Beating Belichick: What Can the Dolphins Do to Slow Down the Patriots?
For the first time in nearly a decade, Miami Dolphins fans have been and should be elated to watch Miami football into January. Now that the 10-5 Dolphins have clinched a playoff berth after winning 9 of their last 10 games, they can rest easy knowing that they have a playoff spot on lockdown. Actually, they can’t. Not when they’re to face off against the 13-2 New England Patriots anyway. First, the Patriots will not be resting their starters, as such a concept is entirely foreign to Bill Belichick. Second, the Patriots will be playing to secure the 1st overall seed in the AFC and the home field advantage throughout the playoffs that come with it. Considering the fact that the Patriots have not won a road playoff game since 2006, I’d wager they’d like to ensure the need never arises.
Like the Patriots, the Dolphins are also playing for more than just pride. Miami can still advance to the 5th seed with a victory over New England and a Kansas City loss to San Diego. Though they don’t control their destiny, any chance at playing the Tom Savage led Houston Texans over the fearsome trio of Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh should and will be taken seriously. The problem still stands: how does this team defeat this year’s iteration of the New England Patriots?
What the Offense needs to do:
The Patriots’ defense doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses so much as “areas of lesser strength.” Among these “lesser strengths” is their pass defense, particularly their depth at the cornerback position. The Pats’ passing defense allows 240.1 yards per game, which, at 14th best in the NFL, is good, but hardly anything to boast about. Their pass rush has also been somewhat pedestrian at 34 sacks in 15 games. It is entirely possible for teams to move the ball through the air against Matt Patricia’s unit; not easy, but possible. First thing’s first, there is Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler to account for. The shutdown corner has performed among the top-5 at his position over the last two seasons and can play the role of locking down the left side of the field or shadowing the opposition’s number one receiver, though he primarily does the former. Either way, quarterbacks are rarely rewarded when testing Butler, even if they’re targeting All-Pros like Antonio Brown:
Number two corner Logan Ryan also performs at a very high level and ranks among the best at his position. Though, as was seen in Miami’s Week 2 matchup against New England, bigger receivers (like DeVante Parker) can use their athletic advantage to make contested catches:
However, after Ryan there is a significant drop off in talent through the depth chart, and moving the ball becomes much easier. Eric Rowe and Justin Coleman round out the 3rd and 4th spots on the depth chart and are much more susceptible to blown coverages and missed tackles. Ryan Tannehill was able to take full advantage of Coleman in Week 2 on this deep touchdown to Kenny Stills:
So, Adam Gase needs to employ three wide receiver sets in order to test the Patriots’ less talented defensive backs with calculated deep shots down the field. Obviously, protecting the football should be the number one priority, especially against the Patriots, but attacking the Patriots deep is a necessity to keep the defense from keying in on Ajayi.
Unfortunately, even when mistakes are made by the cornerbacks, the Patriots’ safeties are dangerous enough to make plays on their own. Safety Devin McCourty in particular is a force to be reckoned with and he has certainly earned his reputation as a ball-hawk with 19 career interceptions. The converted corner is not particularly imposing in size (5-10, 195lbs) but he can lay a receiver out if need be:
Here, even though the cornerback bit on the short route, leaving Demaryius Thomas wide open, McCourty forces the incompletion on a key 4th down singlehandedly. Strong safety Patrick Chung is also not to be trifled with.
The Patriots also boast the NFL’s 3rd strongest rush defense, allowing 89.5 yards per game at a mere 3.9 yards per carry. This is undoubtedly problematic, as the Dolphins rely heavily on the services of running back Jay Ajayi to keep their offense balanced and to control the pace of the game. New England’s defensive lineman and linebackers have a penchant for getting in the backfield, and rarely whiff on tackles. Though New England has sacrificed much of their athleticism in the front 7 over the last year, their ability to consistently shut down the opposition’s running game has definitely remained constant. Luckily for Miami, New England has not been exposed to the Jay Train, who has been among the league’s leaders in broken tackles since he left the station against Pittsburgh in Week 6. If there is any running back in the league that can make something out of nothing, it’s Ajayi:
To Adam Gase’s credit, the team rarely abandons the run, which must continue if the Dolphins are to have a chance at defeating the Patriots. Ajayi can force missed tackles and fall forward for extra yards, which is particularly significant in this game of inches.
