The New England Patriots have already punched their ticket to the playoffs, but they will have to play one more game before the tournament. They will travel to Florida to take on their AFC East rivals: the Patriots will visit the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.
The Dolphins have just been eliminated from potential postseason participation, thanks to a disappointing loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 17. Now at 8-8, they have little to play for with the offseason on the horizon. It is therefore no surprise that Miami is listed as 6.5-point underdogs, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
That being said, New England cannot take its opponent lightly if the team wants to keep building momentum heading into the playoffs and “stay on track,” as head coach Bill Belichick called it earlier this week. In order to do that, the Patriots will have to learn from its Week 1 mistakes — Miami won that game 17-16 — and be able to play some fundamentally sound football in all three phases.
As far as the defensive side of the ball is concerned, here is what they have to do to even the score against the Dolphins and improve their record to a still weird looking 11-6 to close out the regular season.
Be ready for quick passing concepts
Let’s just get this over with right away: Tua Tagovailoa is a solid quarterback, but he is still ways off from the top passers in the NFL. Obviously, playing behind a bad offensive line does not help — more on that unit a bit later — but the former first-round draft pick himself has also had his fair share of ups and downs despite being surrounded by a solid cast of wide receivers and tight ends.
Starting 11 of Miami’s games this season, he has completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 2,544 yards as well as 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also has carried the football 25 times for 100 yards and three additional scores. Tagovailoa has been solid at times, but the Dolphins passing offense as a whole has been below average.
So, what has been the issue? One of the biggest problems for the Miami offense has been its relative reluctance to attack teams deep. Tagovailoa does still attempt deep passes on occasion, but the Dolphins’ average depth of target is ranked only 23rd in the league (7.3 yards).
Instead of regularly challenging teams over the top with the likes of Jaylen Waddle and DeVante Parker, Miami is primarily relying on quick passing concepts and pre-defined reads. Why is that? The team’s protection issues or Tagovailoa’s throwing velocity might both play a role in this. The fact remains, however, that the Dolphins — by design or necessity — primarily attack teams in the short and intermediate range.
The most prominent way they do this is via the RPO game.
RPO is short for run/pass option and that is exactly what it is. The quarterback, after all, has three options: 1.) Hand the ball off to the running back at the mesh point. 2.) Not hand the ball off to the running back at the mesh point and run it himself. 3.) Not hand the ball off to the running back at the mesh point and throw a pass. The offensive line, meanwhile, is blocking run all the way.
The idea behind RPOs is to challenge the defense into making some tough decisions, and taking advantage of those that it does not make. They are basically misdirection concepts popularized in the age of the dual-threat quarterback, and Miami runs them a lot.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Dolphins have called 188 RPOs so far this season. Only four other teams have called more.
“I think they run more of them than anybody we’ve seen,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick earlier this week. “We saw it a lot from them in the first game. We saw it from Philadelphia in preseason and they pop up from time to time, but there’s definitely a lot more from Miami. Just plays that we’ll have to play properly obviously, depending on what we’re in and which version they run.
“They mix it up quite a bit. They run the same plays, but they run them from different personnel groups, different formations. They build them differently. They usually don’t just sit there and let you see what you’re going to get and then play it. They create it different ways, so that you don’t really recognize it until the last second. They do a good job. They run a lot of them and we’ll see how we handle it.”
In the first matchup against the Dolphins in Week 1, the Patriots handled the Dolphins’ RPOs semi-well. Miami only gained 259 yards of offense and scored a mere 17 points. However, the team also was able to make some of its biggest plays of the day on run/pass option plays.
Take the following pass from Tagovailoa (#1) to Jaylen Waddle (#17):
New England is playing off-coverage with J.C. Jackson (#27) on Waddle and Adrian Phillips (#21) on tight end Hunter Long (#84). The look is a challenging one for the Patriots, however: playing off-coverage creates space underneath, while playing press-man would likely lead to a pick and potential long gain against the team’s one-deep coverage shell.
A lot therefore depends on the linebackers. If they can muddy the waters underneath, the option pass will likely not succeed or at the very least gain limited yardage.
Unfortunately, both Dont’a Hightower (#54) and Ja’Whaun Bentley (#8) get sucked up on the run play and vacate their coverage zones underneath. With both linebackers playing run, Tagovailoa and Waddle have an easy time to connect against the Patriots’ coverage.
Schematically, the play looks as follows:
Miami being in a pistol formation is no surprise and something the Patriots can expect on Sunday as well. The Dolphins love lining Tagovailoa up in a shotgun look with the running back(s) or Waddle either behind or next to him, either to run RPOs or to use a straight-forward play-action game.
