Special teams coach John Bonamego is under fire and must find a solution for the Dolphins' poor kick coverage units, which are getting gashed on a regular basis. Last week, they put starting safety Renaldo Hill on the teams and he had two touchdown-saving tackles. They took safety Courtney Bryan out of Arby's to dish out tackles instead of roast beef sandwiches. Offensively, Sparano has continued to split the right guard spot with Ike Ndukwe and Andy Alleman. The running game seemed to thrive better when Alleman was in the game last week against the Raiders when they compiled a season-high 222 rushing yards.
GAME PLAN: Expect more of the Wildcat, at least until the Patriots prove they could deal with it. The Dolphins have averaged 7.1 yards on 59 plays out of the single-wing formation I which a running back -- usually Ronnie Brown -- takes the shotgun snap. The Patriots have allowed an average of 104 rushing yards per game, but Miami more than doubled that in their early-season victory, with 119 of 216 yards coming out of the Wildcat. The very accurate Chad Pennington will take advantage of CB Ellis Hobbs' 5-9 size by looking downfield for blossoming receiver Greg Camarillo.
Defensively, the Dolphins will do what they've been doing quite effectively lately, focus on stopping the run to get a young quarterback in third-and-long situations and then unleash NFL sack leader Joey Porter and Vonnie Holliday, who has three sacks in his last two games. The improving secondary, mostly CB Will Allen, will pay plenty of attention to WR Randy Moss, who only had four catches for 25 yards in the first meeting. With the Patriots using their fourth-string running back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Sammy Morris, the Dolphins' ninth-ranked run defense will bring up hard-hitting safety Yeremiah Bell to help stuff the run.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Dolphins TE Anthony Fasano has been relatively quiet the last two games with one catch but he should be more involved in the game plan vs. Patriots second-year SS Brandon Meriweather, who is filling in for Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison, who is out for the year. New England's opponents are completing 65 percent of its passes, and are averaging 6.92 yards per attempt. Meriweather has 45 tackles and three interceptions, but at 5-11, 200 pounds he's relatively small to defend tight ends, and his inexperience will be a factor. Fasano had three catches for 66 yards, including a touchdown in the early-season meeting. With Ted Ginn Jr. and Greg Camarillo getting plenty of attention from the cornerbacks, the middle of the field should be open for Fasano to exploit.
Dolphins C Samson Satele will have his hands full vs. Patriots NT Vince Wilfork, who he says is the best nose he's faced in his fledgling career. Wilfork has 41 tackles and one sack this season, including five tackles against the Dolphins. He will likely challenge Satele head-on and if he's effective moving the 300-pounder backward, quarterback Chad Pennington's pocket might collapse, and running lanes for the tailbacks will be clogged. That's partly why the Dolphins broke out the Wildcat against the Patriots so that they could use an unbalanced line and create space for Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown to run through. The Dolphins gained 216 rushing yards in the early-season blowout.
Dolphins 32nd-ranked kick return unit vs. Patriots KR Ellis Hobbs, who is ranked third in the NFL while averaging 28.4 yards. Hobbs torched Miami in the first meeting this year, setting a franchise record with 237 return yards, including returns of 50 and 81 yards -- with the latter leading directly to a touchdown. They also allowed a 95-yard return by Denver rookie Eddie Royal, which also set up a TD. The Dolphins have focused on bolstering the unit by re-signing Courtney Bryan and adding starting FS Renaldo Hill to the unit. Their punt return unit isn't much better as their 31st rank attests, as well as the two touchdowns they've allowed, including Johnnie Lee Higgins' 93-yarder last week in the win over Oakland. Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk share the punt return chores, with Welker averaging 11.8 and Faulk 15.1 per return. The Dolphins' best two special-teamers are Patrick Cobbs and Jason Allen with 12 tackles apiece.
INJURY IMPACT: The Dolphins continue their amazing run of health with no players on the injury list. QB Chad Pennington was added late last week with a sore foot, but he should be fine for the game. The Dolphins will no doubt take advantage of the absence of OLB Adalius Thomas and go at his replacement Pierre Woods with plenty of sweeps outside. Last game they picked on undersized CB Ellis Hobbs, and both Greg Camarillo and Ted Ginn Jr. had solid games, with a combined nine catches for 109 yards.
The week began with a transaction, but not the one everyone was expecting. The Patriots placed rookie cornerback Terrence Wheatley on injured reserve after he hurt his wrist against the Colts and surprisingly called up Tyson DeVree from the practice squad. Linebacker Adalius Thomas remains on the active roster despite breaking his arm and, by all indications, on pace to miss the rest of the year.
The Patriots also added defensive end Darrell Robertson to the practice squad. The big move, however, is losing Wheatley, who had finally begun to make some plays in the secondary in nickel and dime packages. Now the Patriots are scrambling with Jason Webster and Lewis Sanders -- at least they hope so. Sanders is still recovering from a hamstring injury in what has been the latest setback for this battered secondary.
GAME PLAN: The one thing the Patriots need to do is figure out a way to defend the Wildcat offense. They got torn apart against Miami in Week 3 and had no answer for the Dolphins' unorthodox formations.
Having seen it once should help, though Bill Belichick noted that Miami always switches things up to assure the scheme will be effective each time it's utilized.
The key is containing the run and not putting the Dolphins in advantageous situations on third down, otherwise they'll have more options and more opportunities to run the Wildcat.
The offensive game plan is much more simple -- establish the run and let Matt Cassel dink and dunk his way down the field. Cassel has played well of late and the Patriots should trust him with the ball more so than they did earlier in the season.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots LB Jerod Mayo vs. Dolphins RB Ronnie Brown. Mayo is coming off arguably his best performance of the season with 20 tackles against the Jets. Brown has hit his stride in crunch time and is running well -- especially in the Wildcat offense. Mayo needs to slow him down on first and second down to limit the number of times Miami runs the Wildcat.
Patriots CB Deltha O'Neal vs. Dolphins WR Ted Ginn. O'Neal is the starter by default with all the injuries in the secondary and Ginn is starting to emerge as a legitimate threat in his second season with Miami. Ginn wasn't a big factor in Week 3 the last time these two teams met, so this is something new the Patriots must prepare for.
INJURY IMPACT: DL Jarvis Green may get more playing time again this weekend if Richard Seymour's toe injury limits his snaps. Green helped fill in for Ty Warren against the Jets and did an admirable job in his first game back from injury.
--LB Pierre Woods started in place of Adalius Thomas last week and appears to be the full-time player in that role for the near future unless the Patriots make another transaction. Woods played well at times -- perhaps well enough to keep the job.
--S Ray Ventrone went down with a concussion on the first series of Thursday's game and the impact of his loss was felt when Leon Washington ran back a kickoff for a touchdown later in the opening quarter. Ventrone remains on the best tacklers on special teams, so the Patriots are hoping he returns Sunday.