When the Dolphins pass the football
Ryan Tannehill is red hot, having just set the NFL mark for consecutive completions at 25 — a feat he authored over two games. And as he only missed one of his passes last week, it could be said his accuracy is the best it has ever been. The interesting thing is the Dolphins are still getting big plays out of short and intermediate throws. The 53-yard TD pass to Rishard Matthews last week was merely a 10-yard slant throw. The 50-yard pass to Jarvis Landry was a 12- to 15-yard sideline throw. The 54-yard pass to Lamar Miller was a screen pass that traveled maybe 5 yards in the air. So Tannehill is doing exactly what coaches have asked: Let the playmakers make plays. The only issue with the passing game was the four sacks yielded by the offensive line last week. The Patriots are neither a big pass rush team, nor do they have a dominant secondary anymore. But they play great situational football, pressuring the QB when they have the lead and tightening up in the secondary on their side of the field.
When the Dolphins run the football
Assuming the Dolphins want to continue having success running the football and keeping a balance on offense, they have a good opportunity here because the Patriots’ run defense is mediocre at best. Although, they are disciplined, they aren’t overwhelming up front. The defensive line, particularly without Jabaal Sheard, whose status for the game is uncertain? Well, the linebackers are very good. Teams are averaging 4.5 yards per carry against New England, ranking the Pats 24th in the NFL in yards per carry. The Dolphins are getting strong, aggressive run blocking from every member of the offensive line, and Miller is running as if “his hair is on fire,” according to interim coach Dan Campbell.
When the Patriots pass the football
This is the key to the New England success. With Tom Brady, at 38 years old still playing at an elite level, the Patriots are completing an impressive 68.9 percent of their passes and lead the NFL with only one interception thrown. Last week against the New York Jets, the Patriots allowed three sacks, but the Jets have arguably the best front in the NFL and the Patriots’ offensive line was makeshift. Brady still threw for 355 yards and two touchdowns. The Dolphins pay their defensive line handsomely, and this game is the time for the investment to pay dividends. Ndamukong Suh must dominate for Miami to have success. As has long been the case, the biggest matchup problem is Rob Gronkowski. The Dolphins will manage by throwing a variety of coverages and defenders at the tight end. Look for Reshad Jones to spend much of his evening trying to be physical with Gronkowski.
ADVANTAGE: New England
When the Patriots run the football
The Patriots didn’t unpack their running game against New York as Brady led the team with 15 rush yards. And although that proves that New England can win when the running game fails, the expectation is the Patriots will not call only nine running plays against Miami as they did against New York — even if the Dolphins load up to stop the run as the Jets did. The Patriots can attack with a downhill approach led by LaGarrette Blount or a slashing run game led by Dion Lewis. Their issue is that Lewis (abdomen) is ailing, as is their offensive line. The Dolphins’ run defense was the worst in the NFL until two games ago. Then Miami limited Tennessee to 3.5 yards per rush and Houston to 2.8 yards per rush in games the opposition knew it needed to run to have a chance. The Dolphins have been getting very good linebacker play from Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins.
New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski has connected on all 15 of his field-goal attempts this season, including a 57-yarder against the Cowboys. This match pits a team that’s very good returning punts — the Dolphins are fourth in the NFL, averaging 13.1 yards per return — against a Patriots unit that is sixth best in punt coverage, yielding an average of only 5.4 yards per return. Damien Williams is emerging as the Dolphins’ kickoff returner, and he did a good job last week, averaging 32 yards per return. The Patriots are good in kick coverage, allowing 20.6 yards per return and ranking seventh in the NFL. Gostkowski's experience and knowledge of his home field compared with Miami rookie kicker Andrew Franks’ inexperience is the deciding factor here.
ADVANTAGE: New England
Yes, Dan Campbell has done some excellent work the past two weeks. He has brought life to a comatose locker room. And the staff has followed his lead and effectively altered and improved their work. But … Bill Belichick has six Super Bowl rings. His staff is experienced and proven. Even Campbell’s biceps are impressed.
ADVANTAGE: New England