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Patriots vs. Dolphins: 5 Questions with the Enemy

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In the lead-up to week 15, Greg Knopping of Pats Pulpit asks Kevin Nogle of the Phinsider five questions on the the Patriots' next opponent, the Miami Dolphins.

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports
In the lead-up to week 15, Greg Knopping of Pats Pulpit asks Kevin Nogle of the Phinsider five questions on the the Patriots' next opponent, the Miami Dolphins.

1. Things shift a lot over the course of an entire regular season. Since the Dolphins and Patriots faced off week one, how has this Miami team changed?

Nogle: The biggest change is probably the growth of the offense, and Ryan Tannehill's comfort level within the system as it has been implemented by first year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. As the season has progressed, the offense has clearly adapted to what works with the talent, as well as added elements that we were not seeing early in the year. It has clearly made a difference, as the offense is now more about getting the ball out of Tannehill's hands and into the hands of the play makers. There are still some frustrations, like why the team seems to abandon the run in the second half of every game, but the offense's progression is the biggest change.

The other thing that has changed, and it is hard to pinpoint the cause, is the defense cannot stop the run. A defense that should be shutting people down, especially up the middle, suddenly cannot tackle and running backs are running all over the place because of it. When the Dolphins holding the Ravens to "just" 186 yards rushing last week, after two back-to-back 215+ yards allowed the two games prior, there is clearly something wrong. The defense has been rocked by injuries this year, especially to the linebackers and secondary, but Miami has to find a way to fix the run defense, and they have to do it now.

2. Ryan Tannehill has been on a tear for the last month-plus. What has been the key to his improved play?

Nogle: A big part of it is the confidence he has in the new system, and Lazor's playing to Tannehill's strengths. They are starting to roll him out of the pocket more - though a naked bootleg nearly got him killed last week - and they are allowing him to use his running ability, which opens up options as defenses have to respect his ability to keep it and gain big chunks of yards. It's also a matter of growth at the NFL level, though. Tannehill is making good decisions with the ball, and he is putting the ball where it needs to be. He still is missing on the deep pass, and it's to the point now that the Dolphins do not even try it, but he is putting the ball on target on throws under 20 yards, and allowing the receivers to do their jobs. His five game streak of 70-percent completions ended last week, with a 69.7-percent completion rate; even his interceptions lately have been passes that hit receivers' hands, only to bounce off and into opponents arms. Tannehill is playing some impressive football right now. Hopefully, it keeps happening.

3. Before the season, there were a lot of questions about the Dolphins' rebuilt offensive line. How has that experiment gone and how is rookie tackle Ju'Wuan James performing? How has the team adjusted to the loss of Branden Albert.

Nogle: The offensive line is not perfect, and it will allow pressure on Tannehill, but it is definitely better than last year. The line has had some injuries this year, which has prevented it from even becoming one cohesive unit, and the loss of Albert was a big one, especially given he was performing at a Pro Bowl level again this year. It is a surprise that James has so easily moved over to left tackle to replace Albert, given James never played left tackle in college. He's had a really solid rookie year, and he has the potential to continue to develop, which should give Miami an anchor at either left or right tackle. The guards are still question marks, especially the left guard where Daryn Colledge and Shelley Smith have been rotating. Mike Pouncey has struggled at times at right guard, and he does not look completely comfortable at the spot yet. It is nice, however, that, in the last two games, when starting center Samson Satele has had to miss snaps, the Dolphins have a 2013 Pro Bowler as their reserve center, with Pouncey moving back into the position. The biggest concern along the line is easily Dallas Thomas, who replaced James at right tackle. The second year player was being groomed to be a guard when he was needed at tackle, and he can go stretches where he is just fine, then will have a few snaps where he completely misses his block and negative plays start happening. Miami could have Thomas on a short rope this week.

4. This Miami defense ranks third in the league in pass defense. What has made the unit so good defending the pass?

Nogle: The offensive line is not perfect, and it will allow pressure on Tannehill, but it is definitely better than last year. The line has had some injuries this year, which has prevented it from even becoming one cohesive unit, and the loss of Albert was a big one, especially given he was performing at a Pro Bowl level again this year. It is a surprise that James has so easily moved over to left tackle to replace Albert, given James never played left tackle in college. He's had a really solid rookie year, and he has the potential to continue to develop, which should give Miami an anchor at either left or right tackle. The guards are still question marks, especially the left guard where Daryn Colledge and Shelley Smith have been rotating. Mike Pouncey has struggled at times at right guard, and he does not look completely comfortable at the spot yet. It is nice, however, that, in the last two games, when starting center Samson Satele has had to miss snaps, the Dolphins have a 2013 Pro Bowler as their reserve center, with Pouncey moving back into the position. The biggest concern along the line is easily Dallas Thomas, who replaced James at right tackle. The second year player was being groomed to be a guard when he was needed at tackle, and he can go stretches where he is just fine, then will have a few snaps where he completely misses his block and negative plays start happening. Miami could have Thomas on a short rope this week.

5. Since the last time these teams played, linebacker Jelani Jenkins has emerged into a full-time contributor for the Dolphins. What has his impact been for the defense? Are there any other less-recognizable defenders that the Patriots should be aware of?

Nogle: Opening the season, Jenkins was a developmental linebacker who would see playing time, and could turn into a major contributor in 2015. Then, Dannell Ellerbe was injured in that Week 1 contest, and Jenkins stepped in and immediately made a difference. The guy is everywhere and does everything. Koa Misi at middle linebacker is a solid linebacker and plays the run well, but if Miami had three Jenkins' across the linebacker corps, offenses would be hard pressed to do much of anything. That may be a little hyperbole, but Jenkins really has been impressive this year. He leads the team with 99 tackles, but this week may not have one.

Miami's coming into this game with question marks all over the linebackers. Jenkins and Misi both have not been practicing this week, along with key reserve Jonathan Freeny. Another reserve, Chris McCain, has been limited and may not be available either. The Dolphins may be going into this game with Phillip Wheeler, Jason Trusnik, and Kelvin Sheppard starting, with Jordan Tripp and the promoted-this-week-from-the-practice-squad-a-week-after-joining-the-team Jake Knott as the back ups. That could be a scary proposition, especially with the run issues we discussed earlier.

A less-recognizable defender? I would give you McCain as the answer, given the injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, but that does not look good. Unfortunately, last year's Patriots game hero Michael Thomas is on injured reserve. Depending on how Miami does their secondary rotation this game, the best answers are probably either Stanford, who could see plenty of playing time at cornerback, especially if either Finnegan or Taylor are not able to play, and he has shown some decent coverage ability. Tom Brady will likely be able to target Stanford and find success, but he already has one interception this year, in just two games played, and he has the ability to get his hands on the ball. There's some potential for him having a good game - or at least a big play. The other could be safety Walt Aikens. The Liberty University fourth round draft choice for Miami could see his most extended playing time on defense, if Miami elects to keep Wilson up at nickel corner. Aikens has primarily been a special teams player, but may have to play a lot on defense this week - potentially even having to start.