The New England Patriots went against the second best scoring defense in the NFL last week and they were held to only three points — despite reaching the red zone on three of their first five possessions. However, the offense’s inconsistency reared its ugly head repeatedly to end some promising possessions and eventually doom the Patriots in their 24-3 loss versus the Los Angeles Rams.
This week, coordinator Josh McDaniels and his crew will face an equally challenging defense: the Miami Dolphins are ranked third in scoring defense, allowing an average of just 18.2 points per game, and are no less impressive in the advanced statistics. Miami is fifth in EPA per play (-0.047), 11th in DVOA (-4.7%) and 14th in success rate (45.8%).
Needless to say that this is an impressive unit, and one that will force the Patriots to bring their offensive A-game — something they have not done consistently all year.
“You can see the symmetry as last year kind of moved along and then into this year,” said McDaniels about the unit. “Certainly the players now, I would say, have a total grasp on all the different things that they want to do. They’re very connected on defense — the front, the disguise, the coverage, the overall communication — and they throw a lot of things at an offensive unit. They ask their guys to do a lot of different things.”
David Andrews echoed McDaniels’ remarks.
“They’re a tough physical team, they play aggressive defense and really challenge you,” New England’s starting center added. “They have a lot of different guys they can use in different roles. It’s going to be a challenge playing them. Second division games are always harder too, so we have a heck of a challenge on our hands.”
So, what can the Patriots do to find some success? Let’s find out.
Don’t get confused by exotic looks
As McDaniels mentioned, the Dolphins are playing some impressive football built around their ability to communicate well and stay on the same page at almost all times. This, in turn, has allowed them to incorporate some unconventional coverage and pressure looks that should not be unfamiliar to the Patriots: they are running a lot of the same schemes head coach Brian Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer learned during their time in New England.
Their former team, naturally, will need to diagnose those looks accordingly and make smart decisions based on their pre-snap keys — something not all teams have been able to do this year when going up against the Dolphins. Take this play from Miami’s Week 5 victory over the San Francisco 49ers that kicked off a five-game winning streak:
On this third down play, the Dolphins were loading up the A gaps to show pressure up the middle from what appeared to be a single-high man coverage look based on the 49ers’ pre-snap motion. However, neither the pressure nor the man coverage eventually materialized: Miami went into a Cover 3 zone after the ball was snapped with both inside linebackers — Jerome Baker (#55) and Kamu Grugier-Hill (#51) — dropping into the hook zones.
This change-up forced quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (#10) to go through his progressions and despite his comparatively clean pocket attempt a pass to Jerick McKinnon (#28) on an out route against inside leverage. The pass sailed wide, with Miami’s defense proving itself tight in the underneath zones to take away the quick throw to the running back versus a QB expecting both blitz and a man coverage call.
Miami’s spot drops into potential throwing lanes over the middle of the field mostly involve the team’s stand-up linebackers, but they also are able to add some variety to those looks as Rams quarterback Jared Goff found out in Week 8:
Before the snap, the Dolphins appeared to be in a Cover 0 man-to-man look with six defenders on the line of scrimmage signaling blitz. With the Rams having only five in the box to protect, Goff would have to go to his hot reed in case the unblocked player — 7-technique defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (#91) — ended up rushing instead of dropping into coverage.
Ogbah indeed did that, but he was one of only four players eventually attacking the pocket. Baker and defensive end Christian Wilkins (#94) dropped back into coverage with the latter cutting off the hot route to wide receiver Cooper Kupp (#10) from the left side slot of Los Angeles’ 2x3 empty set. Goff never saw Wilkins and the lineman intercepted the pass.
The Patriots will see a lot of fake blitzes on Sunday, but also plenty of real ones: Miami’s defense is ranked third in the league with a blitz percentage of 40.1 percent. Needless to say that quarterback Cam Newton needs to be ultra-careful with his reeds whenever dropping back to pass, and that the offensive line’s communication needs to be on point with players either coming down or dropping out of their rush stances.
Unpack the old man coverage beaters
The Dolphins run their fair share of zone and man coverages, but the latter in particular has caused some issues for New England’s offense this season: teams like to play man looks on the outside in order to shore up against the Patriots’ run-centric offensive attack. This, in turn, has regularly left the team’s wide receivers on an island but more often than not they have been unable to take advantage.
Even with Julian Edelman potentially returning to the lineup this week, the Patriots’ pass catchers should not be trusted to suddenly evolve into man-beating monsters. Accordingly, the scheme becomes important.
