Print and Go Back ESPN.com: ESPNBoston [Print without images]

Thursday, October 24, 2013
Another AFC East test for Patriots

By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday home game against the Miami Dolphins (CBS, 1 p.m. ET):

Mike: Tedy, we often spend a lot of time talking in the media about dynamic skill-position players, but I think this is a good week to highlight what happens when the offensive line crumbles. When looking at a common link between the Patriots and Dolphins, inconsistent play and struggles along the offensive line stand out. When things broke down for the Patriots in the third quarter of Sunday's loss to the Jets, breakdowns up front were the primary reason. When things broke down for the Dolphins in Sunday's home loss to the Bills, the breakdowns up front were the primary reason. It's like a foundation of a house; if you don't have that, not much else matters.

Tedy: I thought the Dolphins would win that game, especially being at home. They had a lot of early-season momentum, winning at Cleveland and then at Indianapolis. The win at Indy was impressive, especially now that we know how good of a team the Colts are. They beat Atlanta to improve to 3-0, but now it seems like this team is in a tailspin after three straight losses. Watching tape on them all year, it's easy to see why, especially offensively. They are having a tough time protecting Ryan Tannehill. He's a good young quarterback who has potential, but at times out there, he's running for his life. He has been sacked 26 times and hit 39 times.

Mike: They traded for Ravens offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie this week in hopes he can help. Left tackle Jonathan Martin was a second-round draft choice last year, and it doesn't look like the transition from Jake Long to him has been smooth. Tyson Clabo, the former Atlanta Falcon, looks overmatched at times at right tackle.

Tedy: They do have a quality center in Mike Pouncey, so one thing to watch is if the Dolphins take a similar approach to the Jets from last week and rely more on the inside running game. The Jets had 52 rushing attempts overall, 46 if you take away Geno Smith's six runs. In addition to Pouncey, left guard Richie Incognito is a guy who doesn't have a lot of skill, but he knows how to be nasty and I could see him using his veteran tricks to take advantage of the lack of experience on the Patriots' interior defensive line.

Mike: Let's step back for a moment and focus on the big picture. Earlier this year, many were pointing to the Dolphins as the team closest to the Patriots in the AFC East.

Tedy: They made a splash this offseason, trying to make a real push in the division with signings like receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes and trading up in the first round to the No. 3 overall pick to select outside linebacker/defensive end Dion Jordan. So if there was any team that had some offseason momentum going into this year, it was the Dolphins. But after losing their last three, they travel to New England to face the Patriots, which isn't an easy spot.

Ryan Tannehill
Ryan Tannehill has been sacked an NFL-high 26 times this season.

Mike: I was interested in that offseason approach because second-year coach Joe Philbin came out of the Green Bay system, which is less of a free-agent team and more of a build-through-the-draft team. So it's an interesting mix of philosophy between the head coach and his background and Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland.

Tedy: I've always believed football teams aren't bought. Football teams are built, especially when you need to lay a foundation down for when young players come in. Veteran players too; you hope they fit in with the players you already have, the mentality of the locker room, the chemistry of the locker room. Once you sign a player and pay him what he wants, does his motivation change? That's something you never can anticipate, if the player's goal in the NFL was to get a monetary reward. Do they want team rewards? Do they want to win championships? It's always interesting to see how a player acts and reacts after he gets his big contract. The same goes with rookies. You get a first-round pick. Was that their goal in college, to become a first-rounder, and do they feel like they've achieved something by not doing anything? I think the right approach is that you don't achieve anything by getting drafted; all you do is get an opportunity to play more football. But as we've seen, that's not the way everyone approaches it.

Mike: A lot of Patriots followers would have loved to see receiver Mike Wallace here in New England. What have you seen from him in Miami this year?

Tedy: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin might have been right when he said Wallace is a one-trick pony. I haven't seen any positive development in Mike Wallace as a route-runner or improvement in his hands. Is he a deep threat? Absolutely. Can he run a tear screen (quick receiver screen) just as well as anyone in the league? Yes, because he can make that easy catch and he has speed that allows him to run away from defenders. And will they give it to him on a reverse? Absolutely. He showed all of those things last week against the Bills. But when the Dolphins generally want to get the ball to a receiver when they're running in-cuts and slants and those tougher routes when you know you're going to be covered and the receiver is going to have to make a tough catch in traffic, the ball has been going to Brandon Gibson or Brian Hartline. With Wallace, he's a player that depends on his speed too much. He's used similarly to how he was utilized in Pittsburgh -- tear screens and deep balls -- and he's an average route-runner with average hands. Is he still the same player that went for eight catches for 136 yards with two touchdowns against the Patriots in 2010? He is. Does he still have the same ability that made Bill Belichick double-vise him at the end of that game, just like they had done with Tony Gonzalez a couple weeks ago? Yes. But in terms of the top five wide receivers in the game, he might be up there financially, but he's not on my list.

Mike: Strong stuff, Tedy. I wonder if part of what the Dolphins' invested in with Wallace was how his sheer presence would force defenses to account for him regardless of production. That speed has to be respected at all times. With that in mind, this is more of a passing offense than a grind-it-out running attack as they've transitioned from Reggie Bush to the tandem of bigger back Daniel Thomas and the smaller-but-quicker Lamar Miller.

