3TFO: Dolphins @ Patriots, Week 8
Expectations were high for the Miami Dolphins at the outset of the 2013 season, and those expectations only increased after a 3-0 start that included impressive victories over Indianapolis and Atlanta. A blowout loss to the Saints on Monday Night Football sent the team into a tailspin however, and the Dolphins have lost their last three games. One major positive for Miami has been the excellent play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who ranks eighth at his position with a +9.0 passing grade. A win in New England on Sunday would be just what the team needs to turn their season around.
While the Patriots overtime loss in New York last weekend will be best remembered for its controversial finish, New England did not play well enough to win. Unlike Miami, New England is likely worried about the play of its quarterback. For Tom Brady (-4.2), the sample size is now too large to ignore as he is having his worst season in recent memory. Some of the team’s offensive struggles can certainly be attributed to the massive turnover at receiver and injuries to key players, but Brady has not helped matters by consistently missing open receivers. Brady’s Accuracy Percentage (adjusted for dropped passes, throwaways and spikes) ranks 27th among qualifying QB’s, a shocking figure for a player known for his precise passing.
Dolphins Offensive Line vs. Patriots Defensive Line
Miami’s offensive line has been highly ineffective this season to say the least. With Jake Long (+10.0) playing well in St. Louis, while Mike Wallace (-4.2) is being outplayed by Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, one wonders if the Dolphins wish they had spent their money differently this offseason. Every starter on Miami’s line has a negative run blocking grade, and the group has not fared much better in pass protection. This is a team that team ranks 25th in Pass Blocking Efficiency. Tyson Clabo (-13.4) has been the worst offender, and his play has been so poor that the team opted to trade for benched Ravens tackle Bryant McKinnie this week. McKinnie outplayed Clabo in terms of pass protection so far this season, though this was hardly a massive improvement.
The Patriots have to be pleased with the improvement that Joe Vellano showed last week. Matched up against one of the league’s premier centers in Nick Mangold, Vellano had the best game of his young career and was named the starting nose tackle on our PFF Team of the Week. Chandler Jones has eight sacks already, and ranks 10th among 4-3 defensive ends in Pass Rushing Productivity. Outside of Jones, pressure has been tough to come by for the Patriots, especially with Tommy Kelly still recovering from injury. This would explain this week’s signing of DE Andre Carter, who was excellent for the team in way back in 2011. Carter’s signing does not bode well for the future prospects of 2012 third round pick Jake Bequette, who has played just 14 snaps this year.
Patriots Offensive Line vs. Dolphins Defensive Line
New England’s offensive line has done a decent job of protecting Brady this season (ranking 11th in PBE), but they have not been able to create the kind of movement in the running game that we have seen from them in the past. Nate Solder (+18.9) has been phenomenal, and is our highest graded tackle of 2013. Logan Mankins has been solid, earning a +5.0 grade, but the team would greatly benefit from a return to the dominant form that we have come to expect from Mankins, especially as a run blocker. Ryan Wendell was our highest graded center last year, dominating in the run game, though he struggled in protection. This year has been a different story though, as Wendell has been pushed around in all facets of the game to the tune of a -7.5 grade. Rob Gronkowski is the most dominant blocking tight end in the game when healthy, so the team’s blocking should improve as he gets back into game shape.
The interior of the offensive line is the weakest spot on the Patriots offense, which could spell trouble this week. Miami boasts one of the best defensive tackle rotations in the NFL. The trio of Randy Starks (+16.8), Jared Odrick (+11.4) and Paul Soliai (+10.9) each rank in the top 11 in our cumulative grades at that position. Soliai excels in run defense, ranking sixth among his position in Run Stop Percentage, while Starks and Odrick rank first and sixth among defensive tackles in PRP, respectively. With Cameron Wake working his way back from injury, and rookie Dion Jordan still not a major part of the game plan, another strong effort from Miami’s defensive interior is the team’s best chance of disrupting New England’s offense this week.
Containing Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski played for the first time in 2013 last week, and the results were highly encouraging. The tight end was used far more as a receiver (39 snaps) than as a run blocker (12 snaps), but earned positive grades in both areas, and finished the day with a +2.6 overall grade. Gronkowski was targeted a whopping 17 times, as the Patriots made it clear that they will waste no time getting him involved in the passing attack. His 30 yard catch down the seam in the first quarter was Brady’s longest completion of the day, and set up a touchdown run that saw Gronkowski throw a key block. This sequence illustrates the impact that the former Wildcat can have on an offense, and the Patriots clearly need all the help they can get in that department.
The Dolphins were unable to contain Jimmy Graham in their Week 3 loss to New Orleans (100 yards, 2 touchdowns), which does not inspire confidence for them this week. Strong safety Reshad Jones has been terrible in coverage this year, surrendering an 84% completion percentage and a 108.8 QB Rating to opposing quarterbacks. Jones and linebacker Philip Wheeler will likely be tasked with slowing Gronkowski for most of the day, but Wheeler has also struggled this season, ceding a 78.1 completion percentage and a 120.7 passer rating to opposing QB’s. Even while playing limited snaps last week, Gronkowski was Brady’s clear top target, and stopping him will have to be Miami’s top priority this week.