On Sunday, the New England Patriots will play their first divisional rematch of the season when they square off against the Miami Dolphins. On paper, the Patriots are the clear favorites entering the contest: New England has a superior record, played some very good football recently, and on top of all that already defeated the Dolphins 38-7 in week four. That being said, the upcoming game could still prove to be a difficult one.
The game takes place in South Florida, after all, where the Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick are just 8-10. While every year is different, it is safe to say that New England has struggled playing the Dolphins on the road — a fact that is also not lost on the team’s offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. “It’s a big challenge down there,” McDaniels said during a recent conference call when asked about the upcoming game.
“One, this is a team that plays extremely well at home,” the 42-year old continued. “We haven’t played well down there, coached well down there — I can speak for myself on that — and we have a big challenge to go down there and try to change that trend.” The challenge McDaniels mentions goes beyond geography and history, though: New England will also face off against a defense that knows its offense well.
Statistically speaking, the unit led by coordinator and Massachusetts native Matt Burke, does not stand out. It ranks below average in most major statistical categories and is 18th in the NFL with 23.3 points allowed per game (for comparison, the Patriots are tied for 10th with 21.6 points given up). That does not mean that it can put pressure on an opposing offense, however, as McDaniels knows.
“They’re an aggressive, penetrating front,” he said when asked about the challenges the Patriots offense will face on Sunday. “They mix their defensive calls and coverages quite a bit. There’s a lot of spin the dial. You’re going to deal with zone, you’re going to deal with pressure, you’re going to deal with man coverage, you’re going to deal with post-safety, split-safety, secondary blitzers, linebacker pressures — there’s a lot to deal with in this scheme.”
The scheme is only one part of problems Miami’s defense can create, according to McDaniels: the players executing it need to be accounted for as well. And the Dolphins field some very good ones — especially up front. “Certainly, we have a tremendous amount of respect for [Cameron] Wake,” he said. “We’ve played against him a number of times and he’s had a lot of success against us down there. Robert Quinn’s playing well, [Davon] Godchaux, [Akeem] Spence is probably playing as well as he’s played, to me, that I’ve seen.”
The defensive line is not the only deep and talented area on the Dolphins’ defensive roster, though, as the secondary also has plenty of potential. “We didn’t see Reshad Jones in the first game, we know what a tremendous player he is. [Xavien] Howard’s having a Pro Bowl year at corner and we didn’t see [Minkah] Fitzpatrick at corner in the first game,” McDaniels said. “There’s a lot of changes relative to the personnel that we see now that didn’t see in the first game against them.”
New England of course has also changed quite a bit since week four — Julian Edelman is back, for example, while Josh Gordon and Sony Michel play bigger roles nowadays. What is also different when it comes to the Patriots offense is its weaknesses of holding onto the football: New England entered the first meeting against Miami having committed five turnovers over the first three games.
Against the Dolphins, the Patriots added two more. The team has improved noticeably in this area and has turned the football over just once during its last five games. However, it will face a tough challenge this week as Miami has played some opportunistic football this year. All in all, the team has registered 25 takeaways: the Dolphins have come up with 19 interceptions and six fumble recoveries so far this year (four of which on defense).
“The big thing that really stands out is I think they are third in the league in takeaways and they’re averaging over two turnovers a game on defense,” McDaniels said about a unit that has registered turnovers in 10 of its 12 games so far this season — and six since coming out of its week 11 bye. “When you do that, you create a lot of extra possessions for your offense and they got us a couple times in our first game.”
Needless to say that the Patriots offense needs to take care of the football to not give Miami any sudden momentum in front of a home crowd. If it can do that — and the past few weeks are an indication that the unit is more than capable of that — New England’s chances of coming away victoriously should look very good.