Nobody outside of One Patriot Place knows how the New England Patriots’ offense will look like when it takes the field against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. With Tom Brady gone and Cam Newton as the new starting quarterback, everything seems to be on the table heading into the regular season opener.
To get a better idea of what to expect, we have to take a closer look on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
The Dolphins’ defense may have ended the 2019 season as one of the worst statistical units in the league — ranking 32nd in both points and yards surrendered — but it did give the Patriots some considerable problems during the two team’s Week 17 meeting. Learning from that game while incorporating elements based on the personnel on both sides will therefore be a key for New England to start its 2020 campaign off on the right foot.
So, what can Josh McDaniels and the Patriots offense do to find success against the Dolphins? Here are three ideas.
Use off-tackle concepts again 3-4 Bear fronts
The Patriots entered last year’s regular season finale focused on a balanced attack to put some pressure off a passing offense that had struggled over the second half of the season. While Brady did drop back 30 times, he also handed the football off on 27 occasions. New England, despite eventually scoring only 24 points, did find some success on the ground by gaining 135 yards for an average of 5.0 yards per carry.
The Dolphins knew coming in that the Patriots wanted to establish their running attack, and they were ready by filling up the box:
MIA's priority in last year's matchup was clearly taking away the middle of the field, consistently fielding 3 IDL and and loading the box.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 8, 2020
One of NE's counters were power and outside zone runs designed to hit off-tackle, with Edelman often picking on converted CB Eric Rowe https://t.co/lqZixsJqb2 pic.twitter.com/kKHf3LOKRq
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 Miami’s preferred alignments, the so-called Bear front in a 3-4 look.
There are variations to Bear looks, but traditionally the defense 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, and based on the first play highlighted above, the lineup looks like this:
Bear front allows the defense to fill the gaps in the middle of the field, but is lighter on the edge, which the Patriots tried to attack last year — and its seems likely they might try to do the same on Sunday as well: attack the outside zones and try to take advantage of the linebackers’ reactionary skills and athleticism.
What also could help against the Bear front is using quarterback Cam Newton and his abilities to just power forward as an additional downhill threat:
Expecting to see QB Power at least once against a potential MIA bear front.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 8, 2020
One of his aces throughout his career and it's low risk given he's running behind two lead blockers and has a massive frame.
His patience and vision give second-level defenders a lot of trouble pic.twitter.com/5jgD216Dvj
The first of the two plays here perfectly illustrates how New England could try to attack the Bear alignment by creating a numbers mismatch in its favor and having the ball carrier attack the outside zones.
Use misdirection and option runs
Miami did upgrade its linebacker corps during the offseason. Not only did the team bring in ex-Patriots Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts to help on the edge and off the ball, respectively, the team also added Shaq Lawson and Kamu Grugier-Hill to further solidify the depth at the two spots.
The talent upgrade is significant compared to last year, but the Patriots still have some tools at their disposal to find success against it. The most important might be slowing them down by challenging them mentally through misdirection and option concepts:
So what's a team to do against such talented players?— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 8, 2020
Slow them down by putting them in conflict and making them think.
Roberts plays big, but he's still under 6'. BAL and HOU had success freezing him just long enough for an OL to climb to him. Can't let ERob play aggressive pic.twitter.com/9R7A0IcDsl
New England is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of three of Miami’s linebackers — ex-Patriots Van Noy, Roberts and Grugier-Hill — and also has plenty of experience against others such as Lawson and Jerome Baker. The goal should remains the same no matter the player on the field, though: use different looks, formations and misdirection to slow down their processing (something that is especially important when it comes to the goal of reaching the perimeter against the Bear fronts mentioned above).
This strategy, as illustrated above, worked against Roberts at times last year. It also worked against Van Noy:
This strategy was also effective with KVN on the edge.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 8, 2020
By putting Van Noy in conflict and forcing him to read instead of attack, BAL and HOU were able to block the linebacker with relative ease.
Cam used this tactic effectively vs Hightower in 2017 pic.twitter.com/jRNwRL5QGk
The Patriots’ offense with Tom Brady still under center has always played a cat-and-mouse game with the defense, and scheme plays were an integral part of that. This should not change against the Dolphins this year, despite the change at quarterback. If anything, the added element of having a true dual-threat under center could open things up even further and put additional pressure on Van Noy, Roberts and company.
Stay patient and don’t tip your hand
Even after placing Damien Harris on injured reserve — he is expected back in as early as three weeks — the Patriots have a deep offensive backfield to use: Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead are viable early-down options, with James White one of the best receiving backs in the game today. No matter who gets the call, though, they have to play a patient game against Miami’s front to let their holes and not give away their intentions.
Van Noy and Roberts in particular have had some occasional lapses in this area, by being drawn too far upfield or getting manipulated through their run keys:
The biggest key from the Patriots' running backs will be pressing holes before hitting their intended gaps or areas.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 8, 2020
When Van Noy and Roberts were the Patriots' starting linebackers vs CAR in 2017, the Panthers' best runs came as a result of patient and manipulative running pic.twitter.com/jfH5qCM1gS
Michel and Burkhead in particular will be asked to use a patient approach versus Miami’s front, no matter if Van Noy and/or Roberts are on the field. This should also help them find space against the Dolphins’ front in case the team tries to load the box again like it did last season.
If the defense reacts to this style of patient running to the outside, the Patriots could start to attack the lighter looks up front — by running power up the middle either with the backs themselves or the biggest X-factor for the offense this year, Cam Newton. New England’s defense experienced this when it played Newton’s Carolina Panthers during the 2017 season:
When the Patriots' front opened up and lightened the box, Cam made them pay with QB draws, another low-risk concept that take advantage of Cam's size and power against a smaller box pic.twitter.com/LxcOAEy8ET— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 8, 2020
Using quarterback draws as a response to lighter, more spaced-out fronts is one way that Newton’s athleticism and running skills could come into play on Sunday. For such situations to arise, of course, the Patriots need to stay patient with their attack and let the pieces fall into place first.
Explore one-on-ones against linebackers
The running play projects to be a key point for the Patriots versus Miami, especially considering the receiving corps’ inexperience within the system outside of veteran Julian Edelman. That said, when the Patriots are taking to the air, a good battle plan might isolating the linebackers in one-on-one situations against running backs or tight ends:
Flores and Belichick often have their edge defenders "peel" off their rush to cover outside-breaking routes from the backfield.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) September 8, 2020
It would be a shame if someone exposed KVN on Sunday. pic.twitter.com/RM40uhY4l5
The play illustrated here is a good example for how such matchups could be exploited if the opportunity presents itself: Van Noy is on an island against the back, and in a difficult situation to stick with him through the play. That is not a knock on him, covering a running back out in the open is a tough assignment for any player at his position — something that will be the same no matter if Baker, Lawson, Roberts or Grugier-Hill are on the field.
New England’s best way to attack through the air might just be by specifically trying to create mismatches against a linebacker group that has no in-game experience playing alongside each other.
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