|Rookie Ryan Tannehll has had an up-and-down season.|
The New England Patriots travel to face the Miami Dolphins in an important AFC East NFL matchup, as the Patriots try to wrap up a playoff berth with a victory. Despite a close victory over the Seattle Seahawks last week, the Dolphins have been enduring some significant struggles behind the leadership of rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill as of late. The Dolphins are 1-3 in their last four games, while Tannehill has thrown three touchdowns to a monumental six interceptions during that time with one fumble.
Having being much better earlier this season, the Dolphins are very much an unknown quantity entering this game. They could continue to limp through four quarters of football, or they could prove to be the upstart unit that was 4-3 at one point during the regular season. The Dolphins will go as far as Tannehill can take them, but much of the rookie quarterback's struggles this season haven't been a result of his individual play, but the struggles of his teammates on offense.
After trading Brandon Marshall in the off-season, the Dolphins' front office never truly replaced him. As such, Tannehill has spent this season throwing passes to Davone Bess and Brian Hartline primarily. Hartline and Bess are decent receivers, but neither are legitimate number one pass catchers or, more importantly, deep threats to soften the coverage on the backend. With the Patriots' new and seemingly improved secondary, most significantly Aqib Talib at cornerback and Devin McCourty at safety. McCourty and Talib have been impressive in their new roles with the team so far, but will be looking to continue those performances to establish some form of longevity.
In this game, Talib will likely see a lot of time covering Hartline, as the Dolphins' only receiver with any real physical presence, while McCourty will be able to play with a freedom that was previously non existent against a team without a deep threat. Considering Bill Belichick runs a very complex defense for rookie quarterbacks to decode, the Patriots' opportunistic secondary will likely have plenty of opportunities to create turnovers in Miami.
Instead of focusing on Tannehill however, the Patriots must not lose sight of the Dolphins' greatest threat, their rushing attack. Reggie Bush has been the team's feature back for much of the season, but youngster Daniel Thomas has shown flashes also in recent weeks while LaMar Miller is just waiting to explode. While the Patriots defense has been excellent against the run all season, the Dolphins have a group of running-backs who need very little daylight to create big plays.
Limiting big plays in this game will be crucial for the Patriots' chances to succeed. Even though Tannehill doesn't have superstar receivers to throw to, he should have time to find his targets with the Patriots still missing rookie Chandler Jones as well as young defensive end Jermaine Cunningham from their pass rush. Even though Jake Long hasn't had the best of seasons, he should be able to get the better of his matchup with Rob Ninkovich, which will allow the rest of the Dolphins' offensive line to comfortably handle the Patriots' pass rush as a team.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots proved last week that they could still put up big numbers without Logan Mankins and Rob Gronkowski, but this week they will have to prove the same against stiffer competition. The New York Jets' defense wasn't crafted to stick with the Patriots' unit, while the futility of their offense put too much pressure on their defense to contain Tom Brady and company. The Dolphins should at the very least be able to hold onto the football long enough not to allow the Patriots to establish a big lead early on, while the defense has enough talent to frustrate the team's balanced attack.
Despite not being the most well rounded of defenses, having Cameron Wake and Randy Starks upfront will allow the team to flood the coverage areas of the field, without sending blitzers Brady's way. The Patriots' offensive line has been outstanding all season long, but so have Wake and Starks. Something has to give in this game, and it's tough to pick a favourite for either side. If given time, Brady should be able to pick apart the secondary as he does so often, but on the ground the Dolphins will be able to stifle the rushing attack to at least prevent a blow out.
It's not the easiest trip for the reigning AFC East champions, but it is very much a winnable game and opportunity to cement their place in the playoffs.