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Patriots vs. Dolphins preview Week 8: Insider look at Mac Jones, New England’s rushing attack, and breakout of Demario Douglas

The Miami Dolphins host the New England Patriots in Week 8, looking to back up a Week 2 victory over their AFC East rivals. We get a closer look at the Patriots with some Pats Pulpit assistance.

Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins head into Week 8 reeling after being handily beaten by the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7. Leaving Pennsylvania, the Dolphins return to Miami to host the New England Patriots this weekend, looking to complete a season sweep of their AFC East rivals. The game is scheduled for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff on Sunday.

Before we get to the 114th all-time meeting between the Dolphins and the Patriots, it is time to once again get a closer look at the New England football club. For the second time this season, Taylor Kyles from SB Nation’s Patriots team site, Pats Pulpit, was kind enough to sit down with me and answer my Patriots questions.

You can check out my side of the conversation as I answered questions about the Dolphins here:

Back in Week 2, we spoke about the Patriots’ run game. They had only picked up 76 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles on 22 carries, then gained 88 yards on 25 carries against Miami, in part because of the defenses and in part because of injuries to the offensive line. Fast forward to now and the Patriots are still near the bottom of the league in rushing yards per game, averaging 85.4. Every week when I conduct these “behind enemy lines” type of discussions, I recommend the opposing offense run the ball straight at the Dolphins to make them prove they can stop it. Miami is 19th against the run this year, allowing 112.3 yards per game. Can New England successfully establish a running threat and has the ground game improved since the start of the season?

NFL: SEP 17 Dolphins at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Predictability and injuries on the offensive line have plagued the Patriots’ ground game for most of the season. Teams flew to the point of attack because they knew what was coming, which was further exacerbated by a lack of chemistry up front. But in the past two weeks, New England has incorporated motion to slow down second-level defenders, which Bill O’Brien acknowledged has been more game-plan oriented. The offensive line may have also found its top five after getting Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu back last week, the first time both players have played a full game this season. When these teams last met, the Patriots’ front featured Vederian Lowe filling in for Trent Brown at left tackle, Strange in his first game after missing training camp with a knee injury, a less healthy Onwenu, and Calvin Anderson at right tackle. This weekend, that group should be (from left to right) Brown, Strange, Andrews, Sidy Sow (who earned an 86.4 PFF grade last week), and Onwenu at right tackle. While there was some inconsistency running the ball last week, especially when the Bills blitzed, they generated a lot of push for the most part, and backs took advantage. It was the second consecutive game where the rushing attack earned positive EPA/play, and the only other time that happened was in Week 2 against Miami. This week, they’ll look to build off of what worked last week, meaning lots of downhill runs, and improve what didn’t, like some poorly executed combos.

This question really has two purposes - first to see what worked so well for the Patriots and how Miami can stop it and second to learn how to beat the Bills. Please tell us the trick! What magic does Bill Belichick still have? The Patriots stopped turning the ball over, slowed the Bills pass rush, and put together a solid game against the three-time reigning AFC East champions, ultimately winning with a Mike Gesicki touchdown reception (there is something nice about the former Dolphins tight end Gesicki scoring there and seeing the Gesicki Griddy). What changed for the Patriots and is it sustainable or was this a case of any given Sunday?

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

The biggest change came on offense. As you mentioned, he didn’t turn the football over for the first time since Week 3 against the Jets, though he was strip-sacked on a play that was overturned by a penalty. Jones also acknowledged that offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien called more plays he was comfortable with from college, which included healthy hoses of RPOs, quick-hitters, and play action. But the offensive line finding a combination that works was by far the biggest factor, as it seemed to give Jones more confidence and help him shake some of the bad habits he’s shown recently. The Patriots also torched Buffalo’s aggressive pass rush, with Jones going 8-9 for 113 yards and a touchdown when blitzed. His 2.20 second average time to throw and 4.0-yard average depth of target will paint the picture of a quarterback who didn’t do much, but Jones went 5-6 for 88 yards throwing downfield, 4-4 for 42 yards and a touchdown under pressure, and 5-6 for 80 yards with a time to throw of 2.5+ seconds. Not only did Jones stand in to make difficult throws when necessary, but his playmakers capitalized by turning short throws into explosive gains and making tough catches. For the first time this season, it didn’t feel like the QB had to do everything on his own.

Defensively, the Patriots did an excellent job manipulating the Bills’ coverage rules with blitzes and disguised pressures. There were several dropbacks where pass rushers got through untouched, and while Allen managed to get out of a few sacks, New England mostly held up on the back end to prevent getting burned.

