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Scouting report

Patriots at Dolphins

By Jim McBride
Globe Staff / September 12, 2011

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Tonight, 7, Ch. 5, ESPN
(Line: Patriots by 7)

When the Patriots run

Danny Woodhead looks all cute and cuddly, but make no mistake, he’s a baby-faced assassin. If defenders don’t get their mitts on the 5-foot-nothing tailback quickly, he will make them pay. Woodhead changes directions quickly and fluidly and bounces through cutback lanes like a jackrabbit. Woodhead is as tough as nails, but he took some pretty good shots last season and durability will always be a concern with a guy his size. BenJarvus Green-Ellis looks to build off an excellent season. A thick, muscular tailback who takes defenders head-on, Green-Ellis has the power to break tackles and will finish his runs by lowering the boom. Rookies Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen provide depth. Ridley rips through arm tackles and always keeps his thick legs churning. The Dolphins’ run defense begins with nose tackle Paul Soliai. The 6-4, 355-pound behemoth has the size and strength to occupy multiple blockers and create space for the linebackers. Soliai will never put up huge tackle numbers but his value is obvious. Middle linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett benefit most from Soliai’s strength and girth. Dansby is very instinctive and has the quickness to slip blocks and punish ball carriers. Burnett is athletic and smart.
Edge: Dolphins

When the Patriots pass

New England enters with lots of questions surrounding the receiving corps. Is Wes Welker’s neck OK? How come Deion Branch was invisible in the preseason? Will Chad Ochocinco ever get on the same page with Tom Brady? When’s Randy Moss coming back? Well, Moss is never coming back, but the other queries are legitimate. The good news is Brady is healthy. The league’s smartest quarterback (Peyton doesn’t count until he’s healthy) demands perfection and will whip his boys into shape. Welker is Brady’s safety blanket, and when he’s on top of his game the Patriots are hard to stop. Branch’s lack of production was puzzling, but expect him to take center stage tonight. Ochocinco has an exceptional combination of size, strength, and hands. If he can fully grasp the offense, fans will never again ask about Moss. Miami has top-notch corners in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. Davis has the strength to jam receivers at the line and the quickness to blanket them down the field. Smith will take chances. Safeties Yeremiah Bell (underrated with range) and Chris Clemons (excellent speed and decent coverage skills) will make plays.
Edge: Patriots

When the Dolphins run

Reggie Bush was Miami’s big offseason acquisition and while he can provide excitement, he’s never been a bell cow and is an injury waiting to happen. The 6-foot, 203-pound Bush will be expected to replace Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, both of whom were productive and excelled in the Wildcat. Bush has tremendous burst, vision, and breakaway speed. He is by no means a banger but can bounce outside and go the distance. He is sometimes indecisive and will absorb some big hits. Aging plodder Larry Johnson is the backup as rookie Daniel Thomas nurses hamstring woes. Bush and Johnson will be running behind an overhauled but talented offensive line. Rookie center Mike Pouncey (6-5, 303) is tough, strong, and passionate. He draws the unenviable task of tussling with equally passionate Vince Wilfork. Left guard Richie Incognito (6-3, 324) has long been one of the NFL’s bad boys. He will play till the whistle, and beyond. Right guard Vernon Carey (6-5, 340) is athletic and quick and will pick off moving targets. Wilfork (6-2, 325 - stop snickering) and Albert Haynesworth (6-6, 350) will clog the lanes and allow linebackers Jerod Mayo (you will hear his name in your sleep), Gary Guyton and Rob Ninkovich to punish ball carriers.
Edge: Patriots

When the Dolphins pass

If you’re surprised Chad Henne is still a Dolphin, you’re not alone. Half of the season-ticket base is still seething. The 6-3, 230-pounder looks like Dan Marino one series and Cleo Lemon the next. Henne too often tries to fit passes into tight spaces - leading to 33 career INTs vs. 27 TDs. Jake Long (6-7, 317) has Henne’s back and his combination of toughness and nastiness make him one of the best. Shaun Ellis will bring the heat from the outside, while Albert Haynesworth will be expected to charge hard up the middle. Brandon Marshall (6-4, 230) is a big, physical receiver with great body control and excellent hands. Marshall lacks speed and if Henne doesn’t involve him early, he will pout. Brian Hartline is a reliable possession receiver who runs excellent routes. Davone Bess is small but quick. He has good moves and runs low, so arm tackling is a no-no. Reggie Bush is Miami’s best weapon in the passing game. He finds soft spots quickly, has strong hands, and is a demon in the open field. New England has a good pair of corners in Devin McCourty and Leigh Bodden. Safeties Patrick Chung and Sergio Brown provide solid support.
Edge: Patriots

Dolphins' key player

Reggie Bush
The former Heisman winner (emphasis on former) is being counted on to jump-start an offense and franchise that have been wallowing in mediocrity for years.
How he beats you: With tremendous versatility. The man with a million moves can line up at tailback, in the slot, or out wide. He is a threat to score 6 every time he touches the ball.
How to shut him down: By getting physical on every play. Bush has never been a big fan of the rough stuff (he’ll run around you; never through you) and the more he gets hit the slower he gets.

Patriots' keys to victory:

1. Max protect: The offensive line, particularly the Pro Bowl left side of Logan Mankins and Matt Light, has to keep pass-rushing ’backers Cameron Wake and Jason Taylor out of the backfield so Tom Brady has time to find his receivers.
2. End game: With the receiving corps still finding its way, look to gifted tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (both nightmare matchups) to move the chains.
3. Keep it fresh: It will be hot and humid in Miami Gardens. Keep the rotations going to make sure everybody is hydrated and cramp-free.

Dolphins’ keys to victory:

1. No hanging Chad: The offensive line has to keep New England’s revamped pass rush (Ellis, Haynesworth, et al) off Chad Henne’s back and give him a chance to get the ball to his playmakers.
2. Marshall plan: Henne has to get the ever-erratic Brandon Marshall involved from the get-go. If Marshall becomes disinterested early, the Dolphins are in big trouble.
3. Play quickly: With all the new bodies on defense, the Patriots were not always on the same page during their exhibition games. Get the ball snapped fast and see if they’re still confused.

Prediction

Patriots 24, Dolphins 10

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