Here are the 10 matchups we’ll be looking for in Saturday’s game between the Patriots and Dolphins:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Rob Gronkowski against Karlos Dansby: According to one scout we spoke with who has broken down tape on both teams, while the Dolphins secondary has major issues, their linebackers are actually pretty good in pass coverage, especially when it comes to matching up sizewise with opposing tight ends. Pro Football Focus has Karlos Dansby rated as one of the best linebackers in pass coverage this season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dansby spend time trying to match up with Gronkowski (75 catches, 1,141 yards and an NFL-record 15 touchdown catches for a tight end). And then, there’s always the possibility the Patriots decide on using Gronkowski more as a blocker than a pass catcher (as they did against the Broncos), which would make the contributions of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez paramount if New England is to continue its run of success in the passing game.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis against the Miami run defense: Regardless of his recent slippage in production, it won’t be fair to read too much into Green Ellis’ numbers this week for two reasons: one, he showed up in the injury report Wednesday with an illness, and given New England’s recent running back rotation (Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley have gotten more carries over the last month), it already wasn’t shaping up for him to have a big week anyway. Two, given the fact that the Patriots continue to excel at throwing the ball (and the Miami pass defense remains suspect), look for New England to focus on throwing the ball instead of running it this week.
Matt Light against Jason Taylor: These two have been at the heart of several AFC East battles over the last decade, but it might be the final time they face each other on Brady’s blind side. While the 33-year-old Light probably isn’t going anywhere (he’s signed for one more year with New England), it’s possible this will be the final season for the 37-year-old Taylor. Over the course of their careers, Taylor has frequently gotten the better of Light, but the veteran tackle is having one of his best seasons in some time. Meanwhile, Taylor (six sacks) is on pace for his finest season since 2007, the last year he hit double digits in sacks (11). Light has stood tall against a series of excellent pass rushers over the last month, and while Light could face a few different people, he’ll almost certainly clash with Taylor at some point on Saturday.
Wes Welker/Deion Branch against the Miami secondary: The two came up huge in the season opener, combining for 15 catches, 253 yards and two touchdowns when these two teams met back in September. (Included in that was a 99-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Welker.) It was all part of a horrific evening for the Dolphins’ pass defense, which yielded 517 passing yards by Brady. While things have improved for the Miami secondary -- the last seven games, it has allowed just seven passing touchdowns and come away with 11 picks -- soft spots and depth remain an issue. Figure that Vontae Davis will spend a lot of time on Branch.
The Patriots offense against the collective memory of the Miami defense: To a man, the Dolphins’ defense remembers the beating that Brady and the rest of the New England offense put on them in the season opener. That night, the quarterback passed for a career-high 517 yards and four touchdowns, as New England piled up a franchise-record 622 yards. Miami defensive coordinator Mike Nolan called it the worst game of his 25-year coaching career, and Todd Bowles, the interim head coach who was the team’s defensive backs coach that evening, said, “Nothing worked -- man, zone, pressure, prevent. (Brady) completed everything.” The Dolphins’ defense would love to atone for that effort, and while Bowles said Miami has no interest in playing the role of spoiler, the Dolphins (and specifically, the defense) would still love a little payback on Saturday.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Jerod Mayo against Reggie Bush: The last two weeks, the Patriots have been gashed badly in the running game (they were able to make the needed adjustments in the second quarter to slow things down against the Broncos), and while that doesn’t fall specifically on Mayo’s shoulders, he’ll play a large part this week in helping try to slow down Bush. The former USC back has emerged as an every down back for the first time in his career this season, and has looked impressive over the second half of the season. The former Heisman Trophy winner has rushed for more than 100 yards the last three weeks, including 203 last weekend against Buffalo. He’s also still a threat in the passing game, and the Patriots have struggled at times to try and contain multidimensional backs in the passing game (Fred Jackson, Roy Helu).
Devin McCourty against Brandon Marshall: In the season opener, while the Patriots’ defense focused their attention on stopping other offensive options, New England left McCourty alone against Marshall in single coverage for much of the evening. Marshall responded with a beastly seven catches for 139 yards, and McCourty began what has been, to this point, a difficult season. McCourty has played better over the last two weeks (particularly in the second half of the win over Washington), and will look to build on that Saturday against Miami. Don’t look for the Patriots to play man coverage exclusively, but when New England does move into single coverage, look for McCourty to get the bulk of the reps opposite Marshall.
Mark Anderson against the Miami offensive line: Without Andre Carter, it certainly appears that the bulk of the Patriots’ pass rushing duties will fall to Anderson, who was second on the team behind Carter in sacks and quarterback hits. On passing downs, Carter traditionally lined up on the quarterbacks’ blind side, with Anderson on the other side. Without Carter, you wonder if Bill Belichick will flip Anderson to the other side in hopes of trying to generate some pressure on Miami quarterback Matt Moore’s blind side.
The Patriots’ safeties against the Dolphins’ tight ends: Injuries have this matchup up in the air at this point, as Patrick Chung made a rare appearance at practice with New England on Thursday. (If a player talks during the week, it’s usually a good sign when it comes to their game-day availability.) Chung, who has been sidelined since early last month because of a foot injury, could be matched up against Miami tight end Anthony Fasano, who had five catches for 82 yards in the season opener. However, Fasano is questionable for Saturday’s game, as he was recently diagnosed with a low-grade concussion. Fasano is not having a standout season, but his five receiving touchdowns tie him for the team lead and he remains a fairly reliable red-zone threat. If Chung can’t go, expect James Ihedigbo to take over many of his responsibilities, as he has done over the last month. Meanwhile, if Fasano can’t go, expect the Dolphins to involve
The Patriots’ slot/nickel corner against Davone Bess: Leigh Bodden was a large part of the reason the Patriots had success in the season opener against Bess (who had been a thorn in New England's side the last few years), but without Bodden, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots try and throw multiple looks at him in the slot.