The Miami Dolphins offense has a curious build. Wide receiver Kenny Stills leads the team with 733 yards on 48 receptions as a big-play target deep down the field. He is complemented by Jarvis Landry with 699 yards on 80 receptions as a move-the-chains grinder underneath.
There is the running game led by Kenyan Drake, and the supplementary receivers in DeVante Parker and tight end Julius Thomas, too. They all have a role in producing yards to extend drives.
But Stills and Landry are the focal points of the passing attack and they are at the center of the New England Patriots’ defensive gameplan.
“It's a talented team who at any moment can create an explosive play,” Patriots free safety Duron Harmon said about the Dolphins. “So we've got to make sure we know where all the explosive guys are, try to keep them contained and really [make them] beat us with driving the ball 15 plays down the field without giving them the big one."
And that puts Stills as the main player for the Patriots to erase and Landry as the main player to contain.
It makes sense, too. Stills has 5 touchdowns in the Dolphins 5 wins, and just 1 touchdown in the Dolphins 7 losses. Four of Stills’ touchdowns have been 20 or more yards in distance, include a 61-yard score against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Stills can tilt the field in a single play and eliminate a lead in a hurry.
Landry does not do that. All 6 of his receiving touchdowns are 9 yards or shorter. He leads the NFL in games with 6 or less yards per target (min. 5 targets), highlighting how his usage doesn’t come with huge chunks of yards.
Landry ranks 4th on the Dolphins in passing plays of 20+ yards, behind Stills (14), Parker (6), and Thomas (4). The Patriots would rather try to tackle Landry after four consecutive 6-yard gains than allow Stills to flip the field on a single pass because it makes statistical sense.
The Dolphins average 8.94 yards per target (YPT) to Stills and 5.68 YPT to Landry. If Miami picks up a 4 rushing yards on first down, then a pass to Stills would average a first down, while a pass to Landry would average third-and-short. The Patriots want to force the Dolphins to battle through multiple third downs on a single drive and create opportunities for turnovers and punts.
And where the Patriots struggled early in the season is now a place of strength and New England is prepared to prevent the big plays and to generate stops. There’s been no defense more consistent at forcing extended drives and keeping points off the board than the Patriots since week 5 of the NFL season.
“Consistency,” Harmon said when asked about the defensive improvements. “Just consistency with our play. Consistency with our tackling. Just consistency all across the board. Throughout the first four games we were inconsistent in every area of defense that you could be – giving up big plays, tackling, our communication, our technique, our fundamentals. We would have a good three or four plays and then just a really bad play and you can't win football games like that. That's how you repeatedly give up big plays and that's what you were doing.
“So just being a lot more consistent in all the areas has really allowed us to limit big plays which makes it really, really hard for teams [with] those 15-play drives. A lot of people can't sustain drives like that and when they do you've got to tip your hats to them but know that most likely it's not going to happen again.”
The 15-play milestone is coach-speak for “force long drives”- the Patriots have only forced six drives of 15+ plays over the past five years, the second-lowest total in the NFL- and the Dolphins were not able to lead extended drives against the Patriots in week 12.
Miami only had four of their 11 drives last five or more plays in that game. They scored a field goal on a 9-play drive and a touchdown on an 8-play drive, but they also punted on an 11-play drive and threw an interception on a 9-play drive.
“[Bill Belichick] makes you do things that are maybe a little bit out of your comfort zone,” Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler said. “I think they do a really good job of keeping things in front of them, making offenses go the long road – three, four or five first downs – to score. We’ve just got to figure it out.”
The Dolphins rank 31st in the NFL in drives with 8 or more players and they score on 62.1% of them, ranking 26th in the NFL. 13.8% of these drives end in a turnover, which ranks 30th in the NFL. Clearly the Dolphins struggle when needing so many plays to move down the field and they’ve got a lot they have to figure out.
Compare that to the Patriots, who lead the NFL in drives with 8 or more plays despite having played one fewer game than all the other teams. The Patriots score on 83.7% of these long drives, the second-best rate in the NFL, and get a touchdown on 42.9% of these drives, the fourth-best mark in the league.
But this strategy is why defending Jarvis Landry is so important. Malcolm Butler did a great job taking away Stills with safety help and Stephon Gilmore erased Parker one-on-one. That left Jonathan Jones in the slot against Landry with some safety help and some linebacker help.
The Patriots have done an excellent job of executing their defensive strategies as of late and they’ve climbed from ranking 31st in points allowed per game after four weeks to ranking 4th heading into the final quarter of the season. A shutout would launch New England to second place, but so long as they execute their plan, it’s very likely they’ll remain in the top five after Monday night.
Patriots casually ranking 4th in points allowed per game after Sunday.— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) December 11, 2017
0-2 PA on Monday would bump to 2nd
3-12 PA would rank 3rd
13-23 PA would stay 4th
24-27 PA would rank 5th
A well-executed defense of Landry takes away the only outlet the Patriots are willing to concede and forces Cutler to take that short pass time and time again, with any incompletion really putting the Dolphins behind on down-and-distance, without a way to overcome it.
So if the Patriots do their job, then Landry should see a ton of targets on Monday night with long, extended drives that hopefully result with the Dolphins coming up empty-handed.