3TFO: Patriots @ Dolphins, Week 15
This week’s game between AFC East rivals Miami and New England is a crucial one for both teams. While New England will clinch the division title with a win, they will also be able to maintain their one game lead over Cincinnati for the AFC’s second seed. Given the huge amount of injuries to star players in New England this season, the bye that comes with a top-2 seed takes on even more importance.
At 7-6, the Dolphins find themselves with the same record as current sixth seed Baltimore, though Miami would not make the playoffs if the season ended today. Given the large amount of teams still in the AFC playoff hunt, each game is basically a must win for the Dolphins moving forward.
The loss of TE Rob Gronkowski cannot be understated. Despite playing in just seven games this season, he ranks second among all tight ends with a +12.4 grade. He also led all tight ends with 2.75 Yards per Route Run, and ranked third at his position in Drop Rate after dropping just two passes. Gronkowski’s impact on the Patriots offense was profound. After averaging less than 21 points without the former Wildcat, New England put up 32 points per game in seven games with Gronkowski. Tom Brady had just two games with a passer rating of 90 or better in six games without Gronkowski, compared to 5 of 7 games with a 90+ rating with his favorite target active.
Much of the burden of replacing Gronkowski’s production will now likely fall on running back Shane Vereen, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the league’s elite receiving backs. Vereen ranks second among his position with 2.52 YpRR, and has the versatility to line up as a back, wide receiver, or in the slot. Vereen is a clear mismatch against most linebackers, and will likely be the focus of Miami’s defensive gameplan this week.
Ryan Tannehill vs. New England Pass Defense
While only five quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions, second year quarterback Ryan Tannehill quietly ranks eighth at his position with a +15.3 grade. Tannehill’s best trait has been his consistency, grading negatively just three times. Despite the addition of deep threat Mike Wallace, Miami has just not been effective throwing the ball deep. On passes thrown more than 20 yards, Tannehill has an Accuracy Percentage of 34.7 (18th among qualifying quarterbacks), and has been intercepted six times with just three touchdowns. Tannehill has been at his best throwing intermediate passes, earning a +25.7 grade on passes thrown 10-19 yards.
Tannehill has struggled under pressure this season (55.9 Accuracy Percentage under pressure ranks 25th), so New England should make this the focus of their game plan on Sunday. The Patriots had great success blitzing in their last meeting, and Miami’s pass protection has been mediocre in 2013. Unfortunately, the Patriots pass rush has been extremely ineffective this season, currently ranking 31st in our cumulative grades. The team does not have a single active defensive lineman with a positive pass rushing grade, which is a problem since the team rarely blitzes. Despite his high sack total (12), Chandler Jones has yet to record a pass rushing grade better than +1.0, and has earned a negative grade in that department in 8 games. Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins has shown some promise in recent weeks, earning a positive pass rushing grade in each of the past three games.
New England Offensive Line vs. Miami Defensive Line
While the offensive line was considered to be one of the team’s strengths at the beginning of the season, the Patriots offensive line finds itself in the middle of the pack in both our run blocking and pass blocking grades. Nate Solder (+19.0) has established himself as the team’s best lineman, and is one of the league’s elite tackles. He certainly has room for improvement though, and cannot be happy that he has now allowed sacks in five consecutive games. The interior line has been a problem for the team all season long, and Dan Connolly (-12.1) and Ryan Wendell (-10.5) continue to underperform. This will be a problem against a Miami defense that has one of the NFL’s elite defensive tackle rotations.
The Dolphins’ defensive line is the strength of their defense, and the trio of Randy Starks (+28.6), Jared Odrick (+21.3) and Paul Soliai (+14.7) has been dominant this season. Each ranks in the top 13 in our defensive tackle grades, and their skill sets complement each other perfectly. Starks and Odrick form a formidable pair of pass rushers, ranking sixth and eighth in Pass Rushing Productivity, respectively. Starks also ranks fifth in Run Stop Percentage, making him one of the league’s most underrated players at any position. Soliai (+11.0 run defense grade) combines with Starks on run downs to make life difficult for opposing running attacks. As if that weren’t enough, the Patriots will also have to be sure to get star defensive end Cameron Wake blocked on every down. Wake (+22.5) ranks second among 4-3 ends in PRP, and will be facing a backup right tackle with Sebastian Vollmer on injured reserve. A dominant effort from this group is Miami’s best shot of beating New England and keeping their playoff hopes alive.