Despite starting the season with a solid 3-3 record and an offense that averaged 26.7 points per game, head coach Brian Flores decided to make a change at the quarterback position during the Miami Dolphins’ bye week: veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick was sent to the bench, with first-round rookie Tua Tagovailoa being elevated to the top spot on the depth chart.
The Dolphins have won five of their seven games since that move, but the quarterback is only partially responsible for those numbers — an opportunistic defense also needs to be mentioned.
Still, Tagovailoa is the key to Miami’s offense and therefore naturally a player the New England Patriots will try to slow down during this week. How will they try to do that? And what are some general points the team might try to attack versus a Dolphins attack that is currently ranked 17th in the league in scoring (23.8 points per game)?
Let’s find out.
Force Miami into on-dimensionality
Before looking at Tagovailoa, a quick excursion to Miami’s running game — one that is expected to be without top option Myles Gaskin after he was placed on the NFL’s Coronavirus reserve list last week. Gaskin has been the team’s most productive back so far this season, but his presence did also not tip the scales for the Dolphins: they are a passing offense first and foremost, with the running game ranking near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories.
The offense coordinated by Chan Gailey is ranked 25th in both success rate (37.5%) and DVOA (-22.5%) as well as 31st in EPA per play (-0.182) and 32nd in yards per attempt (3.6). It also does not matter where the Dolphins are trying to attack, they are not very good at running the football no matter which lane they hit:
Gaskin had 40 yards on nine carries in Week 1 against the Patriots, and him being out is certainly challenge for the unit. The first week with him absent — last week’s loss against the Kansas City Chiefs — saw Miami produce a mere 80 yards as well as a touchdown on 24 carries. While getting Matt Breida back from Reserve/Covid-19 should help, New England certainly should have an advantage on the ground.
Of course, however, run defense has been an issue all year for the unit. Just last week, for example, Los Angeles Rams running back scorched the unit for 171 yards on 29 carries. That said, the Dolphins do not have the same quality up front and in the backfield as the Rams. New England’s defensive line should therefore be able to properly fill its gaps and set a strong edge against rookie tackles Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt.
The Patriots properly slowing down the run out of nickel or dime looks would play to the defense’s strength and simultaneously make life harder for Miami’s young quarterback. Speaking of whom...
Confuse Tua Tagovailoa
“He gets rid of the ball very quickly, doesn’t hold it much, sees coverages well, has taken good care of the ball, hasn’t thrown the ball to the defense,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about Tua Tagovailoa earlier this week. “Sees what he’s got, understands the pressure, understands the timing of the routes, gets the ball out quickly, and has enough quickness in the pocket to make it difficult for the pass rush to get to him.
“He can run a little bit but he is more, I would say, a quicker guy in the pocket that’s elusive and really wants to throw more than he wants to run. He can run but he really is a good passer and wants to get the ball out quickly in the passing game. He does a pretty good job of that.”
The fifth overall selection in this year’s draft has completed 114 of his 184 throws so far this season for 1,214 yards as well as a 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception rate. While he is getting sacked an average of two times per game behind a young offensive line, Tagovailoa has effectively taken care of the football and played some solid complementary football alongside one of the NFL’s better defenses.
He very much looks like a franchise quarterback in the making.
However, he is still a rookie, which is something the Patriots will likely try to exploit come Sunday’s game. They have been pretty good in this area as well: New England has won its last nine games against first-year starters, with one of those games coming this year against Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert — the very next pick in this April’s draft after Tagovailoa came off the board.
Herbert had the worst game of his career against the Patriots, completing less than 50 percent of his throws and getting intercepted twice. The key to New England’s defensive dominance that day was challenging the rookie’s reads by presenting different looks before exploiting his expectation. Essentially, it was “show one thing, do another.”
Take this sack by defensive tackle Adam Butler as an example:
New England aligned in a zone defense to counter Los Angeles’ 3x1 shotgun look. Herbert’s (#10) reads started at the right side of the formation, where his team had a numbers advantage versus Patriots defensive backs Joejuan Williams (#33) and Jason McCourty (#30). Stand-up linebacker Josh Uche (#53) dropping back into coverage, however, messed up this plan and forced the young quarterback to go through his progression. This, in turn, gave Adam Butler (#70) just enough time to get to him for a sack.
Herbert’s lack of experience and comfort in scenarios like this created a favorable situation for the defense on this play, and it is also what the Patriots will try to accomplish versus Miami on Sunday. There is precedent not just in the form of Herbert, after all.
Last Sunday’s game against the Chiefs also offered a glimpse into Tagovailoa’s inexperience:
Kansas City aligned in a single-high look before the snap, but rotated its coverage towards a post-safety alignment that brackets tight end Mike Gesicki (#88) from the right-side slot. Tyrann Mathieu (#32) came down, with Daniel Sorensen (#49) moving back into the deep middle — a motion Tagovailoa apparently did not read before the ball was snapped, which in turn gave him the impression that his primary target was taken away after he completed the fake hand-off.
