The New England Patriots offense came close to beating the Miami Dolphins in Week 1. Down just a single point late in the fourth quarter, the unit led by first-time starting quarterback Mac Jones drove deep into Miami territory to either score a touchdown or at least take the lead through a chip-shot field goal.
Alas, it was not meant to be. Running back Damien Harris lost a fumble at the Miami 9-yard line with under four minutes to go, which gave the Dolphins an opportunity to run out the clock and secure a 17-16 win.
17 weeks later, the two teams are set to meet again. A lot has changed for the Patriots and Dolphins since the first Sunday of the season, but one thing remains true: the Miami defense will present a challenge for Jones and company.
The unit was instrumental in the team’s turnaround after a 1-7 start, helping bring the Dolphins into position to make the postseason. They eventually came up short thanks to a 34-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans last season, but the unit as a whole is still one of the better defenses New England is going to face throughout the rest of the season — regardless of how far the Patriots will travel in the playoffs.
With that said, let’s take a look at the unit coordinated by long-time Patriots assistant Josh Boyer to find out how his old team might find success against it.
Don’t be caught off guard by blitz packages
The Dolphins defense loves to create pressure by throwing a diverse set of blitz packages at their opponent and trusting their secondary — led by elite cover cornerback Xavien Howard — to win one-on-one matchups. In total, Miami ranks second in the league in sending five or more rushers: the team employs the blitz on 39.8 percent of opposing dropbacks, trailing only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 40.9 percent.
Going against a comparatively inexperienced quarterback such as the Patriots’ Mac Jones, the expectation is that Boyer will call his fair share of blitz plays again. The goal for the Dolphins would be to confuse Jones into making mistakes or to put pressure on the protection up front by disguising their intentions.
One of Miami’s favorite ways to do that is sending maximum pressure from Cover 0. The team is ranked second in the league in plays playing Cover 0 this season (7.1%).
In its essence, Cover 0 is a man-to-man coverage concept with no deep help over the top. The coverage personnel is asked to hold down the fort long enough for the pass rush to get home or at least force a throwaway.
It is an aggressive hit-or-miss concept, but one Boyer trusts his players to pull off. More often than not recently his trust has been repaid. Take the following play against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16:
The Dolphins do not disguise the fact that they are in a Cover 0 look, and Saints quarterback Ian Book (#16) knows that he has to get the ball out quickly if he wants to find success. Unfortunately for him, the defense knows this as well and attacks the short routes aggressively.
In order to succeed, New Orleans needs perfect execution from its quarterback and pass catchers in combination with the protection holding up just long enough. That does not happen: Book’s throw is undercut by Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham (#40), who returns the interception 28 yards for a touchdown.
Telegraphing the play is not a way to succeed against a defense as aggressive as Miami’s, and it cost the Saints on this particular play.
Of course, as with every coverage concept are also ways to counter Cover 0. The Titans, who had their way with Miami last week, showed one example to do that: they moved the pocket to disrupt any clear rushing lanes and create more space on the backside.
On the following play, Tennessee was able to take perfect advantage:
The Titans move the pocket to their right to give ex-Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (#17) some more time before working across the formation on a quick pass to running back Dontrell Hilliard (#40). Normally, Hilliard would stay in to block against the maximum pressure package, but here he simply chips his defender to move out into the flat as an additional receiver.
With nobody in coverage of him, he has considerable space to move up the field. The Titans even keep one blocker — left tackle Taylor Lewan (#77) — to serve as a lead-out man, even though Hilliard outruns him.
In general, chipping the edge players and releasing into the flat has proven a successful recipe against Cover 0 all-out pressure. It would therefore not be a surprise to see the Patriots move their tight ends or running backs out in case Miami presents such a look.
Cover 0 is not the only way the Dolphins create pressure, though, something Patriots head coach Bill Belichick pointed out earlier this week.
“They can bring pressure, but they can also not bring pressure,” Belichick said. “We’ve played games against them where the game was almost exclusively three-man rush and we’ve played games and seen games, like the Baltimore game this year, where they bring in max pressure in the ballpark of, call it, 20 times. Then, we’ve seen them in between, where it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that, some blitz-zone, some blitz-man, some man-to-man, some zone.”
They used various pressure calls against the Titans as well, including the following five-man rush that led to a Jerome Baker (#55) sack against Tannehill:
Miami is in a Cover 1 look with six players as potential rushers on the line of scrimmage. Only five of them ending up attacking the pocket, but with Tennessee sliding its protection to the right to account for a potential overload blitz Baker finds a one-on-one against the running back. He overpowers him and finds his way into the backfield for a sack.
