After a quiet start, the big money acquisition of the destructive Suh is paying dividends
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. The Patriots have a quick turnaround this week, as they host the suddenly surging Miami Dolphins on Thursday Night Football. Left for dead after a listless 1-3 start that got head coach Joe Philbin fired, the Dolphins have won their first two games under interim coach Dan Campbell in impressive fashion. While the level of competition in those games has to be taken into consideration, Campbell has made some prudent adjustments to the team's game day strategy. The team has responded and is playing with a palpable energy, and could really propel a surprising run to playoffs (don't laugh until you look at the AFC standings) with a upset of their hated rivals. Without further ado, here's a look at the new look Miami Dolphins
Campbell has made plenty of changes in his short tenure, but an argument can be made that none have been as beneficial as the team's new-found dedication to it's running game. The offense sputtered during their putrid September, averaging just 16.2 points per game, and a lack of offensive balance was a clear culprit for this. During that stretch, the Fins ran 171 passing plays against just 65 rushing attempts, good for an average 42/16 ratio. With lead back Lamar Miller getting under 10 carries a game, teams were able to focus on suffocating Miami's short passing game.
Things have changed since the bye week. Miller got a healthy 19 carries in the first game of the Campbell era, turning them into 113 yards and a touchdown. He was even better last week, ripping off an 85 yard touchdown en route to a 14 carry, 175 yard day before sitting out most of the second half of Miami's blowout win. He also turned a routine screen pass into a 54 yard touchdown.
When Miller runs well, the Dolphins are tough to stop
Those numbers shouldn't be a surprise, as Miller has been a highly productive back since joining the Fins as a fourth round pick in 2012. Miller is strong enough to run between the tackles and fast enough to finish big plays once he gets a gap, but his best skill is his uncanny patience and vision. Few mention Miller as one of the game's top backs, but he sneakily has averaged 4.8 yards per carry for his career. It's also a number that becomes more impressive when factoring in that he's never had a particularly good offensive line blocking for him.
The previous regime's stubborn refusal to turn to the ground game looks even sillier when taking a look at the statistics. The Dolphins rank first in the league in yards per carry (5.3) and 29th in rushing attempts per game (22). It's mind boggling that it took a coaching change to turn to an obvious strength on the team, but better late than never, as Miller and old friend Jonas Gray have teamed up to add a smash-mouth element to the Dolphins offense.
Establishing Miller on the ground would do wonders for the Dolphins this week. Forcing the Pats to commit extra bodies to the box will only open things up for their passing game, which relies heavily on short passes and generating yards after the catch. It would also prevent the Patriots pass rushers from being able to tee off on a mediocre pass blocking offensive line.
That line has shown some improvement over past seasons, but still is a weak spot on the offense. The key for them has been having a healthy Brandon Albert, who is rock solid at left tackle. Albert also allows last year's first round pick, Ju'Wuan James, to stay at right tackle, which is a far better fit for his skill-set. They combine with Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey to give Miami 3/5ths of a good offensive line.
The problem has been the other two spots, as both guard positions have been problem spots all year. 2013 third round pick Dallas Thomas has improbably held on to his starting job at left guard despite being one of the worst starters in football last year. On the other side, struggling rookie Jamil Douglas was benched over the bye week in favor of 2014 third rounder Billy Turner, who has at least brought some nastiness in the running game. Given how quickly quarterback Ryan Tannehill typically gets rid of the ball, getting pressure quickly will be imperative. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats move Dominique Easley, their most explosive interior rusher, around to take advantage of those two guards. Chandler Jones could also see some snaps inside on passing downs as well, with rookie Trey Flowers likely to get some reps on the edge with Jabaal Sheard ruled out.
Getting pressure on Tannehill is key, as he tends to break down and make disastrous mistakes when hassled by the rush. When he has a clean pocket to work with, Tannehill is an efficient game manager who can effectively dink and dunk his way down the field. Despite having some arm strength to work with, he struggles with accuracy when asked to push the ball down the field. Tannehill is also very mobile, and the Dolphins will take advantage his ability to throw on the run with bootlegs and other plays that "move the pocket".
The Fins are highly reliant on Landry's playmaking ability in the passing game
The best of Tannehill's receivers is Jarvis Landry, a slot maestro whose combination of speed and explosive quickness make him a nasty assignment in open space. He's a natural matchup for Malcolm Butler, who had trouble at times last week dealing with the size and physicality of Eric Decker. Watching two of these team's most fluid athletes go at it should be a battle to behold on Thursday, with Butler's strong open field tackling being key to limiting Landry's ability to generate yards after the catch. The fact that Landry has 21 more targets than anyone else on this team illustrates just how much they rely on him to make plays, something that suggests limiting him will be a high priority for the defense. The Pats will also have to stay aware of him on end around and other designed rushes, as the Dolphins try to maximize his opportunities to make plays in the open field (Landry has at least one rushing attempt in every game this season).
