6. Will the rushing attack be able to establish themselves early in the game?
Running back Stevan Ridley helped kill the clock and preserve a New England victory at the end of week thirteen’s contest, but he gained just 71 yards over 19 attempts on the game and was largely ineffective over the first three quarters. Ridley’s inability to find rushing lanes in the early going forced offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to eschew playcalling balance in favor of a pass-heavy gameplan which played to Miami’s strengths as a team geared towards putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. More than half of his yards – 45 of 71 – came after contact against Miami’s oversized defensive front, which ranks tenth in the league in opposing rushing yards allowed.
Surprisingly, Ridley’s success in that game came primary on rushes to either the mid-left or mid-right of New England’s offensive line (seven attempts for 36 yards), despite the presences of Randy Starks and Paul Soliai at defensive tackle. Hopefully McDaniels has learned something from this success: it would be wise to test this interior combination early in the game, because New England’s offensive success this season has relied upon not only Brady’s passing production but also the threat of Ridley running the ball.
Fellow running back Danny Woodhead has been playing well as of late; the Patriots may wish to get him some touches this week as well, especially as a receiver.
7. How will the Patriots account for linebacker Brandon Spikes’ absence?
Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has been one of New England’s most valuable defensive players this season; his exceptional run defense and value as a blitzer will likely be missed this week against the Dolphins due to knee and ankle injuries which also prevented Spikes from playing last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Should Spikes be declared inactive as expected, New England will likely make the same decision they did last week: shift starting left end Rob Ninkovich to middle lienbacker, and start Trevor Scott in Ninkovich’s place on the defensive line.
Fortunately, Spikes’ absence may be mitigated by Scott, who enjoyed his most disruptive performance of the season against Miami back in week thirteen, sacking Ryan Tannehill twice, recording one additional quarterback hit, and making one tackle in the backfield. With Dolphins left tackle Jake Long on injured reserve with a triceps injury, ineffective rookie Jonathan Martin – six sacks, four quarterback hits, and 41 pressures allowed – has been playing on the left, with 2008 seventh-round pick Nate Garner lining up at right tackle.
That may strengthen the performances of both Scott and right end Chandler Jones, whose pass-rushing production has dropped off ever since sustaining a mid-season ankle injury; Jones may be able to add to his sack total against Martin this week.
8. Can New England’s defense frustrate quarterback Ryan Tannehill again?
Eighth overall pick Ryan Tannehill has looked comfortable in his first season as a starter, completing 58.2% of his passes thus far; 7.1% of his passes have also been dropped by Miami’s receiving corps. However, Tannehill had one of his least effective games of the season against New England back in week thirteen: the quarterback completed just 44.8% of his passes for 186 yards, with the Patriots also sacking Tannehill on three occasions.
Outside linebacker Jerod Mayo has been one of New England’s most effective pass rushers this year; he recorded a sack the last time New England and Miami squared off. The Patriots will likely attempt to diversify their blitz looks in an attempt to confuse Tannehill, but they must be careful when rushing five or more players: Tannehill has thrown for just six yards per attempt against four rushers or fewer, while passing for 8.3 yards per attempt against the blitz.
New England’s best possible outcome would be to pressure Tannehill without the blitz; Tannehill has thrown only three touchdowns this season while under pressure while completing just 51.3% of his passes, far below both his 58.2% figure for the entire season and his 60.5% completion percentage in a clean pocket.
9. Will the Patriots’ run defense be able to limit big gains from Reggie Bush?
New England’s twelfth-ranked rush defense played effectively against Bush back in week thirteen, limiting him to 64 yards on 15 carries while preventing him from adding any receptions in the passing game. However, they must be careful of Bush’s potential contributions as a receiver, especially after his four catch, 42-yard, two-touchdown performance as a receiver against Buffalo last week.
Bush has the speed to challenge New England to the edges (4.9 yards per carry off the left end, 5.9 off the right end) but may struggle to gain yardage behind Jonathan Martin and Nate Garner on the outside (3.8 yards per carry behind either tackle); his longest run against the Patriots earlier this year was 16 yards. Miami’s interior offensive line has been a strength of their team this season: center Mike Pouncey is already among the best in the league at his position, with left guard Richie Incognito and right guard John Jerry providing adequate play as well. Miami offensive coordinator Mike Sherman typically calls for rushes behind Pouncey: the Dolphins have rushed Bush 78 times to either the mid-left or mid-right, with his other 141 carries being divided between six additional rushing zones.
Without Brandon Spikes in the lineup, the Patriots must rely on Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love to take away the inside run early and force Bush to extend his rushing attempts to the boundaries.
10. What will the secondary look like with Alfonzo Dennard expected to sit out?
Rookie right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard has been nursing a knee injury in recent weeks and will likely be inactive for the second straight week; against Jacksonville, the Patriots shifted Devin McCourty from free safety to right cornerback and expanded Patrick Chung’s role at safety. Suggesting a similar solution seems safe this week. However, it may also make sense to leave McCourty at free safety opposite Steve Gregory, with Kyle Arrington moving from the slot to the outside for the season finale.
With the exception of wide receiver Brian Hartline, who caught five passes for 84 yards against the Patriots a few weeks ago, the Dolphins are razor-thin at receiver. Usual starter Davone Bess (one catch on five targets against New England) is not expected to play, and the only other Dolphins receiver who was thrown a pass in that week thirteen contest was Rishard Matthews (one catch for 28 yards.) Talib’s struggles against Hartline – he allowed all five of Hartline’s catches over nine targets – may enhance the value of a center-fielder such as McCourty helping out in deep coverage.
Chung may be better suited as a third safety this week; Miami may attempt to replace the production they lost with Davone Bess’ injury by throwing more often to tight ends Charles Clay and Anthony Fasano, who combined for three catches and 40 yards on four targets the last time the Dolphins played New England.