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5 questions with The Phinsider: How have the Dolphins changed since Week 2?

We spoke with SB Nation’s Dolphins blog about the Patriots’ Week 7 opponent.

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NFL: OCT 22 Dolphins at Eagles Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Coming off their best victory of the season, the New England Patriots will face another tough challenge. Traveling to Miami to take on the 5-2 Dolphins, they will go up against one of the most explosive teams in all of football.

In order to get a better understanding of who the Patriots will be up against in Week 8, we exchanged questions with Kevin Nogle of Pats Pulpit’s sister site The Phinsider — the SB Nation community for all things Dolphins.

Here is what he told us about the upcoming game.

1. How have the Dolphins changed on both sides of the ball since these teams last met? It seems like both sides have suffered some significant losses.

Injuries may be the biggest story for the Dolphins this season, both with players who have been lost in recent weeks and in players who appear set to come back from injured reserve. The Dolphins have already had guard Robert Jones and running back Jeff Wilson, Jr., return from IR. They also have had cornerback Nik Needham activated from the physically unable to perform list. The Dolphins have been crushed by injuries all year, but now they seem to be getting in-season reinforcements because of those earlier injuries.

This week, there is speculation that cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who has been designated for return from IR and has been practicing, could be activated for the game. It seems like he is more likely to return for the Week 9 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the speculation continues to mount. The team has also designated wide receiver River Cracraft for return, potentially bringing back a trusted compliment to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

Tackle Terron Armstead and running back De’Von Achane are still on IR, but are expected to be designated for return over the next couple of weeks.

The Dolphins are still the explosive offense that can put up points seemingly at will, but they have definitely sustained some injuries that have slowed them by a step or two. The offensive line, especially the left side through center, has been shuffled around due to multiple injuries. That is where the Patriots need to test Miami’s ability to protect during this game. If New England can attack with success there, make the Dolphins question the line’s ability to keep quarterback Tua Tagovailoa upright and its ability to open holes for running back Raheem Mostert, the Patriots could frustrate Miami’s attack.

2. The Eagles held Miami to a season-low 17 points last week. Did they come up with a blueprint for slowing down the Dolphins’ explosive offense? Or were missed opportunities to blame?

There seemed to be a lot that went wrong last week, including the injuries. I will not blame the referees because Miami had their own struggles, but a 10:0 penalty ratio, Dolphins to Eagles, was ridiculous and there were definitely blatant penalties on Philadelphia that were missed. Of course, Miami lining up multiple times offsides was not on the refs and aided in the lopsided penalty count, but letting holds and facemasks go unflagged was frustrating to watch.

As I said, though, Miami did it to themselves. Tyreek Hill struggled with drops in the game, not something we ever see. The running game never really materialized and it is a big part of Miami’s offensive identity this year. It almost felt like the Dolphins were trying too hard to prove they can play with the top teams in the league and that they should be considered true contenders, and it came back to bite them, so in part this was a case of missed opportunities for the Dolphins.

That said, the Eagles defense was just stout all day. They have a tough defensive front seven who were able to get into the backfield and disrupt plays. They sacked Tagovailoa three times and hit him six times as the Dolphins became one-dimensional.

Again, it also felt like they were pressing too hard. On 49 offensive snaps, they threw the ball 32 times, with 15 targeting Hill. It felt like they knew they had to get back into the game and the only way they could do that was with Hill, so they just kept targeting him. They were predictable, and it did not work against the reigning NFC champions.

If the Patriots can slow the run and then create pressure while allowing their linebacker to clog up the middle of the field, taking away the crossing and slant routes, that is where they will have success. I do not know if any team in the league has the run defense that the Eagles have, so it may not be as simple as trying to emulate Philadelphia’s success, but they did show a way to disrupt Miami.

3. How close is Jalen Ramsey to returning? What could the secondary look like if he’s back in the fold this weekend?

That is a great question. Two weeks ago I would have said mid-November. Then he started practicing and I would have said he will be back after the bye week in Week 10. As we talked about, now the speculation is he could be back as early as this weekend. That feels incredibly fast, but with how much the timeline has sped from the preseason prognosis of maybe being able to return in December to now, I honestly have no idea. Maybe they will activate him and have him play this weekend?

