By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
Sunday at 1PM the Dolphins will march back into Foxborough just a little more than a year after their demolition of the Patriots 38-13 in Gillette in week three. That day, of course was shocking for a number of reasons. It was the first regular season loss for the Patriots in over a full regular season. It was their first loss in Foxborough since mid-2006. And the Dolphins did it while creating a new craze in the NFL; the wildcat.
Although offensive coordinator Dan Henning had used it while with Carolina in December of 2006 in a game versus Atlanta, it was the New England game last year that saw the Wildcat develop into one of the most interesting new offensive trends since teams began going crazy with spreading the field earlier this decade. Finally, an offensive trend that emphasized the run over the pass and a 1940’s style offense? Who would have thunk it? This is still the NFL, right? Progressive, forward thinking, pass-oriented? Direct snaps to running backs? Wing-T variations? It was all crazy. But not only did it start last year in Foxborough, it has done nothing but expand to many more teams this year and doesn’t appear to be a trend that is going away any time soon.
So, the Patriots will be looking to avenge that horrible day. But more importantly, it starts a very difficult stretch for the Patriots. It’s a division game, always important. There are conference record issues to think of down the road. The Patriots are headed into undefeated Indianapolis in a week. It would turn things decidedly negative if they were headed there at 5-3 looking down the barrel of a mediocre 5-4 than it would be headed there at 6-2 with 3 straight wins under their belts. As you’ll read below, this will likely be a throwing game. The Dolphins are tough against the run, giving up less than a 100 yards per game on the ground and only 3.6 per carry. But throw the Patriots will be able to do. They’ll wanted keep it somewhat balance, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tom Brady put it up at least 45 times on Sunday.
So lets take a look at some of these Dolphins:
Quarterback Chad Henne
(#7): Henne, like Tom Brady, went to University of Michigan and became a starter in their second NFL season due to injury. And like Brady, he has performed the role as decent game manager in his early career starts. Henne has performed fairly well for the Dolphins and is 3-1 in his starts. He’s made some mistakes, but he’s also made some very good throws. In general, the Dolphins have done a good job avoiding putting him in very difficult situations. For the season, he’s completing just about sixty percent of his passes, but for an average of just 154 yards per game but the Dolphins have scored at least 30 points in each of the games he has started. To be completely accurate, though, that number includes numerous special teams and defensive scores that have helped the team reach that figure.
Overall on offense, despite some big games, the Dolphins are averaging just 305 yards per game which ranks them 10th worst in the NFL. More than half of that, 153.4 yards per game, comes from the running attack which ranks as the NFL’s third best. It’s the passing game that brings the Dolphins down at 152 yards per game, which is the 4th worst in the NFL. Its just not what they do well. And while they have been very creative and smart in not putting Henne in tough situations, it seems evident the Patriots strategy will be to try to focus on not getting beat by the run on early downs and putting Henne in spots where he has to throw on third down to convert. If they can do that, Henne could be in for a long day.
Running Back Ronnie Brown
(#23): The Dolphins have two very fast, tough, physical runners in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, Bill Belichick has stated this week that Brown is the more physical and powerful of the two. Brown is of course the Wildcat quarterback most of the time for the Dolphins and what they’re running is pretty much is running a newer version of the ancient Wing-T or Single Wing offense. One advantage to the Wildcat is that essentially it adds another blocker, which Belichick mentions when discussing the formation. On a conventional running play, a quarterback hands to a running back and the play is run while the QB stands by and essentially just watches. It’s basically a 10 on 11 play. With the wildcat, the snap is directly to the running back. Even if he hands off, he is part of the play and the defense has to at least defend him (unlike a handing off QB).
Last year, when the Dolphins split the QB out wide, the defense had to at least account for him with a man, making him essentially just as effective as a blocker. This year the Dolphins are often pulling the quarterback altogether with the formation, adding another skill player to the mix or better blocker. In any event, all of this overlooks the very skilled, powerful and explosive runner that is Ronnie Brown. The most valuable player on the Dolphins offense, he rarely goes down on first contact, has the speed to run away from defenders, but also the power to run them over. Containing him will be a big test for the Patriots and a key to getting Henne into the bad situations they hope for.
Wide Receiver Ted Ginn, Jr.
(#19): Last week, Ginn electrified the NFL with two sparkling, 100 and 101 yard kickoff returns against the Jets, leading Miami to victory. The big special teams week came the same week he was removed from his starting receiver position and, rather than sulk, Ginn found a way to contribute in a huge way to the win. Ginn is an electrifying player with great speed and moves and who occasionally shows great hands as a receiver. But, he has been inconsistent with that part of the game and disappears for long stretches of time as a pass catcher. But it is important to remember he had a 11 catch game earlier this year, so to write him off as a receiver altogether is a mistake. He could burn the Patriots secondary if they go to sleep on him as he has more game-breaking ability by far than any other Dolphins’ receiver. His father, Ted, Sr. is a long-time successful Ohio High School football coach who coached his son (and Patriots linebacker Pierre Woods) back in his high school days.
Outside Linebacker Jason Taylor
(#99): The 35-year old, former “Dancing With The Stars” star and probable Hall-of-Fame football player still presents a major problem for the Patriots this Sunday. With his reps spotted and limited and back home where he is comfortable, Taylor has racked up 20 tackles, 5.5 sacks and returned a fumble last week for a TD versus the Jets. Taylor has always been a major pain for the Patriots, even with starting left tackle Matt Light, who always had problems with Taylor. With Light probably out, it’ll be important the Patriots give rookie tackle Sebastian Vollmer help with all the Dolphins pass rushers, but particularly the still-effective Taylor.
Safety Yeremiah Bell
(#37): Last year in the second meeting between the Patriots and Dolphins, the Patriots mercilessly picked on Bell and beat him repeatedly for key first downs in a 48-28 win quarterbacked by Matt Cassell (who had nearly 500 yards passing, a lot of it victimizing Bell). In watching the Dolphins last year, including that game, it became apparent Bell was a major liability for them in coverage. The simple fact is, he isn’t good at it. He isn’t without strengths, however. He is a solid tackler, a good in-the-box safety for run support. You can blitz him occasionally. He’ll make the tackle if given a shot at it. He just can’t cover. And he certainly can’t make plays on the ball, as 1 interception in 69 career games attests to. That is why I was a bit surprised to see the Dolphins not only bring him back this offseason, but give him fairly substantial money ($20 million over 4 years, $10 million in guarantees). I suppose he does important things for the Dolphins, such as run defense, secondary calls, tough, physical play. But watch for situations where the Patriots spread the field and get Bell matched up one on one. If they get him on Wes Welker forget it. Even Sam Aiken could have a day for himself if he draws Bell a lot. Ben Watson? Forget it, he’s one tight end who’ll easily beat this defensive back.
Cornerback Vontae Davis
(#21) and Cornerback Sean Smith (#24): Miami’s pair of rookie corners, both now starting, will be severely tested by the Tom Brady just 2 weeks after Drew Brees largely torched them for New Orleans in Miami. Davis is a physical corner with a lot of talent and the ability to become a top-flight NFL player. But he is young, untested and takes too many chances. He also is reported to be a bit immature. Smith was also a top-flight college corner for Utah last year with tons of physical ability. These two are going to be good, starting NFL corners going forward. But they are in the infancy of their NFL careers, prone to mistakes and about to be matched up against the likes of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and possibly the best quarterback in the NFL in Tom Brady on the road. Recipe for disaster.
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