If they do go RPO, man coverage with one deep safety appears to be a winning recipe for New England. However, the Patriots have to be smart against an ultra-shifty player like Waddle or a big-bodied perimeter target such as Parker: playing press-man against them on every snap will likely also not be a recipe for success.
Instead, New England needs to a) mix up or disguise its coverage looks to challenge Tagovailoa’s decision making process, and b) have the linebackers be more sensitive towards the pass. That latter point is especially true given that Miami’s offense is a limited threat to advance the ball via the run.
In turn, the Patriots could find success by focusing on clogging the middle of the field. The goal is obvious: force Tagovailoa and the Miami offense out of its comfort zone. Right now that zone is throwing quick passes out of shotgun looks, oftentimes in an RPO setting.
Limit yards after the catch
The Dolphins’ reliance on attacking the short and intermediate parts of the field does put pressure on a defense in one particular area: tackling. That is at least true in theory. In reality, however, teams have had success doing limiting yards after the catch against Miami’s offense this season.
The Dolphins are ranked just 31st in the league with 4.3 yards gained after the average reception. For comparison, the Patriots are ranked 13th with an average of 5.4.
Given Miami’s preferred mode of attack — RPOs and other quick concepts — one would suspect that YAC number to be significantly higher. However, herein lies one of the other big problems for the team’s comparative lack of offensive production this year: it simply has not been able to turn those quick passes into longer gains on a regular basis.
Sound tackling is key here from a defensive perspective. Bill Belichick said so himself earlier this week.
“Tackling is really the most important component of any defense and any defensive player,” he said. “If you can’t get the guy with the ball to the ground, then it’s probably going to be a long day. It’s important and, of course, if you bring, as you mentioned, more people in pressure, you’ve got fewer people to tackle, so catch-and-run plays, one missed tackle, you could have a problem there.”
Instead of gaining chunks on quick throws like the one illustrated above, Miami needed to string plays together to move down the field. The team’s number of plays per drive (5.99) is therefore clearly ranked higher than its yards (27.7) and points output (1.58): the Dolphins rank 19th in plays per offensive drive, but only 27th and 28th in the other two categories.
For the Patriots, the goal has to be simple. Show proper tackling technique to ensure a player such as Waddle cannot gain extra yards after making catches.
Take advantage of a bad O-line
Bill Belichick called the Dolphins’ offensive line “consistent” in his Wednesday press conference. That is one way to describe it. Another would be “below-average” (although, to be fair, being consistently below average is still some form of consistency).
For the second year of Tua Tagovailoa’s career, Miami’s has had trouble up front. While the group has enjoyed some solid personnel continuity this season at every position but center — nominal starter Michael Deiter had to miss nine games earlier during the season — it has had its fair share of issues in both pass protection and run blocking.
Miami’s quarterbacks have had an average of only 2.2 seconds in the pocket, tied for 28th in the NFL. They also have been pressured on 23.6 percent of their throwbacks (18th) with 39 sacks (22nd); that latter number likely would be higher if not for Tagovailoa’s solid escapability and mobility in the pocket. Furthermore, the team’s ball-carriers are gaining only 2.0 yards before contact (29th).
Long story short, the Dolphins have struggled. Unfortunately for them, they will face a Patriots defense in Week 18 that has the personnel to take advantage.
The opening day matchup between those two teams already saw New England put stress on Miami’s protection. The following play, which led to an interception, is a good example of that:
The Patriots align in their pass rush setup with Christian Barmore (#90) as the lone down-lineman, flanked by linebackers Matthew Judon (#9) and Josh Uche (#55) inside the tackles and Kyle Van Noy (#53) and Dont’a Hightower (#54) out wide. New England is showing blitz, but only Barmore, Judon and Uche are indeed attacking the pocket out of the front-five.
Instead, New England is sending a replacement blitzer in the form of safety Adrian Phillips (#21). The blitz catches Tagovailoa and his protectors off guard.
Phillips initially threatens the offensive right-side A-gap, but instead stunts behind Judon to get around the edge. Miami’s blockers are unable to pick him up, with right guard Robert Hunt (#68) too late to come over and right tackle Jesse Davis (#77) already preoccupied with Judon. As a result, the defensive back is able to flush Tagovailoa out of the pocket and force him into an ill-advised heave down the field.
A lot of football has been played since Week 1, obviously, but the Dolphins’ issues up front have persisted. Miami still struggles to consistently win one-on-ones or show the proper chemistry to pick up stunts or blitz plays. Accordingly, New England will try to get creative once again to scheme up favorable matchups for their defense.
If the Patriots can indeed generate disruption with just four players and also hold their ground in the running game without investing any extra personnel, Miami should have a hard time finding success against the group.