In the second of two meetings between AFC East rivals, the New England Patriots (13-2) travel down to Florida to face the Miami Dolphins (10-5). In fact, this is one of the few match-ups in week 17 to feature two playoff-bound teams going head-to-head. The Patriots have clinched the AFC East and at least a top two seed in the AFC while the Dolphins were able to secure a Wild Card spot and return to play-offs for first time since 2008. New England will be coming in to this game with something to gain, as a win would secure them the number one seed in the AFC East and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Dolphins will look to play spoiler as they have won nine of their past ten games.
The Patriots narrowly beat the Dolphins in their previous week two game, 31-24 with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. This time around, Tom Brady will be at quarterback going up against a resurgent Miami team. That includes NFL Comeback Player of the Year front-runner Cameron Wake leading the charge for the Dolphins. While he was shut down earlier in the season by the Patriots offensive line, he has 10.5 sacks in his past 10 games. That includes a sack in three consecutive weeks. Not bad at all for a 34-year old defensive end a year removed from an Achilles tear.
Wake will have his hands full however, going up against left tackle Nate Solder. Solder, who missed most of last season with a biceps injury, has had a major bounce-back season in 2016. According to the Washington Post, Solder has allowed only five sacks in 14 games this season. Considering he gave up four sacks in four games in 2015, Solder has had quite the turn-around. He has also been graded out extremely well this season by Pro Football Focus. Solder is tied with Zach Strief (Saints) as the 10th best offensive tackle this season (86.5 out of 100) out of 74 eligible tackles.
Wake has been equally impressive this season as well. His 24 defensive hurries is 14th in the NFL, according to SportingCharts. His 11.5 sacks is tied for fourth in the NFL and considering the fact he is coming off his fore-mentioned Achilles injury and is less than a month away from his 35th birthday, he is having a heck of a season. Among edge defenders, Wake is the eighth best out of 110 eligible players according to PFF.
The Patriots have done a terrific job this season protecting their quarterback, allowing only 24 sacks this season, which is tied for fifth fewest in the league. Functioning as the ever-important blindside protector, Solder has done an exceptional job as a pass blocker this season. Going up against Wake again will be an imposing task but one that he is familiar with. In their week two clash, Solder helped hold Wake stat-less across the board with no sacks or tackles.
For Solder, he will need to make sure to win the leverage battle against Wake, who has an uncanny ability to use upper-body strength to overpower his blocker. Wake is also able to quickly use his momentum to shed his block and go right to the quarterback. Keeping Wake in front of him at all times will be important to limit his damage on the field. Part of his success this season has been working in sync with the rookie left guard, Joe Thuney, on when to properly utilize double teams and also gap assignments. Communication with Thuney will once again be a focal point to keep Brady protected.
Solder likely won’t have much help from his tight ends as Martellus Bennett is expected to play, but possibly be limited in his snap count. Matt Lengel will likely function as the team’s main tight end for most of the game if that is the case. Given Lengel has functioned as a rarely-used blocker (he has been on the field for 64 snaps all season, according to PFF), he may not be able to provide much support. Solder and Wake will be expected to be in a mostly one-on-one match-up for the game.
Combined with his low sacks allowed total, PFF has Solder ranked as the 14th best pass blocking offensive tackle this season. So this will not at all be a mismatch as these are two of the best at their respective positions facing off once again. Wake will be coming in with momentum on his side as he has at least half of a sack in nine of his past ten games. New England as a whole have only given up four sacks in the past four games however. So Solder and the Patriots will also come into this game with a solid amount of momentum working their way as well.
All in all, this has all of the makings of being one of the most important, if not most important one-on-one match-up for this week’s game. Solder and Wake have had several face-offs in the past and this one has the makings of being another great showing between two very talented players. Wake and the Dolphins boast one of the best defensive lines in football while Solder and the Patriots tout one of the most consistent offensive lines in the NFL. How this match-up goes will have a direct and important effect on the game. Not only that, but this has the makings of being a rather even one as well.