Bill Belichick made it abundantly clear in the press conferences leading up to Jimmy Garoppolo's first career start against the Arizona Cardinals that the third-year quarterback would operate the same offense as Tom Brady. Some pundits questioned Belichick's sincerity, alluding to Jimmy's superior athleticism and lack of regular-season game experience as reasons to incorporate plays that took advantage of Garoppolo's mobility or dumb down the playbook.
However, under the lights of University of Phoenix Stadium, the hoodie proved to a national audience that his words were not simply a smokescreen.
The Patriots didn't employ any read-option plays against Arizona; nor did they refrain from throwing the ball to protect their untested quarterback. The offense continued to rely predominantly on quick passes that require the quarterback to make smart pre- and post-snap reads and slowly pick a defense apart.
Garoppolo appeared comfortable at the helm against a top-tier Cardinals defense, displaying poise, good decision-making, the ability diagnose coverages and manipulate defenders with his eyes, and showing off one of if not the quickest release in the National Football League.
Despite JG's impressive debut, the Miami Dolphins clearly weren't convinced that the youngster could keep his cool under pressure and deviated from the tried and true strategy for nullifying the Patriots offense.
Smart teams typically avoid blitzing Brady because they know he will find the vacancy left by the incoming linebacker or defensive back and exploit it. Instead, they opt to drop seven-to-eight into coverage in order to muck up the quarterback's reads and force him to hold the ball longer than he wants.
Miami clearly believed they could rattle Garoppolo and decided to test his mettle by blitzing relentlessly. The result? The young signal-caller torched the 'phins, completing 7 of 10 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown when the defense sent extra rushers, per PFF, before leaving the game with a momentum-shifting shoulder injury.
Here's how the Eastern Illinois product used the Dolphins' aggressiveness against them, and why teams need to start defending him in a similar fashion to TB12.
Play 1: 1st Quarter, 15:00, 1st & 10 at New England's 25 yard line
First play from scrimmage. MIA shows cover 1, 47 creeps toward the line indicating a blitz, JG knows the intermediate middle will be open. pic.twitter.com/4nHLUcSQ9q— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 19, 2016
Miami made no attempt to hide their intentions on the first snap of the ballgame, as they likely wanted to set the tone early by letting Garoppolo know they would be coming for him all afternoon.
Kiko Alonso moves up towards the line of scrimmage to show that he is coming on a blitz. By doing this, the defense is hoping to rattle the young quarterback and hurry his reads or force him into a bad decision.
The Dolphins are showing a single-high safety look (deep safety is out of the frame), meaning they are either in Cover 3, Cover 1 Man, or sending a zone blitz. When the ball is snapped, Garoppolo reads man and knows that Alonso blitzing means the intermediate middle of the field will be wide open.
Julian Edelman (#2 receiver to the left side), is given a free release on a slant route and JG hits him for 13 yards to start the contest on a high note.
Play 2: 1st Quarter, 7:51, 1st & 10 at Miami's 45 yard line
JG unflinching in the face of pressure. Slides up into the pocket and delivers a strike for a big gain to Hogan. pic.twitter.com/UjYP0miGWn— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 19, 2016
Once again, Miami telegraphs a blitz with the slot corner at the top of the screen moving towards the line of scrimmage and looking directly at the quarterback. Garoppolo identifies the potential rusher and points him out.
Tight-end Martellus Bennett stays in to block, but left defensive-end Mario Williams is still able to get in the QB's face on a twist from the outside. Right defensive-tackle Julius Warmsley also brings some heat, using a rip move to get into the backfield past left guard Joe Thuney. Rather than panic and force a bad throw or take off running, Garoppolo maintains his composure.
Thuney is able to recover and push Warmsley upfield past the quarterback, allowing Garoppolo to step up into the pocket. As Jimmy is winding up to throw, Williams charges in threatening a hit. But Jimmy stands in and threads a needle between to defenders for a big gain to receiver Chris Hogan up the left seam.
Play 3: 1st Quarter, 3:12, 2nd & 10 at New England's 36 yard line
Miami actually disguises their pressure this time by sugaring with 53, causing OL to slide the wrong way. Jimmy still makes a fearless throw pic.twitter.com/OgMf6CFu9t— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 19, 2016
The Dolphins finally decide to use some pre-snap confusion and have Jelani Jenkins sugar the right B-gap, implying he is going to blitz. Garoppolo sees this and slides the protection to the right. Post-snap, however, Jenkins drops into coverage and Kiko Alonso blitzes the opposite B-gap, giving Miami a free rusher.
Solder engages Alonso, who is the most immediate threat, which leaves Mario Williams unblocked. Garoppolo shows poise and keeps his eyes up-field with the defensive-end closing in.
The quarterback recognizes that Jenkins' head is turned, as he is running to get into position in the middle of the field. Garoppolo then lets it rip for the first down to Danny Amendola and just barely avoids hitting the pursuing linebacker in the back of the head. An extremely gutsy throw from #10.
Play 4: 1st Quarter, 6:14, 3&9 at New England's 43 yard line
JG yells "alert" pre-snap, signaling pressure could be coming and his receivers need to get open quickly. Hits 80 over the middle once again pic.twitter.com/FP4hOBnsnj— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 19, 2016
On third and long, the defense shows heavy pressure with both inside linebackers sugaring their respective A-gaps. By yelling "alert," Garoppolo is ensuring that his receivers understand a blitz is coming and they must get open quickly, possibly cutting routes short of their desired depth.
With the defense in a single high-safety look and cornerback Byron Maxwell lining up opposite Bennett at the top of the screen, Garoppolo can surmise that Miami is either playing Cover 3 or sending a zone blitz.
Once the ball is snapped, Alonso rushes and Jenkins drops into a middle hook zone towards Bennett. Alonso vacating his spot leaves a huge hole in the middle of the defense, which Garoppolo notices immediately. He stands tall in the pocket, unphased by the chaos whirling around him, and connects on a quick strike to Amendola for what would have been a first down had the receiver not fumbled the ball.
Once again, top-notch recognition and composure from Jimmy G.
The Miami Dolphins wanted to expose Jimmy Garoppolo's inexperience and wound up with egg on their face. Their blitzes played right into the young quarterback's hands, allowing him to use his lightning-quick release to take advantage of openings in Miami's defense.
If Garoppolo is able to recover quickly enough to play against the Buffalo Bills, head coach Rex Ryan would be wise to learn from his division rivals' mistakes and show the Italian Stallion a bit more respect. You can't consistently tip your hand pre-snap, you can't expect him to crumble in the face of adversity, and you can't gift him the middle of the field.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels deserves an enormous amount of praise for developing Garoppolo and devising game-plans to allow the quarterback to capitalize on his gifts while minimizing his weaknesses, but JG10 has proven to be much than wide-eyed novice and very deserving of the Tom Brady treatment from defensive coordinators.