On 10 occasions this season, the Patriots rushed for over 100 yards. Two of those games produced better than 200 yards on the ground with one of those contests taking place in the season-opener against the Dolphins.
Since that game, Miami has tightened up the run defense to the tune of 112.2 rushing yards per game allowed. More recently, three of Miami's four lowest rushing totals allowed have occurred in the last three games (87 yards at the Jets, 40 yards vs. the Bengals and 94 against the Chiefs).
Rookie safety Brandon Jones says that's where the defensive install begins each week – with the run game.
"A big pillar of our defense every week is to stop the run, so I think that's kind of the mindset we go in with each and every week, trying to minimize the run and do what we can from that standpoint, and then from there, being able to play our ball," Jones said.
Easier said than done this week, especially considering the opponent. Nobody on Miami's roster knows the Patriots better than linebacker Kyle Van Noy. He spoke Thursday about the things Miami must do to prevent New England from producing with the same level of success they had in the opener.
"Better communication and just playing better," Van Noy said. "I think we're comfortable with where we're at and we've got to make strides to get better each time we take the field."
The most veteran member of the Miami defense then proceeded to go position-by-position in his evaluation of the New England ground game.
"They're really good. I think they're (fifth) in the league in rushing," he said. "Their o-line is amazing. Cole (Popovich), their o-line coach, does a really good job getting those guys ready to go. (Michael Onwenu) is playing well, (Jermaine) Eluemunor is playing well."
The Patriots' backfield depth is always a challenge.
"Damien Harris is playing really well, Sony (Michel's) still got juice, obviously James White is all-around amazing. Cam Newton still runs the ball really well," Van Noy continued.
It doesn't stop with there. Head Coach Bill Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels find ways to get everybody involved.
"And then you can splash in the receivers too," Van Noy said. "They all run pretty well when they get the ball on sweeps and different things like that. Bill's got them playing hard and he's a really good coach and they do a really good job of running the ball."
The one position Van Noy didn't cover was the fullback. Extinct in many present-day offenses, a handful of teams still utilize the battering ram position with a sometimes thankless job. Only Kyle Juszczyk in San Francisco has played more snaps at fullback than New England's Jakob Johnson (314) this year.
Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores spoke to the challenges a fullback presents in the running game.
"If they add a fullback, they add a gap," Flores said. "Defensively, it's something that we've seen. We have a fullback as well. We've seen those types of plays; but they do a good job in the run game. They really do. They've been able to pick up chunks of yardage. I would say they're top five in the league in rushing, so they've done a good job from that standpoint. The fullbacks are a big part of that. We're going to have our work cut out for us as far as getting that defended."
As is so often the case in football, the run game sets up other elements of the offense.
"Those are the things we'll be preparing for all week, as well as the rest of the things they do," Flores continued. "They're not just a running football team. They've got play-action, they've got drop back, I think they lead the league in screen yardage. They play well defensively and in the kicking game also. It's a tough test."
Flipping the script to the Miami run game, the Dolphins welcomed running back Matt Breida back into the fold Wednesday when he was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Before missing the previous two games, Breida had 53 yards from scrimmage in Week 12 at the Jets.
Thursday, Breida talked about returning to the lineup and how he's feeling heading into the stretch run.
"Do whatever I've got to do to help our team," Breida said of his December role. "I feel like we have a great shot this year accomplishing our goals and doing what we want to do. We've just got to handle business these last three weeks and like I said at the beginning – I'm going to keep saying it – whatever the team asks me to do, I'm going to do."
Acquired in a draft-day trade, Breida's been a member of the Dolphins for less than nine months. In that short period of time, Flores has made quite an impression on the first-year Dolphins running back.
"He treats every player the same no matter how good you are," Breida said. "If you're on the practice squad he expects great things out of you…It's rare that you're around a coach like him that's fairly young and understand what it takes to win and what goes into the game.
"Since I've been here I've heard nothing but great things about him and I'm lucky that he's my head coach," he continued. "All the guys on the team feel the same way. We all want to play for him and go out there and put everything on the line for him, and he does the same for us. He's a great coach."
In just his second year in his current position, Flores has the Dolphins at 8-5 with an important game against his former team on deck. Thursday, he spoke about his time with the Patriots and how those formative years helped him decide exactly what he wanted to do professionally.
"I learned so much," Flores said. "I started in personnel. Scott Pioli hired me there as a scouting assistant. Those four years in personnel were very valuable. There are a lot of guys in that department who have gone on and done well for themselves – Jon Robinson, Thomas Dimitroff, Matt Russell, Marvin Allen was on the staff there when I was there. Lionel Vital. So I learned a lot from that group."
Where personnel is about the evaluation process, it was the relationship-building aspect of coaching that attracted Flores to make the switch.
"I started wanting to be in personnel and then I just felt I could have a little bit more impact on the game, so that was the reason behind trying to get into coaching," he said. "I felt like I could build relationships with players and it's hard to do that on the personnel side. You just don't have as much interaction with them, so I just wanted to make more of an impact; and I'm not saying there isn't an impact on the personnel side, there's just more interaction from the coaching side."
Thursday Injury Report
Wide receiver Antonio Callaway (not injury related) did not practice Wednesday.
Running back Salvon Ahmed, offensive guard Ereck Flowers, tight end Mike Gesicki, safety Bobby McCain, wide receivers Jakeem Grant and Devante Parker and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts were limited participants at Thursday's practice.
Offensive tackle Jermaine Eluemunor did not practice Thursday. New England listed 13 players as limited participants at Thursday's practice.
Click here for the rest of the Dolphins-Patriots Week 15 injury report.