Patriots vs. Dolphins: 5 Keys to the Game for New England
The New England Patriots have already swept their way through two divisional foes in Buffalo and New York. Now they're headed to South Beach with their sights set on their last remaining division rival—the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins have improved since the departure of former coach Tony Sparano, with first-year coach Joe Philbin guiding them to a respectable 5-6 record.
Still, despite the progress Miami has made, it should be no match for the 8-3 Pats.
The Dolphins offense is ranked just 23rd in the league in DVOA, a stat that evaluates unit success rates based on situational context and adjusts for strength of schedule and league averages (DVOA is fully explained here).
Miami's defense is above-average—it's the 12th-ranked unit in DVOA—but that's largely the product of its fourth-ranked run D. It's a defense that can be beaten through the air.
Still, New England should not overlook the home squad. After all, the Pats are just 5-5 in Miami with Tom Brady as their QB.
If New England wants to keep its hopes of a first-round bye alive, it'll need to leave Sun Life Stadium with a victory. Let's take a look at five things that must happen if the Pats hope to do just that.
Dominate the Point of Attack Against the Run
The Dolphins aren't an elite run-blocking unit.
A lot of pundits are concerned about the threat of Dolphins RB Reggie Bush against the Pats defense.
Comparisons have been made between Bush and the NFL's leader in yards per carry, C.J. Spiller of the Buffalo Bills. It's a justifiable comparison—both backs have great vision, shiftiness and cut-back ability to go along with elite second-level speed.
It's also a legitimate worry, since Spiller carved up the Pats for 70 yards on just nine carries in their last meeting, a narrow 37-31 victory for the Pats.
But what that analysis ignores is the difference in the quality of the run-blocking units of the Bills and Dolphins.
According to Football Outsiders, the Bills O-line ranks third in the NFL in adjusted line yards. AYL assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on contextual success rates and then adjusts for league average.
By contrast, the Dolphins rank just 18th in AYL. They don't have a line that can consistently move defenders into the backfield (continued on next slide).
Dominate the Point of Attack Against the Run (Part 2)
As always, the battle in the trenches will determine the outcome.
What Miami lacks is an elite run-blocker outside of C Mike Pouncey. Pouncey is an athletic mauler who can generate enough push to give Pats DT Vince Wilfork some trouble.
But beyond Pouncey, the Dolphins don't have a single starting lineman who is strong against the run.
By Pro Football Focus' grading measures (subscription only), no Miami O-lineman ranks in the top 50 at their position in run-blocking except LG Richie Incognito, who ranks 50th among guards.
The biggest issue for the Dolphins has been the decline of Jake Long, their Pro Bowl LT whose run-blocking grades have worsened each year since his rookie season.
It will be up to a thin Pats D-line—minus its top two REs in Chandler Jones (injury) and Jermaine Cunningham (suspension)—to dominate the Dolphins O-line and stuff the run. That will mean a strong game from stout DT Kyle Love and improved play from de facto Pats starter (and heretofore non-factor) Trevor Scott.
Ensure Linebackers Maintain Gap Responsibility
When it comes to defending the run, discipline is key.
Of course, dominating the point of attack is what philosophers call a "necessary but not sufficient condition" for stopping the run. In other words, it has to happen if the D hopes to stuff the play, but it's not all that has to happen for the D to stuff the play.
Even an offensive line that gets pushed back several yards can occupy would-be tacklers by engaging them in blocks and allowing them to overpursue into the backfield.
Overpursuit, in particular, is something the Pats must avoid against Bush.
The issue with Bush is that even if he's quiet for the majority of the game, he can take advantage of one or two mental mistakes to make big plays that shift the final score.
Bush has the ability to fool LBs into thinking he's hitting a particular gap, getting them to commit and then bouncing it somewhere else. For example, Tedy Bruschi in Bruschi's Breakdown on ESPN Boston wrote about how Bush has the ability to make defenders think he's running inside the tackles before bouncing out.
If the Pats hope to prevent big plays on the ground, they need their two-gapping D-linemen to plug up the holes and funnel Bush into the linebackers' hands.
In turn, the linebackers—especially ILB Brandon Spikes, one of the league's best LBs—but a player with the occasional tendency to sell out to a gap—must be disciplined. Instead of guessing and shooting gaps to try and make negative plays, the Pats LBs must pursue the ball-carrier down the line and meet him in the correct gap.
Discipline is the way to beat a runner who relies on cutbacks, and it's what the Pats must demonstrate against Bush.
Utilize the Short Passing Game
Quick, short strikes will neutralize the Dolphins.
The Dolphins simply haven't been good at defending any pass-catching weapon this year.
Per Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, they're 23rd in the league at defending top receivers and 26th in the league at defending their opponents' second option.
It gets worse: they're 29th in the league at covering TEs and 23rd in coverage against pass-catching RBs. Basically, all of the Pats' weapons are in play for this game.
So why should they concentrate on the short passing game? There are two reasons.
First, the Dolphins have Cameron Wake, the NFL's second-best 3-4 pass-rusher, per Pro Football Focus. Wake has 9.5 sacks on the year, and he's part of a Kevin Coyle-coordinated defense that likes to bring the blitz.
A quick passing attack will keep Wake and the Dolphins' pass rush back on their own heels—and off of Brady's.
Second, the Pats should target former Dolphin Wes Welker early and often. According to the Boston Globe, Welker has averaged 8.3 catches and 109 yards per game against his old team—most among teams he's faced at least twice.
The slow Dolphins LBs (including Karlos Dansby, who is battling injuries) won't be able to keep up with him. They'll need to bracket Welker with a safety, and that will open up other opportunities for the Pats' weapons.
Let the Safeties Roam Free
Gregory had a huge pick last week vs. the Jets.
First-year Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill has shown signs of promise this year, including a late fourth-quarter drive to beat the Seahawks last week.
Still, he's had troubles with decision-making in his rookie campaign—he's thrown 12 interceptions to just seven TDs.
He's in the embryonic stage of his career in which he's forcing throws. This Bobby Wagner pick came as a result of Tannehill getting spooked in the pocket, scrambling right, telegraphing the throw and hurling the ball across his body for the easy INT.
The Patriots traditionally feast on rookie QBs—including Indianapolis Colts sensation Andrew Luck, who threw three picks against them this year—and Tannehill should be no different.
To put their defense in the best position to make plays, the Pats should play a lot of nickel (five DBs).
With Kyle Arrington or Marquice Cole lining up against slot receiver Davone Bess, the Pats can use both Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty in a free safety role. Both players have good instincts and can read the QB's eyes and come up to make plays on the ball.
We saw Gregory's instincts at their best against the New York Jets in Week 12. Gregory played a middle-zone "robber" position, read the QB correctly and came across the field to pick Mark Sanchez on the Jets' second drive.
The Pats, who lead the league in turnover differential at plus-24, need more ballhawking from their safeties to generate turnovers against the young QB. That's why they should turn them loose against Tannehill.