Miami Dolphins Week 4 defensive preview v. the New England Patriots

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 09: The Miami Dolphins cheerleaders celebrate a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans at Hard Rock Stadium on October 9, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 09: The Miami Dolphins cheerleaders celebrate a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans at Hard Rock Stadium on October 9, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images) /

The Miami Dolphins are 3-0. That’s the best start the team has had since 2013. They’ll look to push that record to 4-0 this Sunday when they take on the giants of the AFC East: the New England Patriots.

It’s rare that a matchup between the Dolphins and Patriots holds so much significance, but Sunday’s game is under some unique pretenses. The Dolphins are undefeated and the Patriots are 1-2; I can’t even think of the last time they’ve had a losing record. They have been dominant in running the AFC East for almost two decades with only fits and starts of success for the other three teams.

This has become one of the marquee matchups of Week 4 and it could prove to be an important battle in the war for the AFC East. So now that the Dolphins are currently leading the division and the Patriots are on the outside looking in, what can Dolphins fans expect on the defensive side of the ball for this pivotal game?

First things first, the Dolphins caught a break this week when the Patriots placed Rex Burkhead and Ju’Whaun Bentley on Injured Reserve. According to Pro Football Focus, Bentley was the 7th highest rated linebacker through Week 3, so it gives the Fins one less starter to worry about, two if you count Burkhead. 

The big defensive headline from this past week is the William Hayes season-ending injury. Hayes was placed on Injured Reserve on Monday after sustaining an ACL tear on a sack against Derek Carr where he let up to prevent himself from falling with his full body weight. That’s a big blow—no, it’s a huge blow, as Hayes was one of the most active players on the defensive line and has the combination of bulk and speed to be effective in numerous roles and packages. His absence will be felt by the defense.

As for the rest of the defensive line, Cam Wake, Davon Godchaux and Andre Branch were among the players listed on the injury report. Wake and Godchaux are banged up with ankle and knee injuries, respectively, but were both full participants in Thursday’s practice. Branch, on the other hand, is out for 2-4 weeks because of his knee injury.

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The New England offensive line is not their strong suit and I think that Robert Quinn could exploit Trent Brown and Joe Thuney. While I have faith in Wake’s athleticism, I think the right side of the Patriots line is better with Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason and could be a bigger challenge. Overall, I think that the defensive line as a whole should have a good day, even without Williams Hayes.

The linebackers are the weakest link on the defense. Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker are still starting and are still taking their lumps. The light bulb will eventually turn on for them, but until then, they’ll both have grab-bag results. Interestingly enough, Baker saw a massive jump in playing time percentage to 61 percent and McMillan dropped to 78 percent.

Kiko Alonso was one of two defensive players that saw 100 percent (T.J. McDonald was the other) and should continue to be a bright spot on Sunday. He didn’t have a turnover last Sunday against the Raiders, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets in the mix for one against the Pats. He has a prevalence for it.

The obvious problem with the Dolphins linebackers and the Patriots is Rob Gronkowski. He’s ripped apart the Dolphins’ second level consistently in the past. Gronkowski is fighting an ankle injury and was limited in Thursday’s practice, but if he’s on the field, then I don’t feel great about the Dolphins defending him.

Now on to the secondary, is there anyone playing better Xavien Howard right now? He’s becoming an elite corner and I am excited to continue watching his full-blossom season. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw another interception this week–he’s playing that well. Bobby McCain has been playing well too and I feel better about him every week.

Despite those two, I’m not very comfortable with the rest of the corners. Torry McTyer was a feel-good story during training camp but has not lived up those flashes in the regular season and Cordrea Tankersley is still on the team, I think.

The Patriots have a WR corps full of reclamation projects: Cordarelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett and Josh Gordon. Tom Brady could make any one of them look like a superstar or a game. Not knowing which one could have the hot hand is the problem though. I’ll put my trust in Howard, McCain and Minkah Fitzpatrick to lock down the corner positions.

The safety group might face another week of not having Reshad Jones leading the way. He had full participation in Thursday’s practice, but there hasn’t been any official word on whether he’s playing. If he plays, then it’s another boon for the Dolphins. If he doesn’t play, then it would be a big loss, but I think that Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. McDonald will manage just fine, after working out some of the wrinkles last week.