The Miami Dolphins will travel up to Foxboro in Week 8 to play the New England Patriots. Both teams find themselves in challenging positions as the Dolphins have dropped three straight games whereas the Patriots have lost two of their last three.
Here you will find a full, game plan breakdown of what the Dolphins can expect as they attempt to rise above .500 against the AFC East division leader.
When New England Has the Ball
Despite some high-profile struggles by the Patriots offense this season, defending them on Sunday will be a chore. With tight end Rob Gronkowski back in the fold, this becomes doubly hard for the Dolphins, who are infamously weak against the tight end in 2013.
In order to defend against the Patriots, Miami must focus on four key issues. The first is obvious: The Dolphins must find a way to safely pressure quarterback Tom Brady. But they must also stifle Stevan Ridley and the running game, especially in the red zone. With Gronkowski back on the field, the Dolphins are forced to figure out ways of containing him in the passing game. Finally, the Dolphins must focus on defending the area of the field between the numbers, especially at depths of 10 yards or less from the line of scrimmage.
Traditionally, quarterback Tom Brady is a player you blitz at your own risk. For example, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in 2012 Brady had a 128.9 passer rating against the blitz versus only an 85.1 passer rating when defenses held back in coverage.
This has not been the case in 2013. Not only are teams blitzing Brady more effectively in 2013, they are doing it more often, as they smell the blood in the water. According to the same source, the percentage of pass snaps pn which Brady has been blitzed has risen from 26 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2013. Brady’s passer rating against the blitz has dropped to a mere 79.5, as well.
Brady’s effectiveness versus blitz pressure is a reflection of his discomfort with his receivers. Beating the blitz requires precise chemistry between the quarterback and receivers, as the passes must come out too quickly for the players to adjust to one another on the fly. The players must be able to predict one another. Far too often this season, Brady funnels the football predictably against blitz pressure, and his receivers are not able to make a play.
This is a great development for Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who has a natural inclination toward creative blitz packages.
However, what Coyle must not do on his blitzes is vacate the short-middle area of the football field. This is an area of the field Brady loves to exploit. Pro Football Focus had 32 percent of Brady’s “aimed” passes going into this area of the field in 2012, with a 103.7 passer rating. In 2013, that percentage is down to 30 percent, and the passer rating is down to 80.0 as well. His struggles in this area of the field are a big factor in his struggles during the 2013 season in general.
The biggest reason Brady is struggling in this area of the football field is having to play without slot receiver Wes Welker, or tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Using the same Pro Football Focus data we can see that Brady’s most commonly targeted areas of the field in 2012 were (ranked in descending order): the short-middle, the short-left and the intermediate-middle. About 57 percent of Brady’s passes went into these three areas of the field, whereas the other 43 percent were distributed among the nine other zones. Brady was even more reliant on the three zones in 2011, with 60 percent of his passes distributed into them.
These were areas of the field where Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski were particularly useful. In 2012, about 51 percent of Hernandez’ targets came in the short-middle. About 38 percent of Welker’s targets also came in this area of the field, with his second-most common zone being the short-left. About 60 percent of Gronkowski’s targets in 2012 came over the short-middle or intermediate-middle.
With Welker gone and replacement Danny Amendola struggling to stay healthy, Brady has lost a lot of his effectiveness in these zones. According to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Amendola has begun concussion protocols this week in an attempt to return to the field. He has not been cleared to play by doctors yet, so his availability against the Dolphins remains unclear.
On the other hand, tight end Rob Gronkowski is not fully back. He debuted this season against the New York Jets in Week 7 and turned in a productive eight catches for 114 yards.
However, that does not mean the Jets were unable to defend Gronkowski. According to Pro Football Focus, it took 17 attempts in Gronkowski’s direction to get those 114 yards, and Brady threw an interception trying to hit him as well.
The Dolphins would do well to take some lessons from the Jets on defending against Gronkowski, especially since Miami has not defended tight ends very well in 2013. According to ESPN Fantasy Football, the Dolphins defense is the second-weakest in the NFL against tight ends.
The production of tight ends against Miami’s defense looks considerably better after Week 7 than it did after Week 4, thanks to the bye week as well as the lack of tight end talent on the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills.
The key to defending against Gronkowski while also defending the short-middle area of the football field will be to bracket him with a safety in deeper man coverage, while making sure Miami’s linebackers get their hands on him within the first five yards of the line of scrimmage.
The above is a great example of an adequate defense of Gronkowski. The Jets had two sets of eyes on Gronkowski as he left the line of scrimmage and crossed through the short-middle zone. The mike linebacker made sure he engaged Gronkowski physically before he got out of the 5-yard zone, then passed him off to a deep cover man. This mike linebacker was then free to defend the short-middle against other intruders, such as, in this example, wide receiver Aaron Dobson.
On the other hand, even if you do things right with respect to getting hands on Gronkowski within the short zones before passing him off to his secondary coverage, the Dolphins could still get burned.
On the above play, the Jets made sure to get two pairs of hands on the tight end before he could leave the short-middle zone. However, safety Antonio Allen was late in peeling around to assume deeper coverage of Gronkowski and looked back for the football before he had fully related to the receiver in coverage. The play gained 30 yards.
There will be times when Gronkowski is split out wide of the formation, forcing a defensive back out to cover him one on one.
As you can see, Gronkowski can be defended in these situations. However, physicality is an absolute must. The defender cannot be physically overmatched.
