6. Can New England’s defense limit Dolphins running back Reggie Bush to short gains?
Reggie Bush was once considered a running back who preferred to bounce his carries to the sidelines, but this year he has been very effective as an interior runner: Bush has carried the ball up the middle on 46 attempts, gaining a total of 226 yards on those plays (4.9 yards per attempt as compared to his 4.4 yards per attempt overall.) Bush’s decisiveness has been impressive, but much of the credit must also go to Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, who has developed into one of the league’s top centers in his second season. The majority of Miami’s carries have relied on Pouncey’s ability to create rushing lanes; whether or not he is able to execute blocking assignments against Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork will have a tremendous impact on the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Of course, Patriots linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are both top-notch run stuffers; New England may wish to blitz inside with some regularity. Doing so may confuse Miami’s protections and force Pouncey to make mental errors; he will be flanked by left guard Richie Incognito and right guard John Jerry. Neither of those guards is considered among the league’s best; Incognito in particular is prone to committing penalties (six thus far in 2012.)
7. What will New England’s defensive front look like without right end Chandler Jones?
2012 first-round pick Chandler Jones is set to miss yet another game due to his ankle injury; the Patriots must compensate for his absence as well as Jermaine Cunningham’s (suspension.) Consequently, this afternoon represents an opportunity to see more of New England’s three-man fronts, presumably featuring Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Brandon Deaderick on the defensive line, with Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Dont’a Hightower manning the linebacker spots. Increasing the emphasis on three-man fronts may aid in defending against rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill; the first-year starter may have some difficulty determining which players will be rushing or dropping into coverage on any given play.
The 3-4 scheme may also help Vince Wilfork by allowing him to shift back to his more natural position: nose tackle. However, Deaderick has been relatively ineffective this season over 165 snaps. Deaderick has yet to record a quarterback pressure, hit, or sack on the season; New England may feel more comfortable increasing the playing time of defensive ends Trevor Scott (four pressures, one hit) and Justin Francis (one pressure, three hits) and remaining in more traditional four-man fronts.
8. How will Miami utilize their top two receivers, Davone Bess and Brian Hartline?
Miami’s tendency towards two-receiver packages provides a contrast with most offenses, which typically feature three or more wide receivers on a regular basis. Thus far, only Davone Bess (641 snaps) and Brian Hartline (623) have received substantial playing time for the Dolphins; their next-most frequently-played player is Legedu Naanee (121 snaps), and the team also parted ways with former Patriot Jabar Gaffney recently.
Bess and Hartline are mostly asked to run short routes: of Bess’ 84 targets, 53 were on routes of less than ten yards. Hartline typically lines up on the right side and generally operates within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage (encompassing all but 15 of his 84 targets.) Of the two, Hartline is the more dangerous downfield receiver: Tannehill has connected with Hartline eight times on 15 attempts for a total of 328 yards and one touchdown on deep throws, typically to the right side. New England may want to focus on crowding the first 10-15 yards of the field with defenders; only Hartline’s side of the field is likely to receive downfield targets. The Patriots may have the luxury of playing their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage this week in order to help defend against Miami’s ground attack.
9. Can the Patriots’ coverages account for Miami tight ends Anthony Fasano and Charles Clay?
Although Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano has been limited this season, receiving just 40 targets through the Dolphins’ first eleven contests (with just ten targets in his last five games), he is nonetheless expected to be a major factor in Miami’s offensive gameplan. New England’s struggles in coverage against tight ends are well-documented, and Fasano may function as a safety valve for Ryan Tannehill; however, the Patriots should be able to prevent Fasano from big gains. Fasano’s utility thus far in 2012 has been conservative: he has been targeted 28 times on passes of less than ten yards, and only once on a route of 20 yards or longer.
Charles Clay may be more of a concern; the second-year player lines up all over the field, including at fullback and as an H-Back, and has caught both of his deep targets for a combined total of 53 yards and a touchdown. Clay’s 7.6 yards per target are impressive; he has also gained 70 of his 175 receiving yards after the catch. Miami may also send Clay in motion often in an effort to gain information about New England’s coverage shells. Fortunately, Clay is not considered one of the most reliable blockers, and he has also dropped six passes on the season.
10. Can New England continue to improve on their incredible turnover differential?
New England’s previous two performances have both been blowouts; the Patriots are averaging 54 points per game over the past two weeks, in large part due to forced turnovers on defense and special teams. The Patriots took the ball away from Indianapolis four times; two of Andrew Luck’s interceptions were returned for touchdowns, and Julian Edelman added a punt return touchdown as well. New England collected five more turnovers against the Jets, intercepting one pass and returning two fumbles for touchdowns: one on defense and one on special teams.
Unsurprisingly, they have the league’s best turnover differential by a wide margin (+24, with Chicago and New York tied for second with +13); they should win that battle again this week against a Miami team which is currently ranked towards the bottom of the league (-10). Tannehill’s propensity for throwing interceptions has been outlined previously; if New England protects the ball and forces at least two turnovers, they should be able to cruise to a victory and secure the AFC East divisional crown once again.