Dolphins Won't Expose Pats' Weaknesses

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Dolphins Won't Expose Pats' Weaknesses
By John MacKenna
, Patriots Insider

Their 3-0 record notwithstanding, the Patriots have some worrisome problems on defense and special teams that could haunt them before the season is out. They should be safe this week, however, against the 0-4 Dolphins.

Of most concern is the Patriots' run defense. Despite facing two of the lowest-ranked offenses in the NFL in the Cardinals and Bills, New England has given up an average of 130 yards rushing per game. On Sunday, the Bills' Travis Henry burned the Patriots for 98 yards in his best performance of the season, mostly by running in the direction of Defensive Tackle Ty Warren.

The Patriots also have struggled in the return games, averaging just 22.6 yards on kick returns and 4.7 yards on punt returns.

The Patriots are 3-0 because the offense has been performing well and the defense has stepped up when needed. "We're just fortunate we had a few key plays at the right time," said head Coach Bill Belichick after Sunday's 31-17 win over the Bills.

The Bills' run game caught fire on Sunday once they started going off the right side, with Henry consistently busting into the secondary. Warren led all Patriots linemen with four tackles, but he had plenty of chances because the Bills rarely ran left at Richard Seymour.

Tackles in the Patriots' 3-4 defense need to hold the point of attack and free the linebackers to make stops within two yards of the line of scrimmage. The Bills regularly moved Warren aside, and Henry averaged am decent 4.1 yards per carry with a long of only 13 yards. The Patriots used some 4-3 alignments last Sunday, and the Bills tore through those as well.

If Warren doesn't do the job, the Patriots have nowhere to turn. There is third-year man Jarvis Green, but he is primarily a pass rusher. The Patriots signed free agent defensive tackle Rodney Bailey in the offseason, but he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in preseason that ended his season. Veteran Dana Stubblefield was signed to replace Bailey, but he too was lost for the year.

The Patriots need to stabilize their run defense before the Seattle Seahawks come to town Oct. 17. The Seahawks have been struggling on offense, but Running Back Shaun Alexander remains a major threat. If he busts through the right side the way Henry did, he'll force the Patriots to cheat Strong Safety Rodney Harrison towards the line, creating opportunities for Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the passing game.

New England also cannot afford to continue its anemic performance on punt and kickoff returns. Second-year kick returner Bethel Johnson is running without the instinct and aggression he displayed as a rookie, and his return average is down to 22.6 yards. This is an area where the Patriots were very strong in 2003, when Johnson averaged an AFC-leading 28.2 yards per return. Johnson's status is unknown for Miami after he was injured tackling Buffalo Linebacker London Fletcher on a fumble return.

The Patriots have been even worse this year at returning punts. Veteran return man Troy Brown has returned only four punts this year, and he was off duty against the Bills even before being knocked from the game with an arm injury.

Terrence Poole replaced Brown on Sunday and showed nothing. He fielded only one of five punts from the Bills' Brian Moorman and returned it for no gain. The Patriots need to groom a long-term replacement for Brown, but there appears to be no one on the roster who can step in this year.

The Patriots also are fortunate that their next opponent is Miami, whose offense ranks last in the NFL with an average of 238 yards per game. They ran the ball decently on Sunday against the Jets but have struggled overall, averaging 2.7 yards per rush on the season.

Leonard Henry, Miami's new lead back, picked up 85 yards on 18 carries against the Jets in his first pro start, with 53 yards coming on one play. He is primarily an interior runner with good strength and decent speed, but he'll have trouble running at Warren because the right side of Miami's offensive line is struggling. Right Guard Taylor Whitley is inexperienced, and right tackle John St. Clair was injured against the Jets. St. Clair's backup is second year man Vernon Carey, who has struggled.

As for the punting game, the Dolphins have held opponents to an average of 7.0 yards per return, so don't expect the Patriots to fix that problem this week, especially if Brown isn't handling punts. The Dolphins have struggled in kickoff coverage, allowing opponents an average of 29 yards per return. If Johnson is healthy, he could have some success on Sunday.

Patriots wide receiver David Givens is on pace for 74 catches and 1,516 receiving yards. In 2003, he totaled 34 catches for 510 yards. He is also second in the AFC in receiving yards per game with an average of 95.3 yards. Pittsburgh's Hines Ward leads with 98.5 yards per game. … Wide receiver David Patten is second in the AFC with 21.6 average yards per catch. Givens is sixth with 20.4 yards per catch. … Tight end Daniel Graham's 4 touchdown catches leads all AFC receivers. Graham is on pace for 59 catches and 603 yards. His combined totals for his first two seasons were 48 catches and 559 yards. … With 107.7 yards per game, Patriots running back Corey Dillon trails only Curtis Martin and Priest Holmes in the AFC. Dillon is on pace for 1,723 yards … Dillon's replacement in Cincinnati, Rudi Johnson, is ninth in the AFC with 88.8 yards per game. … Coming off a 2003 campaign in which he made a career-low 73.5 percent of his field goal tries, kicker Adam Vinatieri is 6-for-6. … Quarterback Tom Brady is second in the AFC with 9.06 yards per pass attempt and is on pace for 4,544 passing yards. His previous high is 3,764 yards in 2002. He is 21-for-34 on passes of over 20 yards. After attempting 601 passes in '02 and 601 last year, he is on a pace for just 501 attempts. … Dolphins Linebacker Zach Thomas is on pace for 196 tackles. His career high is 156 tackles in 2002. … Through four games, the Dolphins are scoreless in both the first and third quarters. They have scored only two offensive touchdowns, none on the ground. … The Dolphins have completed 54.5 percent of their passes and have had 9 passes picked off. They also have lost five fumbles. They turned the ball over four times in each of their last two games. Quarterback Jay Fiedler has a 30.0 rating with four interceptions in 46 attempts.

John has agreed to become one of our regular contributors to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna"

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