Friday, September 5, 2014

New England Patriots on Paper - Defensive line may prove too much for Dolphins' makeshift blockers

Playing along the offensive line in football is nothing short of a street fight.

A street fight involving well conditioned 300 pound men in pads and helmets - on grass, or like substance rather than asphalt and concrete -and the only weapons allowed are their big meat hooks, guile and every ounce of muscle that they can muster.

It is the stuff of legend. A teams' offensive fortunes can more often than not be tied to the performance of the big uglies - and it isn't just in one attribute.  If the line can't open lanes for the running game, the opposing defense can pin their collective ears back and send everything they can spare at the quarterback - and if they have a tough time pass blocking, the quarterback may as well be issued a blindfold and a cigarette.
Jones and Ninkovich may have plenty to celebrate on Sunday

It is all about the line, and no one really knows for sure what to expect from the offensive lines of either the New England Patriots or the Miami Dolphins this Sunday.

The Dolphins are breaking in five new starters, which is a terrible way to fly - and the only thing that could be worse for coach Joe Philbin if is if he still had last season's front five, who allowed quarterback Ryan Tannehill to be sacked 58 times, and to be hit times-two.  There's no need to stem on the absolute daytime TV drama that the team had to endure, suffice to say just about anything is better than revisiting that.

Even with starting interior linemen named Daryn Colledge, Samson Satele and Shelley Smith.

Branden Albert bolted from the Kansas City Chiefs to bring his considerable blind-side talent to Miami Gardens, but the Pro Bowl left tackle is the only battle-tested lineman among the starting five, as center Mike Pouncey is on the shelf following off season hip surgery, which doesn't bode well for the Dolphins' running game - ranked 26th in the NFL last season.

In fact, Miami's ground game was so putrid in 2013 that Tannehill qualified as the team's third-leading rusher while running for his life, while their second best ball carrier, Daniel Thomas, was released last week as part of final cutdowns, as he lost out to former Denver Broncos' back Knowshon Moreno, incumbent starter Lamar Miller and two undrafted free agents.

Moreno, of course, is a proven back - as is Miller - but the Dolphins could have the Almighty at running back and it wouldn't make any difference if their odd assortment of journeymen and rookies can't get push against the Patriots' oh-so-stout front seven - and if they can't, well, Philbin better keep that blindfold and deck of Pall Mall's handy for Tannehill...

...because with the quality of the Patriots' secondary having been upgraded both by experience and by free agency, he may not have any receivers open to throw the ball to.

It's not like there isn't any talent amongst the pass catchers, what with names like Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Patriot-killer in tight end Charles Clay being joined by the likes of journeyman Brandon Gibson, third-year man Rishard Matthews and 2014 second round draft pick Jarvis Landry, there is a nice mixture of speed and size running the route tree - but Philbin and new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor have to come up with a scheme to get the ball out of Tannehill's hand quickly.

Lazor is a Chip Kelly disciple of sorts, and is a fan of the uptempo style of play, so one thing that he will most assuredly try is to create mismatches by forcing the Patriots' defense to keep personnel packages on the field that they can counter strength-for-strength...

...problem is, New England has superior athletes at just about every position, and coach Bill Belichick has been emphasizing conditioning throughout training camp to get his players ready for exactly that style of offense.

The front seven is a mixture of hybrid greyhounds who not only have the advantage of having a vastly improved secondary backing them up, but also have a healthy and slimmed-down Vince Wilfork anchoring their defensive line.

The Patriots are rich in defensive linemen and look to be playing to their collective strengths by employing a 3-4 base defense.  Most years, that base defense was actually a 4-2-5 nickle as New England just didn't have the pass rush nor the proper mix of defensive backs to pull off a standard look, but with the switch to the 3-4 and some deft player acquisitions, that is no longer the case.

If anything, the Patriots have too many quality defenders, as Belichick can rotate in any number of three-technique defensive ends to flank Wilfork - who will be ably backed up by Sealver Siliga - with rookie first-round draft pick Dominique Easley leading the charge, while Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich  reprise their roles on the end of the line, though this season it will be as outside linebackers.

