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Each week, PatriotsLife will be posting a scouting report of the Patriots upcoming opponent, going over their playmakers, tendencies, and how the Pats might match up. The Pats finish the season with a three game stretch against their three division rivals, starting this weekend with the 7-6 Miami Dolphins making the trip north to Foxborough. Revenge will certainly be on the Patriots minds, as Miami was dominant in a season opening 33-20 win over the Pats in the September Florida heat. This time, they'll be playing in the cold of a New England December, with the Pats able to clinch the AFC East with a win. Without further ado, lets get right to this week's matchups.

Miami offense:

The Dolphins haven't been known for their offense ever since Dan Marino retired, but they've been better than you realize this season. Miami hasn't been a juggernaut on offense, but their scoring average of 24.2 points per game has them ranked 12th in the league, thanks largely to improved play from quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a surprisingly effective ground game.

The Patriots found out about Miami's running game the hard way back in Week One, getting trampled for 191 rushing yards. Much of that damage was done by Knowshon Moreno, who would only last three weeks before landing on Injured Reserve with a knee injury, but the Fins have continued to find success on the ground thanks to a bit of a breakout season from Lamar Miller. Miller has 782 rushing yards and six touchdowns this year, with an impressive 4.8 yards per carry, while also catching 32 passes as a safety valve option for Tannehill. He's gotten the bulk of the work since Moreno's injury, but backup Daniel Thomas and the athletic Tannehill have also contributed to an effective Dolphins ground attack; their teamwide 4.6 yards per carry figure ranks seventh in the league.

Despite this success, Miami hasn't really committed to a rushing identity on offense. Their 327 carries ranks 23rd in the league, and Miller has only gotten an average of 12.5 carries a game despite his effectiveness. For comparison's sake, Miami's 462 passing attempts rank 13th in the league, a pass-heavy number for a team with a somewhat unproven quarterback.

Miller is closing in on 1,000 total yards this season
It will be interesting to see if Miami tries to recreate Week One's successful gameplan and repeatedly run at a Patriots defense that has had success stopping the run out of the nickel in the past two months. While the Pats have had some impressive efforts against the run, they've also been pulverized on the ground in two of their three losses, along with a close call against the Jets in Week 7. They've also had several games where either situational factors (a Week 8 blowout over Chicago) or questionable playcalling (last week in San Diego) limited the opponent's ability to exploit a run defense that was showing signs of weakness.

If Miami does commit to the run on Sunday, the Patriots onus will be on their linebackers to make plays to limit the damage on the ground. Playing predominately in a base 4-2-5 nickel scheme puts a lot of responsibility on the linebackers, making the status of injured linebacker Dont'a Hightower worth monitoring. Hightower missed last week with his shoulder ailment, pushing midseason acquisition Jonathan Casillas into his starting role next to Jamie Collins. Casillas was adequate, but Collins truly shined in the narrow Sunday night victory, and he'll have to again on Sunday given Casillas' lack of size (listed at 6'1" and 227 pounds) against the run.

Miami haven't been a dynamic passing offense, but they do possess several unique matchup players who make them a tougher than expected unit to defend. The first is receiver Mike Wallace, who's rare speed makes him one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league. Wallace hasn't been the superstar Miami paid him to be as a free agent two years ago, catching only 55.9% of his team-leading 102 targets, but his raw ability forces teams to account for him at all times defensively. Darrelle Revis spent a lot of time on Wallace back in Week One with mixed results.

Landry has emerged as a nice addition to Miami's offense
Whether Revis takes another crack at that matchup will likely depend on how the Pats view Jarvis Landry, who has emerged in his rookie season starting across from Wallace. Odell Beckham Jr's former partner in crime at LSU, Landry was an afterthought in Week One, receiving only one unsuccessful target in the Dolphins win, but he's gone on to catch 63 balls for 573 yards and five touchdowns. Landry hasn't made as many explosive plays as Wallace, with an average of 9.1 yards per catch and a long reception of only 25 yards, but he's also been a more efficient and reliable option for Tannehill, catching 75.9% of his 83 targets.

