This resurgent Dolphins defense has a lot of reasons to feel good about itself after producing 10 sacks, three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns in Dan Campbell’s first two weeks as interim coach.
But what awaits Thursday in Foxborough, Mass., is the most difficult and daunting test possible: A New England Patriots offensive juggernaut, on the road, on a short week, against an undefeated team and a future Hall of Fame quarterback with 16 touchdown passes and one interception this season.
The Tom Brady-led Patriots have a way of humbling formidable defenses.
They did it Sunday, when they scored 30 points and passed for 355 yards against a Jets team that entered first in the league in total defense. And the Patriots did it despite missing two of their top three offensive tackles as well as running back Dion Lewis, who’s averaging 5.0 yards per carry.
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“Among the things they’re so good at is they try to find a weakness, they exploit it and then they repeat it over and over,” Campbell said. “You can’t sit there where [Brady] knows every time exactly what [defense] you’re in.
“They try to get you in base defense and he’ll just pick at you. Then they’ll go hurry-up so you can’t get the people in there you want. Then, if you did try to make a move, and they’re in base, and you’re in nickel, they’ll start running it down your throat.”
The Dolphins defense began Sunday’s game spectacularly, by forcing five three-and-outs, followed by a Reshad Jones interception return for a touchdown. But that was achieved against a journeyman quarterback (Houston’s Brian Hoyer).
Brady, playing brilliantly at 38, is third in passer rating (113.2), behind Andy Dalton and Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots are throwing for 327 yards per game, second behind San Diego. They’re first in points per game at 35.5.
On Thursday, Brady will oppose a Dolphins defense that has improved markedly to rise to 14th in total defense and 15th in average points allowed per play (15th).
“They get a lot of negative runs with their defensive front,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “They’re making a lot of disruptive plays.”
Like most teams, the Dolphins have no ideal option to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is tied for the NFL lead with six touchdown receptions and is third with 11 catches for 20 yards or more. Dolphins linebacker Dion Jordan, suspended for the entire season, handled that role at times for Miami over the past two years.
Campbell said he expects to use several defenders on Gronkowski: “We’ve got some guys that can play man to man pretty good.”
One key, as always, will be putting pressure on Brady. The Patriots and Dolphins have both allowed 16 sacks, 12th-most in the league.
After generating just one sack in the first four weeks, the Dolphins have 10 over the past two, including six by Cameron Wake and two by Ndamukong Suh.
“You would love to have pressure on this guy [Brady] but he gets the ball out of his hands so fast, it’s going to be hard to do,” Campbell said.
The Dolphins are hopeful that cornerback Brice McCain, sidelined Sunday by a sprained knee, will play Thursday. He said he’s optimistic he can.
“Coach Campbell has done a great job,” Belichick said. “They’ve played great the past two weeks in all areas. We know how good they are. They do a lot of things well. That’s why they’re winning big. They deserve it because they’re good.”
The schedule is so tight this week that Ryan Tannehill said he would be at the Dolphins facility late Monday night, then back again at 6:30 Tuesday morning. The team had a light practice Monday, its only evening practice this season.
▪ Though Campbell likes intense practices, he said “we’re not going to do anything physical this week. When you’re on a short week like this, it’s hard. What’s most important is rest, recovery and the mental work.”
▪ Tannehill said in opening 18 for 18 Sunday (he finished 18 for 19), he wasn’t even aware that he hadn’t thrown an incomplete pass.
▪ A few notable achievements from Sunday: The Dolphins became the first team in NFL history with four touchdown plays of 50 yards or more in one half. … Lamar Miller’s 175 rushing yards before halftime were the most since Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis ran for 180 in 2003. … Miami’s total of 82 points under Campbell is the highest in any coach’s first two games since Cleveland scored 89 points in Bud Carson’s first two games in 1989. … The Dolphins’ 41-point lead at halftime was fourth-highest in NFL history, four short of the Patriots’ record.