Big road test, especially for defense
Patriots could have issues against physical Miami offense, but Dolphins' D has holes
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Monday night's game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium (8:20 p.m., ESPN) in Miami Gardens, Fla.:
Mike: Here we go again, Tedy. A trip to Miami, and you know what that means as well as anybody. This has always been a tough place for the Patriots to win, regardless of the type of season the Dolphins are having.
Tedy: Early on in my career, the reason we had some trouble is that they were a really good team. Then you have the South Florida atmosphere and humidity. It's not New England, I'll tell straight up, that heat is a beast! It's real. Overall, there is a lot of adversity you have to overcome -- on the road, the heat, the crowd, a good team.
Mike: One week ago, the biggest Patriots questions seemed to be about what happened to the offense in the second half against the Jets when they were held scoreless. Now it's all about the defense after the Bills, who entered as the NFL's lowest-ranked attack, moved the ball with relative ease on them. Buffalo punted just once in the game.
Tedy: Fundamentally, the Patriots are having some problems right now on defense. Some examples are rookie cornerback Devin McCourty getting his eyes caught in the backfield and getting beat on double moves; second-year cornerback Darius Butler and his penalties; second-year defensive lineman Ron Brace, when he's taking on an offensive tackle to two-gap, getting turned instead of pressing the offensive tackle and staying square; and veteran outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain getting his eyes caught looking in the backfield while having trouble setting the edge in the running game and getting back into zone coverage. In situations like these, you hope that the leaders of your team will bring some of the younger guys along, but then you look at the fact that safety Brandon Meriweather is supposed to be one of those leaders, and he's having fundamental problems as well, freelancing a little bit. You saw it on the quick bubble screen to C.J. Spiller on the 5-yard touchdown catch last week when he took the bad angle. Fundamentally, that's not the angle you take when you are the outside defender. You want to play that from the outside in, because your teammates are all inside. Forcing it back to the pursuing defenders is the proper technique to use. So these are some of the problems you're seeing.
Mike: I think the easy trap is to take this small sample size and say the defense is in trouble. While no one is saying it looks good on defense right now, and there are certainly some troubling signs, this team is still 2-1 and it's only Week 4 of the season.
Tedy: There is a long way to go for the Patriots to fix these problems. They have the bye week coming up after this game. Each week, as younger players get more reps in game situations and playing situational football, they will get better. Right now I recognize mostly technical problems and not work ethic deficiencies, and that's a good sign.
Patriots defense vs. Dolphins offense
Mike: There are a few places we could start here, Tedy. Let's kick it off with Miami's big offseason acquisition: receiver Brandon Marshall. He leads the Dolphins with 22 receptions and has one touchdown. One theme that I have heard at the Patriots' facility this week is that Marshall is almost like a tight end because he's so big, and he creates some matchup problems. The addition of Marshall ties in to the overall Dolphins team: They're big and physical, specifically in the running game.
Tedy: Marshall may resemble some tight ends in size, but his skill set is nowhere close to one. He's fast, he's physical and his ball skills are second to none. The Dolphins are a power running team with a very solid offensive line. I don't think their offensive line is talked about enough. They have one of the best left tackles in the league in Jake Long. On the other side, I always saw Vernon Carey, the right tackle, as a mauler. He wanted to get you in and engulf you. Their starting left guard, Richie Incognito, is one of those dirty players. He'll push you, he'll grab your facemask. He'll try every trick in the book to get you blocked. He's the type of guy that you hate playing against. He's a hothead. If there is a scrum, you can bet that he will be in the middle of it.
Mike: Good point. The line is a good place to start with the Dolphins when considering that coach Tony Sparano's background is as a line coach. It often seems that they'd like nothing more than to control a game on the ground, and you were on the field when they sprung the Wildcat on the Patriots in 2008.
Tedy: They unveiled it against us and had huge success. It was one of the few times in my 13-year career where I felt we were unprepared defensively. But I think now the league is getting used to it. They didn't have success with it last week. I counted a handful of plays they tried it against the Jets and these were the totals: minus-1, 4, 0, 5, 4, 1. There was an incomplete pass and they also tried a reverse to Patrick Cobbs. So you can do a lot of things out of it. Does the lack of Wildcat success against the Jets mean the Patriots won't see it? Not at all. The Patriots will see it. The Patriots are an adjustment defense -- when they see a formation, there is a particular call they have to make to adjust to it. That's what the Wildcat does -- it gets defenses communicating, adjusting, and all of a sudden they find themselves on their heels and here comes the Dolphin downhill running game. I think the Patriots' defense knows it now, but how some of the young players react to seeing it for the first time will be something to look for.
Mike: The Bills ran one Wildcat play in last Sunday's game against the Patriots and it was a 9-yard gain for running back Marshawn Lynch in the second quarter. So far this season, the Dolphins split their carries between Ronnie Brown (37 rushes, 199 yards) and Ricky Williams (35 rushes, 120 yards). Given the shakiness and youth of the Patriots' defense to this point, this is not a matchup that I see as favorable to them.
Tedy: With that extra blocker in the box, it makes the Wildcat hard to defend, and the way the Dolphins run it, it's also very physical. Upon first glance it resembles a trick play formation, but the Dolphin version must also be respected as a power running formation and that can be difficult to grasp.
