The Patriots are in a do-or-die scenario in the final two games of the NFL's regular season.
If New England wins back-to-back games, they'll be playoff bound. For those who have zero faith in the Patriots pulling this off, it's understandable. The Pats have been outscored 39-3 in their last two first halves, leading to multi-score deficits, and their comeback bids have fallen short in epic fashion.
Offensively, New England is down to 27th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and trending in the wrong direction. Lastly, the Pats will play two divisional foes that they're a combined 2-9 against since Tom Brady exited stage left in 2020.
Other than that, it's right there for the taking. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Patriots have a 19% chance of making the playoffs. The predictive models' long odds are accurate based on the matchups and recent performances.
Although it's an unlikely path, they play the games for a reason, and we will treat the next two weeks the same as long as the Patriots are mathematically alive in the AFC playoff race.
To that end, Miami is up first. They've owned the Patriots with starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa having a perfect 4-0 record against Bill Belichick. However, the Patriots are catching a break. According to head coach Mike McDaniel, backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will likely start with Tagovailoa in concussion protocol for the second time this season.
With the hope that rookie cornerback Marcus Jones clears concussion protocol in time to play on Sunday, the Pats defense might be in the best position it's been in recently to match up against Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, and a Tua-less offense. New England's secondary is now armed with speedy corners Jonathan Jones and Marcus Jones to track Miami's explosive duo, while the Pats pass rush has a juicy matchup against a Dolphins offensive line that is 31st in Pro Football Focus's team pass-blocking grade.
On paper, there's a formula for the Patriots defense to limit the Dolphins offense, and there's also a blueprint circulating during Miami's four-game losing streak McDaniel has yet to solve. McDaniel's offense ranked third in total expected points added in the first 12 weeks of the season. But over the last four games, Miami is 20th in total EPA on offense, which is why they went from a lock to battling for the final playoff spot.
Given the state of the offense, Bill Belichick's defense will need to win this game on Sunday, and there's a recipe for them to find success.
Here is a three-step plan and key matchup for the Patriots to stay in the playoff hunt in Sunday's matchup against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium:
1. Can the Patriots Copy the Blueprint to Shut Down McDaniel's Passing System?
The Dolphins offense has been on a downward trade recently, and the book seems to be out on how to handle their staple concepts that lit up the NFL for the first three months of the season.
Although Miami is far from the first new-age passing attack to have the league catch up to it defensively, McDaniel has yet to make significant adjustments to get the passing offense going again, and now their starting quarterback will likely miss Sunday's game.
The biggest schematic adjustment opposing defenses made against the Dolphins is how they're handling McDaniel sending receivers in motion to give them a head start on their routes. McDaniel wasn't the first offensive coach to utilize motion in this sense, but he does it more frequently than anyone else and does it with receivers who have game-breaking speed.
In Week 1, McDaniel unleashed wide receiver Tyreek Hill on these motions against New England's man coverages. With Hill coming in motion at the snap, Jonathan Jones's only option is to give Hill cushion as it prevents him from jamming the receiver in press-man. Hill then throttles down on a vertical stem and, with Jones backing off, stops down for an easy completion. Hill's speed combined with the motion made that route impossible to cover.
Starting with the Los Angeles Chargers three weeks ago, Brandon Staley devised a game plan to handle the motion differently. Rather than having his man coverage defender stay on Hill as Jones did in the above example, the Chargers switched responsibilities with the corner already on that side of the formation taking Hill, while the defender in motion switches on to the slot.
The Chargers then played two-man coverages where their cornerbacks were in an inside trail technique with the safety over the top, allowing the corners to sit on deep comebacks and in-breaking routes over the middle, which took away Miami's go-to passing concepts.
Los Angeles played press-man coverage on 35% of their defensive snaps, a season-high for them, to avoid zone defenders in conflict on the Dolphins other in-breaking staples while smothering Miami's receivers.
Here's another staple play in McDaniel's offense where the Dolphins use a slide route by the tight end to follow the other tight end's wheel release into the flat paired with a slant. If the defense is in zone, this concept floods the short zones and puts those defenders in no-win scenarios. But in press-man, the Chargers can match the routes without conflict.
Although the Patriots have incorporated more zone coverage this season, they still play man coverage on 37.9% of their defensive snaps, among the league leaders. As we mentioned in the intro, the Pats also have the two Joneses with the speed and quickness to match Hill and Jaylen Waddle in man coverage. Ultimately, this game plan comes down to Marcus Jones's availability. If New England's third-round pick can't play, it's difficult to determine how Belichick will approach things with a likely starting trio of Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, Shaun Wade, or a practice squad elevation (Brad Hawkins, Tae Hayes, or Quandre Mosely). If that's the case, the Pats could put Bryant on Waddle with significant help while Jones takes Hill.
For instance, we could see New England's cover-7 calls where they have brackets on both Hill and Waddle on key passing situations, such as third down or red zone opportunities. By giving Bryant inside help, it will allow him to sit on verticals and out-breaking routes versus Waddle, which would hopefully even the playing field there.
