These Patriots are not an easy bunch to figure out. One week they’ll try to ram the ball down an opponent’s throat with the run, the next they’ll spread it out and attack through the air, and they’ll follow that with an ultra hurry-up approach to rattle a defense and open up holes. What’ll it be this Sunday against the Dolphins? Our three Patriots reporters try to get into the mind of Bill Belichick and guess the game plan for Sunday.
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Mike Reiss: Pats should protect Brady, air it out
The Dolphins have proven to be a tough defense to run against, ranking fifth best in the NFL for fewest yards allowed per carry (3.7 avg.). While the Patriots always strive for balance, and they can’t just abandon the run, this looks like a game where the clear advantage comes through the air.
The first key is protection. The Patriots must tailor their plan around protecting quarterback Tom Brady from a blitzing Dolphins defense, and pass-rushing threat Cameron Wake in particular. They’ll learn early if the five linemen up front will require some help. If they don’t need it, the spread offense would be an ideal way to go. Such an approach could negate the aggressiveness of the Dolphins’ defense while also giving Brady the chance to attack the Dolphins’ cornerbacks, who have struggled at times.
Another wrinkle to this potential approach is the crowd. Usually going on the road, teams can expect a noisy environment, but it’s seldom ear-splitting in South Florida. This is traditionally a game in which Patriots fans fill the stadium, so Brady shouldn’t have to deal too much with the silent snap count, if at all.
That’s another reason why an air-it-out attack, potentially out of the spread, would be a sound approach if the Patriots can protect.
Mike Rodak: Avoid third-and-long against Miami pass rush
The strength of the Dolphins' defense is along the defensive line. Brady called Wake "one of the best players we play all season," and there's a reason for it. Wake has recorded a sack in four of his six career games against New England.
The Patriots will come into the game with a hobbling offensive line, with the status of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, left guard Logan Mankins and right guard Dan Connolly all up in the air. If Wake and interior linemen Randy Starks and Paul Soliai become disruptive, the game could get out of hand for the Patriots.
Obviously, containing a defensive line is a priority in any game, but the Patriots could use extra blockers and the screen game to help their cause on Sunday. The key is to attack the Dolphins' secondary, which has its share of holes this season. As usual, there are matchups that wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Aaron Hernandez can win on most plays. Keeping everything else clean, so that Brady can work those players into the offense, continues to be the goal.
Keeping the field short on second- and third-downs is a key part of containing Wake, and the Patriots could accomplish that through the passing game. The Dolphins rank in the bottom third of the league in opposing pass attempts, pass yardage, and passing first downs on first-and-10 plays. While the Patriots don't have all their receiving weapons available, attacking the Dolphins' secondary on early downs could be in the cards.
Field Yates: Pats must contain Bush, commit to run on offense
In the team’s five wins this season, Dolphins running back Reggie Bush has averaged nearly 77 yards on the ground. Conversely, in six losses, he’s mustered up just 46.5 yards on average.
Is it as simple to say that stopping Bush equates to defeating the Dolphins? No, but putting a focus on containing him will be a part of the Patriots’ Week 13 game plan, as coach Bill Belichick recently compared Bush’s role to that of C.J. Spiller in Buffalo.
The team keyed on Spiller -- especially in a Week 10 rematch with Buffalo -- and will likely do the same to Bush, a player who is used in multiple ways for Miami. He can run both between the tackles and on the perimeter, and runs routes like a receiver. Stopping him is not an easy task, and look for the Patriots to make that a priority on Sunday.
Offensively, the Patriots may turn to establishing a power running game, as fullback James Develin was promoted to the active roster on Wednesday. We don’t know much about Develin -- he was signed after training camp concluded -- but at 6-foot-3 and 251 pounds, he brings a physical presence to the backfield.
Miami’s run defense was a strength to start the 2012 season, but has yielded some big outings in recent weeks, including 126 yards to Chris Johnson in Week 10.
The Patriots have shown a diverse arsenal of runners this season, and look for another committed rushing attack on Sunday.