When the Patriots pass the ball
The New England passing game had previously sputtered and appeared out-of-sync for weeks. Other than a late-game uptick against the Texans in Week 13, the passing offense was impotent.
The return of center Ted Karras and left tackle Isaiah Wynn on the offensive line solidified that unit, but then injuries to quarterback Tom Brady and top wide receiver Julian Edelman clearly were worse than they appeared, and brought it back down a bit once more.
The New England passing game broke out against one of the better pass defenses in the NFL last week, though. Brady completed 26 of 33 for 271 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. The return to form of the running game (143 yards) also opened up the passing game.
Brady’s top targets were again Edelman and James White, but running back Rex Burkhead led the way with 77 receiving yards. In addition, Brady completed passes to nine different receivers. His lone touchdown went to a tight end, a nice grab by Matt LaCosse.
Rookie N’Keal Harry continues to be the dynamic playmaker the offense was previously missing. Although he had just two catches for 21 yards, he also had a tackle-breaking 18-yard rush. More importantly, Harry has been on the field for more than 50% of the offensive snaps for the past two games (after playing just two snaps against Kansas City).
Miami lost star cornerback Xavien Howard early in the season, and fellow starter Cordea Tankersley missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Safety Reshad Jones played just four games due to injury, T.J McDonald was released before the season, and Minkah Fitzpatrick was traded to the Steelers. Back-up cornerbacks Bobby McCain, Ken Webster (swiped from the Patriots while trying to sneak him through waivers to the practice squad), and another former Patriots practice squad cornerback Ryan Lewis all ended up on injured reserve this season.
Veteran (and former Patriots cornerback) Eric Rowe has stepped in as the top cornerback, with undrafted rookie free agent Nik Needham as the other starter. Another undrafted rookie free agent, Tae Hayes, was signed after being released by Jacksonville, and he played most of the game as the nickel cornerback against Cincinnati last week. Jomal Wiltz–yes, another former Patriots practice squad cornerback–has also been getting snaps at nickel cornerback this year, but he has already been ruled out with a shoulder injury.
At safety, Miami has former 49ers seventh-round draft pick and Seahawks practice squad player Adrian Colbert at strong safety for the past month since he signed in Miami. Montre Hartage, another undrafted rookie free agent promoted from the practice time, has been splitting playing time with undrafted rookie free agent Steven Parker for the past few weeks.
Even the staunchest Miami Dolphins fans are looking at this secondary and wondering, “Who are these guys?”
The Dolphins are dead-last in points allowed, second to last in first downs allowed, 28th in passing yards allowed, have allowed 37 passing touchdowns (by far the most in the NFL), and are 30th in the NFL in yards allowed per pass attempt.
The Patriots should be able to move the ball with ease against the Dolphins’ secondary on Sunday.