Brandon Marshall (#19), Wide Receiver: Marshall is the supremely talented, big, fast receiver the Dolphins traded for this offseason after he wore out his welcome in Denver, the team that had drafted him in the fourth round originally. And it truly is amazing to look back and realize Marshall was a fourth-round choice given his tremendous talent. His 6’4″ 230 lb. frame is almost tight end-like, but make no mistake, Marshall’s speed and moves make him every bit a wide receiver. In fact, with twenty-one catches in a game versus the Colts stands as the single highest catch total for a single game in NFL history. The Patriots have struggled defending the pass this season so far and Marshall may be their biggest challenge so far. Ideally they would be able to match up Devin McCourty on Marshall every play, but that is likely impractical. The Dolphins will find ways to spring him and its going to be a chore for the Patriots to minimize his damage. Off the field, Marshall has proven to be a clubhouse trouble-maker at times, a distraction and he’s gotten himself into repeated legal difficulties outside of football numerous times. While so far so good with Miami, the volatile Marshall could become more of a headache for them down the road than he’s been so far, given his track record in Denver. For this week, however, that is obviously the least of the Patriots concerns given their struggles on defense and the matchup problems Marshall presents.
Chad Henne (#7), Quarterback: Henne had some good games against the Patriots last year and proved he was a capable quarterback. Now he has a year of experience under his belt and is thought to be better. Like Tom Brady, Henne went to the University of Michigan and played for Coach Lloyd Carr. He has a strong arm and big frame and has improved consistently the more he has played. He really isn’t much throwing or moving on the run so the Patriots getting some pressure up the middle would go a long way towards making Henne more ineffective. Henne has shown in his short career he doesn’t throw many interception and only has 1 thru 3 games this season. He only threw 1 in 2 games against the Patriots last year. The first two games of this season, while avoiding mistakes, he didn’t make many big plays throwing for 182 and 114 while leading the offense to games of 15 and 14 points. Last week, Henne broke out with 363 yards versus the Jets and the offense got untracked for 23 points. He has been hit a bit this year, getting sack 7 times in 3 games so that is worth keeping an eye on. Henne is a quarterback who struggles at times, but when he gets on a roll he can really turn it on and start to light it up. That worries this observer of the Patriots as with their struggles on defense, its likely at some point Henne is going to get hot and stopping the momentum with his confidence high, the crowd into it and the Patriots defense still a work in progress could get to be very tough to do.
Cameron Wake (#91), Outside Linebacker: Wake is a pass rusher who played in the CFL before migrating south to the Dolphins last season. The 28 year old Wake played college football at Penn State but was largely overlooked by the NFL when he came out of college in 2005. After a brief look from the Giants, he was released and sat out of football for a year. In 2007, he came back in Canada and won Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the CFL. In 2008, he won league MVP awards. That’s when the Dolphins came calling and as a part-timer last year he showed he can play in the NFL by chipping in 5.5 sacks. This year he’s moved into a starting role and has 2 sacks thru 3 games. His pass rushing ability is undeniable, but in watching some of the Dolphins defense this season it seems Wake does have some growing to do as a run defender. He gets sucked inside on outside runs way too often and appears out of position a lot. When dropping back to pass, the Patriots will have to possibly double team this natural pass rusher, but in the running game he may be a player they can exploit.
Karlos Dansby (#58), Inside Linebacker: Dansby was a highly sought after free agent this season, despite never having been an All-Pro or Pro Bowler in his six previous seasons in Arizona. The Dolphins came calling despite that and broke open the bank with a 5 year $43 million dollar contract that included $22 million guaranteed. Make no mistake, Dansby is a very good inside linebacker. He is a premium run stuffer and occasionally makes eye popping stops in a backfield on running plays. But he is prone to make mistakes thru over aggressiveness that can lead to some running lanes. He is not that great in coverage and a decent, but not to be used often, pass rusher. He is a playmaker, however. He didn’t seem to present much of a problem for the Patriots offense whenever they saw him with Arizona. And he does bring a different attitude than the out-of-control Joey Porter he essentially replaces in the Dolphins linebacking crew. While Porter usually was outside, he did come inside and similarly Dansby can move around too. The real difference is attitude. Out-of-control rage in Porter’s case, professionalism and consistent, if not spectacular, play from Dansby.
Vontae Davis (#21), Cornerback: Davis is quickly becoming one of the better corners in the league and has presented problems for the Patriots. While occasionally getting beaten by Randy Moss, he’s held his own at times too and picked Tom Brady a couple times. This year he looks on his way to becoming an All-Pro type player. The younger brother of San Francisco 49ers All-Pro tight end Vernon Davis, Vontae may actually have the potential to be better at his position than Vernon is at his. And that is saying something because Vernon has become a top-notch tightend. Davis will likely match up on Moss frequently and it’ll be interesting to see who gets the better of it now in year 2 of their matchups.
Sun Life Stadium: The Dolphins Stadium has gone thru many names since opening in 1987 as Joe Robbie Stadium. But one thing has remained the same, the Patriots have had a pretty rough time of it visiting the Stadium. And that would hold true to an even greater degree regarding the Dolphins earlier home of The Orange Bowl. Miami has just not been kind to the Patriots and its a trip their fans are often leery of, knowing the history. The Patriots have faired just 8-15 in Joe Robbie Stadium and were 3-18 in The Orange Bowl. That is a miserable 11-33 in visiting their Dolphin division rivals. Even during the Bill Belichick era in which the Patriots have been as successful as any team in the NFL, he has only managed an 11-9 record versus Miami. In fact, since the team began winning Super Bowls, Bill Belichick has still lost 7 games to Miami, which matches the other 7 division losses he has against Buffalo and the Jets combined. Tom Brady too has struggled against Miami, particularly down there, and only has an 85.5 QB rating against them for his career, significantly lower than his 93.7 career rating otherwise. There have been some highlights. In 2003 a 81 yard pass to Troy Brown in overtime to win in Miami stands out. As does a thrashing the Patriots gave them in 2007, a game that stands out as one of Randy Moss’ (and Tom Brady’s) best. The Patriots have not been a good road team the past two years. They’ve often struggled in Miami, even during the Belichick years. That sounds like a recipe for disaster no? Well, maybe. If there is one thing you can expect about the NFL is just when you think you have it figured out where everything stands, something changes. And while a struggling road team going into a historically difficult place for them may sound like a no-brainer, it also offers the ultimate chance to the Patriots. If they’re going anywhere, they have to start to win road games. Tough road games. Why not start turning it around with your toughest venue? It would go a long way towards changing things.