Despite optimism before the 2010 season (owner Stephen Ross predicted a Super Bowl appearance in June), the Dolphins finished with a 7-9 record and lost four of their last five games of the season.
The Patriots in particular made quick work of Miami in their two meetings last year, winning both matchups by a combined score of 79-21. There was plenty of room for improvement for coach Tony Sparano’s team, and New England will be the first to see how much progress Sparano and his staff made in the lockout-shortened offseason.
Here are three areas to watch for from the Dolphins:
* Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne has really struggled with his intermediate and deep throws against the Patriots' pass defense. In two games last year, Henne completed four of his 12 pass attempts of 11-plus yards with two interceptions. Henne’s teammate Tyler Thigpen didn’t exactly solve the problem, posting an identical 4-for-12 line with a touchdown and an interception. Overall, Dolphins quarterbacks had the lowest completion percentage (33.3 pct) and yards per attempt (6.7) while throwing the most interceptions (three) of any Patriots opponent in 2010 on throws of 11-plus yards. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll indicated Henne this season will have more freedom to audible out of plays based on reads at the line, something the Patriots may try to exploit with different pre-snap defensive looks and pressures.
* While Henne and the Miami passing attack received media scrutiny a year ago, the Dolphins also struggled a year ago rushing the ball up the middle. The Dolphins averaged only 3.5 yards per rush up the middle (T-27th in NFL), despite attempting 247 of those rushes last season, and the Patriots had particular success slowing Miami’s ground game, holding the Dolphins to 1.9 yards per rush up the middle (second-best among Dolphins opponents). Miami revamped its running game in the offseason, bringing in running backs Reggie Bush, Daniel Thomas and now Larry Johnson to handle rushing duties behind a new-look offensive line. First-round draft pick Mike Pouncey and free-agent right tackle Marc Colombo are the two newcomers to an offensive line that features All-Pro left tackle Jake Long.
* When both the passing and the rushing games fail and Tom Brady is your opponent, it’s going to be a long day. The Dolphins were conservative in their first meeting last season (Week 4), sending four or fewer pass rushers on 22 of 27 drop backs, but Brady completed 16 of 21 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown against four or fewer rushers (70.3 Total QB Rating). In Week 17, the Dolphins threw a little more pressure Brady’s way, sending five or more pass-rushers on eight of Brady’s 18 drop backs. The pressure yielded no sacks, however, and Brady nearly registered a perfect 100 Total QB Rating (99.5) by completing 5-of-8 passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns before getting pulled for Brian Hoyer in the third quarter. The Dolphins will get first-round pick Jared Odrick back, who missed 15 games last season with a fractured leg, and replaced Channing Crowder with the more versatile Kevin Burnett in the offseason. Personnel improvements give Miami a little more freedom for defensive creativity among the front seven, but a large part of the burden to pressure Brady still falls on outside linebacker Cameron Wake.