It's all hands on deck for the Dolphins because they are completely healthy and ready to use every player in the plan against the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Everyone on the team practiced full on Friday. The coaching staff expects to use Bryant McKinnie at left tackle against New England, although a final decision won't come until Saturday evening.
Cameron Wake will get a full load of snaps as will cornerback Dimitri Patterson. Middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is expected back at his starting job.
So who has the advantage?
Here are the keys to the game:
When the Dolphins pass the football: The Dolphins personnel department has pushed for Bryant McKinnie to start at left tackle while the coaching staff has taken a more methodical approach. Fans should hope the personnel department wins out because the Dolphins have basically lost two consecutive games when right tackle Tyson Clabo gave up key sacks against Buffalo and Baltimore. Adding McKinnie to the lineup means Jonathan Martin moves from left tackle to right tackle. This game will measure Ryan Tannehill’s ability to recover from a poor game, which his three-turnover game against Buffalo certainly was. The Patriots hope to have starting cornerback Aqib Talib back in the lineup but if he’s out again that will be a considerable help for Miami. ADVANTAGE: Patriots.
When the Dolphins run the football: Did the Dolphins coaching staff learn its lesson this week? Last week, against a weak run defense, the Dolphins didn’t maximize the running game, rushing only 25 times in a game that was never out of hand and in fact Miami led in the fourth quarter. The Patriots are no better than the Bills against the run, allowing four yards per rush, and they’ve been worse since the injury to Vince Wilfork ended his season and weakened the run defense. New England is now 31st in the NFL against the run. The Dolphins must, must, must give Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas a full plate of run attempts to shorten this game, avoid turnovers and move the football. It’s up to offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins (if Sherman doesn’t mess it up).
When the Patriots run the football: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been criticized this week because he didn’t run the football enough against the Jets despite being in a game the Patriots led and were having success with their running game. Is this an epidemic, or what? The Patriots, curiously, are statistically a more successful running team than passing team. They have multiple backs that range in speed and size and can work either outside or between the tackles. But if the Pats are going to have any success running this game, they have to do it outside the tackles because the Dolphins clearly have a talent edge on the interior against New England’s center Ryan Wendell. ADVANTAGE: Even
When the Patriots pass the football: Tom Brady has not been playing up to his career standards as his quarterback rating is 20 points lower and his completion percentage is way down as well. That speaks to the loss of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez and the injury to Rob Gronkowski but it also suggests Brady is struggling to get on the same page with their replacements. Gronkowski returned last week and Brady targeted him 17 times. Look for more of the same, particularly in the red zone. The Dolphins could not figure out how to defend New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham a month ago. They better figure out how to account for Gronk. The Dolphins have the ability to push the Pats pass pocket up the middle with their outstanding defensive tackles and Cameron Wake is ready to take all his usual snaps on the outside. ADVANTAGE: Even.
Special teams: The Dolphins are way better than New England on kickoff returns. The Patriots are way better than the Dolphins on punt returns. Miami punter Brandon Fields is the NFL’s leading punter that includes net and gross average while New England’s Ryan Allen is closer to the middle of the NFL pack. The Patriots have tried more long-range field goals than the Dolphins and have more success doing it, as Stephen Gostowski has connected on 8 of 9 attempts of 40 yards or more, including 2 of 2 from more than 50 yards. ADVANTAGE: Even.
Coaching: Unless Joe Philbin has some sort of Wildcat-type innovation up his sleeve this category pretty obviously tilts in one direction. ADVANTAGE: New England.
Intangibles: Both teams are desperate for a win because the Dolphins have lost three in a row and the Patriots two of three. But the home field has been very good to New England as they haven’t lost an October game at Gillette Stadium since 2005 and are 21-1 there in October dating back to 2003. OVERALL ADVANTAGE: New England.