The Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin fiasco erupted a week after Miami lost to the Patriots, 27-17, in Foxborough Oct. 27. The messy episode was supposed to tear the Dolphins apart and ruin their once-promising season.
Instead, the Dolphins have won three of five since both players left the lineup, with wins over the Chargers, Jets, and Steelers, and close losses to the Buccaneers (3 points) and Panthers (4 points). The offensive line has been patched together on the fly with Incognito and Martin out, but Miami enters Sunday’s rematch riding a two-game winning streak and tied with Baltimore at 7-6 for the final playoff spot in the AFC.
“It looks like when we played them before was kind of at the end of a little bit of a bad stretch for them,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “But they’ve certainly played well lately.”
The losses of Martin at right tackle and Incognito at left guard have almost been addition by subtraction. Before Martin left the team and Incognito was suspended indefinitely, the Dolphins traded for Bryant McKinnie to play left tackle and switched Martin to right tackle to replace veteran Tyson Clabo. Ryan Tannehill’s 48 sacks are the most of any quarterback — Joe Flacco is next at 41 — but the Dolphins have managed to get by with McKinnie at left tackle, rookie practice squad call-up Sam Brenner, at left guard and Clabo re-claiming his right tackle spot.
They have still allowed 13 sacks over their last four games, but the Dolphins are 3-1 in that stretch while averaging 372 total yards and 23.25 points per game.
“They’ve become very balanced with the run and the pass,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “They have used their play-action well, along with some of their quarterback move-the-pocket type plays. And then obviously with the quarterback being a tremendous athlete and someone who is very good at getting out of trouble, he’s had a real good feel of being able to escape and extend plays.”
Tannehill has been sloppy with the ball at times this year, throwing 14 interceptions and losing 5 of 9 fumbles, and he completed just 22 of 42 passes for 192 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions in the Week 8 matchup against the Patriots.
The Dolphins’ running game has been inconsistent this year, but they have rushed for more than 300 yards in their past two games, and could have another big day against the New England’s struggling run defense.
The Dolphins have smaller, quicker receivers in Brian Hartline, Mike Wallace, and Rishard Matthews, who could once again have a tough time against the Patriots’ physical cornerbacks, but third-year tight end Charles Clay is having a breakout season with 60 catches for 678 yards and six touchdowns, including two in Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh.
Clay, a former college fullback, will line up at tight end, slot receiver, wide receiver, fullback, and running back occasionally.
“When you have a player like that who is reliable and dependable in possession-type situations and is multiple, then you can do a lot of creative things with him,” Patricia said.
The Dolphins’ defense allowed the Patriots to score 24 second-half points last time, but could put up a much tougher fight this time. Some of Tom Brady’s worst games have come in Miami — he’s 7-5 there as a starter, including a couple of losses in which he was held under 100 yards passing — and the Dolphins’ pass rush is much improved.
Cameron Wake, dealing with a groin injury in the last matchup, is healthier and has five sacks in his last six games. The Dolphins are stout up the middle with Jared Odrick (4½ sacks), Randy Starks (3) and Paul Soliai (2). And second-year pro Olivier Vernon has had a breakout season with 11½ sacks, including seven in his last four games. Vernon lines up at defensive end or outside linebacker and is athletic enough to rush the passer or cover a tight end.
“Obviously he’s just gotten a little bit better with experience,” Belichick said. “They play him some inside and outside. He’s a versatile player that’s got a really good set of skills, like he had in college.”
The Dolphins blitz on nearly half of the passing attempts, and have athletic linebackers in Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler that can rush the passer and cover tight ends. The Dolphins are a respectable 13th against the pass, their 16 interceptions are fifth-most in the NFL and Brady was held to 116 yards, a TD, and an interception in the first matchup.
Dimitri Patterson (four interceptions) was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday with a groin injury, but Brent Grimes (four interceptions), Nolan Carroll (two), and Reshad Jones (one) have excelled in coverage this year.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.