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Thursday, November 29, 2012
Three-point stance: Dolphins

By John Parolin, ESPN Stats & Information

Week 13 brings the first meeting between the Dolphins and Patriots of the season, the latest they’ve met for the first time in 15 years.

DolphinsDan Marino tied a career high with 60 attempts in a 27-24 Patriots win in Week 13 of 1997, the last time these teams met for the first time this late. Marino threw three interceptions in that game, with Larry Whigham and Jimmy Hitchcock returning two for touchdowns. There was only one touchdown pass that afternoon, with bonus points available for identifying the duo responsible for that 35-yard connection.

This edition of the Dolphins features Ryan Tannehill, the latest in a long line of quarterbacks that Fins fans have hoped would fill Marino’s shoes. Like most rookie quarterbacks (and the rest of the Dolphins), Tannehill has had ups and downs this season.

Here are three areas to watch for when the Dolphins host the Patriots on Sunday afternoon:

1. Rookie QB: At times this season, Tannehill has looked every bit the first-round pick he was in April’s NFL Draft. Teams tried to blitz Tannehill early in the season, and he faced at least five rushers on 16.7 dropbacks per game through his first four games. After Tannehill threw for 298 yards against added pressure (and 431 yards total) in a Week 4 loss to the Cardinals, teams have sent added rushers on only 8.0 dropbacks per game. Tannehill has been poor when defenses sit back in coverage, with a 56.7 completion percentage against four or fewer rushers, which ranks 32nd out of 34 qualified quarterbacks. The Patriots send four or fewer rushers on 82.7 percent of dropbacks, the second-highest percentage in the league. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is not generally kind to rookies, either: Rookie quarterbacks are 4-11 in 15 starts against the Patriots in the Belichick era, though they have won two of the last three.

2. Pressure defense: The Dolphins’ defense has been aggressive this season. Miami has sent at least five rushers on 40.9 percent of dropbacks, second highest in the league. It will be interesting to see if the Dolphins adjust their strategy, given Tom Brady’s success against extra pressure. Brady has thrown 14 touchdowns and no interceptions this season against added pressure, both numbers the best in the league. Though the Dolphins haven’t been shy about committing extra defenders to the rush, consistent production has been lacking from individual players other than Cameron Wake. He has 5.5 sacks with added pressure, third most in the league, while no teammate has at least two. The Dolphins have had sacks every 15.3 dropbacks with added pressure (19th in NFL), and neutralizing Wake should keep Brady upright Sunday.

3. Stopping the rush: The Patriots are likely to throw too, given the relative strength of Miami’s rushing defense. The Dolphins have allowed 3.7 yards per rush this season, fifth best in the league. No defense has allowed fewer first downs on the ground than Miami, an area of strength for the Patriots and Stevan Ridley in particular. Ridley’s 61 total first downs is one behind Arian Foster for the league lead, and only Andre Brown (34.2 percent) has a higher first-down percentage of his rushes than Ridley (29.6 pct). The front seven has been excellent at winning the line of scrimmage and diagnosing run quickly, as Miami’s 2.07 yards before contact allowed ranks fourth in the NFL and trails only the Vikings, Eagles and Buccaneers.