NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
Coming off of a dramatic last-second victory over the Cleveland Browns, the New England Patriots will face a Miami Dolphins team which dramatically survived a sequence of last-second Pittsburgh Steelers laterals last week in order to come away with a victory of their own last week, and who are currently in the running for a playoff spot. A Patriots victory would clinch the division and allow New England to leapfrog Denver for the top seed, while a Dolphins victory would keep the team in the race for the division and the wild card. Read on for ten keys to this crucial contest.
1. How can New England’s defense disrupt Ryan Tannehill in the passing game?
Second-year starter Ryan Tannehill is enjoying another respectable season as Miami’s starting quarterback, although he hasn’t necessarily taken the big leap forward that many onlookers anticipated when the Dolphins signed wide receiver Mike Wallace away from the Steelers this past offseason. Among others, Tannehill’s third-down passing is one of the major areas of his game which needs improvement, as his passer rating falls to 74.2 on third down, compared to his 84.0 rating on the season overall, while his yards-per-attempt fall from 6.85 overall to 6.06 on third-downs, with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions coming on his 135 attempts on that down. In particular, in situations where the Dolphins need to gain three to seven yards to convert, Tannehill is completing just 57.1% of his passes for 6.21 yards per attempt, having been sacked five times on fifty-six attempts in that range.
This season, Tannehill has been unable to throw the ball downfield with much effectiveness, completing 70.1% of his throws with twelve touchdowns and three interceptions on passes thrown between one and ten yards downfield, while completing just 49.6% of his intermediate throws, with three touchdowns and seven interceptions there. That appears to indicate that the Patriots can crowd the short areas of the field and challenge Tannehill to make more difficult throws. Against the Patriots last time, Tannehill completed just four of fourteen throws which traveled more than ten yards downfield, and passed for only sixty-two yards on his twenty attempts thrown when the Patriots weren’t blitzing, with both of his interceptions coming against a conservative pass rush.
2. Will New England’s run defense fare any better against Miami’s rushing attack?
The Dolphins are currently ranked twenty-third in the league in rushing, but the effectiveness of running backs Lamar Miller, who gained eighty-nine rushing yards on eighteen carries, and Daniel Thomas, who gained forty-seven yards on nine and added a receiving touchdown, was one of the lone bright spots of Miami’s offense in their previous matchup against New England. The Dolphins were successful in predictable ways: Miller, a faster back, gained sixty-three of his yards on six carries off of the left or right end (favoring the left at a five-to-one margin), while Thomas only rushed off of the end once for a gain of two yards. In short, Miami has a two-back committee largely because neither of their runners is particularly well-rounded, with Miller lacking the physicality to pound the ball between the tackles with consistency and Thomas lacking the speed to beat linebackers to the edge.
Miller has attempted just twenty-four carries up the middle on the season, averaging 3.8 yards per attempt, while Thomas has only stretched the ball outside on thirteen carries this season. Strategically, the Dolphins are more inclined to run the ball when they’re in their own territory, which means the Patriots may want slightly heavier personnel at that point. Miller typically rushes the ball early on drives, while Thomas rotates in during short-yardage and goal-line situations. Both running backs have been more effective against four-man defensive lines than 3-4 fronts this season.
3. How will Miami attempt to utilize Mike Wallace after last meeting’s dismal performance?
Securing highly-regarded wide receiver Mike Wallace was considered a major coup for the Dolphins last offseason, but he hasn’t produced much for the team this season, with just three touchdowns on the year and a relatively unimpressive 13.1 yards per catch (compared to his career average of 16.4.) The Dolphins like to look for Wallace early, with forty-eight of his fifty-eight catches this season coming on first-and-second downs; his ten third-down catches this year have averaged just 7.3 yards. Wallace works on the right sideline almost exclusively, with sideline routes accounting for forty-one of his catches on the year. Therefore, Patriots left cornerback Aqib Talib should be able to match up against Wallace all game without having to follow him around the field in shadow coverage.
Miami throws some passes his way downfield – they’ve attempted twenty-six deep throws his way this year – but Wallace, lauded for his ability to get behind defenses, has caught just five of those passes, with the majority of his grabs coming on short throws, whether down the sideline or on the occasional crossing route. New England must respect the fact that he has the potential to run past Talib on any given play, possibly by employing safeties in high zones over the right side of the field, but given his lack of success at actually bringing in intermediate and deep passes this season, they can also allow Talib to anticipate short and intermediate throws and get physical with Wallace at those depths.
