NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
After last week’s overtime loss at the New York Jets, the New England Patriots currently sit at 5-2, with this week’s home game against the 3-3 Miami Dolphins appearing to be a must-win game for the team, offering an opportunity to extend their lead over the Dolphins to two games and simultaneously guarantee their positioning atop the division at the end of the week, regardless of the outcome of the Jets’ matchup at Cincinnati. However, the Dolphins should be a difficult matchup, having lost only one of their games by more than a touchdown, as well as being in possession of an offense which is currently averaging more points per game than the Patriots’. While wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion) is anticipated to return to action, starting defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) has already been ruled out and cornerback Aqib Talib’s chances of returning from a hip injury appear slim. Read on for ten keys to this week’s divisional contest.
1. What is the most effective way of disrupting Ryan Tannehill in the passing game?
Last season, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill looked more pro-ready than many draft analysts had anticipated, accounting for slightly over 3,500 combined yards and posting a modest 58.3% completion percentage and 6.81 yards per attempt, keeping his touchdown-to-interception ratio at just under 1:1. This season, Tannehill has slightly improved his production and is currently on pace to top 4,200 yards, complete almost 61% of his passes, and average 7.2 yards per attempt, with his touchdowns increasing from his rookie total of twelve to twenty-four.
However, it’s arguable that he has still failed to demonstrate the marked development that was expected of him after general manager Jeff Ireland and co. brought in wide receiver Mike Wallace this offseason to add another dimension to the offense. That addition was anticipated to transform Miami’s passing game, yet it currently ranks sixteenth in the league and has not been able to establish the deep pass, with Tannehill completing only eight passes downfield this year, averaging 13.95 yards per attempt on his deep balls with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Although Tannehill is effective against the blitz, having completed 64.5% of his passes this year with an impressive 8.4 yards per attempt against additional rushers, he still struggles to decipher coverage-heavy playcalls, a tendency which also existed during his rookie campaign. The Patriots’ best bet may be to drop additional defenders into coverage, forcing Tannehill to improve his 58.7% completion percentage and 6.6 yards per attempt against four or fewer rushers. Six of his interceptions in 2013 have come when not blitzed.
2. Will Miami’s underperforming rushing attack have success against New England?
Considered an explosive, big-play threat during his time with the Miami Hurricanes, current Dolphins starting running back Lamar Miller has been effectively contained through the first six games of the season, averaging 4.3 yards per carry over 59 attempts, with only two of his 65 total touches (including six receptions) going for over twenty yards. To make matters worse for the Dolphins, his lack of big gains on the ground has not been offset by consistently effective rushing, with Miller boasting a success rate of just 37% as calculated by Football Outsiders, a figure which ranks 33rd among 36 qualifying runners.
His grip on the starting job may be slipping, as Daniel Thomas led the team in carries against the Buffalo Bills last week, outgaining Miller by seventeen yards and consequently forcing the Patriots to prepare for two different types of runners. That said, Thomas’ success last week overshadows a larger pattern of ineffectiveness which stretches back to his rookie season in 2011; his 3.4 yards per attempt on the season is consistent with his 3.5 average in 2011 and 3.6 average in 2012.
Miami is a middling team when attacking opponents up the middle, their 3.76 Adjusted Line Yards ranking 21st in the league on Football Outsiders, but they may nonetheless be able to rebound to some extent against a Patriots team whose run defense on runs in the same direction ranks 31st in the league, allowing 4.57 Adjusted Line Yards per carry. Interior linemen such as center Mike Pouncey and left guard Richie Incognito could have their way against a depleted group of defensive tackles.
3. With Aqib Talib (hip) unlikely to play, how will New England defend Mike Wallace?
Although he practiced every day this week, it appears that starting left cornerback Aqib Talib, will not return from the hip injury he sustained against New Orleans and which caused him to miss last week’s loss at New York. That means the Patriots will be unable to position him against Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace, one of the fastest players in the league and an athletic mismatch for any other cornerbacks on New England’s roster.
Wallace, who signed a five-year, $60 million contract featuring $30 million in guaranteed money, has yet to live up to his deal, having caught just 27/53 passes on the year (50.9%) for 357 yards and one touchdown while dropping six of the passes thrown his way, but it would be a mistake to underestimate a player with true 4.3 speed who caught all seven of the targets thrown his way the last time he played New England, a 70-yard effort as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and who has already recorded three long receptions this season.
Because Miami’s offense is rather short on offensive playmakers, it makes sense to bracket him in coverage and ensure that he doesn’t get behind the defense for any big gains. There is a psychological element to this strategy, as well: Wallace was quick to complain after an opening-day performance in which he caught just one pass and saw only five targets on the day, so he may not react favorably to receiving special attention from the secondary. However, since that performance he has averaged almost ten targets per game, a significant portion of Ryan Tannehill’s targets. The Patriots may play their cornerbacks on sides, so it’s possible that someone like Kyle Arrington or Logan Ryan will receive the most work against Wallace.
