By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots return home to face the Miami Dolphins for the first time in 2013 on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium in an AFC East meeting of divisional hopefuls.
The Patriots (5-2) lost in overtime to the New York Jets 30-27 last week, missing on two opportunities late in the game to score touchdowns that would have given them a lead.
The Dolphins (3-3) started off quickly in 2013 winning their first three games but have hit a bump in the road, losing their last three. Their past loss was especially galling blowing a fourth quarter lead at home against the Buffalo Bills 23-21 on Sunday.
Here are Five First Impressions on the Dolphins-
The Dolphins TE Charles Clay could play a pivotal role on Sunday against the Patriots.
(USA TODAY Images)
Another Coach On the Hot Seat: Last week the Patriots played the Jets and that game was much important to the Jets and Head Coach Rex Ryan as heâ€™d dropped five in a row to the Patriots and a loss would effectively had put them four games back in the standings.
While it may be a bit premature to put Dolphins Head Coach Joe Philbin on the hot seat, after the team spent reportedly over 200 million dollars on the free agency market, this was a team that supposed to win immediately.
There was much pre-season speculation that indeed the Dolphins were ready to remove the Patriots from the mantle of the AFC East. They enter much like the Jets, last week; two games back in the divisional standings and on a down note.
The swagger the Dolphins carried after a 3-0 start is gone and has been replaced by shades of doubt. This game will be a huge one for them as things donâ€™t get any easier next week as they face the Cincinnati Bengals and could be a facing a five game skid if they lose at Gillette on Sunday.
If they do, Philbinâ€™s status would definitely be looked at going from warm to much warmer. GM Jeff Ireland appears safe for the time being, having been giving a one year extension this off-season.
â€śI believe in the guys in the locker room,â€ť Philbin said. â€śI believe they will come to work this week, and we will have an excellent week of preparation. We will play a very good football team, and Iâ€™m confident we will do that.â€ť
Clabo On Hot Seat, McKinnie Brought In: The biggest question this off-season about the Dolphins was their offensive line and their ability to protect Quarterback Ryan Tannehill. So far in 2013, those questions have come home to roost.
Miami has allowed 26 sacks thus far and the current numbers project to 69 for the season which is unacceptable. Much of the blame at this point goes toward RT Tyson Clabo who has allowed eight sacks in the first six games, including two big ones in the fourth quarter on Sundayâ€™s loss to the Bills.
So the Dolphins on Monday made a deal with Baltimore Ravens and brought in tackle Bryant McKinnie.Â McKinnie is huge at 6â€™8, 352 and started for the Ravens in their Super Bowl run last season. But at 34, heâ€™s well past his prime and was inactive for the Ravensâ€™ past two games.
The Dolphins could start McKinnie at left tackle and move Jonathan Martin to his natural right tackle position from last season. This will bear watching on Sunday, but for now at least, Clabo is definitely on the hot seat with the Miami coaching staff.
Running Game Shows Life, Bad Timing For NE?: The Dolphins running game after losing Reggie Bush to free agency, had looked very pedestrian for the first five games averaging only 69 yards per game.
However, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas had perhaps their best game of the year gaining 120 yards on the ground against Buffalo by running straight ahead and right at the Buffalo defense. Something the New York Jets did against the Patriots on Sunday.
With the Patriots short-handed in the center of the defense, the Dolphins may opt to do the exact same thing. The Dolphins maligned offensive line did a fantastic job of opening holes for the running game last week and Miller and Thomas will be looked to provide even more production this week.
Tannehill Still Having Turnover Issues: Tannehill was given the keys to the store this off-season and the team surrounded him with some talented wide receivers. Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and TE Dustin Keller (IR) were brought in as free agents, Brian Hartline was re-signed and although their production is up, turnovers are still a big issue.
Tannehill has 11 turnovers this season, with seven interceptions and four fumbles lost, which is alarming. He threw two costly interceptions early in the game and then was strip sacked by Mario Williams late in the game, overshadowing his first three touchdown pass performance of his career.
However, being sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL will lead to turnovers. With the addition of McKinnie and a renewed emphasis on the running game may do wonders for Tannehill who was battered after the Bills game on Sunday.
This will bear watching as the Patriots are known as a turnover producing defense. If Tannehill doesnâ€™t turn the ball over, the Dolphins are 7-4, when he does they are 3-8.
Charles Clay May Play A Big Role: Miami tight end Charles Clay has played very well for the Dolphins this season in Kellerâ€™s absence and he may be in-line for even more looks in the passing game this week.
Clay isnâ€™t exactly a household name outside of Miami but donâ€™t be fooled into thinking the 6th round pick isnâ€™t capable of turning in the big play.
Clay has 24 receptions for 304 yards and 3 touchdowns which leads the Dolphins as well as his yards after catch (YAC) with 148. Heâ€™s scored in each of the last three games for Miami and should be a big target for Tannehill on Sunday.
With the Patriots struggling to protect the middle of the defense against the run and Aqib Talib out with a hip injury, the Patriots will have their hands full covering Miamiâ€™s three talented wide receivers.
Dontâ€™a Hightower struggled mightily covering the Jets TE Jeff Cumberland last week. Clay presents a better target for Tannehill and will demand more attention this week.