Don't Underestimate the Fins
Pats Try for 3-0 in the Division
Geez, the bandwagon got pretty full all of a sudden last Sunday night. The Red Sox fans, having given up on the team that plays that "other sport," and seeing the New England Patriots play a different game than they did the previous week, jumped on board with both feet with a firm and steadfast resolve that should last until the Patriots have one bad quarter.
That could be this week, as the Miami Dolphins (1-3) come to town in what most people will be predicting should be a blow out. And it should be. But things rarely work that way in this division. More often than not, teams in this division play each other very tough, even when opponents are in highly disparate classes. Such it often is with New England and Miami, if even more so. The Dolphins always play the Pats extra tough, sometimes even earning wins. It goes far deeper than that "any given Sunday" stuff.
There are a few people we can count on approaching this game with caution, especially with the bye week just around the corner. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are two of them. Belichick is never one to look too far ahead and almost never back, but he educates himself on history, and he never takes any team for granted. Brady has commented several times this week that he knows how Miami gears up for these games, and he's well aware of his own misfortunes in several meetings with the Fins.
Besides, there's one big hitch to this game that could throw the whole expectations thing out of kilter, and that is the injury status of Miami quarterback Daunte Culpepper. He's not had a good go of things so far this season, and he's been having shoulder problems (listed as Probable this week). If he sits, the signal-calling responsibility falls to Joey Harrington, who has a pretty poor history, but you can almost never tell what a change of scenery can do for a person. The uncertainly also leaves Belichick and staff in the predicament of how much to prepare for a Harrington-led offense; and since no one has seen the Miami species, it makes preparation all the more difficult.
New England has its own injury problems -- problems that may have made Belichick think twice while forming his game plan, if only because of next week's bye. So, yes, the bye week does sometimes impact the strategy. Pats receiver Chad Jackson has been hectored by a hamstring since training camp. He's played twice in four games, but it's evident that this thing isn't healing. With the bye week coming up and a "weak" opponent this week, it's not a bad idea to rest him. Same thing with tackle Nick Kaczur, safetys Eguene Wilson and Artrell Hawkins, cornerback Ellis Hobbs, and tight end Daniel Graham.
That's a lot of bodies; but, if you don't need them, don't risk them.
It's a bit of a viscious circle though. If you sit all those guys, that means other players have to play possibly more than they would otherwise, and thus risk injury. Not only that, but with all those defensive backs injured, that means that Troy Brown might need to play defense, and with Chad Jackson out, that leaves you depleted at receiver too. And with Graham possibly sitting, that means you can't run double tight end sets all day either.
The good news is that Miami's offensive line has played pretty poor this season, and that should mean a field day for the Patriots defensive line and linebackers. If they can stuff the run (13th in the league with 91.5 yards per game), which has been a sore spot for the Ricky Williams-less Dolphins (24th, 89.8 ypg), that will force Culpepper or Harrington to win the game in the air; and the way Culpepper has played, and as many times as he's been sacked, that's not likely.
So one key battle will be the Patriots running attack (3rd, 154.0 ypg) against the Dolphins rushing defense (14th, 94.5 ypg). If New England can run over Miami they way they've run over everyone except Denver, that will significantly take the pressure off the passing game and the overall defense. Neither Corey Dillon nor Laurence Maroney are listed on the Pats injury report, so that's the best news yet.
Then there's Kevin Faulk. In addition to spelling Dillon and Maroney, don't be surprised to see him split out wide as he has been once or twice in the last few games. Very Charlie Weiss-esque, if you ask me.
Ball control; clock management; short, run-like passing game as compliment to punishing, all-out rushing attack. Toss a couple deep balls to Doug Gabriel or (if he's still willing) Reche Caldwell. Pretty simple. When you have the luxury of a devastating rushing game and a solid defense, it all boils down nicely. Wish it were all that easy, right?
Defensively, first and foremost, stuff the run. Ronnie Brown, Lee Suggs, Travis Minor: Not exactly an awe-inspiring backfield. Then you can worry about teeing off on Culpepper or Harrington. Being thing at DB, pressure on the quarterback will help -- even more so if you can accomplish that with your front four (in a 4-3 set). That allows you to drop linebackers into coverage if you need the extra help. Now and then, you throw the full house or a DB off the corner just to keep everyone honest.
Fortunately, the defense remembered how to force turnovers last week. That made the end of that game a whole lot easier. It's makes any game a whole lot easier.
That leaves us with special teams, an area where the Patriots have done better than their recent past average. Good returns, pretty good coverage. Stephen Gostkowski may be struggling on field goals, particularly on that sandbox strip down the middle of Gillette (how quickly everyone forgets that Adam Vinatieri was 27 of 35 (77 percent) with a block on field goals and 39 of 42 on PATs in his first season), but his kickoffs have been great, with a couple touchbacks (those don't get returned for touchdowns) and some nice deep ones otherwise, he has given New England a more significant edge in field position -- another key, if often ignored, statistic.
No game is etched in stone, and you always have to be cautious with division rivals, but if the Patriots execute well and stick to their game plan, this should be a good experience heading into the bye.
Prediction: Patriots, 31-13.
Ed Hochuli is the referee for today's game. His crew calls them pretty tight, which is good and bad. They adhere to the rules, which is good, but that sometimes doesn't "allow the boys to play." It also means a slower game due to a larger share of flags.
Today's game will be broadcast on CBS (locally WBZ Ch. 4). No word on the announcing team. Of course, while I listen to the hacks on TV, I highly recommend tuning into Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti on the Patriots Rock Radio Network (WBCN 104.1 FM in Boston -- here is a list of New England radio stations that carry the simulcast.
Against Miami, the Patriots should ...
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