A recent article, written by ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss, regarding the road woes of the New England Patriots got me thinking about what Monday Night’s game against the Dolphins means to the Patriots.
The Dolphins are certainly a formidable opponent. The way that they have been playing so far this season, they may even contend for the AFC East title. The only road game so far this season has been against the Jets, where the Pats put up a stinker and got smoked 28-14. Their road woes last season are well documented, with their only road win coming against Buffalo (they beat Tampa as a road team but that was at a neutral site in London). The Patriots success this season hinders largely on their ability to win games on the road. Failing to do that might allow them to sneak into the playoffs, but lasting will be a daunting challenge. What to look for: How the Pats fair on the road against a good team.
The Miami Dolphins rank 18th in the NFL in total yardage per game (319.3), 22nd in points per game (17.3), 18th in passing yards per game (207.3), and 16th in rushing yards per game (112). On the surface, those numbers don’t look very scary. But, considering that out of their first three games, the Dolphins played the Jets in week 3 and the Vikings in week 2 (two of the league’s better defenses), those numbers may be poised to rise. What am I worried about? Last week against the Jets, granted Revis wasn’t playing, but Chad Henne put up 363 yards with two touchdowns. He was playing against the same defense that limited Tom Brady to just 248 yards! I’m not saying that Miami’s passing attack is to be feared, but can Devin McCourty cover Brandon Marshall? Can Darius Butler or Kyle Arrington cover anyone? What to look for: How the Pats’ pass defense holds up against a decent Miami passing attack.
As I mentioned before, the Miami Dolphins’ running game averages a mediocre 112.0 yards per game. But, the Patriots allowed the lowly Bills to rack up 139 yards on the ground (although I thought the rush defense played better than the numbers suggest). The Ronnie Brown-Ricky Williams combination needs to be an area of focus for this defense on Monday night. In my opinion, it is time for Vince Wilfork to take a game over. Nose tackles are rarely called upon to make plays, with their primary responsibility being to take up blocks. Although, throughout Vince’s career he has shown the ability to penetrate and break plays up in the backfield. With such a young defense behind him, Wilfork needs to be a disruptive force on Monday night, allowing Mayo, Guyton, and Spikes to use their athleticism to make plays. Also, Jermaine Cunningham and Tully Banta-Cain need to do a better job of setting the edge. Allowing plays to get outside of them negates the strength of the 3-4 defense. What to look for: How the Pats front seven stack up against a top rushing attack.
Last week, the Jets recorded only two sacks against the Dolphins. Two sacks may not seem like a lot, but getting crushed twice may shorten the “clock” in Henne’s head. The best way to help your secondary is by putting pressure on the quarterback. The Patriots are tied for 18th in the league with five sacks so far, so putting pressure on the QB isn’t their strong suit. What has surprised me though has been the defensive lines ability to flush the quarterback out of the pocket. Usually, a 3-4 defensive line is known mostly for taking up blocks, not really pressuring the quarterbacks; leaving that up to the outside linebackers. This season, Gerard Warren, Wilfork, and a combination of Ron Brace and Mike Wright have done a good job getting the quarterback out of the pocket; the rest of the team just has yet to finish the play on a consistent basis. I am very encouraged that both Ron Brace and Jermaine Cunningham started last week. That gives the Pats a bit more athleticism at the defensive end and outside linebacker spots respectively. What to look for: How Tully Banta-Cain and Jermaine Cunningham step up and make plays when needed.
The Patriots have a lot to prove on Monday night. The result of this one game will be a good barometer for what to expect from this team for the remainder of the season. If they come out and play like they did against the Jets, than the road woes continue, the pressure heightens, and a deep playoff run will be unlikely. If they come out and play like we all believe they are capable of playing (led by the offense; supplemented by the defense), than the Pats are looking at a 3-1 start with hopes rising for the rest of the season. My belief is that Tom Brady knows what this game means (see Reiss’ article to prove that) and he will be doing all he can against a young Miami secondary to ensure a victory for his team.