady's first pick in an NFL-record 358 regular-season attempts set up a quick score.

The defense allowed just three points over the next 21 minutes while the offense built a 21-point advantage and sealed a 38-24 opening-night triumph at Sun Life Stadium.

Heck, even Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't seem that concerned.

"[The Dolphins are] a pretty explosive offensive team," said Belichick, whose team ranked 30th in the NFL last season allowing 4,136 passing yards, but had the eighth best scoring defense at 19.6 points per game.

"[The Dolphins have] got a lot of guys who can make plays. They got a good group of receivers, good tight end, good back. Their quarterback played well. So, we had our moments. We made some plays. They made a few, so it was a good give-and-take."

Here's a few of the positives for New England:

• Defensive rotations: The Patriots mixed and matched all over their defense, rotating bodies at every position. That was especially true up front, where Albert Haynesworth played a reserve role, while younger players such as Myron Pryor and Kyle Love were mixed in among veterans Andre Carter, Shawn Ellis, Mike Wright and Wilfork. The players seemed downright giddy about the potential to utilize multiple bodies this season.

"We encourage one another around here," Wilfork said. "I don't care if guys are going out there and getting my reps, and I'm sure they feel the same way. We just know we have to be productive when we are on the field. Tonight was a good showing, a lot of guys played and guys played very well. Everything wasn't perfect, but we got a win."

As Haynesworth bottom-lined it: "They don't want you out there playing half-assed. They want you to go your hardest, for however many plays you can, then when you can't go your hardest, you come out and catch your breath."

• Haynesworth knocks off a little more rust: Like the defense as a whole, Haynesworth remains a work in progress. He played just 14 first-half snaps and finished with a modest two tackles. The sleeping giant, as he dubbed himself this week, might have hit the snooze button, but he was happy to knock off some more rust and preached a desire to improve his own performance.

"We still need to get out there and work," Haynesworth said. "With no offseason, it kinda hurt us. We need to still go out there and work hard at this week at practice. I know I'm going to work hard and go out there like it's a game every day at practice, so I can get better and better."

Asked about the differences between New England and Washington, Haynesworth playfully quipped: "We won. … I actually played, too." But he turned more serious when asked what he needs to improve on.

"Everywhere, every aspect of my game," Haynesworth said. "I feel like I need to improve everything. The only time when I don't need to improve is when I'm making every play in every game -- every tackle, every sack, every interception. Other than that, I need to improve."

• Defense made plays when it mattered: Maybe the most encouraging sign for New England's defense was stepping up in key situations. After allowing that first-drive touchdown, Miami punted on its next four drives (including two three-and-outs). Later, trailing by just a touchdown in the third quarter, the Dolphins had first-and-goal at the New England 1, but Devin McCourty made a string of plays to force Miami to settle for a field goal. Sprinkle in two more three-and-outs on the Dolphins' next two drives and the Patriots soon opened a 38-17 lead with under six minutes to play.

"It was a lot of back and forth and that's what we expected," McCourty said.

Added linebacker Jerod Mayo: "We settled in. We still got a lot of work to do, still got some adjustments, conditioning, things like that. You know, it's tough to come down here and win -- I'm just happy to get it."

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots and Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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