With Rob Gronkowski returning to the field in Week 7, the speculation that previously permeated throughout each week about his availability no longer exists. As Gronkowski said Wednesday, his focus can be geared toward the upcoming opponent and not become distracted by questions about whether he’ll be available to play on Sunday.
His return was an impactful one, despite the team falling in overtime, as he hauled in eight catches for 114 yards.
But while they got back arguably their best player not named Tom Brady, the Patriots aren’t entirely out of the woods yet on the injury front. Wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion/groin) has practiced on a limited basis this week and is listed as questionable to play Sunday. Cornerback Aqib Talib (hip), who has also practiced on a limited basis this week, also is questionable for Week 8.
The Patriots always put a premium on division games, and they’ll play their fourth of the season on Sunday and their first against the Miami Dolphins, who were hopeful to make the leap this season after a 7-9 campaign in 2012. While the Patriots are looking to bounce back from a disappointing Week 7 loss, the Dolphins are try to break a three-game losing streak and climb back above .500.
When the two square off on Sunday, here’s what we’ll be looking for.
1. Talib and Amendola’s availability. Amendola was the team’s most notable offseason acquisition, while Talib has proven to be an indispensable member of this defense. Getting both of them back for Sunday would be a boon for the Patriots, as the offense needs Amendola to help kick-start its production, while Talib is playing like one of the best cornerbacks in all of football. The Dolphins haven’t been able to generate much on the ground this season, but with a receiving corps that features Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and a capable slot presence in Brandon Gibson, getting Talib back would be a big step in slowing down their passing game. Two players we know the Patriots won’t have: defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and running back Leon Washington (ankle), who have been ruled out by the team.
2. Can Brady find his rhythm? Brady hasn’t lost any confidence despite recent struggles, as he shouldn’t have. That being said, the veteran quarterback needs to raise his level of play as the season progresses, as he’s completed fewer than 56 percent of his throws. The Patriots' offense has dealt with moving parts, but the potential to have Gronkowski and Amendola on the field at the same time opens things up. Can the offense get it going against a Dolphins defense that made steep investments on players at all three levels this offseason?
3. Exposing the Dolphins' pass protection. The Dolphins made the decision to pass on Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson when they traded up to the third pick in this year’s draft to grab defensive end Dion Jordan. With second-year player Jonathan Martin struggling, the team acted on a trade opportunity to acquire veteran Bryant McKinnie from Baltimore this past week, which could eventually swing Martin over to the right side and move Tyson Clabo into a reserve role. Regardless of who mans the left side, the Patriots have an opportunity to generate pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Veteran Andre Carter, signed this week, isn’t likely to start for the team, but he could be an effective edge rusher with a natural nose for the quarterback.
4. Containing the Dolphins' pass rush. By the numbers, the Dolphins' pass rush hasn’t been particularly strong, but that’s due in part to time missed by standout Cameron Wake, who is now healthy after dealing with a knee issue earlier this season. Bill Belichick said of Wake: “He’s just a good football player. I don’t think there’s any one thing that just jumps off about him. It’s just all solid and good. He plays strong, he’s athletic, he’s active. He can rush the edge but he can also rush with power. He’s got a good variety of moves.” Wake, who primarily aligns on the defense’s left side, will be the responsibility of Sebastian Vollmer to contain. Vollmer has been his usual solid self this season, and Sunday will mark yet another test for the towering right tackle.
5. Punt game in focus. Dolphins punter Brandon Fields leads the league in both gross and net punting, a testament to both his strong leg and directional punting ability. But the Dolphins have allowed an average of 9.9 yards per return, which could be tied to Fields at times outkicking his coverage. Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman is the NFL's active leader in punt-return average, and he had a brilliant return against the Jets last weekend. He’s the only NFL player to return a punt for a touchdown in each of the past three seasons, and he may have a chance to find space and room to maneuver if Fields unloads on a punt.