When the Dolphins pass the ball
The Dolphins personnel department has pushed for Bryant McKinnie to start at left tackle while the coaching staff has taken a more methodical approach. Fans should hope the personnel department wins out because the Dolphins have basically lost two consecutive games when right tackle Tyson Clabo gave up key sacks against Buffalo and Baltimore. Adding McKinnie to the lineup means Jonathan Martin moves from left tackle to right tackle. This game will measure Ryan Tannehill’s ability to recover from a poor effort, which his three-turnover game against Buffalo certainly was. The Patriots hope to have starting cornerback Aqib Talib back in the lineup, but if he’s out again, that would be a considerable help for Miami. ADVANTAGE: Patriots.
When the Dolphins run the ball
Did the Dolphins coaching staff learn its lesson this week? Last week, against a weak run defense, the Dolphins didn’t maximize the running game, rushing only 25 times in a game that was never out of hand and in fact Miami led in the fourth quarter. The Patriots are no better than the Bills against the run, allowing 4 yards per rush, and they have been worse since the injury to Vince Wilfork ended his season and weakened the run defense. New England is now 31st in the NFL against the run. The Dolphins must, must, must give Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas a full plate of run attempts to shorten this game, avoid turnovers and move the football. It’s up to offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins (if Sherman doesn’t mess it up).
When the Patriots run the ball
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been criticized this week because he didn’t run the football enough against the Jets despite having success with the running attack in a game his team led. Is this an epidemic, or what? The Patriots, curiously, are statistically a more successful running team than passing team. They have multiple running backs who range in speed and size and can work either outside or between the tackles. But if the Pats are going to have any success running against the Dolphins in this game, they have to do it outside the tackles because Miami clearly has an edge in talent on the interior against New England center Ryan Wendell. ADVANTAGE: Even
When the Patriots pass the ball
Tom Brady has not been playing up to his career standards, as his quarterback rating is 20 points lower and his completion percentage is way down as well. That speaks to the loss of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez and the injury to Rob Gronkowski, but it also suggests Brady is struggling to get on the same page with their replacements. Gronkowski returned last week and Brady targeted him 17 times. Look for more of the same, particularly in the red zone. The Dolphins could not figure out how to defend New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham a month ago. They had better figure out how to account for Gronk. The Dolphins have the ability to push the Pats’ pass pocket up the middle with their outstanding defensive tackles, and Cameron Wake is ready to take all his usual snaps on the outside. ADVANTAGE: Even.
The Dolphins are way better than the Patriots on kickoff returns. The Patriots are way better than the Dolphins on punt returns. Miami punter Brandon Fields is the NFL’s leading punter, and that includes net and gross average, whereas New England’s Ryan Allen is closer to the middle of the NFL pack. The Patriots have tried more long-range field goals than the Dolphins and have more success doing it, as Stephen Gostkowski has connected on 8 of 9 attempts of 40 yards or more, including 2 of 2 from more than 50 yards. ADVANTAGE: Even.
Unless Joe Philbin has some sort of Wildcat-type innovation up his sleeve for the Dolphins, this category pretty obviously tilts in one direction. ADVANTAGE: New England.