Dolphins Are Just What the Doctor Ordered

<p>The New England Patriots fly to Miami to take on a tough Miami Dolphins team. While the Dolphins may be out of the playoff hunt, they are still a dangerous AFC East foe who would like nothing more than to play spoiler to the Patriots hopes of home field advantage in late January.</p> <p>John MacKenna takes a look at this divisional rival in his week 15 preview. </p>

PHOTO: New England Patriots receiver David Patten hauls in a pass in front of Miami Dolphins cornerback Sam Madison during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. Sunday, Oct. 10, 2004. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Dolphins Are Just What the Doctor Ordered
By John MacKenna

The 2-11 Miami Dolphins have one of the least productive offenses in the NFL, making them the perfect opponent for the New England Patriots and their hopelessly crippled defensive backfield.

This week's injury report is the worst yet for the Patriots' chewed-up secondary: CB Tyrone Poole has been lost for the season; S Dexter Reid is doubtful (shoulder); CBs Randall Gay (arm) and Asante Samuel (shoulder) are questionable; and S Rodney Harrison (flu) is probable.

Should Reid, Samuel and Gay all miss the game on Monday, here's your likely New England Patriots' starting defensive backfield.

  • Harrison at strong safety. This is the good news. He's playing like an all-pro and keeping the backfield afloat.

  • Eugene Wilson at cornerback. It could be a bad sign when your second-most reliable backfielder is a safety moved to cornerback, but Wilson has been great.

  • Earthwind Moreland at cornerback. He has had a few good moments, but mostly he is what his resume says he is: a third-year player seeing his first NFL action this year after being released by four teams.

  • Don Davis at safety. A 32-year-old, 235-pound linebacker who usually plays exclusively on special teams.

When they go to the nickel package, WR Troy "3 Picks" Brown will join the crew. For the dime, the choices are scary: rookie free agent CB Omare Lowe and special teamer Je'Rod Cherry.

This is not good.

Rewind to the offseason, when the Patriots' defensive secondary was a distinct strength and an embarrassment of riches. The Pats were coming off a season in which they led the NFL with 29 interceptions and 121 passes defensed.

The Pats had elected to retain Pro Bowl CB Ty Law despite his lofty salary. Poole was back at the other corner, coming off his best season with six interceptions and 21 passes defensed.

Samuel, coming off a solid rookie season at nickel back, was widely said to be threatening Poole for the starting job. Gay, an undrafted rookie, was onboard as the fourth cornerback after beating out veteran Terrell Buckley.

At safety, Harrison and Wilson were back, with two rookies in reserve, third-rounder Guss Scott and fourth-rounder Reid.

That's eight (count 'em, eight) defensive backfielders. Turns out the Patriots needed 11, maybe 12.

What happened?

  • Scott went first, suffering a season-ending injury in preseason. On IR.

  • Poole suffered knee injury in Week 2, played three more games (none consecutive) and is now on IR.

  • Samuel suffered shoulder injury in Week 2, has missed four games and hasn't been the same.

  • Law suffered broken foot in Week 8 and has yet to return.

  • Gay shows up on the injury report weekly with an arm injury. He has missed no games.

  • Reid suffered a shoulder injury last week and did not return.

It's possible the Patriots will face the Dolphins minus all six injured DBs. This would be nothing short of a crisis on most NFL teams. Frankly, it's a crisis for New England, yet they somehow keep winning.

How does a team win week after week with four to six of its defensive backfielders out of action? It's not as if the pass coverage has held up; in four of those games the opponents have passed for an average of 308 yards, which is 30 yards more than the Kansas City Chiefs (32nd in pass defense).

Credit goes first to Charlie Weis. His offense has averaged 381.3 total yards and 22.5 first downs in the six games since the Patriots lost Law and Poole. RB Corey Dillon and Dante Scarnecchia's offensive line have meshed well, with Dillon averaging 112 yards on 23 carries during that stretch. With help from defense and special teams, the Patriots have scored an average of 33 points in the six games, with a low score of 24.

Credit also goes to the other defensive units: linemen and linebackers. Up front, rookie Vince Wilfork and second-year man Ty Warren have played like veterans. Veterans Jarvis Green and Keith Traylor have also played well, but it's all about that all-first-round front line with an average age of 24. (It's time to acknowledge what a steal Warren was at 13. Wilfork at 21 looks good too.)

The linebacking corps is the engine that drives the New England defense. The four starters are talented, experienced and smart.

  • MLB Ted Johnson is having arguably his best season at age 32. In his 10th year with New England, the 6'4", 253-pounder looks great in run defense and in pass coverage.

  • MLB Tedy Bruschi continues to play at a very high level at age 31. He is second on the team with 94 tackles and has made some huge plays, like his sack and forced fumble against Baltimore that set up Jarvis Green's touchdown on a fumble recovery.

  • OLB Willie McGinest continues at the top of his game at age 33. His improbable physical gifts have held up, and he's football brilliant. At 6'5", 270, he spends a lot of time in the opposing backfield. He has eight sacks this year, giving him a total 23 in the last three seasons. Ought to be Pro Bowl starter.

  • OLB Mike Vrabel is the youngest of the bunch at 29. He is a formidable pass rusher, who last year led the team with 9.5 sacks. He has only four this year but has caused plenty of disruption.

Johnson, Bruschi and McGinest are playing together for the ninth straight season. Vrabel has been around for the last four. The stability of the linebacking crew has allowed Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel to hold his defense together through all the injuries. The Patriots have been burned long often in the last six weeks, but the linebacking crew has allowed almost no long gains on short and intermediate passes.

That success should continue this week, because the Dolphins don't have much strength on offense. A.J. Feeley's 56.3 quarterback ranking is an NFL worst, to go with 15 interceptions and only nine TD passes.

Feeley has excellent receivers in WR Chris Chambers (59 catches, 733 yards) and TE Randy McMichael (58 catches, 698 yards). There is a risk that they'll connect on some big gainers, but Feeley sucks on a reliable basis: His quarterback rating for a game has exceeded 61 only once since Week 1, rocketing to 72.7 against the Niners in Week 12.

The Miami run game is, somehow, even worse. Miami ranks 31s in the NFL with 82.6 rushing yards per game. Travis Minor leads the way, averaging nearly three yards a carry over the last four games.

The Dolphins are known as a defensive team, but that is a mistake. They rank 19th in opponents' scoring (22.2) and 29th against the rush (138.8 yards a game). Pro Bowl MLB Zach Thomas is questionable with a hamstring injury.

The Patriots have to hope they get some good news from the trainer's room before the Dec. 26 road game against the Jets.

John is a regular contributor 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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