For roughly a month now, the New England Patriots defense has held itself together with Scotch tape. Though the bottom-line results have largely been sufficient, the loss of star power finally proved too much to overcome last week, as the Jets wore down an undermanned Pats defense in overtime.
It's unclear how many reinforcements the Patriots D will receive this week, though Aqib Talib and Tommy Kelly should return in the near future. But at 5-2, the immediate future is of greater concern in Foxboro, as the Patriots sit just one game ahead of the Jets and Dolphins in the loss column. A loss this week to Miami could knock New England out of the top slot halfway through the season.
Which of these players poses the biggest threat to the Patriots defense?
Though the offense looked better at times with Rob Gronkowski back in the lineup, there are still numerous kinks the unit must work out before they become a consistently reliable force. Thus, the onus continues to fall on the defense to give the Pats a chance to win, even if they do not possess enough healthy bodies to be the dominating unit they've resembled at times earlier this year.
The Dolphins offense is among the highest variance units the Patriots will face all year, with plenteous talent but also prone to critical mistakes. Here are four factors Pats fans should expect from the defense in its attempt to force the Miami offense into the negative side of that fickle scale.
A Heavy Sub-Package Presence
The Patriots are a heavy sub-package team anyways. According to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, the Pats had played some variation of sub defense (i.e, nickel or dime) for 290 of 420 defensive snaps this season. That percentage likely decreased following the Jets game, in which the Pats went heavy to counter New York's two-back personnel, but that was more of a one-week adjustment.
Excluding Week 7 vs. Jets
Against the Dolphins, expect the Patriots to play significantly more nickel defense, likely the 4-2-5 that we've seen for much of the season. According to Pro Football Focus' snap counts, the Dolphins have generally gone with three-receiver sets, which will likely keep Kyle Arrington and/or Logan Ryan on the field most of the game. And if Aqib Talib can return from his hip flexor injury, the Pats might even play more dime than usual.
We'll get to the defensive backs' responsibilities in a bit, but there is one pressing question that really has no good answer: Who will the Pats linebackers cover? Miami does not have any tight ends or running backs that are particularly lethal, but even Jeff Cumberland was able to make Dont'a Hightower look silly in coverage last week:
Converted fullback Charles Clay should not be underrated, as he has 24 receptions with an impressive 12.7 yards-per-catch average. Clay is not a burner, but he is a smart route runner who has sure hands. In fact, it would not be surprising to see the Pats put a defensive back on the tight end at some point if Hightower or Jamie Collins prove unable to contain him. Here, Clay identifies the soft spot in the zone, cutting off his route quick enough so that the Saints linebacker is unable to break up the pass:
On the other hand, having Spikes and/or Hightower on the field should be enough to mitigate the Dolphins' porous rushing attack. Per TeamRankings.com, Miami has run the ball on just 32.9 percent of its snaps, fourth-lowest in the league. The Jets wore down the Patriots with a whopping 52 rushing attempts last Sunday, but don't expect the Dolphins to be so patient this week.
Eliminate Mike Wallace
The Patriots have always excelled at eliminating the opponents' top target, almost regardless of personnel. This week, expect New England to zero in on the dangerous Mike Wallace. Even with Wallace publicly expressing his frustration at times, the Dolphins' biggest free-agent splash is still having a solid year. Wallace's 27 receptions and 357 yards are second on the team, though his 13.2 yards-per-catch average is short of the explosive levels from his early Steelers career.
If Aqib Talib is back, he will almost certainly shadow Wallace throughout. However, it's not as if Talib will not have safety help. There's a perception that Talib has played on an island the whole year, which is not entirely true. Yes, he has followed the other team's top option around at times, and he's done a tremendous job in man-to-man schemes. However, for speedier threats like Julio Jones, we've seen a safety shading over to provide bracket coverage over the top, like this:
Talib broke up the pass, but he had Duron Harmon helping over the top and Steve Gregory coming over late. As a pure burner, Wallace's inability to run a complete route tree has hindered his production as teams shift more attention in his direction. Though his speed makes him difficult to deal with in open space, playing press coverage and taking away room often renders Wallace ineffectual:
Don't expect pure bracket coverage on Wallace, as the Dolphins possess other underrated threats in the aforementioned Clay and Brian Hartline. Moreover, Miami's top receiver is not an A.J. Green-type who can beat the defense in a variety of ways. Still, for a Pats defense that prides itself on eliminating big plays, there is no doubt they will seek to stifle Miami's most explosive receiver.
Pocket Containment of Ryan Tannehill
Patriots fans have been frustrated at times with the team's lack of consistent pass rush. In fact, New England's minus-15.6 pass-rushing grade is currently fifth-worst in the league. Part of that is certainly performance related, as Chandler Jones has been the team's only net positive pass-rusher, with Rob Ninkovich turning in an especially ugly minus-7.3 pass-rushing grade.
However, some of the lack of pressure is by design. When facing inexperienced yet mobile quarterbacks, the Patriots have largely attempted to contain them in the pocket. Combined with generally solid downfield coverage, the Patriots have been able to take advantage of poor decision-making by the opposing quarterback.
Here's a textbook example of helping without a pass rush. Here, Chandler Jones chipped dangerous Saints back Darren Sproles, giving Sproles less time to exploit his mismatch with Dont'a Hightower. The Pats might do some of this against Clay to help out their overmatched linebackers in coverage:
Before you scoff at this, note that simply losing contain of the edge can lead to disaster. Just last week, Geno Smith picked up a critical 3rd-and-14 conversion near the red zone because Michael Buchanan got sucked into the middle and gave Smith plenty of room to run. Notice how the Pats had the Jets blanketed in man coverage downfield, leaving them too far from the line to stop Smith:
Tannehill can make similarly impressive runs if the Patriots defensive linemen lose gap discipline. On slower developing plays (i.e, downfield passes), Tannehill's tendency to hold on to the ball can lead to sacks.
This is not to say the Pats should not try to pressure Tannehill, as no quarterback is effective when he is on his back (talk about advanced analysis). And the Patriots could undoubtedly use more consistent pressure from Jones and Ninkovich. But there is a difference between generating pressure and recklessly abandoning an assigned area to get to the quarterback, and Tannehill has the wheels to take advantage of the latter.
The Patriots have generated at least one turnover in 34 consecutive games, one of the more impressive streaks in the league. Part of that is due to the fact that teams have usually been behind when facing the Pats and are thus inclined to throw more and take riskier chances.
However, New England's defensive backs have also demonstrated an opportunistic mindset, as tighter man-to-man coverage schemes often present chances to jump routes. Logan Ryan executed a textbook gamble on his pick-six last week, jumping an in-route onto which Geno Smith had locked:
Tannehill will similarly lock onto targets, especially considering that the Dolphins have tried running quicker-developing plays to get the ball out of his hands. On his first pass last week, he locked onto a receiver despite Bills cornerback Nickell Roby clearly anticipating the pass, which resulted in a pick-six:
The Patriots will likely extend their turnover streak on Sunday because of this combination. The key will be forcing Tannehill into multiple mistakes, generating extra possessions and flipping field position for the New England offense.
Those possessions will be vital, as the Dolphins' third-rated pass rush figures to give the Pats offense plenty of problems. As the third quarter of the Jets game illustrated, a hot defensive line can grind Tom Brady and Co. to a total standstill. The Pats defense is good enough to compete against the Miami offense, even without its stars, but the unit must help their offense level the playing field. Ultimately, that may mark the difference between a win and another frustrating loss.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required), and all images courtesy NFL Game Rewind.