When New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talks about the game, he often mentions one particular concept: complementary football, the idea that all three phases are interdependent. Over the years, the Patriots have used their offense, defense and kicking game all effectively and closely working together to solidify themselves as the best team in the league no matter the situation (see: fourth quarter of Super Bowl 51).
One key part of this is field position. New England is usually among the NFL’s best teams when it comes to setting up its offense and defense well – not just via special teams but also through the play of each of the two units. Over the last few years, the Patriots consistently ranked among the league-leaders in starting field position: the team’s average ranking in the category since 2010 is 6.5 on offensive, and 3 on defense.
While drawing definite conclusions after only three games is a futile endeavor, 2018 shows a different team so far when it comes to where it sets up shop on an average drive. New England ranks 19th on offense with a starting point at the 27.2-yard line, and just 26th on defense with the 31.0-yard line the average starting position for the opponent. Certainly, this is something New England has to improve – as early as Sunday.
The Miami Dolphins, currently sitting at 3-0 and visiting Gillette Stadium in two days, rank noticeably better than the Patriots in both categories: on offense, their average possession starts at the 35.4-yard line – best in the league – and on defense at the 26.6, still good enough for 11th place after three games. The team’s ability to create favorable field position is one of the key reasons for their success so far this year.
How come? Miami’s +4 turnover differential, which ranks the team second in the NFL, is one answer. The Dolphins and their four giveaways are average in terms of offensive ball security but excel when it comes to creating takeaways on defense: only the Cleveland Browns have forced more turnovers defendively, with the Seattle Seahawks the lone team registering as many interceptions as Miami’s seven.
This defensive opportunism and offensive not-screwing-it-up-too-much-ism helped the team defeat its first three opponents – and is a key challenge ahead for the Patriots. Sitting at 1-2 and two games behind Miami, New England needs to take care of the football on Sunday to not allow the field position battle to shift in the Dolphins’ favor. Despite being led by the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Tom Brady, this will be a massive challenge.
After all, New England’s passing offense has not been in sync so far this year: with wide receivers unable to consistently get separation versus man coverage and teams therefore shifting even more of their attention to tight end Rob Gronkowski, the aerial attack’s rhythm and consistency have suffered. Against the Dolphins and with Josh Gordon potentially making his debut, the team needs to improve in this area of the game.
If not, the field position and turnover battles may not remain the only losses that the team will have to take on Sunday. And looking at the AFC East standings, the Patriots can ill afford to get beaten by the Dolphins at home for the first time in a decade. Step one in making sure this does not happen: going back to the familiar formula that is complementary football – and the favorable field position it tends to create.