Protection, communication and individual performance will all be key to finding success against as blitz-heavy a team as the Dolphins. Still, Belichick pointed out that his team needs to be ready for everything.
“Over the course of the season this year, from where they finished last year and where it looked like they started this season, they’ve added more variety to their defensive play calling: more zone, more blitz-zone, some safety blitz pressure that they’ve added,” the Patriots’ head coach said.
“They’re a game plan team and you have to be ready for a lot of things. We’ll just have to see what we get, but I think it’d be a mistake for us to sit here and practice every snap of max pressure or every snap of three-man rush. It could be any of those and it could come in different quantities, depending on how much success they’re having with it too. We’ll have to be ready for all of that.”
Counter Miami’s aggressiveness
The high rate of blitz looks is no coincidence. The Dolphins’ defense in general is an aggressive one, similar to the one called by head coach and former New England assistant Brian Flores in 2019. Back then, Flores was the Patriots’ defensive play-caller and leader of one of the best defenses in franchise history — one that led the NFL in scoring at the end of the season.
His current defense in Miami is not on the same level, but it is a strong one nonetheless and capable of putting pressure on opposing offense through its aggressiveness. The Patriots need to find ways to handle this, and to run counter plays to turn the Dolphins’ attacking style against itself.
One way to do that is running hard play-action. Take a look at the following play from the Tennessee game as an example:
The Dolphins stack up the line on this 3rd-and-1 play, with the Titans countering by running a stretch to the left side of the formation — or so it seems. Instead of handing the ball off, Tannehill (#17) kept it for himself to advance it on a pass play.
The defense initially reacts well, but once tight end Geoff Swaim (#87) gets open Tannehill finds him for a short gain and easy completion. One reason why the play succeeds is because it takes pressure on off-the-ball linebacker Elandon Roberts (#52): he shoots up the field quickly to stop the run but is left in no-man’s land once the quarterback keeps the ball and moves out into the opposite direction.
Miami likes to use Roberts as its lone off-the-ball linebacker, and the Patriots know him well: he has spent four seasons in New England before moving to Miami as a free agent in 2020. He has played well for the Dolphins, but still shows the same general weaknesses that plagued him during his time with the Patriots.
One is his aggressiveness in shooting up the field versus the run. It is a blessing and a curse: while it helps Roberts be an impact player versus the run, it also oftentimes leads to him vacating his zone or freeing up space for play-action passes over the top. The Titans took advantage, and New England will likely try to test him in this area as well.
Obviously, though, play-action is only one way to attack an attacking defense. The Patriots can use other misdirection concepts as well to find success in the passing game; they also can use their blocking schemes to open up space in the run, or to get blockers into the second level.
Don’t be surprised if the Patriots call their fair share of trap blocks to counter the up-field push presented by the Dolphins. Speaking of the running game, there is something else New England will likely try to do:
Get into space in the running game
The Titans’ game was an off-day for the Dolphins after seven straight wins, but it also can be seen as a blueprint of sorts on how to attack their defense. Tennessee, for example, found tremendous success on the ground: the team of another ex-Patriot, linebacker-turned-head-coach Mike Vrabel, gained 198 yards on 40 carries for an average of 5.0 yards per rushing attempt; it also scored two touchdowns.
One big reason for the Titans’ success was the blocking up front. Their offensive line dominated Miami’s linemen and linebackers, repeatedly allowing backs to get into the second or third levels of the defense.
The Patriots will likely not copy Tennessee’s game plan one-for-one, though. The Titans are an outside zone team, while New England relies primarily on man blocking concepts up front. Nonetheless, they can adapt to find success by stressing one area in particular: getting into space.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, for example, could call toss plays to get his running backs into space:
This particular concept is called Toss 39, and sees the running back attack to the strong side of the formation. The Patriots employ man-to-man blocks up front, but use the right guard (Shaq Mason) on a pull to get to the second level and take on the off-the-ball linebacker (Elandon Roberts).
There are variations to this play depending on the front, but one of the most intriguing is faking the hand-off to call a pass play. In this case, Mac Jones would keep the ball and roll to the weak-side to either throw to the tight end on a crossing pattern or the X-receiver running a route rather than blocking.
The Patriots also could use sprint concepts behind a seven-man line:
This concept, known as Sprint 38, also spreads out the field a bit. The ball-carrier would attack behind the right-side tight end (or left-side if mirroring the play depending on the defense) with the right guard again moving up to the second level. The key is for the right-side blockers to either seal the edge or create some space for a cut-back block.
There are countless other plays in the Patriots’ arsenal, but the goal remains the same: get into space in an attempt to duplicate what the Titans have been doing. If New England can do that, it should be in a good position.