breaking down the game | by sportswriter armando salguero
WHEN THE DOLPHINS RUN THE BALL
Reggie Bush had his best game since the second week of the season last Sunday. That’s important because the Dolphins need Bush and Daniel Thomas to build on that performance and run well enough to move the chains and keep the football away from New England’s offense. The Dolphins offensive line last week returned to the efficiency level it enjoyed earlier in the season when it executed at a high level in holding blocks, winning most one-on-one situations and creating lanes for the backs. The Patriots are very well disciplined in their run defense, and Vince Wilfork, a former University of Miami standout, continues to be the heart of that defensive wall. The Patriots are 10th in the NFL against the run, but that’s deceptive because so many teams find themselves trailing and needing to throw against that defense. ADVANTAGE: Even.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS PASS THE BALL
The Dolphins are full of confidence after scoring 17 points in an eight-minute span of the fourth quarter against Seattle, with most of the damage coming through the air. Ryan Tannehill crafted his first NFL comeback victory. Tight end Charles Clay had the best day of his career and is now a weapon to consider. And the blocking up front held up well enough to let this all happen. The question is, can the Dolphins use that as a launch point for improvement? Can they take that performance and not just duplicate it but rather multiply it? The Patriots have a young and unsettled secondary. They only recently added troubled Tampa Bay castoff Aqib Talib, who is still learning New England’s multiple defense. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard has been steadily improving and has taken over a starting job at cornerback, but again, he’s a rookie. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL
With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, the Patriots are now a balanced offense. They run as well as they pass now, and Vereen’s rise to prominence actually helps the run game and passing game, as he is a better receiver than Ridley. Interestingly, the Patriots have done this while fielding a makeshift offensive line that has sustained injuries to guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Dolphins castoff Donald Thomas has filled in without incident in New England. The Dolphins last week delivered their best effort against the run in six weeks. The NFL’s seventh-ranked run defense yielded only 3.6 yards per carry against a Seattle team that was ranked eighth in the NFL running the ball. The Patriots are ranked sixth in the NFL running the ball. ADVANTAGE: Even.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL
Tom Brady is on such a roll against the Dolphins lately that even when he’s off, he’s been pretty good. Brady’s quarterback rating has been more than 100 in four of the past five games and in the one that didn’t climb that high, Brady still threw for more than 300 yards and didn’t have any interceptions. He threw 10 TD passes and only one interception in those five games. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is not available to Brady, and that’s a blow because he’s the team’s second-leading receiver. But Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd pose plenty of problems despite the fact none has elite speed. The Dolphins should be wary of Julian Edelman on bubble screens. Miami must put pressure on Brady or he will shred the 26th-rated pass defense in the NFL. ADVANTAGE: New England.
The Dolphins special teams need to regroup because they’ve given up a punt-return touchdown and kickoff-return touchdown the past two games. Neither score played a role in a Miami loss because the Dolphins also had a special teams TD against Buffalo and won the Seattle game. But the return teams have shown obvious lapses that need to be corrected against New England. The Patriots have a punt-return TD and kickoff TD this season. Kicker Dan Carpenter is one member of the special teams who has regained his form after struggling terribly early in the season. Carpenter has connected on each of his past nine kicks. New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski has connected on 7 of 10 field-goal attempts of 50 yards or more, so he has range, but he also has missed two of his past three kicks. And those kicks were from 36 yards and 39, respectively. So things might be shaky there. By the way, New England punter Zoltan Mesko was born in Timisoara, Romania. No point. Just mentioning. ADVANTAGE: Even.
The Patriots staff was excellent and got better with the addition of Josh McDaniels guiding the offense and helping Tom Brady. Bill Belichick, obviously, is headed to the Hall of Fame some day but sometimes he outthinks himself (such as when he went for it on fourth-and-1 from inside their own 30 against Indianapolis years ago). Nonetheless, this staff doesn’t mind taking chances on players who don’t bring pristine reputations or attitudes, with Aqib Talib being the most recent example. The Dolphins staff is hard-working, loyal and bright. But they have lots to accomplish before they’re in the same conversation with Belichick. ADVANTAGE: New England.