By: Russ Goldman
Each week I am hoping to bring a view of the upcoming game from a writer who covers the Patriots opposition, and this week I have Dolphins beat writer Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post. Ben was nice enough to take some time to answer my questions, and it’s always interesting to get some insight from someone who covers the opposing team on a daily basis. Here are my “Five Questions About The Upcoming Dolphins Game with Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post.”
1. This has been an unusual pre-season and training camp around the league because of the lockout. How do you feel Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano has his team prepared for this season compare to in year’s past?
It’s hard to say where the Dolphins are at from an execution level coming out of training camp. The number of training camp practices was nearly cut in half, so you would think the Dolphins would struggle to pick up Brian Daboll’s new offense. But the offense looked surprisingly good in two preseason games against Carolina and Tampa Bay.
Chad Henne looked sharp and confident in the preseason, shaking off two early interceptions to finish with 446 passing yards, two touchdowns and a 93.4 passer rating (career rating of 75.3). But Sparano is a meticulous planner, so you can bet that he’ll have his team ready to play by Monday night. The Dolphins also emerged from the preseason relatively healthy.
Their offensive line depth took a big blow when backup tackle Lydon Murtha was lost for the season with a toe injury, but he was the only casualty of the preseason. Rookies running back Daniel Thomas and H-back Charles Clay are also battling hamstring injuries, so their availability for Monday is in question.
2. Brian Daboll is the new offensive coordinator for the Dolphins. He is a former Patriots assistant coach from 2000-2006. How do you feel his knowledge of the Patriots organization will help the Dolphins offense on Monday Night?
I believe the Dolphins hired Daboll, in part, because he “thinks” like Belichick. He knows what he likes, his philosophies, etc. I think we saw a lot of that come to fruition in last year’s Cleveland-New England game, when Daboll pulled every trick out of his bag to help the Browns pound the Patriots, 34-14. The Dolphins had a game like that in 2008 when they unveiled the Wildcat in a 38-13 win up in New England.
It’s going to take that type of creativity and perfect execution from the Dolphins to pull off this upset. But if anyone can come up with a game plan to confound Belichick, it’s Daboll.
3. On offense, the Dolphin are led once again by quarterback Chad Henne. Do you feel he has progressed in his development as the Dolphins starting quarterback?
The fans were ready to blindfold Henne and ship him out of town on a donkey, but he’s earned himself a little leeway with the fans with his solid preseason numbers, which I listed before. However, I’m not ready to crown the guy the next Dan Marino, either.
By all accounts he looks more confident in the pocket, more in command of the huddle (for the first time he’s allowed to audible the play at the line of scrimmage) and has been taking more shots downfield. But that was the preseason, against the Panthers’ JV team.
Let’s see if he can do it with Vince Wilfork and Shaun Ellis bearing down on him 70 times a game. The Dolphins probably could’ve won the game last year in Miami if not for Henne’s interceptions to Rob Ninkovich, so a lot will be riding on Henne again and him protecting the football.
4. On defense, this unit has the potential to be very effective this season. Which part of the defense would you consider the strength and the weakness?
The strength, no doubt, is the front seven of the 3-4 defense, particularly the line. The Dolphins go two-deep on the defensive line — the starters are Kendall Langford, Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, the backups are Phillip Merling, Jared Odrick, Tony McDaniel and Ryan Baker — and Mike Nolan constantly rotates them in and out of the game to keep them fresh throughout.
The linebacker unit has also improved since last year, with Kevin Burnett (six sacks, two interceptions, two fumbles forced, one touchdown) replacing Channing Crowder and teaming up with Karlos Dansby on the inside, and Jason Taylor backing up Koa Misi and Cameron Wake.
The weakness is the defensive backfield, but only because the players are still young. Cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith are now entering their third season, and many Dolphins fans expect them to make the jump to a Pro Bowl level of play. Smith probably could’ve made the Pro Bowl last year if he caught just half of the 10-12 interceptions he dropped.
Strong safety Yeremiah Bell is still the solid leader of the group. The biggest weakness is at free safety, where neither third-year vet Chris Clemons and second-year vet Reshad Jones separated themselves during training camp. Clemons will likely be the starter unless his leg injury acts up again.
5. What is your key match-up for the game?
I think the key will come in the trenches. The right side of the Dolphins’ offensive line is VERY spotty — right tackle Marc Colombo had trouble handling the speed rush during the preseason, just like he did last year in Dallas when he allowed seven sacks (he broke his leg in 2009 and some observers say he lost a step). Vernon Carey was bad enough at right tackle that the Dolphins moved him to right guard, a position he hasn’t played since college nine years ago. And center Mike Pouncey is a rookie. If those guys can’t block Wilfork, Haynesworth, Ellis, Spikes, Ninkovich and Cunningham, then Henne and the Dolphins’ running backs will be in for a long day.
But the same goes for the Patriots. If Sebastian Vollmer can’t play, they’ll have to roll with rookie Nate Solder at right tackle. And you can bet that the Dolphins will throw Cam Wake, Jason Taylor and the entire kitchen sink at Solder to put pressure on Brady and not let him get comfortable in the pocket.
Which ever team gets better line play will probably come out on top.
Prediction: Patriots 24-20. The Dolphins pull out all the stops, but Chad Henne’s inconsistent play ultimately dooms the Fins.
A special thanks to Ben for giving his time to give his thoughts on this weekend’s match-up. You can follow him on twitter at BenVolinPBP.