The last time the New England Patriots’ offense faced off against the Miami Dolphins and their defense, Tom Brady and company played one of their better games of the season: the unit gained 124 yards on the ground and 255 through the air, and scored 29 of the team’s points during its 43-0 win. A lot has changed since early September, of course, but the Patriots still enter this week’s matchup as two-touchdown favorites.
This is in parts because of how the battle between New England’s offense and Miami’s defense is expected to play out. Why? Because even though the Patriots have been inconsistent moving the ball over most of the last few weeks, they are entering Week 17 a) with some momentum on their side after playing an encouraging game against the Buffalo Bills’ second-ranked defense on Saturday, and b) as the more talented of the two units.
In order to get a better impression of the upcoming matchup between New England’s offense and Miami’s defense, we spoke with Kevin Nogle of The Phinsider — and he painted a bleak picture from the Dolphins’ perspective. When asked what he thinks the Patriots should try to do on Sunday in order to come away victoriously on offense and to earn a first-round playoff bye, his answer spoke volumes about the team’s defensive quality.
“Show up?” asked Kevin. “You see, the Dolphins struggle with generating a pass rush — basically the line of scrimmage has been an issue all year — so if you happen to have a quarterback who can take advantage of no pass rush to pick apart a secondary that (a) is having to try to cover for way too long and (b) has Xavien Howard, Reshad Jones, Bobby McCain, Ken Webster, and Ryan Lewis on injured reserve, you will probably have some success.”
“The secondary has been destroyed by injuries. [...] Something tells me, Tom Brady is a quarterback good enough to take advantage of Miami’s pass defense,” said Kevin before adding that the team does not just have injury issues when it comes to stopping the pass but recently also in terms of run defense: “Oh, and just for the fun of it, Miami’s top run-defense linebacker, Raekwon McMillan, is also on injured reserve.”
This lack of faith in the Dolphins’ ability to play successful defense against New England and its future Hall of Fame quarterback is warranted when looking at the numbers, in particular against the pass: the unit coordinated by ex-Patriots assistant Patrick Graham ranks 32nd in points allowed — it surrenders an average of 29.7 points per contest — and also is dead last in overall DVOA (22.8%) and pass defense DVOA (43.1%).
DVOA, of course, evaluates plays based on situational context and the higher a number the worse is a unit performing against the average play. When it comes to the Dolphins, therefore, we can see that their pass defense allows a 43.1% higher success rate than your average NFL defense. What this means for Sunday’s game is rather obvious: Tom Brady should throw the ball early and often against his division rivals.
Going against a secondary that was headed by two rookies and a former Patriot at cornerback — Nik Needham, Eric Rowe and Tae Hayes — last week as well as third-year journeyman Adrian Colbert and rookie Montre Hartage at safety, the Patriots should be able to create and possibly exploit favorable matchups. It will be interesting to see how their own arsenal will be used against Miami’s coverage units, and whether or not it can find success.
The game could therefore serve as another opportunity for the Patriots’ up-and-down aerial attack to get on the same page: Brady and especially his supporting cast have struggled to string positive plays together on a consistent basis, and a meeting with the NFL’s worst pass defense could serve as a good opportunity to further improve the unit’s chemistry with the playoffs on the horizon — similar to last year’s Week 17 matchup against a hapless New York Jets team.
With all that being said, Kevin made sure to point out that not all has been bad for Miami’s defense recently and the unit did have some positive moments as well: “The pass rush shows up occasionally, even if I make it sound completely inept. The run defense has gotten better — we will see if that can hold against New England without McMillan — but they seem to be doing a better job of the fundamentals, especially tackling.”
“The Dolphins are rotating players and trying out younger players to see what they may have for next year. This season really is all about resetting the franchise and getting it ready for 2020,” he added. For the Patriots, 2020 is still far away which means that Sunday’s game will be a battle between the Haves and the Have Nots in the league this year: New England has its playoff ticket punched and is looking to gain some momentum heading into the postseason, while the Dolphins are already on to next year.
This in combination with Miami’s current roster composition on the defensive side of the ball should all play in the Patriots’ hands.