The Miami Dolphins and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa have been an Achilles Heel of sorts for the Patriots over the last two seasons.
Heading into Sunday's regular-season opener, Tagovailoa is the first quarterback in NFL history to start a perfect 3-0 against head coach Bill Belichick. Although Miami's defense and the institutional knowledge that former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores had about New England's operation was also a significant factor, Tua's style of play has given the Pats defense problems.
In the three previous contests, Tagovailoa's mastery of the quick passing game and run-pass options (RPOs) have made him a difficult matchup for the Patriots.
The Dolphins quarterback has averaged just 6.3 air yards per pass attempt in his three victories as the starter against Belichick, which would've ranked dead-last among 35 qualified quarterbacks for air distance per pass. In other words, the ball is not traveling very far.
Instead, Miami's offense has moved the ball against the Patriots with a variety of quick passes, mainly RPOs, where Tua's numbers are fantastic.
Tagovailoa was 11-of-17 for 138 yards (8.1 average), and a 109.4 passer rating on RPO passes in two wins over the Patriots last season, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Although the Dolphins offense is under new leadership in head coach Mike McDaniel, and the focus is on how the addition of Tyreek Hill will open up Miami's deep passing game, finally finding an answer to the short game would go a long way toward a victory for the Patriots on Sunday.
In all likelihood, McDaniel will still feature the quick-game and RPO plays prominently. Last season, 49ers starter Jimmy Garoppolo finished with 38 RPO plays, ranking 13th, so it is something that the Shanahan tree has in their arsenal.
"They use all their players, receivers, tight ends whether it's [George] Kittle or whoever as part of the running game, or RPO, which is kind of an extended – it's a pass play – but it's kind of an extended part of the running game. Outside screens, bubble passes, and things like that," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week.
The RPOs and quick-game concepts challenge defenders in the box by putting them in constant run-pass conflicts. For example, if the defense is playing zone coverage, second-level defenders must read the run or pass to drop into zones over the middle or step up to play the run.
With the quarterback making a post-snap decision based on the defense's movement, it's difficult for the linebackers to have the correct answer; play pass, and the QB hands it off. Play run and Tua will throw the ball.
Due to the heavy stress RPOs put on zone coverages, most defensive coaches will play man coverage against option plays. The idea is that the man coverage defenders cover the receivers while the defenders in the front seven worry about the run, presenting fewer conflicts.
The Patriots spent the offseason trying to get more speed on the field defensively. Linebacker additions such as Mack Wilson, the return of Raekwon McMillan, and building out their safety depth with Jabrill Peppers were moves made to bring more sideline-to-sideline explosiveness.
New England's adapted approach will be tested immediately with a matchup right out of the gate against an offense that stretches the field horizontally and stresses defenses with speed.