Dolphins D unable to clamp tight ends

The Miami Dolphins have a problem defending tight ends.

They struggled throughout 2009 to contain them, and they're off to a rougher start this season.

Tight ends accumulated a nice stat line against Miami last year: 68 receptions for 993 yards and four touchdowns.

Through three games, even with the Buffalo Bills not throwing a single pass to their tight ends on opening day, that position is on pace to catch 69 passes for 1,099 yards and 11 touchdowns against the Dolphins.

That's an All-Pro campaign.

"We've got to do a little bit better job," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said.

Next up are a pair of rookies who've already established themselves as dangerous targets.

The Dolphins will have difficult matchups Monday night with New England Patriots tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

Each is capable to doing damage.

Hernandez is more of a pure receiver, averaging 70.3 receiving yards per game. That ranks him fourth among all tight ends behind only Jermichael Finley, Antonio Gates and Dustin Keller and ahead of Dallas Clark.

Gronkowksi is the bigger red-zone threat. He has a pair of touchdowns, tying him for third in the league. On the Patriots, he has one fewer touchdown than Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

"They've done a very good job," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "Both are very young in age. I think one of them is 20 (Hernandez) and one just turned 21 (Gronkowski). So for young players, it's pretty neat to find them playing such a great role on our offense.

"With each week, I think they are gaining a little more confidence in what they're doing through the experience that they're having, and we're relying on them every week to be playmakers for us."

The Patriots were one of the few teams who didn't get in on the tight end passing party last year.

As gaudy as the aforementioned 2009 tight end stats versus the Dolphins looked, the Patriots actually improved the averages. Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker combined for only five receptions and 55 yards in two games against Miami.

Tight ends tearing apart the Dolphins in the middle of the field -- think of Clark's seven-catch, 183-yard night -- were a major reason they made so many offseason defensive changes. The Dolphins fired coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. They released linebackers Akin Ayodele and Reggie Torbor and safety Gibril Wilson because they were responsible for so many big plays.

Keller exploited the Dolphins on Sunday night. He helped the Jets post a big road victory with six catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. The Dolphins did shut him out after the intermission, but that wasn't soon enough.

Sparano knows he'll have problems again Monday night.

"It's difficult, no question about it," Sparano said of Hernandez and Gronkowski. "I think you can try a lot of ways, but with the Patriots you've got to kind of pick your poison a little bit. You can go out there and maybe try to double one of those guys, but then you could expose yourself with Randy or with Wes or with any of those people. You've got to be a little bit careful."