The Patriots square off with the Dolphins this Sunday in Gillette Stadium. Although the Phins are out to a disappointing 1-3 start, they have a knack for turning things around after starting slow – they did it last year, starting out 1-6 before winning the last six games. The Patriots are on the second-longest streak in NFL history without losing back-to-back games, but coach Belichick said this week that he's more concerned with winning two games in a row. Here are five things the Pats need to do this week to make that happen.
Run for the thrills
It's been their strong point, and Laurence Maroney was named FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Week and Diet Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week for his 125-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Bengals. However, Miami has allowed only 16 rushing first downs entering this game. The Patriots have 37 rushing first downs so far, and will be facing an experienced front seven, which includes tackling maniac Zach Thomas and former Patriot Kieth Traylor. Center Dan Koppen knows they're a tough run-stopping crew and admitted this week that, "[Traylor] is a big boy, [he] still can play too." The Dolphins don't have a single rookie in their starting lineup, and their defense is a well-seasoned group that will be looking to put a lid on the explosive Maroney. The Patriots running game has more than made up for a slow start in the passing game, and that's where the true battle will be won or lost this week. On the ground, they averaged 5.8 yards-per carry against the Bengals, who were missing Odell Thurman, but Denver's quick-reacting linebackers were able to stuff the run. They beat the Patriots, and if Corey Dillon and Maroney don't keep their feet moving against the Phins D, the game could be uncomfortably close. The weight rests on the shoulders of the Patriots offensive line again this week, and the running game needs to continue it's dominance if the Pats want to chalk up another win.
Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper hasn't performed as well as many prognosticators predicted during the preseason, but don't count him out just yet. He's nursing a right knee – his plant leg – that he had surgery on after tearing three ligaments with the Vikings last season. His threat as a scrambler seems to have diminished, his footwork isn't as good in the pocket and he's been hesitant in releasing the ball, but his arm is just as dangerous as it ever was. Culpepper has been sacked a whopping 21 times already this season, which can in part be attributed to rapid turnover at the right guard position. More leaks have sprung up in the line, and now their left guard, Jeno James is questionable on the injury report. Pressuring Culpepper is the best way to keep wideout Chris Chambers from grabbing the long-balls Culpepper is capable of throwing. Chambers has caught 40 passes for 453 yards against the Pats in his career. When the Patriots get penetration on pass rush, don't be surprised if Culpepper starts throwing short passes to tight end Randy McMichael on quick routes. Culpepper's been listed as probable with a shoulder injury this week, but will want to prove he's still got what it takes when he faces the Patriots. So far, every team the Phins have played has been able to get to Culpepper, and he knows it. The Patriots will need to continue to put pressure on him, and if they can, they should be able to shut down an offense that's managed only five touchdowns this season.
Continue to sharpen the passing game
So far this season, Tom Brady has proven that he'll throw it to whoever's open, connecting with 10 different receivers for 855 passing yards. Brady's completion percentage has risen every week this season. He's been sacked an average of once per game, but hasn't taken one in either of the last two games. Miami's Jason Taylor has sacked Brady every year since 2001, and will be looking to get to Brady in this game. Receiver Doug Gabriel emerged in last week's game against the Bengals, tying tight end Daniel Graham for most receptions (4) and leading the team in receiving yards with 57 in the game. Tight end Benjamin Watson has caught more passes from Brady than anyone else on the team this season (12) and also leads the team with 178 receiving yards. He's come up big on a number of plays, with four catches for 20-yards or more, but if he can become a more consistent target, it would help take some pressure off the wideouts. Chad Jackson caught two passes against the Jets, was inactive against Denver and then caught two more passes at Cincinnati. He's been plagued by a hamstring injury, but could be a contributor if he can get healthy. The Pats need to keep working toward a balanced offense as the season goes on, which will help to strengthen both the passing and running games.
Keep forcing turnovers
The Patriots enter this game with a turnover ratio of minus-two. The Dolphins have a plus-two turnover ratio. Prior to the Bengals game, the Pats only had one turnover, an interception by Tedy Bruschi. Jarvis Green and Ty Warren came up big with strip-sacks that turned into fumble recoveries against the Bengals. Both of them resulted in offensive touchdowns for a total of 14 points off takeaways on the year. Miami's plus-two turnover differential is tied for seventh in the league, but their difficulty constructing drives has kept them out of the end zone after takeaways. They've managed to kick three field goals on resulting possessions notching 9 points on takeaways. "The No. 1 goal is to win the turnover battle," Tedy Bruschi said this week. "If you win that, your chances of also winning the game are greater." The Patriots two turnovers last week really contributed to the blowout, and if they can keep making those kinds of things happen, the Dolphins will dry up.
Be special on special teams
Rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski got out to a good start, but then he had two field goals blocked – one each against the Jets and Broncos. He kept his head up, because blocked field goals aren't typically the fault of the kicker. Gostkowski missed his third-straight attempt in the Patriots first drive of the third quarter against the Bengals. This one, a 48-yarder, went wide to the right of the goalposts. Gostkowski got another chance two series' later, splitting the uprights on a 24-yarder to end his streak. The rookie has big shoes to fill with Adam Vinatieri gone, and this week, Belichick said, "I think Stephen is confident and he should be. I'm confident in him." Martin Gramatica was just released by the Colts this week, since (in a weird triangle) Vinatieri is healthy again. Gramatica was in competition with Gostkowski during training camp before being released. Gostkowski will need to perform well in this game and put points on the board for his team if he gets the chance. Additionally, Belichick spoke today about the threat returner Wes Welker poses on both kick and punt returns. "Welker is a guy that has the ball in his hands on both and he's extremely dangerous on both as well as offensively as a receiver," said Belichick. "I think we have a big challenge with him." Welker is second on the team with 18 receptions. The Patriots will need to be cautious and be sure to wrap up when Welker returns kicks this week.
Bill Belichick hired Dolphins Head Coach Nick Saban as Cleveland's defensive coordinator when Belichick was the head coach of the Browns in 1991. They worked together during Belichick's first four years there. … Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, defensive coordinator Dean Pees and wide receivers coach Brian Daboll were all on Saban's staff at Michigan State. … Secondary coach Joel Collier was a member of the Dolphins coaching staff for 11 seasons prior to joining the Patriots. … Special teams captain Larry Izzo was originally signed by the Dolphins as a rookie free agent and spent five seasons with the Phins. … Linebacker Junior Seau played for the Dolphins for three seasons prior to moving to New England. … Running back Heath Evans played in the first six games of the 2005 season for the Dolphins and earned two starts. He's a native of West Palm Beach, Florida. He was teammates with Miami running back Ronnie Brown at Auburn in 2000. … Dolphins defensive tackle Keith Traylor played for the Patriots in 2004, starting 10 of 16 games at nose tackle. … Cornerback Asante Samuel is originally from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and attended Central Florida. … Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork was a standout defensive tackle at the University of Miami, where he recorded 148 tackles and 14 sacks in three seasons beginning in 2001. … Defensive lineman Richard Seymour and tight end Benjamin Watson were both teammates with Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael at Georgia, though not at the same time.