By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m EDT. The game will be televised by CBS with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms providing the play-by-play and color analyst duties.
The Patriots (5-2) lost in overtime 30-27 to the New York Jets last week, with the much improved Patriots defense showing some cracks in it after suffering so many injuries.
The Dolphins (3-3) coming off their bye week lost to the Buffalo Bills 23-21, letting a fourth quarter lead slip away and have dropped three in a row after jumping out to a 3-0 start.
We here at PatsFans.com are going to try something a little bit different this season. We’re going to run a column, the “Razor’s Edge” to give a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Dolphins have met 95 times all-time and the series has been remarkably close with the Patriots holding a 50-45 edge. The series has been marked also with long winning streaks on each side; the Patriots are in the midst of a six game winning streak.
The Patriots hold an all-time edge of 30-17 at home and won the last meeting 28-0 in the season finale of 2012.
The Patriots offense continues to struggle along especially in the second half of games having scored only 9 points in the third quarter through seven games.
Part of the reason has been the predictable nature of their play calling has created tendencies for opponents to set their defenses to and that must be rectified for the team to improve. Tom Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass for the second time in three games as issues persist in the timing with receivers, drops and sloppy pass protection.
The offense did get a big boost from the return of TE Rob Gronkowski, although rusty, Gronkowski was able to haul in 8 passes for 114 yards but did have a big drop at the end of regulation that could have won the game.
But Gronkowski’s return won’t fix everything that ails the offense, they must remain balanced and that means more carries for Stevan Ridley who had only 11 last week against the Jets. He had one on the final two drives in regulation and none in overtime.
Patriots RBs vs Dolphins Front Seven- Edge Patriots
Miami has a very stout defensive line but has been hurt by injuries there as well as at linebacker with Daniel Ellerbe. Paul Solai and Randy Starks are certainly capable of shutting down the run, being big, physical disrupters at the point of attack.
The Patriots have to use the run more effectively this week, having run the ball only 20 times against the Jets last week especially with Stevan Ridley. With the passing game still struggling, the balance provided by the running game can be key this week. In the past, New England has had some success running right at DE Cameron Wake, taking advantage of his aggressiveness, which could be something to watch here.
Patriots WRs vs Dolphins Secondary- Edge Patriots
The New England passing game is still sputtering along, and issues remain with dropped passes, poor timing, sloppy pass protection and accuracy issues with quarterback Tom Brady.
Rob Gronkowski returned to action last week and helps a Patriots passing attack that is still a work in progress.
(USA TODAY Images)
For the Patriots timing is extremely important as many times especially on the medium to medium-long passes, Brady is throwing to a spot on the field rather than to a specific player. If that timing is off just a tad, the pass will be off-target.
However, Rob Gronkowski’s return last week and the return of Danny Amendola this week should go a long way in helping things as they, along with Julian Edelman gives Brady reliable veteran targets in the passing game. This will take a lot of pressure off rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins as they still try to get on the same page with Brady.
The Dolphins secondary has also suffered some injuries thus far with cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Dimitri Patterson missing time as well as Cameron Wake with a knee sprain. Being shorthanded has dropped the Dolphins rank to being 25th in pass defense giving up an average of 269 yards per game. One player to watch is CB Brent Grimes who has been very good after coming over from the Falcons.
Protection as always is the key here, Brady’s protection has been shoddy the past three games, allowing 13 sacks among the most Brady’s suffered in a three game stretch in his career. Miami much like Cincinnati a few weeks ago can be disruptive if their pass rush gets to the QB. If Brady gets time to throw however, there will be some open lanes in the passing game.
The Patriots defense has been decimated by injuries this season and was beginning to show some cracks on Sunday against a second tier offense. The run defense misses the big bodies up front in Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and last week the absences of Jerod Mayo and Aqib Talib hurt even more.
It is now a question of how many injuries are one-too-many, the defense has been the one consistent rock this season but they had their issues stopping the Jets last week.
It starts with the rush defense, last week the Jets ran the ball 52 times for 177 yards and while their average per rush was only 3.4 yards, they were able to stick with it and dominate time of possession.
The Patriots defense has been very good this season allowing only 18.1 points per game, good for 5th in the NFL after seven games. But they need to get a few of their defensive stalwarts back and those are Talib and Kelly.
Dolphins RBs vs NE Front Seven- Edge Dolphins
The Dolphins have averaged only 79 yards per game this season, OC Mike Sherman has been a little too pass happy and hasn’t utilized his running game very much. That has little to do with the backs as Lamar Miller is the Fins’ leading rusher with 254 yards and a solid 4.3 yards per carry.
During their bye week, head coach Joe Philbin and Sherman stated they were looking for more balance and they rushed for 116 yards through three quarters against Buffalo. But much like the Patriots they abandoned the run too soon and it cost them in their loss.
As stated earlier the Patriots are a banged up in the middle, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo are gone for the season and Tommy Kelly has been out with a knee injury and New England have been playing two rookie DTs Joe Vellano and Chris Jones in their place. And while they’ve played as well as can be expected, teams are pushing them around in the running game.
Look for the Dolphins to pound the ball early and often and try to set up play action passes, normally this would be a big matchup advantage for the Pats. But until they can effectively shut down an opponent, this is not the case.
Dolphins WRs vs NE Secondary-Edge Dolphins
The Dolphins spent big bucks in free agency this spring signing Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and TE Dustin Keller as well as re-signing the underrated Brian Hartline. They have plenty of weapons in the passing game for QB Ryan Tannehill.
And although Keller was lost to IR during pre-season, TE Charles Clay has emerged and leads Miami in both touchdown receptions with three and yards after catch (YAC) with 148.
The Dolphins have failed to protect Tannehill particularly at the edge where LT Jonathan Martin and RT Tyson Clabo have struggled badly. Tannehill has been sacked 26 times this season, and it is hampering the progression of their 2nd year play caller. This is an area where the Patriots can take advantage of Miami’s woes. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will be looked to get that pressure off the edge and force Tannehill into making mistakes.
The Patriots were without Aqib Talib last week and it’s doubtful he’ll be able to go this week again. With the talented and fast Mike Wallace on the outside, one way to stop him is to bring pressure and make him shorten his routes. But the player to watch this week is Clay as he figures to be a big part of the passing game.
Special Teams- Edge Patriots
Both teams are getting very solid performances in the kicking game, for New England, Stephen Gostkowski and rookie Ryan Allen have been excellent thus far. Gostkowski has missed only one field goal attempt and his kickoffs are frequently out of the end zone.
Miami’s rookie kicker Caleb Sturgis and Brandon Fields have also been outstanding in 2013. Sturgis has also only missed one kick and Fields has one of the strongest legs in the punting game.
Neither team has generated much in the kick return game; Miami has Marcus Thigpen handling both kicks and punts. The Patriots kick return game is still stuck in neutral with LaGarrette Blount returning those although Julian Edelman gives the Patriots the slightest of edges with his punt return ability.
Patriots Player to Watch- Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski returned to game action after nine months of surgeries and rehab and the results were mixed. He did lead the team with 8 catches for 114 yards but suffered with some drops especially at the end of the game in regulation that would have won the game.
But now the jitters of returning are gone, the rust has been kicked off a little bit and Gronkowski can answer questions about the upcoming games instead of the endless injury queries. And he is excited to get on with it.
“You always get the jitters the first game back, but it’s just football now, and this is my fourth year,” Gronkowski said earlier this week. “I just gotta go out there and do what I can do.”
Gronkowski brings a big dynamic option to the Patriots offense, with Amendola possibly returning this week, this may mark the first time that all the Patriots targets at wide receiver and tight end are on the field in 2013.