The Dolphins well understand the enormity of the challenge this Sunday, facing the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. But it really isn't the Patriots they are most concerned about.
"This week to me is about the Miami Dolphins," said coach Brian Flores. "It's about us improving and getting better individually. If we do that, hopefully we improve as a team. That's kind of where my focus is – the team, the individuals on this team, this coaching staff and improving on what wasn't a good performance last week."
No slight to the Patriots, but after the way the Dolphins played in their season opener, this type of approach makes perfect sense. There is no need rehashing what happened against the Ravens. Plain and simple, nothing went right. The Dolphins wanted to start fast and they couldn't have started much slower. End of story.
This game on Sunday more than anything else is about how the Dolphins respond after such a poor performance. Will they make the right adjustments? Have they corrected the mistakes? Will they play with a sense of urgency and a unified resolve that just wasn't there against the Ravens?
These are among the most pressing questions facing this team, questions that have far more to do with the fabric of this team than the uniform name on the other side of the field. No doubt the Patriots will test the Dolphins like few teams can. But unless we see significant improvement in all three phases, does it really matter?
Because of this, what we thought would be the big storyline this week – Brian Flores and several members of his staff facing their old team – never really materialized, at least publicly. Sure, Flores reminisced some about working his way up the Patriots organization and the lessons he learned. But when the topic changed to football and the challenges of facing such a polished, veteran team, Flores reverted to the "this week is about us" way of thinking. He hopes that message has carried over to his players.
This, as you would expect, was a tough week at the Dolphins' training facility. It helped to ease some of the pent up frustration by practicing in pads on Wednesday.
But that can only do so much. Flores admits he is thinking about some lineup changes. In fact, there isn't much he isn't considering.
"There's a lot of self-scouting, a lot of reflection," he said. "We talked about all the things we need to do to get better."
The Dolphins understand what they have to do, that they can't rely on a miracle finish like they did a season ago. For them to have a chance, they need to do the basics: tackle better, commit fewer penalties, protect the ball, limit the big plays on defense and show some consistency on offense. That's what they've focused on this week on the practice field and now it absolutely has to carry over to Sunday's game.
"We understand what's in front of us," said linebacker Jerome Baker. "We're taking on this challenge head on."
And that challenge couldn't be more imposing. The Patriots are scary good once again after shutting down a pretty good Steelers team 33-3 in the opener. I'm not sure what I'm more impressed with, their offense or defense. Both are elite. You look at the weapons Tom Brady has on offense and you marvel at the depth of talent, and then you realize they were that good before Antonio Brown arrived.
"They come at you in so many ways," said cornerback Xavien Howard. "And then they'll change up a lot of things."
I could fill up several columns just by listing all the specific challenges facing the Dolphins on Sunday, all the matchups they need to win. But for brevity sake, I'll limit it to five of the most significant:
- Get to Tom Brady: Everyone tries but few succeed. He is too smart to outwit and his decisions are so on point, your best chances are doing things to at least make him hesitate or at best make him feel uncomfortable. Flores knows Brady so well from his time in New England. Can he turn that into an advantage?
- Limit the yards after catch: The defense was victimized last week by some huge plays and when you study the tape you realize so much could have been avoided with better tackling. The Dolphins can't continue to allow seven yards to become 70, certainly against a team like the Patriots who could feast on that.
- Find balance on offense: The offense did little right against the Ravens. But it is clear that in order to have success, they can't be one-dimensional and that means they need more than 12 rushing attempts for 21 yards. They need balance. They need to make the play-action fake effective. They need to ease some of the burden off Ryan Fitzpatrick. A heavy dose of Kalen Ballage and Kenyan Drake would seem like an excellent remedy.
- Win special teams: I'm going to say this quite often because my belief is that this could be the strength of the team, from placekicker and punter to the return game. They need to take advantage of that with some big plays, some game-turning moments. Maybe like one of Jakeem Grant’s coast-to-coast sprints.
- Start quick: I alluded to this earlier and it can't be emphasized enough. You make it a game in the first half and you have a chance to win late. You stumble early and things can turn south in a hurry as we saw last Sunday. This team desperately needs something good to happen and the best case scenario is an early touchdown drive or a big turnover to set the tone for the day.