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Patriots vs. Dolphins game plan: How New England’s defense will find success in Week 1

The season opener will feature a new-look defense going up against a new-look offense.

Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

When the New England Patriots defense and Miami Dolphins offense will take the field on Sunday afternoon, two units who have seen considerable change this offseason will face off. While the Patriots lost some cornerstone players such as J.C. Jackson, Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, Miami made big moves both on and off the field.

The Dolphins hired former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel as their new head coach, seemingly to help rebuild the offense led by third-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. McDaniel brought a new offensive staff with him, while the team’s front office made several splashes as well.

With one week, the Dolphins signed wide receiver Cedrick Wilson Jr. and offensive tackle Terron Armstead in free agency while also acquiring All-Pro wideout Tyreek Hill via trade from the Kansas City Chiefs. Add the team signing running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert, and center Connor Williams, and you get a team with several high-profile changes — and considerable improvements — on the offensive side of the ball.

So, what can the Patriots expect out of the unit come Sunday? According to head coach Bill Belichick, that is the “$64,000 question.”

“Opening day is opening day,” Belichick told reporters earlier this week. “Nobody is really showing much in preseason. The cards will be on the table on Sunday. Like every opening game, I’m sure we’ll have to make some adjustments. Once we see what they’re doing and vice versa. That’s always the way it is. So, you have to leave room for a little bit of the unknown, things that they’ve been working on that they haven’t shown. Or things specifically game-planned for you that you’ve had trouble with at some point.

“They’ve had a lot of time to prepare for the game, several months, as have we. There’s a big part of the unknown. I think all of that will clear up in the first two to three weeks of the season when teams settle into their style of play that they want to bank on. But right now that’s not necessarily known. League-wide for playing time for a lot of the key players on every team is low, so it’s hard to tell how some of their players are going to be used but we know guys that they’re going to feature. We’ll have to see how it goes.”

Despite all the uncertainty and turnover, we can make some projections how the Patriots will find success versus the Dolphins offense on Sunday afternoon.

Don’t feel the need to double-team Tyreek Hill

Tyreek Hill is one of the best wide receivers in football, and a viable deep threat due to his elite straight-line speed. The first-year Dolphin has the ability to put pressure on any defense in the NFL, and one mistake against him can lead to a quick six points regardless of the situation.

The Patriots know all that from having played Hill quite a few times since he entered the league in 2016. They also know, however, that they do not need to double-team him.

A look at their coverage history against him confirms this notion.

After getting torched by him in their first two meetings in 2017 and the 2018 regular season, Hill spent most of the 2018 AFC Championship Game doubled by Jonathan Jones underneath and inside with Devin McCourty deep. These snaps largely took place on the boundary, but Hill bumped down to the slot in a few critical situations.

When lined up inside, Jones would play his trail technique with outside leverage while McCourty cut anything breaking over the middle. Even when New England did not explicitly double Hill, McCourty would shade heavily to the his side while reading Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

When all was said and done, and the Patriots emerged to Super Bowl LIII, Jones had allowed zero catches on two targets. The plan worked, but New England’s coaching staff felt more confident giving Jones 1-on-1 snaps from that point on. He did not disappoint, while the plan allowed the team to defend concepts instead of just one player.

Using this approach, Hill was held to 62 yards in 2019 while McCourty played closer to the box to help defend Kansas City’s crossing routes and high-low concepts.

The most recent matchup against the Chiefs and Hill during the 2020 regular season saw the Patriots put an emphasis on coverage, employing plenty of Cover 1 looks on passing downs with two linebackers in short zones and only three rushers.

They also switched assignments downfield more often in this game, usually in long yardage situations. They furthermore used double-robber looks with two safeties buzzing down over the middle — something that could also be used against Miami, given that the team will run a lot of the same passing concepts under McDaniel.

Long story short, the Patriots have not double-covered Hill since the 2018 AFC title game and he has still been held to an average of just 56 yards per game. For comparison, he averaged 137.5 yards in his first two matchups with Bill Belichick’s defense.

Jonathan Jones should be able to hang him in 1-on-1 situations, while a safety (or multiple safeties) take away routes over the middle.

Incorporate this Cover 1 variant

Before digging deeper into this particular form of Cover 1, a quick reminder. Speaking in basic terms, Cover 1 is a one-deep coverage shell that sees the defense play man-to-man on the outside with the safety responsible for taking away anything that goes deep. As with all things football, however, there is a lot more to it than that.

The Patriots, for example, have switched up their Cover 1 in past matchups against Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa. On passing downs, they attacked the pocket with their inside linebackers while dropping each edge defender into underneath coverage zones.

In theory, this plan is a good one against pocket passers such as Tagovailoa, who like to go to crossing routes on a regular basis.

Considering Tagovailoa’s skillset and the Dolphins’ offensive personnel, trying to create pressure up the gut to eliminate those quick completions does make sense. And on paper, the Patriots do have the personnel to play this kind of game yet again: inside linebackers Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson, who will both make their regular season debut for the team, have brought some increased speed to the linebacker corps.

