The New England Patriots started off the 2018 season defeating the Houston Texans 27-20 in Gillette Stadium in week one. However, the next two games saw the Patriots struggle on offense and defense as the Jacksonville Jaguars exacted their revenge after falling in the AFC Championship game on January 31-20 and former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia defeated the Patriots handily

This week the New England Patriots welcomes the Miami Dolphins to Foxboro in a game with huge AFC East ramifications. The Dolphins are 3-0 having outlasted the Titans in week one in a game with multiple weather delays, went into New Jersey to defeat Sam Darnold and the Jets and came from behind last week to keep Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden from his first victory of 2018.

This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS on Sunday, September 30 at 1:00 PM ET and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 out of Boston and WPRI 12 in Providence. Kevin Harlan will handle play-by-play duties with Rich Gannon as the color analyst. Steve Tasker will work from the sidelines.

On the radio, Sunday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on ESPN Radio. Mark Kestecher will call the with the game with Kelly Stouffer providing analysis. Jeff Darlington will work from the sidelines. The New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York, and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color analysis.

Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.

The Patriots are in a rare position of being two games behind a division opponent after three weeks of the season. Suddenly, this week four match-up has become one with huge ramifications for the AFC East. A Dolphins’ road win puts the defending AFC Champions an almost insurmountable three games back after just four weeks.

A big problem for the Patriots has been a defense that is currently ranked 19th in the NFL in points scored and 28th in total yards and is allowing an average of 25.7 points per game  (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted). More troubling, they are 30th in the league on third down percentage allowing opponents to convert on 48.7% of their third downs.

Win on First Down

Conventional wisdom is that the secret to winning on third down is stopping the opponent on first down. For the New England Patriots’ defense, they haven’t stopped opponents on first, second and third down regardless of the down and distance.

For the Patriots, winning on first down requires their defensive line to make plays. So far the expensive duo of former first-round draft picks Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton have been ineffective with stopping any opponent running the football.

So far they have allowed 167 yards on the ground to the Texans, 104 yards to Jaguars and another 159 yards on the ground last week. All three teams’ lead backs have run with little opposition. Lamar Miller rushed 20 times for 98 yards in week one, T.J. Yeldon rushed ten times for 58 yards and last week Kerryon Johnson rushed 16 times for 101 yards.

Lawrence Guy has been effective at defensive tackle, but Brown and Shelton have been sieves. It has not helped that when they are in position, the edge has broken down (Keionta Davis and Deatrich Wise are not strong run-stoppers) and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower have been slow to get to the ball-carriers. Rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley was impressive but an injury (pectoral?) has landed him on injured reserve.

Miami has running back talent, but the offensive line has struggled to make room for the ageless Frank Gore (24 rushes for 98 yards) and impressive young back Kenyan Drake (30 rushes for 104 yards). As usual, it has been quarterback Ryan Tannehill getting outside the pocket and scrambling (15 rushes for 74 yards).

The game plan on defense has to account for the running game on early downs and keep Tannehill inside the pocket with a controlled pass rush. The return of Trey Flowers and an increased role for defensive end Adrian Clayborn.

Big Play Alert

Miami has made their way to victory in 2018 with big plays. Seven of their eight passing touchdowns have been for 18 or more yards. That includes a 75-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of week one and a 52 yards pass from wide receiver Albert Wilson in the fourth quarter last week followed by a 74-yard pass to Wilson later to clinch the victory over Oakland.

Other than Danny Amendola, the Dolphins’ receivers are piling up big yards. Wilson (17.8 yards per reception), Jakeem Grant (15 yards per reception), tight end A.J. Derby (17.5 yards per reception), DeVante Parker (20 yards per reception) and Kenny Stills (20.4 yards per reception) are living off the big play.

For the New England Patriots, keeping the Dolphins from big, chunk downfield gains is a priority. That starts with Kenny Stills. Stills is a speedster with deceiving size at six-foot-one and 200 pounds. He has excellent body control reacting to the ball in the air much like Brandin Cooks (another former Saints receiver). Stills has not had a lot of success against New England (18 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns in seven career games).

Tannehill has spread the ball around to his receivers: Amendola leads with 11 receptions through three games but Drake, Grant and Still have nine catches and Wilson has eight catches. This puts pressure on all the of the New England secondary.

Expect New England to have their best cornerback Stephon Gilmore tracking Stills with help from a safety. That leaves Jason McCourty (with Eric Rowe unlikely to play due to a groin injury that kept him out last week). Wilson has been explosive when targeted with a 74-yard touchdown and 29-yard touchdown through three games.

The Patriots know what they will get from Danny Amendola as the safety valve and chain-mover on third down. Jonathan Jones has been up-and-down so far in 2018 and needs to be dialed in on Sunday.

Third wide receiver Jakeem Grant is a speedster with two touchdowns receiving and a kickoff return already in 2018. At five-foot-seven and 170 pounds, “Mighty Mouse” had 13 career receptions coming into 2018. He has replaced former first-round draft pick DeVante Parker in the offense in the first two games with Parker playing his first game last week.

Expect Parker, who can be a match-up problem at six-foot-three, to work the sidelines. Entering year four of his career, Parker has three 100-yard receiving games and two of those were against the Patriots. If New England has to move a starter to cover Parker, it could open up big plays for Grant, Wilson or Stills against a safety or rookie cornerback.

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