Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top 5 match-ups that will determine which team emerges victorious.
The New England Patriots rolled to an easy victory last week against their AFC East rivals the Buffalo Bills by a 23-3 margin. The game, however, was marred by injuries, penalties, and an idiotic move by tight end Rob Gronkowski. That led to him being suspended for this weeks’ game against the Dolphins. The defense carried the day keeping Buffalo out of the end zone on two trips to the red zone.
Miami is coming off their best game of the season beating the Denver Broncos 35-9. Miami sandwiched a pair of safeties around a dominant performance on the ground by Kenyan Drake in his first opportunity as the primary running back gaining 120 yards on 23 carries (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). Jay Cutler threw two interceptions but Miami still had plenty of offense and their defense shut down the ineffective Trevor Siemian.
The 10-2 Patriots leave snowy Foxboro, MA to travel to Miami, FL where the temperatures are expected to drop into the fifties to face the 5-7 Dolphins during the Monday night matchup.
This week’s match-up will be broadcast by ESPN and can be seen locally on WCVB-TV Channel 5 in the greater Boston area and WLNE-TV Channel 6 in the greater Providence area and Southeastern New England. Former Boston Red Sox announcer Sean McDonough will handle play-by-play duties with Super Bowl champion head coach (and loser to Bill Belichick/Tom Brady in the Snow Bowl/Tuck Rule Game) Jon Gruden as the color analyst. Lisa Salters will work the sidelines
On the radio, this week’s game will be broadcast to a national audience by Westwood One Sports. Kevin Harlan and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner (and loser to Bill Belichick/Tom Brady in Super Bowl 36) will call the game. Hub Arkush will work the sidelines.
Locally, the Patriots’ flagship station 98.5 FM the Sports Hub will carry the game on the Patriots Radio Network. The Patriots are on the radio on 40 stations throughout the nation and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color.
Now that you know how to watch and listen to the game, here are the five key match-ups to watch that will determine if the Patriots continue their winning ways and extend their eight-game winning streak against the Miami Dolphins on the road in prime-time or if Jay Cutler will pull off the upset.
1. NE DE Trey Flowers and DE Eric Lee vs MIA RT Sam Young and LT Laremy Tunsil
Two weeks ago the New England Patriots piled up seven sacks again the Miami Dolphins with Trey Flowers leading the way with 2.0 sacks. However, the rest of the sacks came from inside linebackers Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy, cornerback Jonathan Jones and edge rusher Eric Lee in his first action for the Patriots.
The Patriots turned on their blitz packages after having generated just 17 sacks heading into this game against the Dolphins. Last week they added another four sacks against Buffalo with Lee adding another 1.5 sacks.Lee has given the edge rushers a boost and stepped in the last few weeks with injuries to Deatrich Wise Jr. and Trey Flowers and following the release of Cassius Marsh.
Miami has had their issues with the offensive line this season starting with offensive line coach Chris Foerster being dismissed after a video surfaced earlier in the season of him snorting a white substance. The Dolphins brought in former Patriots offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo as a special offensive assistant to handle the offensive line in the interim.
The Miami offensive line has struggled and the loss of starting right tackle Ja’Wuan James for the season forced journeyman Sam Young into the starting lineup. Starting guard Jermon Bushrod has missed the last two weeks and will be out on Monday night once again having Jesse Davis step into the starting group at guard.
Two weeks ago the Patriots got six of their seven sacks in the second half as they pinned their ears back and went after Miami quarterback Matt Moore when they had the lead. Young actually had a good game and per PFF was the only Dolphins’ lineman to not allow a sack in that week 12 game. This week they will need to pay extra attention to running back Kenyan Drake and will need to generate pressure from their edge rushers.
When playing with a lead the New England defense has been able to dial up the pressure and attack a weak offensive line with a number of looks and pass rushers from all over the field. On Monday night, in enemy territory, the Patriots are going to need to get pressure on the immobile Jay Cutler early and often. The individual battles with Flowers and Lee against Tunsil and Young will go a long way to getting a win on the road.
2. NE WR Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan vs MIA CB Xavien Howard and CB Bobby McCain
Against the Dolphins two weeks ago the New England Patriots passed for just 227 yards and the tight ends accounted for six catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. The wide receivers had a quiet day as Danny Amendola and Phillip Dorsett had just two receptions between the two of them. Brandin Cooks carried the load with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
The Dolphins used Xavien Howard and rookie Cordrea Tankersley in coverage much of the day with Bobby McCain ejected after fighting with Amendola. This week the Dolphins will be short again without Tankersley listed as doubtful and has not practiced all week. Miami will likely have McCain on the outside, in base coverage and sliding inside while veteran Alterraun Verner coming in to cover on the outside in nickel packages.
The Patriots are expected to get wide receiver Chris Hogan back on Monday night after missing four games with a shoulder injury. Hogan had played a key role in making up for the loss of Julian Edelman in the first half of the season while allowing Danny Amendola to limit his snaps. Without Hogan, Brady only targeted Dorsett just three times in four games.
Hogan was a reliable receiver for Brady in the first eight weeks targeted 54 times in eight games. In contrast, last season in 15 games he was targeted just 58 times in his first season in New England. His increased trust earned from Brady made him a much-needed boost to the passing offense. The passing offense clearly missed him and explains the increased reliance on the running game in the past few weeks.
Miami does not need to be shorthanded in the secondary on Monday night but Tankersley has been a starter even though he has struggled. McCain has been the top cornerback on the team but that is not saying much with Miami’s defense, having allowed 25 touchdowns in 12 games and 15th in passing yards allowed.
Based on individual grades, Pro Football Focus ranks McCain as Miami’s top cornerback so far in 2017 ranking 47th in the league. Tankersley is ranked 73rd and second-year cornerback Howard, after a rough rookie season limited to seven games is near the bottom of cornerbacks and ranks 117th. Expect the wide receivers to be a much bigger part of the game plan on Monday night for New England.
3. NE RT LaAdrian Waddle and/or RT Cameron Fleming vs MIA DE Cameron Wake
The Miami Dolphins are again leaning on veteran Cameron Wake to provide the pass rush this season. With the team sacking the quarterback just 21 times in 12 games so far in 2017, Wake at age 35 leads the team with eight sacks. Ndamukong Suh and edge rusher Andre Branch have a combined 7.5 sacks and no one else has more than one sack this season.
With Wake lining up primarily against the right tackle, New England may have a struggle on Monday night. Top right tackle and second-team All-Pro last year Marcus Cannon has missed the last four games with an ankle injury and is out on Monday night. In his place, LaAdrian Waddle stepped in against Wake, J.J. Watt, Khalil Mack, and Von Miller and shut down all of the top pass rushers.
Unfortunately, he injured his ankle against Miami two weeks ago and New England turned to third-string right tackle Cameron Fleming. Fleming allowed a sack to Wake in that game and held up well against Shaq Lawson, Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes in Buffalo. Fleming is a devastating run blocker but struggles in pass blocking.
Waddle will likely be a game-time decision as his ankle injury has left him questionable all week. If he and wide receiver Chris Hogan are both healthy, it could be a big boost to the passing game on Monday night. Slowing Wake is a key component to victory and the Patriots will need whoever is at right tackle to play well on Monday night.
4. NE LBs David Harris and LB Elandon Roberts vs MIA RB Kenyan Drake
Miami got their running game in gear last week against the Denver Broncos. Kenyan Drake took over as the lead back with Jay Ajayi traded to Philadelphia and Damien Williams out with a dislocated left shoulder. Last year’s third-round draft pick powered for 120 yards rushing in his first career NFL game with double-digit carries in two seasons.
Last year Drake was buried on the bench behind Ajayi and Williams and rushed just 33 times for 179 yards. In the first six weeks of 2017, he had just four carries for three yards. Since Ajayi was traded on Halloween Drake split playing time with Williams and had two games averaged over 7.5 yards per carry and two games averaging under 2.25 yards per carry before busting out last week against the Broncos.
