KEYS TO THE GAME | BY SPORTSWRITER ARMANDO SALGUERO
Tom Brady, 37, said recently he would retire, “when I suck.” Well, that issue begins to be determined against Miami’s defense that in the last meeting turned Brady away from a potential winning passing touchdown. Michael Thomas had an interception in the end zone to seal Miami’s victory last December, but Brady did throw for 364 yards in the game while throwing to luminaries such as Austin Collie and Josh Boyce. Brady will have his full complement of receivers in this game, including tight end Rob Gronkowski. The question is how much will Gronkowski play and in what situations? He is perhaps the most difficult red zone matchup problem in the AFC. The Dolphins have three new starters — cornerback Cortland Finnegan, and safeties Jimmy Wilson and Louis Delmas — in the secondary. The team has also revamped its nickel package.
The Patriots might deny it, but losing LeGarrette Blount in the offseason hurts the running game. Yes, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are still on the team, but which of them is the 235-pound guy who is also fast enough to return kicks like Blount was? Vereen is more of a third-down pass catcher — a good one. Ridley has had fumble problems. And Bolden’s history is that of a solid backup, but nothing more. The Patriots have to overcome a significant shakeup in their offensive line. Their coach of the past three decades, Dante Scarnecchia, is now retired and five-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins was traded to Tampa Bay. So a unit that has long been a strength is a question. The Dolphins believe their defensive front is a strength, and they believe they will cause some confusion by playing multiple fronts during the game. The team’s run defense has, however, been in decline the past two years.
It’s a new day for the Miami offense. There will be motion where there was little last year. There will be quick, timing routes and throws where last year was based on waiting for plays to develop. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is expected to get the ball out on time and to the right place. You might say this could be more of a safe and horizontal attack. But it is designed to keep the QB from getting hit too often. Tight end Charles Clay has been an object of attention for Bill Belichick in the past. New Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor believes if that’s going to be the New England approach again, it will create opportunities for his receivers. To which Belichick might respond, “We added Darrelle Revis in the offseason.” He’s good.
The Dolphins will finally put their cut blocking, zone blocking new offensive line on display. And it will be Knowshon Moreno, who played for Denver last year, carrying much of the load with Lamar Miller getting work in a secondary role in multiple packages designed to limit his need to make decisions at the line of scrimmage and instead feature him in space where his speed is an asset. The Patriots can show a 3-4 and 4-3 front, but the key here is that Vince Wilfork, who missed much of last year with a torn Achilles, and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, who also missed much of the season because of an injury, are back in the lineup regardless of fronts. And they are the team’s best run defenders.
Assuming kicker Caleb Sturgis can stay healthy through warmups, the Dolphins have questions to answer on kick and punt returns. Simply, Jarvis Landry is going to handle both duties, replacing Marcus Thigpen, who is coincidentally on the Patriots practice squad now. Landry is a rookie and thus an unknown in his first NFL game. That doesn’t suggest the moment might be too big for him, but untested is untested until it is not. The Patriots have traditionally performed well against Miami and they are coming with a veteran unit that gets Patrick Chung back. There’s also this: How much information did Thigpen give the Patriots about the Dolphins’ special teams schemes?
Joe Philbin has seemingly upgraded his coaching staff with the addition of proven offensive line coach John Benton, proven linebacker coach Mark Duffner, solid offensive line assistant coach Jack Bicknell Jr. and the enthusiasm and confidence of Lazor as the offensive coordinator. The Patriots are diminished by the loss of Scarnecchia. But then there’s Belichick. Interestingly, Belichick has been concerned about the Dolphins’ ability to unveil new things he didn’t prepare his team for based on the unknowns the new Miami offense might unveil.