Finally, the Patriots have the league’s number one scoring defense, as they’ve held opponents to just 15.7 points per game. This stat is not only an indicator of overall defensive prowess, but also it shows that even on days that the Patriots’ defense bends – it doesn’t break. Adam Gase and company must get creative in the Red Zone, as no team has ever beat the Patriots with field goals. Using Damien Williams, Kenyan Drake and Jay Ajayi on wheel routes or on well-designed play fakes could be a good idea, as using New England’s relative lack of speed in the linebacker corps should be an exploitable mismatch as Baltimore showed us a few weeks ago:
All in all, the Dolphins are going to need to remain balanced and committed to Jay Ajayi, limit turnovers, and get creative in the Red Zone to outscore Tom Brady and control the pace of the game. Matt Moore’s solid performances over the last few weeks have been far from perfect, but he has shown that he is more than capable of managing a game. If anything, the limited amount of tape on the longtime Dolphins’ backup could be advantageous in and of itself if Gase continues his sorcery.
What the Defense Needs to do:
The New England Patriots’ offense has no weakness. They’re ranked 4th in passing yards per game, 5th in points per game and 8th in rushing yards per game. Tom Brady is having among his best seasons, LeGarrette Blount has a ridiculous 17 rushing touchdowns, and the receiver corps has suffered minimal drop-off after Gronk’s season-ending injury. However, there are three things that Miami’s defense can do to slow down the onslaught of the 2nd best quarterback in NFL history (after Peyton Manning of course).
First, and most importantly, the defense must find ways to get consistent pressure on Tom Brady – with a four man rush. Last year, as was thoroughly exposed in the AFC championship, the Patriots’ hubris on offense was their line. Tom Brady is a pocket passer and struggles when forced outside of the pocket or when being hit consistently. The Patriots’ offensive line has certainly improved since then, but are not immune to lapses in protection.
It is not a coincidence that Brady’s worst performance of the year came against the Denver Broncos, who know how to pressure and hit Brady without blitzing:
Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Philips is well known for his creativity in creating pressure with 4 men rushing the passer, and Vance Joseph will look to create pressure in his own system. It is also not a coincidence that both of Brady’s interceptions this year came when he was under duress and forced to move around the pocket:
His first pick came against the Seahawks who defeated the Patriots on a poor decision to throw into double coverage. His “hero” throw came about after early pressure that forced him to move outside the pocket.
His second pick was like the first, but across a shorter distance and in the Red Zone. The Ravens defensive line disrupts the pocket, forcing a poor Brady throw into double coverage after hitting him, and Eric Weddle has no trouble intercepting the pass.
Throughout his career, Tom Brady has been susceptible to pressure, as his immobility often forces him into bad decisions or throws when the opposition manages to get a hand on him – or hit him. The problem is that it is rare for a team to get consistent pressure against an offense that is built almost entirely on the ability of the quarterback to release the ball quickly. Thankfully, the Dolphins have Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh who are both special players that can take over a game a la Von Miller in last year’s AFC championship. However, as good as these two and the Dolphins’ defensive line as a whole are, New England will be ready for them. The Dolphins’ run defense is among the league’s worst, and New England will look to soften up the pass rush by running it up the gut with Blount, tiring out Miami’s best pass rushers. Whatever the case, if Brady has time and his jersey remains clean, we might as well pencil in an “L” in the win column.
The Dolphins must also limit the damage of New England’s talented running backs and Martellus Bennett in order to remain competitive defensively. James White and Dion Lewis are a menace in the receiving game in the same way that LeGarrette Blount is a juggernaut in the ground game. The Dolphins’ long-talked about lack of athleticism at the linebacker position has been the defense’s weakness all year, as the unit (outside of Kiko Alonso) has been abysmal in coverage. Martellus Bennett gashed the unit in Week 2 en route to a 122 yard performance, including this unacceptable touchdown on a breakdown in coverage:
It would be a miracle for this linebacker corps to even slow down Belichick’s squad, but hopefully they can stop the bleeding and give the rest of the defense a chance to make a play or two.
Finally, the only real weakness on the Patriots lies within their receiver corps. Though Julian Edelman is among the league’s best slot receivers, Chris Hogan is the NFL’s most efficient deep threat at 19.2 yards per catch and rookie Malcom Mitchell has been impressive, the Patriots’ wide receivers lack ball security:
The offensive system is partially to blame, as short inside routes that leave the receivers open to big hits are the Patriots’ bread and butter. But, their lack of size is equally at fault. Between Hogan, Amendola and Edelman, the team has suffered 7 fumbles. If Byron Maxwell can continue his trend of forcing fumbles, perhaps the Dolphins can get a cheap turnover to work with:
Whatever the game plan is, it is imperative that the coaching staff on both sides of the ball remain focused and adapt to what the Patriots give them. If the players or coaches become intimidated by Bill Belichick and company, it will not be pretty at Hard Rock this upcoming Sunday. However, Adam Gase has showed that this team can pull off close victories in the face of long odds. Personally, I’m ready to watch him do it again.