Josh McDaniels has its fair share of man-to-man beaters in his arsenal but those that do stand out are iso plays aimed at getting the tight ends and running backs isolated versus linebackers. While Miami’s linebacker corps has played some impressive football this season, the unit is a bit up-and-down when asked to cover one-on-one — whether it be ex-Patriots Kyle Van Noy or Elandon Roberts, or the aforementioned Jerome Baker and Kamu Grugier-Hill.
If the Patriots face man looks, both McDaniels and Newton need to be quick to diagnose them and counter accordingly. Tight end and running back iso are just two of the tools at their disposal — mesh concepts, jet sweeps and option runs are another — but given Miami’s defensive strengths and weaknesses they might be the most potent.
Get N’Keal Harry involved
The Dolphins defense is one of the most opportunistic in football, which means that attacking it deep presents a gamble to a certain degree. That said, the Patriots will inevitable have to throw the deep ball and if they do second-year wide receiver N’Keal Harry might be a viable target.
Yes, Harry’s season so far has mostly been a disappointment. That said, the former first-round draft pick has shown some encouraging development as of late with the games against in Los Angeles against the Chargers and Rams seeing him use his size to his advantage. His statistics may not stand out — he caught five passes for 64 yards and a touchdown — but it was certainly a step in the right direction.
“N’Keal’s started to come on here in the last few weeks,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about Harry earlier this week.
With a game against one of the NFL’s best secondaries coming up, Harry and company will face a tremendous challenge. However, New England should not shy away from trying to use his size and leaping abilities again. The Dolphins do have some decent size at their cornerback position with both Xavien Howard (6-foot-0) and Byron Jones (6-foot-1), but Harry (6-foot-2) should still be trusted to out-leap them with a timing advantage on his side.
Run off-tackle against 3-4 Bear fronts
We already talked about the Dolphins’ run defense ahead of the two teams’ first meeting in Week 1. A lot has changed for Miami since then, but so-called Bear fronts out of standard 3-4 looks are still a prominent feature especially on early downs — something that should again be the case this week.
Back in September and based on the last Patriots-Dolphins game in 2018, the following was said about Miami’s Bear fronts:
Despite Miami investing considerable resources into its run defense, the Patriots were able to find success through their scheme. Instead of running into the belly of the beast, they attempted to get to the perimeter by using power and off-tackle concepts. In order to accomplish this, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels used additional blockers up front — tight ends Benjamin Watson and Matt LaCosse — as well as guard pulls and i-formation runs behind a fullback.
The goal was to create favorable matchups in the numbers game, which in turn would allow the backs to get to the outside. This idea worked well against one of Miami’s preferred alignments, the so-called Bear front in a 3-4 look.
While there are different kinds of those Bear looks, the defense traditionally aligns with two edge players filling the 9-technique spot, two down linemen playing the 3/4i-techniques and a nose tackle aligned directly over the center. The linebackers, meanwhile, will line up depending on the offensive formation in regards to running backs and tight ends. Conceptually, the lineup looks like this:
Miami employed its fair share of Bear fronts in Week 1 against the Patriots, but New England was able to get the best of them by going after one of their structural weaknesses. While Bear fronts allow the defense to fill the gaps in the middle of the field, they are comparatively light on the edge. In turn, New England attempted to attack the perimeter while trying to take advantage of the linebackers’ reactionary skills and athleticism.
The very first offensive play of the day was a sign of things to come, with Sony Michel (#26) gaining seven yards outside of the left tackle:
New England aligned in a six-man line with tight end Ryan Izzo (#85) playing the H-back role on the strong side of the formation. The Patriots attacked right there, with some tremendous blocking by Izzo and left tackle Isaiah Wynn (#76) clearing a path. Sixth lineman Michael Onwenu (#71), meanwhile, was able to help Wynn with a chip before moving to the second level to further clear the path.
With the Patriots forgoing the interior gaps in favor of an off-tackle run, Miami was left in an unfavorable position. On Sunday, New England will likely try to get itself in the same situations whenever it encounters the Dolphins’ 3-4 Bear look.
While Miami’s defense has improved across the board since opening week, the run defense remains a weak point the Patriots should try to attack. For as good as the unit is ranked, it checks in at just 26th in run defense EPA per play (-0.016). While this is a clear improvement over the 0.32 surrendered in Week 1, it still shows that New England’s offensive strength is aligning well with the Dolphins’ biggest weakness on this side of the ball.
Flores and Boyer will come prepared to counter it, but possibly at the expense of some integrity elsewhere — be it the exotic coverage looks or a susceptibility versus the play-action game. Either way, New England should once again find opportunities to establish its presence on the ground.