Drake does not have a lot of game tape for the Patriots’ coaches and defense to pore over. In addition, the Patriots have already ruled out middle linebacker Kyle Van Noy for the game. With defensive captain and middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower already on injured reserve, the Patriots are testing the depth of their linebacker ground going with veteran David Harris next to Elandon Roberts.
For depth, the Patriots have Marquis Flowers who has performed well in limited opportunities and the team brought back Jonathan Freeny to give them another player familiar with the defensive scheme at linebacker. In addition, the Patriots have played a number of light fronts this season with extra players in the secondary on the field and using safety Jordan Richards as a linebacker.
The New England run defense was gashed for 183 yards by Buffalo but playing with a lead all game it was almost as if the Patriots were letting Buffalo run and focused entirely on stopping the passing game. It was a game plan that is hard to fault with the result a 20-point win. The Patriots have allowed 1,449 yards on the ground (26th in the NFL) and an NFL worst 5.1 yards per rush. However, they are second in the league having allowed just five rushing touchdowns.
There have been few chances for the Patriots to actually have to be able to stop the run in order to win the game. On the road against a tough divisional opponent, it may be this week that they need to do so.
5. NE RB Dion Lewis and RB Rex Burkhead vs MIA LB Kiko Alonso and LB Lawrence Timmons
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots have discovered their rushing attack in the past two games after three straight games with less than 100 yards rushing (granted, they rushed for 97, 99, and 89 yards and won all three games). The past few weeks have seen a heavy dose of Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead in the backfield splitting the carries.
Against Miami in week 12 the Patriots piled up 196 yards on the Dolphins for their most yards on the ground since Jonas Gray led them to 246 yards on the ground against the Colts in November 2014. To put that in perspective, the Patriots also had Shane Vereen, Brandon LaFell, Tim Wright, Michael Hoomanawanui, Bryan Tims, Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer as key contributors or starters on offense that day.
Last week Lewis led the way with 92 yards on 15 carries against the Bills and with 112 yards on 15 carries the week before against Miami. Burkhead was right behind with 78 yards on 12 carries last week against Buffalo and 13 rushes for 50 yards in week 12 versus the Dolphins. New England has left running back Mike Gillislee as a healthy scratch since the Chargers game in week eight.
For Miami, stopping the run has been an issue as they rank 21st in the NFL having allowed 1,398 yards and 4.3 yards per rush. Part of the problem has been up front where the defensive line has underachieved. Last season they finished 30th against the run allowing 2,247 yards and 4.8 yards per rush. In 2015 Miami was 28th against the run allowing over 2,000 yards.
Interior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has had little help in his time in Miami with inexperienced Jordan Phillips struggling against the run and veteran Earl Mitchell at the end of his effectiveness in his time in Miami. This season, Suh has had the underperforming Phillips and fifth-round draft pick rookie Davon Godchaux and sixth-round draft pick rookie Vincent Taylor next to him inside.
On the edge, Miami has really struggled against the run. Andre Branch and Cameron Wake both are focused on collapsing the pocket too often and first-round draft pick Charles Harris also too often does not set the edge. The loss of William Hayes removed some depth from the position, but he was no better against the run.
Too often that leaves inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Kiko Alonso responsible for slowing the run on their own. Of course, the Patriots also love using their running backs in the passing game. Lewis and Burkhead are both very good receivers coming out of the backfield and third-down back James White may be the best receiving running back in the league not named Alvin Kamara.
Timmons is not very good at coverage as age has eaten away at his speed and quickness and he is a liability. Alonso is the best coverage linebacker in Miami and will be responsible for the backs out of the backfield when possible. In week 12 Miami did well holding White, Burkhead, and Lewis to four receptions for six yards (although most of those were poorly executed screen passes).
This may be another week where New England leans on the running backs not just on the ground but in the air as well.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01.