The Patriots defense began the season on a positive note with an impressive performance against a high-powered Eagles offense last Sunday.
It was a good day all around for New England's defense, which also got encouraging showings from top draft picks Christian Gonzalez (PBU/sack on 100% of snaps) and pass-rusher Keion White (four QB pressures) in their first career regular-season outings – there's reason to be overly bullish on the defense moving forward.
After making life difficult on the defending NFC champs, the Patriots defense must keep its foot on the gas pedal to stay at top speed against the division-rival Miami Dolphins explosive offense in Week 2. With quarterback Tua Tagovailoa as the point guard and Tyreek Hill as arguably the toughest receiver to cover in the NFL, the Dolphins offense generated a whopping 17 plays of 15-plus yards en route to a 36-34 victory in a shootout with the Chargers last week. To put that in perspective, the next closest offense had ten such plays in Week 1 (San Francisco).
Under head coach Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins use as much motion and deception as any offense to create foot races for a loaded skill group led by Hill and speedy slot receiver Jaylen Waddle. McDaniel specializes in motion at the snap, giving receivers a rolling start as they release upfield. On seven plays utilizing the motions like the one above, Miami averaged 16.7 yards, with Hill often featured as the man in motion.
The Dolphins kill single-high man coverage with motion, misdirection, and isolating Hill and Waddle. Miami also dials up early-down shot plays from the Shanahan playbook to stress single-high structures with schemes that put post-safeties in conflict. Since Hill and McDaniel's arrival in the 2022 season, Tua is the NFL's top-ranked passer in expected points added against single-high coverage, which, of course, the Patriots major in under Belichick.
As they prepare for a critical early-season divisional clash in search of their first win, the game plan defensively will come down to how the Patriots adjust their coverages to account for one of the league's most explosive passing attacks. Luckily, we have two game films from last season and several matchups against Tyreek Hill to draw inspiration.
THE EVOLUTION OF HILL VS. BELICHICK AND THE JON JONES EFFECT
The first two times the Patriots defense went head-to-head against the four-time All-Pro receiver, Hill, and former quarterback Patrick Mahomes made their lives miserable.
As a member of the Chiefs, Hill recorded 14 catches for 275 receiving yards and four touchdowns in two regular-season matchups against Belichick, with a 133-yard (Week 1, 2017) and a 142-yard, three-touchdown masterclass in a 2018 regular-season shootout.
|Jon Jones vs. Tyreek Hill||Since 2018|
After watching Hill torch his defense, Belichick began crafting game plans around slowing down No. 10. Step one for Belichick was to put his fastest cornerback, Jonathan Jones, as the primary coverage defender on Hill to match speed on speed. Jones's coverage stats in past matchups are very favorable against the Dolphins wideout. In fact, Jones might be the best cornerback in the league at containing Hill, but he does it with help.
Starting in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, New England doubled Hill, using Jones as the primary defender with former safety Devin McCourty over the top. The plan limited Hill to one catch for 42 yards against former Pats DB Keion Crossen. After burning Crossen, the Pats immediately put Jones back in the game, and he and McCourty took Hill out.
Over the years, the Patriots plan has evolved against Hill due to other threats that either Kansas City (Travis Kelce) or now Miami (Waddle) has on the field. In other words, covering multiple threats is challenging when double-teaming one receiver on over 40 percent of the downs. Instead, the Patriots have gone to different cover-one calls to have inside help on the chain movers while still giving Jones post-safety help to make his job easier on Hill.
For example, New England is in a one-cross scheme here. With Hill and Waddle working inside the three-receiver side, Hill runs the seam while Waddle runs a crosser from the number three spot. As Waddle crosses, Myles Bryant passes off Waddle to safety Adrian Phillips, who cuts off the crosser, while Bryant replaces Phillips as the robber in the middle of the field. At the same time, Jones has post-safety help from McCourty on Hill, who is running the middle-read route to clear out the coverage for a deep dig from the boundary. Since he replaces Phillips as the robber, Bryant is there to get underneath the dig, and the quarterback takes a sack.
