Here are 10 things worth keeping an eye on in Monday’s matchup between the Patriots and Dolphins:
Randy Moss on Vontae Davis: The best individual matchup of the night. In the first contest between the two teams last year, Moss was dominant, catching six passes for 147 yards and a touchdown in a 27-17 win. But the Illinois product, then a rookie, evened the score the second time around. After getting scorched for a 58-yard touchdown in the first quarter, he limited Moss to just one more catch (a meaningless eight-yard gain) and came away with an interception in a 22-21 Dolphins victory.
“Just to be out there competing against him, holding my own, it gave me the mind-set that I could play in this league,’’ Davis told the Miami Herald this week when asked about last year’s meetings with Moss. “I can be pretty good in this league. That’s just a really good feeling. I just thanked God to have the opportunity.”
Forgetting Brandon Marshall: The Patriots will try and get physical with Marshall, their leading receiver and one of the best in the league in a variety of statistical departments. That likely means a heavy dose of their most physical corner, rookie Devin McCourty. McCourty has shown willingness to body up against receivers — for more on that, click here — but he faces a real test with the Pro Bowl receiver, who loves the physical game.
“Yeah, I try and match up and be physical with receivers, especially with him. If you’re not physical, he’ll just dominate you,” McCourty said. “Hopefully, my physical abilities will help me.”
“With his size and speed and ability to catch the ball, I know he’s having a great year,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said of Marshall. “He’s had a good season. They’ve got a good group of receivers, so hopefully we find a way to limit what they are able to do. But that’s been challenging for teams this year. They’ve got a very good offense.”
Second-half struggles: We’re beating a dead horse here, but the Patriots continue to struggle to close out opponents in the third and fourth quarter, especially on the road. In 2009, New England outscored opponents, 282-136 in the first half of games. They were outscored by their foes 149-145 in the second half and overtime, which led to road losses in New York, Indianapolis, Denver and Miami.
This season, through three games, it’s more of the same: the Patriots are outscoring opponents 55-29 in the first half, but are being outscored 53-35 after the half through three games. In its only road game of the year, New England had a good first half, but an 18-0 second-half shutout set the stage for a 28-14 loss to the Jets in East Rutherford. It’ll take 60 minutes of football to beat the Dolphins.
Special teams: New England’s special teams unit, which had started the year on a strong note, stumbled last week against the Bills. Zoltan Mesko had the worst of his three outings, punting three times and averaging 37.7 yards per boot, while Buffalo kick returner C.J. Spiller ran one back 95 yards. In addition, while kicker Stephen Gostkowski is delivering some excellent kickoffs, he’s only 2-for-5 on field goal attempts. A standout performance on special teams would go a long way toward picking up a struggling defense.
Arrington vs. Butler: With Butler in the doghouse after his poor performance the week before against the Jets, it was Arrington who saw most of the time at left corner last week against the Bills. (Butler ended up playing four defensive snaps.) Publicly, Butler wasn’t bitter about what happened, but right now, Arrington will likely draw the start Monday against the Dolphins.
“This is a production business, and if you’re not producing, you’re not going to be on the field on Sunday,” Butler shrugged Wednesday. “I guess my play wasn’t up to par, and I wasn’t on the field, and that’s obviously where I want to be. So I have to do whatever it takes to get back on there.”
Keeping an eye out for the Wildcat: It’s not the weapon it used to be for Miami — according to Dolphins writer Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post, the Dolphins have run it just 14 times, this season (with one wiped out due to penalty) and have gained a total of 24 yards (1.71 per play). But Belichick and the Patriots are expecting at least some of it Monday night.
“They use it every week, so I think its part of their offense,” Belichick said. “They have a different version of it each week; they change the formation or the look or they give you a different look on it. ... I think it’s still there. I think every team is going to see it and probably depending on how well they do or don’t do against it, you get more or less of it.
Patriots pass-rush — up the middle or outside: Over the first three games, New England has been getting good pressure up the middle, with Vince Wilfork and Gerard Warren causing more disruption in the pocket than the Patriots’ outside linebackers. In addition, the Patriots were able to show some different blitzing schemes early last week against the Bills, getting safety Brandon Meriweather and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo free to get after the quarterback. Wouldn’t be shocked to see more of that on Monday.
One point worth noting is when the Patriots and Dolphins met last season, New England moved Wilfork to end to match up with massive Dolphins tackle Jake Long. It’s worth keeping an eye out for some of this Monday evening.
How the Dolphins defend the tight ends: Miami has struggled to defend tight ends since the start of the 2009 season — according to ESPN’s ace AFC East blogger Tim Graham, tight ends accumulated a nice stat line against Miami last year: 68 receptions for 993 yards and four touchdowns. Through three games in 2010, opposing tight ends are on pace to catch 69 passes for 1,099 yards and 11 touchdowns against the Dolphins. In that same stretch, Aaron Hernandez has 13 catches for a team-high 211 yards, while fellow rookie Rob Gronkowski has five catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns. (Combined, they form more than one-third of the numbers New England has compiled in the passing game.)
Look for the Patriots to do everything possible to try and exploit this matchup, a clear advantage.
“The two rookies — they’re doing some good things,” Brady said of Hernandez and Gronkowski. “They have to do better things, too. We all do. We’re expected to. They’ve made some nice catches. They’re going to need to. If they’re open, they’re going to catch it. They’ve been in a position to catch balls, so I throw it to them.”
Run to daylight: It’s not like the Patriots are going to try and become a run-first team, but with Fred Taylor out for the game, it’ll be BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Sammy Morris who will get the bulk of the carries for New England. Green-Ellis looked solid last week against the Bills, accounting for 98 of the 200 rushing yards the Patriots were able to compile. Don’t look for the Patriots to lean too much on its running game — instead, they are hoping they can do just enough to keep the Dolphins’ defense honest.
In addition, they will rely more on changeup back Danny Woodhead to take many of the snaps that previously went to Kevin Faulk, while Thomas Clayton should also provide depth in the same way that Green-Ellis did in previous seasons, at least for the time being.
Avoiding the Miami blues: Tom Brady is 10-6 in his career against the Dolphins, but just 3-5 in South Florida, and has suffered some of the most agonizing losses of his career in Miami. (Click here to revisit the trail of tears.)
While there have been great victories for the Patriots in South Florida — 2007 and 2008 come to mind — there have been more bad losses than stirring wins: New England has lost 15 of the 23 games the two teams have played at Dolphins/Pro Player/Joe Robbie/Sun Life Stadium since the facility first opened in 1987.
“I don’t think we’ve played particularly well [in Miami]. Certainly in the early part of my career, we got beat quite a bit down there. There was a long streak for a long time that we hadn’t won down there,” Brady said.
“I think what it means is that there’s not a lot of margin for error down there. So as an offense, I think we have to understand that they have a very good defense and they play well at home. So, you’re right, it’s a tough contest for us every time we go down there, every time we play those guys.”