Tedy: Still, I think they are two solid running backs. They like inside runs with two-back sets, and it seems like when they want to get outside in the running game, they have elements of the read option. Is Tannehill a real threat running the ball? Somewhat. I'd say you anticipate that more in the red area. They have run quarterback draws with him, quarterback sweeps off the read option, in that area of the field. In terms of Daniel Thomas, if you get him in 1-on-1 pass protection, that's a quarterback sack waiting to happen. He's been one of the main problems in pass protection for this team, as has Clabo, the right tackle. I'm not talking about small problems. These guys have been taken advantage of all year.

Mike: They lost one of their notable free-agent signings, tight end Dustin Keller, to season-ending injured reserve in August. But Charles Clay has given them good production at the position.

SportsNation

What's your prediction for Patriots-Dolphins?

  •  
    53%
  •  
    34%
  •  
    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 987)

Tedy: He seems to be a player that Tannehill relies on. He's that sneaky tight end, to the point where sometimes you almost say, "Man, we forgot about that guy" because you're thinking about Wallace, and Tannehill back there, and Hartline and Gibson. Clay needs to be accounted for. Wallace is leading the team with 54 targets (27 receptions). Then it's Hartline with 52 targets, 31 receptions. Gibson has 42 targets, 29 receptions. Then it's Clay with 34 targets and 24 receptions. He gets his looks.

Mike: We started this discussion focusing on the offensive line. Now let's look at the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Tedy: The games I've been watching this entire year, the Dolphins defensive line is a unit that has been making solid plays on a consistent basis. I know the Patriots' offensive line has gone against some of the best in the league in terms of the Bengals and the Jets, but the combination of Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Paul Soliai makes the Dolphins real solid on the interior. They do a great job getting their hands on offensive linemen and driving them back in the quarterback's lap, or doing a good job of playing the run, staying square, and having the ability to get off blocks. They have made plays all year in the backfield against teams that have tried to run the ball against them. So I've seen them two-gap well, make tackles for losses, bull rush, bat down balls, and rag-doll guys at times. And that's before mentioning Cameron Wake, who has been injured and has 2.5 sacks, and the threat he is off the edge. This is a solid front.

Mike: The entire AFC East has strong defensive lines, which was a point brought up to Bill Belichick on Wednesday. He pointed out the high number of first-round picks in the division at the position. It highlights the challenge ahead for the Patriots' offensive line.

Tedy: Elsewhere on the Dolphins' defense, the linebackers and defensive backs are capable of getting the job done. Reshad Jones shows up at safety. One thing you see at times is a double-A gap package, where the linebackers get into those gaps and one can rush, one can drop, they both can rush, there could be a pass-rush game inside with the defensive lineman, or they drop out and play zone coverage. The main goal is to affect the protection calls of the offensive line.

Mike: That could put some extra pressure on Patriots center Ryan Wendell, who is coming off a tough game against the Jets. This scheme has some similarities to what the Patriots saw in their 13-6 loss to the Bengals, as the Dolphins' defensive coordinator, Kevin Coyle, came from Cincinnati.

Tedy: Coyle has shown multiple looks all year long. Just last week versus Buffalo, cornerback Dimitri Patterson had a sack, safety Reshad Jones had a sack, defensive end Olivier Vernon had a sack, and defensive tackle Randy Starks had a sack. So when you see a cornerback, safety, defensive end and defensive tackle all getting production rushing the quarterback, that's when you know the defensive coordinator is complex at who he is sending after the quarterback. Look at the stats, right down the line, and it reflects that. They'll bring in Dion Jordan, the rookie out of Oregon, and to me it looks like he still needs to figure a few things out. He's really raw, a tall athletic guy. Not the most physical. He has ability and I think while he's still figuring things out, Coyle is figuring out how to best utilize his talent.

Mike: On special teams, which we saw last week can play a big role in determining the outcome of a game, Dolphins punter Brandon Fields ranks first in the NFL in both average (49.9) and net (44.1). We'll see if that limits dangerous returner Julian Edelman.

Tedy: Overall, I think this can be a legitimate dangerous team. While they've lost three in a row, I know Bill Belichick will walk into meetings this week and point out that while they haven't won a few games in a row, they went to Indianapolis and won. We've seen what Indianapolis has done since, beating San Francisco, Seattle and Denver. So this Dolphins team is capable of playing very good football. They just haven't in the last three weeks. If the Dolphins win this, it would further tighten things in the AFC East. You have to respect this team and what that means.

Mike: Let's make our predictions. From the hold-yourself-accountable department, I am 0 for the last 4 predicting Patriots games. Looks like that could be good news for the Dolphins. Patriots 23, Dolphins 17.

Tedy: Mike Wallace may not be even close to Calvin Johnson, but the Patriots should be wary of the deep threat. The Patriots defense will account for him and take advantage of the suspect pass protection that Ryan Tannehill has had to deal with all year. This offense will start to develop even more in Week 2 of TE Rob Gronkowski's return. It will still be won in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots pull it out. Patriots 28, Dolphins 24.