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Patriots defense needs to pressure Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill without blitzing

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The Miami Dolphins quarterback is one of the worst in the league at handling pressure.

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The New England Patriots aren’t known for their pass rush, but they’re one of the more consistently successful defensive fronts in the league. Over the past three years, the Patriots have racked up 123 sacks, good for 5th most in the NFL, behind the Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, and Green Bay Packers.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick stresses the importance of defensive gap integrity and would rather his defensive linemen maintain their core responsibility than to freelance to generate a sack. The resulting defense acts like a vice, squeezing the pocket until the quarterback has no place to run.

The Patriots originally used this strategy against mobile quarterbacks to prevent them from escaping the pocket, but then they expanded it to almost every other quarterback on the schedule. One opposing quarterback that deserves special focus on this topic in Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill and the Dolphins reached the playoffs last season as a wild card team, but Tannehill was injured and Miami was quickly knocked out. Head coach Adam Gase implemented a nice offensive strategy that led to Tannehill’s best completion rate, touchdown rate, and yards per attempt rate of his young career. Both Gase and Tannehill should improve in their second season together.

And while the New York Jets are rebuilding and the Buffalo Bills have some major flaws, the Dolphins (and their -17 point differential) are somehow expected to challenge for a playoff spot.

One easy way for the Patriots to maintain their hold on the AFC East is to sweep the Dolphins- and the New York and New Jersey squads- and the easiest way to accomplish that is by disrupting Tannehill.

Pro Football Focus looked at how each quarterback handles pressure in the pocket and Tannehill is one of the worst in the league.

Tannehill has a 116.6 passer rating with a “clean pocket”, which ranks 4th best in the league behind Falcons QB Matt Ryan, Patriots QB Tom Brady, and Cowboys QB Dak Prescott.

Once pressured, Tannehill’s passer rating plummets to 49.1, which ranks 7th worst, ahead of only Bears QB Matt Barkley, Eagles QB Carson Wentz, Rams QB Case Keenum, Panthers QB Cam Newton (!!), Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Rams QB Jared Goff.

Tannehill’s drop of 67.5 passer rating point is easily the biggest drop in the entire league, and the fact that Tannehill is pressured on 40% of pass attempts (t-6th most in the league) means that Tannehill is split between “Good Tannehill” and “Bad Tannehill” nearly half of the time.

“Over the past four seasons, among all 24 quarterbacks with at least 1,200 pass attempts over this span, Tannehill ranks 14th in clean pocket passer rating, but tied for fifth-worst in pressured passer rating,” PFF’s Scott Barrett writes. “Tannehill joins Andy Dalton and Alex Smith as the only quarterbacks over this span with a passer rating over 100.0 when operating from a clean pocket and a passer rating under 65.0 when pressured.”

For comparison, Brady’s passer rating dropped from 123.0 to 84.9 when pressured in 2016, so he falls from 2nd best to 5th best, so he’s going to be relatively better than the rest of the league in almost every scenario.

Mobile quarterbacks typically see the lowest drop in performance under pressure, with Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, and Bills QB Tyrod Taylor seeing the smallest change in their passer rating; this supports the Patriots decision to squeeze the pocket, rather than sell out on the pass rush against these mobile options.

But one important factor when pressuring Tannehill is his success against the blitz.

Tannehill was a top 5 quarterback against the blitz last season, which seems to run counter to the idea he struggles against pressure. This just means that the Patriots will need to generate pressure against Tannehill with just four pass rushers and must avoid sending extra rushers.

Pro Football Focus suggests that the loss of C Mike Pouncey could have played a minor role in Tannehill’s decline under pressure, but that this failure in the face of pressure is a core part of Tannehill’s quarterbacking identity. So long as Tannehill and the Dolphins don’t find the magic solution over this offseason, the Patriots have a blueprint on how to affect the Miami offense.