Patriots no longer shocked by Dolphins' wildcat
Vince Wilfork had a quick reaction when he first lined up against Miami's strange formation: Huh?
"It was shocking," New England's nose tackle said. "We really didn't know what they were doing."
The Dolphins were doing the wildcat, unpacking it for the first time when they visited Foxborough in the third game last season. It worked very well: four touchdowns in six plays in a 38-13 win that ended the Patriots' NFL record 21-game regular-season winning streak.
On Sunday, running back Ronnie Brown returns to the scene of the unveiling, the field where he ran for three touchdowns and threw for another from that alignment against a coach, Bill Belichick, who prides himself on preparing his players for whatever they may encounter.
But Brown isn't indulging in nostalgia.
"It's not about New England versus the wildcat," he said. "It's about the Miami Dolphins versus the New England Patriots and how can we get a win. Whatever it takes - running the ball, throwing the ball, however we get a win, I don't care."
The Patriots (5-2) are coming off a bye week that followed wins of 59-0 over the Tennessee Titans and 35-7 over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both winless at the time.
The Dolphins (3-4) are 3-1 since Chad Henne took over at quarterback after a shoulder injury ended Chad Pennington's season. The offense gained only 104 yards in last Sunday's 30-25 win at the New York Jets. But Ted Ginn Jr. scored on kickoff returns of 100 and 101 yards, the only player in NFL history with two touchdowns of at least 100 yards in the same game.
"That can definitely be a big momentum swinger," Patriots kickoff returner Matthew Slater said. "We just have to focus on us and our job and being disciplined and being able to go down and cover him as a unit."
Ginn's plays were critical as the Dolphins struggled in the wildcat for the second straight game and Henne absorbed five sacks.
"I could have gotten the ball away on a couple of sacks," the second-year quarterback said, a challenge again against a Patriots defense that plays "a different coverage every down."
In their last two games, the Dolphins gained just 6 yards on seven wildcat plays against the Jets, and 30 yards in 14 wildcat plays in a 46-34 loss to the unbeaten New Orleans Saints. The season total: 66 wildcat plays for 357 yards and four touchdowns, the same number they scored in the Patriots' worst loss at Gillette Stadium since they began play there in 2002.
"It took everybody by surprise on our team, and it took the league by storm last year," Tom Brady said. "That's all you heard this offseason was 'who's going to be running the wildcat, and which teams will be good at it?' And everyone has some version of it at this point. They've done a great job with it. Anytime you have Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams on the field at the same time, there's a lot of danger."
Of the 66 wildcat plays, 62 have been runs and four have been passes by Brown. He's completed just one for 21 yards and been sacked once. Last year he completed two passes, both for touchdowns, in four attempts for 72 yards from the formation.
"Ronnie has gotten better and better throwing the ball," Miami coach Tony Sparano said. "The first time I ever saw him throw the ball, I told (offensive coordinator Dan Henning), 'Take that out. I don't want to run it.' "
The Patriots stopped the wildcat in the 11th game last season, holding the Dolphins to 66 yards rushing and winning 48-28.
Both teams finished 11-5 overall and 4-2 in division play, but Miami won the AFC East with a better conference record while New England missed the playoffs.
"The game we lost here (to Miami) was the reason why we didn't go to the playoffs," said Wes Welker, second in the AFC with 46 catches.
Another loss to the Dolphins could be very costly. Both teams are 3-2 in the AFC, but in the AFC East, Miami is 3-0 while New England is 1-1.
"The last champion was the Miami Dolphins, so we have the (division) championship," Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter said. "It's ours to lose. You can't just crown the champions because they used to be the champion back in the day. That hardly makes any sense."
The Patriots won the previous five AFC East titles and went on to two Super Bowl championships. But Brady is just 9-5 as a starter in the regular season against Miami and 25-3 against the other AFC East teams.
"They've played a really unique style for a lot of years, rushing basically four guys," he said.
This year he's been sacked just eight times and hasn't absorbed many big hits after returning from knee surgery and missing all but the first game last season.
"At the end of the game, you want his jersey to be clean (and) everybody else's to be dirty," Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson said.
Especially the jerseys of Brown and Williams, who both would like to improve on their recent wildcat production.
"Teams are obviously putting time into it and we're still putting ourselves in position to win games," Brown said. "It's not all about the wildcat. That's something they have to prepare for, but we have a lot of different things."
Maybe some different things out of the wildcat that the Patriots haven't seen?
"Possibly," Brown said with a smile.