This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Volin of the Boston Globe. Ben used to be on our side as a Dolphins beat reporter and columnist of the Palm Beach Post. However, Ben now covers the Patriots in Boston for the Globe. Ben can be followed on Twitter at @BenVolin
...please follow Ben for insight this week about our rival, the New England Patriots and in future weeks given that we will play the Patriots again later in the season.
First of all thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I am sure a lot of fans in Miami and fans of the Dolphins won't forget your writing and interviews while working for the Post. Congrats on your position with the Boston Globe! Let's cut to the chase!
1. Based on your coverage of the Patriots, what stands out as the single most important detail that has driven this team to a 5-2 record?
The defense has been pretty outstanding this year, at least before they lost Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and Jerod Mayo (pectoral) for the season and played last week without Aqib Talib (hip), who has been their best player. But even last week the defense held its own against the Jets, and if they get Talib back (he practiced Wednesday) they're still a top-10 unit in the NFL, even without Mayo and Wilfork. DE Chandler Jones (6.5 sacks) and S Devin McCourty are playing at a Pro Bowl level, and they're getting solid contributions from young guys like CB Alfonzo Dennard and DT Chris Jones. Tom Brady and the offense has done a fairly good job of protecting the football (eight turnovers in seven games) and Brady has been pretty money in the fourth quarter, leading them to game-winning or game-tying drives in three games already.
2. Why do the Patriots continue to be leaders of this division? Compare the Dolphins versus the Patriots organizationally, what makes them different?
It's really all about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Patriots have had rare stability at the two most important positions in the NFL -- quarterback and head coach -- and not only stability, but elite performance. It's a lot easier to build a roster when you have a Pro Bowl quarterback leading the way. Figure that this duo has a good 3-4 years left, although Brady's performance has definitely slipped this season. The Dolphins have cycled through too many head coaches (and front offices) and too many quarterbacks in the last decade. Are Ryan Tannehill and Joe Philbin the answer? Hopefully they get 3-4 years to prove themselves, and I think Stephen Ross has shown to not be impulsive when it comes to hiring and firing his NFL people.
3. How have the Patriots compensated for the loss of Aaron Hernandez in the offseason and the adjustment of not having Rob Gronkowski for not much of the season until now?
They have changed the offense a lot, because you can't just replace Hernandez and Gronk. The only tight ends they had on the team for awhile were the special teams/blocking types: Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan, who actually have played pretty well in the run game. They also lost Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Danny Woodhead from last year's team, so the main receivers have been Julian Edelman in the slot, and rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins on the outside. The trio has played pretty well -- especially Edelman, who has emerged as a reliable threat -- but obviously there have been some growing pains as Brady learns to get on the same page with his new receivers. Danny Amendola had 104 yards against Buffalo in Week 1, but has only played in one full game since because of groin and concussion issues (he returned to practice Wednesday). The Patriots still have a solid offensive line and a good running game with Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount, and getting Gronk back gives Brady a much-needed Red Zone target and should open the field up more for the receivers and backs.
4. Based on film study, why are Tom Brady's numbers down compared to last season? Why does Tom Brady have only 8 touchdowns at this point in the season and why has he already thrown 5 interceptions?
Yeah that goes back to the point I made in the last question about Brady getting on the same page with all of his new receivers. He's also been basically working with the JV team this year, especially in games without Gronk, Amendola, Shane Vereen and all of the guys they lost from last season. Brady's receivers have dropped 25 passes, which is second-most in the NFL. Also, Brady hasn't been quite right -- his accuracy has been off in several games, and he's more skittish in the pocket. He has been terrible with the deep ball, and has about 4-5 throws a game where he just flat-out misses an open receiver. He's now 36 years old, and perhaps showing signs of being a mortal, after all.
5. What about the Patriots defense could give quarterback Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins issues on Sunday? Without Vincent Wilfork, do the Patriots have players capable of providing that same level of middle pressure that haunted Tannehill last season in the final game?
I would imagine the Patriots will deal with Tannehill the same way they dealt with other young, athletic QBs this year (EJ Manuel, Geno Smith, Josh Freeman). Their scheme was more about rushing four and dropping seven, containing the QBs in the pocket, not letting them use their legs and forcing them to process the coverage and beat them with their arms. It's worked pretty well this year, but the two QBs who beat them (Dalton, Smith) did a good job of being patient and hitting underneath throws, and also had significant rushing attacks (39 rushes for the Bengals, 52 for the Jets). I'd throw that Week 17 game out when considering the Dolphins-Pats matchup. That was a cold, miserable day and the Dolphins wanted nothing more than to stay healthy and get home safely. The Dolphins gave the Pats some fits last year in Miami, and I think match up pretty well with this Patriots team, especially if Cameron Wake and Dannell Ellerbe get healthy. But the Patriots have found a couple of decent fill-ins at defensive tackle in rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano. The key, though are Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones setting the edge, and Aqib Talib shutting down the No. 1 receiver. If he comes back this Sunday, it should be a fun matchup to watch between he and Mike Wallace.
We thank Ben for his time and his responses to our questions. Be sure to check out PhinsPhocus.com as we get closer to the big game this Sunday versus the Patriots.