3TFO: Dolphins @ Patriots, Week 17
All eyes will be on the Patriots here, as the outcome of this game, and a couple of others, will finally set in stone the top seeding in the AFC. Depending on those games, New England could end up with home-field advantage throughout (with a win and losses by Houston and Denver) or fall all the way to the fourth seed (a loss coupled with a Baltimore win). In a turn of events, the Patriots have looked vulnerable as of late, needing a fourth-quarter interception to finally put away the Jaguars last week. Don’t be fooled though, this is the same team that won seven in a row in the middle of the season.
Miami started the season as a contender for the first overall draft pick in 2013. However, the general populace had underestimated the talent on the Dolphins’ roster. They won’t be making the playoffs this year, but fans of the NFL’s southern-most team can be happy with the young talent they have, especially at the most important position. With that, let’s look at what the Dolphins will need to do to play spoiler to the rival Patriots and record their first non-losing season since 2008.
Sebastian Vollmer vs. Cameron Wake
While Tom Brady gets most of the credit for New England’s offensive success, recognition must be given to the offensive line, which has allowed pressure on their signal-caller on only 25.5% of passing plays, the second-best percentage in the league. Arguably the best pass protector on the team, Sebastian Vollmer is well on the way for his fourth straight year with a grade in the green.
Incidentally, Vollmer’s worst game this year by far came during his Week 13 trip to Miami, where he gave up two sacks and over one-fifth of his year-long pressure total. It’s hardly surprising, though, considering he saw an awful lot of Cameron Wake. Wake tallied two sacks that day, but that’s hardly the only damage he’s done this season — he’s been responsible for 86 pressures this year, more than any other player. He’s a consistent force too. While some pass rushers rack up huge numbers on weak tackles but do little else, Wake has recorded three or more pressures in all but one game this year. Getting to Brady is paramount for the Dolphins, as he’s completed just 39.7 percent of his passes under duress this season.
Forcing an Imbalance
Like most teams with a dangerous passer, New England’s offense is most potent when it has a solid running game to back it up. Snaps at tailback for the Patriots have been relatively spread out this year between Stevan Ridley (528) and Danny Woodhead (396), but this running back by committee approach is a bit misleading. Woodhead is used more frequently in passing situations, having carried the ball just 73 times this year (18.4% of his snaps) compared to the 270 carries of Ridley (51.1% of his snaps). And while Ridley doesn’t have the same name recognition of a lot of AFC running backs, he’s forced 26 missed tackles on rushes, more than guys like Arian Foster and Ray Rice.
Unfortunately for him, Miami’s linebacker troupe is one of the best in the business at shutting down the run. Karlos Dansby has 40 stops in the run game, while teammate Kevin Burnett isn’t far behind with 37 of his own, more than all but three other OLBs. They’ve been sure tacklers against the run too, failing on a tackle just nine times combined. To put that in perspective, eight different linebackers have tied or bested that total by themselves.
Mike Pouncey vs. Vince Wilfork
Snubbed by Pro Bowl voters yet again because of the hype surrounding his brother, Mike Pouncey’s week gets even worse as he will go up against one of the best defensive tackles of the past decade in Vince Wilfork. Centers aren’t known for having a lot of difficulty in pass protection, but Pouncey has taken that one step further, conceding just four quarterback disruptions on the year. He’s been an equally dominant run blocker — helping with defensive tackles before finding his way to the second level and engaging with linebackers. He’ll see quite a bit of Wilfork, who has somehow played 82% of New England’s defensive snaps. In that time, he’s registered 25 defensive stops on running plays. He isn’t much of a threat rushing the passer, though he has done a good job getting his hands up (four batted passes). Winning this battle will go a long way toward the success of Miami’s offense, so a dominant game from Pouncey against a big name like Wilfork may be just what’s needed for him to get the recognition he deserves.