4. How will New England attempt to limit fellow receiver Brian Hartline’s production?
Despite flying somewhat under the radar in comparison to the flashier Wallace, Miami’s second receiver, Brian Hartline, is easily the more efficient of the two and, if his performances versus the Patriots last season are any indication, should represent a considerable challenge for New England’s secondary this week.
In 2012, Hartline caught five passes in each of Miami’s contests against the Patriots, his first outing a 5/10 performance which resulted in 84 yards, and his second a more consistent 5/7 line which included 69 receiving yards. Hartline caught 62.7% of his passes last season and is bringing in 64.6% thus far in 2013, offering Ryan Tannehill a high-percentage fallback option should Wallace be well-covered on any given play.
The most logical option to defend Hartline may be right cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who has demonstrated his value in coverage once again this season, limiting opponents to 18/39 passing for 301 yards and one touchdown while intercepting one ball and getting his hands on six others. Dennard probably isn’t suited to defending a receiver with Wallace’s speed, so we should see plenty of Dennard/Hartline this weekend. Hartline does the vast majority of his work on the left side of Miami’s formations, with only four of his targets coming on the right side.
5. Will the Patriots be able to take advantage of the Dolphins’ offensive tackles?
After losing Jake Long in free agency this past offseason, the Miami Dolphins turned to 2012 second-round pick Jonathan Martin to man the left tackle spot despite an awful rookie season, a move which the team effectively admitted to be a mistake by trading a conditional late-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for left tackle Bryant McKinnie on Tuesday. The notion that McKinnie is a financial burden who’s long past his prime holds some weight, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Miami made a mistake in acquiring him to take over for Martin.
Prior to trading for McKinnie, the Dolphins ranked last in the league in Adjusted Line Yards on attempts behind their left tackle, averaging 2.02 yards per attempt. By contrast, Baltimore ranked 11th in the league in the same figure, with a 4.06 average, suggesting that the Ravens’ rushing struggles may have had more to do with the rest of their line. Moreover, Pro Football Focus credits Martin with having allowed six sacks through the Dolphins’ first six games, compared with one for McKinnie.
That said, the combination of McKinnie and Martin, who is projected to start at right tackle, replacing Tyson Clabo, who has endured an unexpectedly miserable season after playing very well for Atlanta in 2012, should be very appealing to New England’s edge rushers, providing an opportunity for players such as Chandler Jones (6.5 sacks) and Rob Ninkovich (one) to create pressure. Martin allowed ten pressures and one sack over his two games against the Patriots last season. It should also be interesting to see to what extent New England works in recently-signed defensive end Andre Carter, who enjoyed a fantastic 2011 campaign with the Patriots but regressed significantly in 2012 and has not played in 2013.
6. Can Tom Brady get back on track against Miami’s 25th-ranked pass defense?
Through seven games, there have been no shortage of apologists for quarterback Tom Brady’s play, which has been limited by sporadic pass protection, inconsistent receiving options, and the injury-related absences of key players such as Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, but the fact remains that Brady has also missed a number of throws this year and is on pace for what would be the worst season of his career by a wide margin.
Last week, the return of Gronkowski from his offseason back and forearm surgeries created the expectation that New England’s passing game would improve by leaps and bounds, yet the result was an outing in which Brady again failed to throw a touchdown, completed less than 50% of his passes, and somehow managed to average less than five yards per attempt, targeted Gronkowski fifteen times but completed just seven of those passes, a figure which pales in comparison to Brady’s 70.5% completion percentage when targeting Gronkowski last season.
In particular, look for Miami to thoroughly test Brady’s ability to pass against the blitz, an area in which he’s regressed significantly from 2012 to 2013. Last season, Brady completed 64.9% of his passes against additional rushers, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt and throwing twenty-two touchdowns without an interception. This year, however, he’s completing just 52.9% of his passes against the blitz and averaging 5.5 yards per throw. Last season, the Dolphins sent five or more rushers on 39.3% of their defensive snaps, calling the fourth-most five-man rushes of any team.
7. Will New England’s passing game receive any help from their ground attack?
Despite all of the criticism he’s received for his low total output, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley remains an effective rushing option who Football Outsiders credits with having been successful on 50% of his rushes thus far, a rate which ranks fourth in the league among qualifying backs. Unfortunately, his only massive rushing performance in the ground came against New Orleans in a twenty-carry, 96-yard effort which also included two touchdowns and a fourteen-yard reception, with his role being limited again last week in order to work the team’s two reserve options, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount, onto the field.
Ridley fans should refrain from crossing their fingers for another big performance this week, as the runner averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt in both games against the Dolphins last year and is now playing behind a more erratic offensive line, as part of an offense which lacks the same passing spark as they did in the past. Miami’s defensive line features plenty of talented run defenders, including starting defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Randy Starks and massive 6’4”, 340-pound rotational nose tackle Paul Soliai, one of the league’s foremost run stuffers.