McDaniel does everything he can to present him with single coverage, but the Patriots won't make the same mistake the Chargers did by putting their corners on an island against Hill.
WILL THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE CONTINUE TO LEAN ON ZONE COVERAGE VS. MIAMI?
Although the Patriots have game-planned man coverage calls they'll go to, New England played zone coverage on 79.5% of Miami's drop-backs in their two contests in the 2022 season.
The idea was to limit big plays in soft zone coverages, invite short throws and check-downs, and limit yards after the catch by rallying to the ball. The early-down zone structures were also a good way to combat the Shanahan play-action staples in Miami's offense.
The Patriots mixed in two-high safety structures on 29.5 percent of the Dolphins passing plays to keep the top on the defense. Above, the Pats shut down the downfield routes in a similar crossing concept as the one highlighted in the opening section out of quarters coverage. By keeping both safeties deep, one safety can stay over the top of the clear-out route while the other safety helps cut off the crosser, and Tua is nearly sacked on the play.
Along with a few snaps in a quarters structure, the Patriots second-most used coverage against Miami last season was cover two. This time, they disguise cover two by showing Tua a single-high structure before the snap, then spinning Kyle Dugger into the deep half. Again, they're working out of a two-high safety shell to invite the short throws, and when Tua takes the underneath completion to Hill, Dugger makes a great open-field tackle to limit the YAC.
As they usually do in their post-safety coverage system, the Patriots mostly relied on cover three against Miami last season, calling a three-deep zone on 50% of the passing plays. However, they were hyper-aware of Hill, often redirecting him at the line of scrimmage with aggressive jams from the short zone defenders. Plus, the backside (weak) hook defender had his eyes inside, seeking out crossing patterns.
We could also see the Patriots use their "cloud" coverage schemes on Hill to jam him at the line of scrimmage while a deeper defender catches him downfield once he releases, something they often did last year against Stefon Diggs and other top receivers on their schedule.
The Patriots secondary might be better equipped this year with Gonzalez in the fold to match up against the Dolphins in man coverage. However, the expectation is that they'll continue to lean heavily on zone schemes while going to man coverages on the money downs.
BILL O'BRIEN VS. VIC FANGIO - ROUND ONE, FIGHT!
Moving over to the Patriots offense, the Dolphins biggest offseason addition wasn't adding a particular player to their roster. Instead, it was hiring veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Fangio, a defensive guru, took over for former Patriots assistant Josh Boyer, a holdover from the Brian Flores era. Fangio's defensive scheme couldn't be more different than Boyer's, as the Belichick/Flores disciple was a cover one (man-free) and zero blitz subscriber. Last season, the Dolphins had the second-highest blitz rate in the NFL under Boyer, and their secondary was exposed playing single-high coverage down the field.
Fangio's system is taking over the NFL as defenses try to limit big plays against all these explosive offenses around the league, is installing his two-high zone base defense – going from Boyer to Fangio is completely reinventing their defensive identity in Miami.
"Defensively, obviously it's been a big overhaul for them, with Vic [Fangio] coming in," head coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday morning. "I have a ton of respect for Vic as a coach and what he's done in the multiple times we've faced him and just watching his teams over the years, very disciplined, sound and extremely well-coached, well-prepared defense."
Although it's coming with some growing pains that the Patriots can exploit, New England is going through its own transition into O'Brien's scheme, yielding up-and-down results in Week 1. Yes, there were positives to build on in the season-opener, but little things like route-running miscues and limitations at quarterback led to a better but not good enough performance.
Plus, the personnel available to him on Sunday night will greatly impact O'Brien's game plan. In Week 1, the Pats went up against Philly's elite defensive front without their two starting guards, their best outside receiver, and RB Rhamondre Stevenson playing through an illness. O'Brien called 13 screen passes, while Jones's average time to throw was 2.38 seconds as the Pats offensive play-calling worked around a patchwork offensive line.