Ramsey is clearly the missing piece of the defense this year. Everything was built to have Xavien Howard on one side, Ramsey on the other, and then design a zone-defense around them. Without Ramsey, Miami has been trying to use second-year cornerback Kader Kohou and veteran Eli Apple outside. Howard has been banged up some as well, stretching an already thin group even more.

Needham coming back provides some depth, but he and Kohou are really suited to playing the same role in the defense as nickel cornerbacks. If Ramsey and Howard are both healthy, they will take the outside and give Miami some more confidence there. Kohou and Needham slid inside covering the slot — Kohou serving as the primary nickel — then Apple serves as the top rotational player. Trusting Ramsey and Howard allows the defense to slide the zones inside a little more, which should help with coverage on tight ends, a weak point for the Dolphins thus far this season. The Dolphins will not go true man-on-man as their base defense, but I think you will see the safeties have zones inside more if Miami has both of their top cornerbacks back, asking them to do their jobs on islands a little more.

4. The Dolphins haven’t blitzed as much as they have the past two weeks since Week 2 against the Patriots. Why is that? Should we expect Vic Fangio to heat up Mac Jones for a second time?

Vic Fangio defenses just are not blitzing defenses, which is frustrating because Miami’s defensive personnel are built to blitz. After the Brian Flores and Josh Boyer defense schemes the last few years, Miami has built their roster to be able to blitz from multiple locations, hiding what they are doing and creating confusion. Fangio’s defense is not that, and the defense has taken some time to figure out exactly what their roles are in this system. It is starting to come together, but it has not been a quick transition between schemes.

It also has not helped that defensive tackle Christian Wilkins conducted a “hold in” this summer, reporting for camp but not really participating for most of camp and the preseason in hopes of getting a new contract. Fangio stated a couple of weeks ago that Wilkins was still working off the rust from not participating in the summer build-up, and that seems to be true. He is starting to turn it on now, and the defense seems to be improving with Wilkins’ return to form.

Fangio will call blitzes at times, and the Dolphins are successful when he does, but he would prefer the front four be able to get after the quarterback and give him seven players in coverage. If Wilkins is on his game, Miami can do that — especially if they also have healthy edge rushers Jaelan Phillips, Bradley Chubb, and Andrew Van Ginkel.

All that said, I think there will absolutely be a concerted effort by the Dolphins to create pressure on Mac Jones and force him to make quick decisions. Was last week the coming out party for Jones or was it a one-off lucky performance? Fangio will want to figure that out early on Sunday — I would expect by bringing pressure and seeing what happens.

5. The Dolphins are 9.5-point favorites, according to our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook. What went right for the Patriots if they pull off the upset? What went right for the Dolphins if New England loses?

The run game. That answers both sides of this question. On offense, the Patriots need to attack Miami and force them to stop the run. They have struggled against the run this year, allowing 112.3 yards per game, ranking them 19th in the league. Shove the ball down the Dolphins’ throat and make them step up to stop it. As they commit more players to slow the running attack, now you will have open spaces in the zones to be able to pass the ball. Establish the run and make Miami stop it.

On defense, force Miami to pass. I know that sounds counter-intuitive when you are facing Hill and Waddle, but it works. The Dolphins have built their offense to create confusion, to attack on the ground, then slide the receivers behind the linebackers as they cheat up. Force Miami to not have the running game allows linebackers to drop back a little and keeps the safeties over the top. Now the Dolphins’ favorite passing lanes and deep shots are an issue as well. Stopping the Miami rushing attack keeps the offense out of rhythm.

Despite the high-powered offensive attack for the Dolphins headlined by Hill and Waddle, the run game really seems to be key to everything the Dolphins want to do. Whichever offense runs the ball the best, that is probably the team that walks out of Hard Rock Stadium victorious on Sunday.

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