On the bright side, the Dolphins currently rank last in the league in Adjusted Line Yards on runs behind the right tackle (5.26 per attempt) and on stretch plays off of the right end (a staggering 6.91), but the return of Cameron Wake in a substantial defensive role may help in that regard. Nonetheless, against a team which has been effective defending against runs up the middle, it makes sense for New England to try their luck running far to the right, where Sebastian Vollmer has been playing well and tight end Rob Gronkowski can also be called on to create an additional push.
8. Will New England’s receivers get any separation against Miami’s zone coverages?
Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle joined the team last year after a successful eleven-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals, coaching the team’s cornerbacks for the first two years of his tenure before seeing his role expanded to include all of the team’s defensive backs. However, despite his initial Dolphins defense finishing seventh overall in points allowed, Miami’s early returns were mixed at best, with the team finishing twenty-first in total yards allowed, that figure largely a function of the team’s twenty-seventh-ranked pass defense, which did not particularly suit the Dolphins’ top cornerback, Sean Smith, a cornerback with the physical skills to line up in man coverage but who was asked to operate in predominantly zone defenses.
According to Football Outsiders, holes in zone coverages accounted for 5.9% of Miami’s allowed completions that season, the second-highest percentage in the league, and prompted a significant revision of the team’s cornerback corps, with the team allowing Smith to depart in free agency and signing Brent Grimes and Richard Marshall during the same period. They also drafted two cornerbacks, Boise State’s Jamar Taylor and Utah State’s Will Davis. However, the team currently ranks 25th in pass defense despite Grimes’ career resurgence, a season in which he has allowed only nineteen completions without surrendering a touchdown. Thus, this matchup is reasonably appealing to the Patriots, as long as they avoid throwing in Grimes’ direction.
Fellow starter Nolan Carroll has been effective as well, but has been victimized by the Patriots in the past, most notably by allowing 6/7 passing for 103 yards in the 2011 season opener. Danny Amendola’s projected return should help in this regard.
9. Which Miami defender(s) will be responsible for defending Rob Gronkowski?
Last season, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught two passes for 42 yards and a touchdown in his only outing against the Dolphins, not a bad output in general but relatively underwhelming by Gronkowski’s lofty standards. The expectation would be for Gronkowski to surpass those numbers this week, but due to personnel turnover, it’s difficult to make any connections between the 2012 season finale and this weekend’s contest, as in that game, both of his catches came against Miami linebacker Karlos Dansby, now in the midst of his second run with the Arizona Cardinals.
It’s unclear exactly who will be responsible for covering him this week, as the Dolphins have a number of options who could conceivably draw that responsibility. Perhaps the most logical is 2013 third-overall pick Dion Jordan, an athletic 6’6” defensive end who covered plenty of receiving options during his time at Oregon and who seems tailor-made to guarding a player such as Gronkowski. However, Jordan has been dropped into coverage on only ten snaps this season, with Miami carefully monitoring his snaps.
Other options include strongside linebacker Philip Wheeler, a quality pass rusher who has been exploited in coverage this year and who surrenders four inches to Gronkowski, and strong safety Reshad Jones, who was outstanding in 2012 but has already allowed more catches in 2013 than he did last year. It will be interesting to see who Miami feels is the most difficult matchup for Gronkowski, particularly in terms of whether or not the Dolphins offer Jordan his largest defensive role of the season.
10. After last week’s miscues, can the Patriots protect Brady versus a deep group of rushers?
Despite substantially investing in their stable of pass rushers by drafting Dion Jordan with the third overall pick and signing Philip Wheeler away from the Oakland Raiders in free agency, the Miami Dolphins have recorded just seventeen sacks this season, a figure which is tied for twentieth in the league, a figure which ranks below even New England’s total.
However, that number is not exactly an accurate reflection of the team’s overall effectiveness this season, and certainly not an indicator of how the season will likely progress for the Dolphins, who, as mentioned above, have been reluctant to incorporate Jordan into their defense quite yet and who have also been dealing with a hamstring injury to their top pass rusher, Cameron Wake, whose snaps are expected to double this week from last week’s total of twenty-two, replacing temporary starting left end Derrick Shelby.
Starting right end Olivier Vernon has 3.5 sacks through six games, while the team’s top two defensive tackles, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks, are also considered disruptive pass rushers. That could mean trouble for a Patriots offensive line which has failed to protect Tom Brady to their usual standard, the passer having been sacked twenty times through six games. Wake projects as a problem for whichever of New England’s tackles he lines up against (most likely right tackle Sebastian Vollmer), but Odrick and Starks represent perhaps the most worrisome rushers, as they are well-qualified to take advantage of New England’s spotting interior blocking, with the horrific duo of center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly appearing particularly appetizing for opposing rushers thus far. Nate Solder’s disappointing performance last week, in which he allowed two sacks, may not reflect the level to which he’s played this year, but represents a slight concern.
Final Prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 24