The New England Patriots beat the San Diego Chargers 23-14 last Sunday night, improving to 10-3. Now they return home to face the Miami Dolphins, who stand at 7-6 after a 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. With a win on Sunday, the Patriots can clinch their sixth consecutive AFC East title. Reading the Dolphins numbers shows a Miami team still in the wild card chase, but needing a win this weekend to remain in the hunt.
Weathering the Pass Rush
The Dolphins defensive line is one of the strongest pass rushing units in the league. Pro Football Focus has their pass rush rated second in the league behind the Ravens, and Football Outsiders ranks the Dolphins third in Adjusted Sack Rate. Their 34 sacks ranks 11th in the NFL, with defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon accounting for nearly half with 16 sacks between the impressive duo.
Pro Football Focus also counts QB hits and QB hurries – along with sacks – to create a stat for total QB pressures. In total pressures, Wake ranks eighth in the NFL with 53 pressures, and Vernon ties for 36th (among 174 DL and LB) with 40. For comparison, Rob Ninkovich is the only Patriot in the top 100 with 41; Dont’a Hightower checks in tied for 101st with 20, and Jamie Collins has 19.
Pressure from the pass rush enables the Dolphins to restrict their opponents’ passing games. To date, they have allowed 6.3 yards per attempt (second only to the Denver Broncos), 10.2 yards per catch (third in the NFL), and 203.2 yards per game (third in the NFL). In the season opener in Miami, the Patriots managed just 4.4 YPA and 8.6 YPC, gaining only 249 yards through the air. The Dolphins also sacked Tom Brady four times – all in the second half – and induced two fumbles resulting in ten points off turnovers.
Early in the season, the Patriots’ offensive line struggled to protect Brady. In Miami they allowed 4 sacks in 60 dropbacks (6.7%). By Week 5, rookie Bryan Stork became the regular center, and the O-line became more effective in preventing sacks. To date, New England has allowed sacks on just 3.4% of their passing plays, second-best in the NFL (league average is 6.2%.) After surrendering two sacks to the Buffalo Bills in Week 6, the Patriots have not allowed more than one sack in a game since. The Patriots appear better prepared for Wake and the other Miami pass rushers this time around:
Protect the Ball
Along with the pass rush, the Dolphins take advantage of turnovers. They have 22 takeaways (12 interceptions, 10 fumbles) and have scored 81 points off turnovers (9 TDs, 6 FGs). While they have 18 giveaways (9 interceptions, 9 fumbles) and a turnover margin of +4, they have allowed 23 points off turnovers (3 TDs, 2 FGs) for a points advantage of +58.
Cornerback Brent Grimes has 5 interceptions (tied for second in NFL), and safety Reshad Jones has 3. As a team the Dolphins have 12 interceptions, making picks on 2.5% of passes thrown. Brady has thrown just 7 interceptions, 1.4% of his passes (still fourth-best in the NFL). If he is sharp, the Patriots will have the edge.
Running Game Slowing Down?
In the previous game with the Patriots, the Dolphins’ running attack gashed the New England defense for 191 yards on 38 carries. It established a pattern for the Dolphins: They are 6-1 when they gain over 120 yards rushing, and 6-0 when they have at least 24 carries.
But they have had just one such game in the last five weeks: a 125-yard, 24-carry performance against the Buffalo Bills on November 13. Over the last 5 games their rushing numbers have declined precipitously:
|First 8 games||64.8||30.6||12.6||137.3|
|Last 5 games||52.8||10||12.2||81.8|
Lamar Miller, the Dolphins’ leading rusher, hasn’t seen much dropoff in performance – certainly not enough to fully account for the team’s recent lack of production. (Removing a 108-yard game against Kansas City brings his first-half average down to 58.6.) Neither has Daniel Thomas, the second back. But Ryan Tannehill, currently Miami’s second leading rusher, has only averaged one third of the yardage he did in the first half of the season. It may be that the higher rushing average wasn’t sustainable: He racked 7.9 YPC over the first 8 games, but just 3.1 YPC in his last 5 games.
The Dolphins also miss Knowshon Moreno, who ran for 134 yards against the Patriots in Week 1. He suffered a dislocated elbow against Buffalo the following week, and then tore his ACL against the Packers in Week 6. With 148 yards in three games, he is still fourth on the team in total rushing yards. Damien Williams, with 104 yards, is the only other back with any significant ground production.
New England fans have waited for this rematch since Week 1. Fresh off a gritty win against a contender in San Diego, the Patriots bring an improved offensive line, a hard-hitting defense, and a healthy Rob Gronkowski hoping to avenge that early loss. This could be a game where the Patriots jump to an early lead and the Dolphins are hard-pressed to keep up.
All statistics from Pro Football Reference, unless otherwise cited.
Follow Douglas Storms on Twitter @stormsorama.