Like Herbert in the play above, Tagovailoa then started going through his progression even as Gesicki was getting open over the middle. Had he stayed on him a bit longer, he might have pulled the trigger for a completion. Not doing that forced him to hold the ball longer, however, which proved costly given the field position he was in: Chris Jones (#95) was able to scrape around the offensive line to get to the quarterback for a safety.
Rotating safeties or dropping different players into coverage are just two tools a defense has at its disposal to try to confuse inexperienced passers. Blitz and pressure looks, coverage switches, and brackets are also elements New England might incorporate into its defensive game plan this week against a quarterback set to make just the seventh start of his young career.
Force throws to the “other guys”
As is the case with every quarterback, Tagovailoa also has his favorite targets. Three players in particular stand out, given that they have been on the other end of 50.6 percent of his pass attempts: wide receivers DeVante Parker and Jakeem Grant as well as tight end Mike Gesicki have been targeted a combined 89 times by the former Alabama product, with the target share split almost equally among them (Parker and Gesicki have 30, Grant has 29).
With all three of them hobbled heading into the weekend — they were limited because of hamstring (Parker, Grant) and shoulder injuries (Gesicki), respectively, in practice — New England might have a golden opportunity against the them. This, in turn, might make life harder for Tagovailoa as it would force him to go to other players with whom he may not yet have developed the same kind of chemistry and trust.
Sure, players such as Lynn Bowden Jr, Mack Hollis, Malcolm Perry, Antonio Callaway or Durham Smythe are still quality players in their own right, but one has to wonder how they would fare against the Patriots’ defensive back depth. Still, New England’s cornerback coach spoke highly of Miami’s “other options” at the skill positions earlier this week.
“This is a high-effort group out there,” said Mike Pellegrino. “Bowden, he stepped into the limelight in the slot there. He played a couple of positions but he is just a football player. I would say that for him and Perry. Both of those guys are just football players out there, really jut trying to make plays out there anyway they can help the team. You have to account for those guys when you see them out there as well.
“And then Callaway, another perimeter guy. Got a lot of speed, good quickness. Definitely got some long-ball threats there. Mack Hollins, the biggest guy in the group. You can see it out there on tape, has a good niche role in there. Can’t sleep on him either.”
All of that praise aside, the Patriots have always tried to take away an opponents’ primary weapons to force him play left, or in Tagovailoa’s case, right-handed, so this would be nothing new. With a player who has had only so much practice and in-game reps with his supporting cast, however, that could become even more important this week.
Take advantage of a young offensive line
As mentioned above, Tagovailoa is not the only rookie to start for the Dolphins. The team also has three of them filling starting positions along the offensive line: left tackle Austin Jackson, left guard Solomon Kindley and right tackle Robert Hunt were both selected in this year’s draft alongside their quarterback. And just like Tagovailoa, the Patriots should try to take advantage of their lack of experience.
The safety shown above is an example for that, with Kansas City’s rush lanes in combination with a lack of awareness creating a perfect storm for a sack. While that is just one example, the Dolphins’ pass blocking as a whole has been up and down this season and was oftentimes helped out either by scrambles or, especially in Tagovailoa’s case, quick releases.
However, the Patriots will still identify this as an area to attack — something no team did better this season than the Denver Broncos. The Broncos registered six sacks against Miami in Week 11 and disrupted the team’s offensive rhythm all day long. While some of the sacks were the result of the coverage looks in combination with Tagovailoa’s inexperienced internal clock, others stemmed from the O-line being unable to show proper chemistry.
The follow fourth-quarter sack is a good example of that:
Denver sent a standard four-man rush from its zone coverage in a third-and-long situation. The problem was that the group was using two stunts to challenge Miami’s young blockers. While the right side of the line reacted well to keep its rushers at bay, left guard Ereck Flowers (#75) and left tackle Austin Jackson (#73) failed to hold to end up their end of the bargain versus the Broncos’ twist up front. The result was a 9-yard takedown.
While Flowers has since been replaced by the higher-upside Solomon Kindley at left guard — Kindley played exclusively on the right side up until Week 11 — the lack of continuity and simple experience could become an issue against a Patriots defense that likes to use its fair share of pre-snap deception and pressure looks.
Don’t be surprised, therefore, if New England fills the spaced between down-linemen with off-the-ball linebackers threatening blitz or tries to run stunts on a regular basis as well. Just as Tagovailoa might be forced to make difficult decisions based on expectation and reality, the offensive line might as well. This, in turn, could create some favorable situations for the Patriots’ pass rush.