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10 things you have to know about Dolphins-Patriots

10.25.13 at 11:53 pm ET
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Chandler Jones has played a big role in the Patriots pass rush this season. (AP)

Chandler Jones has played a big role in the Patriots pass rush this season. (AP)

Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s Dolphins-Patriots game.

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

1. The Patriots front seven against the Miami offensive line – Both offensive lines have had their issues over the past few weeks — New England has yielded 13 sacks of Tom Brady in the last three games — but we’re going to flip the script here just because the body of work rolled out by the Dolphins offensive line has been bad over the course of the entire season. Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the league to this point (26 times), and is on pace to be sacked 69 times this season. (The NFL record is 76 sacks, set by Houston’s David Carr in 2002.) It’s clear the poor protection has played a major role in his penchant for ill-timed turnovers — he has 11 turnovers through six games, an alarming stat for any quarterback and one that’s not sustainable if you want to challenge for the division title. The Dolphins made a move this week, acquiring tackle Bryant McKinnie from the Ravens, but it remains to be seen how much that will help. For the Patriots, there will be plenty of opportunities to get after the quarterback — this could be a breakthrough week for guys like defensive ends Chandler Jones (a team-high 6.5 sacks) and Rob Ninkovich when it comes to generating pressure on the quarterback.

2. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels against his pass-first instincts – McDaniels spoke this week about the need to find the proper run/pass balance when it comes to game planning, but it’s clear he’s still struggling mightily with it to this point in the season. The bottom line is that when the Patriots run the ball consistently, they win — New England is 4-0 when it hits at least 100 yards on the ground as a team. In their two losses this year, the Patriots abandoned the run in the second half, despite the fact that both contests were one-score games. Against the Bengals, the Patriots ran the ball just six times in the second half. And in the overtime loss to the Jets last week, New England ran the ball just twice in the last seven minutes of regulation and into overtime. The Patriots should have plenty of chances to run the ball this week against Miami, as the Dolphins are middle-of-the-pack when it comes to run defense (102.8 rushing yards per game allowed, 15th; 3.8 yards per carry, 12th). If McDaniels lets them run, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount should certainly have their chances when it comes to moving the chains.

3. Tight end Rob Gronkowski against the Miami pass defense – Even though he later admitted he was gassed on a few occasions, it was clear the Patriots were interested in having Gronk jump back into the mix as quickly as possible last Sunday against the Jets. (He was targeted 17 times in his season debut last week against the Jets. As a group, the New England tight ends were targeted 15 times through the first six games of the season combined.) In this context, as he continues to ramp back up to full strength, it will be interesting to see what he can do against a Miami pass defense that has struggled to contain tight ends. Historically, the Dolphins have always done relatively well slowing him down (22 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns in five games against Miami), but the Dolphins have had real issues against tight ends this season: Jimmy Graham (Saints) had four catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns in Week 4, Jordan Cameron (Browns) had nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 and Coby Fleener (Colts) had four catches for 69 yards and a touchdown in Week 2. In all, they’ve allowed four passing touchdowns to tight ends in six games. Not good numbers with someone like Gronkowski looming.

4. Under-the-radar opponent Patriots fans need to know – Chris Clemons is having a very good year for the Dolphins. One of the best coverage safeties in the league, he’s been a steady, consistent presence along the back line for Miami. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s played 439 snaps over the course of the first six games, but quarterbacks have completed just 3 of 8 passes thrown in his coverage area this year. (The three completions are second only to the two allowed by Rafael Bush of New Orleans, but Clemons has played almost 200 more snaps than Bush.) He’s allowed one touchdown, but also has one pick and a pair of passes defensed. While the Clemson product — who checks in at 6-foot and 208 pounds — might not have the size to run with Gronkowski, he will likely play a sizable role in Miami’s pass defense Sunday afternoon.

5. By the numbers – Per STATS, the Patriots have not lost consecutive AFC East games since 2006. The team that knocked them off in the second of those games was the Dolphins, 21-0, at Miami on December 10, 2006. Since 2007, the Pats are 32-7 against the AFC East in the regular season, including 17-2 at Gillette Stadium.

6. Quote of note – “Ready or not, I guess. The game’s coming. I feel as good as I can. Not really worried about the past — just worried about the future and excited and looking forward to Sunday.” — Wide receiver Danny Amendola on being ready to play this week. Amendola sat out last week’s game against the Jets with a concussion.

7. Patriots fans should be worried about … the third quarter. The Dolphins don’t light up the scoreboard coming out of halftime, but their 31 third-quarter points through the first six games of the season are respectable, and just about near the league average. It certainly makes the Patriots look small by comparison — New England is getting crushed 44-9 in the third quarter, and leads only the Bucs when it comes to third-quarter points. (The Patriots lost control of last week’s game against the Jets in the third quarter when they were outscored 17-0.) The Patriots have to do a better job of bringing energy and intensity out of the locker room at halftime.

8. Dolphins fans should be worried about … the Patriots controlling the tempo and getting out to an early lead. If New England is able to dictate the pace of the game to Miami, the Patriots should be able to make the Dolphins a one-dimensional, pass-first team by the second half. And for a Miami team that is already having serious issues when it comes to pass protection, that’s bad news.

9. One more thing – This game is really going to come down to the play of the respective offensive lines. Miami has to find a way to do a better job protecting Tannehill or it can forget about challenging the Patriots for divisional supremacy — the idea of a quarterback taking 69 sacks is flat-out ridiculous. (Part of that is on Tannehill, who has to know when he needs to get rid of the ball by tossing it out of bounds instead of taking the loss.) Meanwhile, New England has to shore up an offensive line that’s had protection issues of its own, particularly over the last three weeks. (Some of the Patriots struggles can be attributed to the fact that Gronkowski is continuing to work his way back to 100 percent — when healthy, he’s been one of the best blocking tight ends in the league the last few years.) So much of what the Patriots do on the offensive side of the ball is a cause-and-effect situation that comes down to timing: If an opponent has found a way to disrupt the New England offensive line, then that affects what Brady can and cannot do, particularly when it comes to passing the ball. Miami does a very good job getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as Oliver Vernon (3.5 sacks), Randy Starks (3 sacks) and Cameron Wake (2.5 sacks) have all shown an ability to get after the passer. For New England, the bottom line is that if Brady is able to get consistent protection, many of the issues that have dogged the offense over the last month will evaporate. As Logan Mankins said earlier in the week, “Whenever the line’s not playing good, it’s hard to score for us.”

10. Prediction –

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