The Patriots completed the first step with their get-right playoff-clinching blowout over the Jaguars last week, but there’s still plenty of work to do.
New England is in the dance, and although they’ll need some help from unlikely sources to improve their seeding, Bill Belichick isn’t focused on resting up for Wild Card weekend.
The focus now turns to sharpening execution in the regular-season finale.
“Try to just stay on track with what we’ve been doing. I think when we had good weeks of preparation, practice, energy into the game, mindset, however all that comes together, we’ve been a lot better than when we haven’t. We’re going to just try to build that consistency,” Belichick told reporters on Wednesday.
“It’ll be a good opportunity for us to try and hone in on our fundamentals, our execution, and our communication. Worry about next week, next week.”
The Patriots’ head coach recognizes something we all see with this team: they play well and usually win when they’re fully bought into the task at hand. As a result, letting the foot off the gas and treating the season-finale as a bye week would be a mistake.
Belichick also mentioned that the Dolphins are a familiar opponent. He didn’t say it directly but alluded to playing Miami as a great tune-up game in the final dress rehearsal.
Miami’s playoff hopes were shattered when they let go of the rope against the Titans, ending a seven-game winning streak last week that saw them recover from a 1-7 start.
However, from both personnel and schematic standpoints, Brian Flores’s defense is as good a unit as the Patriots will face the rest of the way. Flores runs a pressure-based scheme that majors in man coverage with two elite cover corners, so the Pats will see plenty of press-man and man blitzes in Sunday’s finale.
The Dolphins have faced the sixth-most pass attempts in cover one man structures and have the second-highest cover zero (7.1%) and blitz rate (39.8%) in the NFL this season.
Here, Miami plays press-man free (cover one) with a five-man pass rush, which gets Ryan Tannehill to slide the offensive line to the blitz threats on the right side of the formation. The protection slide leaves the running back one-on-one with linebacker Jerome Baker, and with no initial separation for his receivers, Tannehill is sacked.
Flores might prefer to commit numbers to the pass rush rather than bracketing any of the Pats’ pass catchers, but if he so chooses, Miami also plays man coverage with a cover-7 call where they’ll use a deep safety to bracket the slot. In this case, the double-team goes to A.J. Brown.
Since Flores, like Belichick, doesn’t play much two-man as the Bills did in Week 16. Cover-7 might be Flores’ way of leveraging in-breaking routes on third down in a similar vein to two-man.
Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones’s numbers against man coverage are better than you might expect (fourth in EPA per play), but the Bills’ blueprint in Week 16 is looming come playoff time.
Against the blitz, Jones has faced the second-most blitzed drop-backs of any quarterback in 2021, and his passer rating is only 18th out of 30 qualified quarterbacks (87.9).
Jones and the Pats offense ought to use Sunday’s game as a warm-up for the likely game plan they’ll see next week from whoever they draw in the first round: man coverage and pressure.
Tennessee gave the Patriots a starting point by hanging 34 points on the Miami defense a week ago, the most the Dolphins allowed in a game since they played Tom Brady back in Week 5.
The Titans ran the football against Miami, who is 20th in expected points allowed per rush and had issues with Tennessee’s outside zone schemes.
Although the Patriots aren’t big on outside zone, the main target in the running game for Tennessee was old friend Elandon Roberts, who is the MIKE linebacker for Miami. Roberts is often one of the only players at the second level of the defense, so move him out of the gap, and big runs present themselves.
On this wildcat run with D’Onta Foreman, the Titans ran a counter scheme with the tight end coming across the formation to kick out the unblocked end. Foreman catches Roberts over pursuing to the pullers and cuts it back inside to a massive hole for a long gainer.
When the Titans threw the ball, they used play-action to hold the linebacker level from dropping in the way of in-breaking routes. A.J. Brown runs the inside dig route in the double-dig concept above, and with the corner out-leveraged, there’s no help defender to close off the middle of the field.
New England loves double dig and will attack out-leveraged defenders. They’ll also try to open the middle of the field with their backs flaring into the flats and present single coverage to Jones between the numbers.
But what if the Dolphins break their tendency and play inside leverage on the receivers as Buffalo did in Week 16?
In that case, the Pats need to prepare themselves for the playoffs by trusting Jones and his pass-catchers to win on out-breaking routes towards the sideline. Above, Jakobi Meyers recognizes the corner sitting inside him at the snap and runs a pivot route away from leverage.
