We are about to witness an NFL opening weekend unlike any other over the last century.
For the first time since 1926, the league held zero preseason games this summer, meaning this is our first look at both the Patriots and Dolphins after an offseason of significant roster turnover.
The uncertainty for these two teams as they incorporate new pieces on both sides of the ball gives this year’s season-opener for Bill Belichick a unique flavor; nobody knows what to expect heading into Sunday’s action.
Although Belichick downplayed the impact of no preseason, comparing the NFL’s restart to high school and college football, the Pats head coach did acknowledge a feeling out process.
“This is what every college and high school team does. This is football. You practice, and then you have an opening game. There are no preseason games in college or high school,” Belichick said.
“I’m certain there’s going to be a lot of adjustments within the game as things start to unfold, we’ll know a lot more at the end of the first quarter than we could possibly know now, but we’ll just have to see how that goes,” he added.
The Patriots will need to wait and see what new Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has in store and adapt to a new-look Miami defense that includes several former Patriots.
However, that pales in comparison to what the rest of the league will witness for the first time when quarterback Cam Newton makes his first start for the Patriots on Sunday.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Newton himself spoke candidly all summer about the adaptations to the offense that are underway with a mobile QB under center.
Based on 12 training camp practices, we can guesstimate what things will look like offensively for New England come Sunday. Still, there’s no way of knowing until we see it in action.
Newton’s short time with the team has received glowing reviews both publicly and privately, but all the discussions about positive energy and swagger now need to lead to results on the field.
Sure, it’s nice that Newton brought a welcomed attitude change to the locker room, especially after a moody Tom Brady walked the halls in 2019. But ultimately, winning is all that matters.
Below, we’ll create a game plan for the Patriots on offense and defense to take down the Dolphins in Sunday’s season-opening game of New England’s 2020 season:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots’ coaching staff hasn’t shied away from telling us publicly that the offense will highlight Newton’s mobility. However, how often they’ll allow him to run remains in question.
“I’ve never had to answer that question,” Pats OC Josh McDaniels told CLNS Media on how often he wants Newton to carry the football.
“We’ll be smart with a lot of those different things. In Cam’s case, he’s very good in terms of communication about where he’s at, his body, and those types of things. I’m sure we’ll do a good job of monitoring that.”
Great example of how just the threat of Cam as a runner can lead to big plays on the ground. #Bengals scrape exchange to defend zone read. Non-mobile QB, no. 59 is filling the B-gap to meet McCaffrey in the hole (🔊 on). #Patriots RBs should be pumped about Cam.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) July 1, 2020
As we’ve documented in the past, just the threat of Newton taking off, especially on read-option plays, will give the Pats offense a numbers advantage that they haven’t had in the past.
Newton is the most dynamic ball carrier on the roster, the best short-yardage rusher on the team, and putting defenders in conflict is a great way to attack Miami’s scheme.
During their time with the Patriots, running backs Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, and James White are below-average red-zone rushers, especially compared to Newton’s short-yardage output.
Michel, who has by far the most carries out of the Pats RBs in the red zone, ranks 78th in rushing success rate in the red zone since entering the league in 2018 (42.5).
For comparison, Newton had a 55.9 success rate on red-zone rushes in 2018, while Carolina was 18th in short-yardage production with the Pats at 28th in the league since 2018.
And finally, Cam’s RZ carries by season pic.twitter.com/90XeqCTjpI
— Josh Hermsmeyer (@friscojosh) September 8, 2020
As Newton ages, he unsurprisingly carried the ball less in the red zone with the Panthers each season. But he’s easily New England’s best bet for converting short-yardage and goal-line runs.
Furthermore, Miami’s man-heavy coverage system and Brian Flores’s love for big run-stuffing DTs in a 3-4 defensive front, much like his mentor, Belichick, is vulnerable to certain read-option schemes.
In 2019, the Dolphins played the fourth-most snaps in man coverage as Belichick and his disciples make up three of the top four spots (1. Lions 2. Patriots 3. Ravens 4. Dolphins).
With the defense in man coverage, the offense can take advantage by running the football on early-downs with multiple defenders occupied by their man coverage assignments rather than reacting instantly to the ball.
In their last matchup, the Pats successfully ran the ball against the Dolphins, adding 3.89 EPA on 27 carries, which was nearly a full point higher than what they got by throwing.
