There is no more wiggle room for the New England Patriots. After losing back-to-back games to drop to 7-8 on the year, they need a win in Week 17 or else they are officially eliminated from playoff contention.
In order to do that, they will have to beat a familiar foe and get some revenge: the Miami Dolphins, who themselves are in a fight for their wild card life, will visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday. The Dolphins have, of course, won four straight against New England including a 20-7 victory on opening day in September.
A lot has changed for both teams since that day, however. The biggest of those changes might be at the Dolphins’ quarterback position, which will be manned by backup Teddy Bridgewater on Sunday; regular starter Tua Tagovailoa has been ruled out after sustaining yet another concussion in last week’s loss against Green Bay.
While it remains to be seen what Miami’s usually potent offense will look like with Bridgewater under center — the Patriots do not expect many schematic changes — one thing is clear: the oddsmakers don’t trust the Dolphins with their backup quarterback in the lineup. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, New England is listed as 2.5-point favorite to win the game.
What can the team of head coach Bill Belichick do to live up to that status? Here is our best-guess estimation.
Patriots offense vs. Dolphins defense
Through its first 15 games of the season, the Patriots offense has failed to play a full 60 minutes; the unit continues to be wildly inconsistent and fall short of its potential. If there is a week for New England to put together a consistently competent offensive performance, however, it might just be this one.
The Dolphins, after all, have struggled in a number of areas defensively. A look at the numbers illustrates this: the group coordinated by former Patriots assistant Josh Boyer is giving up 24.7 points (27th) and 353.8 yards per game (21st), and allowing an expected points number of 0.033 per play (24th).
One of the most glaring weaknesses for this Miami team is its tendency to give up big plays underneath — something the Patriots also took advantage of in Week 1.
Most of their yards in the season opener, after all, came on underneath throws. They barely used play action to clear space, but quarterback Mac Jones was still able to complete shots to Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne while moving the chains against a couple of zone looks.
Not much has changed for Miami since then, with teams still being able to target these areas of the field with success.
This pass play from the Dolphins’ loss to the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Day is emblematic for the team’s issues. The defense is running a Cover 1 man look, which in combination with a) it stacking the line of scrimmage, b )the route distribution, and c) deep safety Jevon Holland (8) dropping back even further leaves the underneath area unoccupied.
As soon as wide receiver Christian Watson (9) got inside position on rookie cornerback Kader Kohou (28) he therefore found a running lane. The result speaks for itself: eight of his 20 yards came after the catch.
Teams have also managed to exploit Miami’s soft coverages. How? By using play action, freezing defenders and buying time for them to find soft spots versus zone on flood and glance concepts.
Here, the Buffalo Bills are faking a handoff after the snap which in turn draws the linebackers up. With Kader Kohou (28) in a zone look and granting wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) a free release at the line of scrimmage, the offense was able to play simple pitch-and-catch for a 16-yard gain.
While this particular play was a first down, Miami playing zone primarily happens on third-and-longs. Teams have capitalized on those by finding soft spots in the coverage for chunks of yards.
What all of this means for the Patriots is that they should find opportunities to go downfield if they pick their spots right. Recognizing soft zone is key, as is attacking the Dolphins’ safety and linebacker group when it finds itself in man coverage; the latter should be at the top of the team’s to-do list.
The Patriots’ potential for big plays extends beyond passing the football. New England should also be able to move the ball on the ground, given that Miami is surrendering big runs on a weekly basis.
One area in particular where the team has struggled is toss plays; opponents have ripped off some big runs on the Dolphins using them lately. Toss concepts are also a staple of the New England attack, and it would not be a surprise to see several incorporated into the game plan.
This means we could see calls like Toss 39...
...or Toss 38 Bob:
Regardless of the concepts New England employs, there will be opportunities as long as the team avoids running into stalwart defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.
Wilkins has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Dolphins’ defense. Beyond having first-round physical traits, he also diagnoses plays very quickly and is making plays front and backside. He might just be Miami’s best defender, and New England should pick its battles against him wisely both in the passing and the running games.
The former Patriots fan is not the only problem Miami’s defense can pose up front, though. No one in the league generates more unblocked pressures than the Dolphins, sometimes without actually blitzing.
They do this by stacking the line of scrimmage with mug looks and stunts to get free rushers, a scary proposition with explosive guys like Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb outside.
