The Patriots travel down to Miami this weekend looking to rebound from the thrashing they took at the hands of Indianapolis last week, as well as to avenge last year’s shocking upset by the Dolphins in Miami. But far more important than that, this represents yet another opportunity for the Patriots to take a firm grasp of the division and put themselves into solid position to make the playoffs. For Miami, despite their 3-5 record, it offers the opportunity to be tied for first place halfway thru the first year of a new coach and program.
THE PATRIOTS ON OFFENSE
The Patriots should be able to move the ball on Miami. Although some of the players are the same, this is not the same dominant defense Miami has had in recent years. They can still be tough, however, particularly at home.
Miami gives up about 115 yards rushing, but only 3.7 yards per carry. Opponents are controlling the ball for an average of about 33 and a half minutes per game, about six and half minutes more than the Miami offense. So you can pound it on them if a team is determined enough. The Patriots may be able to run a bit on Miami, at least more so than they have had luck doing in the past. The Miami defensive line is small in spots and, while quick, not quite as strong against a power running game. Once again, the ability of the Patriots to run will likely be dictated by the health of running back Corey Dillon. Dillon looked nowhere close to his old self vs. Indianapolis and it remains to be seen if six days in the interim will change that equation any. If he is healthy enough to put in a good effort, look for the Patriots physical linemen to control the middle of the line of scrimmage and create some creases for Dillon. For the Dolphins, the key man is Zach Thomas, their middle linebacker, who seems tailor made for the new defensive scheme and is having his best season in years.
Throwing the ball, opponents have had success vs. Miami. Having moved cornerback Patrick Surtain in the offseason, they are not as strong at one spot as they had been though rookie Travis Daniels has played well and looks like he’ll be a good NFL player. The other corner, Sam Madison, is a former All-Pro who isn’t quite up to that level anymore but still quite good. The Dolphins have lost one of their starting safeties, former Patriot Tebucky Jones, for the year to injury and are vulnerable to tight ends down the seam. Teams need to be careful throwing on Miami as they have active defensive linemen and have piled up 24 sacks so far this year. Guys like Jason Taylor, David Bowen and Kevin Carter will eat up the Patriots tackles if the backs and tight ends don’t do a good job helping them out. Dolphins coach Nick Saban, though a Bill Belichick student, is more apt to blitz than his mentor and routinely sent blitz after blitz in college as a coach at LSU that opponents had hard times picking up. It may be a good idea for the Patriots to do a lot of their passing on first down and avoid false starts and holding penalties that get them into must throw situations. This can be easier said than done with a very loud crowd Miami will surely have.
THE PATRIOTS ON DEFENSE
Luckily for the Patriots with their defensive backfield injured and struggling like no other time in the Belichick era, Miami is a run first team. Their quarterback, Gus Frerotte, is towards the bottom echelon of starting QBs in the NFL and they prefer to run with their two headed backfield of Ricky Williams and powerful and fast rookie Ronnie Brown. So, in some ways this tendancy plays into the Patriots hands.
But look for Miami to be able to run the ball as they have done a good job at it all year and are averaging 4.5 yards per carry. If the Patriots are not going to get worn down in the eighty degree Miami heat in the fourth quarter, they’re going to have to find a way to slow the running attack down early before it gets rolling. Getting a two score lead in the second half would help immensely.
Miami has good weapons throwing the ball when they choose to in tight end Randy McMichael and receivers Chris Chambers and Marty Booker. McMichael and Chambers could be especially dangerous down the field as both are fast at their respective positions and the Patriots have struggled downfield all year. There is absolutely no doubt Miami will try to hit some passes way downfield on the Patriots, probably a few times early, having seen every other team they’ve played do it effectively. The Patriots absolutely have to find a way to stop these downfield shots, but it won’t be easy through use of an effective pass rush as the Patriots have only 12 sacks all year, the same number the Dolphins have given up offensively. Hardly inspiring numbers. The possible return of defensive lineman Richard Seymour could add extra potential to this area for the Patriots, however.
THE PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS VS. THE MIAIM SPECIAL TEAMS
The Patriots need to be careful with punt returner Wes Welker who is averaging over 11 yards per return and burned the Patriots on a long return down in Miami last season. However, in the positive, there may be some opportunities for long returns on kickoffs against Miami as they are giving up nearly 25 yards per return there. Both Miami kicker Olindo Mare and Patriots kicker Adam Vinatierri are clutch, experienced kickers the teams can count on if the game comes down to the last couple minutes. Both teams punters are having good seasons.
The Patriots have generally not played well in Miami. Miami will come into this game fired up and knowing the Patriots are vulnerable on defense. Their offense will be able to move the ball enough and hit a few big plays to put some points on the board. The Patriots offense also should be able to move the ball up and down the field. As said above, this is not the Miami defense of old. But Miami should be able to cause a couple turnovers which may save a few drives and get some sacks as well to put the Patriots in a hole and kill a few others. In the end, the field position battle may tilt to Miami’s side. That’ll be enough for Miami to pull out a 24-20 victory over the foundering Patriots.