McDaniel's passing offense, which is heavy on play-action and motion, is a zone-busting system; this is the week for Belichick to sit in man coverage, where they can slow down these receivers with jams at the line of scrimmage and aggressive man-to-man schemes.
2. Does Anything Change for the Patriots Defense with Backup QB Teddy Bridgewater at the Helm?
The other discussion at 1 Patriot Place is how their defensive strategy will shift with expected starter Teddy Bridgewater under center.
|Deep Pass Attempts, 2022
|Pass Yards Per Attempt
Bridgewater suffered an injury almost immediately in his one start when Tua had his first concussion but was under center for an extended period in losses to the Bengals and Vikings earlier this season. The one area where Tua has a clear advantage over Bridgewater is on deep throws over ten-plus air yards, as the Dolphins QB1 leads the league in passer rating on deep passes. Still, when you look at the film, McDaniel's play-calling mostly stays the same with Bridgewater.
"It's a high percentage of the offense. Sure, they're things they'd do specifically for one guy or the other, but generally speaking, that's the offense," head coach Bill Belichick told Patriots.com.
For example, here is Bridgewater running a similar motion-flat by the tight end paired with a slant that we saw in the section above. This time, the Vikings are in zone coverage, and you can see how the motion route opens the passing window to the slant against a spot-drop zone.
In this play, the Dolphins run their favorite motion route off play-action, where the receivers run deep comeback routes against a stressed backend. Essentially, the same design that Miami ran against the Patriots in the opener to get Hill an easy completion.
From a play-calling standpoint, the Pats shouldn't expect wholesale changes for Bridgewater. They more or less ran their system in his appearances this season, and he even has a similar playing style as Tua as an accurate, anticipatory passer with middling arm strength.
Still, the one area you can win against Bridgewater more often is on deep attempts, where the Vikings were able to bait him into two interceptions using trap coverages on the outside. In trap coverages, the outside corner makes it look like he's matching the vertical deep, and then he falls off the vertical at the last second to jump the shorter route, and Teddy took the cheese.
There are slight advantages to facing a backup quarterback, but don't sleep on Bridgewater, especially in this offensive system with a plethora of dangerous weapons.
3. Patriots Offense Needs to Attack the Middle of the Field vs. the Dolphins Defense
Although we make a case for this every week, the advantages for the Patriots offense are in the middle of the field.
The main holdover from the Brian Flores era for the Dolphins is defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who was Flores's DC after coming over from the Patriots and gives Miami continuity on that side of the ball.
Boyer continues to run a man-blitz system that ranks in the top five of single-high safety rate (66.1%), man coverage percentage (42.4%), and blitz rate (37.5%) this season. Since they play so much man-to-man and utilize a five-man rush often, it leaves the Dolphins defense vulnerable in the middle of the field. Statistically, Miami ranks 27th in DVOA on passes between the numbers and ranks similarly on short passes. On the flip side, the Dolphins defense is 11th against deep passes thanks to a potent pass rush and sound deep coverage system.
The Dolphins man-free schemes often take help defenders out of the middle of the field, leaving man coverage defenders with outside leverage with only post-safety help in the deep part of the field. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers took advantage of 25 blitzes by the Dolphins defense by attacking between the numbers on slants and dig patterns. Rodgers was 8-of-12 for 83 yards on pass attempts to the middle of the field.
Here, the Dolphins use a five-man rush in a man-free defense where the only help for their corners is a post-safety in the deep middle. The post-safety is too far out of the picture to be a factor on a slant, and with an out-leveraged corner, it's an effortless completion for Rodgers.
Miami is in a similar coverage this time with Rodgers under center, and the Packers run a double dig concept. The reigning MVP picks the most open receiver, and it's easy pickings.
The biggest thing holding the Patriots offense back is timing and spacing in the passing game. With receivers crowding each other and indecisiveness from quarterback Mac Jones as he waits for receivers to declare their routes, throws are too often late and into tight coverage.
New England's pass-catchers should have open space against a pass defense that ranks 25th overall in DVOA. Miami has its issues in pass defense. Now it's up to the Patriots to take advantage.
- Pats CB Jon Jones vs. Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill:
If the Patriots play man coverage, they'll be facing the NFL's best separator against single coverage this season. Jones has held his own in this matchup over the years, and he'll get some safety help, but this game plan is predicated on Jones at least surviving single coverage reps, especially if Marcus Jones is out.
- Pats CB Marcus Jones/Myles Bryant vs. Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle
Although he still has issues in man coverage on third down, Bryant has played better in recent weeks and looks more comfortable in bracket/zone schemes, which might be the move on Waddle without Jones. If Jones plays, the good news for the rookie is that he'll face a receiver in his weight class this week rather than 6-foot-4 Tee Higgins. Waddle has been limited in recent weeks due to a leg injury, and it's impacted his production. But he looked explosive on an 84-yard touchdown last week. Great matchup.
- Pats LG Cole Strange vs. Dolphins DT Christian Wilkins
Another challenging matchup for the Pats rookie. Wilkins is an elite interior rusher with a great motor, explosiveness to shoot gaps, and leverage to power through the line. Wilkins has the skill set that gives Strange fits in his first season.