For Miami, this means strong safety Reshad Jones must walk out to Gronkowski in press-man coverage, and play him very aggressively. Jones has not had a strong season for Miami, however he showed the ability to do this in 2012, and the Dolphins must make use of it.
The final piece of the puzzle for defending the Patriots is stopping the running game, which has taken on a heavier role in New England’s offense in 2012 and 2013. In order to do this, the Dolphins must get a full handle on the Patriots’ run tendencies.
For example, using statistics from CNNSI.com we see that Tom Brady passes the ball approximately 88 percent of all shotgun plays. On the other hand, he drops back to pass on only 40 percent of plays that start with him lined up under center. This is not necessarily an abnormal tip-off pattern in the NFL, but the defense can still make use of it.
We also know from using the same data that there are certain situations in which the Patriots will tend to be more balanced with the running game than in other situations. This is true on 2nd-and-5 or less, as well as inside the red zone. Stevan Ridley in particular has historically been a productive red zone back for the Patriots.
The key to defending the run will be to analyze the combination of tendencies, between shotgun formations, presence of certain players on the field such as Ridley, position on the field as well as down-and-distance. In these predictable situations, the Dolphins must aggressively fill the run lanes.
When Miami Has the Ball
For Miami, moving the football against a very tough Patriots defense will mostly involve continuing to fix their own weaknesses. The three keys to the game will be Miami’s ability to consistently run the football, its ability to match up in pass protection particularly against Patriots pass-rusher Chandler Jones, and its ability to exploit the Patriots' coverage weaknesses.
The Dolphins must make a real commitment to the ground game. That commitment cannot evaporate in the fourth quarter as it did against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7, unless the scoreboard pressure dictates that the run be abandoned.
In Week 7, the Dolphins started and featured tailback Daniel Thomas with 12 runs for 60 yards. Lamar Miller ran 9 times for 48 yards. Despite the success, the commitment to the ground game completely vanished in the fourth quarter. The run-pass balance went from 22 run plays called in the first three quarters versus 26 pass plays, to 14 pass plays called in the fourth quarter versus only three run plays.
The Patriots defense is allowing the second-most run yards per game in the league. Although the yards per carry allowed by the defense at a 4.0 average is pretty decent, the defense is allowing opponents to run with effective consistency. Miami must take advantage of this.
In order to stabilize the atrocious pass protection along the Dolphins offensive line, the Dolphins traded for Baltimore left tackle Bryant McKinnie earlier in the week. It is unknown whether he will be available to play against New England, but the odds look fairly long. According to the official NFL.com injury report, McKinnie has been limited at practice this week.
That means the Dolphins must give right tackle Tyson Clabo and left tackle Jonathan Martin help against New England's pass rushers.
Clabo may get a break this week as he will primarily face Patriots pass-rusher Rob Ninkovich, who has not been highly effective at getting to the quarterback in 2013. Measuring by means of Pro Football Focus' "pass-rush productivity" statistic, Ninkovich ranks in the middle of the league's 4-3 defensive ends. However, he has only two sacks on the season.
On the other hand, right end Chandler Jones has become a fearsome pass-rusher for New England. Jones has eight sacks through the Patriots' first seven games, according to the same source. The Dolphins would be wise to send tailbacks chipping Jones' outside shoulder in order to slow him down in his rush.
There are weaknesses in the Patriots' coverage scheme that Miami must focus on exploiting. This has the potential to be a big game for wide receivers Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, as well as tight end Charles Clay.
Using data gathered from Pro Football Focus, we find that the Patriots pass defense has established some weaknesses in the middle of the field at intermediate depth, as well as both the deep-right and deep-left portions of the field. Combined, the Patriots are allowing 10.8 yards per attempt into these areas of the football field. They have allowed three touchdowns into these zones, while intercepting the football twice.
The Dolphins like to use their tight ends and slot receivers to challenge the defense along the hash marks. These players will either hold the safety close to the hash, which will open up the outside receivers, or they will get opportunities to catch the football in the gaps between linebacker and safety coverage.
If the Dolphins are able to hold the Patriots safeties to the deep middle using Gibson and Clay, this would leave their corners on an island against Miami's receivers. Thus, the Dolphins could exploit the weaker deep-right and deep-left portions of the Patriots pass defense vertically, using Hartline and Wallace. On the other hand, if the Patriots safeties stay perimeter-minded, this should open up Clay and Gibson to exploit the weaker intermediate-middle area of the football field.
The Dolphins are coming off an embarrassing home loss to a team few envisioned the Dolphins losing to in Week 7. On the other hand the Patriots also lost to a hated division opponent in Week 7, due in large part to an obscure and new special teams rule that had never been called.
Both teams will come out looking for vengeance. Thus far in 2013, with solid wins against the Browns and Colts, the Dolphins look like a slightly better road team than home team. Though the team was blown out on the road against the New Orleans Saints, the environment in that game was atypical due to its prime time atmosphere.
For Miami, this Week 7 road game against the Patriots could play out more like the road games in Indianapolis and Cleveland. During those games, the team looked focused and showed a lot of discipline.
The bad news is that both of New England's losses in 2013 came on the road, as did a near-loss against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1. At home, the Patriots were able to thoroughly beat the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as well as the undefeated New Orleans Saints.
Given the matchup between a good road team and a good home team, the team with fewer holes in the roster seems more likely to win.