When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
TV, radio: CBS, WBZ-FM (98.5)
When the Patriots run
With Rob Gronkowski out, the ground game becomes even more important. Balance will be key the rest of the way. New England will need contributions from everybody in its above-average stable of backs. Stevan Ridley was reintroduced to the offense last week but he needs more touches. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder is an energetic, decisive runner. Ridley has good vision and though he’s not overly powerful he will break through arm tackles and has some nifty spin moves. He thrives on work and gets stronger as the game goes on. There’s no nifty spin moves in LaGarrette Blount’s repertoire. The 6-foot, 250-pound thumper is a no-nonsense, north-south runner who is quicker than he looks and just as powerful as he appears. Blount plays with an edge, has nice vision and instincts, and will finish his runs with authority. Shane Vereen (5-10, 205 pounds) runs with great patience and balance. He doesn’t flash consistent explosiveness but he sees blocks develop and he will exploit cutback lanes. Brandon Bolden’s inconsistency and lack of focus are maddening. He has size (5-11, 220 pounds) and skills but he’s indecisive. It’s hard not to love James Develin (6-3, 251 pounds), who uses his bulk to batter defenders. Miami inside linebackers Dannell Ellerbe (he closes quickly and lowers the boom) and Philip Wheeler (he has a lightning-quick first step and hits everything) make a ton of tackles.
When the Patriots pass
It’s no secret Tom Brady has had some crummy games in South Florida and he can’t afford another mediocre first half. Before catching fire late last week, Brady’s passes lacked zip and accuracy. It’s understandable as the Browns were bringing pressure without blitzing. The Dolphins can do the same. Ends Olivier Vernon (6-2, 268 pounds) and Cameron Wake (6-3, 258 pounds) are demons off the edge. Both are athletic enough to drop into coverage. Inconsistent Patriots tackles Nate Solder (he gets caught flatfooted) and Will Svitek (he gets overpowered) will see these beasts in their sleep. On the inside, massive tackles Randy Starks (6-3, 305 pounds) and Paul Soliai (6-4, 340 pounds) are surprisingly quick and athletic. New England’s interior three of center Ryan Wendell (he’s athletic) and guards Dan Connolly (he’s smart) and Logan Mankins (he’s surly) will need to play their best game. Brady may not play favorites but he sure has grown fond of Julian Edelman. And why not? The versatile receiver has quick feet, strong hands, and a fearless disposition. Danny Amendola, like Edelman, is versatile and fearless. He’s more fast than quick and he will get knocked off his routes. Austin Collie only shows up when it counts. Another fearless character — he’s also very clutch. There are several playmakers in Miami’s secondary, including ballhawk corner Brent Grimes and rangy safety Reshad Jones.
When the Dolphins run
This will be interesting because the Dolphins don’t run the ball very well and the Patriots don’t do a great job defending the run. Lamar Miller gets the first crack at denting New England’s defense. The 5-11, 212-pounder has decent size and excellent straightaway speed. He won’t do a lot of juking and jiving but he sees seams quickly and will dart through them. If he gets past the second level and into the secondary, he is hard to catch. Daniel Thomas (6 feet, 233 pounds) is a big, slashing-type back with outstanding vision. More quick than fast, Thomas will bounce outside on occasion and has the ability to beat defenders to the corner. Strong and physical, Thomas won’t shy away from contact. It hasn’t been easy for Miller and Thomas, who run behind a patchwork line. The one constant has been center Mike Pouncey. A 6-5, 305-pounder, Pouncey plays with great balance and agility. He’s as strong as he looks and quicker than he has a right to be. New England has trouble controlling the inside as rookie tackles Joe Vellano (6-2, 285 pounds) and Chris Jones (6-2, 302 pounds) are willing and smart but can get overpowered. Tackle Sealver Siliga (6-2, 307 pounds) is strong and aggressive and coming off a nice game against the Browns. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes is an energy player who can thump. Outside linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are instinctive and athletic but can get lost in the crowd.
When the Dolphins pass
Ryan Tannehill has brought stability back to the QB position. It’s something they haven’t had in South Florida since Dan Marino retired. A 6-4, 222-pounder, Tannehill is an excellent athlete with a cannon for an arm. A receiver his first two seasons in college, Tannehill uses his agility and quick feet to extend plays by moving up in the pocket or dashing for first downs. He has improved his reads (but he still gets fooled and flustered) and is much more comfortable as a dropback passer — though he still thrives in the shotgun, which he ran a lot of in college. He can be very streaky. Tannehill has nice weapons at his disposal. Brian Hartline (6-2, 199 pounds) is a surehanded menace with excellent awareness — 46 of his 67 catches have moved the chains. There’s nothing sneaky about Mike Wallace’s speed — the dude can fly. Wallace (6 feet, 195 pounds) will eat up defenders’ cushions quickly and if he gets behind the secondary, say your prayers that he drops the ball — which he is apt to do. Rishard Matthews (6 feet, 210 pounds) is a physical, fearless receiver with decent open-field moves. He will surprise you. Tight end Charles Clay is a beast. New England’s secondary is loaded with playmakers — unfortunately, injuries are masking those skills. Corners Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington are above average. Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory are instinctive, rangy, and willing.
Dolphins’ key player: Charles Clay
A rugged, 6-3, 250-pounder who is comfortable in any formation, Clay played fullback, H-back, and tight end in college and excelled at all of them. He’s settled in at tight end with Miami.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: With his versatility. He not only excels at multiple positions, he can line up everywhere — in the slot, on the line, and out wide. He has great hands and is excellent after the catch. Oh, and he’s developed into an excellent blocker.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By accounting for him. You have to find him and get physical with him before he gets physical with you. The ends have to give him a nice shove at the line before the linebackers and safeties can take their shots.
Dolphins’ keys to victory
1. Miami Beach: Hit the ground running. Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas are more than capable backs. Feed them and let them grind down the defense.
2. Miami Heat: Making Tom Brady uncomfortable — without blitzing — is a must. That means bringing pressure from the inside and the outside.
3. Miami Marlins: Confidence is important. The Dolphins have proven they can overcome adversity. They have to believe for 60 minutes. That’s no fish story.
Patriots’ keys to victory
1. Sunshine day: Tom Brady’s had some miserable days in Miami. He can’t afford another one. He needs to start fast and get everyone involved from the get-go.
2. Sun protection: This defense keeps getting burned on third down. Linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower have to step up and get this unit off the field.
3. Sun belt: Young QB Ryan Tannehill can be rattled. You can accomplish this by disguising your coverages and by manhandling him. Chandler Jones, this means you.