Entering the 2022 regular season, the Miami Dolphins defense is going full “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
While the team did surprisingly fire Brian Flores earlier this year to replace him with a new head coach — former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel — the defensive coaching staff has remained largely intact. The unit is still led by Josh Boyer as its coordinator and play-caller, and will continue to play the same aggressive style of defense it has adopted over the last few years.
The New England Patriots, Miami’s Week 1 opponent, are obviously no strangers to the unit, its coach, and its structure. Boyer spent several years with the organization before leaving to join fellow ex-Patriots assistant Flores with the Dolphins in 2019.
“Their structure is very similar to ours,” New England head coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week. “I think we can look at most of their defenses and put it exactly into our terminology, ‘here’s what that call is’. Which is not normally the case, but again, because of the familiarity, I’m sure Josh can do the same thing with our defense. There’s just more familiarity there.”
Belichick went on to dig a bit deeper into the Dolphins’ defensive strategy, and what makes the unit a challenging one to go up against.
“I think the Dolphins have built the team to be a strong front. They have a lot of big, physical guys up front that are hard to block, especially in the running game,” he said. “They’re one of the teams that plays one of the highest percentages in man-to-man coverage in the league. Certainly not all man, but they play a high percentage of it, higher than most, and they blitz particularly their secondary players, but in general, blitz more than most teams do, so they pressure the quarterback.
“I think their DBs blitz probably more than any team in the league and they pressure the quarterback a lot. That doesn’t mean every pressure is an incompletion or interception — there are completions there — but in general they get free guys or get players attacking the quarterback and that’s the start of disruptive plays. I’d say those are characteristics of what Josh is trying to do.”
So, how will the Patriots offense find success against Boyer’s unit on Sunday and overcome their status as 3.5-point underdogs, (viaDraftKings Sportsbook)? Using last year’s games as a foundation, here is our best-guess projection at what New England has to do.
Be ready for the blitz
Belichick was not lying when he said that the Dolphins love to send the blitz, and he has seen it first-hand twice last year. Going against then-rookie quarterback Mac Jones, Boyer sent an extra rusher his way on 33 of 73 dropbacks, a rate of 45.2 percent — clearly above their season-long number of 38.9 percent in their 15 games not against the Patriots.
Rookie quarterback or not, the Dolphins defense loves to create pressure by throwing a diverse set of blitz packages at their opponent and trusting the secondary to win its coverage matchups. Even with Jones’ added experience, the expectation is that Boyer will call his fair share of blitz plays again.
The goal for the Dolphins is to confuse Jones into making mistakes or to put pressure on the protection up front by disguising their intentions. A look at the raw numbers, according to Pro Football Focus, may not reflect this...
Mac Jones vs. Miami: Pressure looks
|Pressure||Dropbacks||Attempts||Completions||Completion %||Yards||TDs||INTs||Pressure %||Throwaways||Passer rating|
|Pressure||Dropbacks||Attempts||Completions||Completion %||Yards||TDs||INTs||Pressure %||Throwaways||Passer rating|
...but it did impact Jones by throwing him off his rhythm on a regular basis. He also went to his check-down option more regularly when faced with extra pressure.
One of Miami’s favorite ways to bring the heat was by sending additional rushers from its secondary, with one blitz concept in particular standing out last season: most secondary blitzes came from three-deep “fire zones,” where an on-ball player drops into coverage while an off-ball player rushes.
When New England was in a shotgun look, Miami sent heat to the running back side to challenge his pass protection and rush diagnosis. Versus under-center looks such as this one — arguably Mac Jones’ “welcome to the NFL” moment — Boyer blitzed the condensed receiver side.
Miami also varied its blitzes based on game situation. On third downs or critical plays late in the game, the team went with its traditional man cover when blitzing from the secondary; the Dolphins switched between Cover 0 looks and single-high coverage alignments on a regular basis.
This third down pass from Mac Jones (10) to Hunter Henry (85) is a good example of Miami bringing the house but the young quarterback not panicking and quickly going to his target on an out route. The Patriots needed five yards on the play to move the chains; they ended up picking up six.
Additionally, Miami also used so-called “creeper” pressures. While not traditional blitz looks based on the number of rushers coming the quarterback’s way, they do create the illusion of extra heat.
The Dolphins played two-deep coverages to flood underneath zones while blitzing the slot defender or safety away from the tight end. One way to diagnose that such a blitz concept was coming was to watch the defensive edge on the opposite side of the slot: he was playing high and light on his feet whenever Miami sent that type of pressure, simply to get in position quickly.
Correctly identifying tells like these will be key for Jones and the men in front of him, as will be communication and discipline. Blitz looks stress all of those, and it would not be a surprise to see Boyer test these aspect early and often. New England’s rebuilt offensive line, after all, has had its issues throughout the summer getting on the same page.
