When the Patriots run
The emergence of a solid — sometimes spectacular — ground attack has made New England’s offense the envy of the NFL. OK, it may have been anyway. Stevan Ridley has established himself as the lead dog in this pack. Ridley (5 feet 11 inches, 220 pounds) is a big, strong, decisive runner with deceptive quickness. He identifies creases in a flash and bounces onto the second level with reckless abandon. He powers through arm tacklers and rarely goes down on first contact. Shane Vereen (5-9, 205) is a compactly built back who is both faster and stronger than he looks. Quick and instinctive Danny Woodhead (5-8, 200) has been relatively quiet the last few weeks, but overlooking him is a mistake. The backs have been getting outstanding blocking from a line that seems to change every week. Steady center Ryan Wendell is quick off the ball and uses his strong hands to temporarily redirect defenders and create holes. The Dolphins are tough up the middle. Tackles Paul Soliai (6-4, 345) and Randy Starks (6-3, 305) are consistent. Soliai has impressive strength and will occupy multiple blockers while Starks stuns linemen with a nice initial pop. Linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett put up huge tackling numbers. Dansby has exceptional lateral quickness and agility, while Burnett brings speed and toughness.
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady has never been particularly fond of Miami Gardens (see Taylor, Jason), and he’ll once again be feeling the heat (and not just from the blistering South Florida sun). Defensive ends Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick are quick off the edge, and Randy Starks can wreak havoc up the middle. Lucky for Brady, he has received exceptional protection this season from towering tackles Nate Solder (6 feet 8 inches, 320 pounds) and Sebastian Vollmer (6-8, 320), and friends. Brady also has superb pre-snap recognition and a quick trigger, which also help keep defenders out of his grill. Slot man extraordinaire Wes Welker continues to play at a high level (think Miami fans are still gnashing their teeth?). Welker’s hallmarks continue to be toughness and an uncanny knack for being open. Julian Edelman has elevated his play the last few weeks. If he is recovered from his Thanksgiving concussion, he will continue to pose a threat. He has excellent instincts, runs well, and has decent hands. Brandon Lloyd has good speed, great body control, and a flair for the dramatic, but he seems to drop off the radar screen for large stretches. Aaron Hernandez is listed as a tight end but can be found virtually anywhere on the field. He is exceptionally athletic — too fast for most linebackers and too strong for most defensive backs. Rangy, hard-hitting safeties Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones are the standouts in the Miami secondary.
When the Dolphins run
Reggie Bush will get most of the totes, and he can still be an effective player if used properly. He lacks the bulk to be a workhorse but the 6-foot, 203-pounder still flashes the explosiveness that gives defensive coordinators nightmares. A very versatile player, Bush has the skills to line up everywhere from tailback to outside receiver. He has excellent vision and instincts and is tremendous in the open field. He knows how to follow his blocks and has great acceleration at the second level. He’s at his best when he attacks the edges. He’s a willing inside runner, but his lack of power limits his effectiveness here because he can’t push the pile. Bush has taken a lot of hits over the years and is seemingly always banged up. Sophomore Daniel Thomas (6-1, 233) is more of an inside banger. He has a nifty blend of power and athleticism. Thomas is a decisive runner who has a tendency to miss creases and get buried. Miami has rugged inside blockers led by left guard Richie Incognito, whose place on the all-nasty team is well-deserved. Incognito (6-3, 319) is strong, smart, swift, and surly. Center Mike Pouncey (6-5, 303) is athletic and powerful, and will need both those qualities to counteract Vince Wilfork, who is pretty athletic and powerful himself. Right guard John Jerry (6-5, 345) has size and strength but plays a little stiff. Instinctive linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes lead the Patriots hit parade.
When the Dolphins pass
Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill has battled inconsistency, but clearly the future is bright for this first-round pick who is still getting used to working under center after mainly working from shotgun sets at Texas A&M. The 6-foot-4-inch, 222-pounder has good size and a strong arm. He can zip tight spirals into small spaces and lead receivers well on screens. Because the Dolphins lack a true vertical threat, Tannehill hasn’t had many chances to show off his big arm. He works best out of the pocket, but is deceptively athletic (don’t let the gangliness fool you). He will make plays with his feet, but his accuracy suffers on the run, as his ball tends to float. Miami has some solid receivers but no real standout. Davone Bess (5-10, 193) has the versatility to work from the slot or the outside — and seems to have his best games against the Patriots. Bess has quick feet, a nice burst, and a knack for finding soft spots. He is stronger than he looks and will fight for extra yards after the catch. Brian Hartline has developed into a solid threat. Hartline (6-2, 199) has good size and strong hands and runs good routes. He is also a solid downfield blocker. Tight end Anthony Fasano is a decent receiver but has lost a step. Reggie Bush is an outstanding receiver out of the backfield and a demon in space. New England’s secondary is improving. At least you don’t close your eyes and hold your breath on every dropback.
Dolphins’ key player: DE Cameron Wake
Hard to believe this guy had to prove himself in the Canadian Football League before getting a shot in the NFL. It’s probably a safe bet that he enjoys playing in the shadow of South Beach rather than, say, the shadow of Saskatoon.
How he beats you: With an explosive first step. Wake (6 feet 3 inches, 258 pounds) blasts off the edge and has some nifty shake-and-bake moves to get past blockers and onto the quarterback.
How to shut him down: By sending reinforcements. Help out your tackles by letting a tight end (hello, Daniel Fells) get in on the action by chip blocking Wake.
DOLPHINS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1.Thunder, lightning: Use the tailback combination of Reggie Bush’s quickness and Daniel Thomas’s power to grind out yards and grind down the clock.
2.High-pressure system: Cameron Wake is a demon off the edge, but Jared Odrick and Randy Starks can create pressure, too. They have to, or Tom Brady will burn them.
3.Tropical wave: Take some chances on offense, particularly on fourth down. Kicker Dan Carpenter doesn’t have a big leg (0 for 3 outside 50 yards), so go for it and try to score 6.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1.Bubble high: Screen passes are a great way to counteract a pass rush. So employ everyone — Woodhead, Welker, Edelman, and Hernandez — to keep Miami honest.
2.Muggy: Create pressure on rookie QB Ryan Tannehill. He’s still learning the ropes, so mixing up the coverages will force him to hang on to the ball too long. That translates to pain.
3.Warm front: Active linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes have to be their normal destructive selves against the run. This will make the Dolphins one-dimensional. Not good for them.Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.