Dolphins-Patriots: Five Things To Watch

Posted Dec 1, 2012

Playoff atmosphere expected at Sun Life Stadium.

Eleven games into the 2012 NFL season there is only one AFC East team the Miami Dolphins have yet to play and that’s the New England Patriots. Tomorrow at Sun Life Stadium the two teams will square off in the first of two meetings this month, with the Dolphins looking to spoil New England’s plans of clinching the division.

The Patriots are riding a five-game winning streak and have been lighting up the scoreboard of late behind the arm of quarterback Tom Brady. But their running game has quietly risen to No. 6 in the league, which has not been lost on Miami’s defense. Stopping the run is what that unit does best and will need to do well in this game, while at the same time finding ways to get pressure on Brady and take him out of the comfort zone.

Even though this is the first time they will see each other, both teams are very familiar with one another when it comes to personnel. Brady has had some memorable moments at this stadium during his career but he also went through a stretch where Miami came out on top and he knows he will be facing a defense capable of slowing him down.

“It’s a good defense. They’re disruptive, they stop the run, they get to the quarterback,” Brady said during a conference call with the South Florida media. “We have to be able to understand their strengths and try to go down and execute against a very good defense, one that is always a challenge for us, especially in Florida in December.”

There are intriguing match-ups and storylines in all three phases of the game, so here are five things that you should pay close attention to:

1. What new wrinkles will Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman throw at the Patriots defense to keep them off balance and on the field longer – One way to slow Brady down is to not let him leave the sideline, and that’s where Miami’s ability to run the ball and eat up the clock can come into play. “I remember one time I was in Green Bay and one of our staff members told me, ‘coach if we can get three explosive runs in this playoff game, we’re going to definitely win,’” Dolphins Head Coach Joe Philbin said. “I said, ‘good, draw them up. What’s the personnel? What’s the formation? How are we going to block them? I’d be glad to put them in the plan.’ But yeah I think it would be good. I think it would be great. And we’re going to have to score some points. I mean come on, take a look at the scores. We’re going to have to score some points, no question about it. Again, I’m no expert; I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t think it’s going to be a 10-7 game, so we’re going to have to score.” And they also will have to put together some long drives.

2. How will Miami prevent New England from seizing momentum in the second half like it has done in recent meetings and prevent the game from getting out of hand – In both games last season the Dolphins kept it very close through three quarters and actually jumped out to a surprising 17-0 lead at New England in the first half of the 15th game. But the Patriots found a way to break open the season opener late, turning a 21-17 lead into a 38-24 win, and then in the second meeting pulling out a 27-24 comeback victory by scoring 17 third-quarter points. The Dolphins cannot afford to make any crucial mistakes or allow Brady any second chances if it’s a single-digit score late and should use last week’s comeback win over Seattle as a blueprint.

3. Dolphins nickel cornerback Jimmy Wilson versus Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker – This is without a doubt the most pivotal match-up of the game because Welker has once again become Brady’s favorite target, especially with tight end Rob Gronkowski out of the game and tight end Aaron Hernandez playing on a gimpy ankle. Wilson brings physicality to his position and has improved his coverage skills, but the most important thing he can do tomorrow is limit Welker’s yards after the catch. Philbin emphasized that not only in regards to Wilson but to the entire defense. “They’re going to complete some passes, so we’ve got to have some guys around the completion, you know, wrapping up and not letting them squirt away to get big plays,” he said. “Whether we do that in a two deep, three deep, man coverage, blitz, drop nine, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to play good football, good fundamental defensive football, regardless of what the scheme calls.” And Wilson needs to lead the way against the dangerous Welker.

4. What will center Mike Pouncey and guards Richie Incognito and John Jerry do to neutralize the Patriots’ powerful nose tackle, Vince Wilfork – The two-time Pro Bowler out of the University of Miami is one of the most imposing defensive forces in the league and routinely beats double teams on his way to the quarterback or to the running back. He can blow up a draw play, a sweep or even a designed quarterback rollout in the blink of an eye, so the athletic and strong Pouncey will have to win the technique battle at the line scrimmage and get help from Incognito and Jerry. Though Pouncey is three inches taller than Wilfork he is giving way 22 pounds, while Incognito (6-3, 324) and Jerry (6-5, 328) have the size to compete in the middle. If those three can move Wilfork off the ball and open up lanes for running backs Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas while also keeping the big man more than an arm’s length away from rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, that will increase the offense’s chances to finding success.

5. Can Dolphins Head Coach Joe Philbin, in his first year on the job, match wits with New England’s three-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, Bill Belichick, and even cross him up at home – Philbin was quick to admit that while he was in charge of the league’s No. 2 offense at Green Bay for a five-year span he knew all too well that the team he was chasing was New England. “Those guys, their players play well on film,” he said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes, and that’s a credit to their players and their staff. They win a bunch of games, and they don’t beat themselves.” The Patriots’ plus-24 turnover ratio is a testament to that discipline, while Miami is at a minus-10, so Philbin knows this is a tall task in front of him and his players, but one they’re all eager to take on. He called this game a “measuring stick” for his team, and what better way to positively impact that measurement than with a win.

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