If he sees a chance to exploit any shortcomings, Boyer will do just that.
Roll out the man coverage beaters
The Dolphins are comfortable using a heavy dose of blitz calls because they know they can trust their secondary to hold up behind it, especially when using man coverage. Led by All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard, the unit was among the stingiest in football last season and poses a challenge — especially when combined with what is a potent pass rush up front.
From a New England perspective, the goal is clear: the team needs to find ways to get open when facing man-to-man looks. Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, the presumptive leaders on offense, better have their man coverage beaters ready.
There are several they can and will likely use, starting with creating space by running natural picks. The following play from last year’s season opener versus the Dolphins is an example of those:
New England is running a 1x3 shotgun look, with the interior receivers on each side of the ball crossing the defenders in front of them within 10 yards down the field. The goal is to put pressure on the man coverage defenders, with one of them forced to run the loop to avoid colliding with his teammate.
Whoever gives up space in this setting will be targeted. In action, the play looks as follows with Mac Jones (10) successfully hitting Jakobi Meyers (16) despite pressure straight in his face.
Picks can come in all shapes and forms, though, with the following concept from Week 18 last year another example of how they can help an offense create space against man coverage:
On this play, Hunter Henry (85) is running a shallow crosser right behind the defensive line with the goal of holding up linebacker Jerome Baker (55). Baker is in man coverage versus running back Brandon Bolden (25), who is able to get free in the underneath left and reach the end zone from 18 yards out for a touchdown.
Obviously, the Patriots have more man coverage beaters at their disposal even with long-time coordinator Josh McDaniels now in Las Vegas. Plays such as running back iso or tight end iso, jet sweeps or shield screens have all proven to be successful through the years and are staples of New England’s attack when facing man-to-man defenses.
Take care of the football
Obviously, ball security is relevant every week and a critical factor when it comes to winning and losing. The Patriots know that as well as everybody, so what makes this week extra special? Look no further than the two games against Miami last season, both of which ending in defeat for New England in large part because the team was too careless with the football.
The 2021 season opener at Gillette Stadium saw the Patriots give the ball away twice, with running backs Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris both losing fumbles. The second of those came late in the game and with New England already in range for a potentially game-winning field goal. However, Harris coughed up the ball and likely victory.
The season finale down in Miami, meanwhile, saw the team again lose the turnover battle. Mac Jones threw a pick-six and was credited with a fumble on a botched snap, while Jakobi Meyers put the ball on the ground as well.
Obviously, Bill Belichick will be the first to tell you that the past is the past and has little to no bearing on this season. However, not everything changes from one year to the next; the Dolphins’ defensive aggressiveness among them.
Taking care of the football therefore again needs to be a special point of emphasis for the Patriots on offense (and special teams). Killing drives in cheap fashion just like last year will not be able to cut it, and put unnecessary pressure on a defense that will have its hands full against the Dolphins’ new-look attack under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel.
The Patriots lost the turnover battle a combined 1-5 last year. A similar outing on Sunday could doom their hopes of starting the season with a win.
Incorporate outside zone in the running game
Yes, the Patriots offensive line has struggled to generate consistent positive plays when running outside zone over the course of the summer. But, hear us out: at least in theory the plan would be a good one to use against a defense such as Miami’s.
Several of last year’s Dolphins games can serve as a blueprint of sorts, especially the ones against the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans. Both are primarily outside zone teams, and they found plenty of success on the ground against Miami’s aggressive defense.
The Patriots do have some concepts at their disposal that would help them to duplicate what Tennessee and New York did last season. In fact, they actually used them several times in their two matchups with Miami already. Take the following play, a 35-yard run from Damien Harris (37) on the first offensive play of the 2021 season:
The Patriots refer to this particular set of designs as sprints, with the goal being to stretch out the defense horizontally and create a cut-back lane for the back to exploit — a key element of most outside zone runs. Here that lane opens behind right guard Shaq Mason (69) and right tackle Trent Brown (77); the key block for Harris to get deep into the secondary, however, was made by David Andrews (60) at the second level.
Last year, the defense dictated which way the Patriots attacked when running outside zone. They ran to the tight end side against light boxes, while going to the weak side when there was a safety walked down near the line of scrimmage.
Even if they decide against running heavy outside zone against Miami, or fail to find success doing so, the Patriots will not be lost. They do have plays at their disposal capable of stressing the Miami defense by attacking the wide space, with the following concept as an example:
This particular play is called Toss 39, and sees the running back attack to the strong side of the formation. The Patriots employ man-to-man blocking up front, but use the right guard — in this case it would be Michael Onwenu — on a pull to get to the second level and take on the off-the-ball linebacker.
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.