My guess would be that Revis stays with Wallace, given the danger his speed brings. Asking the speed-deficient Brandon Browner to stick with Wallace could be playing with fire, and Browner's physical, aggressive press-man coverage should limit Landry's ability to get separation on those shorter, possession-type routes that have become his bread-and-butter.

Those two may be Tannehill's most productive targets, but they aren't the only threats in the Miami passing game. Tight end Charles Clay is a versatile and difficult-to-match-up-with player who has gotten plenty of respect from the Patriots defense in year's past, including time shadowed by Aqib Talib last year. The emergence of Landry has cut into Clay's targets and production this season, but the tight end remains a player who can hurt a defense if not given the proper respect. Clay is listed as questionable with hamstring and knee ailments, but if he goes I'd expect the Pats defense to mix up their matchups on him, with Patrick Chung, Casillas and even Logan Ryan being potential coverage options.

Finally, Brian Hartline provides Tannehill another reliable target to look for out of the slot. He's a natural matchup for Patriots nickel corner Kyle Arrington, who is coming off of a solid performance against San Diego's Eddie Royal. Former Rams wideout Brandon Gibson is also capable out of the slot, while Rishard Matthews is a raw prospect who brings some size and explosiveness to the table.

Dolphins talk this summer centered around new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and his Chip Kelly-influenced fast-paced offense. As with most uptempo offenses, the Dolphins have gone for an efficiency-fueled, short-passing game. This has had benefits, such as Tannehill completing a career-high 66.7% of his passes for 21 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions. However, the Dolphins haven't shown much in the way of making big plays through the air, despite the presence of Wallace, and their 28th ranked 5.7 net yards per passing attempt serves as statistical evidence of this flaw.

Defending this offense is made more difficult because Tannehill possesses the kind of athleticism from the quarterback position that has hurt the Pats in the past. Tannehill was famously a receiver in college before making the transition to quarterback, and while he doesn't run often, his speed makes him a player who can hurt you when he does take off. The Pats noticeably held back on their pass rush against Green Bay in an attempt to "contain" Aaron Rodgers and keep him from breaking free and hurting them with his legs.

It will be interesting to see if they go with that kind of conservative approach on Sunday, especially given Miami's struggles protecting the quarterback. The Dolphins invested heavily in improving their offensive line after a disastrous season in 2013, but a season-ending injury to free agent left tackle Brandon Albert has submarined whatever improvements they had made in protection. In the four games since Albert was placed on IR, Tannehill has been sacked, hit or hurried on a whopping 42 percent of his dropbacks. That problem was particularly exploited by Baltimore last week, who sacked him six times while adding 7 more hits and 10 hurries.

Albert's injury means the rookie James will protect Tannehill's blindside
Albert's absence has pushed first round rookie Ju'Wuan James to left tackle, with Dallas Thomas sliding into James' former right tackle role. James was having an unremarkable rookie season at right tackle but has struggled to deal with the elite speed rushers he's faced on the left side, while Thomas has simply struggled throughout the season both in protection and as a run blocker. The interior of the line hasn't been much better, with Mike Pouncey struggling after returning from a hip injury to play out of position at right guard. Pouncey has been flanked by the ineffective Samson Setele at center and former Packer Daryn College at guard.

The opportunities should be there for the Pats to win one-on-one matchups up front. Time will tell whether this is the week Chandler Jones returns from his hip injury, but Akeem Ayers should be able to pick up the slack in creating some pressure from edge against Miami's overmatched tackles. Jamie Collins has been a terror blitzing up the middle this season, and his blitzing ability could wreak havoc on Miami's weak interior. The Pats have confused much more accomplished quarterbacks than Tannehill this year with their disguised pressure looks, and I'd expect that to continue on Sunday.