Flores loaded the box with three interior defenders between the tackles, trying to force the Patriots rushing attack outside where their slower backs would struggle to turn the corner.
New England countered by running a heavy dosage of power and counter runs often with misdirection aimed to thrive on Miami’s two-gapping rules upfront, and it worked.
With Newton, the Patriots can add an option element to their gap concepts, and things could look very similar to the beatdown the Baltimore Ravens gave the Pats last November.
Instead of running the more popular zone-read concepts, the Ravens knew they needed to get vertical runs up the middle against a two-gapping front rather than attack the edge.
In a two-gapping system, the defense wants to flow with the direction of the blockers and contain the ball carrier until the backside pursuit makes the play, a zone-read beater.
Here’s an example of Baltimore running its “wrap read” scheme, which puts the play-side defensive end in conflict rather than an edge defender, which isn’t a normal position to be in as a defensive lineman. In this case, Lamar is reading Adam Butler, who starts over the left tackle. When Butler stays outside, Jackson hands the ball off to Ingram, who has a lead blocker to take Hightower in the hole and rips off a big gain.
Against the Patriots, 61 percent of Baltimore’s rushing yards came right up the middle of New England’s defense. On the play above, the Ravens call a “wrap read” again and turn defensive tackle Lawrence Guy into the read man for Jackson. Guy crashes inside, and Jackson keeps it for a huge gain. With Miami running a similar run defense, these plays should work for the Pats now with Newton in the Jackson role.
We’ll get into how the Patriots can attack Miami’s improved secondary in the key matchups section, but this is an excellent first opponent to establish their new-look rushing attack with Newton.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
After a long offseason thinking about what could’ve been, the Patriots’ secondary has a chance for revenge against Ryan Fitzpatrick, DeVante Parker, and company.
The Dolphins’ victory in Week 17, paced by 340 passing yards by Fitzpatrick, forced the Pats to play on Wild Card weekend and effectively ended the Brady era.
Although there’s some uncertainty with new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, Gailey’s roots suggest that Miami will often air it out this season with three or more receivers on the field.
Gailey likes to throw the ball, but he also features a zone-heavy rushing attack that uses misdirection from the blockers’ movement upfront to get the defense out of sorts.
Last season, Flores and the Dolphins used their institutional knowledge of New England’s coverage system to attack the Pats’ man coverages on quick-hitters over the middle.
(via Pro Football Focus)
Fitzpatrick went 13-of-17 for 106 passing yards on throws over the short middle part of the field. According to Pro Football Focus, 40 percent of Fitzpatrick’s throws were on either slants, in-cuts, or crossing routes to take advantage of the Patriots’ divider leverage principles.
Fitzpatrick only threw for 91 yards on those plays, but he went 12-of-16 on quick in-breaking routes with six first downs as Miami used short passes to stay ahead of the chains.
The audio breakdown above explains how the Dolphins knew the Patriots’ defensive backs would have inside help at the sticks and deep in their Cover-1 structures. With two safeties playing off the line, seven defenders in coverage left the Pats with a four-man pass rush and no defenders dropping to the low hole; the short-middle was wide open all day.
Assuming Miami will at least test the Pats early in a similar way, New England can avoid another loss by either using a low hole player or match principles to jump those quick hitters.
Here’s an example of a simulated pressure where Dont’a Hightower drops off the edge into the low hole. Hightower starts on the line over the right tackle, but bluffs his rush and drops into a short zone, falling underneath Terry McLaurin’s route for a near-interception. When Hightower drops, Ja’Whaun Bentley blitzes up the middle to replace him in the rush, forcing the left guard to react to Bentley rather than providing inside help to the left tackle. As a result, Deatrich Wise slips through the line and puts pressure on the quarterback, forcing a bad throw.
Disguised drops like that are challenging, so maybe the Pats rookie linebackers won’t get into those complexities yet. Still, having them fall underneath slants and crossers should take away those opportunities for Fitzpatrick.
Another idea for Bill Belichick’s defense is to utilize their match coverage principles where primary defenders can fall off with an “under” call, and zone defenders can jump those receivers.
