The New England Patriots’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread and in order to stay alive for another week they need a win on Sunday. Going up against them is a familiar foe: the Miami Dolphins will visit Foxborough.
In order to get a better understanding of who the Patriots will be up against in Week 17, we exchanged questions with Kevin Nogle of Pats Pulpit’s sister site The Phinsider — the SB Nation community for all things Dolphins.
Here is what Kevin told us about the upcoming game.
1. Tua Tagovailoa sadly suffered another concussion last week against the Packers. How do you see the offense adjusting with Teddy Bridgewater starting in his place?
The Dolphins will tell you it does not change. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill spoke about Bridgewater and how he fits into the offense as compared to Tagovailoa, saying, “We understand Tua has his things that he does very well. And then Teddy, he has the same thing. He has the same certain package of things that he can do very well as well.” Everyone seems to say the offense runs the same whether it is Bridgewater or Tagovailoa under center.
That said, there are clear differences. Bridgewater does not have the same anticipation that Tagovailoa has and he is not as accurate with the ball as Tagovailoa. That said, we are starting to see that Tagovailoa is a quarterback who seems to make up his mind with where he is going with the ball pre-snap and when that is not here, he is not as patient with going through his other reads — that may be an oversimplification of everything, but it does seem to be a trend at this point. Bridgewater will definitely work through his progressions, sometimes looking for the perfect window, rather than a really good window, and it will lead to him holding the ball too long. That could be just the rust of not having played much, and he is trying to get back up to full speed early in a game, because he definitely seems to find his rhythm later in the game.
As for what I would expect to see from the offense this week, I would hope that they actually do commit to the running game for once. Getting Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr., into the game and leading the offense would take the pressure off of Bridgewater and give him time to find his rhythm. Mostert and Wilson are both really good running backs, but the Dolphins’ offense is a pass-first, pass-often, almost pass-only type of offense. When you have Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle at wide receiver, you want to get them the ball as often as possible. That makes sense, but at some point, you have to get the running backs involved as well.
Finally, I would love to see tight end Mike Gesicki finally breakout this year. He is so talented, but he has just disappeared this year. Mike McDaniel’s offense is designed to use tight ends as blockers, and that is not the strength of Gesicki’s game, but it is odd we are in Week 17 and they still have not found a way to get the ball into Gesicki’s hands more often.
2. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen from the Dolphins since these teams last met in the season opener?
I really think it is just the injuries they have had all season. From the secondary, where it seems like every cornerback and safety have missed practices and game time during the year for various injuries. And, since this is about changes since Week1, that does not include Byron Jones, who had a leg/ankle procedure done in the offseason with the plan that he would be available for the start of the regular season but has not come off the physically unable to perform list this year.
On offense, the offensive line has rotated, changed, swapped, and reformed throughout the year as injuries continue to impact them. The good thing is, as banged up as he is, and now there are four things listed on the injury report (toe, pectoral, knee, and hip), Terron Armstead continues to play through injury. He missed a couple of games this year, and the line is simply not the same without him. There is a reason he was named to the Pro Bowl this year — and it may be more about how off Miami’s offensive line looks without him. Miami may be getting some offensive line help this week, though we are not really sure how it will work. Guard Liam Eichenberg, who was the starting left guard in Week 1, has missed the last six weeks on injured reserve with a knee injury. He was activated this week and could be available for Sunday, but Robert Jones has been pretty solid in Eichenberg’s absence. Will Eichernberg return to starting? Could he be a depth option now, in case another injury happens?
Long explanation to just say, injuries are definitely the biggest change for the team over the past 16 weeks.
3. The offense hit an understandable rough patch in December during a slate that featured the 49ers, Bills, Packers, and a great game plan from the Chargers. Have these teams done anything schematically to slow Miami’s offense?
The 49ers and the Chargers were very similar. They kept the middle of the field congested with linebackers staying back and taking away the slants and posts Miami loves to run. And, it really was not a matter of sticking with tight coverage on Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, but more of keeping players in the throwing lanes and taking away those options. The Dolphins offense is all about getting the ball into the hands of Hill and Waddle as quickly as possible, letting them make plays, then take the deep shot once a defense starts cheating toward those routes. The 49ers and Chargers were not worried about creating pressure on Tagovailoa as much as they wanted to stay in those passing lanes and take away his options. It was a really well designed plan.
The Dolphins did seem to make some adjustments from that, but the Bills game is hard to use as an example. Everyone went into that game expecting a snow globe of a game, but the snow did not show up until the fourth quarter. The offense looked more like what you would have expected with the blowing snow blinding the players and disrupting the offense. Miami had their second-highest rushing yardage total for the year in that game, rushing for 188 yards — which compared to their 95.8 rushing yards per game average, shows you just how different that game plan was.
Against the Packers, Miami was a little more like their normal offense in the first half. They were finding success with the mid- to deep-depth crossing routes and using the middle of the field better. The second half, I have no idea how to analyze because it seems like Tagovailoa was playing with a concussion at this point, though he was not showing any symptoms that alerted someone to the injury. It probably is why he threw three interceptions on three-straight drives to end the game, especially given five interceptions all season up to that point.
Obviously things may be a little different with Bridgewater, but I would plan to try to keep the linebackers back in coverage and create congestion in the middle of the field. This goes back to wanting to see the Dolphins turn to the run game a little more. If the linebackers have to step up to support the run, the area behind them becomes a feeding ground for Hill and Waddle.
4. How have opposing offenses managed to generate big plays against the Dolphins? Who should the Patriots avoid and who should they target?
Running quarterbacks are the bane of the Dolphins’ defense. Let a quarterback use his legs and Miami struggles to keep him contained. When you are playing quarterbacks like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, that is a bad weakness to have. Mac Jones is not exactly the major threat like those two are when it comes to running the ball, but if the Patriots allow him the freedom to scramble, he can have an impact on the offense. Aaron Rodgers only ran for 18 yards last week, but he ran for 18 effective yards, picking up first downs and giving the Packers a boost.
As for the passing game, Xavien Howard, despite being named to the Pro Bowl this year, is not having his best season. He has been slowed by injuries — again, the theme of the Dolphins secondary this year — all season, but at the same time, teams are actively staying away from him for the most part. Undrafted free agent Kader Kohou from Texas A&M- Commerce has been pretty good this year, thrust into an unexpected role with all of the injuries. He will make rookie mistakes, but he has been solid most of the year.
The Dolphins defense has not been the attacking, amoeba defense that caused so much confusion last year because they have had to keep more players with coverage responsibilities, because they have a slowed Howard and no Jones. It is hard to put your cornerbacks on an island and free up blitzers when you do not have your top cornerbacks at full strength. Miami has flashed times of using the zero-blitz packages, but it is not to the level we saw late last year. Keep attacking the secondary, especially with whomever Howard is not covering, and you can keep the linebackers worried about coverage instead of committing to getting after the quarterback.
5. The Dolphins started as 1.5-point favorites according to our pals at DraftKings, but have now moved to being 2.5-point underdogs, as they start their backup QB. How can the Patriots protect their home turf and come out with a win?
My answer with Tagovailoa would be to slow down the game, keep the ball away from the offense and wear out the defense. Miami’s strength on offense is being able to strike from anywhere on the field - but even if you are scoring a touchdown, a three-play drive does not give your defense much time to recover between possessions. Keep the defense on the field and make them work. Slow down the game, with effective small gains to keep moving the ball while running a large number of plays will eventually lead to the big play being available.
With Bridgewater, we will see if the Dolphins still have the same explosiveness. We have not seen it with him when he was in games earlier this year, so I have doubts it will show up this weekend. I still think wearing down the defense is the right play for the Patriots, but the Dolphins offense may not be as likely to get off the field as quickly as when it has a Tagovailoa 60 yard touchdown pass to Waddle or Hill to end a possession.
Get the running game going, keep the pressure on the secondary so the blitz packages cannot be used, and slow down the game to keep the defense on the field. That should set up things well for New England.
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