If the Patriots are at full strength, O'Brien might open up the playbook in the passing game, and hopefully, the Pats can take advantage of a Dolphins run defense that allowed 234 rushing yards on the ground to the Chargers last week with better offensive line play. But it's hard to discern what will be on the call sheet until we know who will be available.
With that said, there are two sources we can pull from to make an educated guess. First, there's the Charger film from last week. Then, O'Brien has faced Fangio before in the 2019 season, and the two vets haven't changed much schematically since.
TAKING INSPIRATION FROM THE CHARGERS
The best way for the Patriots offense to move the ball against this Dolphins defense might be to test their communication and grasp the intricacies of their system in its early stages.
As we mentioned, Fangio arrived this offseason to overhaul how Miami plays defense in the McDaniel era completely, and the film shows a defense that's still trying to iron out the details, so stressing their communication and assignments is a good place to start.
For example, Los Angeles successfully used similar route combinations out of stacks and bunches as the Pats dialed up last week against the Eagles. With the receivers playing mind games at the line of scrimmage, the Dolphins often weren't on the same page with their coverage rules, leading to open pass-catchers for Herbert to distribute the ball.
Along with stressing their coverage rules with stacks/bunches and motion, it was also clear that the Dolphins weren't locked in mentally with their run fits either in their first Fangio game.
Here, the Chargers are running a duo scheme against Fangio's staple odd front with five defenders on the line of scrimmage. In duo, the double-team blocks generate the initial movement to reset the line of scrimmage, while the running back reads the MIKE linebacker to pick the gap that the linebacker doesn't fill. When both off-the-ball defenders engage the double-teams, it leaves a huge opening up the gut with nobody filling in the middle.
Eventually, an experienced coordinator like Fangio will have his defense buttoned up on the details, but it will take time, making it unlikely that they'll be assignment-sound by Sunday.
O'BRIEN VS. FANGIO, 2019 SEASON
O'Brien and Fangio also squared off previously as head coaches in the 2019 season when O'Brien was the HC in Houston and Fangio was the guy in charge of the Broncos.
Although it was in a loss, the Texans had 414 total yards on offense as then-quarterback Deshaun Watson moved the ball well. The hallmark of the Fangio coverage system is cover six, a quarter-quarter-half zone coverage that Miami used on 27.8% of their coverage plays in Week 1, spinning into cover three (25%) and man coverage (27.8%) on occasion.
Knowing he'd get cover six from Fangio, O'Brien had his two high safety zone beaters ready. For example, one of the weaknesses in cover six is that the two-high structure often leaves a linebacker isolated in coverage against the inside slot receiver (no. 3).
O'Brien was ready for Fangio to match empty formations with two-high safety shells, so he put his quickest receiver at the time, Keke Coutte, on a juke route against linebacker Todd Davis for an explosive play (hello, Demario Douglas?).
New England's offensive coordinator also dialed up shot plays anticipating cover six. Since it technically has two deep safeties to pass off deep routes, O'Brien paired double post (dino) with a deep crosser from the opposite side of the formation to flood the deep zones for a long touchdown.
The Patriots may have their own limitations depending on who is available personnel-wise. Still, O'Brien is familiar with the Fangio system and will have them ready to take advantage of a Dolphins defense in its infant stages of learning the scheme.
Pats CB Jon Jones vs. WR Dolphins Tyreek Hill - we could make this the only key matchup and probably end it there. For my money, Hill is the best receiver in football, with an unmatched superpower (speed). The Pats will out Jones, but he better run and run fast on Sunday.
Pats CBs Myles Bryant/Marcus Jones vs. Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle - the Patriots will also need to have an answer for Waddle, who is as much a catch-and-run threat in the pros as a true field-stretcher. I'd like to see the Pats give Jones a chance here to match speed on speed with Bryant playing a safety role as a robber/help defender and in high-stress zones (like the weak hook to cut-off crossers).
Pats EDGE Matthew Judon vs. Dolphins LT Kendall Lamm - the best way to slow down any passing attack is to pressure the quarterback. The Pats might catch a break with stud LT Terron Armstead injured, so Judon has to feast on his replacement. Lamm allowed five quarterback pressures last week.