The Patriots (6-4) visit the Dolphins (6-4) in a crucial AFC East game Sunday, and here are five areas of note on the Dolphins:
1) They don’t turn the ball over. Miami rarely beats itself. The team’s eight turnovers (5 interceptions, 3 lost fumbles) are the fewest in the NFL. Part of that is tied to success on first down, where the Dolphins are averaging 6.09 yards per play (3rd in the NFL). So they stay in manageable situations on second and third down.
2) Not much blitzing, but no shortage of pressure/sacks. The Dolphins haven’t been a big blitz team this season, more often staying with the standard four rushers and dropping seven into coverage. Yet they’ve still been effective getting to the quarterback (27 sacks), with outside linebacker Joey Porter’s 13.5 sacks leading the NFL. For perspective, the Patriots have totaled 19 sacks this season; the ferocious Giants 31.
3) Vulnerabilities on special teams. Opponents have seized opportunities to hurt the Dolphins on special teams. Miami ranks 31st in the NFL in average punt return allowed (16.4 yard avg.; 2 TDs), and 32nd in average kickoff return allowed (27.3 yard avg.). On the flip side, the Dolphins’ kickoff return game ranks last in the NFL (19.5 yard avg).
4) Can’t forget about the Wildcat. The Dolphins have run 59 plays out of the formation in which running back Ronnie Brown takes a direct snap from center. They are averaging 7.1 yards per play, with eight touchdowns in the package. So while the Wildcat is just a small fraction of what the Dolphins do, their success and big results demands that opponents spend the necessary time preparing for it.
5) Strong in the red zone. Solid play inside the 20 yard line — on both offense and defense — has been a significant part of the Dolphins’ success this season. They rank sixth in the NFL in TD percentage on offense — with 17 touchdowns in 28 trips (60.7 percent). On defense, they are tough to score touchdowns against — with opponents totaling 15 in 30 trips (50 percent), which ranks 13th in the NFL. This is an area where the Dolphins have a clear advantage over the Patriots entering the game.
ANALYSIS: While the Wildcat package has helped spark the Dolphins’ turnaround, and is a key factor for any opponent to contain, Miami is tough in other areas too. They have been efficient capitalizing on their own opportunities, while limiting opponents’ chances (e.g. 9th in the NFL defensively on third down). So in other words, if a team is going to beat the Dolphins, it will have to beat them — the Dolphins seldom beat themselves. The Patriots have favorable matchups in the passing game, so the key will be: Can the protection hold up to give Matt Cassel and his pass-catchers a chance to exploit those? Defensively, it appears to be a week of highlighting the basics: Stop the run, try to put the opponent in second-and-long and third-and-long, be prepared for when the Wildcat strikes, and rise up in the red zone. Opportunities should be there on special teams, and it helps that the Patriots have had extra time to prepare for this one. Prediction: Patriots 20, Dolphins 17. (Season record on Patriots’ predictions: 8-2)