Here, Miami drops out two defenders — Wilkins (94) and Duke Riley (45) — but still rushes four. The movement up front, however, leaves Jerome Baker (55) unblocked off the left edge; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) can’t react quickly enough and eventually gets taken down for a 10-yard loss.
Even in their more traditional fronts, the Dolphins have gotten free rushers using line games to create confusion and linebacker blitzes from odd looks for quick interior pressure. New England hasn’t been great versus stunts and blitzes lately, particularly on the left side. The hope heading into Sunday’s matchup has to be that execution will improve.
Nonetheless, avoiding obvious pass situations should be a significant area of emphasis this week. And while the Patriots did not allow much heat in Week 1 — thanks largely to Mac Jones getting the ball out on time — the Dolphins made their pressures count: they notched two sacks: a touchdown off a strip and a third-down stop.
Patriots defense vs. Dolphins offense
As noted above, the Dolphins will be without their starting quarterback on Sunday. In comes Teddy Bridgewater, who himself is a former first-round draft pick but who has traveled around the league lately and settled primarily for backup duty.
In that capacity, he has seen action in four games this season with one start (a game he was forced to leave with an injury after his first pass attempt). In total, Bridgewater has gone 37-for-60 (61.7%) for 522 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
The 30-year-old is a slightly different player than regular starter Tua Tagovailoa: he is right-handed, for starters, but also more willing to run with the ball and has been less involved in RPO calls (Bridgewater has only attempted one RPO pass this season).
Nonetheless, his success overall this season has come on similar concepts. Like Tagovailoa, after all, most of Teddy Bridgewater’s positive plays in Miami have come on timing throws down the seams, specifically to his right:
Here, Bridgewater (5) hits wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) on a quick slant to allow his wide receiver to pick up yards after the catch. Waddle does just that, taking the short pass for 19 yards.
That said, Bridgewater can still hit downfield out routes from either hash as well. He has moved the chains on three such targets to Tyreek Hill this season.
One thing that will not change between Tagovailoa and Bridgewater is the trust in both Waddle and Hill. The latter in particular is as big a threat as any in the NFL, but the Patriots did not really do anything special to account for him in Week 1 (and they haven’t in years).
That said, Hill is a special talent and has had his success against New England. On opening day, for example, he caught eight passes for 94 yards.
He is obviously known for his speed, but he’s been a lot more than that for the Dolphins. Hill is a well-rounded receiver who knows how to set defenders up at the top of his routes, compliments his strong hands with some great adjustments, and plays much bigger than his 5-foot-10 frame would indicate.
That said, his speed can still create major damage. Hill will take the top off if defenses press him outside the numbers without help and exploit split-field looks if he gets matched up on a safety or off-corner without inside help.
New England, which is shorthanded in the secondary this week without standout rookies Marcus Jones and Jack Jones, knows this. It also knows that playing sound defense will be key to stopping Hill from going off — something that takes place both in the secondary and up front.
After all, the Patriots pass rush will again be crucial if New England wants to win this game and keep its playoff hopes alive.
In Week 1, the pressure provided by the likes of Matthew Judon and company helped thwart some potential big-play opportunities. In Week 17, more of the same is needed to put pressure on Bridgewater and keep Miami from running longer-developing concepts aimed at targeting the deep portions of the field.
One thing the Patriots cannot afford to do, though, is rush in an undisciplined fashion. Bridgewater is no Josh Allen, Justin Fields or Lamar Jackson — three dual-threat QBs who hurt New England with their fee this season — but he can extend plays or take off if given the chance while under pressure.
On this 3rd-and-5 against Cincinnati, defensive left-side edge Sam Hubbard (94) is drawn to the inside. Without a stout edge being set, Bridgewater (5) escapes to his left to buy extra time. This, in turn, allowed wide receiver Trent Sherfield (14) to get open for a 12-yard gain.
Another are the Patriots defense needs to be structurally sound in is defending the second level — something it did not do a particularly good job of in Week 1. Credit goes to Miami, though, which did a great job of making play action look like runs plus using pullers to open up the middle.
New England’s off-ball linebackers struggled mightily in this setup, so the hope is that they can learn from the experience. While linebacker coverage is still a mixed bag for the team, its members have shown some growth through the year: Raekwon McMillan and Jahlani Tavai, who both saw extensive action alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley back in September, have come a long way.
If they can keep up their improvement, the Dolphins should have a harder time attacking the second level this time around.