Here are three things to watch for during as the New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins at 1 p.m Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
But first, some context: Both teams are trying to bounce back from disappointing losses. The Patriots snapped a 12-game win streak over divisional opponents with their loss the Jets last Sunday but at 5-2 Belichick and co. still own the top spot in the AFC East. The Dolphins meanwhile, are trying to recapture their early season form when they jumped out to a 3-0 record before crashing down to earth and losing their next three straight.
What to watch for:
Can the Pats’ move the ball through the air?
With Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski on the field together for the first time this season, the Pats’ 18th ranked passing offense ought to be able to exploit Miami’s overmatched secondary. The Dolphins rank 17th in pass defense and have given up a league-worst nine passing plays of 30 yards or longer.
Can Miami exploit New England’s now-vulnerable front seven?
The Patriots have allowed an average of 127 rushing yards per game this season, second worst in the NFL. With Vince Wilfork out for the season and Tommy Kelly once again on the sidelines, the Patriots are weak at defensive tackle, trotting out rookies Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Marcus Forston. Behind them, the impact of losing defensive captain Jerod Mayo was abundantly clear last Sunday when the Jets gashed New England for 177 yards on the ground.
The good news for the Pats? The Dolphins stink at running the ball. They rank 25th in the league, averaging just 78 yards on the ground.
Will the Dolphins protect their quarterback? (And will he protect the ball?)
No one in the league has been sacked more times than Tannehill, who has been brought down 26 times in six games. The second-year quarterback is also second in the league with seven lost fumbles along with seven interceptions.
The Pats are a middle-of-the-road defense in terms of sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles this year. It’s not a strength but it’s also not a weakness. Last Sunday the Patriots were burned on a couple of long runs by Geno Smith. Ryan Tannehill is a far better athlete and Geno Smith so if New England hopes to rack up the sacks, they’ll have to make sure they can keep him in the pocket. That starts with the defensive line but also falls on the linebackers, who must do a better job taking away the running lanes when things break down for Tannehill.