4. What can the Patriots do in order to defend against the ultra-versatile Charles Clay?
In the first meeting between New England and Miami, versatile H-Back Charles Clay caught five passes for thirty-seven yards and added a one-yard rushing attempt on the ground, lining up all over the field and creating some confusion on the defensive side of the ball. After catching seven passes for ninety-seven yards and two touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, including a twelve-yard touchdown pass with 1:38 left, it should be impossible for the Patriots to overlook the 2011 sixth-round pick this week. As was the scouting report for Browns tight end Jordan Cameron last week, Clay is typically thrown passes to either of the sidelines, with thirty of his sixty catches on the season coming down the sidelines and just seven passes coming over the middle.
Additionally, although Clay has made a few big plays, it’s important to recognize that he’s almost exclusively a short-yardage receiver, with forty-four of his catches and all six of his touchdowns coming on short throws, which should come as a relief after a game in which the Browns were able to torture Patriots defenders such as Steve Gregory by targeting them downfield with Jordan Cameron; the frequency with which Clay runs short routes will allow the Patriots to cover him with linebackers, freeing Gregory to operate as more of a high safety, possibly aimed at preventing Mike Wallace from getting deep. Although Clay moves all over the field, it’s interesting that only one of his catches, a three-yard gain, came after being sent in motion. He’s also not a particularly good blocker, with his primary contributions coming as a receiving option.
5. Which points along the offensive line represent weak spots for the Dolphins?
Undoubtedly the most significant storyline from Miami’s 2013 campaign has been the scandal which begun when Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team due to persistent bullying led by the team’s left guard, Richie Incognito, who is also unlikely to return to the field this season as a result of the subsequent revelations, which have been detailed in much greater depth elsewhere. However, those developments may actually hurt the Patriots in this week’s matchup, as the team previously victimized those two in week eight, recording two sacks against Incognito and beating Martin for one sack, two quarterback hits, and three pressures.
In their place, the Dolphins are now starting Nate Garner and Tyson Clabo at left guard and right tackle, respectively, while the team’s other three starters, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, center Mike Pouncey, and right guard John Jerry, will reprise their roles from last contest. Fortunately for the Patriots, none of Miami’s starters is particularly effective other than stellar center Mike Pouncey. Clabo may be the weakest player mentioned, with his run-blocking skills having fallen off this season; as a pass protector, he has allowed eleven sacks, ten quarterback hits, and twenty-eight pressures on the season as calculated by Pro Football Focus. It should be mentioned, however, that Clabo has been significantly more effective since returning in week nine, with eight of his eleven sacks coming in the six games before that point.
6. What is required for Tom Brady to improve upon his previous performance vs. Miami?
The last time these two teams met, the Patriots were able to emerge with a ten-point victory in a game which saw Tom Brady pass for just 116 yards, completing 59% of his passes and throwing one touchdown to one interception, with an average of just 5.3 yards per attempt and 4.5 yards per dropback with sacks included. Even more concerning is that all but twenty-nine of Brady’s yards in that game came on passes to wide receiver Aaron Dobson and tight end Rob Gronkowski. With Brady’s effectiveness severely curtailed, the Patriots struggled to mount extended drives, converting just two-of-ten first-down conversions and accounting for only six total first downs through the air. In that game, Brady completed just four passes which traveled more than ten yards downfield, none of them coming when targeting any of the receivers he’s anticipated to have at his disposal this week.
The last time these two teams played, the Dolphins were able to create pressure against Brady without blitzing, which caused him to average just 4.2 yards per attempt against conservative rushes, something he’ll have to improve upon this week. Brady has been playing significantly better in the five games since, passing for over 372 yards per game, so it’s difficult to get a read on how well he’ll play against the Dolphins in Miami. One thing is for certain, though: the Patriots will have a very hard time winning with another miserable performance.
7. Can Shane Vereen duplicate last week’s contributions as a dangerous receiving option?
In the previous section, it was mentioned that against Miami, New England’s passing game floundered even with Aaron Dobson and Rob Gronkowski at Brady’s disposal, but one factor which may help is the return of running back Shane Vereen, who has been a major contributor whenever he’s been active this season, but who was still convalescing from a wrist operation back in week eight and consequently was unable to appear. In each of his five games this season, Vereen has caught five or more passes, with his twelve-reception, 153-yard game last week including a critical fifty-yard bomb downfield and various other critical catches late in the game.