Mike: Speaking of physical, here is a name to circle on the depth chart: Lousaka Polite. He's the Dolphins' fullback and ESPN's Stats & Information department came up with this gem: Since 2009, no player in the NFL has converted more when it's third-and-1 or fourth-and-1. Polite has moved the chains 20 consecutive times in those situations. That's the type of consistency that quarterback Chad Henne, now in his third season, is seeking. What do you think of Henne?
Tedy: He's still in that developmental process. I've been watching him closely. I think he has a good arm and throws a quality ball. But I think his decision-making process is a little bit slow. I think he's making sure of reads. Once he sees the safeties split, or once he sees man-to-man coverage, he knows what the answer is but he double checks just to be sure and with that he looks late at times when delivering the ball to his receivers. What I saw the other night against the Jets is that when he comes off the field in the Wildcat, he goes straight to his offensive coaches and they give him adjustments. That's coming within drives. It's another way the Wildcat helps them develop a young QB.
Mike: Before moving on, Tedy, I think we should also touch on a few of the other Dolphins' skill-position players: receivers Brian Hartline and Davone Bess and tight end Anthony Fasano. Patriots defenders talked this week about Hartline as a vertical threat, while Bess is more of a quick underneath target. Fasano is a good combination tight end. Bess was a big factor in Miami's Week 13 home victory over New England last season, catching 10 balls for 117 yards and a touchdown.
Patriots offense vs. Dolphins defense
Mike: First things first, the Dolphins' defense has a new coordinator in Mike Nolan. It's still a 3-4 defense but it's a bit of a different scheme than what they've played in recent years. The Patriots are familiar with it from going up against the Broncos, where Nolan was defensive coordinator last year.
Tedy: The Broncos had success against the Patriots last season. You can be sure that both teams will be looking back on that game in their preparations.
Mike: One of the big questions for the Dolphins entering the year was how they would transition at outside linebacker without having Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, who rank first and second on the NFL's active sacks list. The Dolphins have a rookie, Koa Misi, and a former Canadian Football League player, Cameron Wake, at the position. I've noticed that Wake seems to show up with a big play in the action I've seen.
Tedy: He set the CFL on fire, bringing quarterbacks down left and right. The question was "Can he do it in the NFL?" Watching him in the NFL, it looks like he can. He's a sleek, athletic linebacker. I think he still had problems last week against the Jets with run reads, setting the edge at times. In the truest form, he is a pass rusher off the edge, very athletic. I think you can run right at him though. You put that YY wing (two tight ends lined up together on the end of the line, with one on the line of scrimmage and one off in the wing) with Alge Crumpler and Rob Gronkowski, like we were talking about in "Bruschi on Tap" after last Sunday's game against the Bills, and you come right down on him. I don't think he could hold up against that. On the other side, with Misi, he's the opposite style of player. He isn't that sleek athletic pass rusher. When he rushes it's speed to power, which is when you come up the field with your speed and turn right into the offensive lineman and try to run him over. The offensive tackles think it's speed and get backpedaling to keep up and then here comes the bull rush and it can catch tackles off balance. He's much more of a physical player than Wake.
Mike: Elsewhere at linebacker, the Dolphins' big offseason acquisition on defense was inside linebacker Karlos Dansby from Arizona. I look at him as the Dolphins' version of Jerod Mayo. He seldom, if ever, comes off the field. They've also had some changes on the defensive line, specifically at nose tackle, where Randy Starks has kicked inside from end to replace Jason Ferguson.
Tedy: Then you have the secondary, and after watching the Dolphins-Jets game on Sunday night, I don't think there is any question which player the Patriots should be targeting: cornerback Jason Allen. Lined up against Braylon Edwards, Allen had a tough night. You saw a pass interference penalty in the end zone. He slipped on one short pass, missing a tackle. Not only was he beat, you saw poor technique, such as not turning his head when the ball was in the air or the inability to make a simple tackle. He didn't look like he was fast enough to cover Edwards. If you're watching that film, and then you see him on Randy Moss or Wes Welker on Monday, that's where you need to throw the ball. They have Vontae Davis on the other side at cornerback and he's been solid. At safety, Yeremiah Bell is good down in the box as a strong safety, but he also has issues in coverage. So you could see the Patriots test him as well.
Mike: In part because of Allen's struggles, my feeling is that the Patriots' best way to attack is through the air. While they will want to be balanced and mix in the run, I think the passing game will be the key.
Mike: As we do each week, let's wrap it up with predictions. I think the Patriots have it in them to win this game -- we've seen the flashes -- but until they prove they can win a big game on the road I can't pick them after being burned in Week 2. I'm projecting a field-goal type game and will give it to the Dolphins, 27-24.
Tedy: It's Monday night, national television, all of America watching. This is a game that the New England Patriots are going to make a statement. I think the defense is going to come out and play well. Even though they beat the Bills and they're all saying the right things, they still feel like they have something to prove. This is a game when we will finally stop talking about the defense playing poorly and not rising up in big games, such as the playoff loss to Baltimore and last year's Monday night game in New Orleans. The Patriots will win a tough hard-fought game 24-14.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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