The Titans also gave the Patriots some good tips on beating Miami’s pressure package.
Tennessee protected Tannehill against a 78.9% blitz rate by moving the pocket when Miami threatened to dial up all-out pressure.
Here, the Dolphins line up in a zero pressure look, so Tannehill checks into a running back screen. He moves back and to his right at the snap to suck in the pressure and buy himself more time to throw, then throws over the blitz to the wide-open back for a huge gain.
Miami sends a safety blitz off the right edge at Tannehill in this play. The Titans move the pocket in the opposite direction and give him a quick out past the sticks to move the chains.
After blitzing Tannehill all game, and coming after Mac 21 times in the opener, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs to give Jones problem-solving tools to beat the blitz.
If the Patriots can find ways to move the ball against the Dolphins’ defense, they’ll be in good shape heading into the postseason.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Although it feels like a lifetime ago, the Patriots’ defense didn’t get off to the start they wanted when they made life way too easy on Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins offense back in Week 1.
Ultimately, New England’s defense only allowed 17 points to Miami, and the whole team was a Damien Harris fumble on the Pats’ final possession away from a win back in September.
Still, we all remember Tua going five-of-nine for 68 yards on RPO concepts and slant-routing the Patriots defense to death in critical situations (three completions, 40 yards on slants).
Dolphins co-offensive coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville lead the league in RPO pass attempts, with 83 of them this season.
Looking back at the film from Week 1, the first mistake the Patriots made against Miami’s RPO package was playing off the line of scrimmage in cover three zone. As shown above, that gave Miami’s speedy skill players such as Jaylen Waddle too much cushion and YAC.
For a more recent example, the Giants succumbed similarly to RPO slant/flat combos just a few weeks ago by playing soft zone against them.
Expect aggressive man coverage and two-deep zones to combat the RPO and quick-game concepts that are the foundation of Miami’s offense.
Despite having downfield threats in Waddle and DeVante Parker, Tua is one of the worst passers in the NFL beyond ten air yards with only one touchdown pass on 97 throws.
Although it’s easier said than done with Miami’s scheme, making Tua hold the ball and make downfield throws later in the down yields great results for the defense. As the chart above shows, Tagovailoa is simply not a good passer when he isn’t getting the ball out quickly, and his turnover-worthy play rate on throws over 2.5 seconds is the second-highest among 32 qualified quarterbacks this season (8.2%).
Playing press-man or cover-two will allow the Pats to flood the field with short zones or smother shorter routes, basically the opposite of what they did in Week 1, forcing Tua to hold the ball and beat them deep.
Even in one of his best games of the season against the Giants, Tua was bouncing downfield throws to his receivers beyond ten yards, especially when his feet weren’t set due to pressure.
Plus, the weakness in the Dolphins’ offense is their offensive line, which takes the majority of the blame for Miami’s inability to run vertical passing concepts.
Miami is 32nd in PFF pass-blocking grade and ESPN’s pass-block win rate. In particular, we saw them struggle with picking up different stunt schemes by defensive fronts on the film.
The matchups with Waddle and Parker are scary, but our money is on the fact that Tua isn’t going to consistently beat the Patriots down the field or get the protection he needs to do so.
1. The Entire Pats Defense vs. Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle
The entire defense needs to be locked in on Waddle, who will likely set a new rookie record for receptions. The Dolphins use Waddle in various ways, from motion play, decoy motions, underneath routes that lead to YAC, and over the top on verticals. If the Pats play man, it wouldn’t surprise me if Waddle gets bracketed by Jalen Mills and a safety with J.C. Jackson on Parker. They need multiple defenders around Waddle at all times.
2. Pats DT Christian Barmore vs. Dolphins LG Austin Jackson
Several matchups favor the Pats’ defensive front against Miami’s O-Line. But without knowing Judon’s workload, let’s go with Barmore vs. their weakest IOL in Jackson. Tua isn’t the tallest quarterback either, so pressure up the middle even by getting hands in passing lanes will be a factor this week.
3. Pats WR Nelson Agholor vs. Dolphins CBs Xavien Howard & Byron Jones
Assuming that Agholor returns, I’m interested to see how much his return factors into opening up the passing game against a good secondary. Even if Agholor isn’t targeted, does he draw the top cover guys and even safety help over the top? The Pats need a field-stretcher who makes it easier to access the intermediate areas of the field. Hopefully, Agholor is the answer.