When the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley is the most talented and versatile running back in the Patriots’ stable — but he needs the ball in his hands more. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder is a high-energy tailback who gives great effort on every carry. A north-south runner (he’s not overly creative), Ridley attacks the line of scrimmage, keeps his legs churning, and will lower his shoulder and drive into defenders. Ridley may get turned back or buried on successive carries, but he doesn’t hang his head and he’s good for a couple of runs of 10-plus yards per game. Brandon Bolden (5-11, 220) continues to get chances and continues to frustrate. A muscular back with good vision, Bolden hasn’t run with great confidence. If he can get back to his physical ways and stay focused, he can be a weapon. LeGarrette Blount has been invisible the last two weeks — not easy for a 6-foot, 250-pound man. A bruising runner with deceptive acceleration and speed at the second level, Blount lacks an explosive first step and will take a lot of hits at or near the line. The Patriots’ offensive line has been maddeningly inconsistent, not just from game to game but from series to series. Tough and ornery guard Logan Mankins must set the tone by inspiring his mates and trashing his foes. Miami has a trio of active, instinctive linebackers in Philip Wheeler (quick and aggressive), Koa Misi (a wrapup tackler), and Dannell Ellerbe (an explosive, sideline-to-sideline hitter).
When the Patriots pass
Injuries and inexperience have killed New England’s aerial attack this season. But inaccuracy has had a lot to do with it, too. Tom Brady has been uncharacteristically inconsistent; those shots of him semi-wincing and flexing his throwing hand on the bench last week were not comforting. Brady is among the most accurate passers in history, and whenever he isn’t pinpoint, it’s concerning. Brady was under fire a lot last week. This week, the fire will come up the middle from big Miami tackle Randy Starks (explosive off the snap) and from the outside from Cameron Wake (explosive off the edge). It should help that Brady will have his top two targets together for the first time this season: Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski. A versatile, athletic receiver who works best from the slot, Amendola runs good routes and has strong hands. He’s a magnet for thunderous hits, however. Gronkowski is a big, athletic, and physical tight end who can snatch the ball, secure it, and punish defenders. Can’t help but think that bulky brace on his arm (looks like a leg cast) will hinder him all season. Julian Edelman (quick feet, strong hands) has been a savior of sorts, making big catch after big catch as rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson continue to find their way. Miami corners Brent Grimes and Dimitri Patterson are adequate. Safeties Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons cover a lot of ground and hit with full force.
When the Dolphins run
Lamar Miller is the lead back for the Dolphins but he’s no workhorse. The 5-foot-10-inch, 216-pounder has elite breakaway speed but because he lacks great vision and moves, he rarely gets to show it off. Miller hasn’t shown the patience to let his blocks form, but on the occasion that he finds a crease quickly, he will blow through it swiftly and can rip off long runs. Miller takes big hits and bounces back up, but he won’t break a lot of tackles. Daniel Thomas (6-1, 235) is a big, strong, athletic runner with good vision. He dances a little too much in the backfield but he’s no Laurence Maroney. If the path isn’t there, he’ll try to create his own. He rarely loses yardage, and it usually takes more than one hit to get him down. Center Mike Pouncey (6-5, 305) is an extremely big and powerful blocker who stuns defenders off the snap. He’s wide, has strong hands, and moves well laterally; he’s adept at picking off linebackers at the second level. Left guard Richie Incognito has a reputation as a problem child. He also has a reputation as an aggressive, above-average blocker. Both are well-deserved. Incognito (6-3, 320) is a mauler with a bad temper. Those are fine traits for his profession. The holes in the middle of the Patriots’ defense are massive, but rookies Chris Jones (6-2, 302) and Joe Vellano (6-2, 285) work hard to fill them. Energetic linebacker Brandon Spikes is solid against the run and delivers some pad-popping hits.
When the Dolphins pass
Second-year pro Ryan Tannehill has developed quickly into a quality QB. It’s especially impressive considering he spent a good chunk of his college days as a wide receiver. A very good wide receiver. Tannehill (6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds) is smart and athletic, and has a big arm. His mobility allows him to extend plays, and he’s not opposed to tucking the ball and running. After working almost exclusively from the shotgun in college, Tannehill struggled in traditional pro sets as a rookie but has improved. He still has a tendency to lock on to his primary receivers but has made great strides here, too. Brian Hartline (6-2, 200) is an underrated receiver. Pigeonholed as strictly a possession receiver, he has shown the speed and athleticism to be a threat on all routes. Mike Wallace (6-0, 200) is a superb athlete with elite speed. Wallace has strong hands and uses them to break press coverage and make acrobatic catches. Brandon Gibson (6-0, 210) is a sure-handed receiver with deceptive speed and nice after-the-catch moves. Charles Clay (6-3, 250) is an athletic tight end with reliable hands. The secondary is now the strength of New England’s defense. Corners Aqib Talib (big and in your face), Alfonzo Dennard (athletic and strong), and Kyle Arrington (he needs a bounce-back game) are solid. Safeties Devin McCourty (he’s always around the ball) and Steve Gregory (ditto) cover a ton of ground and make a ton of tackles.
Dolphins’ key player: Cameron Wake
A 6-foot-2-inch, 258-pound menace off the edge, the former Penn State star and Canadian Football League defector (yes, he was undrafted) has collected 45½ sacks since arriving from the Great White North. He seems almost fully recovered from early-season knee woes.
HOW HE BEATS YOU: By blasting off the end like a teenager on Red Bull. Wake goes all out on every play, and his quickness often leaves blockers flat-footed and quarterbacks flattened.
HOW TO SHUT HIM DOWN: By using extra bodies. He lacks size but not strength, so chip blocking is a must to help the tackles keep him from collapsing the pocket all afternoon.
DOLPHINS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Ground control: Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas must attack the middle of the weakened New England defense and keep the clock ticking.
2.Feats of Clay: Ryan Tannehill has to target tight end Charles Clay early and often — or until Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower proves he can stop him.
3.Full pockets: Stout tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai must bring pressure up the gut and prevent Tom Brady from getting comfortable.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Distributive property: It’s great to have Gronk back. But it’d be better to get everyone involved. Tom Brady was once a master at this. He needs to return to form.
2. Blount force: LeGarrette Blount proved earlier this season he can be an effective complementary running back. His energy is being wasted on kickoff returns.
3. Blessing in disguise: Mixing up the looks on defense is a must. Ryan Tannehill is better than he was but he still doesn’t have great recognition skills.Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.