With that said, I do expect the Pats scheme to have some measures in place to account for Tannehill as a scrambler. I wouldn't expect many blitzes, at least by definition (five or more pass rushers). Rather, look for the Pats to try to create confusion as to where their four pass rushers will be coming from, with one of the remaining seven defenders accounting for Tannehill along with a shorter zone responsibility. Considering Rob Ninkovich's struggles in this kind of role against Green Bay, I'd hope these responsibilities wind up with a player whose physical skills are better suited for the role.

Tannehill has done a good job of limiting his interceptions this year, but the Dolphins as a whole have been a fumble prone team. Overall, they've let the ball hit the ground 21 times this year, and have been fortunate to lose only 9 of them. Tannehill (seven fumbles) and Landry (four) have been the main culprits, and ball security will certainly be something that the hard-hitting Pats defense tests on Sunday.

Miami defense

The lasting image from Miami's Week One win over the Pats was Cameron Wake and the rest of the Miami front seven repeatedly steamrolling the Patriots offensive line and hitting Tom Brady. That front seven and it's pass rushing ability remains the strength of this Dolphins unit and the biggest reason to fear this matchup as a Patriots fan.


Pats fans are all-too familiar with Wake's disruptive ability
The most impressive thing about Miami's imposing defensive line is it's versatility. Thanks to their impressive depth, the Dolphins can generate pressure from every spot on the line. They may be statistically led by superstar end Cameron Wake and his bookend, Oliver Vernon, who have combined for 17 sacks and five forced fumbles in another productive season, but interior players Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell and Randy Starks have all contributed to a pass rush that's already racked up an impressive 37 sacks.

Simply put, the Patriots need a bounce-back performance this week from an offensive line that has been inconsistent in back-to-back weeks. Sebastien Vollmer has been the Pats best lineman this season, and will be put to the test once again by Wake. On the other side, Nate Solder will have to play much better against Vernon, as he spent much of last week on his heels playing against Melvin Ingram.

The interior of the Patriots offensive line is probably the biggest difference between the team now and the group that trotted out there in Week One. Gone are both starting guards from Week One, Jordan Devey and Marcus Cannon, replaced by the far more effective Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell. This was made possible by the emergence of Bryan Stork at center, which solidified the line in enabling the team to get it's five best lineman on the field.

One thing that could help the Pats line against this dangerous Dolphins front could be a commitment to the run themselves. A lack of commitment to the run certainly hurt them back in September, when Miami's pass rushers were allowed to completely ignore the run (only 20 attempts) and pin their ears back rushing Tom Brady. The Dolphins have traditionally been amongst the league's best run defenses, but they've shown weakness in that area this year. After a strong start to the season, the Dolphins run defense has badly regressed, allowing opponents to rush for 4.4 yards per carry on them (28th in the league) for the season. Those numbers have particularly gotten bad during the past three weeks, as they've given up an average of 220 yards on the ground per game in that span.

Injuries have contributed to the fall of the Dolphins run defense. Linebackers Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins, first and second in snaps played at the position for the team, are both listed as doubtful for Sunday's tilt, leaving backups like Jason Trusnik and Jonathan Freeney in line for bigger roles come Sunday. Philip Wheeler is the one starter likely to play on Sunday, and his physical, downhill presence must be accounted for in the running game.

I wouldn't expect much of a change from the past few weeks as far as the Pats carries go. The coaching staff seems to think that LeGarrette Blount is their best running back (for the record, I agree with them) and have given him the majority of the work since signing him three weeks ago, with Jonas Gray getting the occasional carry to spell him and Shane Vereen relegated to more of a third down role. Expect that to remain their gameplan on Sunday, although more commitment to the run could mean more carries for Gray at some point.

Despite those recent struggles against the run, the Dolphins still rank amongst the league's top 10 in most defensive categories, including scoring defense (20 ppg, 7th overall) and total yards allowed (4248, 6th overall). Most of this is due to a stingy pass defense, with a good secondary complemented by their turnover producing pass rush. They've held opponents to a 61% completion percentage, which is actually a pretty good number for today's pass happy NFL, with a 5.5 net yards per attempt that ranks second in the league.