Despite some hyped offseason additions, it's been roster holdover Rishard Matthews who's stepped up and claimed the starting role next to Landry in two receiver sets. At 6'0" and 212 pounds, Matthews boasts an impressive size/speed combination that has made him the teams best downfield and red zone threat. Through six games, he's already doubled his previous career high with a team leading 4 touchdowns, and he also paces the Fins in receiving yards (438) and yards per reception (16.8) while catching an impressive 74.3% of his targets. As the bigger, more physical starting receiver, he figures to get a lot of Logan Ryan, who has been playing the best football of his career since moving up to a starting role.
The third receiver is Kenny Stills, who despite his youth and talent has yet to seize a consistent role in Miami. Still is at his best when allowed to stretch the field, something that Miami doesn't particularly do much on offense. As a result, Stills has only seen 18 targets all season, turning them into 10 catches for 147 yards (14.7 per catch) and a touchdown. He's still a more dynamic option than the plodding Greg Jennings, who is no more than an inefficient possession receiver at this point in his career. Miami also has DeVante Parker, their uber talented first round pick from this spring, waiting in the wings, but Parker has yet to earn consistent snaps after missing most of the offseason with an injured foot.
Another key target for Tannehill is tight end Jordan Cameron. Despite staying healthy, Cameron hasn't made the impact expected from him so far in his Miami career. In fact, he's been woefully inefficient, catching just 17 passes despite getting fed 7 or more targets in four of their six games. Still, defenses must account for his undeniable talent in the passing game, as he's a big, athletic target with a massive catch radius. As they did with the Colts Coby Fleener, the Pats will likely treat Cameron like a big receiver, with Devin McCourty a candidate to see some coverage snaps on him. After playing a season low 7 snaps against the Jets, it could be another week with a heavy workload for Duron Harmon, whose trustworthiness as a deep safety frees up McCourty to be used on specific assignments like Cameron when necessary.
Discipline will be key for the defense this Sunday. The mobility of Tannehill is always a threat, as the former collegiate receiver has the wheels to hurt you if presented with an opening. Tannehill's ability to break outside the pocket and extend plays is always a challenge as well, and something that will likely lead to a controlled rush approach on the edges. The Dolphins will test the Patriots discipline in other ways as well, be it with reverses to Landry or the screen game, which both Landry and Miller excel in.
The defense has also gone through a drastic turnaround since Campbell ascended to head coach and embattled defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. Under Coyle, the Dolphins were running a two-gapping system that failed to get the best out of their considerable talent on the defensive line. Since he was replaced by Lou Amarumo, they've allowed those linemen to penetrate gaps and create disruption, and the results have spoken for themselves. In the four games under Philbin, the Fins allowed an average of 160.5 yards per game on the ground and managed just one sack. In the two games since then, they've allowed a stingy average of just 67 yards per game on the ground while piling up 10 sacks. They've also forced 5 fumbles during those two games.
Wake has made life tough on Brady before
Sometimes football is as simple as putting your best players in position to make plays, and Amarumo has unleashed the deadly duo of Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. Seemingly disinterested during the season's first month, Suh has been revitalized by the philosophical switch and is playing with the same reckless abandon that made him a force to be reckoned with in Detroit. Likewise, Wake has rediscovered his form as one of the league's premier edge rushers, racking up all six of his sacks in the last two weeks. Wake is particularly troublesome because of his tendency to line up on the defensive left side, where he'll be matched up with recent practice squad call-up Cameron Fleming. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Pats keep big Michael Williams on that side of the formation to help the slow-footed Fleming in that matchup.
Those two are tough enough to block, but the Dolphins can compliment them with a deep group of supporting players on the defensive line. Olivier Vernon is rock solid as Wake's bookend on the other edge, with Derrick Shelby offering his capable services off the bench when either starter needs a breather. The interior rotation is deep too, with the rock solid Earl Mitchell joining Suh in the starting lineup. The rotation also includes Jordan Phillips, a freakishly talented second round pick from this spring, and productive veteran CJ Mosely, formerly of the Lions.
Linebacker was question mark going into the season, but Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins have blossomed into one of the league's best starting duos this season. Misi has been a fixture in this defense as a run stuffing thumper since his rookie year, but his breakthrough season in 2015 has him the sixth highest rated linebacker in the league by ProFootballFocus. Jenkins, a 2013 fourth rounder, emerged as a productive starter last season and has built on that success this year. He's certainly the better coverage player of the two, and will likely factor into the Fins plans to handle either Dion Lewis or James White out of the backfield. Veteran Kelvin Sheppard has also been productive in the base defense, ranking sixth on the team in tackles despite coming off the field in nickel situations.
