Patriots Game Plan: Can Bill Belichick Continue to Dominate Against Rookie Quarterbacks?

The Patriots need to win out and then some over the last three games of the season to make the playoffs.

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The Patriots find themselves in unfamiliar territory on the outside looking in at the AFC playoff picture with three games to go. 

According to FiveThirtyEight, Bill Belichick’s team has a two percent chance to make the postseason with their 6-7 record putting them behind three teams in the AFC wild-card race. 

The Patriots are used to dominating the AFC East. But their next two opponents, the Dolphins, and Bills are building winners with potential franchise quarterbacks after years of incompetence. 

Belichick, of course, can catch up to Miami and Buffalo, but New England will be underdogs for the first time in 13 contests against the Dolphins when they kick off on Sunday afternoon. 

Former Patriots’ defensive play-caller Brian Flores’s Dolphins defense is 11th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric and is tied for the league-lead with 25 takeaways this season. 

Flores’s defensive philosophy, both in terms of scheme and team building, is almost identical to his mentor, with Miami leading the league in both man coverage and cover-zero percentage. 

Miami re-signed corner Xavien Howard, who leads the NFL in interceptions, to a lucrative extension, while also inking cornerback Byron Jones and former Pats linebacker Kyle Van Noy to big free-agent deals. 

With those moves, Flo has the cover corners and versatile pass-rushers to implement his scheme, and the Dolphins have the fifth-best pass defense in football by looking a lot like their division rivals up north.

There are flaws in the Dolphins’ run defense that the Patriots can expose if they have some semblance of a passing game. Miami is 23rd in rush defense DVOA. With Flores’s excellent pressure schemes and good personnel in the secondary, prepare for another run-heavy plan.

On the other side of the ball, rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is experiencing the growing pains of any young signal-caller but keeps the Dolphins competitive offensively. 

Although Tagovailoa is 4-2 as a starter with impressive stats, Belichick is 20-5 as the Patriots’ head coach against first-year quarterbacks, and Tua’s counting stats don’t tell the whole story. 

The fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft has eight turnover worthy plays to only one real interception and has only made four big-time throws since becoming the starter with a PFF grade that ranks 33rd out of 39 qualified quarterbacks. 

There’s a good chance based on his throws that Tagovailoa is still recovering from surgery on a significant hip injury that occurred in Alabama’s final regular-season game on November 16, 2019.

The Dolphins quarterback doesn’t have the biggest arms, but if it’s harder for him to torque his hips through his passes, that would explain a lot.

We see quarterbacks warming their hips up before games to get a snappy movement to generate velocity, which makes for some great fun on social media but actually has a science behind it.

The Dolphins are also dead-last in rushing average and 25th in rush DVOA, so a Rams-like strategy of running the football might be out. 

With all that said, it’s difficult to pick the Patriots in a game against an 8-5 team based on where they are in the standings and the state of their offense. 

Here’s a game plan for New England on both sides’ of the ball as Bill Belichick is determined to compete until the last whistle whether tanking is the best long-term strategy or not: 

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

Finding past tape that shows how Flores will approach the Pats offense this time around is difficult, seeing that New England’s passing attack is extremely limited. 

Last week, the Dolphins still played tight man coverage against the Chiefs but rotated into more two-high safety structures and aligned their post-safety over 20 yards off the ball. Unlikely. 

In their first matchup, Flores’s defense was unprepared for Cam Newton’s 15 rushing attempts and made it way too easy on the Pats with light boxes against a run-heavy offense. 

Although Flores should have his guys prepared for the rematch, Miami’s run defense is still struggling against the types of rushing attacks that resemble what the Patriots bring to the table. 

With an excellent pass defense and blitz package, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will try to run the ball regardless of Flores’s game plan on defense. 

Overall, the Dolphins’ run defense is 23rd in DVOA, and they’re allowing a league-high 5.9 yards per rush against blocking schemes with pullers, which are New England’s bread and butter. 

In Week 11, the Broncos ran for 189 yards at 5.7 yards per rush in their 20-13 win over Miami. 

Denver ran the football effectively by using long trap schemes, where the backside guard will pull to kick-out the edge defender while the frontside blockers work up to the second level. 

The Broncos ran out of the gun, spreading the defense out, but the Patriots will likely use fullback Jakob Johnson as another lead-blocker as they do in their trap plays. 

Along with their struggles against trap or power runs, the Dolphins are still having issues defending mobile quarterbacks, and more specifically, read-option designs. 

Arizona fell to the Dolphins in a 34-31 shutout back in Week 9, but Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray ran for 106 yards on 11 carries with a touchdown, most of which were on designed runs. 

Flores’s plan against Murray was to have his defensive ends, the read players, crash inside while an overhang or off-ball linebacker set the edge. The Cardinals combatted the strategy by using an extra tight end or motion blocks to account for the edge-setter, and Murray ran wild. 

Here, the Dolphins use Kyle Van Noy in an overhang role to set the edge, but the Cardinals use a tight end on the play-side to block him, and Murray goes untouched for 14 yards. 

Both the Cardinals and Broncos have passing attacks that are more formidable than what New England has to offer, but this is an impose your will type of game for the Pats offense. 

WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL 

Dolphins’ first-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will get a graduate-level course on Sunday afternoon from Bill Belichick. 

The rookie quarterback whisperer, who has the scheme and personnel to shut down Miami’s passing attack, hasn’t lost to a first-year quarterback since Geno Smith beat the Patriots in 2013.

The former Alabama quarterback makes some great anticipatory throw, shows good poise against pressure, and is typically very accurate. But his decision making and processing lead to mistakes. 

Although he only has one interception in six starts, Tagovailoa has benefited from numerous dropped interceptions, and as we mentioned, has eight turnover worthy plays this year. 

New offensive coordinator Chan Gailey is designing the offense to resemble the system Tua played in at Alabama. Quick throws off RPOs, moving pockets, and most of all, concepts where Tagovailoa can anticipate open receivers and throw off leverage with solid ball placement. 

Here, the Dolphins use a bunch formation to Tua’s left where the Chiefs lock into man coverage on the point man and then play inside-out on the outside receivers. The two Chiefs defenders don’t know how to treat the vertical route, and Tua takes advantage of the hesitation by throwing before his receiver gets out of the break on the deep out. Plus, he stands in there against an overload blitz, showing off that poise in the pocket.

However, as Belichick will try to do on Sunday, the Chiefs confused Tagovailoa plenty with post-snap coverage rotations to force turnover worthy throws or missed reads that led to sacks. 

The Dolphins offensive line is also still on the weaker end of the spectrum ranking tied for 16th in pass-blocking efficiency and 25th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted-line yards in run blocking.

Miami starts three rookies on the offensive line, and Tagovailoa has taken 14 sacks with a 42.2 PFF grade while under pressure.

On this play, Kansas City switches their safeties at the snap to rotate the defender in the box to a post-safety alignment while the original post-safety inserts into an underneath zone. Since Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen starts in the crosser window, Tua thinks tight end Mike Gesicki is covered, but the rotation actually opens Gesicki up if Tagovailoa stays on his tight end. Instead, Tua looks to go elsewhere, and when there are no other options, he’s sacked for a safety. 

Here’s another example where the post-snap safety rotation gets Tua to make a bad decision. Before the snap, the defense is showing a single-high structure and then rotates into cover-two. Tagovailoa thinks he has the answer for a cover-two structure with a corner route to his left, but the running backs release doesn’t influence the squatting corner to come down far enough to open the passing window, and Tua is nearly intercepted trying to throw into the cover-two hole. 

One more piece of evidence has Tua thinking he’ll throw to the deep over route against a single-structure, then Chiefs rotates into a two-high defense. Still, the over route takes the middle of the field coverage away from the backside slant underneath, but Tua doesn’t see it, and takes the sack. There was also an open check-down for the rookie in the left flat. 

The Patriots completely shut down Chargers rookie Justin Herbert by changing the picture on the first-year quarterback after the snap as the Chiefs did against Tagovailoa last week. 

Herbert is playing better football than Tua. With the Dolphins’ injuries to Gesicki and wide receiver DeVante Parker, Miami’s attack is more limited than what the Chargers put out there. 

New England has the tools and brains to make Tagovailoa the latest rookie quarterback to struggle against Belichick, but with their playoff hopes waning, the effort must be there. 

KEY MATCHUPS 

1. Patriots D-Line vs. Dolphins O-Line: Miami has no running backs worth writing home about, especially with starter Myles Gaskins on the COVID list. The Dolphins are also starting three rookies on their offensive line. Although their group is better than recent seasons, it’s far from fixed in Miami. Still, after the Patriots got run over by the Rams, and with Belichick’s schemes against Tagovailoa likely to work, it’ll be on the Pats’ defensive line to make sure a bad Dolphins rushing attack remains lousy. 

2. Pats Wide Receivers vs. Dolphins Cornerbacks: the Patriots will likely go with a run-heavy game plan offense, as we mentioned previously, but I’m still fascinated to see how the Pats’ group of wide receivers fairs against some great corners. Can Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, and N’Keal Harry make plays against Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, and Nik Needham? If they can, that’ll go a long way to silencing very loud critics of Cam Newton and his weapons. 

3. Stephon Gilmore vs. DeVante Parker: Parker is dealing with a hamstring pull that forced him to leave the game against the Chiefs and was limited all week in practice, but if he plays, we’ll get another showdown between these two. Parker’s high-point skills gave Gilmore problems in their last two matchups. Although, Gilmore’s had his fair share of wins against Parker too. 

4. Jonathan Jones vs. Lynn Bowden: with Miami’s injuries at wide receiver, Bowden is becoming a go-to weapon for Tua. He’s got great versatility as a guy that played both slot receiver, running back, and wildcat quarterback in college. The Dolphins will move him around and look for opportunities to get the ball in his hands. Look for Jones to run around with him, one of the Patriots’ fastest and surest open-field tacklers. 

5. Patriots Special Teams vs. Dolphins Special Teams: a classic strength-on-strength matchup here. The Pats have the top-ranked special teams unit in the NFL based on DVOA, while Miami is at number three. Return man Jakeem Grant is a good one. We got a chess match in the kicking game on Sunday. 

Stats provided by Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions