By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Individual matchups are always important to look at in football games. Games are often decided by the players who present the biggest matchup problems for the guys they face across the field. The Patriots’ Week 2 showdown with the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium could be more of the same.
You’ve heard the term “Matchup Nightmare” before, and it usually describes un-coverable, matchup-proof stallions like Rob Gronkowski – but, for the purpose of this column, any player who looks like a total mismatch for the individuals he happens to be facing would qualify as a “matchup nightmare.”
For the sake of consistency, I based the projected matchups in Patriots-Dolphins on Pro Football Focus’ custom matchup feature, and for each team I analyzed the game using a three-wide receiver set against a Nickel defense. Here are the top-five players who will be the biggest “matchup nightmares” on Sunday …
5. Kiko Alonso
Alonso has been on the move a lot in recent years, first going from the Bills to the Eagles in a trade for LeSean McCoy then heading to the Dolphins along with cornerback Byron Maxwell. Alonso struggled in his one year with the Eagles, but played very well in his Dolphins debut, according to his Week 1 PFF grade of 84.6.
Alonso can be a great asset against the run and will limit between-the-tackles yardage. He could get picked on in pass coverage over the middle of the field, as he was in Philly, but if the Patriots want to protect quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo by running the ball more, Alonso will give them issues trying to do that.
4. Chris Long
Former Ram Chris Long had a strong debut for the Patriots against the Arizona Cardinals, finishing with a sack and three tackles and disrupting the point of attack as well as anyone on the field. The Dolphins have question marks on the offensive line and struggled against Seattle’s defensive front in Week 1. Add these two factors together and you have a potential nightmare for Miami.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was under siege for much of the Dolphins’ Week 1 loss in Seattle, taking four sacks and getting hit eight times. Left tackle Branden Albert and rookie left guard Laremy Tunsil, who will likely line up against Long on Sunday, each allowed one sack. The Dolphins could also still be without center Mike Pouncey, who sat out Wednesday’s practice with a hip injury. The Dolphins are likely to have their hands full blocking Long, Malcom Brown & Co. all day.
3. Jarvis Landry
Every Patriots opponent has that one guy that Bill Belichick focuses on shutting down, forcing them to beat the Patriots with their secondary weapons. Tannehill and Dolphins head coach Adam Gase know the cat & mouse game ahead of them. If anyone on Miami qualifies as the “We can’t let him beat us” guy, it’s third-year wide receiver Jarvis Landry.
The problem that Landry presents as a “matchup nightmare” is that he’s a slot receiver with unusual size for the position at 6 feet and 205 pounds. It’s unlikely that Belichick puts new Patriot Eric Rowe (6-foot-1) on him, while the relatively undersized Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan would be better suited on the outside. In Nickel, the Patriots often bring Patrick Chung down low, but is he a reliable option to cover Landry?
It would surprise no one in New England if Belichick doesn’t give up more than a few short gains to Landry and makes the Dolphins win with their running game or secondary pass-catching options. But covering him will not be easy personnel-wise and keeping the focus on him could also open up the field for other receivers, which Tannehill already knows he could have to rely upon.
2. Ndamukong Suh
The Dolphins may have a banged-up defensive front, with Earl Mitchell likely out and Mario Williams dealing with a concussion. But Ndamukong Suh is still there and as dominant as ever. He recorded a sack and two tackles in Week 1 against Seattle and in Week 2 he likely faces a depleted Patriots offensive line.
If and when Suh lines up at the left defensive tackle spot, opposite him will be Patriots right tackle Marcus Cannon. Both potential right guards, Shaq Mason and Jonathan Cooper, were limited in Wednesday’s practice with hand and foot injuries, respectively. Cannon was also limited on Wednesday with a knee injury.
Suh would be hard to block even with healthy, high-end talent on the offensive line, but against the Patriots’ group as currently constituted, he’s Freddy Krueger. The best way to limit the damage from Suh will be to get rid of the ball quickly, as Garoppolo did effectively against the Cardinals, but a talent like Suh could not only get to the quarterback quicker than most but also make life easier for a guy like Cameron Wake coming off the edge. If the Patriots struggle to move the ball on Sunday, Suh will likely play a major role in that.
1. Julian Edelman
The Patriots are likely to keep running a three-wide receiver offense most of the time, especially if Rob Gronkowski is out for the second straight game. But another big reason is because the Dolphins don’t have the personnel at cornerback to match up with Julian Edelman.
Miami’s most experienced corner is Maxwell, who was coming off a bad year in Philadelphia and put up another stinker against his former team in Seattle. Seahawks receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse combined for 14 catches on 18 targets with 149 yards and a touchdown in that game. Rookie corner Xavien Howard was better than Maxwell in Week 1, but would be better suited matching up against Chris Hogan on the outside, leaving Maxwell to likely have to fend for himself against Edelman.
The Dolphins may be forced to bring a safety down to cover Edelman, as they are much better off at that position with Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus. But it’s clear that Edelman will be the key to the Patriots offense against Miami based on the personnel, and the Dolphins secondary could be in for a long day against No. 11.
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Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.