This Sunday, the New England Patriots are opening their season against the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots have a brand new defensive identity, while the Dolphins are putting a deceivingly potent offense on the field. While there are questions around how the Dolphins offensive line will fare against the Patriots defensive line, there are few questions as to which players will be featured as receiving threats.
The Dolphins will be playing Knowshon Moreno at running back, Charles Clay at tight end, and Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline at wide receiver. Rookie receiver Jarvis Landry might see time in the slot.
The big question is how the Patriots will align their defense against these weapons. While it's simple to play Darrelle Revis in coverage on Mike Wallace, is that actually the smartest use of defensive resources? Is Wallace actually even the biggest threat on the team?
This match-up exercise will be as if the Patriots will defend in man-coverage the entire game. There's merit to zone coverage, and there's definite value in having the secondary covering certain portions of the field. But this will be about match-ups and what makes the most sense.
The first question is who the Patriots will match-up against Darrelle Revis. While the speedster Wallace is paid like a number one receiver, he's not the most dangerous player on the field. Tight end Charles Clay is a jackknife who can align at receiver, tight end, and fullback.
When the Patriots played the Dolphins last season, Aqib Talib was injured for the first match-up and they covered Mike Wallace with Kyle Arrington and Marquice Cole, two slot corners. In the second match-up, it was all Arrington. The Patriots put their fastest cornerback in coverage of the fastest receiver and saw plenty of success. Perhaps they didn't think that Talib would be able to keep up in coverage. It's likely influenced by player utility.
According to Pro Football Focus, It turns out that Wallace ranked 38th of 43 receivers with regards to receiving yards per route run (1.44 yards per route run [YPRR]) . So while he's a potent threat, he just isn't efficient enough of a target to be the biggest concern on the roster. Belichick likes to remove the most important player on the opposing team's offense.
That happens to be Charles Clay. Clay was the second most efficient receiver on the Dolphins, with his 1.62 YPRR behind only Brian Hartline's 1.64 YPRR (and ranks 6th amongst tight ends). In the first match-up, the Patriots covered Clay with a mix of safeties and linebackers. In the second match-up, they used a mix of bracket coverage and a heavy dose of Aqib Talib.
Look for the Patriots to designate Revis on Clay in order to eliminate the most versatile threat on the Dolphins. Additionally, look for the Patriots to play Arrington back on Wallace, with McCourty helping over the top.
This leaves the Patriots responsible for covering Hartline and Moreno. Hartline is the most consistent receiver in the league, with the least fluctuation in his receiving production. The Patriots paired Alfonzo Dennard against Hartline for the majority of their 2013 match-ups, with Hartline posting a combined 6 receptions on 8 targets for 71 yards against Dennard. While he wasn't shut down, look for this match-up to play out in week one.
So far, the Patriots have covered Clay, Wallace, and Hartline with Revis, Arrington and McCourty, and Dennard. This leaves Moreno as an outlet receiving option- and look for sophomore Jamie Collins to see heavy lifting in shadow coverage. Collins has the athleticism to stick with the shifty receiver, and his coverage would allow the Patriots to keep a heavier defense on the field to present a stouter run defense.
The Patriots match up well against the Dolphins offensive weapons. It will be interesting to see how the game plays out.