Grimes may be undersized, but his ball skills where on display during this highlight
In spite of this, there will be matchups in the secondary to exploit if the line manages to protect Brady this time. Starting corners Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan have been effective in coverage this year, but with both listed at 5'10", neither have the size to matchup with the 6'2" Brandon LeFell or 6'4" Tim Wright. Grimes does make up for his lack of size with excellent ball skills, as evidenced by his 5 interceptions, so Brady will have to be careful with the football when looking his way. Depth corners Jamar Taylor and R.J. Stanford can be exposed in coverage, and Brady will surely look to test them if they get in the game.

Like every other team in the league, the Dolphins don't have anyone who can match up with Rob Gronkowski. They do have Reshad Jones available this time, as the solid all-around safety was suspended for Week One's matchup, but asking even a good cover safety like Jones to simply cover Gronk one-on-one might as well be football suicide. A season ending knee injury to fellow starter Louis Delmas has pushed Jimmy Wilson into the starting strong safety role next to Jones, where he's struggled in coverage.

Special teams

Another week, another game in which the Patriots special teams give them a tangible edge over their opposition. They'll face a decent test in a Dolphins team that's been pretty solid on special teams across the board, even before getting gunner Dion Sims back from the Patriots a few weeks ago.

The most dangerous man on Miami's special team's units is the aforementioned Jarvis Landry, who has brought a spark to Miami's kick return game along with it's passing offense. Landry has averaged 29.6 yards a return this season, including a 74 yarder. He's been less effective on punt returns, where he's only averaged 8.3 yards a pop.

Miami's coverage teams have been less effective. They've allowed a solid 9.6 yards per punt return and 27.9 yards on kickoff returns, meaning that Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola could have some chances to swing the field position battle the Patriots way. The New England cold could help as well, as it will likely make it harder for kicker Caleb Sturgis to keep the ball away from them with touchbacks.

Both Sturgis and punter Brandon Fields have been solid in their respective roles this year. It is worth noting that Sturgis' accuracy drops dramatically on kicks beyond 40 yards, and has only made 66.7% of his kicks from that distance.

Other factors to watch:

Hat and T-shirt game

The Pats certainly have plenty on the line tomorrow, as a win will clinch the AFC East championship for the 13th time in Bill Belichick's 15 season's as head coach. Patriots players past and present will both tell you that nothing is more motivating than a "hat and t-shirt" game, and nothing is more satisfying than beating a hated division rival to punch your own ticket to the postseason. With their playoff future on the line, expect the Pats to come out firing.

Revenge is a dish best served cold

There's no way the Week One debacle won't be at least in the back of the Patriots' minds. This is a team that, despite it's "on to __" mentality, has proven time and time again to have a long memory when it comes to losses like that game. This is a team modeled after the ultra-competitive personalities of their head coach and quarterback, and there's no doubt that both Brady and Belichick would relish a chance to get some revenge on the team that got their season off to a dubious start. Playing in the comfy confines of Gillette Stadium, where the Pats are a perfect 6-0 this year, will certainly help, as will a predicted game temperature of 43 degrees that will likely feel much colder for a Miami team used to Florida weather.

Beware of the desperate opponent

Nothing makes an opponent more dangerous than desperation, and the Dolphins should be a desperate team heading into today's game. At 7-6, the Dolphins are in danger of falling out of the playoff picture with another loss, particularly with both Kansas City and Baltimore holding head-to-head tiebreakers over them. On the other hand, a win would vault the Fins right in the thick of the wild card mix, while still keeping their faint hopes at an upset run to the division title alive. With everything to gain and little to lose, the Dolphins are a team that could try anything to get an edge, so the Pats must be on their guard for whatever trickery might come their way.

Ned Brady 12/14/2014 12:04:00 PM Edit
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