Grimes compensates for a lack of size with elite ball skills
The Dolphins secondary remains quite a mixed bag, boasting two elite players in corner Brent Grimes and safety Reshad Jones, but average to mediocre players elsewhere on the depth chart. The undersized Grimes has been his usual stalwart self at left corner, with his two picks demonstrating the ball skills that make testing his coverage a risky proposition. The back end of the defense benefits greatly from the playmaking Jones, who is big and physical enough to excel as a run defender but agile enough to also be an asset in coverage. Jones is currently PFF's fourth highest rated safety in 2015.
It's the rest of the secondary that Brady should look to attack. The Dolphins are hoping to get starter Brice McCain back this week after he missed last week's win with a knee injury. McCain is listed as questionable after limited participation in practice and his availability could be key, as he's probably the Dolphins best option to guard the slot. Even if he does play, McCain has hardly shown the form he showed last year with the Steelers in 2015. If he suits up, expect Julian Edelman and the red hot Danny Amendola to test how healthy that knee really is early and often.
If McCain can't go, it will mean more snaps for 2013 second round pick Jamar Taylor, who comes in on the outside and bumps McCain to the slot in nickel situations when the group is healthy. Taylor has been a disappointment relative to his draft status, and his play this year has not demanded the starting role he was drafted to take over. Another missed game for McCain would also mean a bigger role for fifth round rookie Bobby McCain, who was the third corner in his absence against the Texans last week.
One thing to watch this week is the Dolphins lack of size on the outside. If both play, the starting duo of Grimes (listed questionably at 5'10") and McCain (5'9") is one of the shortest duos in the league. The rookie McCain is another undersized corner at 5'10". Taylor brings a little more size at 5'11", but he'll still be physically mismatched against Brandon LaFell, who could find this a good week to knock off the evident rust from the Jets game and assert a role in the offense. Fourth receiver Keshawn Martin is unlikely to go with a hamstring injury, which opens up a potential role for Aaron Dobson. He could have opportunities to use his size to his advantage in the snaps he does get.
As good as Jones has been, he's the type of safety that's at his best attacking rather than playing deep and covering up the miscues of his corners. That free safety role is manned by Walt Aikens, last year's fourth round pick and a college cornerback. Aikens has talent, but he's still unproven on the back-end after playing just 64 defensive snaps as a rookie last year (Patriots fans will best remember him for being the guy Tom Brady lowered a shoulder into and subsequently jawed with in last year's Week 15 contest). Third year man Michael Thomas has also shouldered some of the load at free safety, although Aikens appears to secured his place atop the depth chart.
The key for the Pats here will be limiting the opportunities for Landry, whose open field agility make him a constant threat on both punts and kickoffs. The strong leg of Stephen Gostkowski will be key to keeping the ball away from him on kickoffs, but containing him on punts will require a total team effort: strong directional punting from Ryan Allen and good play from a punt coverage team that is once again amongst the league's best. They are certainly capable of emerging unscathed, but Landry looms as one of this unit's biggest challenges of the season.
Elsewhere, the Dolphins special teams are merely average. The punt and kick coverage teams have given up poor averages of 9.2 and 26.7 yards per return. Rookie kicker Andrew Franks has been solid on field goals, making 5 of 6 attempts, but he's already missed two extra points. A bright spot has been rookie punter Matt Darr, who has had just under half of his punts returned while averaging a booming 48.3 yards per boot.
Through two games, interim coach Dan Campbell has pushed all the right buttons. He clearly has his players playing with a lot more passion and energy, and a few common-sense scheme adjustments have clearly played a role in the team's drastic turnaround.
However, getting the guys to play hard and using your personnel correctly are the easy parts of the job. This week, he's matching wits with Bill Belichick, whose innate attention to detail and preparation often plays a palpable role in his team's unprecedented run of success. As it always does, the coaching edge goes to Belichick in this one.
It will be interesting to see how emotion and momentum play a role in this one. The Dolphins are understandably riding high after their past two big wins. Playing New England is always a big game for these guys, as it's a chance to beat the team that has dominated their division over the past 15 years, but this year carries extra motivation as an opportunity to prove that their turnaround has been legit and their offseason hype as legitimate playoff contenders was deserved. Playing the Patriots tough and taking the game down to the wire, as the Jets did last week, will earn league-wide respect and bolster confidence. If things go south early, it will be interesting to see how a team that couldn't even pretend to give a damn just three short weeks ago responds on the road.