NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots travel to Miami with a chance to earn yet another AFC East divisional title. Read on for ten keys to this week’s rivalry game.
1. How will New England’s offensive tackles perform against Miami’s edge rushers?
Perhaps the most fearsome Miami Dolphin is left end Cameron Wake; the fourth-year player already has 9.5 sacks on the season and recorded sacks in three of his last four matchups against the Patriots. Wake rushes with a surprising combination of power and explosiveness which should give Sebastian Vollmer his most difficulty assignment of the season thus far. Vollmer may be up to the challenge: he has allowed just one sack all season and is the brightest spot on a surprisingly impressive offensive line unit.
Left tackle Nate Solder, who has allowed two sacks over eleven starts, will have to contend with former first-round pick Jared Odrick’s power at the right end spot. Odrick was originally drafted to play defensive end in Miami’s 3-4 defense; unsurprisingly, he is considered more of a factor against the run. Solder is not one of New England’s most powerful blockers, but he should be able to prevent Odrick from adding to his three sacks.
The Dolphins may also give a handful of snaps to Olivier Vernon, a rookie third-round pick with an intriguing combination of size (6’3”, 260 pounds), speed (4.64 in the 40-yard dash), and power (31 repetitions on the bench press.) Neither Solder nor Vollmer is likely to receive much help in pass protection considering the strength of Miami’s defensive line as a whole; New England’s interior line will have their hands full with Randy Starks and Paul Soliai.
2. Can the interior offensive line get a push against the likes of Randy Starks and Paul Soliai?
Miami excels at defending the run; their defensive front includes star defensive tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai, with right end Jared Odrick functioning as more of an extra defensive tackle. Linebackers Kevin Burnett, Karlos Dansby, and Koa Misi are also known for their run defense. Without Logan Mankins available, New England will be forced to rely on the combination of Donald Thomas and Dan Connolly once again.
Consequently, this matchup projects as one of the most difficult of the season for Stevan Ridley, who needs 61 yards to reach 1,000 on the season. Ridley is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt on the season but may be limited to significant less this week; Miami is currently allowing just 3.7 yards per attempt on the ground. They are ranked seventh against the run this season. Josh McDaniels has favored a balanced offensive attack this season; this week, New England should focus on passing to establish the ground game.
Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead should each see some extra touches as well; their abilities in the passing game may earn them more substantial roles in the offensive gameplan this week.
3. Will the Dolphins have enough cornerback depth to defend against New England’s receivers?
Impending free agent Sean Smith is Miami’s most formidable cornerback; the 6’3” defensive back has played fairly well this season against the most dangerous targets opponents have to offer. Through eleven games, he has been targeted 88 times, allowing 49 completions for 571 yards and five touchdowns. This week, Smith will likely shadow Patriots wide receiver Brandon Lloyd; Smith’s skillset is better suited to deal with a vertical threat such as Lloyd as opposed to a slot receiver such as Wes Welker or Julian Edelman.
In order to cover those two, the Dolphins will be forced to rely on right cornerback Nolan Carroll and slot cornerback Jimmy Wilson. Carroll has played surprisingly well this season as Vontae Davis’ replacement; however, teams which have targeted him often have generally been rewarded. The Colts threw 16 passes at Carroll, gaining 131 yards and a touchdown on nine completions; New York gained 65 yards and a touchdown over 12 targets. Wilson, a 2011 seventh-round pick, has surrendered 337 yards and two touchdowns on 32 targets. With Smith in coverage on Lloyd, expect Carroll and Wilson to be targeted early and often as Tom Brady attempts to find Welker and Edelman.
4. Is Miami’s back seven athletic enough to defend against tight end Aaron Hernandez?
Rob Gronkowski is still recovering from a broken forearm, but fortunately tight end Aaron Hernandez should be running at full speed this week. He was able to play 57 snaps against the Jets in his return this Thanksgiving, catching two passes for 36 yards, including one 28-yard catch and run. Miami has a few options to consider against Hernandez: they can attempt to cover him with either Kevin Burnett or Karlos Dansby, or they can line up a safety such as Reshad Jones or Chris Clemons in man coverage. Unfortunately for New England, all four of these players have been effective in coverage this season. Although Miami would be wise to rotate their coverage responsibilities, Jones, Miami’s strong safety, may represent the most logical option overall. Opponents have largely avoided throwing towards the 2010 fifth-round pick this year, targeting him just 28 times on the season with limited success (14 completions, 210 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.)
If Jones proves capable of limiting Hernandez, Miami’s linebackers will be free to concentrate on stopping the run and on overloading the center of New England’s offensive protections. Nonetheless, Hernandez is the best tight end Jones has been asked to cover all season; the Patriots should still expect at least a few catches from the star tight end.
5. What should the Patriots expect from their first meeting against rookie Ryan Tannehill?
Ryan Tannehill has played reasonably well in his first professional season, likely due in part to his experience under current Miami offensive coordinator Mike Sherman back at Texas A&M. Tannehill is a strong-armed quarterback who has already displayed strong footwork and strong mechanics this year; Tannehill takes snaps from under center as well as he does out of the shotgun. He originally began his collegiate career as a wide receiver; Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman will likely let him roll out on a number of passes in an effort to confuse New England’s defenders.
Fortunately, Tannehill has yet to take many chances downfield (an area of potential weakness in the Patriots’ secondary): he has thrown just 30 passes of 20 yards or more, connecting on 14 of them. Additionally, Tannehill could provide New England’s cornerbacks and safeties with a few opportunities to add to their interception count; he has been intercepted on twelve occasions this year,elven of which came on short or intermediate throws. The Patriots must be patient and capitalize on Tannehill’s mistakes in order to provide New England’s offense with extra opportunities to score. Not much blitzing should be expected: Tannehill is averaging 8.6 yards per attempt against the blitz as opposed to 6.1 yards per attempt against four or less rushers.