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 half-time 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 out.
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.