3TFO: Patriots @ Dolphins, Week 13
It’s about time the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins face each other in 2012. In a scheduling quirk, the two division rivals will play each other twice in the last five weeks of the season. The Patriots are looking to wrap up the AFC East with a win, while the Dolphins likely have to win out if they have any playoff aspirations. Still, it will be a huge test for a Miami team that may be poised to challenge the Patriots for division supremacy the next few years.
Despite having the division almost locked up, the Patriots have home-field advantage to play for including two looming battles with the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers. They’re unlikely to look ahead given the past struggles they’ve faced when traveling to Miami, though they’ve handled the Dolphins rather handily in their last two matchups down south.
The Dolphins seem confident that quarterback Ryan Tannehill is their signal caller of the future. It’s his first test against the team he’ll be looking to unseat in the near future. Let’s take a look at this week’s key matchups.
Ryan Tannehill vs. Patriots Pass Defense
The Dolphins must be pleased with quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s progress. He’s performed well under pressure (third in the league with 78.5 percent accuracy percentage while pressured) and despite throwing only seven touchdowns against 12 interceptions, he’s shown that he has the tools to lead the Dolphins moving forward.
Coming out of college, a lot of Tannehill’s throws went outside the numbers particularly when throwing down the field. That trend has continued this season. He’s only attempted 33 of his 304 “aimed” passes beyond 10 yards down the middle of the field, though he’s had great success on those throws grading at +8.0. Part of the reason he hasn’t attacked that part of the field is the lack of weapons including a tight end in Anthony Fasano who rarely gets down the seam, but it’s also a schematic decision that sees Tannehill throw more outs and comebacks outside the hashes. Expect the Patriots to go back to using a lot of wide Cover-2 looks that force Tannehill to throw the ball between the hashmarks.
The Patriots secondary has taken a lot of criticism, but the addition of cornerback Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty’s full time move to free safety has added life back into the unit. It’s not that Talib has been top-notch, but the team has been more aggressive with its front seven, blitzing 31 percent of the time the last two games compared to only 16 percent in its first nine games. Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard has also put together back-to-back strong games and ranks 28th in the league with 1.18 Yards/Cover Snap. We’ve also seen strong safety Steve Gregory get his hands on passes the last couple weeks. The Patriots have reached the point where they just need sufficient play from the secondary; this could be the combination that gets them to that point.
Patriots Running Game vs. Dolphins Run Defense
The Patriots offense runs through quarterback Tom Brady, but the running game has been one of the best in the league. As Ben Stockwell highlights, they’re more than capable of controlling the game on the ground. Running back Stevan Ridley is not the most elusive back in the league (18.3 elusive rating; 16th in the league) but has taken advantage of strong run blocking to keep the chains moving for New England. Center Ryan Wendell is our second-best run blocker at the position at +14.6 while four different players have earned starts at guard — and each one has graded positively in the running game. It speaks volumes to the Patriots’ depth up front as well as the coaching job of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia that they’ve been able to handle such attrition.
The Patriots’ interior line will be challenged by stout defensive tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. Starks has had an inconsistent season as a run stopper but he was extremely disruptive last week against a good Seattle Seahawks running attack. Soliai ranks 10th in the league in run stop percentage among defensive tackles at 8.4 percent while outside linebacker Kevin Burnett (9.5 percent) and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby (11.2 percent) rank eighth and 10th at their respective positions. Strongside linebacker Koa Misi is new to the position this season, and Miami was very effective using him as a run blitzer last week.
Sebastian Vollmer vs. Cameron Wake
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer missed last week’s game against the New York Jets but he’s expected to return this week. He’s played at a Pro Bowl level this season as he’s our No. 3 rated tackle and top rated right tackle at +20.4. In addition to stellar run blocking, Vollmer is 10th in the league among tackles in Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) at 96.4 and he’s only allowed three knockdowns (sacks + hits) the entire year. EDIT: If Vollmer can’t go today, OT Marcus Cannon will get the start. He’s given up only four total pressures on his 98 pass block attempts this season.
It’ll be Vollmer’s fiercest test this week as he goes up against defensive end Cameron Wake, who is our top-rated pass rusher among 4-3 defensive ends at +28.8. He has 12 sacks and 18 hits, and his Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) ranks second at the position. Last year, Wake was very much held in check by the Patriots and they did so with Vollmer missing both matchups. This week’s battle is important because the Patriots have a history of abandoning the run against the top run-stopping teams in the league. If they look to spread the field to pass, it will be on Wake to put the pressure on Tom Brady.
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