Dolphins must stop Patriots tight ends to have a chance

Of the many pearls of wisdom Rex Ryan has offered as coach of the New York Jets, the smartest might very well have been the unsolicited advice he gave fantasy football players during training camp: Draft Dustin Keller!

The boastful Ryan couldn't resist reminding reporters of that after Keller's two touchdown receptions in the Jets' 31-23 victory against the Miami Dolphins in Week 3. That gave him three scores among his 15 catches for the season.

But even though Ryan was correct in calling the tight end "a nightmare to cover" and in pointing out that because of the Jets' talented outside receiving threats "you cannot double everybody," Keller's success also was a bit of an indictment of Miami's defense.

You see, the Dolphins, in slipping to 2-1, actually did double-cover Keller on multiple occasions. Once was on a third-down play on the game's first possession. Keller caught the ball for 16 yards, then later capped the drive with a 24-yard touchdown catch. Another double-team came on his 12-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter.

"That's a credit to him," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "But it's poor execution on our part when you're doubling that player."

Don't look now, Coach, but the New England Patriots are coming to town Monday night and they have two tight ends capable of also giving your defense fits.

Rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have quickly emerged as dynamic forces in the Patriots' 2-1 start. The only New England receiver with more receptions than Hernandez's 13 is Wes Welker. The only Patriot pass-catchers with more touchdowns than Gronkowski's two are Welker and Randy Moss, with three apiece.

Hernandez, a fourth-round pick from Florida, has superb speed and run-after-catch ability that makes him a constant big-play threat. In only three NFL games, Gronkowski, a second-rounder from Arizona, has established himself as one of the more versatile players at his position. He's an excellent blocker and also shows natural receiving skills, especially near the goal line.

It certainly doesn't hurt that Tom Brady is their quarterback. When it comes to knowing exactly where and when to deliver the ball, Brady has few peers. And for the past three weeks, he has consistently found his young tight ends open against a variety of coverages.

Brady has attempted to downplay their impact a bit, perhaps fearing that Hernandez and Gronkowski might allow all of this early success to go to their heads and that opposing defenses eventually will come up with more answers on how to stop them. Brady makes it clear that his primary weapons continue to be Welker and Moss, although they weren't the pass-catchers Sparano was discussing at length with reporters earlier this week.

In fact, Sparano said the Dolphins paid close attention to Gronkowski and Hernandez during the draft, but "really liked" Gronkowski.

"He's a guy that in my opinion can block ya pretty well in there, which you don't see a whole lot of coming out of the draft now," Sparano said. "You see a lot of receivers or blockers, but he can block you well and catch the ball and run down the field with it, so he poses a little bit of a dual threat.

"Hernandez is a guy that (is) really very good after the catch. Good hands, playmaker type guy. He's averaging 16.2 yards a catch right now, so ... big-play guy for them."

Sparano pointed out the Dolphins will have "some matchup issues a lot like what we have with the Jets," between dealing with Welker, Moss, and the rookie tight ends.

Linebacker Karlos Dansby bemoaned Miami's poor execution against the Jets, especially when it came to covering Keller. The good news for the Dolphins was that both of Keller's scores came in the first half, and that none of his six receptions came in the final two quarters. That gives them something upon which to build against the Patriots.

More than anything, their defensive players stressed, is the need to be more mindful of maintaining proper position and assignments in coverage.

"New England is a well-coached team," Dansby said. "We have to be more disciplined."

The Dolphins are adopting that as an overall theme for Monday night.

It is, according to wide receiver Brian Hartline, what will allow them to put aside the bitterness of last Sunday's loss, which ended with a last-gasp chance to tie the game that fell short in the final seconds.

"I think there couldn't be a better situation to get our focus over one game to get prepared for another game than to have a Monday night, prime-time game against another AFC East rival," Hartline said. "It demands our focus and that's all it's going to be given. If there was maybe a different (opponent), there could be a hangover, but there's no time for a hangover.

"We're ready to move onto the Patriots."

Follow me on Twitter @viccarucci

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