The Patriots have four players with over 150 receiving yards this season (Gesicki comes in one-yard shy of that mark). Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (370), tight end Hunter Henry (210), and running back Rhamondre Stevenson (162) all make sense. But then there is sixth-round rookie out of Liberty Demario Douglas with 197 yards and a 14.1 yards per catch average. He looks like the next Patriots slot receiver to create nightmares for opposing teams. Is that reading too much into a small sample size or is Douglas someone who is quickly becoming the go-to guy for New England’s offense?

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

It was clear that Demario Douglas was different on the first day of training camp, where he immediately started working with the first-team offense. Not only was he fed the ball when on the field for drills, but he was untouchable in tacking drills and barely played in the preseason, showing how highly the team valued him. Douglas’ electric play-making ability was apparent early on this season, but he was actually benched against the Dolphins after a costly fumble. For most of this season, the team only used him situationally, like on 3rd downs or from certain packages. This was mostly because, for every big play he made, it seemed he’d also have a glaring rookie mistake. But last week, with JuJu Smith-Schuster out due to a concussion, he broke out with nearly 100 all-purpose yards, including explosive gains on a jet sweep and punt return. Douglas also had a miscue on 3rd down where he drew ire from Mac Jones for running the wrong route, but considering how few spark plugs New England has on offense, they’ll have to live with the growing pains.

What’s going on with former Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker? It seems like he barely played last week. Was it injury or is he falling out of the offense?

New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

I don’t think Parker’s been on the injury report since missing the season opener, but he hasn’t looked like the same player. The deep wins on the perimeter have disappeared outside of a few deep outs. His effort was also highly questionable at times against the Raiders, including a drop on a gorgeous bomb that could’ve helped New England win the game. Not only has Jalen Reagor cut into Parker’s snaps, but he was actually signed to the active roster after running out of practice squad elevations, meaning we could see even less of #1. I thought Parker would be a key piece of this offense, especially after the chemistry he and Jones showed last season and over the summer, but the extension New England signed him to before the season is looking like a really bad move two months later.

The Patriots defense seems to be stepping up, especially last week against the Bills. The pass rush was in Josh Allen’s face all day. I feel like yet another former Dolphins player is playing a big role in this, defensive tackle Davon Godchaux. How is he playing and how is the defense as a whole? Where can Miami find success this weekend?

New England Patriots v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Davon Godchaux tends to have his best games against Buffalo, and last week was no different. But after hitting an injury snag against the Jets, he’s looked much healthier recently and the on-field product reflects that.

Overall, the defense has embraced a bend-but-don’t-break style since losing Pro Bowler Matthew Judon and young stud Christian Gonzalez, who won Defensive Rookie of the Month before landing on IR. But they’ve been difficult to score on, and others have stepped up in place of their fallen comrades. Edge defender Anfernee Jennings, who’s been outstanding against the run, and Christian Barmore is emerging as an every-down force inside. New England also traded for JC Jackson a few weeks ago, and while he hasn’t been perfect, he hasn’t allowed a deep reception since re-joining the defense and has been solid on the boundary.

This defense’s biggest weakness has been its tackling, which could obviously be a huge problem against Miami’s skill players. The Patriots were solid in bringing down Dolphins receivers but had trouble against their ground game. If that isn’t shored up before Sunday, it’s going to be a long day for New England’s defense. I’d attack New England’s linebackers on early downs when they tend to play more zone and avoid forcing downfield throws. If Tua Tagovailoa takes what the Patriots give him, I think Mike McDaniel can scheme up some Red Zone wins with the unique talent at his disposal.

The Dolphins are 9.5-point favorites for this game according to the latest DraftKings Sportsbook odds, but the Patriots kept it close in Week 2 and are coming off a big win over the Bills. Do you expect this to be a 10-point game, or should the Patriots be able to cover this spread - or even pull off the upset win?

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

If the Patriots continue to tackle poorly, the Dolphins could run away with this one. New England’s offense was much improved last week, but they still aren’t built to win a shootout. That said, if Mac Jones and company get out to an early lead, and the defense keeps Miami under wraps long enough for McDaniel to get pass-happy, it could give the Patriots some turnover opportunities.

I think this will be a close matchup, and the visitors have a better chance to pull off an upset behind their rejuvenated offensive line. I say Patriots cover, but I’m not confident enough to give them a win in the House of Horrors that is Hard Rock Stadium.

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