It is well known that the New England Patriots, just like any other team, struggle offensively when losing the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Patriots have lost it against the Kansas City Chiefs in week 4, and they have lost parts of it against the San Diego Chargers last week – both games in which New England had issues moving the ball consistently. They have also lost it in this year's first match up against the team they face on Sunday: the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins have one of the better defensive lines in football when it comes to countering their opponent's passing attack. Passing, of course, is the Patriots' forte; the Dolphins know that slowing down Tom Brady and the Patriots' passing game is key in order to leave Foxboro victoriously.
"I think hitting the quarterback has always been something that's a help to your defense as a whole, whether it's them tucking the ball and covering up or throwing the ball a little too early or getting off the spot, whatever it may be. Those things are going to help your defense out. Obviously, that's not a surprise that that's something we're going to have to take care of on Sunday."
– Cameron Wake
As they have shown in the past two games against the Patriots (both Miami wins, both in Miami), the Dolphins have the personnel to disrupt New England's passing game; particularly along the line of scrimmage. In the teams' week 1 meeting, the Dolphins put constant pressure on the pocket, sacking Tom Brady four times and not letting him and the offense get into a rhythm.
In order to win this week's game, and thus the AFC East, the Patriots have to find a way to contain edge rushers Cameron Wake (9.5 sacks this year) and Olivier Vernon (6.5), as well as defensive tackles Jared Odrick (1.0) and Randy Starks (2.5), among others.
Here is what they can do.
1. Have a healthy run-pass-ratio
In week 1, the Patriots' run-pass-ratio was rather lopsided: Tom Brady threw 56 passes, while the running backs had just 20 carries. Only four of those came in the second half, which the Patriots' offense entered with a 20-13 lead. Coincidentally, all four of Miami's sacks came in the second half as well.
If the Patriots want to keep the Dolphins' defense from having a successful day of getting after the quarterback, they need to have a more balanced attack. Defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon cannot be allowed to just pin their ears back and go after Brady on every single snap; they have to be challenged on the ground to be kept honest.
Furthermore, the Dolphins have struggled to contain the rush as of late, giving up 661 yards (5.7/attempt) over their last three games (two losses, one win).
2. Disguise the snap count
One thing that makes the Dolphins' pass rushers dangerous is their quick first step. Even more so, if they are able to time the snap. Therefore, Tom Brady needs to vary the snap counts to not allow the rushers to anticipate it and thus get a good start. The Patriots, as a precision based passing attack, have to keep the Dolphins from messing with their offensive timing and rhythm.
New England, however, should not count on the Dolphins committing penalties due to changed snap counts. The team has only been flagged three times apiece for defensive offside (t-16th in the league) and neutral zone infraction (t-8th).
3. Play with a sixth offensive lineman
The Patriots have used this strategy before in order to counter the opponent's defensive alignment, with varying degrees of success. Rookie Cameron Fleming played well when called up as a third tackle against the Indianapolis Colts (37 of 73 snaps); Marcus Cannon had some problems against the Green Bay Packers (8/57 snaps) and played only one snap in last week's win over the Chargers.
Fleming has been out with an ankle ailment since the Colts game, and was once again limited in yesterday's practice. He might not be ready yet to be used in a prominent role. When healthy, he is the prime candidate to fill the third tackle spot.
With Fleming's health a question mark, however, and Cannon struggling, the Patriots might turn to the tight end position to provide the best protection. In this case, Michael Hoomanawanui would most likely be the extra blocker. He was used in that role in week 1, but had some issues against Cameron Wake (giving up a third quarter sack). However, with an improved offensive line, when compared to week 1, Hoomanawanui might also be in a better position to succeed.
4. Set up quick screens
Should the Dolphins find success against the Patriots' offensive line, the team might turn to the screen game, to get the ball out of Brady's hands quickly. This strategy would make Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman the two main targets, as both are shifty receivers well suited for this kind of play. Furthermore, using screen passes might subsequently open up other areas the Patriots may opt to exploit (similar to using the run to set up the pass, or vice versa).
Only two players on the Patriots' offensive line, tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, will start Sunday's game at the same positions they have started the teams' week 1 meeting. The interior looks completely different: Dan Connolly switched from center to left guard (to replace Marcus Cannon), Bryan Stork was inserted at the center-spot in his place, and Ryan Wendell took Jordan Devey's place at right guard.
The Patriots were shuffling their offensive line the first four weeks of the season until they found the line-up they are most confident with. Even though it was not always perfect, the current unit is a clear upgrade over the one starting on opening day.
To win their week 15 game against the visiting Dolphins, the Patriots' line has to be up to the challenge – Miami's defensive line is one of the best units in the league in disrupting the opponent's passing game. The four areas above should be points of emphasis to counter the Dolphins.
In the end, though, it all comes down to execution.