New England Patriots vs. Miami Dolphins: Preview, pick, time, channel, statistics to know for AFC East showdown
Can Ryan Tannehill and the surprising Dolphins continue their success Sunday in New England?
When taking a peek at the division standings through the first three weeks of the 2018 NFL season, perhaps the most surprising thing you'll see is at the top of the AFC East. Rather than the New England Patriots, you'll see the Miami Dolphins. New England is 1-2 after dropping back-to-back games to the Jaguars and Lions, while the Dolphins are 3-0 after consecutive victories over the Titans, Jets, and Raiders.
New England has gotten off to a slow start before and still come back to win the division. They've won the AFC East in 15 of the past 17 seasons, with the only exceptions being 2002 and 2008. In 2008, though, it was the Dolphins who took the division crown when Tom Brady was injured. That Miami team took the league completely by surprise with an innovative offense and one of the stingiest defenses in football.
Are we looking at a repeat of the same scenario 10 years later? Sunday's AFC East showdown (1 p.m., CBS) could provide some answers. Here's what to look out for when the Pats and Dolphins square off.
When the Dolphins have the ball
Let's start here: little of what the Dolphins are doing offensively seems remotely sustainable, or even solely attributable to what their actual offense is doing. (Things look very cool schematically and they're popping some big plays, but read on to see why there's not as much under the hood as you might think.)
Miami ranks 23rd in yards and 31st in plays run so far in 2018. The Dolphins rank seventh in yards per play but they're 28th in first downs, 28th in third-down conversion rate, and 25th in yards per drive. They've turned only 32.4 percent of their drives into points, 21st in the league. And despite all that, they have the 11th-most points in the NFL. What on earth is going on?
Well, they're one of 14 teams with a defensive or special teams touchdown, having gotten a kick-return score from Jakeem Grant back in Week 1. So, that helps. But mostly, they're benefitting from league-best field position, starting their average drive on the 35.4 yard line -- nearly three yards closer to the end zone than any other team in the league and more than seven yards closer than the average NFL team. (Three yards might not seem like a lot but it's equivalent to the difference between the team with the second-best field position and the team in ninth. It's not nothing.) It's also 2.5 yards closer than the league-best starting field position the Rams enjoyed last season.
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Ryan Tannehill has thrown seven touchdowns on just 74 pass attempts, a rate wildly out of line with his career norms (throwing a touchdown on 9.5 percent of his passes would nearly double his current career-best touchdown rate), and the Dolphins also got a 52-yard touchdown pass last Sunday from Albert Wilson. So, eight of their 75 passes have gone for scores. The likelihood of that continuing seems vanishingly low. Additionally, Tannehill's current 9.3 yards per attempt figure is far ahead of his career-best 7.7 yards per attempt, indicating that he is likely due for some regression on that front as well. Considering the current target distribution of the offense -- Grant leads the team with 14 targets despite having played less than 40 percent of the offensive snaps -- it would not be surprising if the pass offense took a large step backward fairly soon.
If and when that happens, the Dolphins better hope their run game improves. It almost has to be better than it was last week against the Raiders, when Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore combined for 15 yards on eight carries. It's not as though Drake, who broke out last season in the led back role, had been crushing it previously, however; he had been averaging just barely 4.0 yards per carry through the season's first two weeks.
All that said, the likelihood of Miami's offense falling off a cliff this week, in particular, seems low. The New England defense has been carved up through the air and on the ground so far this season, and just this week the Patriots placed one of the few defenders who could reasonably be described as playing well (linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley) on Injured Reserve. They've struggled to create pressure (only the Raiders have fewer sacks than New England's four), the secondary seems eminently beatable, and the front has not gotten nearly enough push in the run game (they're allowing 4.7 yards per carry).
When the Patriots have the ball
The Patriots are off to their worst offensive start in years. New England has just 57 points through the first three weeks of the season, their fourth-lowest scoring total to this point of the season in the entire Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. (And one of the three seasons below this one is the 2008 campaign when Brady tore his ACL on opening day.) That total also represents a steep drop from a year ago, when the Patriots had 99 points through their first three games of the season.
The New England running game, in particular, has struggled to get on track -- and that may not cease any time soon. Jeremy Hill was lost for the season to a torn ACL in Week 1, and Rex Burkhead was placed on Injured Reserve with a neck injury earlier this week. Add in the fact that rookie Sony Michel is seemingly still hobbled by the knee injury that plagued him during training camp and has been wildly ineffective so far -- 24 carries for 84 yards -- and it's not looking good for the Patriots rushing attack. James White is clearly the team's best option in the backfield at this point, but he's already nearly a third of the way to what would be a career-high in carries and he's carried the ball only 13 times. (His 43 carries last season were the most of his career.) The Pats like to use short passes as an extension of the running game and White does an excellent job chipping in on that front (he already has 14 grabs for 125 yards and two scores); but the absence of stalwarts like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola has definitely been felt early on in the year.
The struggles of the run game do not seem like the fault of the offensive line, either. According to Sports Info Solutions, Patriots offensive linemen have blown just three run blocks this season, and committed only one holding penalty in the run game. The line ranks ninth in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards, which assigns credit to the offensive line in the run game based on a percentage of yards gained per carry. The Pats have also had just nine percent of their runs stuffed in the backfield, the third-lowest share in the league. Instead, the fault seems to lie with the backs, who have done a below-average job of creating yardage after first contact. (New England ranks 22nd in the league in yards after contact per carry.)
The run game issues, however, pale in comparison to New England's difficulties in an area that should be familiar to anyone who has ever attempted to pinpoint an offensive issue for the Patriots over the years: downfield passing. Brady struggled for a few years in the early 2010s to throw the ball downfield, but in recent seasons he had cleaned that issue up and become an excellent deep thrower. This year has been a return to poor form. On throws 15 or more yards downfield, Brady is just 6 of 18 for 139 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His 57.4 passer rating on such throws ranks 31st among the 34 quarterbacks who have attempted at least five passes 15 or more yards downfield.
The loss of burner Brandin Cooks, who provided the Patriots offense with its sole deep speed element last season, has played a role, as has Brady's inability to form a meaningful connection with Phillip Dorsett -- the struggles that we saw last week against the Lions were particularly noticeable. Perhaps more concerning is his struggle to connect in any real way with Chris Hogan, who has just seven catches for 84 yards in three games. Cordarrelle Patterson has been a non-factor. The heavy-formation flex guys -- Jacob Hollister, James Develin -- have made minimal impact. And Rob Gronkowski is off to a muted start with just 13 catches for 186 yards and a score.
It's not the best news for the Pats that they are squaring off with a Miami pass defense that has looked spectacular so far this season, with cornerback Xavien Howard in particular looking like a potential shut-down guy early in the season. Howard has been targeted in coverage 13 times this season, per Sports Info Solutions, and opponents' passer rating is 7.05 on those throws. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Brady typically bounces back after weak performances like the one he had against the Lions, but he's in a particularly tough spot this week. All that said, actually picking against him and Belichick seems like a particularly unwise idea. Every time it looks like they might really be on the downslide this time, they always manage to turn it around. And besides, those guys are a ridiculous 14-1 against Miami at home in their time together.
Pick: Patriots 31, Dolphins 24
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