Saturday Morning Patriots Preview

by Hal Bent,

A cup of coffee or three (oops, this is cup number four), a sleeping dog, a cat or two lounging around, wife hard at work (sorry, Honey), morning exercise completed, and a huge footy match-up on the telly (Everton vs Manchester City) and the kids sleeping in and relaxing as the snow flurries fall outside the window as New England welcomes December in style: Sounds like a recipe for a lovely Saturday morning to put aside my Baseball Mogul computer game and time-consuming obsession (SportsMogul  puts out baseball and football games where you take over a franchise, play general manager, play seasons...yes, it is an addiction that takes up way too much of my time, but it is a great game for know-it-all people like me who want to show that they can run the Red Sox better than these current bozos. And no, they don't pay me or anything, I just love the games. They don't cost much [less than $30.00] and they allow you to download a demo version to try out before buying the game.) and touch base on a few thoughts on the Patriots game coming up Sunday:

    • First things first, all Patriots fans who remember the 1980s and Don Shula at the helm and Dan Marino behind center are automatically queasy about the Patriots going on the road to Miami. It becomes something like a fight or flight primitive reflex where the bile rises just hearing "Patriots play on the road in Miami". In the pre-Belichick and Brady era, the greatest win ever (seriously, there is no debate to this) was the "Squish the Fish" game on the unexpected journey to Super Bowl XX behind coach Ray Berry, Tony Eason and Steve Grogan splitting time at quarterback, Craig James and Tony Collins at running back, and deep threat Stanley Morgan at wide receiver. The Patriots, against all odds, went down to Miami in the playoffs (after beating the Raiders and their linebacker Matt Millen clubbing team general manager Pat Sullivan after the game). No one expected the Patriots to win in the Orange Bowl in the AFC Championship game.
    • The Dolphins are--surprisingly--the second-best team in the AFC East. Now that may be damning with faint praise, but the Jets imploded at long last and the Bills proved once again (see Philadelphia Eagles, 2011) that spending in free agency does not equal success in the NFL.  Miami at least went out this off-season and traded away the malcontents and brought in a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill.  I don't believe Tannehill is a superstar in the making and was an end-of-first-round pick, but kudos for the Dolphins for going out to make an attempt to address a position where they desperately needed help (Jay Fielder, Cleo Lemon, Matt Moore, Trent Green, Chad Henne, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper and Gus Ferrotte took snaps for the Dolphins in the last ten years).  Why the Dolphins didn't get into the Robert Griffin III derby is beyond my understanding. I still think that in the long run, as good as Andrew Luck is going to be, RGIII is going to better. I said it before the draft, and I have seen nothing to change my opinion. Both great, yes, but RGIII has that something special. Ryan Tannehill, unfortunately for the Dolphins, is not on the same level as those two rookie QBs.  In fact, he's battling Russell Wilson in Seattle for the title of third best rookie QB.  
    • The Dolphins offense is running back Reggie Bush. Wide receivers Brian Hartline and Devone Bess are just adequate, no more or less. Tannehill has struggled lately, as the league has learned his tendencies and adapted their defense. He is not sneaking up on anyone anymore.  The Patriots have done well containing Reggie Bush in the past, and like they did with CJ Spiller against Buffalo, the defense has to find him on each play and contain him as their focus.  With the secondary showing signs of settling down in the past two weeks, the Patriots need to get their run defense back on track.  Hard to believe, but the Patriots have missed Chandler Jones as much if not more so in the run defense rather than generating pressure on the QB.
    • The Patriots defense also has to generate pressure on Tannehill to keep forcing turnovers for the offense. Without defensive ends Chandler Jones (injury) and his back-up and surprise contributor Jermaine Cunningham (suspension for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs), the Patriots will test their depth again with former Raider Trevor Scott likely getting a number of opportunities to rush the quarterback.  The losses on the defensive line of free agent signing Jonathan Fanene (released prior to the regular season due to undisclosed injury) and Myron Pryor (injured reserve) leaves the Patriots cupboard thin.  If I'm Tully Banta-Cain I would be hitting the gym and having my agent get the Patriots front-office on speed dial.  The Patriots are an injury to Scott or Rob Ninkovich from calling up Tully. 
    • On offense, the Patriots need to keep doing what they've been doing. No tight end Rob Gronkowski again, but Aaron Hernandez should be available.  All four wide receivers are dinged up, but all should play.  Yes, the numbers are short, but expect Deion Branch to return when healthy.  I am sure there was a wink-wink-nod-nod agreement to free up a roster spot until he is healthy.  If not, he'd be in the hideous green of the New York Jets running routes for them.   As long at Tom Brady is behind center, the best QB in football should give the Patriots the chance to put up a large number of points, even against the Dolphins good defense.
    • The running game of the Patriots is again key. Running backs Shane Vereen and Steven Ridley have taken over from suspended Brandon Bolden, departed Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis and suddenly losing snaps Danny Woodhead. Ridley and Vereen have been ridiculously good on second and long this season, and who can blame any defense for not dropping seven or eight into coverage when it's second and long?  The Dolphins need to get the Patriots in third and long and unleash their pass rush on Brady to have a chance to win. Defensive end Cameron Wake is a beast and one of the best pure pass rushers in the league.  The Patriots need to stay out of the pass rush's wheelhouse and in second and third and short situations like they have done these last few weeks. 
UPDATE: Sad,sad news this morning to report as well in an unrelated note: Per various reports Kansas City Cheifs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend and then at the Arrowhead practice facility committed suicide shooting himself.  Just horrible news.