Thursday Night Football Preview: It's Time for the Dolphins to Sink or Swim
Two weeks ago we would have looked at this Thursday Night Football matchup, notched a blowout win for the Patriots over the reeling Dolphins in our minds, and moved onto Sunday's slate of games.
But one Joe Philbin firing and two blowout wins later for the Dolphins, and we're now viewing this game through a different lens.
Will the momentum the Dolphins have built up over these last two weeks be enough to slow down or even -- dare I say it? -- pull off an upset against their AFC East rivals in New England, or will the Patriots and their offensive juggernaut put a screeching halt to the Miami hype train?
The Pre-Game Rundown
After the first four weeks of the season and suffering three straight losses to the Jaguars, Bills, and Jets, the 1-3 Dolphins were floundering. The front office finally reached its breaking point and made the long overdue decision to let Joe Philbin go. And that seemed to be exactly what this team needed, with the team responding to the firing by reeling off two straight convincing wins over the Titans and Texans.
A big part of this sudden success was the re-dedication of the team to the running game under new head coach Dan Campbell. Under Philbin the team boasted a pass-heavy 2.78 pass-to-run ratio. But under Campbell's watch this trend has reversed, with the team producing a 0.82 pass-to-run ratio over the Dolphins last two games. Such a shift in philosophy has shown some remarkable changes to the success of this offense: the team accumulated an abysmal -11.51 total Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) over the first four games of the season while posting an NEP of 23.99 in their last two contests.
In one of those rare instances where more touches has led to greater efficiency, perhaps no one has seen their fortunes change as much as running back Lamar Miller. In the season's first four games, Miller averaged a paltry -0.09 Rushing NEP per attempt on just 9.2 carries game (to put that number into perspective, the historical average for running backs since 2000 hovers around -0.03). But with an increased workload at 16.5 carries per game over the Dolphins last two wins, Miller has produced an amazing 0.45 Rushing NEP per attempt to now rank as the second most efficient running back with at least 50 carries, behind only Atlanta's Devonta Freeman.
Beyond Miller's resurgence, after notching 4 touchdowns in the first 16 minutes of play against the Texans last week, Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins passing game are beginning to flash signs of the offense many were expecting from Miami coming into this offseason. Using a game plan based around the run and quick, high-percentage passes from Tannehill, the team was able to carve up the Houston defense for 44 points and 503 total yards.
If the Dolphins are just hitting their stride, standing across the field from them this Thursday will be a team that's been firing on all cylinders since day one. Tom Brady is leading this team to 36 points per game, and the Patriots currently rank as the most efficient offense in the league according to our schedule-adjusted NEP metrics.
Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, and Danny Amendola have lit up opposing secondaries for a combined 104 receptions, 1,325 receiving yards, and 12 receiving touchdowns in just six games. And with Brandon LaFell -- who amassed nearly 1,000 yards to go along with 7 touchdowns through the air last season -- back from the PUP, this passing attack is even more formidable than ever before.
In the backfield, all eyes will be on Dion Lewis as we wait and see if he'll be able to give it a go this week after missing the Patriots' Week 7 victory over the Jets. Over the first five games of the year, Lewis has performed spectacularly in the "Shane Vereen" role on this team, turning 13.2 touches per contest (including 5.2 receptions per game) into 457 total yards and 3 total touchdowns.
It's obvious that the Dolphins will have their hands full when they go into New England this Thursday.
The Dolphins' Game Scipt
Tannehill faces a Patriots pass defense that's starting to show the ill effects of losing three starting cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington this offseason, and now number two cornerback Tarell Brown to injury. Despite being ranked 12th against the pass according to our schedule-adjusted metrics, the Patriots defense has shown they can be exploited through the passing game, recently surrendering 295 passing yards and 2 touchdowns to Ryan Fitzpatrick.
All this bodes particularly well for number one wideout Jarvis Landry and Rishard Matthews. Once the forgotten man in this wide receiver corps, Matthews has emerged from the crowd in Miami to not only become the most efficient wideout in the NFL so far -- his 1.22 Reception NEP per target leads all receivers with at least 20 targets -- but he also now leads the team with 438 receiving yards despite being just third on the team in targets (35) behind Landry (56) and tight end Jordan Cameron (38).
Aside from Tannehill and his two top receivers, if Campbell sticks with the balanced offense approach that has won him his first two games as a head coach, expect plenty of Miller in this contest as well. The Patriots run defense currently ranks 26th in the league according to our metrics, which should mean that as long as this game doesn't get out of hand early, Miller should improve on the 53 yards per game he averaged against the Patriots last season.
The Patriots' Game Scipt
While the Dolphins defense seems to have responded to the coaching change in Miami -- holding the Titans and Texans to 36 points and netting a Defensive NEP of -9.23 over this time span -- their recent improvements will likely not be enough to keep the Patriots offense at bay. There's a difference between defending against Marcus Mariota and Brian Hoyer and trying to stop Brady and company.
After lighting up the Jets' 5th-ranked pass defense for 355 yards and 2 touchdowns through an efficient 0.21 Passing NEP per drop back, Brady should have no problem connecting with his pass catchers against the Dolphins' 21st-ranked pass defense.
If Lewis is unable to suit up for this contest, we may see a bit more of James White and LeGarrette Blount in the backfield. However, with the number of injuries the Patriots' offensive line has suffered this season coupled with the Dolphins' 14th-ranked rush defense (which has limited their last two opponents to just 67 yards per game on the ground) and the fact that the Patriots have the ability to abandon the run game and still win, they may choose to forego the ground game once when Miami comes to town.
Fantasy Football Implications
First things first, if you have Brady, Gronkowski, and/or Edelman on any of your teams, you're starting them this week.
Brady has been elite all year with half a dozen top-6 quarterback performances in as many starts this year, including 20-plus points in each game. Facing the Dolphins' less than stellar pass defense, this streak will likely continue.
Gronkowski continues to justify his number one tight end designation at the start of the season, as his 89.3 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues leads the position, while Edelman should continue on the success he showed against Miami last season where he collected 13 receptions, 183 yards and a touchdown in two games against them.
Aside from the Patriots' passing game trio, if Lewis is active, he's a near must-start as well. Highly efficient on his touches this year -- his 0.24 Rushing NEP per attempt is the second-best figure among all running backs with at least 40 carries this season -- Lewis should see enough work both on the ground and in the air to once put up a decent fantasy total in this game.
On the Dolphins side, Tannehill makes for a nice start in what could be a high-scoring shootout. He faces a defense giving up the seventh most fantasy points to quarterbacks on a per-game basis and is averaging 22.8 points per game himself since the Dolphins' shift in offensive philosophy.
First and third on the team in targets, respectively, Landry and Matthews should also return decent value for fantasy owners that choose to start them as they face burnable corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan.
Miller is as close to a must-start as anyone else with Miami's coaching staff committed to getting the ball into his hands. However, one cause for concern is that the high-scoring Patriots offense may force the Dolphins to abandon the run sooner than they would like. Despite ranking 26th in efficiency against the run according to our schedule-adjusted metrics, the Patriots are surrendering just the 12th most points to opposing running backs this year.
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