Safety Devin McCourty needs to improve on his performance he had in Miami last January (photo source: bostonglobe.com)
In retrospect, it's fair to say the writing was on the wall after last January's 20-10 loss at Miami last season. In preparation for the playoffs, the Patriots tried to impose their will on the Dolphins by running the ball in the first half, but failed to execute the plan. In fact, after they wasted 30 minutes experimenting with a preseason-like gameplan, they found themselves trailing 10-3 at halftime. Although an early third-quarter-great catch and run by James White set up a one-yard touchdown by Stephen Jackson, the Patriots never crossed midfield again. The Patriots played poorly on both sides of the ball in the second half and they squandered home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Knowing another playoff showdown in Denver was imminent, only an unrealistic fan had to like their chances of repeating as Super Bowl champs.
The Dolphins played a tough-physical game in Seattle last week and battered Russell Wilson with 3 sacks and 9 QB hits. While the personnel has changed somewhat, their defensive performance was reminiscent of the beating they delivered to Tom Brady during their last meeting. The Patriots need to make sure they focus on a few key areas if they want to avoid a rare-Foxborough loss vs. their South Beach rivals.
1. Offensive line needs to be physical: Like in the Arizona game, the offensive line doesn't need to be dominant, but rather competitive. Last week, the group lost some battles in the trenches but it won just enough to open some running lanes for the Patriots backs and Julian Edelman end arounds. If they perform like they did in Miami last year, the team doesn't have much of a chance of putting many points on the board.
2. Contain Ryan Tannehill for 60 minutes: Tannehill sealed the game himself last January when the team was protecting a 17-10 lead when he rushed for 19 yards. This was one of many mental lapses in the game by the defense and they can't allow that to happen on 3rd and long. Over his career, when Tannehill is sealed in the pocket and is forced to hold the ball, he tends to make poor decisions. Since Dont'a Hightower is doubtful for the game, it's unlikely the Patriots can dedicate Jamie Collins to be a spy since he'll be assuming a lot of the tackling duties Hightower usually does so its going to fall on the Patriots defensive line to create an arc-shaped shield around Tannehill so he can't escape the pocket.
3. LeGarrette Blount/James White need to be factors. The Patriots two headed monster needs to duplicate its effort it gave in Glendale last week. Blount had some powerful runs and showed some of the burst and power he had two seasons ago. Blount needs to break a few tackles and run hard in some short yardage situations to move the sticks and tire out the defense. White needs to continue his development, mostly as a receiving back, by making tough catches over the middle, picking up the blitz, and side-stepping defenders to pick up nice chunks of yardage. He is starting to look more and more like Dion Lewis, which is a wonderful thing.
4. Tackling. In their last meeting, despite modest success, the Dolphins remained committed to the running game. Although they were a poor rushing team all season, they ground out 34 plays for 96 yards, which was enough to keep the Patriots front worried about the run. Some poor tackling against both the run and the pass hurt them at times, especially on plays outside the numbers. Against Arizona, besides flailing on one long run by David Johnson, the Patriots did a great job in tackling. It will be key for the Patriots not to allow Miami to control the ball and the clock like they did last January. Without Hightower, one of their best tacklers, Jonathan Freeny will have play physical and perhaps Elandon Roberts will get first professional chance to show that he's the tackling machine he was in college at Houston.
5. Defending over the top: In the loss last year, DeVante Parker absolutely killed the Patriots secondary. He outflanked Devin McCourty (and stared him down . . . great bulletin board material for this game) on the first TD on a flag route. McCourty was tardy to react as Parker slipped in front of him at the soft part of the zone at the goal line. But really, on a 2nd and 10 at the 15 yard line, why were the Patriots in a zone with just 37 seconds left in the half?
Parker again killed them when Tannehill, under heavy pressure from Sheard, threw a deep prayer to the 15 yard line. Parker used his size advantage to outjump Logan Ryan for the 46 yard reception. Ryan really defended the play well but he just didn't have the stilts to make the play. The real problem again was McCourty, who was slow to get into position to even attempt to make a play on the ball.
Prediction: Despite Belichick's obvious distaste for last January's dud and his apparent attempt to motivate the Patriots into punishing the Dolphins, look for a difficult grind on Sunday. The Patriots will struggle to move the ball offensively but the defense will stop the run and Tannehill, forcing the visitors to move the ball down the field in small chunks. Miami will show heart but some stupid penalties along the way and a late strip sack by Long will seal the game for the home team. Patriots 17, Dolphins 13.
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