The Patriots line up Vereen all over the field, and with Gronkowski out, he should see significantly more usage because of his value in the passing game as well as his escalating production. Thus far, Vereen hasn’t been asked to carry the ball too much, although it’s possible his role could expand in that regard as well. The Patriots will likely look to work in fellow running backs Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden, though, as that trio of ballcarriers was able to gain a combined 147 yards and two touchdowns on thirty-three attempts in the team’s first meeting with Miami; the run game should be favored again.
8. With Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins out, can Josh Boyce develop further?
Certainly the most unheralded of New England’s three rookie receivers at this point is Josh Boyce, the team’s fourth-round pick, whose opportunities have been limited as the team’s fifth (and sometimes sixth) receiver behind Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, fellow rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, and, on occasion, Austin Collie, who has made a few cameo appearances for the team this season. However, Boyce was able to capitalize on injuries to Dobson and Thompkins last week, catching three of five passes thrown in his direction and gaining a total of forty-nine yards on those targets, demonstrating an ability to gain yards after the catch and come through when the team was trailing; additionally, the pass-interference call he drew at the end of the game set up New England on Cleveland’s one-yard line and immediately preceded the go-ahead touchdown on an out route to fellow receiver Danny Amendola.
Despite running a 4.38-second forty-yard dash at the NFL Combine, Boyce hasn’t looked particularly fast on the field, or been given many targets downfield, but possesses good instincts as a runner which have allowed him to make some plays on screen passes and crossing routes versus zone coverage. This week, Boyce is projected to see the field primarily in three-receiver sets, with formations featuring three wideouts projected to be more prevalent than they were previously now that Rob Gronkowski has been lost for the season. With Aaron Dobson ostensibly targeting a return next week, this may be the last significant snap count Boyce will be assured of this season, although a big performance would increase the likelihood of additional opportunities even after Dobson and Thompkins return.
9. Without Rob Gronkowski, how will the composition of New England’s offense change?
Now that the Patriots will be without Rob Gronkowski’s services for the remainder of the season (and potentially the beginning of next season as well), it appears improbable that New England will feature their tight ends much in the offense moving forward. Last week, the Patriots were down to their last tight end, Matthew Mulligan, who gained fifteen yards on an unexpected second-and-twenty-one screen play in which he unsuccessfully attempted to hurdle Browns cornerback Joe Haden, but this week will have at least two but possibly three players active at the position after re-signing flex tight end D.J. Williams, with Michael Hoomanawanui, currently listed as questionable with a knee injury, projected to start if he’s active.
New England may feature at least one tight end with some frequency, especially given the logistical problems presented when facing a team with a collection of effective pass rushers, but in an effort to get their most dynamic players onto the field simultaneously, it seems reasonable to anticipate more three-or-four-receiver sets from the Patriots. Fullback James Develin has also been effective this season; he may have been somewhat out of his element last week as the team’s second tight end, but formations featuring him as more of a true fullback would appear to benefit New England. Neither Hoomanawanui nor Mulligan has a reputation as a dangerous receiving option, so it will be interesting to see if the team has anything planned for Williams, who has just four offensive snaps under his belt with the Patriots.
10. Will the offensive line be able to protect Brady against a deep defensive line rotation?
Miami possesses what may be the deepest defensive line rotation in the league, starting Cameron Wake at left end, Randy Starks at defensive tackle, Paul Soliai at nose tackle, and Olivier Vernon at right end, but also rotating in defensive tackle Jared Odrick and defensive ends Derrick Shelby and Dion Jordan regularly, in that order. Each of the aforementioned players has played at least 277 snaps this season, with all seven having been effective in their roles. The last time New England and Miami played, the Dolphins were able to sack Brady three times, with Odrick recording two and the final coming via Vernon; on all three occasions, left guard Logan Mankins was victimized. Starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was lost for the season during the last meeting between New England and Miami, with Marcus Cannon stepping into the lineup as his replacement, but it’s possible that the Patriots will be without Cannon this week as well, who left the Denver game after just ten snaps with an ankle injury and has not returned to the field since.
Cannon did return to practice this week, but is officially listed as questionable after practicing in a limited capacity. Additionally, New England’s other offensive tackles, left tackle Nate Solder and reserve Will Svitek, who has been starting in Cannon’s absence, are also limited as questionable, Solder due to a concussion and Svitek due to an ankle injury. Clearly, at least two of these players will be active this week, with the hope being that Solder and Cannon are both able to suit up, but if they are playing at less than one-hundred percent, it will increase the difficulty of protecting Brady against Miami’s pass-rushing options.
Final Prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 24