Since the 2004 season, the Dolphins and Patriots have split their two yearly games (except, of course, for the disaster that was '07). And if you were to ask Pats head coach Bill Belichick, I'd bet he'd agree that the Dolphins are probably one of the few teams in the NFL that consistently give his teams trouble.
On Monday night, the Pats will come to Miami with a lot on the line. Considering the Jets take on the lowly Bills this week, the loser of this Monday night game will likely fall two games behind the division leaders at the quarter pole of the 2010 season. So while it may be early, Monday's game is a very important one.
With that said, below are three very big keys for the Dolphins if they want to head into their week five bye week on a high note.
1. Don't be afraid to pass. This may seem crazy to some, especially after a game against the Jets where some think the Dolphins let Chad Henne throw the ball too often. And I'm well aware that the Dolphins are still a team that wants to be defined by their running game. But last year, the Patriots were able to limit Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to just 3.9 yards per carry. This year the Dolphins' offensive line (at least so far) has not been as effective as they were last year.
Meanwhile the Patriots have had an even more leaky secondary than a year ago. The Pats were 12th in the league a year ago, allowing just 209 yards per game through the air. But so far this year, New England's secondary has been a bit of a disaster. After allowing Carson Palmer to throw for nearly 350 yards, New England saw Mark Sanchez throw for over 200 yards and three touchdowns. And that was just a prelude their struggles last week, letting Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick complete 71% of his passes for nearly 250 yards and two touchdowns. If not for two poor decisions by Fitzpatrick which resulted in interceptions, the Bills might have just shocked the world and knocked off the Pats up in Foxborough.
I'm not saying the Dolphins should abandon the run. But the Patriots will try to take away the run - as every team does when they play Miami - and make Chad Henne beat them. After seeing his performance last week, there's no reason he can't do just that. The Dolphins need to let Henne throw early and get into a rhythm.
2. Take away the tight ends. The Dolphins have had a hard enough time taking away one tight end from opposing offenses over the past couple of years. The past two games, tight ends have really hurt this Miami defense. Visanthe Shiancoe and Dustin Keller have combined for 12 catches, 184 yards receiving, and two touchdowns over the past two games against this defense.
Now the Dolphins have to worry about not one, but two athletic, pass-catching tight ends - to go along with everything else. You can practically be guaranteed that the Pats will try to exploit Miami's struggles covering tight ends by putting Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski on the field together more often than they would typically do. Mike Nolan will need to have an answer.
3. Get pressure on Brady. This is probably common sense - pressuring a great quarterback is the most basic way of containing him. And in Tom Brady's case - a guy who has pretty much seen everything - it's especially important. He's not a guy that a defense is going to be able to confuse. And you have to wonder if Mike Nolan will even try to confuse him by utilizing some creative blitz packages on Monday night.
Last week, Nolan's defense wasn't effective at confusing the young Mark Sanchez. While there were a couple of exotic blitz packages thrown in - like the corner blitz by Vontae Davis - Nolan didn't seem interested in having his defense attack the way we had seen in the first two games. And when Nolan did dial up a blitz, it came from the interior of the defense rather than from the outside - where Miami has had more success so fat this year.
The bottom line, though, is that Brady and the Pats will be ready to counter whatever this defense throws at them in terms of blitzing. The most important aspect of this game might very well be the ability of Miami's pass-rushers to beat their man one-on-one. It's really that simple. The Pats use a number of sets that limit the number of blockers protecting Tom Brady. If Cameron Wake and Koa Misi can get pressure on Brady without Nolan having to send extra pass-rushers, the Dolphins will be able to keep six or seven defenders in coverage, making it tougher for Brady to find open receivers down the field.