Jones going up against Albert is going to be a street fight, but one that Jones can win consistently, particularly if the Dolphins' interior line can't handle Easley, in which case Miami is going to have to counter with sliding Albert to help shore up the interior and bring in a tight end to help out on the edge, and Jones wins those matchups easily - while Ninkovich should be able to abuse rookie right tackle Ja'Wuan James on the other side.

The Patriots' interior linebackers are swift and violent and should be able to stem the run and handle Moreno and Miller curling out of the backfield, and second year freak Jamie Collins should be able to keep Clay in check while the secondary will use an array of looks to try and shut down Miami's quality weapons long enough for the rush to get to Tannehill.

Darrelle Revis will start at one corner, naturally, while Kyle Arrington takes care of the slot, but it remains to be seen who will many the corner opposite Revis.

Rookie free agent Malcolm Butler started every preseason game and proved to be just as skilled as the other young corners on the depth chart, though with veteran receivers like Hartline and Matthews in the pattern Belichick may favor either incumbent Alfonzo Dennard  or second-year ball hawk Logan Ryan - or maybe he will just feature a rotation to confuse Tannehill...

...but whatever he chooses to do will likely be good enough because at least on paper, the New England Patriots defense against the Miami Dolphins' offense is a mismatch in favor of Belichick's charges, no matter how fast Lazor and Tannehill run their offense.

Players to watch:

Logan Ryan - This is a spot that Ryan thrives for.  Tannehill will most likely be reduced to quick reads underneath and to drawing the the Patriots' pass rush in so he can set up a screen or three to get the backs involved, and Ryan always seems to be in position to make a play on the ball, plus he is a sure tackler.

The Dolphins have an abundance of slot receivers (doesn't everyone?), so don't be surprised to see New England go with double slot defenders, particularly if Miami opens up drives going five-wide, as the secondary is so deep that Belichick could easily go with a single high safety to get his corners all on the field.

Dominique Easley - Perhaps the most explosive defensive rush lineman on the team, and he hasn't played an NFL snap - not in the preseason and, of course, never in the regular season.

That said, Belichick stood pat on his first round selection when most figured he would trade down in the draft to acquire more draft picks.  Word was, the Seahawks were ready to pounce on the Florida product despite having torn ACLs repaired on both knees in the past three years - why?  well, if shows anything like he did in college, the Patriots have a three-tech gem, and Miami's interior line is ripe for abuse.

Mike Wallace - Just because Tannehill won't have a lot of time to load up and go long doesn't mean that Wallace is taken out of the equation.

It won't be beyond Philbin and Lazor to get the ball to the speedy wide receiver any way that they can, and one of the most effective ways is to give the speed merchant the ball on a short toss or on the jailbreak screen and let him use his speed to pick up yardage in chunks - so not only with the New England secondary have to be aware of where he lines up, but the linebackers will also...

...because if he gets loose on a couple of screens, it throws the whole dynamic of the pass rush off and also will open up room down the field for longer throws.

Dont'a Hightower - In order for Belichick to get his best players on the field against Miami, he's going to have to get creative with Hightower.

While Collins and Jerod Mayo are adept coverage linebackers, it is clear that Hightower is overwhelmed when asked to cover a back or a tight end, but what the Alabama product does well - plug the gaps in the running game and rushing the passer - means that he can use his 6' 3", 270 pound frame and quick twitch first move to burst through gaps toward the quarterback...

...and if the Patriots use Hightower as a hybrid in that respect, he will rarely have to come off of the field.

"Gator" Hoskins - Miami's rookie H-back may be third on the tight end depth chart, but expect to see him when and if the Dolphins get in the red zone - because the Marshall product has a knack for getting loose in the end zone.

Hoskins scored 25 touchdowns in his final two years in college in as many games as part of an 83 catch, 1195 yard performance over the two seasons.  He is actually listed as a fullback on the Dolphins' depth chart and he has tremendous hands no matter where he lines up, and while the Patriots are keeping track of all of the Dolphins' speedy weapons, they would do well to keep tabs on the rookie.

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