The Patriots and Dolphins are set to square off in a pivotal divisional matchup with major playoff implications on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, but both teams are dealing with significant injury issues.
New England has ruled rookie cornerbacks Marcus (concussion) and Jack Jones (knee), wide receiver DeVante Parker (concussion), and tight end Jonnu Smith (concussion) for Sunday's game. The Patriots also listed five players as questionable: TE Hunter Henry (knee), CB Jonathan Jones (chest), CB Jalen Mills (groin), RB Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle), and WR Tyquan Thornton (knee). After missing the last four games, running back Damien Harris was removed from the injury report and is good to go.
Although they catch a break facing backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Patriots secondary, minus the two rookie Joneses and potentially Mills for the fifth-straight game, has the daunting task of defending Miami's receiver tandem Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
Hill and Waddle are the only teammate duo with more than 1,000 receiving yards each, bringing game-breaking speed to the Dolphins offense. Ideally, the Pats would have their own game-breaker, rookie Marcus Jones, to pair with vet Jonathan Jones, who has done an admirable job defending Hill over the years. However, the Pats third-rounder suffered a concussion in last week's loss to the Bengals that will keep him out of this week's do-or-die contest.
At one point this week, the Patriots had just five healthy defensive backs practicing. Luckily, there was a positive development on Friday when Jalen Mills returned to practice. Mills hasn't played since Thanksgiving night in Minnesota and appeared to suffer a setback while the team was out in Arizona, going from a limited participant to a non-participant overnight.
Going from four consecutive weeks without playing to tracking the Dolphins prolific receiver duo with a nagging groin injury is a lot to ask of Mills. But the Pats starting outside cornerback might not have a choice given the injury situation with the two young corners already ruled out.
If Mills can't play or is limited in-game by the injury, the only cornerback remaining on the roster besides the elder Jones and Myles Bryant is second-year DB Shaun Wade. After acquiring Wade via trade in August 2021, the Ohio State product has been a bit of an enigma.
Wade has only been active in three games, playing just 18 defensive snaps, with eight in Arizona and one against Cincinnati. The 2021 fifth-round pick allowed a touchdown in coverage on his lone defensive snap versus the Bengals. Wade has looked a step or two slow running with receivers coming across the field, making Sunday a difficult matchup. On a positive note, his inside-outside versatility and upside were intriguing traits in the draft, and he hasn't played much to develop a good feel for the NFL game.
"Shaun's a smart kid. He's worked at all the spots for us. Further ahead than he was last season, that's for sure," head coach Bill Belichick said before confirming that Wade has played slot corner, outside corner, a some at safety for New England in practice.
It's difficult to envision a great formula for the Patriots defense against a dangerous Miami offense with so many injuries in the secondary. Still, the Pats have a distinct advantage in the trenches, where they should be able to pressure Bridgewater, a more limited downfield passer than starter Tua Tagovailoa. The game within the game this week will be how the Patriots force Bridgewater to beat them down the field while being at less than full strength at cornerback. The soft zone coverages that force offenses to march down the field plays into Bridgewater's strengths as an accurate and on-time short passer.
Plus, Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel's motion and play-action-based system put short zone defenders in hell, which is why the blueprint during Miami's four-game losing streak is to play more aggressive man coverage that forces the quarterback to hold the ball.
The Patriots could accomplish this with a cornerback trio of Jonathan Jones, Jalen Mills, and Myles Bryant. But if Wade has to play extended snaps, the game script could look like last week, where Bengals QB Joe Burrow piled up 375 passing yards while New England's defense was opportunistic when it could be by forcing three turnovers.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots tight end duo is banged up following in-game injuries. Henry will likely play through his knee injury, but Smith, who was sandwiched between two Bengal defenders on a quick pass, is out with a concussion.
Although injuries are always a negative for the team, the silver lining is that the Patriots coaching staff will need to ride the hot hand with wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. Bourne, who has seen his playing time decrease by ten percent and his target share cut in half this season, put up a career-high 129 scrimmage yards and his first 100-yard game in Sunday's loss.
Along those lines, Dolphins Pro Bowler Xavien Howard (knee) did not participate in Friday's practice and is officially questionable, while LB Bradley Chubb (ankle/hand) will be a game-time decision, according to head coach Mike McDaniel. With the defense catching the injury bug in the backend, now is the time for the Patriots offense to drive the bus to keep New England's season alive. Based on how it's looked, that sounds like wishful thinking. But the Dolphins man-blitz system has not held up this season, ranking 25th in pass DVOA, and could be down their top corner and one-half of their fierce edge-rushing tandem. It's now or never for the Patriots offense.
The Patriots are playing for their season on Sunday. With a win, they significantly increase their chances of making the playoffs. However, a loss eliminates them from postseason contention.
New England looks to keep its season alive when the Patriots host the Dolphins at 1 pm ET in Foxboro on New Year's Day.