Of course, the team will not rely exclusively on this variant. For starters, having players such as Matthew Judon drop back regularly is not ideal and a matchup that can get exploited by Miami’s offensive staff.

Furthermore, mixing up looks will be key against a QB such a Tagovailoa who has been a bit up and down throughout his career when it comes to decision making and play recognition. Changing up coverage and the pressure up front will be key to not just force him into an error, but also possibly take advantage of an offensive line that has seen some personnel movement during the offseason as well.

Contain Tua Tagovailoa

Projecting how the Patriots and Dolphins will match up in the running game is difficult considering Miami’s changes in terms of scheme and personnel. Rather than a tight end-heavy gap team, they will likely feature more fullback-centric zone concepts similar to those that Mike McDaniel ran in San Francisco.

One carryover from the last three games of going up against Miami is still there, though: Tua Tagovailoa’s ability to make plays with his feet if given the opportunity to do so.

The former first-round draft pick, who has yet to lose a game against New England that he started, is a pocket passer through and through. Just like Patriots QB and fellow Alabama alumnus Mac Jones, however, he also has enough athleticism to make defenses pay for playing man-to-man coverage on third downs.

New England witnessed this first-hand last year, when Tagovailoa moved the chains with his legs on multiple critical moments during the regular season finale:

Tackling and pass rush integrity will critical going up against him — two things the Patriots struggled with in January. The 3rd-and-6 play above, for example, sees the team attack the pocket with a three-man pass rush: Deatrich Wise Jr. (91) as a 9-technique from the offensive right, Christian Barmore (90) over the center, and Matthew Judon (9) outside the left tackle.

After the snap, Judon stunts to the inside to get behind Barmore. The then-rookie defensive tackle, however, gets too high and loses his balance; when he goes down, Tagovailoa sees a window of opportunity he did not let pass by: he attacked the gap and eventually was not stopped until after he had gained 23 yards.

Of course, the play could have ended a lot sooner had linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53) been able to finish the tackle. Van Noy was employed as a spy on this play to prevent a scramble such as this one from happening; however, his miss caused the entire defensive house to collapse.

There are two things the Patriots need to take away from this:

  1. Lane integrity will be key in the pass rush, especially on critical third downs.
  2. Tackling will be imperative when facing Tagovailoa in the open field.

The Dolphins’ starting quarterback might not have the athleticism of Lamar Jackson or the stature of Josh Allen, but he has shown he can capitalize on breakdowns in those areas. If New England’s defense can successfully control its rush lanes and finish tackles, however, the threat of Tagovailoa as a rusher should be limited both in scramble drills and on option plays.

Be ready for outside zone

As noted above, the Dolphins’ new scheme and offseason additions on the offensive side of the ball makes it a hard unit to project heading into the game. That is especially true versus the run.

It is not stretch of the imagination, however, to project that Miami will run its fair share of outside zone under McDaniel; he found considerable success with it during his time in San Francisco and his offensive coordinator, Frank Smith, is coming from a similar background: Smith was run game coordinator and offensive line coach for the Los Angeles Chargers, another team using a heavy dose of outside zone, before joining the Dolphins.

The Dolphins won’t exclusively run outside zone in Week 1, but it will be the core of their ground game nonetheless.

Last season, the Patriots defended these runs best when Davon Godchaux was sneaking under blocks with either Christian Barmore or Lawrence Guy denting the line of scrimmage.

On this play against the Atlanta Falcons, Godchaux (92) was able to control the line upon initial contact which in turn allowed the Patriots to swarm the play. Off-ball linebackers Dont’a Hightower (54) and Ja’Whaun Bentley (8) were also quick to come down, while the impact of Matthew Judon (9) also cannot be underestimated.

While known primarily for his pass rush, the Pro Bowl edge can also be a formidable run defender on the outside. He knows how to use his size and power to keep runs inside or directly stop them in their tracks.

Safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips also excel as force defenders down in the box; Dugger in particular stands out when kept clean as a dime linebacker. The same also is true for Bentley, who looks 30 pounds lighter when he can quickly diagnose and fly to the ball untouched. He was able to get into the backfield against outside zone a few times last season, including this stop against the Dallas Cowboys:

For as impressive as plays like this are, the Patriots had their ups and downs when facing outside zone. That was especially true when their interior linemen were unable to shed reach blocks 1-on-1, which forced second-level defenders to engage unchecked linemen, although over-pursuit may have exacerbated issues.

There were also times Godchaux and Deatrich Wise Jr. had some issues. The former was doubled into off-the-ball linebacker Dont’a Hightower when aligning at the 0-technique spot, while the latter was at the point of attack on some big runs last season: as more of a long 4-3 DE than a hulking 3-4 DE, he can get walked back by double-teams or proficient run blockers.

The Patriots will need those two and the rest of their personnel to be on point against Miami’s projected use of zone runs.

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