When the Dolphins are on offense:
As I'm sure most of you are aware, the Patriots are without two of their stalwart front seven players -- Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo -- for the year. The chief defensive lineman the Patriots have turned to in Wilfork's absence has been #94 Chris Jones, a 2013 sixth round pick by the Texans who was cut and then picked up by the Buccaneers and also cut. The Patriots are in other words his third team since April, and his PFF grades have -- as you might expect -- been terrible all year until the last two weeks, when he's performed adequately. I thought he actually looked pretty good against Cleveland. Not a tremendously talented player but active.
With Mayo out the Patriots have turned to a rotation of Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes on running downs, with Dane Fletcher coming in on obvious passing downs. Hightower and Spikes are interior enforcers who've helped make up the slack against the run, and indeed Browns running backs only managed 47 yards on 22 carries on Sunday. By comparison, Texans running backs managed 115 yards on 25 carries two weeks ago against New England. Back on October 27th, Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas managed 136 yards on 27 carries against the Patriots in the game where Wilfork was injured.
Hightower and Spikes are excellent run defenders, however to call them plodders would be kind. Hightower ran decently out of Bama but he changes direction like a tugboat. Brandon Spikes is even slower, if that can believed, running the 40 in 5.05 out of Florida, making him slower than the guy who wrote this post you're reading.
How should we attack Hightower and Spikes? I'd advise two methods:
1. Attack the edges in the run game. Sweeps, running back flares, wide receiver screens. Pull Brenner and Pouncey -- out two most athletic linemen -- out on the edge, like on the long run that Daniel Thomas broke. Running up the middle will accomplish nothing, especially out of a heavy look with Egnew as a lead blocker. Egnew is hardly a prototype fullback but he's filled in decently. Hightower and Spikes will destroy him. If we're going to run out of a heavy set, the lead blocker should be Clay (who the Patriots are more likely to match up with Fletcher by personnel grouping). But I'd be more interested in running out of nickle looks. Dane Fletcher is overly aggressive and without instincts in the running game. He flies up to the line of scrimmage and plows into the back of his own linemen.
2. Throw when Hightower/Spikes are on the field, especially when the Patriots show a man coverage look. This would be a nice game for Egnew to get a couple of catches, imo. We run most of the time he's on the field, which will key Belichick to put his heavy run defenders in the game. I say let's split him into the slot and try to get Spikes matched up on him. A simple out route could turn into a gimme 12 yards. Also, I think this would be a great game overall for drags and crossers. These routes take time to develop, but the Patriots do not have a great pass rush. Against man coverage, Charles Clay could have several nice YAC plays against the Patriots' inside linebackers on drags. And against zone -- if Tannehill gets the time for Mike Wallace or Rishard Matthews to clear into Hightower or Spikes' zone -- either one should have no trouble getting the edge and turning upfield.
When the Dolphins are on defense:
Everyone by now is aware of Gronkowski's injury, and the Patriots' relative success with him on or off the field is going to be discussed ad nauseum this week, so I thought I'd focus on a different place to attack the Patriots, their offensive line. In particular, right guard Dan Connolly and center Ryan Wendell.
Both players have struggled all year. Connolly has received negative grades from PFF in nine out of the 13 games he's played this year, while Wendell has received hugely negative grades for his performances against Houston (J.J. Watt), New York (Muhammed Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson) and Tampa (Gerald McCoy). In other words, Connolly has been consistently poor, which Wendell has been adequate against mediocre defensive lines and gotten obliterated by good ones. FWIW, however, he received one of his best grades of the season against us in week 8. I deleted the game in disgust and have never rewatched it, but it might pay to go back and see what happened.
Anyway, the Patriots have responded by giving Connolly and Wendell double teams on most passing downs, allowing them to pool their ****tiness, as it were, and try to form one good blocker. However, by sliding their protections so predictably to the right, the Pats have left themselves not only with one on one matchups on the rest of the line, but they're opened themselves up to blitzes to either side of left guard Logan Mankins.
Like most Dolphins fans, I've been enormously frustrated with the play of Philip Wheeler this year, but there is one thing he does very well, and that's blitz. We should blitz him more this week than in any week since the Indy game, imo. And from the offense's left. I understand the danger in blitzing Brady -- and the Patriots are a very good screen team -- but if you hit on blitzes once or twice you might force Brady to rethink his protection, which could leave Jared Odrick a one on one against Dan Connolly, a matchup we should win.
Blitzing will be important against the Patriots for another reason: Brady loves Shane Vereen in the passing game.
When Gronkowski went out of the game, no one saw a bigger increase in their workload than Shane Vereen, who's an excellent receiver out of the backfield. What people forget about Gronkowski being out is that Vereen was also out with a broken hand. Now that Gronkowski is gone but Vereen is back, expect the Patriots to turn to him the rest of the way. My counter to that would be to install a defensive check this week that every time Vereen in the backfield, we blitz. Any play where he's blocking rather than running routes against the likes of Ellerbe and Koa Misi is a win for us. I'm sure the Patriots will put Vereen and Ridley in the game at the same time often on Sunday, which will force us into nickle defense, likely with Jimmy Wilson matched up against Vereen.
So that's all I've got. Hope you guys got something out of it. Go Dolphins!