As the Patriots make their final preparations for Sunday’s critical matchup with the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium, Bill Belichick’s team has a *bleep* ton of things to fix to avoid falling to 1-3 on the season.
Although the Patriots have to correct their own mistakes first, the Dolphins offense presents a tough challenge for the Patriots defense.
The Dolphins averaged 25.0 points per game through the first three weeks of the season and currently sit in eighth offensively in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
And their style of play has given the Patriots defense problems in the past.
The Dolphins offense runs a heavy dosage of run-pass options, going with an RPO look on 19.9 percent of their plays on offense, which is ten percent over the league average according to Pro Football Focus.
And they also run a variety of zone-read actions which gives quarterback Ryan Tannehill the option to hand the ball off to the running back or keep it himself on a quarterback run.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty told me that the RPOs, “stress to take away from you having a gang tackle or having a two-on-one in the passing game…it creates a lot of one-on-one matchups.”
And head coach Bill Belichick talked about how the Miami offense asks Tannehill to make decisions at the line of scrimmage based on what the defense does.
“Whoever has the least guys around him or however the play is read, the quarterback makes a decision to get the ball to the guy who has the best opportunity, and he does an excellent job of that, and they have a lot of good skill players,” Belichick said.
The Patriots will have their hands full with the creative play calling and elusive ball carriers on the Dolphins offense.
Below, I will go through a few of Miami’s favorite schemes that the Patriots will see on Sunday, and discuss how the Patriots can stop them:
Over the last few seasons, the run-pass option has destroyed the Patriots defense.
Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said that, by nature, the RPO messes with the defenses assignments leaving them in a difficult situation.
“In the run game, that may be your gap. But in the passing game, that may be your man or zone. So if you take the man, they’re going to hand the ball off, if you take the gap they’re going to throw it.”
The Raiders found themselves in this conundrum last week against Tannehill and the Dolphins. One of Miami’s favorite RPO schemes is to run slot receiver Danny Amendola on a slant route over the middle from the weak side of the formation while Tannehill makes the read in the backfield.
On this play, the Dolphins linebackers fill their run responsibilities which leaves nobody underneath to get in Tannehill’s throwing lane to Amendola. Miami ran this scheme a few times against Oakland, and picked up huge gains and gave Amendola a chance to run after the catch.
The Dolphins will also catch you in RPO situations by throwing quick passes to the perimeter when teams play off-coverage against their wide receivers. Teams often play off the line of scrimmage against the speedy Kenny Stills, and Tannehill makes an excellent read here to pick up six yards on first down.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said that the key to stopping the RPO is patience.
“You try to start reading it quickly and reading it too fast, and you read it wrong, then it really hurts you,” McCourty said.
McCourty then added, “we always say the run guys gotta play the run and the guys that are there for the pass in that situation gotta play pass.”
The Patriots captain stressed the importance of everyone doing their job to defend the RPO, in that, depending on the call, you cannot try to play both the run and the pass, but instead, play your assignment on any given play.
In the past, the New England defense has struggled with overcommitting to the run or the pass in RPO situations, as players try to make splash plays rather than sticking to their responsibilities.
On Sunday, they’ll have to do a better job of playing team defense against the Dolphins.
NOTE: If you’re wondering how you can tell the difference between an RPO and a play-action pass, watch the offensive line on the previous two plays. Four of the five offensive linemen for Miami run block on the play, but the tackles (RT on first play, LT on second play) go into a pass set. That’s what tells you this is indeed an RPO.
Another element of the Dolphins offense that involves Tannehill reading the defenses movements at the snap is the zone-read.
The zone-read is different from an RPO in that it’s a run the entire way, but it gives the quarterback the option to either hand the ball off to the running back or keep it himself based on how the defense reacts.
Belichick gave a detailed response during his Friday press conference to describe the zone-read:
“In the read-zone plays, if you close down and take the running back, then the quarterback is going to keep the ball. If you don’t, then he’s going to hand it off. There are plays that are discretionary in one way or another to the quarterback or the quarterbacks line of scrimmage procedure that they don’t even know who’s going to get the ball until something happens, which is a good way of doing things.”
The Dolphins’ zone-read schemes are even more effective because quarterback Ryan Tannehill can make defenses pay with his legs as well as his arm.
On this play, Tannehill correctly reads the Jets front as the defensive end to Tannehill’s left collapses to take the running back which leaves the edge wide open for Tannehill to take off. Gase also throws in a kick-out block by the tight end to give Tannehill a lead-blocker on the play, and Tannehill gains 18 yards.
Belichick had a lot of praise for Tannehill’s ability to beat you with his legs saying, “they use him on quarterback-running plays, read-zone plays, things like that, bootlegs, moving-pocket plays… Instead of covering five receivers, you’ve really got to cover six because you’ve got to deal with him.”
The Patriots will have to be ready for Tannehill’s running ability, something they weren’t able to defend in Jacksonville with a similarly mobile quarterback in Blake Bortles.
Finally, the Dolphins also like to use their receivers on jet sweeps, but this season they’ve added the “tap pass” to these schemes to get their playmakers on the perimeter faster than a handoff.
Last week, two of Miami’s touchdowns came on jet sweep actions, one to the versatile Jakeem Grant and another to wide receiver Albert Wilson.
So far this season, Wilson leads the NFL averaging a ridiculous 18 yards after the catch per reception, and Grant also ranks in the top ten with a 9.8 average (min. 10 targets).
Against the Raiders, Wilson sealed the victory with a 74-yard “reception” on a tap pass. As you can see, Oakland gets caught with too many players on the perimeter. Their linebackers overrun the play, and that causes them to almost stack on top of each other, which opens a massive running lane for Wilson.
On how to slow down the Dolphins big-play offense, Belichick said, “if you’re outside, you’ve got to be outside. If you’re inside, you’ve got to be inside. As soon as you put too many players in one spot they go somewhere else. That’s the way those 50, 60, 80-yarders come from. Discipline, tackling, leverage – those are all critical.”
The Dolphins offense, in theory, is a worst-case scenario for the Patriots defense.
They’re fast, they run a read-based system that creates a lot of one-on-one matchups, and they have the playmakers and quarterback to execute the schemes to a tee.
However, as always in football, you can have all the schemes and talent in the world, but ultimately it comes down to which team executes the best on Sunday’s.
The Patriots defense sounds prepared for all the things Miami will throw at them this week, but now they have to walk-the-walk after talking-the-talk.
And that’s a good way of summarizing all of the issues that have plagued this team over the last two weeks.
Whether it’s on the offensive or defensive side of the ball, the Patriots players and coaches said all the right things during the week, and they know where their issues are and have made the mental preparations to fix them.
The question now is can they physically correct the mistakes, or do they lack the talent and skill to execute on gameday?
We’ll find out on Sunday as they take on the Dolphins in what’s as close to a must-win as a Week 4 game can be.