In match coverage, defenders carry vertical routes like its man coverage when the receiver doesn’t break in the first ten yards of his route. However, if it’s a quick breaking route, the defense will make an “under” call, and the zone defenders in the middle of the field will jump those short routes while the primary defender replaces them in their zones.
The best way to understand match principles is by seeing them in action. In this example, Jason McCourty and Duron Harmon perfectly execute a “one-cross” call. At the bottom of the screen, McCourty lets his man go knowing that Harmon will cut the shallow crosser. From there, McCourty “robots” back to the middle of the field, taking Harmon’s initial responsibility, falling underneath the second in-cut coming from the opposite side of the formation. By perfectly passing off the in-breaking routes, the defense forces Big Ben to throw deep down the sideline where JC Jackson has excellent coverage on JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Patriots defense went through significant roster turnover in the front seven. It’ll be interesting to see how much scheming in the pass rush they’ll do with inexperienced players in their system.
Things like their cover-zero blitzes, simulated pressures, the amoeba defense, and complex line stunts that take sometimes years of repetitions to execute might be on the back burner.
There’s always the Belichick effect, though. He could have his young and new linebackers fully prepared despite the changeover in personnel and zero preseason games.
Even for the GOAT, you have to think it’ll take some time before they’re spinning the wheel as they did over the last two seasons.
1. Stephon Gilmore vs. DeVante Parker: the reigning Defensive Player of the Year had one blemish on a perfect season, and it came against Parker in Week 17. Studying those targets again, Gilmore was in decent position on all of Parker’s catches but got beat several times at the catch point by a great jump-ball receiver. Gilmore shadowed Parker on 86 percent of his routes in Week 17 but spent the first matchup last September mostly on Preston Williams. One would expect that Gilmore wants another run at Parker, but Belichick might put him on an island against Williams while rotating the coverage towards Parker. The old shut down the #2 while the rest of the defense focuses on the #1 option.
2. N’Keal Harry vs. Byron Jones: Harry will most likely begin his redemption tour by facing Miami’s splash free-agent signing, Byron Jones. Harry and Jones went toe-to-toe last season when the Pats played the Cowboys, with Harry catching his first career touchdown on a back-shoulder throw against Jones. However, that was Harry’s only catch of the day on four targets with Jones guarding him. Harry is hopeful that his release work this offseason will help him create more opportunities down the field to use his size and catch radius to win in contested situations. Jones is a nice first test for the Pats young wideout.
3. Pats WR3 vs. Dolphins CB3: we don’t know who will be in these spots just yet, but it’s a good bet that Jones will have Harry while Pro Bowler Xavien Howard travels with Edelman. If that is the case, it’ll be up to Gunner Olszewski, Damiere Byrd, or Jakobi Meyers to take advantage of a weak third cornerback spot for the Dolphins. It’ll either be rookie Noah Igbinoghene or UDFA find Nik Needham for Miami. Igbinoghene seems like a rookie the Pats will want to attack as he hasn’t had the reps in the preseason to work on his raw technique. Igbinoghene has upside and plays the ball well downfield, but he’s a bit grabby and stiff at the break point.
4. Pats TEs vs. Eric Rowe: there’s a theme when it comes to attacking Miami’s secondary, and it’s in the middle of the field. They’ll have an inexperienced slot corner while relying on converted cornerback and former Patriot Eric Rowe to shut down tight ends this season. The Pats beat-up Rowe in the running game in their last matchup with Miami, and he also allowed a nearly 60 percent completion rate into his coverage in 2019. We know the Eric Rowe experience, and it can be shaky, especially when he’s having a bad day.
5. Shaq Mason vs. Christian Wilkins: we have to give you one battle in the trenches, as is tradition. Mason going up against 2019 first-round pick Christian Wilkins will be a fun one. The Pats right guard had a better season than the narratives suggested a year ago, and Wilkins is slowly living up to his draft position. Wilkins is a stout lineman with rare fluidity for a man of his size, and the same can be said for Mason. This should be a good battle.
6. Jermaine Elueumunor vs. Kyle Van Noy: we don’t know yet if Van Noy will rush over the left or right tackle in Miami, but he was predominantly over the right side in New England. Van Noy is an extremely stout edge setter, a smart football player, and makes tackles respect his ability to turn the corner as a pusher. For Eluemunor, this will be a good first test as the Pats’ starting right tackle.